Singapore’s uphill battle to maintain ASEAN unity


December 3, 2018

Singapore’s uphill battle to maintain ASEAN Unity

by Joel Ng, RSIS

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2018/11/30/singapores-uphill-battle-to-maintain-asean-unity/

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As year as the ASEAN chair was marked by several milestones in the deepening of regional peace and security. Ahead of the 33rd ASEAN summit from 11–15 November 2018 that finished with Singapore’s official handing over of the chairmanship to Thailand, Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan stated that ASEAN ‘actually achieved far more than I dared to anticipate’.

 

As a small nation, Singapore cannot impose its own ideas in regional or global settings. Instead it has the much trickier challenge of convincing other players, each with their own contexts and agendas, that strengthening the multilateral framework is in their best interests.

Tensions in the South China Sea, North Korea’s long-range missile tests and threats of a US–China trade war clouded the end of 2017 and presented a considerable challenge to ASEAN’s ongoing efforts to enhance regional cooperation. Despite the uphill battle, ASEAN and Singapore have played an integral part in ameliorating tensions on all three fronts.

Most recently, the 33rd ASEAN summit made an important contribution to the easing of regional tensions, with China agreeing to participate in talks on the long-proposed South China Sea Code of Conduct (COC). China offered a timeframe of three years for COC negotiations to be completed, which Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong declared as good progress.

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The COC is perhaps the most important document related to the South China Sea disputes. With competing states attempting to apply different rules to claim legitimate sovereignty over the waters, fears have arisen that conflict could break out over misunderstandings or maritime encounters going wrong. The COC has been in gestation since the 2002 Declaration on Conduct in the South China Sea, but has barely progressed in the intervening years.

Claimants agreed upon a draft negotiating text for the COC earlier this year, ahead of the ASEAN–China Post Ministerial Meeting in August 2018, and now China has committed to signing the COC within three years. While this may sound like piecemeal progress, it is important to remember the headwinds facing the discussion: as a much larger power, there is little incentive for China to sign anything at all.

Keeping all parties on board while pushing consensus and norms forward — at a pace that divergent parties can accept — is something ASEAN does well. With Singapore at the helm, ASEAN has helped to keep the COC moving forward without alienating any of the negotiating parties. The significant difference in 2018 has been China’s explicit commitment to a rules-based order, a position it believes distinguishes itself from the United States.

Perhaps the most surprising event of 2018 was the US–North Korea peace talks in Singapore. As recently as 2017, both sides had issued threats against the other. North Korea continued to conduct missile tests, and the murder of Kim Jong-nam had soured its previously cordial relations with Malaysia. Singapore was one of the only plausible choices as a venue because of its high security, positive relations with both sides and an avowed impartiality.

While talks were initially cancelled just weeks before they were to be held, Singapore remained alert and ready for their resumption. The country’s experience in hosting summits put it in good stead for facilitating the dialogue, regardless of uncertainties on either side. The eventually successful engagement demonstrated the importance of Singapore as an open, inclusive and highly efficient state ready to contribute to international security.

ASEAN has paddled against global currents in 2018 to offer hope that multilateral initiatives will continue to bring states closer together on common objectives. But trade tensions between ASEAN’s two largest partners — the United States and China — continue to concern the region. Progress on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) remains a priority for ASEAN to offset this concern, though negotiations will continue into 2019 after RCEP partners failed to meet the November 2018 deadline.

The initial impetus for Southeast Asia to unite as a region was to buffer individual countries against the pull of larger powers, whose efforts to draw smaller states exclusively towards them are often driven by whimsical domestic agendas. As Prime Minister Lee noted during the opening ceremony of November’s ASEAN summit, ASEAN has raised its standing in the world and made itself greater than the sum of its parts by maintaining a collective voice on global issues.

Singapore’s chairmanship offered a strong restatement of ASEAN’s aims and bolstered the frameworks that were devised to address the myriad concerns of its members. Maintaining unity in the face of these external pressures is probably the best way for ASEAN states to maintain a strong position and secure the best outcomes for their continued growth.

Joel Ng is a Research Fellow in the Centre for Multilateralism Studies at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

A version of this article originally appeared here on RSIS.

 

China in the Xi Era


November 20, 2018

China in the Xi Era

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by: David Shambaugh, George Washington University

Xi Jinping is widely viewed as the strongest leader China has had since Deng Xiaoping or Mao Zedong. But six years into his perhaps indefinite tenure, what has Xi actually accomplished? And where might China be headed under his rule?

 

Like all Chinese leaders since the 1870s, when Qing dynasty rulers launched the Self-Strengthening Movement, Xi also seeks ‘the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’. The quest has been consistent for 150 years: for China to acquire the material attributes of a major international power and the commensurate respect from others. The legacy of the country’s former weakness and humiliation continues to haunt Xi and his generation.

So too does the collapse of Communist Party rule in the former Soviet Union. Now having ruled almost as long as their Soviet counterparts, Xi and his peers in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) live in regular trepidation of a similar meltdown. These two issues — augmenting China’s strengths while rectifying the Communist Party’s weaknesses — are intertwined in Xi’s thinking and dominate his agenda.

Xi believes in the absolute power of the Communist Party. As Xi told the 19th Congress of the CCP in October 2017: ‘The party controls all’. Unlike Deng Xiaoping, who launched China’s reforms four decades ago and sought to relatively reduce party power, Xi wants to bring the party-state back into all aspects of national life.

The CCP under Xi is also reaching back to the Maoist era by constructing a massive personality cult around Xi’s own persona. Maoist rhetorical throwbacks such as zhuxi (chairman), lingxiu (leader), hexin (core), even da duoshou (great helmsman) are again commonly used to refer to Xi. The official ideological canon of ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’ has now been enshrined in the party constitution too. Xi personally chairs all central Leading Groups and party and military organs. He has also emasculated the authority of Premier Li Keqiang.

Xi is systematically rolling back many of the core elements of Deng’s reforms that guided China’s leaders for the past four decades: no personality cult around the leader, collective leadership and consensual decision-making, bottom-up ‘inner-party democracy’ rather than top-down diktat, active feedback mechanisms from society to the party-state, relative tolerance of intellectual and other freedoms, limited dissent, some de facto checks and balances on unconstrained party power, fixed term limits and enforced retirement rules for leaders and cadres, a society and economy open to the world, and a cautious foreign policy. These and other norms were all central elements of Deng’s post-1978 reform program and they were all accepted and continued under Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao — but all are being systematically dismantled and rolled back by Xi Jinping.

So dominant is Xi that Chinese politics have become a sycophantic echo chamber. Xi is trying to run the party like a military, with orders given and to be followed — rather than as an organisation with feedback mechanisms and procedures to curtail dictatorial practices. Xi is very much a mid-20th century Leninist leader ruling a huge country in the globalised, early-21st century era. There is thus a contradiction between Xi’s modality of rule and the realities of the modern world and China’s developmental needs.

Since coming to power in 2012, Xi has sought to relatively close China’s doors rather than further open them. There has been a significant tightening of the foreign investment and corporate operating environment, a sweeping suppression of civil society and foreign NGOs, stepped-up study of Marxism and an assertion of ideological controls over the entire educational sphere, and xenophobic campaigns against ‘hostile foreign forces’.

Meanwhile, the party continues to enforce strict media controls, carry out pervasive public security surveillance, tighten control over Xinjiang and Tibet, and persecute Christians and other organised religions. Xi has also cracked down on corruption in the party (and government and military), and presided over the most draconian purges and political repression in China since the 1989–92 post-Tiananmen period.

These actions have more in common with Maoism than Dengism. To be certain, Xi has definitely succeeded in strengthening the party institutionally over the past five years — but it is fair to wonder whether he has not actually weakened it in the longer term? How long can such retrograde and repressive actions endure in an increasingly globalised, wealthy and sophisticated society?

Xi’s economic impact is mixed. GDP growth remains very respectable at 6.9 per cent. Xi has also launched programs to eliminate poverty by 2020, spur innovation and high-tech manufacturing under the Made in China 2025 program, increase urbanisation and build eco-cities, expand coverage of social services, attack pollution and transition to a green economy, decrease desertification and increase forestation, deleverage China’s ballooned debt while expanding domestic consumption and services as drivers of growth. These are all commendable goals and initiatives — but they are all just that. Time will tell whether they are achieved.

On the other hand, Xi’s administration has significantly failed to meet the benchmarks or implement the policies of the Third Plenum economic reform plan of November 2013. The significance of this shortfall is that the Chinese economy is not making the structural adjustments needed to navigate through the middle-income trap and up the value-added chain to become a developed economy over time. Structural maladies and overcapacity continue to plague economic efficiency, the stock market has plummeted, while dangerously high debt levels loom overhead.

If there is one policy area where Xi does deserve better marks, it is in foreign relations. China is now widely seen as a global power. Xi has taken a personal interest in global governance. As a result, China under Xi is contributing much more to the United Nations operating budget, global peacekeeping, overseas development assistance and the Millennium Development Goals. And it is more active in a range of areas from combatting public health pandemics to disaster relief, energy and sea lane security, counter-terrorism and anti-piracy operations.

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Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is also noteworthy. An infrastructure development initiative unparalleled in history, the BRI will build rail lines, pipelines, telecommunications networks, electric grids, deep-water ports, highways, cities and other needed infrastructure from Asia to Europe. While the BRI is encountering criticism of late, it is nonetheless illustrative of China’s new foreign policy activism under Xi.

To be certain, China’s international relationships are not all rosy — but they are, on balance, positive. Only with the United States — and perhaps Australia, Japan and India — are China’s bilateral ties strained. Everywhere else they are sound.

The same must also be said about China’s military and defense — probably Xi’s No. 2 priority (after strengthening the party) over the past five years. Under the new title of Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, in January 2016 Xi launched a sweeping reorganisation — the most comprehensive ever — of China’s military and paramilitary forces. The restructuring is but one part of systematic efforts to build a world-class military and, in Xi’s repeated exhortations, to ‘prepare to fight and win wars’.

Like all leaders, Xi’s tenure has so far achieved mixed results. But this variegated verdict is at variance with the overwhelmingly positive portrayals proclaimed in China’s official media. In Beijing’s rendering, Xi can do no wrong. This in itself may prove to be his Achilles’ heel. No leader is infallible. The subterranean grousing about Xi’s ‘imperial’ leadership style now increasingly heard in China (and from Chinese when they go abroad and speak with foreigners), may be a harbinger of difficulties to come.

Having constructed a caricature of an infallible Xi Jinping, the regime will find it very difficult — if not impossible — to deconstruct this image of China’s new ‘great helmsman’. And there are many constituencies in China that are suffering from Xi’s policies — including the party and state cadres and military officers who have lost their positions and privileges as a result of Xi’s anti-corruption purges — all of whom lie in wait for him to trip up.

David Shambaugh is the Gaston Sigur Professor of Asian Studies, Political Science and International Affairs at The George Washington University, Washington, DC.This is an adapted version of an article originally published here in Global Asia.

 

A Radically Realistic Climate Vision


A Radically Realistic Climate Vision

 

Limiting global temperatures to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels is the only way to achieve social justice while protecting our environment from devastating climate change. And, contrary to prevailing wisdom, it’s not an impossible goal.

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BERLIN – According to the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s main scientific authority on global warming, keeping global temperatures from rising more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels is a feasible goal. The IPCC’s stance represents a move in the direction of the kind of “radical realism” that many civil-society actors have long advocated.

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The IPCC does not bet on geo-engineering proposals – for example, deep-ocean sequestration of massive amounts of atmospheric carbon dioxide, or “dimming the sun” by spraying the atmosphere with aerosols – to combat global warming. These largely theoretical solutions could have untold consequences for people and ecosystems, worsening not only the climate crisis, but also the other social and ecological crises we face.

 

2018 in Environmental Review for Southeast Asia


November 10, 2018

By: Gregory McCann

ttps://www.asiasentinel.com/society/2018-environmental-review-southeast-asia/

As 2018 comes to a close it is worth taking a look at the environmental trends throughout the year, with a special emphasis on those within the last six months or so, in order to gain an understanding of what has been happening to this region’s natural heritage and so that we might know what to look for in 2019—and how to address the upcoming challenges.

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A lloincloth-clad tribesmen blockading blockading logging roads in Malaysian Borneo.

While we can say that a lot has been happening everywhere, and this is especially true for Malaysia. The country produces durian that Chinese consumers covet. This means rain forests that are currently home to tigers are being converted into plantations so that more and more of the spiky, pungent fruit can be sold to China. That means bad environmental news, with China the driver. Furthermore, clearing forests will drastically reduce the number of pollinators such as bats and other wild animals, which will in turn lower the durian’s quality.

Another fruit—palm oil—is almost always the whipping boy for conservation problems in Malaysia (and beyond), however, the country is making headway in its own sustainable certification program, which attempts to incorporate Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESAs) into development blueprints across Malaysian Borneo. Nonetheless, huge development projects in Peninsular Malaysia are pushing the environment to the breaking point, with gargantuan Chinese-funded residential projects such as Forest City across the strait from Singapore serving as a striking case in point.

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However, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad recently shut down several Chinese Belt and Road projects.  Malaysia also wants to ban importing plastic waste, as well as single-use plastic straws. Nonetheless, serious problems remain. Even without the durians-to-China issue, tiger numbers are tumbling fast, scenic Langkawi island is coming under so much stress that it may lose its Unesco status, while in Sarawak the forest-dwelling Penan indigenous group continue to block bulldozers and fight for their traditional lands.

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Tabin Wildlife Reserve is located in the eastern part of Sabah, Malaysia

However, a rehabilitated Bornean orangutan was successfully rewilded in Sabah’s Tabin Wildlife Sanctuary, the first orangutan to fully return to the forest after such a long spell in captivity and rehabilitation, and a clouded leopard was sighted within the vicinity of a local hospital.

Across the Strait in Indonesia ecological issues are festering as well. While a new species of songbird has been identified on Rote Island, five other bird species have lost their protected status. The endemic Sumatran laughing thrush is fast disappearing, while the Helmeted Hornbill is relentlessly persecuted in Indonesia. The caged bird trade is bringing many species to the brink of extinction in the archipelago, and biologists say many forests where they work are becoming increasingly “quiet.”

Forest fires raged in South Sumatra and Riau provinces in 2018, and Chinese developers are stubbornly pushing ahead with a hydroelectric dam in the , home to the rarest species of orangutan in the world. The Critically Endangered Sumatra rhinoceros is still in big trouble but there is a movement on to save it, while a pregnant Sumatran tigress was caught and died in a pig trap in Riau.

Like Malaysia, Indonesia has a major palm oil problem, but the country’s anti-graft department says it’s ready to take action against transgressors who are felling natural forest and breaking other laws. Sadly, the Bali government wants to build an elevated highway right on top of some of its last undeveloped sandy beaches. The small volcanic island of Krakatoa in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra has spewed lava and ash this year.   Widespread deforestation, poaching, overfishing, and plastic pollution has been taking over this island nation. Indonesian Presidential contender Prabowo has said that if he is elected to office he will review China’s Belt and Road plans, which could include a cancellation of the , and a court in Aceh recently threw down its stiffest penalty to date for two men caught trying to sell a tiger pelt.

Asia Sentinel recently reported on the surprising number of wildlife to be found in Singapore today. Thailand also received high environmental marks in a recent Asia Sentinel critique, however, Thai-language media recently uncovered a story about a Vietnamese national caught with tiger bones in the kingdom— particularly worrying report as Vietnamese poachers are among the most tenacious in Asia.

Making matters worse, a new and improved road through Kaeng Krachan National Park will likely lead to greater disturbance to the forest’s wildlife, while a few provinces to the north a Burmese national gunned down a binturong. There is rising sentiment to build a Kra Isthmus Canal in Thailand. A large crocodile was caught off the Krabi coast, a whale shark was recently spotted of Koh Racha, and local conservationists have thus far succeeded in fending off a new marina development project in Phuket. However, the deluge of Chinese tourists into the kingdom is pushing Thailand to its breaking point, and it was largely Chinese tourists who are responsible for the closing of Maya Bay in Koh Phi Phi, which remains closed indefinitely so that it can recover.

In Laos, the Nam Theun 2 Dam has been such a disaster that its main financer, the World Bank, has thrown in the towel and walked away.  In Dead in the Water: Global Lessons from the World Bank’s Hydropower Project in Laos contributing author Glenn Hunt remarks: “For one of the pillars that was supposed to be the primary source of income, it’s been an unmitigated disaster.” With about 140 dams either under construction or on the drawing board in its quest to be the “battery of Asia,” Laos faces the potential for most disasters and large-scale environmental and social degradation in a country that has already lost its wild tigers, leopards and many other species.

Despite the tragedy that unfolded in Attapeu province when a large dam collapsed, Laos remains bullish about constructing more dams. And the dam-building frenzy is harming the environment and wildlife all around the country. And while a recent Guardian write-up describing the fantastic-look Nam Et-Phou Luey ecotourism program up in the north of the country describes a healthy tiger population in this region, perhaps the author was given old data.

Wild elephants are reportedly being skinned alive in Myanmar to satisfy a new Chinese demand—for “blood beads,” which are blood-filled chunks of elephant fat. The previous link provides a window into some twisted tastes: “The online trader wants his customers to know the elephant was skinned quickly, with blood still fresh in its veins.” Chinese demand for elephant skin used in bags in jewelry was already shocking, but things can always get worse when it comes to wildlife.

But in more uplifting news from the country, Irrawaddy dolphins are being given greater protection, and the government is also cracking down on illegal wildlife trade in the city of Yangon.

Taking note of how poorly elephants working in tourism are treated across Asia, Vietnam has launched the region’s first “ethical elephant experience.” The country has also taken an interest in seeing that its shrimp farming industry become more sustainable, while the government also recently signed a deal with the EU that promises a reduction in illegal logging (though some in neighboring Cambodia have serious doubts about this). We reported earlier this year that Vietnam’s wildlife is in rough shape, and things haven’t taken much of a turn for the better since.

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Virachey National Park—A major tourist attraction in Cambodia

And finally, Cambodia.  A recent camera-trap check in Virachey National Park so delighted the Ministry of Environment that he shared some of the photos on their Facebook page; even the Thai media took notice of the results. Asia Sentinel reported earlier this year that Cambodia is probably the last hope for Indochina’s wildlife, and this still holds true, despite the fact that nearly 110,000 snares were found in a single national park. A man was recently killed by a wild boar near the Cardamom Mountains, while Kratie province is cracking down on illegal mining, and at the same time the central government is demanding that villagers who grabbed national park land return it.

In other news from the region, the Maubere tribe of Timor-Leste is bringing back ancient customary laws to help protect its forests, seas, and coastline. Chinese demand for logs is wiping out the forests of the Solomon Islands. India is losing tigers and elephants, while two elephants were struck by a train and killed in Sri Lanka.

As always, China casts a menacing shadow over Southeast Asia, and nowhere is this more clear than on the Mekong River and in the South China Sea. The region, with the help of the US and Japan, must find a way to manage Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and beyond, and the some of the numerous dams that it has planned for the region have to be cancelled or scaled down.

Beyond that, Chinese citizens have to be educated about wildlife product consumption, including shark fins, tiger parts, bear gallbladder, elephant skin and blood, and much more, which have no known scientific value. And in a shocking and disturbing announcement,  China has said that it will lift its decades-old ban on the trading of tiger parts and rhino horn, a move that will almost certainly put these species in greater danger.  Or else one of the most biologically rich regions of the world loses everything that made it so special.

Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator of Habitat ID, and the author of Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor. You can support his conservation projects in Cambodia and Sumatra here.

South East Asian Cyberspace: Politics, Censorship and Polarisation


November 5, 2018

South East Asian Cyberspace: Politics, Censorship and Polarisation

On 12 April 2017, Thailand’s Ministry of Digital Economy and Society issued what the Bangkok Post called “a strange government directive”. It prohibited anyone from following, communicating with, or disseminating information online from three outspoken critics of the government—or risk up to 15 years in prison. The statement seemingly appeared out of nowhere, and without any explanation. Does the act of “following” include reading these authors’ posts, or actually clicking the “follow” button on their profile? This was never clarified by the government.

The ambiguity of the Thai cyber laws prompted a local online newspaper, Prachatai, to publish information warning readers about how to avoid being charged with Thailand’s draconian Article 112, which prohibits defamation against the royal family. But the journalist responsible for the article was in turn interrogated by the Thai authorities for a possible computer crime herself. This deadly dose of opaque cyber regulations and an authoritarian political regime has made Thailand’s cyberspace one of the most restricted in Asia.

This combination, however, is growing more and more representative of the regional norm. In Southeast Asia, the liberating effects of the internet coexist in increasing tension with state anxiety about information control. Southeast Asian cyberspace is thus becoming more expansive, yet more restricted. On the one hand, the number of people who have come online for the first time has exploded: Myanmar, for example, went from 1% internet penetration in 2012 to 26% in 2017 thanks to an abundance of cheap mobile phones. Internet users across the region are increasingly spending time online to work, study, connect with friends, and participate in civic and political life.

On the other hand, Southeast Asian governments are growing wary of the potential for the internet to threaten political stability.

Cyberspace in Southeast Asia has evolved into a space for contestation over power and control between the state and its societal opponents, with the former exerting greater and more sophisticated control over the latter. As electoral contestation increases in some countries, feuding elites have sought to win the hearts and minds of the ever more engaged and wired citizenry through old tactics of divide and conquer, exploiting deep-seated ethnic, religious and racial cleavages. Social networking sites like Facebook have made it all too easy to spread hate speech and misinformation—further entrenching divisions in society, and inviting yet more state-led censorship.

More internet, more censorship

Viewed globally, the Southeast Asian experience is not an aberration. Freedom House’s Net Freedom Report, which ranks the degree of cyber openness around the world, has recorded the sixth consecutive year of global decline in internet freedom. More than two thirds of the world’s population live in countries where criticism of governments gets censored.

The present reality stands in stark contrast to early optimism about the positive, liberating role the internet could play in bringing about political change in authoritarian regimes—a sentiment which flourished following the “Arab Spring”. The utopian idea that social media could spell the end of despots has now been muted by users’ frustration with increasing crackdowns on the internet and the chilling effect brought on by continued persecution of politically active social media users. Indeed, in 2016 a total of 24 countries restricted access to popular social media platforms and messaging apps—an increase of 60% compared to the previous year. 27% of internet users live in countries whose authorities have made arrests based on social media posts.

So where does Southeast Asia fit in this global picture? Despite varying degrees of internet penetration—ranging from 19% in Cambodia to 82% in Singapore—national internet environments in Southeast Asia share three key similarities.

First, there is an overall consecutive decline in internet freedom, which measures the degree to which access is unrestricted. The Philippines stands as the only country in the region that receives a score of “free” according to Freedom House (Figure 1). The rest of Southeast Asian internet users enjoy partial to little freedom in surfing the net.

Figure 1: Net Freedom Scores, 2016

In all the “partly free” and “not free” states, ordinary internet users have been arrested for their online activities and user rights have been repeatedly violated. Measures to censor critical opinions about authorities can include blocking of websites, content removal, and in some cases arrests and persecution—the latter of which has been taking place more recently, as authorities across the region pay closer attention to social media and chat app content.

Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Ngoch Nhu or “Mother Mushroom” was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2017 for “conducting propaganda against the state”, after she wrote on issues relating to policy brutality, land rights, and freedom of speech. A Thai man has been sentenced to 35 years in prison for Facebook posts the authorities deemed critical of the royal family. This follows the 2016 arrest of eight internet users who ran a satirical Facebook page mocking Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha. In Singapore, whose leaders prefer slapping lawsuits upon critics over arresting them, blogger Roy Ngerng was sued for defaming Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in posts on his blog. Even a democratic government in Indonesia has sought to censor same-sex emojis from messaging apps and has banned several gay dating apps.

Second, many Southeast Asian states have in recent years sought to institutionalise online information controls through new laws and regulations, typically citing concerns for national security. Myanmar’s 2013 Telecommunications Law openly permits criminalisation of internet activism or communication that are considered “dishonest” and “untruthful” by the regime. Cambodia has had several drafts of the cybercrime law, with each one eliciting grave concerns from rights groups. Article 35 from the 2012 draft, for instance, would criminalise civil society organisations deemed to endanger the security, morality and values of the nation. A 2017 amendment to Thailand’s Computer-Related Crime Act worsened an already repressive internet law by giving authorities wide-ranging powers to arrest anyone who might be spreading information that would be against the (vaguely-defined) national interest. Indonesia’s newly amended Electronic Information Transactions Law (UU ITE) was criticised by internet rights groups for creating chilling effects online and curbing of freedom of expression. Indeed, the majority of cyber laws in the region are written in vague terms on purpose: they give power to authorities to interpret what is critical to the nation’s security and public safety.

Third, the varying degree of filtering on issues of social, political, and national security importance gives some indication of the country’s priorities on internet control. Censorship is most severe when it comes to criticism against the state (Figure 2). While the growth of internet usage across Southeast Asia caused concern about information control among all of the region’s governments, reasons for such concern vary. Indonesia and Thailand focus their internet censorship efforts on social issues—particularly online pornography—whereas Malaysia, Vietnam, Myanmar (and to some extent Thailand too) have gone to some lengths to crack down on cyber dissidents deemed a threat to regime stability.

Figure 2: Key internet censorship issues, 2016

Highly developed Singapore, with its hegemonic party rule, has one of the world’s highest internet penetration rates. Instead of practicing cyber surveillance and filtering, its leaders prefer to rely on non-technological means to curb online commentary perceived to be a threat to social values and religious and ethnic harmony. These “second generation” control mechanisms—such as lawsuits, steep fines, and criminal prosecution—act to deter “inappropriate” online behaviour.

Divide the people, conquer the discourse

But political elites, even if they could, would not want to control the flow of all information. They need the web to be sufficiently open to allow a perceived sense of online freedom of expression, and the proliferation of engaged online discussion. This provides ruling and competing elites alike with opportunities to divide electorates and mobilise their support base against their adversaries. The Oxford Internet Institute’s research on computation propaganda has highlighted how state-sponsored “cyber troops” and trolls are commonplace around the world as means of manipulating public opinion, particularly in support of ruling elites.

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The Philippines—the only country whose internet environment is regarded as free—has witnessed a high density of “cyber troops” since populist maverick Rodrigo Duterte came to power. Duterte’s online army is reportedly paid to flood Facebook with pro-Duterte propaganda, sometimes masking as grassroots activists. Cambodia’s Hun Sen, who has a huge social media following, found himself denying buying influence on Facebook after reports that only 20% of his 3 million likes originated from Cambodia (the rest largely being from India and the Philippines). That a septuagenarian , who has been in power since the 1980s, felt the need to pay for Facebook likes is telling of the extent political leaders go to in order to construct digital legitimacy, even if it means spreading online propaganda.

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But the most prominent example of the potential power of the abovementioned “divide and conquer” strategy was the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election. After ex-governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama or “Ahok” made controversial comments about the Quran, anti-Ahok rallies, mobilising over 500,000 protesters at their peak, were led by a coalition of Islamic groups. These religious groups were long unhappy with Ahok in power but did not surge in popularity until Ahok’s blasphemy case came to the fore (Figure 3).

Figure 3: FPI Facebook fan change (October 2016 to August 2017)

 

The hard line Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) more than tripled their support base on Facebook following Ahok’s comments, and figured prominently in the months-long campaign against him. Witnessing the rise of the FPI and other Islamist groups gaining prominence as anti-Ahok movement garnered force, Ahok’s opponent Anies Baswedan, long seen as a secular Islamic politician, shifted gear to appeal to those sympathetic to the FPI campaign. The online sphere became deeply polarised: a network analysis of those who commented on Ahok’s and Anies’ Facebook posts in the month of December in 2016 (Figure 6) shows that only 16 people cross-commented on both pages out of a total of 9,000 comments.

Figure 6: Network Visualisation of Commenters on Ahok’s (Blue) and Anies Baswedan’s (Red) Facebook Page

Here, Facebook played an important role in catapulting the hard line FPI into mainstream politics. This then contributed to a more polarising political environment in which more Indonesians were politically active online than ever before, but not necessarily engaging with opposing views.

Confronting the challenge to a free internet

Digital rights and digital literacy are the biggest challenges to Internet users in Southeast Asia now and going forward. While global trends suggest that the increasing tide of state surveillance, monitoring and censorship online will not dissipate, Internet users must build greater resilience to protect and defend basic human rights in the digital world, including freedom of expression, freedom of association and privacy.

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Civil society groups, bloggers, human rights advocates, students, journalists, and academics should band together to build the technical and legal capacity needed to defend internet rights within the region against the growth of government surveillance, as well as corporations seeking to capitalise on the plethora of personal information online. Public awareness about digital rights and their importance to a vibrant democratic society is crucial to building digital resilience.

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This post appears as part of the Regional Learning Hub, a New Mandala series on the challenges facing civil society in Southeast Asia supported by the TIFA Foundation.