Asia in Review Archive 2021


Date of AiR edition

News summary

30 March 2021

UAE to invest 10 billion USD in Indonesia’s sovereign wealth fund 

(dql) The United Arab Emirates will reportedly invest 10 billion USD in Indonesia’s new sovereign wealth fund, marking the largest foreign investment the Indonesia Investment Authority (INA) and the first since its February launch. Spending will focus infrastructure projects, including roads and ports, along with tourism, agriculture and other “strategic sectors.” [Aljazeera

30 March 2021

Indonesia: Certifying outermost islands

(dql) The Indonesian government is looking to certify outermost islands, including those bordering other nations, such as Karang Unarang Island in Nunukan District (bordering Malaysia), and aiming at circumventing any unilateral claim over the Indonesian territory. In an attempt to shield the country’s border areas against foreign territorial claims, the government has declared 111 outer islands that include some not previously stated as border areas. [Antara News]


30 March 2021

Japan, Indonesia conclude defense equipment deal

(dql) Japan and Indonesia concluded a deal to facilitate exports of Japanese-made defense equipment to the Southeast Asian country. It was signed after the foreign and defense ministers of Japan and Indonesia met in Tokyo to hold two-plus-two talks, during which they shared “serious concerns” about China’s “continued and strengthened unilateral attempts to alter the status quo by force” in the South and East China seas, and also condemned the recent killings of peaceful protestors by security forces in Myanmar.

Both sides also agreed on the need to strictly implement UN resolutions banning Pyongyang from testing ballistic missile and nuclear technologies. Japan, furthermore, pledged to extend 453 million USD in loans to assist Indonesia in natural disasters response and offered fisheries patrol vessels to support Jakarta’s efforts to strengthen law enforcement at sea. [Kyodo News]


30 March 2021

Indonesia: Suicide bomb attack at Catholic Church

(dql) On last Palm Sunday, the first day of the Easter Holy Week, a Catholic church in the city of Makassar in Indonesia’s South Sulawesi province was hit by a suicide bombing, wounding some 20 people. While there has been no claim of responsibility this far, the Police believe that the two bombers belong to Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), an Islamic State-inspired group suspected of suicide attacks in the city of Surabaya in 2018. [Channel News Asia] [Reuters]

On Monday, Densus 88, the Indonesian National Police’s counter-terrorism squad, arrested 13 suspected terrorists in four provinces, with four of them arrested in Sulawesi believed to have assisted the two suicide bombers in preparing the blast. They are all members of a study group named Villa Mutiara. [Antara News 1]

In a separate development, Densus 88 arrested a man on suspicion of fundraising for Jamaah Islamiyah in Banten province. [Antara News 2]

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]

23 March 2021

Indonesia: Further arrests of JI militants

(nd) 22 arrested suspects are connected to the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) militant group, one of them a leader who was recruiting and training new members. In a raid, police seized weapons and extremist literature. The trainings were military-style and aimed at attacking police. JI is linked to Al Qaeda and carried out a string of bombings in Indonesia, including the 2002 bombings in Bali killing 202 people. JI was banned in 2008 and significantly weakened by counterterrorism operations, including the arrest of 10 militants earlier this month, and 22 in January. The leader managed to recruit 50 members in the past 5 years. [ABC]

23 March 2021

Indonesia: HRW report on Islamic dress code

(nd) According to a report by Human Rights Watch, Indonesian girls and women face social pressure, bullying and harassment if they don’t comply with mandatory Islamic dress codes in schools, workplaces and government offices. The report identified more than 60 discriminatory local, regional and provincial by-laws enforcing dress codes for women and girls implemented since 2001. According to the report, the dress codes are a sign of rising intolerance and religious conservatism in the Muslim majority country. In an effort to mitigate such tensions, a decree recently banned the mandatory wearing of hijabs in public schools. [South China Morning Post] This development highlights rising pressure by conservative Islamic forces.

16 March 2021

Indonesia, Germany to fund green infrastructure projects

(nd) Germany will fund green infrastructure projects in Indonesia to reduce carbon emissions and promote energy efficiency. €2.5 billion ($2.9bn) will be distributed over 5 years through German National bank (KfW). Part of the scheme will be technology transfer and a campaign to promote public awareness. Indonesia’s government announced in 2017 to reduce marine waste by 70% by 2025. [Pinsent Masons]


16 March 2021

Indonesia’s position between China and the US

Besides achieving more unity in the ASEAN bloc, Indonesia’s effort to find a peaceful solution in Myanmar is also a means to showcase its democratic credentials with the Biden administration, analysts say. ASEAN has recently found itself in a a multi-country power struggle, with China, the US, India and Japan aiming at a greater influence in the region.

Kurt Campbell, the architect of former US President Barack Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’, is now the Indo-Pacific coordinator on the National Security Council. Likely, Indonesia is expected to play a leading role in the region, which Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi assumed with respect to Myanmar, engaging in a so-called shuttle diplomacy, holding talks with regional and international leaders. For Indonesia, the Myanmar coup shall not result in further US-Chinese tensions, having enjoyed more than 70 years of bilateral relationships with both major powers. Despite needing US support amid Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, Indonesia aims to diversify its strategic partners, and does have stronger economic ties with China than the US. Also, Chinese support on infrastructure projects, a key pillar of President Joko Widodo’s agenda, is much higher, being the second largest foreign investor in Indonesia 2020 with a total realized investment of US$4.8 billion. [South China Morning Post]


16 March 2021

SIPRI international arms transfers report 2020

(dql) According to the 2020 international arms transfers report of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), released last week, the US remains the world’s largest arms supplier in 2016-2020 accounting for 37% of the global arms exports, followed by Russia (20%), France (8.2), Germany (5.5%) and China (5.2%). Together, these five countries accounted for 76% of all exports of major arms. Besides China, Asian countries listed among the top 25 countries which accounted for 99% of global arms exports include South Korea (2.7%, ranking at 7), the United Arab Emirates (0.5%, 18), and India (0.2%, 24)

Against the backdrop of the US-China rivalry, the US allies Australia (accounting for 9.4% of US arms exports), South Korea (6.7%) and Japan (5.7%) were among the five largest importers of US arms.

23 Asian countries were among the 40 largest importers including Saudi-Arabia, India, China, South Korea, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Iraq, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Thailand, Oman, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Jordan, the Philippines, Azerbaijan, Myanmar, Taiwan, and Malaysia. [Reliefweb]

9 March 2021

Indonesia: Additional patrol vessels for Natuna Sea

(nd) The Indonesian Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry introduced two new modern patrol vessels in an effort to boost the protection of the country’s marine and fisheries resources from illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing activities. The ships will be used for routine patrols in the Malacca Strait and North Natuna Sea. The ships have a maximum speed of 29 knots and are fitted with drones to document possible confrontations.

Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone and territorial waters are vulnerable

(nd) Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met in Riyadh for talks to sign memorandums of understanding (MoU). The relationship between the Kingdom and Malaysia are longstanding. The ties between the two countries are deepening, with many joint initiatives on the horizon. Saudi Arabia was the first country Yassin visited as Prime Minister. [Arab News]

9 March 2021

Indonesia: Two Islamic militants killed

(nd) Indonesian security forces killed two, suspected to be members of the East Indonesia Mujahideen (EIM) militant group, killing one police officer. The village Poso in a mountainous district is considered an extremist hotbed in Central Sulawesi province. Following the bombings on tourist island Bali in 2002, killing 202, the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country initiated a crackdown on Islamic militants. EIM’s leader, Abu Wardah Santoso, was killed by security forces in 2016, with his son among the two killed this week. [The Star]

9 March 2021

Indonesia: Review of cyber laws

(nd) President Joko Widodo ordered a review of the electronic information and transaction (ITE) law due to ambiguous and prone to abuse wording. Critics said it was an attempt to attack freedom of expression. The numbers of cases under the ITE law almost doubled from last year, with observers blaming it for contributing to Indonesia’s deteriorating democracy. A survey by pollster Indikator Politik Indonesia from last year found that around 70% of respondents were worried about expressing their opinions publicly. The elastic clauses of the ITE law have frequently been used by people in power and against journalists or activists. The national police chief in February already introduced guidelines for ITE cases, which tell officer to prioritize persuasion and mediation, and to use legal indictments only as “the last resort”. [Nikkei Asia]

23 February 2021

Indonesia to finalize jet purchase

(nd) Seemingly, Indonesia has settled to buy fighter jets from France and the US, as well as an early-warning radar system from Italy, while ultimately not risking US sanctions by adding the Russian jets it already operates. Delivery is expected over the next three years. If materialized, it will be one of the biggest defense purchases made, raising questions whether Indonesia’s Covid-ridden economy can afford it. Indonesia’s defense budget for 2021 is at US$9.2 billion, including $3 billion for military modernization. Also, Indonesia would be the first Southeast Asian country to operate the French Rafale jet, currently in service in France, Egypt, Qatar and India. Additionally, Indonesia also purchased six unmanned aerial combat vehicles (UACVs), adding to Chinese-, Israeli-, and French-made drones Indonesia has been operating for three years.

Most likely, the new equipment will be used in the South China Sea, where a recent Chinese law which allows its coastguard to use force against intruders has caused yet another rise in tensions. [Asia Times]

Meanwhile, the French navy announced that an amphibious assault ship and a frigate are travelling to the Pacific for a three-month mission, involving two transits through the South China Sea and joint drills with US and Japanese militaries, scheduled for May.

Signaling France’s growing presented in the disputed waters, the travel comes shortly after a French nuclear attack submarine and a naval vessel sailed through the South China Sea. [South China Morning Post]


23 February 2021

Indonesia to rally among ASEAN for a joint stance on coup in Myanmar

(nd) In an effort to promote among ASEAN member states a common stance on the coup in Myanmar, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi travelled to Brunei last week. Brunei currently holds the ASEAN chair. She already discussed the issue with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and is expected to meet China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi Wednesday.

Retno commented, Indonesia “prioritised” efforts to ensure a democratic transition in Myanmar, and has held talks with regional foreign ministers and counterparts in India, Australia, Japan and Britain, and the UN special envoy to Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener. Last week, Indonesia and Malaysia called for a special ASEAN meeting on the coup. The member states responses were mixed, but mostly in adherence to their principle of non-interference, calling it an internal affair.

According to analysts, Indonesia is looking for a better response to the military coup both regionally and internationally, underlining its regional role as peacekeeper and communicator. [South China Morning Post]

Meanwhile, Indonesia is reportedly pushing Southeast Asian countries to agree on an action plan over Myanmar’s coup that would keep the junta to its promise of holding elections, involving also monitors to ensure they are fair and inclusive. [Reuters]

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

Multinational maritime exercise AMAN-2021 commences

(lm) The seventh edition of the week-long maritime exercise AMAN formally opened on February 12. Conducted in two phases – harbor and sea – the maritime drill also includes the International Maritime Conference, which will be held under the auspices of Pakistan’s Navy from February 13 to 15. [Dawn] [The Express Tribune]

Conducted biannually since its initiation in 2007, the exercise will bring together naval forces from 41 countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, China, Japan, Turkey, Philippines, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia. Significantly, Russia last December confirmed that its Black Sea Fleet will also participate in the drills, marking the first time in a decade that the Russian navy will take part in a joint military exercise with NATO members [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1].


16 February 2021

Indonesia: CEO appointed to sovereign wealth fund

(nd) As Chief Executive of Indonesia’s new sovereign wealth fund, the Indonesia Investment Authority (INA), President Joko Widodo appointed US-educated senior banker, Ridha D.M. Wirakusumah. The fund is targeted to be managing US$20 billion (RM81 billion) to finance infrastructure projects in the near future. Last week, other seniored professionals were appointed for the fund’s board of directors. In an effort to avoid the fate of Malaysia’s 1MDB fund, the recent appointments shall create trust among investors. Several countries have already expressed interest. Skepticism was sparked by the fact that investors will contribute the major share to the investment, and Indonesia did not ensure legal certainty with regards to the government of the fund yet. [Malaymail] [See also AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2]


16 February 2021

Indonesia: Possibilities of the sovereign wealth fund

(nd) Indonesia’s sovereign wealth fund (SWF), Lembaga Pengelola Investasi (Investment Management Authority, or LPI), which is expected to be launched in the next weeks, will be different from usual SWFs. It does not rely on commodity export earnings or balance-of-payments surpluses, but will be based on the government initial funding of US$1 billion, subsequently US$5 billion. The LPI will have the stimulus of national development as primary goal. As such, the LPI could buy infrastructure assets from debt-ridden SOEs. Many foreign investors have already expressed interest, including the US, Japan and the United Arab Emirates, envisioning a volume of US$16 billion.

President Joko Widodo’s big interest is building Indonesia’s infrastructure. To facilitate that, the government has mobilized state owned enterprises in all relevant industries, which enabled SOEs to grown fast. Since 2014, their assets almost doubled to US$630 billion, or 56 per cent of GDP in 2019. Capital therefore was used from state budget, with the financing also organized by SOEs, expanding their leverage.

Although there is still concern over corruption similar to Malaysia’s 1MDB, there will be significant control by big, foreign investors demanding transparency and a good governance set-up. Still, the state sector is struggling with corruption and nepotism.State enterprises such as insurer Jiwasraya and pension fund Asabri saw major fraud cases. Adding to that is the development of a politico-business network around Minister of State-owned Enterprises Erick Thohir. To counter-balance that, the roles of civil society organizations, the media and academia will have to be strengthened, [East Asia Forum]


16 February 2021

Indonesia: Preacher dies in police custody

(nd) A 28-year-old Islamic preacher died in police custody after refusing to be hospitalized for an illness. He was treated at a police hospital and not, as requested by his family, in an Islamic hospital. There was no autopsy. The National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) announced to inquire into his death. According to KontraS, a human rights group, at least nine detainees in the past three months have died in detention due to mistreatment, illness, suicide and fighting among inmates. They blame it on overeager policemen and a lack of transparency and accountability.

The preacher was arrested for a Tweet ridiculing the head gear of an Islamic cleric and member of the presidential advisory council, violating the Electronic Information and Transactions (ITE) Law. He has been provocative on social media before, criticizing President Joko Widodo in 2017 for dissolving Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), the local branch of an international group seeking to establish an Islamic caliphate, and defending hardline cleric Muhammad Rizieq Shihab. Shihab’s Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) was dissolved late last year and he is awaiting trial for Covid-19 regulation violations. These events raised accusations the government is acting increasingly hostile against Muslims.

Additionally, Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation commented that freedom of speech and assembly were being attacked recently by enforcing the electronic information act (EIA) on social media postings.  According to the Association for Freedom of Expression in Southeast Asia (SAFEnet), the conviction rate of EIA 96.8%, and an imprisonment rate of 88%. Arguably, this was due to the articles of EIA ignoring the principle of ultimum remedium punishment, meaning prosecution as a last resort. [Benar News]

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

Indonesian-Iranian ties to be tested 

(nd) In recent years, relations between Shia-governed Iran and majority-Sunni Indonesia have been remarkably well. In line with its foreign policy of non-alignment and the inclusive Pancasila principle, Indonesia avoids to pick sides and has maintained religious openness, both containing hardline clerics and protecting minorities. Recently though, conservative Islam has gained more ground in Indonesia, prompting the administration of President Joko Widodo to take action against hardliners, such as the ban against Islamic Defenders Front (FPI). This move and also the still unresolved killing of six FPI members spiked criticism, the government was out against Muslims. On the other hand, Islamic conservatism made it into the policy realm, causing increased persecution of religious minorities and a deterioration of religious freedoms. In an effort to attract investment from Sunni Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom built mosques and universities across the country, and established a scholarship system for academic exchange, resulting in an increased popularity of its puritan and conservative interpretation of Islam among Indonesian Muslims.

In that scenario, Iran seemingly adapted a pragmatic approach in primarily pursuing trade and economic alliances, as US sanctions have left Iran mostly isolated from other countries. In recent years, there were reciprocal state visits, Iran did not criticize Saudi investments and Indonesia supported Iran’s “right to obtain nuclear weapons.” Due to rising anti-Shia sentiment, the role of religion is more or less downplayed. Still, it is a topic, according to Human Rights Watch, who say there is a rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Indonesia, and Iran is actively promoting Shi’ism. This activism is facilitated by institutions like the Jakarta Islamic Center (ICC), which is located closely to LIPIA, the largest Saudi-funded university in Indonesia. The ICC is not managed by the executive branch of the Iranian government, but under the Office of the Supreme Leader of Iran, distancing such efforts from the diplomatic and political realm.

With growing religious conservatism, it might present tough for Indonesia to maintain this balanced road. On the one hand, Indonesian vice president Mar’uf Amin, as head of both the Nahdlatul Ulama and the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI), drafted many fatwas against minority groups, including the Shia. The newly elected members and head of MUI, however, seemed to point into a more moderate direction. Also, efforts to protect religious minorities were voiced just recently, for unity is always a major concern for multireligious nations. [The Diplomat]


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]

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

Indonesia: Tesla to officially propose investment 

(nd) Following its public invitation to invest into the country, Indonesia has received an investment proposal from US electric vehicle (EV) maker Tesla. Tesla was looking for new sources and warned that the high costs of batteries remain an obstacle to the spread of EV technology. Another interest of Tesla is a possible SpaceX rocket launch pad on the island of Biak in northern Papua.

Nickel is a key component for EV batteries and Indonesia the world’s biggest nickel producer. In an effort to not only export raw nickel, Indonesia stopped all shipments last year and intensified efforts to develop a nickel supply chain, processing the material into metals and chemicals used in batteries.

This vision has long been pushed for by Chinese investors, focused on developing a fully-integrated supply chain, covering stainless steel, lithium batteries, copper wire and other finished products. Currently, four copper smelters are being built. The Chinese built smelters are $1 billion cheaper than the planned Finnish-designed facility at Gresik in Surabaya, due to technological advancements and a requirement for quick construction. When asked about his concern over the intense Chinese involvement, Chief Investment Minister Luhut Panjaitan responded: “We invited everybody and no-one came, except the Chinese”, adding “Like it or not, happy or not happy, whatever is said, China is a world power that can’t be ignored.” Another large investor in the field is South Korea, with lithium battery-maker LG Chemical and car manufacturer Hyundai announcing an investment volume of $11.3 billion. [Reuters] [Asia Times]

9 February 2021

Indonesia: Ban of mandatory Islamic attire for schoolgirls

(nd) The Indonesian government passed an edict to stop public schools from forcing female students to wear religious attire. Last month saw an outrage on social media over female students in West Sumatra being forced to wear a hijab. Human rights groups welcomed the decision, with a researcher at Human Rights Watch emphasizing that still more than 20 provinces have mandatory religious attire dress codes. In Aceh, a conservative province on the western tip of Sumatra, the ban will not apply.

The move shows the latest attempt to fight religious intolerance, with religious clothing having been a hot issue in the past. Already in 2016, Jakarta’s former Chinese Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, nicknamed Ahok, called for such a ban. Ahok drew criticism from hardline Islamic groups and was sentenced in May 2017 to two years in prison over blasphemy charges, highlighting the power of Islamic pressure groups. Last Month, recently appointed Minister of Religious Affairs Yaqut Cholil Qoumas vowed to protect the rights of religious minority groups Shia and Ahmadiyah. In December last year, the government banned the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI) [AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1] [The Diplomat]

9 February 2021

Indonesia: Sovereign wealth fund without China

(nd) Indonesia’s sovereign wealth fund, called the Indonesia Investment Authority (INA) has appointed advisory board members and received investment commitments from Japan, US, Canada, Netherlands and Australia. Eventually, investors will be able to choose to either invest in the “master fund” or “thematic fund”, which can be a particular industry or project. The fund will be used to finance President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s infrastructure projects, with an initial volume of US$5 billion, and an eventually planned US$20 billion. China’s absence in the round of initial investors has led to the suspicion Indonesia intentionally left China out. One reason is to avoid Chinese control over key Indonesian infrastructure, although the majority sum for the projects will come from foreign capital. A second reason is the aim to diversify its portfolio by including different countries. In 2020, China was Indonesia’s second-biggest foreign investor with an investment volume of US$4.8 billion, following Singapore with US$9.8 billion, according to Indonesia’s investment board (BKPM). Since 2015, Chinese investment in Indonesia grew by 559% and included over 10,000 projects in various industries. Both reasons resonate well with an ongoing anti-China sentiment in the country.

A major obstacle for the sovereign wealth fund will be securing trust of international investors. The legal proceedings with regards to the Malaysian 1MDB fund were just settled. Also, two of Widodo’s cabinet ministers, Edhy Prabowo, former fisheries minister, and former social minister Juliari Batubara, were forced to resign over graft charges. Indonesia slipped 17 places in Transparency International’s 2020 Corruption Perception Index. According to analysts, it is also central to establish checks and balances, reporting guidelines and transparency mechanisms to distract investor’s worries about the management of the fund. Additionally, experts argue sovereign wealth funds are usually installed when a country has a big surplus and disposes of foreign-exchange reserves or has big natural resources, all of which is lacking in Indonesia.

About US$450 billion shall be spent on infrastructure projects through 2024, including the new capital construction in East Kalimantan, with 30% coming from national sources. [South China Morning Post]

9 February 2021

Indonesia, US to meet over VFA

(nd) In an effort to straighten out differences over the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), the Philippines and US announced to meet. This comes amid rising tensions with China in the disputed South China Sea. Last year, President Rodrigo Duterte’s unilateral decision to terminate the VFA in February was suspended in November for a second time. Duterte’s decision came amid the US denying a visa to a senator, who was involved in Duterte’s infamous war on drugs.

The VFA outlines legal guidelines for US troop to operate on a rotational basis in the Philippines. According to experts, other bilateral defense agreements, like the Mutual Defence Treaty (MDT), cannot be implemented without a valid VFA. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized this correlation in his reaction to the Philippine’s protest of a Chinese Law allowing its coats guard to open fire on foreign vessels. China claims almost the entirety of the South China Sea for itself, despite the rejection of such claims in a 2016 international tribunal ruling. [Reuters] [See also AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1] Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. commented the Philippine would not contest the newly enacted law, in an effort not to re-open litigation on Chinese territorial claims. [Benar News]

2 February 2021

Indonesia: Chairman of Democratic Party alleges takeover attempts

(nd) Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, current chairman of the Democratic Party (DP), alleged that officials of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s inner circle have tried to force a leadership succession, threatening DP’s sovereignty and existence. Agus is the son of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who succeeded his father as chairman last year. DP was the ruling party from 2004-2014. Currently, the party only holds 7.8% of the House of Representative’s 575 seats. Agus has sent a letter to Widodo, requesting a declaration. [Jakarta Globe]


2 February 2021

Indonesia: Arrest over insult of Papuan activist

(nd) Politician Ambroncius Nababan was arrested over insults he made online. He was referring to Natalius Pigai, a former member of the National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM) and black human rights activist from Papua as an ape in social media posts. Nababan is a member of Hanura Party and the ruling coalition. His comments are a possible violation of a 2008 law to eliminate racism and discrimination, which carries a five-year prison term. He issued an apology.

Many voiced their anger, sparking fears of similar protests to those in 2019, which were triggered by perceived racism of security forces. The protests left 40 people dead. The separatist United Liberation Movement of West Papua and the West Papua National Committee were blamed for the protests, which resulted in calls for a vote on self-determination. In 2020, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, activists created the hashtag “PapuanLivesMatter” to criticize racist treatment of Papuans across Indonesia.

The separatist conflict has been ongoing since the 1960s, after the region declared its independence from Dutch colonial rule in December 1961, which was rejected by both the Dutch and later Indonesia, annexing it in 1963. [Benarnews]

26 January 2021

Myanmar, Indonesia to urge safe return conditions for Rohingyas

(nd) In an effort to weigh in on the solution of the Rohingya refugees, Indonesia urged Myanmar to create safe conditions to return from Bangladesh to Rakhine state. During a virtual ASEAN meeting, the bloc members supported the repatriation plan. The ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) reminded the bloc members of the ongoing clashes between Myanmar’s military and Arakan Army, creating an unsafe environment into which a return cannot be forced. APHR renewed calls to exert more pressure on the Burmese government in this regard.

In November 2018 and August 2019, previous plans to repatriate Rohingya refugees failed due to the lack of a guarantee for their safety and rights. Indonesia took in over 11,000 Rohingya refugees since 2015, according to the Indonesian Foreign Ministry. With regards to the about 400 Rohingya refugees residing in Aceh province, Amnesty International Indonesia emphasized the government should not rush repatriation unless the conditions in Myanmar are safe. [Benar News]

Brokered by China, Bangladesh and Myanmar met last week to discuss the repatriation of Rohingya refugees last week. While Bangladesh has announced a successful agreement on the repatriation of 1 million Rohingya refugees, the Burmese side has downplayed the significance of the meeting’s conclusion. The media coverage was either non-exiting or listed under “national” in an unprominent location. Observers see this as a sign of how little pressure with regard to this issue is felt by — the Burmese civilian and military leadership. [Anadolu Agency]

26 January 2021

Indonesia: Oil tankers seized

(nd) Indonesian coast guard seized Iranian- and Panamanian-flagged vessels off Kalimantan province. The vessels had turned off their automatic identification system (AIS) and did not respond to a radio call. The vessels were caught transferring oil from the loaded Iranian to the empty Panamanian tanker, which is managed by Shanghai Future Ship Management Co.

It is required for vessels to use transponders for safety and transparency, following rules of the International Maritime Organization. In the past, Iran has been accused of switching off AIS to conceal its oil sales in order to circumvent US sanctions. Former President Donald Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal with Iran in 2018 and reimposed sanction to prevent Iran from exporting oil. [Reuters]

26 January 2021

Indonesia, US to charge Bali bombers

(nd) Nearly 18 years after their capture, US military prosecutors charged three Guantanamo Bay inmates involved in the 2002 Bali bombings and 2003 Jakarta attack. The suspects are the leader respectively aides of Indonesian jihadist group Jemaah Islamiyah, which was assumed to be al-Qaeda’s first representative in the region. The attacks were carried out with al-Qaeda support.

The announcement came on the first day of the Biden administration. As Brack Obama’s vice president, both wanted but failed to close Guantanamo Bay. The Trump administration did not attend to the prison, which still inhabits 40 detainees. [Malay Mail]

26 January 2021

Indonesia: High speed rail project open to investors

(nd) After Japan denied to support the construction of a high-speed railway to Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city, the government offered China and other countries to step in. The consortium of Japanese investors wanted to focus on expanding an existing medium-speed rail project from Jakarta to Surabaya through the northern side of Java, while the Indonesian government prefers the line to pass through the southern part of the island. The Indonesian-Japanese deal was signed in 2019, aiming to cut travel time in half, with an investment volume of 60 trillion rupiah ($4.3 billion) and an expected completion date in 2025.

China has stepped up its infrastructure investment in Indonesia, remarkably with the Jakarta-Bandung high speed rail, which forms part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and will be completed next year. The project was given to China instead of Japan, after China agreed to provide a loan without a government guarantee, illustrating the two countries’ struggle for influence in the strategically important Indonesia. According to observers, Indonesia could still involve other countries in the project through the recently launched sovereign wealth fund, naming South Korea for its experience in building high-speed rail lines. [Benar News]

26 January 2021

Indonesia: Another water drone found

(nd) Only a month after the latest find in the Indonesian exclusive economic zone (EEZ), a fisherman found an underwater drone featuring Chinese symbols off Riau Islands. The previous drone was found south of Sulawesi. These drones feature a dual use, for they can be used both for oceanographic research, and military purposes. [Tempo]

26 January 2021

Indonesia: Merger of Islamic banks

(nd) President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo announced the establishment of Bank Syariah Indonesia (BSI), which shall become the country’s largest Islamic bank. It is a merger of state-owned Islamic banks Bank BRI Syariah, Bank Syariah Mandiri, and Bank BNI Syariah, which now has an asset value of Rp 239.56 trillion (around $17 billion). Hopes are for BSI to rise among the world’s top 10 Islamic banks by 2025. The merger is a strategy to catch up with the sharia economy, whose development includes countries without a Muslim-majority population, for example Japan, Thailand, UK, and the US. [Jakarta Globe]

26 January 2021

Indonesia: American graphic designer deported for tweet on LGBT and visa access

(nd) American national, Kristen Gray, residing in Bali was deported after tweeting the island was “LGBT friendly” and easily accessible amid the pandemic. It prompted a backlash on social media about western privilege and a lack of cultural awareness. The LGBT community in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country faces discrimination and sometimes violence. According to a Pew research center Survey, only 9% of Indonesians agreed that homosexuality is acceptable. The decision to deport Gray was based on pictures shared on her Twitter account, assuming Bali was “queer friendly” and accessible to foreigners despite the Covid-19 pandemic, while Indonesia has tightened border restrictions in order to curb to spread of the virus. Also, it is investigated in possible violation of tax laws by working in Indonesia. Also, two Russian social media influencers were deported for driving a motorcycle into a diving spot in Bali. Other incidents were reported in the last years, citing a declining quality of tourists and criticizing the government for regardless of that pushing such mass tourism. Picking up on Gray’s comments on her deportation, media report had it linked mainly to her statement on the LGBT community.

Bali became a hub for so-called digital nomads, referring to individuals who work remotely and in multiple countries. [South China Morning Post 1] [South China Morning Post 2]

26 January 2021

Indonesia: Stepping up efforts to counter extremism

(nd) A presidential decree was enacted early January to allow members of the public to police religious extremism. The decree was deemed necessary due to a lack in sufficient police staff. It was commented as a “soft approach” to tackle violent extremism by involving the public at an early stage.  Citizens shall be trained in “community policing”, which was presented as empowerment and part of democracy. Critics say the public’s involvement in policing could cause polarization and tension in the society. It was considered conservative Muslims might perceive it as being targeted by the government. With specialized units to counter extremism, for example the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT), there was no need for such a step.

The move comes amid concentrated efforts to fight extremism. Last month, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a hardline group led by Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, was banned for disrupting peace and security. Rizieq returned from self-exile last year and was arrested in December for violating coronavirus restrictions. A police shooting of six FPI members in December is still being investigated. Additionally, revisions of the electoral law foresee to ban former members of the domestic branch of Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) from running in elections. HTI was banned in 2017 for promoting a Sharia-based state, rejecting Indonesia’s “Pancasila” ideology. [Benar News]

A recent reshuffle of the minister of Religious Affairs is seen as a continuation of the current administration’s harsh measures against Islamist groups. Retired General Fachrul Razi, was replaced by Yaqut Cholil Qoumas from the National Awakening Party. His party is affiliated with the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization. The position is traditionally awarded to a cleric or politician affiliated with NU. NU did not support Razi’s policy initiatives, which is why his term was considered ineffective. The main priorities of Qoumas’ term are combating Islamic radicalism and protecting the rights of religious minorities. Due to their vital support to ban both HTI and FPI, NU’s perceived one-sided actions have draw criticism for not being committed to tolerance and pluralism. Another statement of Qoumas, to review the status of Ahmadi Muslim minority and reaffirm their religious and civil rights, was followed by a strong pushback from conservative Islamists. Ahmadi Muslims were declared a deviant sect in 2005 in a religious ruling (fatwa) by the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI). Qoumas subsequently stated he only intends to restore their citizen rights, leaving the fatwa untouched, which is perceived at the root of the discrimination. [East Asia Forum]

26 January 2021

Indonesia: ISIS support declined

(nd) According to a recent analysis conducted by the think tank Institute of Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), support for the Islamic State (ISIS) in Indonesia declined in 2020. Cited reasons for the decline were an improvement in law enforcement, which heightens the individual’s stake and the collapse of ISIS. So far, fears of economic downturn fueling extremist action did not materialize amid the ongoing pandemic.

While the threat was referred to as manageable, militants still resort to creating small “pop up” cells to conduct targeted operations, with the online network enabling quick substitution of a lost leader. The recruitment would still target young people at schools or in mosques, which is why the government’s biggest task is to prevent this regeneration. As part of this, the report strongly suggests to avoid deaths of suspect since vengeance was the most powerful motive for terrorist attacks.  [South China Morning Post]

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 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

Indonesia: President to back rights committee’s suggestions in FPI killing case

(nd) Following a probe into the killing of six members of the now-disbanded Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) in December, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo followed recommendations of the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) to charge the police officers who shot. Komnas HAM’s investigation found evidence of rights violations in the killing of four of the six men, who were shot in police custody.[Benar News]

19 January 2021

Indonesia: New police chief selected

(nd) President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo selected the Head of the police’s Criminal Investigation Agency Gen. Listyo Sigit Prabowo for the top position as National Police. His appointment still needs the approval of the House of Representatives, which, however, is expected to happen smoothly due to the comfortable majority the government coalition holds in the House. Gen. Listyo served as the district police chief in Solo in 2011, when Jokowi was still the mayor.  [Jakarta Globe]

19 January 2021

Indonesia, Malaysia to cooperate on palm oil promotion

(nd) In light of international criticism against palm oil and the circumstances of its production, the world’s largest producers, Indonesia and Malaysia, are planning to join forces to run an advocacy campaign in Europe. Therefore, they have engaged through the Council of Palm Oil Producing Countries (CPOPC), in a request to hire an advocacy firm to change the negative perception of the product.

Producers are accused of destroying biodiversity rich rainforest and mistreatment of migrant workers. In the EU, the discussions around the European Green Deal could result in restrictions for the use of palm oil, a commodity used in various products ranging from lipstick and pizza to biodiesel. In 2019 the EU decided to phase out palm oil by 2030 due to deforestation concerns, with companies having launched “palm oil-free” products. While the exports to India and China are much higher, the sentiment in Europe is important for the global reputation of the commodity.

This is the first time the two countries are working together against the threats to their good. [Reuters]

19 January 2021

Indonesia: Chinese survey ship driven off Natuna Islands

(nd) The Indonesian Maritime Security Agency (Bakamla) intercepted a Chinese survey ship sailing near its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) off the Natuna Islands with a switched off automatic identification system (AIS). The United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) entail provisions that require all ships transiting archipelagic states to have functioning AIS.

The incident comes shortly after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Jakarta and amid already heightened concerns over China’s increased militarization of the contested South China Sea.

Earlier this month, the Bakamla was armed by the Indonesian coast guard with 20 submachine guns for 10 of its patrol boats and also permitted to acquire military-grade weapons themselves, with the rationale that they are still heavily underequipped in comparison to the Chinese coast guard. In November, the announcement to move the headquarters from Jakarta to the Natuna Islands in light of Chinese and Vietnamese fishing boats encroaching in their EEZ, signals the need to respond faster and more determined in order to protect maritime sovereignty. [Radio Free Asia] [Asia Times]

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]

12 January 2021

Indonesia: Bakamla armed against rising tensions in the South China Sea

(nd) Last month, the civilian maritime force, Bakamla, in the northern Natuna Island armed its vessels with machine guns due to recurringly intruding vessels from China and Vietnam. While Indonesia does not consider itself as a claimant sate in the South China Sea, China’s historic fishing right claims overlap with Indonesia’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The move is delicate due to its possible effect on bilateral relations. China is Indonesia’s largest trade partner, with a trade volume of US$79.4 billion in 2019. With the efforts to curb the Covid-19 pandemic, Indonesia is dependent on vaccination, with 1.2 million doses of Sinovac having arrived in early December.

Bakamla was authorized last summer to procure weapons, and ships were fitted with remote-controlled Stabilised Naval Gun Systems in December. This was also in response to an increase in calls from parliament and the public, in an effort to curb anti-China groups. Analyst therefore did not interpret the latest move as a toughening of Indonesia’s position but rather an effort to prevent an escalation. The same logic applies to Vietnamese fishing boats, due to an unresolved overlap of the respective EEZ claims. While an increase in arms might serve as a deterrence, the numbers of ships are still outweighed by those of the Chinese coastguard, which is why Bakamla still relies on larger ships of the Indonesian Navy.

Experts expect Chinese naval actions to be more focused on the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam this year, while it usually carefully balanced its moves to not be putting pressure on all claimant countries at the same time, possibly to avoid a multilateral reaction. [South China Morning Post]

12 January 2021

Indonesia: Underwater vehicle Chinese-made

(nd) The autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) that was found off South Sulawesi last month, which sparked concerns of a security breach or espionage attempt, was made in China. The location is strategic due to its sea lanes used for trade, and the resource-rich waters are rich fishing grounds and energy reserves alike. Due to the rising tensions in the South China Sea, security officials have voiced suspicion about Chinese maritime activities. Still, the location of origin is unclear and no country had claimed the vehicle.

According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), marine scientific research in a country’s exclusive economic zone should only be conducted with the consent of the respective state. [South China Morning Post] [See also AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1]

12 January 2021

Indonesia: Challenges for the dependency on coal industry

(nd) As a repercussion of Covid-19, there was a lower demand for fossil fuels, including coal, consumption of which is expected to fall by 8% this year. Coal is Indonesia’s country’s largest export commodity, and has seen demand drops both in export and domestic markets, fueling existing concerns around overcapacity.

As a solution to at least create local demand, the government aims to gasify coal, to turn solid coal into the liquid fuels methanol and dimethyl ether (DME) that can replace imported liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). Environmental and climate issues remain with this coal-based technology, which questions the project’s economic viability. Despite this criticism, the project is already far along, with an estimated commencement date of 2023/2024.

Most importantly, the passage of the highly controversial omnibus bill will make extraction more favorable by lowering requirements for environmental impact assessments, which will save costs. In order to fulfill the commitment to the Paris agreement, the discussion of new renewable energy focuses on coal gasification and nuclear, and not on the development of wind and solar.

Analysts warn that by depending even more on coal extraction, Indonesia could get stuck economically without a diversified energy portfolio. The decrease in coal demand shall be used as a moment to exit toward a more decentralized, sustainable energy future. Not only neighboring countries India, China, Vietnam, or Thailand shifted toward renewables. [The News Lens]

Also, with respect to oil and gas, the industry’s big players, like Chevron and perhaps ExxonMobil, as well as major oil companies BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Total, heading for such a shift and scaled back investment in traditional oil and gas projects. 

Of Indonesia’s 128 geological basins, half have been explored, but foreign investment is at its lowest-ever point. According to experts, its best bets is deep-water exploration in prospective areas like offshore northern Sumatra, northern Papua and the Makassar Strait. In the Andaman Sea, northwest of Aceh, Abu Dhabi-based Mubadala Petroleum, Spain’s Repsol, BP and Malaysian state oil company Petronas invested in four adjacent blocks all under active exploration at depths of 1,000-1,500 meters. 

For such projects, international expertise and funding was necessary, which is hindered by risk-averse domestic and state-owned companies and a bureaucracy, aiming at nationalizing the resources, compelling firms to buy overpriced Indonesian goods and service. Timing of approval of an operation is another issue for investors. According to analysts, Indonesia shall therefore implement incentives and measures to make such operation more attractive, otherwise its bargaining power towards foreign investors will increasingly weaken. [Asia Times]

12 January 2021

Indonesia: Preliminary report of probe in FPI member killing

(nd) Following the killing of six members of the politically influential Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) members by police officers last December, a report of the Indonesian Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM) found that only two were gunned down during an exchange of fire, but four others were detained and later shot, reinforcing claims of “extra-judicial killings” made earlier by the FPI. Police, however, argued, that one of the four detainees tried to seize an officer’s weapon during a change of vehicle which triggered a scuffle that ended in the shooting at close range. 

As nominal head of the National Police, president Joko Widodo now has to decide whether there will be a full-scale investigation in the case. Since there are still gaps in the report, it is expected that Komnas HAM will be tasked with forming an independent team of investigators. [Asia Times]

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]

5 January 2021

Indonesia, Australia, to ensure non-violence of released cleric

(nd) After the release of Abu Bakar Bashir, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs urged Indonesia to make sure the 82-year-old will not incite further violence. The radical cleric is the suspected mastermind of the 2002 Bali bombings, killing 200 people including many Australian nationals, which he denied. He was jailed in 2011 for entertaining links to militant training camps in the Indonesian province of Aceh and considered the spiritual leader of the al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) network. The JI leader was arrest last December. [See also AiR No. 50, December/2020, 3][Channel News Asia]

5 January 2021

Indonesia: Unmarked water drone discovered

(nd) Following the discovery of an unmarked underwater surveillance drone, the Indonesian Navy is investigating its country of origin. The drone was found in Indonesia’s waters off South Sulawesi province in December. The type of underwater drone can be used for both surveillance in the fishing and oil industries and also for military purposes. Since its discovery, discussions about espionage were sparked on social media, referring to its similarity with Chinese vehicles called Sea Wing found in 2019 off Riau Islands and East Java last year.

The location is noteworthy according to analysts, since it was found in a crucial maritime route connecting the disputed South China Sea to Darwin, the northernmost Australian city. Indonesia does not regard itself as claimant state in the dispute over the South China Sea, but China claims rights to areas overlapping with Indonesia’ exclusive economic zone. Currently, Indonesian law contains no regulations on unmanned underwater vehicles, with military observers now urging the government to draft a new legislation. [Radio Free Asia]

5 January 2021

Indonesia: Chemical castration for convicted child molesters

(nd) A new regulation enacted by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo foresees chemical castration with a duration of up to two years as an additional punishment for convicted child molesters. The crime must have involved more than one victim and resulted in severe injury. Child molestation is punishable by up to nine years in prison under Indonesia’s criminal code (KUHP).

According to the Women Empowerment and Children Protection Ministry 5,640 child sexual abuse cases have been recorded in 2020. [Jakarta Globe]

5 January 2021

Indonesia: Influential Islamic clerical body supports vaccinations

(nd) The influential Islamic clerical body Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) issued a recommendation allowing the use of vaccines, paving the way for the country’s fight to curb the Covid-19 pandemic. Vaccines are traditionally banned under Islamic law, now a halal certificate developed by China’s Sinovac Biotech will be issued to counter the surge of misinformation in social media. In November, MUI elected more moderate leaders, fueling optimism for the 90% Muslim population. [South China Morning Post] [See also AiR No. 49, December/2020, 2]

5 January 2021

Indonesia: FPI banned

(nd) Indonesia’s chief security minister Mahfud MD last week announced that the controversial, but politically influential, hardline group Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) has been banned on grounds of vigilantism and links to terrorism. Mahfud added that the FPI was officially disbanded in June 2019 for failing to renew its permit as an officially registered mass organization, but continued unlawful activities since then. Last week’s ban was co-signed by the Home Affairs Minister Tito Karnavian, Justice Minister Yasonna Laoly, Communications Minister Johnny Plate, Attorney-General Burhanuddin and police chief Idham Azis, as well as by the director of the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) director, reflecting the government’s determination to link the FPI to the Islamic State (ISIS) and other active terrorist groups.

The ban comes nearly three weeks after FPI leader Rizieq Shihab was arrested for breaching coronavirus rules. Upon his return in October, 50,000 supporters greeted Shihab at the airport, triggering the first of several violations against the laws to curb the Covid-19 spread, upsetting authorities, including President Joko Widodo, which led to the sacking of the police chiefs of Jakarta and West Java. Shihab’s arrest was accompanied by the still-investigated killing of six of his bodyguards by police forces on a highway. 

Shihab seems to be unimpressed by those steps, announcing that he was embarking on a “moral revolution” and warning that religion and religious leaders are not to be alienated from politics and the state.

The move to ban the party was criticized, with analysts saying that another outlet will be found and the ban “feeds the narrative that the government is against Islam.” Other analysts said it could revive the so-called 212 Movement, a coalition of conservative Muslim groups, which were responsible for the 2017 downfall of Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama on blasphemy charges.  [Asia Times] [Aljazeera]