Asia in Review Archive 2021


Date of AiR edition

News summary

23 March 2021

Cambodia: Economic diplomacy and hurdles to take

(nd) Cambodia’s foreign engagement is characterized by a certain ‘economic pragmatism’ — the alignment of foreign policy with economic development interests, referring to it as economic diplomacy. The global economic shift to East Asia was recognized as a good opportunity for Cambodia to develop and modernize its industries, production and services, and to develop infrastructure connectivity. ASEAN, China, Japan and South Korea are Cambodia’s key economic partners. Internally, Cambodia strived to economically reform and develop human resources, successfully so with a growth rate of 7% over the past two decades.

Due to democracy issues and human rights violations, the partnerships with the EU and the US are strained, except China. Still, the power asymmetry towards its biggest investor China and its influence pose certain risks. Therefore, the economic diplomacy strategy of 2021–2023 is an important step to further promote trade, investment, tourism and the development of Cambodian cultural identity and shall enhance Cambodia’s international integration, diversify its economic partners, expand its export markets, and attract foreign investors and tourists. It contributes to Cambodia’s vision of becoming a higher-middle-income country by 2030 and a high-income country by 2050. With the Cambodia–China Free Trade Agreement, the Cambodia–South Korea Free Trade Agreement and Cambodia’s participation in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, it achieved further regional connection.

Amid Covid-19, Cambodia’s economy contracted by 3,1%, forcing it to launch an economic recovery plan as part of a broader effort to build more national resilience towards external shocks. Nationwide, the consensus seems to be that the economic performance is bound to national security. Cambodia will therefore boost healthcare spending, invest in its workforce, and release a digital economy policy framework to take advantage of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. [East Asia Forum]

23 March 2021

Cambodia, US to plead for end of deforestation

(nd) The US government urged the Cambodian government to stop deforestation and preserve biodiversity. In the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary, five environmental activists were detained for documenting illegal logging in February this year, among them Ouch Leng, whose activism has also been honored by the Asia Society. The Sanctuary saw severe deforestation in 2016, after which it was classified it as a wildlife sanctuary.  USAID established the $21 million Greening Prey Lang project in 2018 to promote jobs, protect the sanctuary’s biodiversity and aid forest patrols. Still, forest is lost due to rising Chinese demand for luxury furniture and it is linked to factors like weak law enforcement and opaque governance systems. And USAID was criticized for collaborating with the Ministry of Environment, which is infamous for turning a blind eye on deforestation. The Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN) patrol group, was banned from entering the forest by Cambodian authorities last year for attempting to conduct a Buddhist tree blessing ceremony to protect the forest.

Deforestation does not only threaten biodiversity but has effects of increasing flooding and erosion in the Mekong River basin, and is linked to climate change due to tree’s ability to capture greenhouse gases, according to USAID. [Voice of America]

23 March 2021

Myanmar: Rising death toll and more international efforts to pressure the military

(nd) Lawmakers from the National League for Democracy (NLD) have urged the largest foreign-owned oil and gas companies to suspend business ties with the military regime, saying the money earned will be used to reinforce human rights violations. Per month, Myanmar receives earnings of about US$75 million to US$90 million from oil and gas sales, paid through state-owned company Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE). In an effort to cut the junta off these supplies, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), the Burmese government in exile representing the NLD, sent a notice to France’s Total SE, Malaysia’s Petronas, Thailand’s PTT and South Korea’s POSCO, criticizing them for their failure to condemn the coup, and urging them to suspend their tax payments. [Irrawaddy 1]

Also, CRPH is negotiating with Karen National Union (KNU), Restoration Council of Shan State and Kachin Independent Army (KIA) to form a federal army to protect the protesters. They have cleared all ethnic armed groups from the terror list. In light of the growing violence, so far peaceful protesters started to use self-constructed weapons, such as molotov cocktails, and built barricades from tires, bricks or bamboo. [FAZ in German]

Meanwhile, the efforts of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) spreads virally, with a “social punishment” campaign against the families of senior members of the regime. On social media, protesters identified names, addresses and other personal information on relatives of the military generals, and urged people to shun and shame the individuals, and to boycott their businesses. [Frontier Myanmar 1

Four employees of a private bank were detained for allegedly inciting people to join the civil disobedience movement (CDM). [Irrawaddy 2] Due to the ongoing strikes, companies struggle to pay salaries amid closed banks. [Nikkei Asia 1] With an ongoing strike, the military has fired officials from the Foreign Ministry and has pressured banks to reopen in an effort to avoid an economic collapse. [Frontier Myanmar 2]

With the junta using more excessive force, the death toll rose to over 250 and reports of at least 5 cases of torture in detention have surfaced. Internet shutdowns let information spread slowly. Protesters erected barricades in the streets, which were set on fire making Yangon look like a battle zone. [Asia Times 1] In an effort to intimidate citizens, security forces randomly opened fire in residential areas and at individual residences. Shortages of food and drinking water continued, hinting at a looming humanitarian crisis. Adding to internet blackouts, phone services were cut off in some areas. Protesters reported they refrain from forming groups, which are randomly attacked and shot at by the police.

The military continued to target journalists and closed down the last independent newspaper, The Standard Time Daily, following 7Day News, The Voice, Eleven Myanmar, and the Myanmar Times. Private media outlets have been operating in the country since 2013, after the lifting of the ban on independent media since 1962.  [Radio Free Asia 1] Police also continued to raid homes in search of protesters; over 2,000 people have been arrested. [Radio Free Asia 2] To mark the one-month anniversary of the protests, activists organized a car convoy, others lit candles, joined by Buddhist monks. Reportedly, members of the security forces were attacked and died, as well as two policemen during protests. After security forces have occupied more than 60 schools and university campuses in 13 states and regions, Unicef, Unesco, and private humanitarian group Save the Children, issued a statement condemning the occupation of education facilities as a serious violation of children’s rights. [South China Morning Post 1]

Following the attack on Chinese businesses on Sunday, an unsigned editorial, published on the website of state-run CGTN network, suggested that China might be “forced into taking more drastic action” in Myanmar if its interests are not more firmly safeguarded. The editorial added, “China won’t allow its interests to be exposed to further aggression. If the authorities cannot deliver and the chaos continues to spread, China might be forced into taking more drastic action to protect its interests.” China is deeply involved in Myanmar’s economy and shares a 2,200-kilometer border, which is of interest for Chinese infrastructure projects giving it a corridor to the Indian Ocean. [The Diplomat 1] Inter alia, China is extracting minerals in Myanmar, whose shipments have delayed significantly, making a global price rise likely. China controls 80% of the world’s rare earth mineral supplies. [Asia Times 2]

According to experts, the systematic crackdown on the Rohingyas executed by the military since 2017 is just postponed and likely to restart, possibly turning protests into a “prolonged crisis”. Recently hired Canadian-Israeli lobbyist for the junta, Ari Ben-Menashe, said the military want to repatriate Rohingyas. [Voice of America]

Sam Rainsy, exiled Cambodian opposition leader, Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, Indonesian lawmaker Fadli Zon, Philippine Senator Kiko Pangilinan, former Singapore Deputy Speaker Charles Chong, and former Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya signed a statement urging all ASEAN nations to unite in sanctions against Myanmar and to end impunity. The politicians criticized the “impotence” of ASEAN amid the human rights abuses, and suggested to suspend Myanmar’s membership in the regional bloc. [Benar News]

In some of the strongest comments yet, Indonesian President Joko Widodo urged the violence to stop immediately and to press current chairman of ASEAN, Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, to call an urgent meeting. [Reuters] Following Indonesia and Malaysia’s joint push for an urgent high-level meeting of ASEAN, Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan will visit Brunei, before going to Malaysia and Indonesia. [Channel News Asia]

The European Union on Monday imposed sanctions on 11 individuals linked to the coup in Myanmar. The EU already had an arms embargo on Myanmar, and has targeted some senior military officials since 2018. Stronger measures are expected in a move to target the businesses run by the military, mainly through two conglomerates, Myanmar Economic Holdings and Myanmar Economic Corp. [Nikkei Asia 2]

According to Thai media, the Royal Thai Army had supplied 700 sacks of rice to Myanmar army units on Myanmar’s eastern border allegedly on the orders of the Thai government. The commander of the task force denied it and said it was regular trade. Residents told a Reuters reporter the crossing was not a normal trade route. The allegedly supplied army units were cut off by forces of the Karen National Union (KNU), who have pledged allegiance to the protest movement. [Bangkok Post]

Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi was charged with violating an anti-corruption law, with a possible prison sentence of 15 years, adding to four previous charges with other offences. [South China Morning Post 2]

The influential, Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (Mahana), a government-appointed body of Buddhist abbots, urged the military to end violence against protesters. It was submitted to the Union Minister for Religious Affairs and Culture. The statement mentioned the CDM, which would greatly benefit from support by Mahana. As a rather conservative organization, the clear cut with the military is significant, according to analysts. It might unleash monastic opposition, which has historic precedents. [The Diplomat 2]

Ousted lawmakers of NLD are exploring if the International Criminal Court (ICC) can investigate crimes against humanity committed by the military since the coup. Following the toughening crackdown, hundred have fled Myanmar to bordering Thailand, which has prepared for a big influx of refugees, as well as to India. [South China Morning Post 3]


16 March 2021

Cambodia, South Korea to invest in mine clearance

(nd) South Korea has announced to fund Cambodia’s mine clearance efforts with $10 million from 2021 to 2025.It forms part of the Cambodian Mine Action and Victims Assistance Authority (CMAA) and is also supported by Australia, New Zealand, UNDP and the government. Mines severely affect the lives and food security of residents, their access to safe water, adequate housing, safe and secure land for cultivation and irrigation, roads. Part of the project are immediate emergency response and medical treatment, physical rehabilitation and therapy, socio-economic inclusion and mine risk education. [Khmer Times]

16 March 2021

Cambodia: Cremation order to exempt Muslims

(nd) Cambodia’s mandatory order to cremate the bodies of all people who die of COVID-19 will exempt Muslims, who will be able to bury their dead “according to their own traditions and customs.” Cremation is forbidden in Islam, therefore the order sparked concern among Muslims in Cambodia, who constitute between 2 and 5% of the population. Cambodia has so far reported only one fatality from the virus so far, with a caseload currently at 1,060. Sri Lanka was the first country to put such order in place and also reversed it last month to accommodate Muslim people.

The World Health Organization recently rejected claims that bodies of people who have died of a communicable disease should be cremated. [Anadolu Agency]


16 March 2021

Cambodia: CNRP member arrested over Chinese vaccine criticism

(nd) A member of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was arrested for allegedly inciting social unrest by claiming that Chinese-made vaccines aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 were unsafe and had caused several deaths. The woman made such statements on her Facebook page, police spokesperson saying it “gravely affected social security.”

It is one in a string of arrests of political opposition and social activists on unspecified charges without a warrant or explanations provided. At least two other CNRP activists were recently arrested for the same reason, as well as environmental activists, NGO members, and Buddhist monks. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen had both spoken in favor and against Chinese vaccine, and there have been no confirmed reports in Cambodia of deaths caused by use of the Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccine. [Radio Free Asia]

9 March 2021

Cambodia: CNHR to dismiss UN criticism of recent sentences against opposition figures

(nd) Following the UN rights officials’ criticism of lengthy prison sentences for opposition figures in mass trials rendered in absentia, the Cambodian Human Rights Committee (CHRC) has rebuffed the statement by UN rights experts. The CHRC denied that the court procedures and ruling were groundless, stating democratic space in Cambodia was always open for those who exercised their rights and freedom in accordance with the Constitution and the law, adding that law enforcement against perpetrators was not restriction of rights.

The CHRC referenced Sam Rainsy’s November 9, 2019 plan to return to Cambodia and overthrow the government, calling it a coup, and pointing to sufficient evidence against Rainsy and other overseas politicians. Also, the Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of Cambodia in Geneva published a statement dismissing the UN rights experts’ criticism. [Phnompenh Post]

9 March 2021

Cambodia: Reducing independence on US dollar

(nd) Cambodia aims to reduce its dependency on US dollar, following an increase in demand in the Cambodian riel. As a substitute, the country introduced digital currencies and phased out small-denomination US dollar bills, aiming at a better economic control and fighting money laundering and the black economy. Cambodia has a dual currency system, which has been running since UN peace keeping operations brought US dollars with them in 1993. [Voice of America]

9 March 2021

Cambodia: Hun Sen to remain in office until he wants to stop

(nd) At a press conference after receiving the Covid-19 vaccination, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced to remain in office as long as he wants, backing away from promises late last year to be the leader for the next 10 years. Hun Sen is the world’s longest serving leader, with 36 years in office. Recently, rumors had it that his eldest son Hun Manith, a four-star general in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, would be his successor.

The largest opposition party, Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), was dissolved in 2018, resulting in a landslide win for Hun Sen’s party and a de-facto one party state. In an ongoing mass trial against opposition members, which was highly criticized by rights groups and foreign embassies, former CNRP leader Sam Rainsy was sentenced in absentia to 25 years in prison. [See also AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1] [UCA News]

2 March 2021

Cambodia: Opposition politicians sentenced in mass trial

(nd) Cambodian opposition figure Sam Rainsy was sentenced in absentia to 25 years in jail for allegedly plotting to overthrow Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government. He was also stripped of rights to vote and stand as a candidate in an election. Rainsy has lived in French exile since 2015. Besides Rainsy, eight other opposition politicians, including Rainsy’s wife, were sentenced in absentia to between 20 and 22 years in jail. Cambodia started mass trials against more than 150 opposition figures for treason and incitement in November last year, which was heavily criticized internationally. Many of the defendants were unable to face the charges in person. Rights groups say the trial is politically motivated and aims at keeping opposition politicians from contesting in the country’s general election. Hun Sen is the longest-serving leader in Southeast Asia, with 36 years in power and ruling in a de-facto one-party state since the dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party in 2017. [ABC]

2 March 2021

Cambodia: Local protest in support of land law activists

(nd) In solidarity with six arrested activists, land dispute victims from nearly half of Cambodia’s two dozen provinces protested in their respective communities for the government to drop charges. Additionally, protesters urged the government to intervene with local authorities and provincial governments to resolve disputes, and stop security forces from intimidating and arresting villagers.

Widespread land grabs are common, with authorities seizing land from local farmers in order to use it for development projects or foreign invested enterprises without paying fair compensation for their lost livelihoods. Adding to the six charged, according to local NGOs another 172 activists are facing charges of “incitement to commit a felony” or “provoke social disorder” after demanding the return of their land. [Radio Free Asia]

2 March 2021

Cambodia: US worried about internet gateway

(nd) Following the announcement of the Cambodian government to set up a national internet gateway [See also AiR No. 7, February/2021, 3], the US voiced concerns over the freedom of expression on the internet. Critics said the gateway will enable authorities to further surveil and censor internet users in the country. The sub-decree was signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen February 16. It will require internet service providers to reroute their services through a National Internet Gateway (NIG) within the next 12 months. While the government argues, the move will boost Cambodia’s information technology infrastructure, rights groups stated the government was aiming at setting up internet regulations similar to China’s domestic firewall. [Voice of America]


23 February 2021

ASEAN member states tighten grip on cyberspace

(nd) The Thai government issued a warning not to break the law using the audio social media app Clubhouse. The Digital Minister said authorities were watching Clubhouse users and political groups if information was distorted and laws potentially violated. The app quickly developed into a discussion platform about the monarchy, despite the topic raised by student protesters still a fierce taboo, and whose criticism is punished harshly. Many Thai users registered following Japan-based critic of the Thai palace, Pavin Chachavalpongpun, and joined the app. He gained more than 70,000 followers in his first five days on the app. His Facebook group, Royalist Marketplace, was shutdown in August 2020, only to reopen and attract 300,000 followers the next day. The government’s crackdown on protesters has regularly included charges under cybercrime laws, mostly on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

The app gathered popularity quickly and was blocked earlier this month in China after thousands of mainland users joined discussions often censored in China, including about Xinjiang detention camps and Hong Kong’s national security law.

Last Wednesday, Indonesian authorities announced the app had to register as an Electronic System Operator (PSE) to seek permission to operate, and could be banned if it fails to comply with local laws. Indonesia has previously banned Reddit, Vimeo, and many pornography sites. [South China Morning Post] [Reuters]

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen last week signed a sub-decree to enable the creation of the country’s long-planned National Internet Gateway (NIG), a Chinese-style firewall, which possibly gives authorities even more powers to crackdown on online free-speech. All internet traffic will be routed through a single portal managed by a government-appointed regulator. All internet traffic metadata shall be stored for 12 months and can be assessed by the authorities.

A telecommunications law from 2015 already gave significant powers to request user traffic data from internet service providers to the authorities, and the criminal code and the “fake news” legislation were used to crack down on government critics. All these efforts, however were reactive and put in after a post, despite blockages of websites, that could be circumvented via VPNs. The NIG enables a preventive action, mounting up to censorship.

Since Cambodia is unlikely to provide a national alternative to the popular social media platform Facebook, the authorities will have to force the platforms to abide by its rules. By having a single gateway for all traffic, Cambodia might have significant leverage over the social media website, being able to threat to shut them off. Such a tactic worked well for Vietnam.

Indeed, the timing is suspect. The NIG is expected to be launched next year, which in mid-2022 will see local elections, and general elections in 2023. The ruling party dissolved its only opponent, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), in 2017. Leaders are in exile and mostly hindered from returning to the country, not even to face charges in ongoing court proceedings. [Asia Times]

In Thailand, analysts commented that the Thai cyberspace has become highly politicized after the coup, with the addition of legal tools to enable a broad and deep surveillance.

The Computer Crimes Act was enacted in 2007. Already in 2015, a “cyber warfare” unit was founded with the military, and the Technology Crime Suppression Division with the Royal Thai Police. The Ministry of the Digital Economy and Society was established in 2016. According a WikiLeaks documents, the military unit was setup with the help of an online surveillance firm and installed broad tools to collect data. The military was accused in 2016 of buying decryption technology to monitor private communication on social media. A 2017 report claimed hackers worked for the government between 2016 and 2017 to block media sites, WikiLeaks and websites that provide tools for censorship circumvention. A new cybersecurity agency and hacker training center were setup in 2018, further enabling control of online content. In 2019, a “anti-fake news center” was opened in Bangkok, employing 40 full-time staff to monitor and forward discussion in possible violation of the Computer Crimes Act to the Technology Crime Suppression Division. Officers working for the Digital Economy and Society Ministry can request computer data from service providers without a warrant. According to a Comparitech survey on privacy protection published by the end of 2019, Thailand was ranked among the lowest in the world.

In the Malay-Muslim-majority southern provinces the state’s system of surveillance is even more sophisticated, collecting DNA-samples for a DNA databank to fight insurgencies. In 2020, phone numbers were registered using a facial recognition system, and failure to register cut the individual off service. Phones have been used to set off bombs. Later, it was announced that the 8,200 security cameras in the southern provinces could be fitted with a facial recognition system and be run with artificial intelligence (AI) in the future, similar to the system in China. The UN criticized this development in 2020. [The Diplomat]

16 February 2021

Mekong river level remains low

(nd) Reportedly, the water level of the Mekong River dropped to a worrying low, which could at least partly be attributed to outflow restrictions from Chinese hydropower dams upstream, according to the Mekong River Commission (MRC). Low rainfall and dams on the Lower Mekong also contributed to the low level. Level fluctuation affect fish migration, agriculture and transportation, on which nearly 70 million people rely for their livelihoods.

Last year, China agreed to share dam data with the MRC, and the member countries Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. China notified that following construction the flow will be normalized by January 25. Following a brief rise, the level dropped again in February. [Bangkok Post]

16 February 2021

ASEAN-EU strategic partnership

(nd) The new ASEAN–EU Strategic Partnership, announced in December 2020, not only eradicated the donor–recipient dynamic, but the EU might need ASEAN more than ASEAN needs the EU. The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell has declared it “no longer a luxury but a necessity”.

Issues of cooperation include the economy, ASEAN integration, COVID-19 responses, sustainable development, maritime cooperation and cybersecurity. But on terms of strategy, they still differ. While both agree on principles like a rule-based international order, multilateralism and free trade, a commitment to human rights and democracy is not a prerequisite for ASEAN.

The EU arguably has pushed more for a strategic partnership than ASEAN did. Still, the EU is a major development partner and ASEAN’s largest donor. For that, the EU might have to focus more on influencing ASEAN norms and values, to shape the partnership according to EU’s terms. It remains unclear whether the EU can reach its goal, to enhance EU security and its defense profile in the Asia Pacific, be granted membership in the East Asia Summit and ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus.

The EU has to first ensure coherence in the bloc’s responses towards ASEAN, and avoid the implication of some members’ unilateral Asia Pacific or Indo-Pacific strategies. Also, coherence is needed in relations to the member states of ASEAN. In specific issues, the EU has adopted different stances on member states, such as Cambodia on trade privileges, to Indonesia and Malaysia over palm oil, and stalled FTA talks with Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. The situation in Myanmar, which both have so far only commented on, can have implications on the future of the strategic partnership. In 2009, FTA negotiations with ASEAN were stalled due to insecurity of how to deal with Myanmar’s human rights record.

Going forward, ASEAN and the European Union will need to find coherence between their values, interregional and regional positions, and divergent interests among their member states. They will have to agree on how to deal with bilateral and regional issues, and how to carve out a space for the new strategic partnership in regional, multilateral and plurilateral arenas. [East Asia Forum]

16 February 2021

ASEAN to have less trust in China

(nd) China’s so-called vaccine diplomacy appears to be unsuccessful, according to a survey by the ASEAN Studies Centre at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. In a poll conducted from mid-November to January with 1,032 people across ASEAN, 44.2% said China provided the majority of help to the region during the Covid-19 pandemic. Still, and despite proactive efforts to secure vaccine deals in the region, 61.5% of respondents said they would choose the US over China in the ongoing US-China rivalry, a rise of 7.9% in support for the US compared to last year. While new possibilities were associated with the incoming Biden administration, many grow increasingly wary of Chinese influence in the region. China was named as most influential economic power in the region by 76.3% of respondents, 72.3% of which voiced concerns thereof. Of 49.1% who named China as the most influential political and strategic power in the region, 88.6% indicated being worried about this influence.

China was also low in terms of trust among global powers: Additionally, some 63% responded to have “little confidence” or “no confidence” that China will “do the right thing” for the global community, rising more than 10% in comparison to last year. Analysts commented, this trust deficit is upward trending. Its economic and military power combined is viewed as a possible threat to sovereign interests. [Nikkei Asia]

16 February 2021

China, Cambodia to suspend military exercise

(nd) The Cambodian government suspended the fourth annual, two-week military exercise with China, which was set for next month. Officially citing the need to cut spending amid the Covid-19 pandemic, some commented it was a move not to anger the new administration of US President-elect Joe Biden. Also cited were severe repercussions of a flooding in October 2020, destroying much of Cambodia’s infrastructure and food supply, causing 40 deaths. 

The deputy president of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Eng Chhai Eang, rejected budget-related claims and stated that China paid the expenses in the last years. Rather, he referred to Cambodia’s aims to appear more neutral with respect to foreign policy. Following Western criticism of the dissolution of CNRP in 2017 and a wider crackdown on civil society, Cambodia grew closer to China, isolating itself also from investors from the West. With more investment from China, Cambodia increasingly backed China with respect to international issues, such as the dispute in the South China Sea. Although China remains the largest investor in large-scale infrastructure projects, criticism is growing with regards to the increased dependency on China as well as negative behavior of Chinese business men, such as in Sihanoukville in the south-west. China still provides military assistance to Cambodia, and despite earlier claims of Prime Minister Hun Sen to only use WHO-approved vaccines, Cambodia started inoculation on Wednesday using 1 million doses of Sinopharm donated by China. [Radio Free Asia]

16 February 2021

Cambodia: Logging protesters released

(nd) Following their arrest last week, five environmental activists were released last Monday. They were protesting against illegal logging inside the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary, one of Cambodia’s largest wildlife sanctuaries. One of the protesters was Ouch Leng, who received the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize. As a condition of release, the five had to sign an agreement stating they would not enter restricted areas without permission again. Parallelly, a complaint was filed against Ouch Leng’s Cambodian Human Rights Task Force, which allegedly is not registered with the Interior Ministry. [Cambodia Daily]

16 February 2021

Cambodia: Illegal workers unable to register, facing deportation

(nd) Cambodian labor rights groups have urged the government to support Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand. Thailand harbors more than 400,000 illegal immigrant workers. In an effort to curb the spread of Covid-19, Thailand has introduced a registration system for workers to obtain a pink card, which so far 120,000 have applied for. The deadline ran out on February 14, now many face deportation or imprisonment. The registration process is rather complicated and costly (around 10,000 baht, U.S. $300), and scammers made it worse for the workers. The rights groups have therefore called for an extension of the deadline. [Benar News]

9 February 2021

Japan-ADB cooperation agreement on ASEAN energy projects 

(dql) In a move to strengthen its footprint in Southeast Asia against China, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has reached an agreement with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) under which both sides will cooperate on clean energy projects in the frame of the Cleaner Energy Future Initiative for ASEAN (CEFIA), covering areas of renewable energy, energy conservation and efficiency, and other technologies for low carbon energy transition.

Established in 2019, the CEFIA seeks to accelerate the deployment of sustainable energy and low carbon technologies in Southeast Asia. [Modern Diplomacy]

9 February 2021

ASEAN, Indonesia to intervene in Myanmar

(nd) Following a bilateral meeting, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced to talk to current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Brunei, to convene a special meeting on the coup in Myanmar.

 While ASEAN disposes of a Human Rights Declaration and the Charter calls for the strengthening of democracy, good governance and rule of law, at its core understanding lie the overarching principles of non-interference and sovereignty. Since democracy as such is no prerequisite for the membership in the bloc, its backsliding does not warrant for a response. Such is mimicked in the statement by ASEAN chair Brunei, “noting” the commitment to democracy and the rule of law but calling for a dialogue and the return to normalcy. The Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia referred to the principle of non-intervention and labelled the coup an internal matter. Vietnam called for a stabilization and Malaysia for a discussion to ‘avoid adverse consequences’ of the coup. Indonesia voiced the strongest opposition, referring to uphold the ASEAN charter and use legal mechanisms to resolve the issue. Given the intentionally non-enforceable commitments to democracy in the charter, forging a common stance seems difficult.

Historically though, Indonesia assumed the position of a role model for Myanmar, which according to analysts warrants for a heightened responsibility now. Indonesia itself successfully transitioned from dictatorship to democracy. A significant role within Myanmar’s transition to democracy was assumed by former general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), Indonesia’s first directly elected president. Besides assisting Myanmar with minority conflicts, drafting of laws and education on democratic institution, the presence of himself and former military allies who turned into democratic reformers were the most obvious message sent. In contrast to current president Widodo, whose agenda is focused on domestic issues, SBY was looking for an international statesman position with a democracy-infused diplomatic agenda. Therefore, some suggested SBY to function as Indonesia’s envoy to Myanmar to advocate credibly for military reforms. 

Any intervention in Myanmar is shadowed by a fear of Myanmar gravitating further to China if pressured too much. As well as the muted bloc’s response carries the fear of further coups and authoritarian takeovers in the region. [Reuters] [Benarnews] [East Asia Forum]

2 February 2021

Cambodia: Political return of Cambodian Prince

(nd) Former Cambodian Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh will reassume leadership of royalist Funcinpec party, returning to politics two years after a severe car accident. Ranariddh is the son to Norodom Sihanouk, who governed Cambodia in the 1950s and 1960s and served as king from 1993 to 2004. Funcinpec won the 1993 elections that were organized by the United Nations, and lost all seats by 2013. Ranariddh and Prime Minister Hun Sen from the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) were once strong opponents, until they were coalition partners in 1997. Shortly after, Hun Sen’s forces conducted an attack on and murdered many of commanders loyal to Ranariddh, who went into exile briefly. The subsequent coalition of the two partners left Funcinpec as the junior member. Additionally, in 2006 Hun Sen contributed to a split within Funcinpec, which prompted the foundation of a brief and unsuccessful successor party. Ranariddh returned to Funcinpec in 2015.

Due to his dependency on the CPP, analysts deem Ranariddh’s return of no major impact. Still, his announcement highlights a necessity to maintain a democratic covering amid an ongoing political crackdown, following the dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party. [The Diplomat]

26 January 2021

ASEAN human rights hit by pandemic

(nd) According to deputy Asia director at the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, human rights took a hit amid the Covid-19 pandemic, which highlighted inequalities and vulnerability. Malaysia for instance excluded their 3,5 million migrants and refugees from government aid programs. For a lack of governmental support in Myanmar, some of the overlooked people relied on armed rebel groups for aid instead. In Singapore and partly in Thailand, the virus transmission was blamed on migrants, creating an anti-immigrant sentiment.

Apart from economic differences and hardships, the pandemic allowed to “reinforce” existing policies to target dissidents under the umbrella of health protection, as seen with protesters in Thailand. According to US-based rights advocacy group Amnesty International, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte told soldiers and neighborhood leaders to shoot “troublemakers” protesting during community quarantine, furthering the “climate of impunity”, which was set off by his infamous drug on war, resulting in increased killings of activists. In this militaristic atmosphere, police officers were found to have committed abused enforcing stay-at-home orders. [Voice of America]

19 January 2021

China’s vaccine diplomacy in Southeast Asia 

(nd) After Chinese company Sinovac announced a 78% efficacy rate during its trials of CoronaVac, Brazilian scientists reported a significantly lower rate of 50,4 %, casting doubt on China’s so-called “vaccine diplomacy” in Southeast Asia. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) threshold for advised use is 50%. Indonesia’s own trials found an efficacy of 63,3%, with Indonesia’s food and drug agency to be the first in the world to approve use of the Sinovac vaccinations. Despite the high numbers and the prominent vaccination of President Joko Widodo, the Indonesian population is rather reluctant to receive a shot due to concerns over safety and efficacy. [Asia Times]

Thailand and the Philippines have also already purchased doses of CoronaVac, with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte criticizing Western vaccination makers for their unscrupulous prices. Vaccinations produced by Moderna and Pfizer-Biontech have shown efficacy rates of about 95%, but are more expensive and have to be transported and stored in costly freezers. Besides the price and its availability, buying Chinese vaccinations will potentially bring more general benefits, with China having already announced it will look kindly on purchasers of its products. [Asia Times]

Despite China being the country’s closest ally and economic patron, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced last year to only purchase WHO-approved vaccines, which to date doesn’t include any of the at least four vaccinations produced by China, which prompted observers to state that it will take the country until at least mid-2022 to be able to vaccinate more than 60% of its population. The Chinese government and state media downplayed the efficacy results, but they still raised already existing public doubt over the reliability of Chinese vaccinations, and the more general notion of unsafe and hasty production of vaccinations against Covid-19 generally. Yet, early this week Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen accepted a donation of one million Sinopharm vaccine doses from China, contradicting previous pledges. Hun Sen argued amid a Thai Covid-19 case surge, he cannot afford to wait, and referred to the rollout of the vaccine in China, Indonesia, Egypt and Brazil. [Nikkei Asia]

During his visit to the Philippines, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi promised half a million doses of Covid-19 vaccines, US$1.34 billion in loan pledges for infrastructure projects and US$77 million (500 million yuan) in grants. Philippine Foreign Minister Locsin, however, also made reference to the South China Sea dispute. According to observers, in light of the incoming Biden administration, the donation and investment in infrastructure was an effort to present itself as a partner to revive heavy-hit economies in the regions. [South China Morning Post]

19 January 2021

China in the “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific” 

(dql) Shortly before Joe Biden will be sworn in as US President in this week, the Trump administration declassified and published the “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific”, approved by President Trump in 2018 and stamped secret and not for release to foreign nationals until 2043. 

The 10-page national security strategy paper identifies maintaining “U.S. strategic primacy over the Indo-Pacific region,” and promoting “a liberal economic order, while preventing China from establishing new, illiberal spheres of influence and cultivating areas of cooperation to promote regional peace and prosperity” one of three national security challenges, along with North Korea’s threat to the US and its allies as well as the advancement of US global economic leadership. 

Furthermore, the document assumes that the “[s]trategic competition between the United States and China will persists,” with China “circumvent[ing] international norms and rules to gain advantage,” and seeking to “dissolve U.S. alliances and partnerships,” in order to “exploit vacuums and opportunities created by these diminished bonds.”

As an desired outcome with regards to China, the “United States and its partners on every continent” shall become “resistant to Chinese activities aimed at undermining their sovereignty, including through covert or coercive influence.” [White House, USA]

For a concise assessment of what has been achieved under this strategic framework, see Grant Newsham in [Asia Times] who argues that “Trump and his staff are handing off to Joseph Biden an Indo-Pacific that is better off than it was in 2017. 

19 January 2021

Cambodia: Exiled opposition leader denied entry

(nd) In an effort to attend in person the mass trial against her and more than 100 defendants, exiled former minister and opposition figure Mu Sochua, vice president of the now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was denied entry into Cambodia for a lack of a visa. After her Cambodian passport was revoked in 2019, she was travelling on her US passport now. Mo Sochua went into exile along with many other opposition politicians in late 2017 after the CNRP was dissolved by the Supreme Court, which was followed by a broader crackdown on oppositional voices and independent media. [Asia Times]

12 January 2021

Cambodia: Opposition defendant will not be issued travel documents

(nd) According to a government spokesperson, opposition officials in self-imposed exile will not be issued passports or visa and will have to find “their own way” to enter Cambodia to face charges of incitement and treason, because they organized a coup d’état to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen. 

The comments suggest a presumption of guilt of the CNRP exiles, which is why the international community already called on the government it has to grant the right to fair trial to the defendants. According to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the right to a fair trial combines many fundamental rights, including the right to a court, the right to a public trial, the right to equality, the right to an independent and impartial trial, the right to an expedited trial, and the right to presumption of innocence.

Phnom Penh Municipal Court in November summoned at least 113 individuals with connections to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) facing charges of conspiracy and incitement. In September 2017, the arrest of CNRP President Kem Sokha for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government, was followed by the party’s dissolution by the Supreme Court and a wider crackdown on the opposition, NGOs, and the independent media, which enabled the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in the July 2018 general election. [Radio Free Asia]

5 January 2021

Cambodia: Civil groups demand transparent oil production

(nd) Following the announcement of Prime Minister Hun Sen that Cambodia extracted its first drop of crude oil from fields in the Gulf of Thailand [See also AiR No. 52, December/2020, 5], anti-corruption groups and senior officials from the opposition and banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) applauded the success but simultaneously demanded transparent and efficient revenue management. They demanded that revenues must be invested in education, health, the expansion of infrastructure and access to water, while pointing to the country’s bad reputation with regards to corruption. In Transparency International’s 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index, Cambodia was ranked 162nd out of 198 countries. [Radio Free Asia]

5 January 2021

ASEAN countries, US to seek last minute deals

(nd) Only weeks before the official end of the Trump administration, countries across Southeast Asia seem to pursue last minute security and economic agreements with the US in light of president Donald Trump’s transactional approach to diplomacy. During the Trump presidency, trade with the US increased despite of his relative lack of interest in the region, while the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden is widely associated with a stricter emphasis on human rights and democratic values. In early December, the Philippines received $29 million in military equipment during a visit, with an announcement of additional $18 million worth of military equipment and training.

For Indonesia’s planned sovereign wealth fund, the US International Development Finance Corp. signed a letter of interest for a $2 billion as one of the first countries to sign up, with an aimed estimated total of about $15 billion from around the world. The US also extend tariff exemptions for Indonesia, possibly with an eye on cooperation against Chinese maritime actions in the South China Sea. Due to its geographic position, the region will play a pivotal role in geopolitics in the coming years, to stand strong against Chinese aggression and growing influence, but still, in the region, democratic governance is deteriorating, and left unaddressed.

Economically, the region has benefitted from the Trump administration, with ASEAN having received about $24.5 billion in direct investment from the US in 2019, with exports from Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia on the rise since 2017. Additionally, US-based power company AES announced to join a development project for a liquefied natural gas terminal in Vietnam, which also agreed to import up to $500 million in American pork over the next three years. This was seen as a reaction to mitigate the trade imbalance, still US accused Vietnam of currency manipulation after. [Nikkei Asia]