Assessing the ASEAN Economic Community


March  24, 2017

Assessing the ASEAN Economic Community

by Somkiat Tangkitvanich and Saowaruj Rattanakhamfu

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

Image result for asean economic communityMaking Progress Slowly–The ASEAN Way

East Asia continues to sustain a high level of economic integration, yet a significant proportion of intraregional trade is still uncovered by agreements to guard against current and possible future protectionism. Without multilateral movement under the World Trade Organization, further regional integration can proceed only through agreements that reduce trade barriers within the region.

ASEAN appears to be leading the Asia Pacific in FTA formation. The ASEAN Free Trade Area was implemented in 1993 and the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) was officially launched in late 2015. The AEC aspires to go beyond typical trade agreements, aiming to create a single market and production base with equitable development across its 10 member countries.

 

ASEAN will celebrate its 50th anniversary in August, 2017. While ASEAN has made some significant political achievements during the past five decades, its economic integration project is still very much a work in progress, and could remain so for many years or even decades to come.

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The ASEAN Secretariat claims that the implementation of the AEC Blueprint 2015 — the community’s formal agenda — has been substantively achieved in many areas. In reality, the levels of integration vary greatly by sector. The only clear success ASEAN can claim is the reduction of tariffs among member countries. Since the implementation of the Common Effective Preferential Tariff agreement in 1990s, about 99 per cent of tariff lines between member countries have been reduced to zero.

Still, the free flow of goods among ASEAN member countries continues to be hindered by the use of non-tariff measures (NTMs). These may have adverse consequences on the sourcing decisions of firms and the structure of trade and related industries.

Countries such as Indonesia or Malaysia that employ active ‘industrial policy’ apply more NTMs. Car assemblers in Thailand, for example, have long complained about Malaysia’s restriction of the number of cars imported into Malaysia.

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While minimising non-tariff barriers is an action target in the AEC Blueprint, ASEAN has relied on a voluntary approach to reduce them — with very limited success. Under the voluntary approach, member countries can have an adverse incentive to under-report the barriers they are using. What’s more, there is no effective monitoring system to keep track of the changes of NTMs among member countries.

ASEAN has been negotiating services liberalisation since the creation of the ASEAN Framework Agreement on Services in 1996. The AEC Blueprint has established clear targets to remove all restrictions on trade in services by 2015. But some ASEAN countries, including Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, could not meet their targets by the deadline.

Critically, service liberalisation under ASEAN contains no commitment to address behind-the-border issues, such as interconnection for telecom services or access to ATMs for banking, which are crucial to the creation of competitive markets. The difference in laws and regulations among member countries is also problematic.

Service liberalisation under ASEAN in its current form would fail to create a single service market. Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, still could not meet the targets by the 2015 deadline. Indonesia and Thailand’s specific commitments under the latest offer contain many services that are inconsequential or even useless.

In terms of promoting cross-border movement of labour, ASEAN has achieved very little. From an economic development perspective, the opening up of unskilled labour markets through FTAs would be a useful policy option, given the relative abundance of unskilled labour in many ASEAN countries, but the AEC Blueprint attempts to facilitate only the mobility of skilled professionals, currently comprising just eight professions. The arrangement to facilitate the movement of these professionals is also problematic. In the case of Thailand, for example, the requirements imposed on ASEAN professionals are the same as those of the non-ASEAN countries.

To critical observers, ASEAN integration has so far produced very few tangible results. The Asia Trade Centre’s Deborah Elms concludes that ‘ASEAN officials shifted the rhetoric as the deadline loomed to argue instead that the AEC itself should be viewed as process and not a destination’. In September 2016, The Economist mockingly wrote that ‘[w]hen it comes to elevating form over substance, and confusing a proliferation of meetings and acronyms for a deepening of ties, ASEAN is the Zen master’.

The lack of momentum to deepen regional integration in ASEAN is largely a consequence of most member countries’ protectionist stances, perhaps with the sole exception of Singapore. Many ASEAN countries view one another as rivals in their pursuit of exporting to the global market or attracting foreign direct investment.

Domestic political conflicts, along with a lack of strong and stable government, have led political leaders in many ASEAN countries to look inward and lose their appetite for regional integration. Without confronting the core problems of its integration project squarely and urgently, ASEAN will not realise the AEC Blueprint vision of a single market and single production base.

ASEAN prides itself on being the ‘hub’ of bilateral FTAs in East Asia. The concept of ‘ASEAN centrality’ espoused in the group’s initiatives emphasises its role in facilitating economic integration in the region. But the economic integration among ASEAN countries has so far focused on creating a more attractive package for multinationals looking to operate in the region, rather than on creating stronger bonds between member economies.

When it comes to economic integration, ASEAN has to aim at achieving critical targets while ignoring trivial ones. In other words, ASEAN needs to be much more focused than it is now. Its current agenda is overly ambitious considering its limited resources.  The AEC Blueprint has established 17 core elements and set 176 priority actions, covering the free flow of goods and capital, movement of skilled labour, equitable development and protection of intellectual property rights, to name just a few.

A sharper focus would help ASEAN to deliver meaningful and tangible results without depriving member countries, especially less developed ones, of their limited resources. This requires ASEAN to return to the core missions of an FTA: reducing barriers to trade and facilitating cross-border trade in goods, services and the movement of labour and inputs to production.

Yet the real challenge for ASEAN is not economic but political. Full national sovereignty and economic integration are incompatible. The success of the European Union’s trade integration, for example, is based on pooled sovereignty.

The idea of ‘pooled sovereignty’ is not all-or-nothing in nature. When started, the EU was a comparatively modest project. It had few members and only one policy area for pooling sovereignty: a common market for coal and steel. Only gradually did it expand its membership and its mission.

Unless ASEAN countries are willing to increasingly pool their sovereignty and meet political challenges head on, the AEC project will go nowhere and ASEAN will be little more than a talking shop.

Somkiat Tangkitvanich is President of the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). Saowaruj Rattanakhamfu is a Senior Research Fellow at TDRI.

This article summarises a paper prepared for the 2016 Pacific Trade and Development Conference in Australia.

 

Cambodia: Stability, Security and Economic Growth amidst Geo-Political Uncertainties remains top priority


March 22, 2017

Cambodia: Stability, Security and Economic Growth amidst Geo-Political Uncertainties remains top priority

by Dr. Sorpong Peou

http://www.newmandala.org

Cambodia’s ruling party is seeking to shore up its chances of electoral success with recent changes to the rules governing political parties, Sorpong Peou writes.

Much has been written about the Cambodian culture of impunity as an obstacle to democratic development, but what is still least understood is the fact that the persisting culture driven by the fear of personal retribution (actual or perceived) has been a principal threat to democracy.–Dr. Peou

Is Cambodia heading towards a single party dictatorship? This is a legitimate question after the Cambodian government took a drastic but unsurprising step in February 2017 to amend the law on political parties – a step that its critics consider undermines liberal democracy. In my view, Cambodia has not resembled any form of liberal democracy since 1997, and the existing hegemonic party system is likely to remain.

If and when it comes into effect, the amended party law will allow the Supreme Court to dissolve any political party with leaders who have criminal records and to bar such party leaders from standing for political office for five years. Moreover, the new law requires that any party that loses its President find a replacement within 90 days of the King’s signature.

The amended law will also allow the Ministry of Interior to suspend indefinitely any political party that the government considers to be involved in activities resulting in an “incitement that would lead to national disintegration” and subversion of “liberal multi-party democracy.”

The amendments were designed to ensure that the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) led by Prime Minister Hun Sen will remain politically dominant, but not to eliminate opposition parties. They were intended to further empower two CPP-dominated state institutions – the Supreme Court and the Ministry of Interior – to prevent opposition parties, especially the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), from winning enough seats to form a government.

The CPP does not want to see the 1992 or the 2013 national election repeated. It lost the UN-organised election in 1992, but forced the winning party (led by the Royalists) to share power, and then removed the royalist prime minister from power by force in July 1997.

The multi-party system has since weakened, giving rise to a hegemonic party system, with the CPP as the dominant power. However, the party was badly shaken by the 2013 election results: it won only 68 seats (compared to the 55 seats gained by the CNRP), leaving it with fewer seats than the previous elections.

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Attempts by Hun Sen to seek reconciliation with CNRP’s Sam Rainsy has not been successful

After the 2013 election, the CPP leadership did a lot of soul searching and took a number of steps to weaken the CNRP. Opposition politicians have been subject to intimidation and litigation. Sam Rainsy, ex-President of the CNRP and opposition leader (in exile since 2015), has been sentenced to a total of seven years in prison. CNRP Vice-President Kem Sokha had been subject to criminal prosecution and sentenced to five months in prison (for not showing up in court for a dubious lawsuit against him) before he received a pardon from the King at Hun Sen’s request.

All this goes to show that the CPP leadership was well aware of the fact that it would not do well in the upcoming commune election in June 2017 and the National Assembly election in 2018 – if the CNRP could have its way. After the July 2016 killing of Kem Ley, a popular political commentator known for his strong criticism of the government, the CPP has become increasingly unpopular with growing public anger directed toward them.

Government officials have confidentially indicated that the CPP is determined not to lose in the upcoming elections and that it would not transfer power to any winning party if it lost. The amendments to the party law were just another step the CPP has taken as part of its pre-emptive measures designed to avoid the repetition of the 1992 and 2013 elections.

Much has been written about the Cambodian culture of impunity as an obstacle to democratic development, but what is still least understood is the fact that the persisting culture driven by the fear of personal retribution (actual or perceived) has been a principal threat to democracy.

Top members of the CPP elite remain as insecure as ever. What else can explain the fact that the (CPP) Prime Minister has up to 6,000 personal bodyguards? Opposition members have called CPP leaders traitors and threatened to bring them to justice for their past human rights violations (perhaps including some of those committed under the murderous Pol Pot regime) and rampant corruption. CPP leaders, thus, appear to believe that their political fate would be sealed if they lost the elections.

It is reasonable to assume that the CPP is not interested in turning the country into a single-party dictatorship, as some commentators think. The ruling party would be happy if it could just maintain a party system that would allow it to remain dominant and secure.

Image result for Hun Sen-- Peace, Stability and Sustained Economic Growth

 Cambodia has enjoyed peace, stability and sustained economic growth since 1998

The CPP’s behaviour may s also help explain weak reactions from members of the international community, especially donors, some of whom seem to prefer political stability under a CPP leadership to chaotic democratic politics. Others may simply have come to the realisation that there is not much they can do to weaken the CPP’s grip on power.

Over the past several years, CPP leaders have worked harder to deepen their relations with two powerful authoritarian states – Russia and China. China has emerged as Cambodia’s largest donor. Sino-Cambodian relations have grown much tighter in recent years. The harsh reality is that the CPP leadership remains suspicious of Western democracies’ regime-change agendas and wary of any criticisms directed at the human rights situation in Cambodia.

Image result for Phnom Penh

The current global political environment also does not allow democracy in Cambodia to thrive. The looming return of fraught geopolitics (the rise of China, the escalating tension in the South China Sea, the ongoing confrontation between Russia and the West over Crimea and Ukraine), the rise of right-wing forces in Europe and the United States, and the persistence of authoritarianism in Southeast Asia – have all produced negative effects on Cambodian politics.

Dr. Sorpong Peou is Full Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University, Canada, and a member of the Yeates School of Graduate Studies.

This article is a collaboration with Policy Forum — Asia and the Pacific’s leading platform for policy analysis and debate.

Malaysia: We’re not pro- or anti-government, says Chief Justice


March 14, 2017

Malaysia: We’re not pro- or anti-government, says Chief Justice

 Ok as long as the Judiciary is really independent, not Pro-Najib Razak like our Attorney-General
Chief Justice Arifin Zakaria does not think that today’s judicial colloquium on the sharing of good practices on international human rights law, organised by the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), is part of an effort against the government.

 

Justice Arifin said the event – which began today and ends on Wednesday – is to provide a platform for dialogues among the judiciary, AICHR and the civil society.

Stressing that it is for the good of the people of Asean, he said the commission would like to develop jurisprudence, so that a common jurisprudence on what is meant by rights can be determined.

“This is indeed the first time we are having this kind of dialogue.It doesn’t mean we are against the government or are pro-government. The Judiciary, as I always mention, will always remain independent, not only of government, but also of other bodies, civil societies too.We have to be independent. Integrity has to be maintained at all time,” Justice Arifin said at a press conference during the event today.

However, he explained, this did not mean that the Judiciary was in favour of human rights to the extent that everything in relation to human rights would be upheld.

“We have to go and consider the law and the principle of human rights. Most importantly, it’s our own law. Whatever is ratified by the government, if it is not implemented in Malaysia, through our own Act in Parliament, (then) of course we can use this convention and declarations on human rights as an aid to the interpretation of our laws,” he said.

Meanwhile, Malaysia’s representative to AICHR, human rights lawyer Edmund Bon said the event was an effort to link human rights protection with the Judiciary, pointing out how Asean’s work had always been with the executive sector.

“A lot of the senior Asean officials have meetings with the governments. They come from the governments, but we have not had sufficient links with the judiciary. Malaysia, together with Laos and Thailand, have conceptualised this colloquium, so that all Asean judges can come together and try to explore certain commonalities in the region,” Bon said, citing that all the countries have signed the relevant human rights declarations and conventions.

The three-day programme will involve panel discussions as well as working group sessions on the role of the judiciary in the promotion and protection of human rights, among others.

The Foreign Ministry, which is part of the organising team for the programme, said in a statement today the colloquium involves more than 100 participants, including 20 senior judges from the highest judicial branches of Asean member states, representatives of the council of Asean chief justices, international judges and AICHR representatives.

ASEAN Decision Making can be frustrating and self -defeating –Who is holding back Timor Leste’s Membership?


March 11, 2017

ASEAN Decision Making can be frustrating and self-defeating:Who is holding back Timor Leste’s Membership?

by Dr. Khoo Ying Hooi@www.newmandala.org

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Delay in admitting Timor-Leste as 11 the member  will only reflect negatively on ASEAN’s decision-making process, writes Khoo Ying Hooi.

2017 is a pivotal year for the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) as it celebrates its 50 years since its founding. Among the puzzles that need to be solved is whether Timor Leste will be formally accepted as the regional bloc’s 11th member.

As the newest country in Southeast Asia, Timor Leste and its place in the region is often overlooked.

Timor-Leste is vulnerable not only as a small and relatively young state. The fact that it has suffered an Indonesian occupation that destroyed its economy and infrastructure prior to the restoration of independence in May 2002, means it faces various post-conflict challenges, including having its voice heard in regional and international forums.

Timor-Leste expressed its desire to be part of ASEAN right after the restoration of independence in 2002. In July 2005, it became a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and it signed the ASEAN Treaty on Amity and Cooperation in 2007. As outlined in its Strategic Development Plan 2011-2030, Timor-Leste’s aspiration to join ASEAN is based on geographical location, the wishes of the country’s leaders and people, and its cultural affinity with its neighbours.

Timor-Leste officially applied for ASEAN membership in March 2011 during Indonesia’s chairmanship after a number of years of ASEAN observer status. An ASEAN Coordinating Council Working Group (ACCWG) was then set up and tasked to assess Timor-Leste’s readiness to be part of the regional grouping, and the implications for ASEAN if it did join. It has been almost six years now since its official application in 2011.

With its domestic challenges, some questioned Timor-Leste’s aspiration for ASEAN membership, as well as the benefits and costs of joining.  For Timor-Leste’s part, ASEAN membership is hoped to provide access to an established forum where important issues such as security, economic development and integration, and socio-cultural matters can be pursued.

Timor-Leste has indeed come a long way. The nation’s independence came at a high price. Now, the country is gradually moving from fragility to a country that is consolidating and strengthening the necessary foundations of a state. But that is not without obstacles.

In ASEAN’s 50th year, many are hoping that the Philippines will use its chairmanship to accelerate  Timor-Leste’s formal membership to  the regional bloc. Under the theme of “Partnering for Change, Engaging the World” as announced by President Rodrigo Duterte last September 2016 in Laos, it is hope that ASEAN could live up to its inspiration as a model of greater regional integration when it comes to Timor-Leste.

Timor-Leste has done everything it can to be part of ASEAN. Now, the question is not what Timor-Leste will have to accomplish to be accepted formally as ASEAN’s 11th Member State. The test now lies with ASEAN leaders, and whether they can live up to the ASEAN aspiration as lauded in the ASEAN Community.

The longer Timor-Leste’s membership is delayed will only reflect negatively on ASEAN’s decision-making process that has often being criticised. It is time to demonstrate ASEAN’s commitment to a region made prosperous through the spirit of cooperation and integration and most importantly, a people-centred organisation.

Khoo Ying Hooi (PhD) is Senior Lecturer at the Department of International and Strategic Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Malaya, Malaysia.

 

ASEAN, Aung San Suu Kyi and the Fate of the Rohingnyas


March 5, 2017

ASEAN, Aung San Suu Kyi and the Fate of the Rohingnyas

by Fiona Macgregor

http://www.newmandala.org/suu-kyis-state-denial/

Silence from Nobel Laureate and de facto leader of Myanmar on Rohingya issue is hard to justify. It’s also dangerous, writes Fiona MacGregor.

Image result for aung san suu kyi

What about Liberty for the Rohingyas, Madam? Your Silence makes a mockery of you  as a Nobel Laureate

The brutality recounted in a recent UN report on those fleeing Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state into Bangladesh shocked even those who have closely followed rights abuses against the Rohingya Muslim minority in recent years.

The descriptions of babies’ being killed with knives, multiple gang rapes, elderly people being burned alive, torture and killings that the UN said likely amounted to crimes against humanity by Myanmar’s security forces were profoundly distressing to read and provoked international outrage. Hundreds of people are thought to have been killed according to the 3 February report by UN OHCHR, which was based mainly on the testimonies of over 200 of the estimated 70,000 people who fled over the border into Bangladesh in the previous four months.

Yet Myanmar’s Nobel laureate and de facto leader of the government Aung San Suu Kyi has yet to make a public statement on the shocking findings, not only raising question about her relationship with the military and commitment to human rights, but what kind of future she is creating for the country.

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The atrocities are alleged to have taken part during “clearance operations” as the military hunted those responsible for fatal attacks on border police groups in northern Rakhine on October 9 2016 claimed by a new insurgent group Harakah al-Yakin which said it stands for Rohingya rights. The incident is being treated in Myanmar as a “terrorist attack”. Despite international calls for her direct intervention, Myanmar’s Nobel laureate and de facto leader of the civilian government has no mandate to stop the country’s powerful military carrying out operations in the way it wants.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad told Reuters that when he spoke to state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi shortly after she read the UN OHCHR report, she “seemed to be genuinely moved”. But, the UN report was hardly the first account of such abuses to emerge.

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The Rohingya Boat People can no longer be ignored

Not only had Aung San Suu Kyi refused to publically raise concerns over earlier allegations, but she allowed her own representatives to actively deny them and seek to discredit those, including this writer, other media and rights campaigners, who reported on them. Those denials have been widely accepted by a Myanmar public long conditioned to despise the mainly stateless Muslim Rohingya minority.

In apparently choosing to believe military sources over the international community and in helping to disseminate the generals’ message among the Myanmar public, Aung San Suu Kyi further damaged the already fragile trust in Myanmar regarding foreign involvement in anything to do with Rakhine and the Rohingya issue. Although she has not personally spoken out publically about the report’s contents, Aung San Suu Kyi’s spokesman described the allegations as “extremely disturbing” and vowed they would be investigated.

However it is unlikely that the Myanmar government’s own investigation – led by the military-backed Vice President Myint Swe– will be considered impartial by significant international voices accusing the security forces of crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. It can be expected we will see a limited number of “show cases” — small scale action against relatively low-level security personnel as has happened in a small number of more high-profile incidents involving rights abuses by the military since reforms began. But constitutionally enshrined impunity for the military means that is likely to be as far as “justice” goes if Myanmar is left to deal with this on its own.

Image result for The Anti-Rohingya LeaderMonk

On 21 February following the announcement the government investigation had been completed, the commission’s secretary, Zaw Mying Pe was reported by Radio Free Asia to have said the group’s findings differed from those described in the UN  report. How to negotiate a way out of the considerable disparity in findings between the international and national investigations will be the most high profile challenge of Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership so far.

Those who seek to discredit the UN and other international rights reports point to a number of false or exaggerated claims on social media about Rohingya rights atrocities in an attempt to imply all allegations of abuse are “fake”. Meanwhile those seeking to verify many of the accounts face a near impossible task. Northern Rakhine has been cut off to almost all outside observers by the military since operations began.

It has become a case of ‘her word versus his’. The UN and other rights organisations cite the testimonies of alleged victims and witnesses who have reached the relative safety of Bangladesh. Though medical evidence gathered there also supports at least some claims violations have occurred. In return, Myanmar’s authorities use denials of atrocities made by people interviewed by powerful and high-ranking government figures in their home villages where security personnel are still active to suggest alleged victims have lied.

Both Aung San Suu Kyi’s advisors and those leading the international push for an independent investigation have an immensely sensitive task on their hands in dealing with this situation. That should not be allowed to distract from the fact that there are tens of thousands of people suffering right now, who need proper aid and assistance, their human rights and dignity respected, and access to justice.

Unfortunately, there is a high risk that is exactly what will happen. As the stalemate between the accusers and deniers continues, the victims are very unlikely get the help they need so urgently. That is tragic. It is also dangerous. The longer people are left to suffer and their voices ignored in Myanmar, the more vulnerable they will be to those who encourage them to believe violent insurgency is the best way out of their predicament.

If Aung San Suu Kyi’s interest in human rights is limited, as some have suggest, she should also consider finding a way to resolve things expedient in terms of her wider national goals. If Harakah al-Yaqin become’s a more powerful threat, it will play directly into the hands of those who for various reasons might wish to destabilise the country and undermine her authority.

However, she is not without options if she is willing to choose them. Relying on the idea that development alone will somehow sort it all out in Rakhine is unrealistic. If Aung San Suu Kyi is serious about finding long-term solutions, she needs to look at immediate and direct action to address the fear and hatred that has been allowed to germinate throughout the country.

Her silence is hard to justify. Myanmar needs a strong leader who guides people with meaningful words and actions – not just symbolism and slogans.

Even if there is little by way of demand from the Myanmar public for her to stand up for human rights in relation to the Rohingya, she is letting all the people down as democratic citizens by allowing them to be misled about what has been occurring in Rakhine. It will be very difficult for her, culturally and politically, to acknowledge her government may have got things drastically wrong in its denials of abuses. But she still has room to change the atmosphere going forward.

It is a common trope that Aung San Suu Kyi cannot speak out on the Rohingya issue because to do so will lost her too much popularity in Myanmar and/or risk the wrath of the military and or nationalist hardliners. But this view ignores the immense sway her word has over the vast majority of people in the Bamar heartlands.

The power of those feared hardliners, particularly in the form of the notorious monk-led Ma Ba Tha, dramatically dissipated after the election when authorities chose to clamp down on them showing the group did not have the influence it claimed. Aung San Suu Kyi, however, possesses an influence so powerful it almost appears divine – if she chooses to use it.

Ashin Wirathu
[Ashin Wirathu, who once called himself “the Burmese bin Laden” said the agreement with Sri Lanka’s Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) or “Buddhist Power Force”, was the first step in a broad alliance against conversions by Muslims in the region.]

It is lamentable that she did not do so before now, but it is not too late for her to assume the role of “Mother Suu” and guide her people in the principles of compassion, tolerance and Metta that are now so desperately needed in Myanmar. To do so she will also have to start engaging more with the press – nationally, and internationally.

She has embroiled the national media in disseminating a message of blanket denials that increasingly appears to be inaccurate. In addition, the ever-present threat of the telecommunications act means that anyone who does dare to criticize the military or civilian government online faces the risk of criminal proceedings and imprisonment: Hardly a sign of democratic progress. It is either disingenuous or shows a deep misunderstanding of effective media relations to accuse foreign media of painting a one-sided view of Myanmar that stirs up resentment in-country, while having no formal working mechanism in place that allows journalists to reliably access key figures for timely responses.

Resolving the fact that her relationship with the international media is at an all-time low is not merely a matter of meeting the demands of entitled foreign journalists – it is a case of protecting her own power and the rights of her people. Her ability to act as a respected figurehead for Myanmar on the international stage is one of her trump cards with the generals. She may need to keep cordial relations with the military, but they in turn still need her to play her role as they seek to secure Myanmar’s place on the international stage. If she loses her good reputation abroad — something that is already beginning to happen — her political capital with the military, and her power, will be significantly diminished.

But, there is an even greater risk. She was complicit in a creating a situation in which those, particularly foreigners, who raised the issue of alleged rights abuses were depicted as anti-Myanmar.

If she allows that misconception to continue and does not find a way to reverse the burgeoning mistrust of the international community and media, while supporting a free press internally, she risks setting Myanmar back on a path to isolation and ignorance in which its citizens are kept in the dark over the activities of its military and government: A country where gross rights abuses are perpetrated without challenge.

During all these years under house arrest, that was surely not what she imagined would be her legacy.

Fiona MacGregor is a journalist based in Myanmar for the last four years, and long-time observer of Myanmar and Southeast Asia.  

 

Saudi King Salman’s Mission to Malaysia, China and Indonesia


March 4, 2017

What Saudi King Salman wants from his tour of China, Malaysia

Ignore the theatrics, the multibillion-dollar investment deals and even the uncertainty over US hegemony – when the leader of the House of Al Saud is in town, Iran, Islamic State and ultra-conservatism are never far from the surface.

By James M. Dorsey

http://www.scmp.com/week-asia/geopolitics/article/2075774/what-saudi-king-salman-wants-his-tour-china-malaysia

The spectacle of Saudi King Salman’s tour of Asia is matched by its significance. Attention has focused as much on his 1,500-strong entourage and their 459 tons of luggage – roughly the weight of two Boeing 787 Dreamliners – as it has on expectations of billions of dollars in investment.

To be sure, economics is high on the Saudi leader’s agenda. Salman is looking at both strategic investments in Asia as well as Asian investments in the kingdom that will help it diversify its economy and strengthen ties to China and major Muslim nations in an era of uncertainty about the United States’ place in the world.

Yet Salman’s geopolitical concerns go far beyond whether the US remains a reliable guarantor of regional security. Saudi Arabia is locked into a global battle with Iran for dominance in the Muslim world. For the Al Sauds, the kingdom’s ruling family, the struggle with the Islamic republic is existential in nature.

A policeman prepares his patrol car ahead of Saudi King Salman’s visit to Bali. Photo: AFP

Iran not only represents an alternative form of Islamic rule that recognises a degree of sovereign legitimacy and was established by a popular revolt. It also has assets the kingdom lacks that are key to sustaining regional hegemony: a large population, a huge domestic market, an industrial base, a battle-hardened military, geography, and a deep-seated identity grounded in a history of empire.

An epic battle

The epic battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran is being fought not only on the international and Middle Eastern stage but domestically in Muslim and non-Muslim nations that span the globe. Saudi Arabia’s soft power effort, possibly the single largest public diplomacy campaign in history, has aligned itself neatly with Muslim governments that opportunistically play politics with religion and Muslim communities that embrace Saudi-style Sunni ultra-conservatism in lieu of feasible alternatives.

Singapore’s bid to outshine Hong Kong with Saudi Aramco bid is a pipe dream

Saudi King Salman with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Riyadh in 2016. Photo: AFP

China may not have a seriously sizeable Muslim community, yet the lure of ultra-conservatism has made its mark among Hui Muslims and Uygurs alike. Chinese concern about the impact of ultra-conservatism coupled with Iran’s strategic advantage has shaped Chinese policy even if Saudi Arabia is a major oil supplier and commercial partner as well as a military ally.

President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) visit to the Middle East last year, the first by a Chinese leader in seven years, saw the signing of billions of dollars’ worth of agreements with Saudi Arabia and a ten-fold expansion of trade with Iran over the next 10 years. The significance may go far beyond commerce as Chinese interests align more with Iranian interests than those of Saudi Arabia.

From Riyadh, Xi went to Iran to become the first foreign leader to do so following the lifting of international sanctions against the Islamic republic. Saudi leaders could not have been pleased.

Back to the future: Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Middle East visit … and his Middle Kingdom dream

Xi’s determination to gain a first mover advantage in Iran at a time that Saudi Arabia was seeking to increase rather than reduce the Islamic republic’s international isolation suggested that more than commerce was at play.

Chinese President Xi Jinping meets Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran. Photo: AFP

Xi’s visit to the kingdom was accompanied by talk of brotherly relations and strategic cooperation. The rhetoric, however, did little to mask serious differences on issues ranging from Syria – with Chinese support for President Bashar al-Assad – to Saudi propagation of ultra-conservatism and a relative decline in Chinese reliance on Saudi oil.

“Our biggest worry in the Middle East isn’t oil – it’s Saudi Arabia,” a Chinese analyst told the Asia Times. Religious affinity is not something China has to worry about with Shiite-majority Iran, which has long projected itself as a revolutionary rather than a sectarian power.

Consequently, China remains reluctant to clearly articulate its strategic interests or intentions in the Middle East and North Africa beyond its drive to secure resources, investments and people, and expand its influence through economic ties and its “One Belt, One Road” initiative to link economies into a China-centred trading network. As a result, China’s strategic dialogue remains focused on free-trade agreements with the six-nation, Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) rather than the forging of broader strategic partnerships that go beyond economics.

China has also long sought to tread carefully in its for now limited military contacts.

China was, for example, slow to engage in its security cooperation with Saudi Arabia that started in secret in 1985, five years prior to the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. In a deal that was only disclosed three years later, Saudi Arabia in its first weapons deal with China bought in 1985 for US$3.5 billion 36 Chinese CSS-2 East Wind intermediate range ballistic missiles even though they were known to be highly inaccurate in conventional use.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman is driven around in a golf cart by Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo in the presidential palace in Jakarta. Photo: AFP

The deal said much about the attitude of Saudi Arabia towards China. Saudi Arabia saw the deal as a way to counter Iran’s missile strength that in a twist of irony was built on Chinese technology and design, and as leverage to persuade the US to be more forthcoming with weaponry that had offensive capabilities. In a further indication that China was making only limited inroads and that Saudi Arabian arms purchases remained focused on Western suppliers, Saudi Arabia – even while engaged in a massive weapons buying spree – waited 30 years to acquire a more up-to-date Chinese missile system, the DF-21 East Wind ballistic missile.

A frontal assault

Ultra-conservatism – which complicates communal relations, changes policies towards minorities, and alters local culture as well as Saudi efforts to forge an anti-Iranian military alliance – loomed even larger in Malaysia and during the current Indonesian leg of Salman’s tour. In Malaysia, a supposedly pluralistic nation that bans Shi’a Islam, ultra-conservative Islamic scholars legitimise the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the country’s ruling party, raising concerns about a more intolerant society despite its multi-ethnic composition.

Saudi King Salman and Indonesian Parliament Speaker Setya Novanto in Jakarta. Photo: EPA

The state of Johor’s straight-talking Sultan, Ibrahim Ismail Ibni Sultan Iskander, didn’t mince words last year when he decried what he described as creeping Arabisation of the Malay language. He insisted that Malaysians use Malay rather than Arabic words when referring to religious practices and Muslim holidays.

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In a frontal assault on Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism, Ibrahim advised his people who “If there are some of you who wish to be an Arab and practise Arab culture, and do not wish to follow our Malay customs and traditions, that is up to you. I also welcome you to live in Saudi Arabia. That is your right but I believe there are Malays who are proud of the Malay culture. At least I am real and not a hypocrite and the people of Johor know who their ruler is,” the Sultan said.

Saudi King Salman and Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Bogor, West Java. Photo: AFP

Both Malaysia and Indonesia have been reluctant to become too involved in a 41-nation, Saudi-led military alliance headquartered in Riyadh that officially was created to combat political violence and the Islamic State (IS). Many fear the alliance is also intended as a military bloc against Iran that would also bolster Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen – where it is fighting Houthi militia and loyalists of the former president, Ali Abdullah Salleh, allegedly supported by Iran.

Ultra-conservatism

Saudi influence was nonetheless evident when Malaysian Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein last year, to the consternation of his ministry’s civilians, agreed to let 300 Malaysian paratroopers participate in a 20-nation military exercise in the kingdom. Malaysia currently has up to 100 military personnel and C-130 Hercules transport planes in Saudi Arabia that provide the alliance with logistical support.

The Indonesian military, like its Malaysian counterpart, regularly trains with Saudi officers to counter IS. Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi policy analyst with close government ties, described last year’s exercise as a preparation for possible Saudi military intervention in Iraq and Syria.

King Salman and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in Putrajaya, outside Kuala Lumpur. Photo: AFP

Critics in the ministry were taken aback when Hishammuddin obliged them weeks later to endorse Saudi funding for the King Salman Centre for Moderation (KSCM). Under the auspices of the ministry’s think tank, the Malaysian Institute of Defence and Security (MIDAS), would seek to counter jihadist messaging in Southeast Asia. An internal ministry memo said MIDAS had a “strategic interest to be collaborating with various institutions internationally particularly from Saudi Arabia”.

A joint communique at the end of Salman’s visit described political violence as the most important issue discussed between the king and Prime Minister Najib Razak. Najib backed Saudi concerns about Iranian interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries and called on the Islamic republic to respect the sovereignty of regional states.

The two leaders also announced the establishment of the King Salman Centre for International Peace (KSCIP), a collaboration of Saudi and Malaysian defence institutions as well as the Muslim World League, a prime Saudi vehicle for the propagation of ultra-conservatism. It’ not clear if KSCM and KSCIP are separate institutions.

An Indonesian honour guard waits for the arrival of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman at the presidential palace in Bogor. Photo: AFP

In Indonesia, a country that prides itself on its tolerant interpretation of Islam, Saudi-style ultra-conservatism is similarly making itself felt. Major Islamic organisations with a history of opposition to Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative world view that governs the kingdom, see Shiites, who constitute 1.2 per cent of the population, and Iran as threats to national security. A former deputy head of Indonesian intelligence goes as far as describing Shiites as the foremost domestic threat to national security.

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Saudi media reported that King Salman hoped during his visit to lay the ground for the opening of more Arabic-language Islamic schools in Indonesia. They said the king would also be increasing the number of scholarships available to Indonesians for study in Saudi Arabia. Many of those who return after completing their studies are imbued with Saudi-style ultra-conservatism.

All in all, Salman’s Asian official visit-cum-holiday is likely to reverberate far beyond the billions of dollars in economic and commercial agreements he signs. The visit also solidified cooperation between Asian nations and Saudi Arabia in the fight against IS. This, despite the fact that IS and the kingdom have the same ideological roots, even if the jihadists accuse Saudi Arabia of having deviated from the true path of Islam. At the same time, the tour could also well embed sectarian aspects of Saudi’s Arabia’s epic struggle with Iran ever deeper in the social and political life of the continent’s Muslims.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies