Lima Charlie’s South East Asia Weekend Update News Briefing – AUG 19
Wednesday marked Indonesia’s Independence Day, commemorating 71 years of sovereignty. In a televised address, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo expressed that after 71 years of independence, Indonesia is still plagued by poverty and unemployment. He vowed to work on economic development and said the government is focusing on key areas to expedite economic growth.
According to Widodo, the government plans “to eradicate poverty, unemployment, inequality and social gaps. Firstly, we must accelerate infrastructure development; secondly, prepare productive capacity and human resources; thirdly, deregulate and have less red tape.”
He warned the nation’s 250 million citizens, “Without the courage to leave our comfort zone, we will be trapped in poverty, unemployment and inequality. We need some breakthroughs, fast work, as well as powerful and effective state institutions to overcome the three main problems.”
Widodo’s warning came a day after he had addressed the nation, pledging to boost economic development and calling for a “mental revolution” to transform the country.
President Widodo reinforced his position that while Indonesia continues to be “actively involved” in conflict resolution in the South China Sea “through peaceful negotiations,” it will defend “every inch” of Indonesia’s land and maritime territory, a warning seemingly directed at China. This statement comes amid tensions between China and Indonesia, following numerous clashes between Chinese and Indonesian vessels off the coast of the Natuna Islands.
Indonesian authorities have been actively scuttling fishing vessels that were confiscated for illegal fishing in Indonesian waters. It is estimated that illegal fishing costs Indonesia around $25 billion USD a year. Earlier this year, however, Indonesia and the United States announced a partnership program to improve maritime law enforcement and cut down illegal fishing.
Specialist police with Indonesia’s Densus 88 counter-terror unit announced this week that they have disrupted a terrorist cell that planned an attack in Bali. A 38 year old man was arrested in Lampung, suspected of being part of an extremist network linked to Muhammad Bahrun Naim, the alleged mastermind behind the 2016 Jakarta attacks, with ties to ISIL in Syria. Investigators say they found traces of a high explosive substance. The arrest comes amidst growing concerns that Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country and home to over 200 million Muslims, could become a haven for displaced Islamic State fighters.
In other news, Indonesian carriers have been cleared by the US Federal Aviation Administration to resume flights to the United States. According to the FAA, “With the International Aviation Safety Assessment (IASA) Category 1 rating, Indonesian air carriers…can establish service to the United States and carry the code of US carriers.” Indonesian carriers had previously been banned from flying to the US due to 13 fatal plane crashes and poor safety records.
It has been almost a week since a wave of deadly bombings and arson attacks killed 4 and injured 38, in five towns across southern Thailand. As of now, no one has claimed responsibility and the motives behind the attacks remain unclear. However, two arrest warrants have been issued for suspects in connection with the attacks.
One of the arrest warrants is for a suspect also wanted in connection with separatist activities. For the time being, however, Thai Authorities have avoided linking the bombings with the work of the active Malay-Muslim insurgency in the South. Instead, accusations by Thai officials have suggested that the attacks were politically motivated. However, Thai and foreign terrorism experts question that theory and suggest they were carried out by Muslim separatists from southern Thailand.
Meanwhile on Sunday, The United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship released a statement announcing that the National Council for Peace and Order (the official name of the junta’s government), was “Deliberately causing chaos that would give the NCPO an excuse to keep control and sovereignty for a longer time, and it is not the way to solve any problems of this country.” The United Front added, “They accuse us of being responsible for the violent acts without any evidence or claim to support the accusations. Their intent is to destroy their competitors so that support would be given to a government that came into power from force.”
On Sunday, Thai police announced that the SIM card from the phone used in the bombing did not originate from Malaysia, as previously reported. One of the suspected perpetrators, Ahama Leng-ha, is alleged to have assembled the bombs used in the attacks. Police said, “Today the military court of the 41st Army Circle in Nakhon Sri Thammarat issued a warrant after tests showed DNA samples collected at the scene matched Ahama Leng-ha.”
The bombing came just days before the one-year anniversary of the Erawan Shine bombing in Bangkok, the country’s deadliest bombing in modern history—another bombing that has been refuted as being a possible terrorist attack. The two perpetrators of the 2015 attack were both ethnic Uighurs Muslims from China, labeled as part of a people-smuggling ring, who were angered over police crack downs on their business.
Meanwhile on Monday, the national currency, the Thai baht, hit a 13-month high against the green back, as better than expected second-quarter GDP growth of 3.5% kicked in. The recent attacks don’t seem to have had an effect on the economy, prompting some to call Thailand the Teflon economy.
Myanmar / Burma
On Wednesday, Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s State Councilor and Minister of Foreign Affairs, made her first official state visit to China since coming to power last April. Suu Kyi, the de-facto leader of Burma, has made two other state visits, to Laos and Thailand, but this visit to China is arguably the most important diplomatic trip of her career, considered a true test of her diplomatic dexterity.
China is Burma’s most powerful neighbor and a key player in the Southeast Asian region. The country has wielded great influence over the nation since Beijing re-engaged Burmese Military rulers after the US and other Western nations slapped sanctions on Burma citing human rights abuses in the 90’s. Although Beijing had grown quite comfortable in its relationship with the Burmese Military, it was thrown for a loop in 2011 when the nation suddenly began ushering in a quasi-civilian government that paved the way for a democratic transition.
Shortly after these political reforms began, Burma started a quest to re-engage the West and resume normalized relations with the US, with both President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meeting with Suu Kyi in Burma. Burma’s recent re-engagement with the West has ruffled Beijing’s feathers, with China eyeing Burma as an intricate part of its national interests and energy security.
Not to be outmaneuvered, Beijing has decided to cuddle up to Suu Kyi, going astray from its traditional ally, the Burmese Military. In June of last year, China stunned the world by inviting Suu Kyi to Beijing, a move largely seen as China’s attempt to hedge its bets, in the event that the military’s Union Solidarity and Development Party lost the November election. Beijing’s maneuvering continued when China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi flew to Burma in early April to be the first foreign dignitary to pay his respects to Burma’s new administration.
Although Suu Kyi has stated her intent to maintain positive relations with China, she must walk a fine line between appeasing international forces and keeping a powerful neighbor happy. Beijing also has a few key advantages over the West and the United States. Not just in its proximity to Burma, but in its influence with the former rulers of Burma and with Ethnic Armed Organizations.
When Suu Kyi sits down with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the coming days, the two leaders are likely to discuss a wide range of topics, from the suspended Myitsone Dam to the upcoming Union Peace Conference on August 31. President Xi will most likely try to persuade Suu Kyi to restart the suspended Myitsone Dam project in Kachin State. The hydroelectric dam was suspended by former President Thien Sien in 2011 after public outcry due to the environmental and social impact the dam will have on the nation when completed.
The $3.6 billion USD project, sponsored by China Power and Investment Cooperation, will flood 447 square kilometers including 47 villages and will have an irreversible impact on the Irrawaddy River, which is seen by many as Burma’s economic life’s blood. In return, Burma will receive 10% of the power, while the rest will be exported to China. The likelihood of the suspension being lifted is very low and would be political suicide for Suu Kyi.
China has proposed a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Kyaukphyu, Rakihin State. The Kyaukphyu SEZ includes gas pipelines linking the two nations and a deep-sea port. It may boost Myanmar’s GDP by as much as 10 billion USD annually, a much needed invigoration of Burma’s economy. Locals have not received the project very well, due to its potential for environmental impact, loss of livelihood, and disputes over land compensation to locals. These three key issues have also held up other megaprojects in Burma.
Although Chinese investment in Burma is very important, it is currently limited by the 68 years of continued civil conflict in the country. Therefore, Suu Kyi will want to hear what China can do to help the ongoing peace process and the upcoming Union Peace Conference. China is clearly the most important foreign stakeholder in the peace process. Their influence over some of the Ethnic Armed Organizations includes ties to The United Wa State Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, and the National Democratic Alliance Army, also known as the Mongla Group.
These three EAOs are also some of the most notorious EAOs in Burma and are involved in a myriad of businesses including mining, construction manufacturing, and even the illicit drug and arms trades. China can use these EAOs as leverage and persuade them to accept any terms that come out of the Union Peace Conference, thus winning favor with Suu Kyi and achieving the win-win situation Beijing desires.
The importance of this meeting cannot be understated: Beijing knows that Burma needs Chinese investment and has leverage over some of the EAOs in the peace process. Suu Kyi knows that Beijing can be a tough negotiator and she will have to bring her “A Game” when engaging the Chinese. She must be prepared to walk a fine line to protect her country’s interests, win the socially responsible investment Burma needs, and sustain diplomatic relations with a very powerful neighbor.
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