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Asia Unbound

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

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Obama, Asia, and Democracy

by Joshua Kurlantzick
obama-najib U.S. President Barack Obama and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak speak at the Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Center in Cyberjaya in this file photo from April 27, 2014 (Larry Downing/Courtesy: Reuters).

It’s nice, in a way, to see issues one has worked on appear in major, globally important publications. This past week, just before President Obama’s trip to Asia, the Banyan column in The Economist, a column that focuses on Asia, detailed the Obama administration’s general disinterest in issues related to democracy and human rights in Asia. Banyan notes that President Obama has kept quiet as protests for suffrage have raged in Hong Kong. Banyan also writes that the Obama administration also has ignored a serious regression in political freedoms in Malaysia, maintained the close bilateral relationship with Thailand even as a military junta took over in Bangkok, and spent little time working on relations with the new Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, as authentic a democrat as you will get anywhere. Read more »

Myanmar Not Yet Attracting U.S. Companies

by Joshua Kurlantzick
yangon-coca-cola-factory Staff work at a Coca-Cola factory during its opening ceremony outside of Yangon in this file photo from June 4, 2013. The facility was the first to locally bottle Coca-Cola in more than six decades and follows the U.S. company's re-entry into Myanmar in 2012 (Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy: Reuters).

As President Barack Obama arrives in Myanmar next week for the East Asia Summit, he will find less optimism not only about the political situation but also about Myanmar’s economic future. As I noted last week, when Obama first visited Myanmar in 2012, it was at the height of the country’s political reform process. Since then, the process of political reform has deteriorated, so much so that President Thein Sein last week held a kind of emergency summit with top civilian and military leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi. This meeting was held in an attempt, I think, to get all top Myanmar public figures to at least paper over their differences during the East Asia Summit. Still, it has become clear that the military does intend to just easily hand power over to a truly civilian government, freedom of expression and press has been curtailed once again, and western Myanmar has exploded into inter-religious conflict, leaving over 100,000 Rohingya living in squalid camps that have been described by the Arakan Project as open air prisons.  It will not be easy to paper over these serious problems. Read more »

Obama Prepares to Travel to Myanmar at a Critical Time

by Joshua Kurlantzick
obama-in-myanmar Crowds hold U.S. flags as President Barack Obama's motorcade drives through Yangon on November 19, 2012. Obama became the first serving U.S. president to visit Myanmar (Jason Reed/Courtesy: Reuters).

In November, President Obama will travel to Myanmar to attend the East Asia Summit, which brings together a broad range of nations from across the Pacific Rim. It will be the president’s second trip to Myanmar, following his landmark 2012 trip, which was the first by a sitting U.S. president to Myanmar since the country gained independence six decades ago. During the East Asia Summit, Obama almost surely will hold bilateral meetings with Myanmar President Thein Sein and other senior Myanmar leaders, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Read more »

Thailand’s Elections? How About…Never. Is Never Good for You?

by Joshua Kurlantzick
thai senate elections Officials wait for voters at a polling station in Bangkok during a vote for a new Senate earlier this year, March 30, 2014 (Damir Sagolj/Courtesy: Reuters).

On his way to meetings in Europe this week, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who still seems to believe all reporters will simply accept his word without question as if they were in the military, stopped to briefly lecture journalists. Reporters have been asking Prayuth about the junta government’s roadmap for a return to electoral democracy, a question that, like all inquires, seems exasperating to Prayuth. In the course of his lecture, Prayuth basically let slip that, though he had earlier promised that elections would be held by October 2015, that date might have been overambitious, and Thailand actually might not have elections before 2016. Prayuth left open the possibility that even 2016 might be too soon for elections, or that elections might not happen at all. Read more »