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Friday Asia Update: Top Five Stories for the Week of June 12, 2015

by Guest Blogger for Elizabeth C. Economy
Zhou Yongkang, China's former domestic security chief, stands between his police escorts as he listens to his sentence in a court in Tianjin, China, in this still image taken from video provided by China Central Television and shot on June 11, 2015. According to CCTV, Zhou was sentenced to life imprisonment on Thursday, deprived of his political rights for life and his personal assets confiscated, for accepting bribes, abusing power and deliberately disclosing state secrets, the Tianjin Municipal No. 1 Intermediate People's Court ruled in its first instance. Zhou pleaded guilty and will not appeal. REUTERS/China Central Television via REUTERS TV Zhou Yongkang, China's former domestic security chief, stands between his police escorts as he listens to his sentence in a court in Tianjin, China, in this still image taken from video provided by China Central Television and shot on June 11, 2015 (CCTV/Reuters).

Ashlyn Anderson, Lincoln Davidson, Lauren Dickey, Darcie Draudt, William Piekos, and Ariella Rotenberg look at the top stories in Asia today.

1. China’s ex-domestic security chief Zhou Yongkang to serve life sentence. The former Politburo Standing Committee member was convicted of abuse of power, accepting bribes, and revealing state secrets and sentenced to life in prison Thursday, just shy of a year after his arrest. While officials initially suggested Zhou’s trial would be open and transparent, it wasn’t, with Xinhua adopting the amusing terminology “non-public open trial” (in Chinese) to describe the proceedings. Zhou is the most senior Chinese official to be convicted of graft in PRC history, but this isn’t likely to be the end of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign (tigers beware!). Read more »

Small Steps Forward on the Rohingya Crisis

by Joshua Kurlantzick
indonesia-myanmar-aung san suu kyi An Indonesian student holds a poster of Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a protest against what they say is the killing of Muslims in Myanmar, as police stand guard in front of the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia on May 29, 2015. (Beawiharta/Reuters)

For more than three years, as Rohingya in western Myanmar have faced violent attacks, seizure of their homes, and a growing climate of intolerance in public discourse, leaders across the Myanmar political spectrum have either remained silent or actually encouraged discrimination. The Myanmar government surely deserves much of the blame for this environment. Thein Sein’s government participated in last month’s regional crisis meeting in Bangkok on migration only reluctantly, and only after the scope of the meeting was publicly changed so that it addressed migration generally and not the Rohingya. Read more »

New Year’s Predictions for Southeast Asia

by Joshua Kurlantzick
Aung San Suu Kyi Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks at the National League for Democracy Party's central committee meeting at a restaurant in Yangon on December 13, 2014. (Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy: Reuters)

It’s that time of year again. Since I will be away between Christmas and the end of the year, this is the week for boldly making predictions about 2015 in Southeast Asia. At the end of 2015, just like this year, we can look back and see how many of my fearless predictions were right, and how many missed the mark. Read more »

Obama’s Visit to Myanmar: A Mixed Result

by Joshua Kurlantzick
U.S. President Barack Obama and opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi hold a press conference after their meeting at her residence in Yangon, November 14, 2014 (Kevin Lamarque/Courtesy: Reuters). U.S. President Barack Obama and opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi hold a press conference after their meeting at her residence in Yangon, November 14, 2014 (Kevin Lamarque/Courtesy: Reuters).

During President Obama’s visit to Myanmar last week, for the East Asia Summit, the president said some of the right things about Myanmar’s faltering political reform process. He noted the ongoing discrimination – some would say outright ethnic cleansing – against Rohingya in western Myanmar, as well as the precarious rule of law in much of the country. He expressed concern about the challenges of Myanmar’s elections next year, which will be held under a constitution designed to bar Aung San Suu Kyi from taking the presidency and which still reserves enormous powers for the military. The constitution, as it stands, will pose a danger to any future Myanmar civilian government, even if Suu Kyi’s party, as expected, wins control of Parliament next year. And much of the press coverage of the Myanmar visit focused on the president’s remarks about Myanmar’s political challenges. Indeed, Obama’s aides clearly briefed reporters covering the trip to emphasize that the visit was focused on pressuring the Myanmar leadership to reform, since several news articles picked up this theme. Read more »

Doctors without Borders Kicked out of Rakhine State; Hatred Rising

by Joshua Kurlantzick
A nurse walks past as a child sitting at Medecins Sans Frontieres Holland's clinic in Yangon on March 3, 2014. (Minzayar Minzayar/Courtesy Reuters) A nurse walks past as a child sitting at Medecins Sans Frontieres Holland's clinic in Yangon on March 3, 2014. (Minzayar Minzayar/Courtesy Reuters)

News this past weekend that the Myanmar government appears to have kicked Doctors without Borders/Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) out of Arakan/Rakhine State is just another disturbing piece of news suggesting that inter-religious hatred in the country is rising, and the Myanmar government continues to deny this powder keg is close to exploding. Doctors without Borders had been working across Arakan/Rakhine State,  where it has treated thousands of people. The organization has been working in Myanmar for two decades and, in addition to its work in Arakan/Rakhine State, where over 100,000 people have become refugees or internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the past three years, Doctors without Borders also has been a central part of Myanmar’s anti-HIV strategy and treatment for years. Read more »

Suu Kyi Faces Growing Criticism

by Joshua Kurlantzick
Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi looks on as she leads a news conference at the foreign ministry in Rome on October 28, 2013. (Max Rossi/Courtesy Reuters) Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi looks on as she leads a news conference at the foreign ministry in Rome on October 28, 2013. (Max Rossi/Courtesy Reuters)

Just a short blog item to think about over your holiday season; Asia Unbound will be back in force in the new year.

Over the past two years, as Buddhist-Muslim violence in Myanmar has spread from western Arakan/Rakhine State to other areas across the country, few leading Burman Buddhist politicians have been willing to criticize the Buddhist paramilitary groups responsible for starting most of the violence. President Thein Sein, to his credit, has on occasion condemned the violence, though his government has done little to address the root causes of the unrest. But Aung San Suu Kyi has, over the past two years, been even more reticent to comment on the unrest than Thein Sein or other top government officials. Read more »

Myanmar’s Ethnic Violence: Is the Cauldron Going to Explode?

by Joshua Kurlantzick
Buddhist novice monks look from a monastery during fighting between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya communities in Rakhine State. Buddhist novice monks look from a monastery during fighting between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya communities in Rakhine State (Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy Reuters).

The past weeks have seen a series of brutal episodes of ethnic violence in central Myanmar, between Buddhists and Muslims, as groups of Buddhists have attacked Muslim homes and villages and then murdered people who fled the homes in cold blood, according to multiple news reports. Many reports suggest that local groups of monks and some members of the security forces have been involved in instigating the violence.

This year may well prove to be the critical year for Myanmar’s survival as a multi-ethnic state. Read more »

Suu Kyi Fails a Test

by Joshua Kurlantzick
Myanmar pro-democracy leader Suu Kyi shakes hands with supporters after giving a speech in Monywa, Myanmar. Myanmar pro-democracy leader Suu Kyi shakes hands with supporters after giving a speech in Monywa, Myanmar (Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy Reuters).

About a week ago, the National League for Democracy (NLD) held its first national congress, a kind of meeting of all party activists from across Myanmar. In theory, many activists hoped the congress would work together to set a policy agenda—like a Democratic or Republican convention—that the party could use and build on for the planned 2015 national elections. In addition, many party activists believed, the NLD would broaden its senior leadership, currently centered around Aung San Suu Kyi, to include younger leaders. Read more »

The Comedown of Aung San Suu Kyi

by Joshua Kurlantzick
Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks during a ceremony where she was awarded an honorary doctorate degree at Seoul National University in Seoul February 1, 2013. Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks during a ceremony where she was awarded an honorary doctorate degree at Seoul National University in Seoul February 1, 2013 (Kim Hong-Ji/Courtesy Reuters).

Over the past year, as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has made the transition from democracy icon kept under house arrest for almost two decades to working politician, she has found the going harder than some of the people who were in similar situations, like Nelson Mandela in the early 1990s. Despite her best intentions, Suu Kyi seems to have surrounded herself with few competent political advisors, experts on business and the economy, or interlocutors with leading ethnic minority groups in Myanmar. Read more »

Conflict Continues in Rakhine State

by Joshua Kurlantzick
Myanmar people of Rohingya ethnicity who are living in Malaysia, display placards during a rally outside Malaysia's Foreign Ministry in Putrajaya. Myanmar people of Rohingya ethnicity who are living in Malaysia, display placards during a rally outside Malaysia's Foreign Ministry in Putrajaya (Bazuki Muhammad/Courtesy Reuters).

The continuing violence in Rakhine (or Arakan) State in western Myanmar, as well as the expanding war in Kachin State (see an excellent piece on Kachin State by Bertil Lintner here) threaten the reforms that Thein Sein continues to push through. Some specialists on western Myanmar are now urging that Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been mostly quiet on the conflict, become a kind of personal special envoy to both sides in Rakhine State to try and cool tensions. In a new article in The National, I examine the roots of the conflict, and discuss my ultimately pessimistic conclusions about whether it can be resolved. You read the entire piece here. Read more »