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Friday Asia Update: Top Five Stories for the Week of May 2, 2014

by Guest Blogger for Elizabeth C. Economy
May 2, 2014

Armed policemen patrol near the exit of the South Railway Station, where three people were killed and 79 wounded in Wednesday's bomb and knife attack, in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous region, on May 2, 2014. (Petar Kujundzic/Courtesy Reuters) Armed policemen patrol near the exit of the South Railway Station, where three people were killed and 79 wounded in Wednesday's bomb and knife attack, in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous region, on May 2, 2014. (Petar Kujundzic/Courtesy Reuters)

Ashlyn Anderson, Lauren Dickey, Darcie Draudt, Charles McClean, Will Piekos, and Sharone Tobias look at the top stories in Asia today.

1. Attack in Xinjiang kills three and injures seventy-nine. A blast in the provincial capital of Urumqi, in China’s northwest province of Xinjiang, killed two bombers and a third bystander at a train station on Wednesday. According to Chinese state media, “knife-wielding mobs” attacked people at one of the station’s exits following the blasts. Chinese authorities claimed to have identified the assailants as Muslim religious extremists, fighting for independence from China. Urumqi is no stranger to violent ethnic strife and is a heavily policed city. The attacks follow similar incidents in the past year: in March, ten assailants, allegedly Uighur separatists, killed twenty-nine commuters at a train station in Kunming, Yunnan province; and in October 2013, three Uighurs drove a car through Tiananmen Square in Beijing, killing themselves and two tourists. Chinese president Xi Jinping has declared long-term stability in Xinjiang vital to national security and has made promoting “ethnic cohesion” one of his major initiatives in the region.

2. Brunei to adopt strict Islamic penal code. During a ceremony Wednesday morning, the sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, announced the commencement of the first phase of the country’s sharia-based penal code. Beginning this week, Brunei citizens can be fined or jailed by Islamic courts for offenses like not performing Friday prayers, pregnancy out of wedlock, propagating other religions, and indecent behavior. More severe punishments such as flogging, amputation of limbs, and death by stoning will be gradually introduced. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Amnesty International, and the Human Rights Campaign, in addition to a growing contingent of Hollywood celebrities, have denounced the law. Brunei’s decision, and the radical interpretation of Islam it supports, is of great concern to neighboring countries with significant Islamic minorities, including India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

3. Obama wraps up Asia tour, meets mixed reactions. President Barack Obama traveled to Southeast Asia early this week, after traveling to Japan and Korea last week (see last week’s Friday Asia Update for details on that trip). In Malaysia (which had not received a standing American president since Lyndon Johnson in 1966), Obama tried to court what has been called the “swing state” of Southeast Asia, treading lightly on issues such as human rights and ethnic strife in the newly democratized nation. In the Philippines, Obama signed a new ten-year defense agreement that gives U.S. troops access to some Filipino military bases, which has only underscored the ambiguity of U.S. military commitment in the region vis-à-vis China, though he was careful to emphasize that the U.S. goal is not to counter or contain China while in Manila. There has been tepid response from Beijing to the tour, seen in China as the “re-rebalance”; speaking to Obama indirectly, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Qin Gang said, “If you come, or if you don’t come, I am here.”

4. Indian elections near a close, with Modi expected to become next prime minister. Results for the world’s biggest election will be announced in two weeks. Several high-profile names were among the contestants in Wednesday’s polling—the seventh of nine phases—including the frontrunner Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) candidate for prime minister, Narendra Modi; Sonia Gandhi, the president of the ruling Congress party; and Rajnath Singh, the president of the BJP. All opinion polls point to a BJP-led government, but Narendra Modi remains a divisive figure. He is criticized for his failure to quell the 2002 riots in his home state, Gujarat, in which many Muslims were killed—although the courts have cleared him of any wrongdoing due to lack of evidence. Despite this stain, he is praised for his ability to streamline bureaucracy and attract investment in Gujarat. Also this week, John Oliver mocked Western television stations for ignoring the biggest election in human history.

5. Thailand’s election commission announces new date for vote. Thailand’s election authority stated that it will try to hold national elections for a second time on July 20. The results of February elections were nullified, and the country has been politically paralyzed since December. Many commentators believe a similar fate will befall the July elections, if they are held at all. The opposition Democrat Party has not decided whether it will participate—it boycotted the February elections, and anti-government protestors forced polling stations to close. In addition to these electoral and political challenges, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is facing several legal battles that could force her from power.

Bonus: China’s “Big Ban Theory.” Chinese regulators this week ordered streaming video websites such as Sohu TV, iQiyi, and Youku to remove four popular U.S. television shows: “The Big Bang Theory,” “The Good Wife,” “NCIS,” and “The Practice.” No explanation was given for the move, which Time has affectionately called “the Big Ban Theory.” Many Chinese fans were surprised as to why these particular shows would be banned when other potentially more contentious shows—such as Netflix’s political drama “House of Cards,” which deals with thorny issues in the U.S.-China relationship, or HBO’s “Game of Thrones”—remain on the air. Not all hope is lost for Chinese fans: CCTV has bought the rights to show “The Big Bang Theory,” though initial reports suggest much of the content will be edited. Disgruntled fans shared a screenshot from an episode where the character Sheldon Cooper says, “I like China…they know how to keep people in line.”

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