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Asia Unbound

CFR experts give their take on the cutting-edge issues emerging in Asia today.

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Showing posts for "Malaysia"

Does Bangkok Have a Real Negotiating Partner in the South?

by Joshua Kurlantzick
The secretary-general of Thailand's National Security Council and the chief of Thailand's National Revolution Front (BRN) attend the signing ceremony of the general consensus document to launch a dialogue process for peace in the border provinces of southern Thailand, in Kuala Lumpur February 28, 2013 (Bazuki Muhammad/Courtesy Reuters). The secretary-general of Thailand's National Security Council and the chief of Thailand's National Revolution Front (BRN) attend the signing ceremony of the general consensus document to launch a dialogue process for peace in the border provinces of southern Thailand, in Kuala Lumpur February 28, 2013 (Bazuki Muhammad/Courtesy Reuters).

This past week, Thailand’s government made the surprising announcement that it would launch talks with the insurgent organization National Revolution Front (BRN) in the south, with the discussions focused on achieving peace in the south. This marked the first time Bangkok had opened talks with any insurgent organization in the south since the violence flared up again more than a decade ago. Previously, many Thai leaders had insisted that even opening formal talks with an insurgent organization would be providing the insurgents with the kind of status they did not deserve, and possibly would open the door to significant autonomy for the three southern provinces. Read more »

Malaysian Politics Get Hotter With Bersih 3.0 Protest

by Joshua Kurlantzick
A protester with a message taped over his mouth takes part in the Bersih (Clean) rally near Independence Square in Kuala Lumpur April 28, 2012. A protester with a message taped over his mouth takes part in the Bersih (Clean) rally near Independence Square in Kuala Lumpur April 28, 2012. (Bazuki Muhammad/Courtesy Reuters)

Today Asia Times has an excellent overview of the political fallout from this past weekend’s large protest in Kuala Lumpur, which focused on reforming election laws. The turnout, as Asia Times noted, was far higher than the government expected (though figures of size were of course debated). What’s more, the fact that it was largely peaceful, and then resulted at the end of the protest in the use of excessive force by police against demonstrators, will cut into the image of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak as a reformer, an image he has worked hard to cultivate in the past two years, and which is critical to his election prospects as the prime minister is far more popular personally than his party is. Read more »

Anwar Ibrahim Acquitted

by Joshua Kurlantzick
Malaysia's opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim (C) talks to his supporters while flanked by his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail after the verdict of his sodomy trial was announced in Kuala Lumpur January 9, 2012. Malaysia's opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim (C) talks to his supporters while flanked by his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail after the verdict of his sodomy trial was announced in Kuala Lumpur January 9, 2012 (Bazuki Muhammad/Courtesy Reuters).

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was acquitted Monday morning in Kuala Lumpur on sodomy charges — the second time he has faced such charges in two decades. The decision was frankly a surprise to nearly everyone who follows Malaysia, and to most Malaysian opposition politicians; nearly all expected that Anwar would be sent to jail again, so as clear the way for the current government’s re-election campaign (Several Malaysian opinion leaders I spoke with just before the verdict were convinced it would go against Anwar). Shockingly, it took the judge only two minutes to deliver the verdict. Read more »

What to Expect in Asia in 2012

by Evan A. Feigenbaum

Traders stand near a screen showing the Indonesia Stock Exchange Composite Index during the first day of trading for 2012 in Jakarta January 2, 2012. Courtesy Reuters/Stringer.

It’s been a fascinating year for Asia. The region has continued to consolidate its role as the essential player driving global recovery. Developing Asia, including China, India, and the major ASEAN economies, maintained robust growth, in contrast to the advanced economies’ collective anemic growth over the same period.

But 2012 promises to be more fraught as domestic politics take command amid new challenges to growth.

Here are twelve trends I see coming for Asia in 2012—risks, opportunities, and emerging patterns that will shape Asia during the next twelve months, and beyond.

Read more »

Southeast Asia: What to Expect in 2012

by Joshua Kurlantzick
Women use sparklers to draw "2012" for photographers as they celebrate New Years Eve in Manila December 31, 2011.

Women use sparklers to draw "2012" for photographers as they celebrate New Years Eve in Manila December 31, 2011 (Romeo Ranoco/Courtesy Reuters).

The year 2011 saw some of the biggest political developments in Southeast Asia in decades. Burma finally seemed poised for real change, while Thailand continued to move closer to the brink of self-immolation, as political in-fighting worsened. The United States, China, and ASEAN nations continued to raise the stakes in the South China Sea, to a point where, now, it seems unlikely anyone can back off their claims and truly sit down at the table to negotiate some kind of agreement. Singapore had its most competitive election in generations, while in Malaysia massive street protests clearly have rattled the government. Even smaller states faced political turmoil: Papua New Guinea went for weeks with two prime ministers and the potential for civil strife, before the situation was resolved.

What, then, should we expect for an encore? Here are several trends to watch:

  1. China will bring back the charm. Over the past two years, Beijing has cost itself much of the gains it made in Southeast Asia in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when it appeared to be a good neighbor, trading partner, and investor. Through its belligerent approach to the South China Sea and, to some extent, the Mekong River, Beijing has scared many Southeast Asian nations enough that they have welcomed back a greater role for the United States in the region, even though their populations have not exactly become pro-American. Read more »

Malaysia’s Sham Trial

by Joshua Kurlantzick
Malaysia's opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim smiles as he arrives at courthouse for his sodomy trial in Kuala Lumpur.

Malaysia's opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim smiles as he arrives at courthouse for his sodomy trial in Kuala Lumpur (Bazuki Muhammad/Courtesy Reuters).

Much has changed in Southeast Asia over the past decade. But travel to downtown Kuala Lumpur today, and walk along the Moorish-influenced public greens, and suddenly the Malaysian capital seems trapped in the 1990s.

At that time, the Asian financial crisis was battering the country’s economy, and urbanites hit by the downturn and frustrated by the country’s tightly controlled political system, had taken to the streets, where they were met by riot control troops, who battered them on a daily basis until the government’s long-ruling coalition put Anwar Ibrahim, the country’s popular opposition leader, on trial. The charge: Sodomy, a serious crime in a predominantly Muslim nation.

Though the trial was a farce—accusers later recanted their statements, and Anwar appeared in court with what the government called a “self-inflicted” black eye—he was convicted, and ultimately served six years in prison. Read more »

Decline of Democracy

by Joshua Kurlantzick
Pro-democracy protesters scuffle with police during a protest march to demand universal suffrage and against rising property prices in Hong Kong July 1, 2011.

Pro-democracy protesters scuffle with police during a protest march to demand universal suffrage and against rising property prices in Hong Kong July 1, 2011. (Tyrone Siu/Courtesy Reuters)

The recent uprisings in Malaysia and Thailand, following on the heels of the Arab Spring, which has turned into the Arab Summer, have emboldened democracy advocates around the world. Some see the wave even reaching China, where in recent days there have been fresh protests in Inner Mongolia, southern China, and other regions of the country.

But in reality the forecast for democratization is not so sanguine. Already, the revolts in places like Tunisia and Egypt are turning sourer, with the military and other elite actors reasserting their powerful position in society. Meanwhile, in other parts of the developing world, democratization actually has gone backwards over the past decade.

In a piece in The National, I chronicle the decline of democracy in recent years, and argue that, Arab Spring and Summer notwithstanding, the future for democracy in the developing world is not bright.

Read more »

Malaysia’s Bersih Movement

by Joshua Kurlantzick
Supporters of the "Bersih" (Clean) electoral reform coalition shout slogans during clashes with police in downtown Kuala Lumpur July 9, 2011.

Supporters of the "Bersih" (Clean) electoral reform coalition shout slogans during clashes with police in downtown Kuala Lumpur July 9, 2011. (Damir Sagolj/Courtesy Reuters)

Last weekend, Malaysia’s Bersih (clean elections) movement drew tens of thousands of protestors to the streets of Kuala Lumpur, demanding reform of the electoral system, which is weighted in numerous ways to protect the ruling coalition. Though the protest was largely peaceful, the government met the demonstration with massive force, arresting thousands of protestors. The police used clubs, water cannons, and tear gas to crush the protests. (New Mandala has fine coverage of the Bersih protests.)

As in Thailand, where the red shirt movement started largely as a pro-Thaksin protest and developed into a larger force, the Bersih movement, which began as just a call for electoral reform, also may be developing into something larger. Read more »

In Southeast Asia, Big Dams Raise Big Concerns

by Joshua Kurlantzick
A view from upstream of Malaysia's Bakun dam, in the inland of the eastern state of Sarawak on Borneo island, December 11, 2003.

A view from upstream of Malaysia's Bakun dam, in the inland of the eastern state of Sarawak on Borneo island, December 11, 2003. (Bazuki Muhammad/Courtesy Reuters)

This is a guest post by Prashanth Parameswaran, a former researcher at the Project 2049 Institute, who is currently conducting research on dam projects in Southeast Asia.

These past few weeks have not been good ones for large dam projects in Southeast Asia. Big hydropower projects have been caught in a web of unsafe corporate practices, fierce political violence and simmering regional tensions.

On June 9, another round of fighting erupted in Burma’s northern Kachin state, where Chinese companies are building a series of dams to power southern China. Dozens were killed, hundreds of Chinese workers were evacuated, and thousands of civilians fled the affected area. The political wing of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), an ethnic minority armed group in Burma which has clashed repeatedly with the government, has also fiercely opposed the construction of a large dam in Myistone, a culturally and ecologically sensitive area. In fact, the group sent an open letter to the Chinese government in March to stop the dam’s construction, warning of the risk of civil war.

It is not clear what exactly prompted this latest outbreak of fighting. Some claim that the Burmese government wants to ensure that the project is built so it will receive hundreds of millions in annual power sales, while others contend that the military is using it as a pretext to exert control in the northern areas which have resisted its control. What is clear is that the dam projects are exacerbating internal conflict due to concerns regarding the distribution of benefits, damage to the environment and displacement of local populations.

Read more »

Freedom on the Net 2011

by Joshua Kurlantzick
People use computers at an internet cafe in Wuhan, Hubei province, January 23, 2010.

People use computers at an internet cafe in Wuhan, Hubei province, January 23, 2010. (Stringer Shanghai/Courtesy Reuters)

Freedom House this week released its annual report on Freedom on the Net . Overall, despite the buzz about the ways in which social media, VOIPs, and other Internet-related tools have helped facilitate the Arab protests of 2010-2011, the report makes for pretty grim reading, including growing controls on online discourse even in free and developed nations like South Korea, as well as increasingly effective tools of repression deployed by autocratic regimes.

Southeast Asia does very poorly on the report. Some countries should not be a surprise: Burma, one of the most repressive nations in the world, comes out badly. But even some of the freer nations in Southeast Asia, like Thailand, rank very poorly: Thailand is rated as “not free” in terms of the Internet, which is the lowest ranking a country can receive. And Malaysia, which has had a vibrant blogosphere even as its print media remained controlled and stodgy, also has begun to turn. Some of Malaysia’s most prominent online writers have grown increasingly scared of government intimidation, and there is fear that the online media will become as constrained as the print and television media.

Read more »