Asia in Review Archive


Date of AiR edition

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31 August 2021

Timor-Leste: Health system threatened to collapse

(nd) A recent spike in Covid-19 cases has urged the government to say the country’s health system is “in danger of collapsing”. Most new infections are in connection with the Delta variant. Additionally, over 100 medical workers are infected with the virus. The government of Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak has called for international aid for logistics and resources. Case numbers totaled to 14,935, with 3,816 still active. [UCA News]

17 August 2021

Indonesia: Criticism for honoring militia leader 

(nd) Human rights groups in Indonesia have criticized President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo for honoring former pro-Jakarta militia leader Eurico Guterres with the country’s second highest medal last week, calling it “a serious betrayal of humanity and morality and ignores justice for the victims.”

Following East Timor’s UN-backed vote for independence in 1999, East Timorean Guterres opted for Indonesian citizenship and led militia group Aitarak, fighting for its continued integration within Indonesia. According to a UN report, between 1,000 and 2,000 civilians died and another 500,000 were uprooted in the violence surrounding the referendum, to which Guterres was linked.

A human rights court set up by Indonesia in 2002 convicted Guterres of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to 10 years in prison, upheld by the Supreme Court in 2006, which acquitted him in 2008 after a subsequent case review request, citing new evidence. A tribunal set up by the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) was called a sham by rights groups for senior leaders were not prosecuted, questioning the professionalism and impartiality of the prosecution, also drawing international criticism.

Guterres is a member of Gerindra, a political party founded by Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, the former son-in-law of President Suharto, a retired military officer accused of war atrocities during the occupation of East Timor by rights groups.

When the Portuguese left their late colony in 1975, Indonesia invaded East Timor, which became independent in 2002 as Timor-Leste.

Jokowi, whose chief security minister and member of the presidential advisory team Wiranto was then armed forces chief in East Timor, and Prabowo, commanding general, has been specifically criticized for breaking his earlier pledge to resolve old human rights cases. [Benar News]

17 August 2021

Indo-Pacific forces from 21 partner nations kick off SEACAT

(lm) Maritime forces from Indo-Pacific partner nations on August 10 began the 20th iteration of the Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (SEACAT) naval exercise in Singapore and virtually. [Al Jazeera] [NavyTimes]

Signifying the largest iteration to date, this year’s exercise involves ten ships and more than 400 personnel. 21 nations participate, including Australia, Bangladesh, Brunei, Canada, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Maldives, New Zealand, Philippines, South Korea, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Timor-Leste, United Kingdom, United States, and Vietnam.

This year’s also presents a new element by incorporating international organizations and nongovernmental organizations, whose objective is to create an even more realistic scenario to “enhance understanding and adherence to accepted rules, laws, and norms,” the US Navy said in a statement. Participants include United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), EU Critical Maritime Route Wider Indian Ocean (CRIMARIO), and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). [Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet]

The SEACAT exercises commenced just a day after more than 10,000 troops from China and Russia began a major exercise, West-Interaction 2021, in China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. [AiR No. 32, August/2021, 2]

Last year, the event was conducted as part of a virtual symposium amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

10 August 2021

Chinese Foreign Minister Wan Yi urges Southeast Asian counterparts to safeguard peace in South China Sea

(lm) China’s desire to expand its influence in Southeast Asia was on display last week at the region’s latest ministerial talks, where State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned against “external interference” in the South China Sea. [South China Morning Post] [The Straits Times]

Addressing virtually the ASEAN Regional Forum – which gathers foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its partners, including the United States, China and Japan – Wang said interference by countries outside the region constituted the biggest threat to peace and stability in the South China Sea. [Nikkei Asia]

While Wang did not name the United States outright, his warning came as Washington tries to rally European allies into a coalition to isolate China. Ahead of the meeting, the British Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth arrived in the disputed waterway, while Germany deployed one of its frigates to the Indo-Pacific region. [AiR No. 31, August/2021, 1]

Wang also played up his country’s readiness to conclude a “code of conduct” for the South China Sea, announcing that both sides had completed the preamble for the nonaggression pact the two sides have been negotiating since 2017. He also said China would never make further claims in the disputed waterway and promised that his country would not take any unilateral moves to intensify disputes in the region.

After wrapping up his virtual encounter with his ASEAN counterparts, Wang held talks with foreign ministers from four Southeast Asian countries – Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines – over three days in the southern city of Nanping. [Associated Press]

11 May 2021

Indonesia: Papuan independence leader arrested

(dql) Indonesian authorities have arrested Papuan independence leader Victor Yeimo, accused of masterminding the anti-racism protests in Papua in August and September 2019 against racist attacks on Papuan students in Java which spread to a several cities in the region, marking the most serious civil unrest in years in Indonesia. Yeimo is also accused of treason, inciting violence and social unrest, insulting the national flag and anthem, and carrying weapons without a permit. 

His arrest comes amid rising tensions in Indonesia’s easternmost provinces, where calls for independence have been raised for decades, with separatists questioning the legitimacy of a 1969 vote overseen by the United Nations that brought the region under Indonesian control. [Aljazeera]

In April, President Joko Widodo ordered a crackdown on separatists, while Indonesian government declared armed criminal groups in Papua terrorists after the killing of the region’s intelligence figure [see AiR No. 18, May/2021, 1].

In a latest development, 400 more Indonesian soldiers from its 315/Garuda Battalion have been deployed in Papua. 315/Garuda Battalion soldiers are nicknamed ‘Satan troops’ after taking part in bloody conflicts in East Timor. [Reuters]

In response, Papuan separatists assured to be ready for a stand-off with Indonesian forces, warning that the deployment had shut the door to a peaceful dialogue. [The Australian]

27 April 2021

Press Freedom in Southeast Asia

(nd) Watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) recently released the World Press Freedom Index, revealing an increased repression and attacks on free press worldwide. The Covid-19 pandemic has globally been used as a pretext to impose repressive legislation and narrow the range of permitted speech for the sake of public health. According to the index, which evaluates 180 countries, journalism is seriously impeded in 73 nations and constrained in 59 other, making up 73 percent of the countries evaluated. 

Vietnam, 175th place, only above Djibouti, China, Turkmenistan, North Korea, and Eritrea, has intensified its crackdown on dissent leading up to the five-yearly congress in January 2021, arresting and sentencing bloggers and journalists. Malaysia fell 18 places to the 119th, prompted by the passage of an “anti-fake-news” ordinance to contain criticism on the government’s reaction to the pandemic and the state of emergency, as well as an investigation against media outlet Al Jazeera for a documentary on the situation of migrant workers during the pandemic, and proceedings against online news portal Malaysiakini, which was found guilty of contempt of court. [See also AiR No. 8, February/2021, 4]

A similar “anti-fake-news” decree designed for the pandemic was issued by Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha last March, and Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen continued his crackdown on civil society and the press with similar new powers to hinder reporting. The Philippines continued its “war on drugs”, which is also directed against media, suspending the license of the country’s largest TV broadcaster, ABS-CBN, for its critical reporting, and targeting its editor, Maria Ressa, with judicial campaigns. Myanmar, 140th place this year, but likely to drop to the bottom due to the February 1 coup and the deadly crackdown on civilians, was commented to be set back 10 years by these events. 

Contrarily, Timor-Leste made it to the 71st place, with RSF noting that “no journalist has ever been jailed in connection with their work in Timor-Leste since this country of just 1.2 million inhabitants won independence in 2002.” [RSF] [The Diplomat]

6 April 2021

Japan: Low rank in Global Gender Index 2021

(dql) In the Global Gender Gap Index 2021, recently announced by the World Economic Forum, Japan ranks at the 120th place out of 156 countries, making it the worst country among major advanced economies. In terms of political empowerment, the result is even worse, with Japan at the 147th place. This is echoed by data of the Cabinet Office’s White Paper on Gender Equality in 2020 according to which the ratio of female members in Japan’s Lower House reached just 9.9%, while only two out of 21 Cabinet members were women. 

The gender gap report, first published in 2006, quantifies gender equality evaluations of 14 items in four categories, including politics, the economy, education and health. The index is topped by Iceland, followed by Finland and Norway. Highest ranked Asian country are the Philippines at 17, followed by Lao PDR at 36 and Timor-Leste at 64. Iran occupies the lowest rank 156. [World Economic Forum] [Kyodo News]

For insights into factors for the resilience of patriarchal attitudes in Japanese society, see [CNN].

6 October 2020

Timor-Leste: National petroleum industry development on hold

(nd) The price drop for oil and gas following the Covid-19 pandemic has put at least a hold to plans by former prime minister Xanana Gusmao to build an onshore LNG plant and oil refinery to develop a domestic petroleum industry and limit dependence on foreign aid. The proposed  $18 billion Tasi Mane project that would build the respective infrastructure connected to the Greater Sunrise field via a 286 km pipeline across cross the Timor Sea. Deemed a nationalist prestige project, it remains unclear whether political leaders are willing to jeopardize the country’s independence by appealing to China’s state-owned Exim Bank for a $16 billion loan and possibly ending in the same kind of debt-trap other countries in the region already have. 

A growing number of politicians therefore deem the risky project logistically  and financially senseless, asserting due to the need of experts, no local jobs will be created. Additionally, the party of supporter Gusmao National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) fell from power  this year in a struggle with Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak and his People’s Liberation Party (PLP) over the passing of the budget. Gusmao has  resigned as chief negotiator of the Greater Sunrise gas field. 

With a tighter budget due to Covid-19 measures and repercussions, politicians seem less likely to add to the already spent money for buying out shares of foreign oil firms and building infrastructure near the proposed onshore plant. The political situation and the coalition remain unstable with frequent new forming governments , although all power transitions were peaceful. Additionally, new parties emerged, diversifying the political representers: Ruak’s PLP emerged in 2017, and KHUNTO party, gathering disenfranchised youths and, as an analyst called it, the “political wing” of the country’s martial-arts groups, which were outlawed by Gusmao in 2013 due to  criminal activity. [Nikkei Asia] [The Diplomat]


7 July 2020

Court upholds Australian government refusal to release documents on Indonesia’s 1975 invasion of Timor-Leste

(lm) An Australian court last week upheld the government’s refusal to release diplomatic cables and cabinet documents relating to Australia’s involvement in Indonesia’s 1975 occupation of Timor-Leste. Since the hearing began in 2018, academic Kim McGrath had repeatedly sought access from the National Archives to documents that record border negotiations between Indonesia and Australia in the 1970s.

Under the Archives Act, cabinet documents are made public after 30 years – currently transitioning to 20 years – however, the law also provides legislative protection to Commonwealth government records, which is why successive governments had blocked her applications for the documents over a number of years. In its decision, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) upheld various reasons for refusal, including that disclosing the documents “could reasonably be expected to cause damage to the security or international relations of the commonwealth”. [The Guardian]


12 May 2020

Timor-Leste: MPs petition Court of Appeal to investigate President Francisco Guterres for violating constitution 

(jk) 18 MPs have petitioned the Court of Appeal to investigate the country’s President for violating the constitution by not allowing nine other MPs to take up their nominated positions in cabinet since 2018 when the last parliamentary elections were held and by not dissolving the national parliament after it failed to pass a budget back in January. [Asia in Review No. 9, March/2020, 1] [Oekusi Post

What the legal challenge means for the government is yet to be seen. For now, the current PM who was down and outmaneuvered by a former ally not long ago, but then withdrew his resignation in the face of dealing with Covid 19, now looks to remain in government for the foreseeable future. [AiR Timor-Leste] [UCA News]


14 April 2020

Timor-Leste: PM withdraws resignation to tackle coronavirus

(jk) Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak of East Timor who had tendered his resignation in late February after failing to pass a budget for 2020 [Asia in Review No. 9, March/2020, 1], has temporarily withdrawn his resignation to fight the Covid-19 crisis. [The Straits Times]

17 March 2020

Timor-Leste: Coalition led by Xanana Gusmao ready to form government

(jk) After the government coalition collapsed and the prime minister resigned last month over the failure to pass a budget in parliament [Asia in Review, No. 9, March/2020, 1], a six-party coalition is ready to form a government led by the first president, former prime minister and independence hero Xanana Gusmao. 

Gusmao, who initially supported the now resigned PM and was part of his governing coalition, was essential in bringing down the government by withdrawing his support over the budget. Now, he expects to return to power at the helm of a newly formed coalition. [Channel News Asia]

3 March 2020

East Timor: Government coalition collapses and PM resigns

(jk) After failing to pass a budget for 2020, the government coalition supporting Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak of East Timor collapsed last week. The PM has since tendered his resignation but has said he will stay in office until a solution can be found. [Reuters]

10 September 2019

Timor-Leste: Domestic troubles but steady improvements on foreign relations 

(jk) On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of East Timor’s independence last week [AiR 36, September/2019, 1], this short background article looks at the young country’s relation with its neighbors, specifically Australia, Indonesia and ASEAN more broadly. While the country is facing some domestic issues with regards to mistrust between President and government, fanned by allegations of corruption, East Timor’s foreign relations are more hopeful and it continues to pursue its aim to join ASEAN. [RSIS]

3 September 2019

East Timor: 20 years of independence

(ls) The current developments in Papua remind of events two decades ago in what is now East Timor. The country just celebrated 20 years since a UN-backed vote ended a decades-long occupation by Indonesian forces and paved the way for it to become an independent nation. However, there has been little justice for the families of those killed in a wave of bloodshed unleashed by the Indonesian army after the 1999 independence vote. Efforts to prosecute army commanders for crimes against humanity have largely been unsuccessful. East Timor, or Timor-Leste, was recognized as an independent state in 2002. [Channel News Asia]

The Timorese independence movement Fretilin began to oppose Portuguese colonialism in the early 1970s, while developing a revolutionary program that included the emancipation of women. The Conversation offers an overview of the historic events that unfolded since then. [The Conversation]


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24 July 2018

East Timor: Parliamentary Elections 2018

(jk) For the second time within the span of a year, the citizens of East Timor have elected a new Parliament. As the parliamentary elections in East Timor on 22 June 2017 failed to produce a clear majority and a stable government. Subsequently, the President called for new elections which were held in May. The new parliament convened for the first time on 13 June and then elected Taur Matan Ruak, former President, as the new Prime Minister [Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung].

10 June 2018

“Timor-Leste is not a failing state”

(ls) Last month, Timor-Leste’s citizens elected a new government, with Xanana Gusmao the likely new prime minister. But the country’s prospects remain uncertain. In the New Mandala, Bobby Anderson argues that Timor-Leste is not a failing state. Rather, he writes that Timor-Leste’s bureaucratic problems, which can be described concretely, are concentrated in its capital Dili, an often insular center that lacks understanding of, and experience in, the rural areas where most Timorese live. According to his analysis, the problems involve ineffective logistics, haphazard supply chains, a lack of facilities standardization and maintenance, centralization of fiscal policy and procurement that takes no account of local conditions, and lengthy delays in payments and financial acquittals. [New Mandala]

13 May 2018

Timor Leste: General elections this weekend

(ls) Timor-Leste is set to hold the second general election in less than a year at the weekend. After a months-long political impasse, the 65-member Parliament was dissolved in January. In a tension-filled campaign, violent weekend clashes broke out between supporters of the Fretilin party and backers of the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction led by former president and independence hero Xanana Gusmao. Some 40 per cent of Timor-Leste’s people live in poverty. Providing jobs for the large numbers of young people and reining in public spending will be key tasks for the new government, analysts say. [The Straits Times]

11 February 2018

Timor-Leste: An example of a well-functioning democracy in Southeast Asia?

(ls) With Vietnam and Laos remaining one-party communist states, Cambodia dismantling the opposition, Thailand being under military rule and Myanmar under military control, the Philippines exposed to President Duterte’s attempts to undermine democracy, and Singapore and Malaysia never having been tested by a change of political parties in government, Luke Hunt argues in the Diplomat that Timor-Leste displays a remarkable resilience to maintain its democratic system. After last month’s dissolution of parliament and new elections called, he holds it likely that elections will take place in an orderly manner, showing the small country’s early democratic maturity. [The Diplomat]

29 December 2017

Timor-Leste: Uncertainty at home and in the region

Up until just after the general elections earlier this year, the political situation in Timor-Leste looked comparatively stable and on track. The third general elections since its independence went smoothly and with the Philippines as ASEAN chair, an advocate for its ASEAN accession held the keys to setting much of the regional agenda. After the election however, Timor-Leste has failed to form a government and new elections might be necessary to break the gridlock. With Singapore taking over as ASEAN chair, ASEAN will be guided by an opponent to its accession instead and the opportunity to make strides towards accession under more auspicious circumstances appears to have withered away [East Asia Forum].