Asia in Review Archive 2021


Date of AiR edition

News summary

31 August 2021

Indonesia: Tanker seized for alleged oil theft from Cambodia

(nd) A Bahamas-flagged oil tanker, captain and crew members, are being held by Indonesia for allegedly stealing about 300,000 barrels of crude oil from Cambodia, which seeks for its return. Three days after Cambodia issued an Interpol red notice about the oil, the M.T. Strovolos, was illegally anchored off Sumatra with its identification system turned off. It was intercepted by an Indonesian warship for sailing into Indonesian waters in the South China Sea without permission. The seizure occurred on July 27; it is unclear why the news was not published earlier. The ship was rented by KrisEnergy, a troubled Singapore-based oil and gas company, which filed for liquidation in June.

In late January, the Chinese and Iranian captains of two oil tankers were sentenced for carrying out an unauthorized ship-to-ship petroleum transfer in waters off West Kalimantan on Borneo Island. The incident urged the chief of Indonesia’s coast guard (Bakamla) to call for tougher laws against navigational violations in Indonesian waters. All ships passing through Indonesian waters are required to activate their automatic identification systems, or report any damage them. [Benar News] [South China Morning Post]

Having been introduced festively by the end of last year and had great outsized symbolic significance for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government, the extraction of crude oil from Cambodia’s waters in the Gulf of Thailand has been called a failure by Hun Sen in July. KrisEnergy earlier bought a controlling stake in the Cambodian oil field from the US-based oil giant Chevron in 2014, but lately defaulted on payment, probably also due to lower volumes of oils that were extracted. Cambodia’s offshore ambitions were meant to amount some $500 million in initial revenue to reduce dependency on Western aid money and the Chinese government. [The Diplomat]

24 August 2021

ASEAN not as effective and quick on Myanmar as hoped, Singapore’s foreign minister says

(mt/lm) The 10-member Southeast Asian regional bloc (ASEAN) has not been as effective on the crisis in Myanmar as hoped, Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said in an interview last week, as protests and a violent crackdown continue in the country.

Calling the situation in Myanmar “dire”, the Singaporean top diplomat said ASEAN was trying to be constructive, facilitate dialogue and deliver humanitarian assistance. He also said that his country and the regional bloc had “maintained lines of communication” with Myanmar’s shadow government formed by civilian lawmakers deposed by the military junta, the National Unity Government. [South China Morning Post]

Singapore is small but wields strong economic and political influence in Southeast Asia: The city-state is Myanmar’s biggest foreign investor, overtaking China in 2019 to bring in more than $24 billion of investments through lucrative real estate projects, banking, shipping, sand exports and construction, as well as arms sales. [The Irrawaddy]

In June, Singapore supported a resolution passed by the United Nations General Assembly in June, which called on member states “to prevent the flow of arms into Myanmar” and release Aung San Suu Kyi and other imprisoned leaders. Besides Singapore, ASEAN member states Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam voted in favor of resolution. [AiR No. 25, June/2021, 4]

Earlier this month then, alongside with Indonesia and Malaysia, it “pushed for tougher language” in a communique published following the appointment of Brunei’s Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof as ASEAN’s special envoy to Myanmar. [AiR No. 32, August/2021, 2]

Balakrishnan said he hoped there would be progress to report on Yusof’s visit to Myanmar before the 39th semi-annual ASEAN summit in November. But he also cautioned that the military had to grant the envoy access to all stakeholders for the visit to be meaningful.

24 August 2021

Cambodia: Union leader convicted

(nd) A prominent Cambodian union leader and government critic, Rong Chhun, was sentenced to two years in prison for inciting social unrest, after commenting on the border with Vietnam. This is the maximum penalty for Rong Chhun, the president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions and member of the Cambodian Watchdog Council, an umbrella NGO of unions representing teachers, workers, farmers, and students, who was arrested in July 2020. He stated that the demarcation of the eastern border with Vietnam had taken away land from farmers.

He was convicted alongside two other defendants, both arrested during rallies supporting Rong Chhun’s cause. Upon hearing the verdict, Rong Chhun shouted out “It is injustice […] it is implemented based on a plan and order from the ruler. The court is under the influence of a politician, so the court cannot find justice for me.”

Local rights groups as well as the ambassadors to Cambodia from Australia and the US condemned the verdict, emphasizing that the constitution guarantees freedom of expression and the right to peacefully gather.

The lack of independence of the court Rong Chhun pointed to illuminated the sensitive nature of the border between Cambodia and Vietnam. The former French colonies have not resolved all border areas, causing sometimes violent local incidents. Due to this territorial challenge, Cambodian nationalism has always been spiked with a fear of disappearance through Vietnamese encroachment. Opponents of CPP, which was installed by a Vietnamese invasion in 1979, frequently use the CPP’s close ties to Vietnam to claim a sellout of Cambodia.

The verdict follows the six-year ongoing crackdown on political and societal opposition, after the Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in 2017. This prompted a further crackdown, enabling the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all seats in the 2018 general election. [Radio Free Asia] [The Diplomat]

24 August 2021

Cambodia: Last Khmer Rouge leader to deny responsibility in appeal proceedings

(nd) During his hearing last Thursday, the last surviving leader of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime on denied involvement in genocide and crimes against humanity. Former President Khieu Samphan, 90, initiated the proceeding by appealing a 2018 guilty verdict. [See also AiR No. 33, August/2021, 3] He insisted he was in charge of securing national sovereignty and independence from Vietnam, which toppled the regime and said “I categorically refute the accusation and the conviction that I had the intention to commit the crimes” adding “No matter what you will decide, I will die in prison, I will die always remembering the suffering of my Cambodian people.”

The Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, during which an estimated 2 million people died in South East Asia´s worst genocide through mass murder, starvation, and torture. Pol Pot’s vision was the creation of an agrarian utopia. He was never tried for he died in 1998. [CNN] [The Diplomat]

24 August 2021

Vietnam to attend ASEAN’s AIPA-42 

(ct) A Vietnamese National Assembly (NA) delegation led by NA Chairman Vuong Dinh Hue attended the 42nd General Assembly of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly (AIPA-42) in Brunei on August 23. According to the agenda, the first plenary session focused on several issues including women’s empowerment, climate change, cyber security, and international economic integration. In his welcoming remarks, the AIPA-42 President and Speaker of the Legislative Council of Brunei noted that the theme of this year’s General Assembly highlights parliamentarians’ important role in supporting the ASEAN vision of a politically cohesive, economically integrated, and socially responsible community towards the ASEAN Community in 2025. Also, NA Chairman Hue presented a key-note speech on the situation in the region and throughout the wider, highlighting the role of multilateral cooperation of ASEAN. [Việt Nam News]

17 August 2021

Cambodia: Last living Khmer Rouge leader to start appeal

(nd) Following his conviction for genocide in 2018, the last surviving senior Khmer Rouge leader will challenge his sentence of life imprisonment in appeal proceedings this week. Khieu Samphan, 90, the former head of state, was convicted alongside “Brother Number 2” Nuon Chea, who died in 2019.  “Brother Number 1” Pol Pot, who led the Khmer Rouge, left about 2 million Cambodians dead from overwork, starvation and mass executions from 1975 to 1979. His goal was to transform Buddhist-majority Cambodia into an agrarian utopia. He died in 1998 before he was tried for his actions.

The competent court was created with UN backing in 2006 to specifically try senior Khmer Rouge leaders, applying a mixture of Cambodian and international law. It has convicted three people. Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge cadre, urged the court to cease its work, for it was creating instability for Cambodia. [Channel News Asia]

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.

17 August 2021

Japan resumes meeting with five Mekong countries

(lm) Japan held a virtual foreign ministerial meeting on August 13 with five Southeast Asian countries along the Mekong River, to reiterate its commitment to the subregion and to reinforce its foreign policy objective of pushing back against Chinese attempts to widen its sphere of influence. [South China Morning Post]

Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi met virtually with his counterparts from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam under the 14th Mekong – Japan Foreign Ministers’ Meeting.

While this Japan-Mekong meeting takes place annually, it was postponed from its original March date as Tokyo feared that holding it would be seen as recognizing the Myanmar’s military junta which seized power from an elected government. But Japan decided to go ahead after China hosted a meeting with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – including Myanmar – in June [see AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2], and the United States also met virtually with the bloc’s foreign ministers on July 14 [see AiR No. 29, July/2021, 3]. [Kyodo News 1]

Last week’s virtual encounter saw Japan pledging additional medical support for the five Mekong River countries – all of which are battling with COVID-19 surges due to the highly contagious Delta variant – on top of around 5.6 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine and $68 million worth of medical equipment including oxygen concentrators.

Foreign Minister Motegi expressed full support for the appointment of Brunei Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof as ASEAN special envoy to Myanmar to mediate between the military and pro-democracy protesters [see AiR No. 32, August/2021, 2]. Further, conveying concerns about the military’s nullification of the country’s November general election, the Japanese top diplomat called for a dialogue among all parties concerned and “expressed his strong expectations for a constructive response from Myanmar”. [Kyodo News 2]

10 August 2021

Cambodia: Hun Sen to lay out Cambodia’s ASEAN chair plan

(nd) With respect to Cambodia taking over the ASEAN chair from Brunei in less than five months, Prime Minister Hun Sen laid out the challenges for ASEAN on the day that marks its 54th anniversary after its foundation on August 8, 1967, pointing to the global pandemic, as well as the rivalry between China and the US. 

Additional issues according to Hun Sen were the pace of societal transformation due to technology, climate change and degradation of the environment.

To achieve its goals, ASEAN, according the Cambodian leader, shall, after overcoming repercussion of the global pandemic, implement its five comprehensive recovery framework goals, including enhancement of health systems, strengthening of human security, maximizing the potential of the intra-ASEAN market, by broadening economic integration and improve digitalization. 

According to observers, key challenges are maintaining peace and stability amid geopolitical rivalry, as well as Mekong water issues, transnational crime and poverty. It will be the third chairmanship of Cambodia which became an ASEAN member state in 1999. [Phnompenh Post]

10 August 2021

Cambodia: New committee to monitor journalists 

(nd) The creation of a committee by the government to promote “journalism ethics and professional standards” has caused worries abouts its presumptive use to intimidate media workers and disable criticism.

The committee is equipped with the power to discipline reporters. Nop Vy, head of the Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association (CamboJA), an independent network formed by former reporters of the Cambodia Daily and Phnom Penh Post, which were shut down, stressed that besides the Prime Minister himself most of the other 14 committee members were government representatives.

In the 2021 World Press Freedom Index, Cambodia ranked 144 out of 180 countries, with the media freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders adding Cambodians only had access to information provided by major media groups directly linked to the government. Following the dissolution of the main opposition CNRP in 2017 by the Supreme Court, the government launched a broad crackdown on activists, NGOs and media by closing several newspapers, blocking webpages and arresting journalists. [Radio Free Asia]

10 August 2021

Cambodia: New-found opposition parties likely to help CPP

(nd) Within last month, six political parties have been formed by former officials of the oppositional Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was banned in 2017. Parties have to meet certain criteria in order to be registered with the Ministry of Interior. Additionally, President Hun Sen would have to restore political rights of former CNRP members, who were suspended for five years as part of the ruling against the party by the Supreme Court.

While the party founders pledged to work towards restoring democracy in Cambodia and being a counterweight to Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), analysts say the move is likely to help CPP. The newly found parties are likely to reduce CNRP’s influence, resulting in a fractured opposition and a notion that the solution of CNRP was legitimate. The recognition of CPP of the parties might suggest to outsiders that the country’s political system was healthy, while in fact continuing to lack essential liberties defining a rule of law-based democracy.

Observers added, the new parties’ success would depend on endorsement by CNRP’s leaders, Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy, the first is still awaiting trial on unsubstantiated treason charges, and the latter in self-imposed exile in Paris for he was sentenced in absentia to 25 years for attempting to overthrow the government.

Elections are set for 2022 and a parliamentary vote in 2023. Newly found parties are Kampuchea Niyum Party, led by Yem Ponharith; Khmer Will Party, led by Kong Koam; the Khmer Love Nation Party, led by Chiv Kata; the Khmer Conservative Party, led by Riel Khemrin; the Kampuchea Reform Party headed by Pol Horm and Ou Chanrath; and the National Heart Party, founded by Siam Phluk.

The dissolution of the CNRP in 2017 by Cambodia’s Supreme Court marked the prelude to a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the opposition, NGOs, and the independent media, enabling his CPP to win all 125 seats in parliament in the 2018 general election. [Radio Free Asia]

10 August 2021

ASEAN to grant “dialogue partner” status to Britain

(nd) In an important step in Britain’s post-Brexit mission to build strong bilateral diplomatic ties with the region, it was granted “dialogue partner” status by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Upon its exit of the European Union in 2020, Britain aimed to shift its market from Europe to Asia and the Indo-Pacific. This grants Britain high-level access to ASEAN summits, furthering hopes to build cooperation with respect to climate change and security. For a deeper economic cooperation, Britain has also applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. The decision marks the end of a 25-year moratorium to award third parties the bloc’s highest institutional partnership. [Reuters] [The Diplomat] [Jakarta Post]

10 August 2021

Cambodia, Chinese dam construction dire consequences, says HRW report 

(nd) According to a recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, Cambodia’s largest hydropower project, a China-backed joint venture and part of the Belt and Road Initiate (BRI), has caused mayor social and environmental destruction. The Lower Sesan 2 dam in northern Cambodia is supposed to generate 400 megawatts at peak capacity and about 1,998 gigawatt hours per year, just over 15% of Cambodia’s annual electricity production. The HRW report said capacity was likely just a third of that. Also, the construction had reduced fish catches and taken away agricultural land vital for the mostly indigenous ethnic minority communities living in the area, according to interviews with the affected between 2019 and 2021. Some families were compensated, but far from adequate, according to HRW HRW linked the issues with Sesan 2 to the other five large China-funded hydropower dams, as well as the global perspective of BRI, suggesting more similar problems to arise from those infrastructure projects, infamous for their poor human rights protections.

Lower Sesan 2 was part of a 1999 Asian Development Bank-funded report and deemed “unattractive for investment due to its marginal financial viability” and “heavy environmental and social impacts” in a 2009 report. The project went ahead initially led by state-owned electricity giant Electricity of Vietnam (EVN), which was taken over by China’s Hydrolancang International Energy later, which holds 51% ownership. The local partner, Cambodian conglomerate Royal Group, owns 39% and EVN retained 10%. For now, the dam is privately run but will return to government ownership after 40 years. Hydrolancang is a subsidiary of state-owned China Huaneng Group. Upon its operation start in 2017, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen claimed the project would lower electricity prices, dismissing environmental concerns. [Nikkei Asia] [Asia Times]

10 August 2021

US senators plan to reintroduce sanctions against Cambodian officials

(nd) Democratic Senators Ed Markey and Dick Durbin and Republican Marco Rubio announced to work to reintroduce sanctions on Cambodian officials, for undermining democracy, engaging in corruption, or otherwise violating human rights. Sanctions include freezing of assets of senior Cambodian officials, and visa restrictions. The edited version of the already existing Cambodia Democracy and Human Rights Act would require US president Joe Biden to submit a report to Congress whether China’s activities in Cambodia have caused a deterioration of democracy and human rights. The senators have been vocal in their criticism of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who Rubio referred to as a “dictator”. In his crackdown following the dissolution of the main opposition party CNRP, US radio station Radio Free Asia was affected inter alia. During her visit to Cambodia in June, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman expressed concern about China’s military presence, which was in regard to the demolition of US-funded buildings, allegedly housing Chinese military bases. [See also AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2AiR No. 24, June/2021, 3] [Reuters]

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]

10 August 2021

Brunei diplomat appointed ASEAN special envoy to Myanmar

(mt/lm) Foreign ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on August 4 appointed Brunei Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof as their special envoy to Myanmar, after a months-long delay in diplomatic efforts to resolve the coup crisis.

The 10-nation bloc has been under increasing international pressure to act on violence and instability in Myanmar, an ASEAN member. The regional group is hamstrung by its bedrock policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of member nations and by its consensus decision making, meaning just one member state can shoot down any proposal.

In a joint statement published two days after a fraught five-hour online meeting, the ministers also reiterated their concerns about the situation in Myanmar, including reports of fatalities and violence. But they stopped short of calling for the release of political detainees, saying only they “heard calls” for their freedom, in a reflection of the sensitivity of the issue. According to reporting in the South China Morning Post, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore had “pushed for tougher language” in the communique, but some of it was vetoed by the junta representative Wunna Maung Lwin. [South China Morning Post]

Erywan was among at least four candidates proposed by ASEAN, and Myanmar was believed to have preferred Virasakdi Futrakul, a former Thai Deputy Foreign Minister and Ambassador to Yangon [see AiR No. 31, August/2021, 1]. But Indonesia, which traditionally holds significant sway on regional matters, wanted its former Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda to be appointed.    Thus, the appointment of Erywan is seen as a compromise by Brunei, which currently holds ASEAN’s Rotating Chair. [The Irrawaddy]

Further, the junta’s decision to yield to the bloc’s pressure may be seen as an indication that its military rulers are still hoping to rely on ASEAN support as they face international condemnation. For last week’s discussions were held just a day after Myanmar’s ruling State Administrative Council announced it had become a “caretaker” government, with its current chairman Senior General Min Aung Hlang taking the title of Prime Minister [see AiR No. 31, August/2021, 1]

Some ASEAN lawmakers responded warily to Erywan’s appointment, noting that he led a delegation to Myanmar in June and met only with the junta [see AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2]. The special envoy must ensure “he does not become a pawn in the junta’s game” of using ASEAN to gain international legitimacy while it continues its oppressive rule, said Kasit Piromya, a former Thai foreign minister and board member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights. [Nikkei Asia] [The Washington Post]

According to one report, the special envoy will fly to Myanmar this week to begin talks with the various contending parties, including ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners. He will also oversee the delivery of a humanitarian aid package, with the communique calling for the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance to begin work on “policy guidance.” [The Diplomat]

3 August 2021

Cambodia: Court to sentence opposition activists on incitement charges

(nd) Nine activists, including a lawmaker from the outlawed opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) were sentenced under incitement charges to prison terms ranging from 12 to 20 months. The convicted were rallying in front of the Chinese Embassy in October last year trying to submit petitions to the embassies of China, France, and the United States, arguing Cambodia had violated the democratic principles set forth in the Paris Peace Agreement.

One of the defendants complained about a violation of detainees’ rights, lack of treatment for ill prisoners, and verbal abuses by guards, which was ignored by the judge. Civil society groups condemned the verdict, arguing the peaceful protest in front of the embassy was covered by their freedom of expression. 

The CNRP was dissolved in 2017 by Cambodia’s Supreme Court, preluding a wider crackdown on NGOs and the independent media, enabling Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party to win the country’s 2018 general elections. [Radio Free Asia]

3 August 2021

Cambodia: Opposition figure convicted, US sanctions for officials

(nd) A former commune council of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was convicted of “incitement to commit a felony” for participating in weekly protests for the release of other arrested opposition party members. The so-called “Friday Wives” are a group of women who have been staging weekly protests demanding the release of their husbands, all CNRP members who were jailed on incitement charges for opposing Prime Minster and CPP leader Hun Sen. The Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November 2017, following the arrest of its leader Kem Sokha, which preluded a broader crackdown on NGOs and independent media.

On the same day, US House of Foreign Affairs Committee passed the Cambodia Democracy Act to sanction Cambodian officials for undermining democracy. Last November, a group of senators publicly urged the Trump administration to impose targeted sanctions against CPP leader Hun Sen, who is in power since 1985, under the Global Magnitsky Act.  [Radio Free Asia]

3 August 2021

US Secretary of State Blinken participates in five ASEAN-related virtual ministerial meetings this week

(mt/lm) US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is meeting virtually with his counterparts of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) this week, as the Biden administration seeks to show the region is a priority while also addressing the ongoing crisis in Myanmar. These will be the U.S.-ASEAN, East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum, Mekong-U.S. Partnership, and Friends of the Mekong ministerial meetings. [U.S. Department of State] [Reuters]

Both sides held their first encounter via videoconference on July 14, after Blinken had to cancel the initial meeting over technical difficulties after keeping his counterparts waiting. During the virtual meeting last month, Blinken urged his counterparts to take “immediate action” on the so-called “Five-Point Consensus” reached by the bloc’s leaders in earlier in April and appoint a special envoy to Myanmar. [AiR No. 29, July/2021, 3]

The virtual encounters come after the Biden administration in its early days was seen as paying little attention to the region of more than 600 million people, focusing instead on the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a loose strategic coalition comprising of France, the United States, India and Australia. Still, analysts say a vital US engagement cannot only rely on military considerations but will also have to provide an economic perspective

But Washington has failed to introduce any large economic projects in the region after the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement was nixed by the previous US administration in 2017. It has also excluded itself from one of the world’s biggest trade pacts – the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which comprises of fifteen Asia-Pacific economies and has been enthusiastically embraced by China [see AiR No. 46, November/2020, 3]. [The New York Times]

Against this backdrop, US top US officials have made a string of visits to the region in recent months: Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand in May and June [see AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2]; Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was in Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines this week; and Vice President Kamala Harris is set to visit Singapore and Vietnam next month. [see articles in this edition]

3 August 2021

ASEAN foreign ministers discuss special envoy, aid to Myanmar

Foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) met virtually on August 2 for their annual gathering with the selection of a special envoy for Myanmar and finalizing an emergency plan to help control a coronavirus outbreak that many fear is spiraling out of control high on the agenda. [Associated Press] [Kyodo News]

The meeting was held a day after Myanmar’s military leader Min Aung Hlaing said that his government would accept the dispatch of the special envoy agreed in April by ASEAN to mediate among the parties and find a peaceful resolution to the crisis in the country. [see article in this edition]

The dispatch of the special envoy was one of five items agreed upon at an extraordinary ASEAN summit held in Indonesia in late April to discuss the troubles unfolding in Myanmar. The so-called Five-Point Consensus also included the need for the cessation of violence; the delivery of humanitarian aid through the ASEAN Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance; and the beginning of political dialogue to end the crisis. [AiR No. 17, April/2021, 4]

Of the three original nominees for the ASEAN special envoy, Min Aung Hlaing said, his government had agreed to select Virasakdi Futrakul, a former Thai Deputy Foreign Minister and Ambassador to Yangon, adding that “for various reasons, the new proposals were released and we could not keep moving onwards.”

Other nominees include Hassan Wirajuda, a former Indonesian Foreign Minister, and Razali Ismail, a Malaysian who in the 2000s served as the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to Myanmar and played a pivotal role in releasing Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in May 2002 [see AiR No. 28, July/2021, 2].

People familiar with the discussions said the 10-member bloc wants to designate Brunei Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof as special envoy to Myanmar, but are waiting on approval from Myanmar’s military regime. Yusof, who is currently serving as ASEAN’s Rotating Chair, had previously visited the country on June 3 for talks with junta leader Min Aung Hlaing [see AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2]. [Al Jazeera]

In their virtual meeting, foreign ministers of the 10-nation bloc were also looking to finalize a plan to bring in medicine and medical equipment to Myanmar through the regional bloc’s disaster-response center with the military leaders’ approval. They were also expected to announce some progress in four years of painstakingly slow negotiations with China to craft a “code of conduct” aimed at preventing conflict in the disputed South China Sea.

27 July 2021

Australia to negotiate agriculture work visa for ASEAN nations

(nd) After years of resistance, pressure from the Australian National Party and the farm lobby succeeded to create a new agriculture visa for workers from ASEAN nations. Depending on the vaccination progress, applications might start from November 2021 respectively early 2022. The opposition against it was based on negative experiences in the US, Europe and Gulf states. While Australia wanted to avoid to become a low-skill worker society, a seasonal worker visa was already introduced in 2010, and as of 2021, overseas students were allowed to work full time in the tourism and hospitality industry. Main problems of low-skill guest worker visas are high risks of exploitation and abuse, high occupational health and safety risks as well as racism. Additionally, foreign workers can present competition to unemployed local in the same sector. Disadvantages for the workers will likely exist with the new visa given the power of the Australian farm lobby. While employers might pay for English testing and the visa itself, travel costs will remain with the workers, and there are frequent reports of workers being forced to pay inflated accommodation rates. These issues are accelerated by the very common creation of labor-hire companies, which calls for effective regulation. Employers with a record for exploiting workers or hiring undocumented workers should be excluded. Additionally, it is argued, minimum wages should apply as well as all relevant information provided to the workers upon arrival. Especially, a complaint mechanism shall be put in place, consisting of industry, union and government body representatives. Union membership of the worker is desirable, also an independent review of the new visa a year after its imposition. [East Asia Forum]

27 July 2021

US boosting efforts to repair its ties with ASEAN

(nd) The upcoming visit of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to ASEAN this month is in line with efforts of Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the Biden administration to enhance estranged relations with ASEAN nations. While Blinken emphasized cooperation with respect to security in the Indo-Pacific, rejecting once again “unlawful” Chinese claims in the South China Sea, he urged the bloc for a coordinated response to the coup in Myanmar. The mission of Austin highlights the US’s commitment to counter Chinese activity in the disputed waters, visiting frontline states Vietnam and the Philippines, and the regional hub of Singapore, where he is expected to elaborate on US military strategy in the South China Sea. Contrary to Trump, who participated in 2017 but sent lower-level representatives for the following years, Biden will participate in the ASEAN summit later this year. As a mixture of Trump’s neglect of the region and the necessity for aid amid the global pandemic, regional states became more dependent on China. [Channel News Asia]

Yet, an annual survey by the ISEAS Yusof-Ishak Institute found that 61.5% of respondents preferred closer ties to the US than to China. Therefore, the US has been vocal on resolving the situation in Myanmar, has stepped up efforts for its own version of vaccine diplomacy by donating vaccinations, and reassured its commitment to a “free and open Mekong region”, accusing China of destabilizing downstream countries and harming the environment. Reactions by regional leaders after the US-ASEAN summit earlier this month were very positive, calling it a sign of “refreshed commitment” to the region. President of long-time ally Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has long been criticized for his China-friendly stance, which he has modified subsequently with respect to upcoming elections, most notably with reference to the 2016 Arbitration Tribunal award rejecting Chinese maritime claims as well as with frequent actions by the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) chasing away Chinese ships operating within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. This raises the hope of the full restoration of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), a large-scale, rotational American military presence in the Philippines, before he leaves office. [Asia Times]

27 July 2021

Cambodia: Former opposition council member arrested without warrant

(nd) A Cambodian court detained former opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) council member Kem Tola, returning from Thailand, without a warrant. She had been tried in absentia last April, charged for incitement after gathering with activists and posting comments on Facebook in support of CNRP acting president Sam Rainsy to return to Cambodia from self-imposed exile in Paris. She fled to Thailand in 2019 and returned, after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen offered amnesty to CNRP activists living abroad upon return, to pursue a business. 

Critics said the latest arrest is part of Hun Sen’s fear of alleged plans by Sam Rainsy to form a new shadow government, and topple his administration. In what preluded a major crackdown on opposition and civil society, the Supreme Court dissolved CNRP in late 2017, enabling Hun Sen to win all seats in the 2018 general election. [Radio Free Asia]

27 July 2021

Cambodia: Further charges against environmental activists

(nd) Three Mother Nature environmental activists already serving a prison sentence for incitement convictions were charged with anti-government conspiracy, facing a potential prison sentence of 10 years. They were questioned by the court without a lawyer present. 

The previous verdicts are related to protests against forest and water projects and condemned by human rights groups. The newly added charges for the same action allege plotting against and insulting the country’s king. Executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) commented it will be difficult for the activists to access legal aid and that the charges are intended to scare off other environmental activists. Critics say the government has failed to fight illegal logging in Prey Long, a nature reserve forest in the North of the country. [Radio Free Asia]

20 July 2021

ASEAN and the EU’s AI legislation

(nd) According to a recent analysis, the EU’s recent draft legislation to harmonize artificial intelligence (AI) rules is unlikely to have direct impact on similar legislation in Southeast Asia. Still, there might be some repercussive effects of it since the objectives of the legislation, risk mitigation for AI systems, is relevant for the region as well. As part of China’s Belt and Road initiative, competitively-priced technology has already been exported through Chinese companies, namely Huawei, Hikvision, Dahua and ZTE, notably in the area of face recognition, raising concerns about security risks and the danger of importing norms and values from the system providers.

Regionally, AI-based systems are not produced largely yet, with the exception of Singapore having launched a national AI strategy for AI-based solutions in the global market. One obstacle therefore for implementing EU rules directly is the lower degree of integration of markets and regulations in the regional bloc as opposed to the EU. Nevertheless, in its first Digital Ministers’ Meeting early this year, ASEAN adopted a Digital Masterplan 2025 with the aim of a regional policy for best practice guidance on AI governance and ethics. A key issue will be regulating cross-border data flows among member states which have localization requirements for personal data. 

The recently adopted Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership missed this chance and still enables parties to restrict cross-border data flows, with the sole requirement of non-discriminatory application. Of the signatories, only Singapore and Vietnam implemented the “gold standard” digital trade provisions supporting cross-border data flows. Since most ASEAN members have already formed a national AI strategy, it could be beneficial for the bloc to focus on a sector-based approach to subsequently build a common framework for AI policy consolidation. [East Asia Forum]

20 July 2021

Cambodia to chair ASEAN in 2022

(nd) For the upcoming Cambodian chairmanship of ASEAN, some core issues were identified in a recent analysis, which in part had been already identified for its last chairmanship in 2012. Back then, Cambodia was criticized for siding with China over conflicting territorial claims at the South China Sea. Cambodia is a non-claimant state to the disputed waters and repeatedly referred to its neutrality, yet ASEAN has to address the desperately needed Code of Conduct issue, which needs a central and united approach of the bloc. 

Similarly, the aftermath of the coup and the situation in Myanmar are yet to be solved, with the violence continuing amid a spike in Covid-19 and unlikeliness of a successful implementation of ASEAN’s five-point consensus reached during its special summit in April. Additionally, Cambodia itself is criticized for its poor human rights record and has a less strict attitude towards the coup than other bloc members. Another unsolved cross-border issue is the environmental situation in the Mekong Delta region caused by a multitude of big dam projects at the Upper Mekong River.

With all three issues, the growing US-China rivalry is putting even more pressure on the bloc’s members, driving division within and making a united stand harder to achieve. This applies especially given Cambodia’s high economic and military involvement with China. For months, tensions were simmering due to the alleged establishment of a Chinese military base in Cambodia opposed by the US. While Chinese vaccinations have come under criticism and some bloc members have stopped using Sinovac, Cambodia is exclusively using Chinese vaccinations, showing their high dependence on China. [East Asia Forum]

20 July 2021

Cambodia, Thailand to create joint business council

(nd) Cambodia and Thailand signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) in order to have the newly-established Cambodia Business Council (CBC) Bangkok and Thai Subcontracting Promotion Association (Thai Subcon) join forces to boost bilateral trade and investment. The cooperation furthers the implementation of Cambodia’s 2021-2023 Economic-Diplomacy Strategy. The collaboration of networks will cover a wide of areas, such as automotive parts, food processing machinery and electronics and generally increase potential in manufacturing, management, marketing and procurement. In 2020, the countries’ bilateral trade volume amounted to $7.236 billion, down by 23.17 % from 2019 due to the repercussions of the global pandemic. [The Star]

20 July 2021

Cambodia to ask China for a construction loan

(nd) For the creation of a bridge and a road to cross the Tonle Sap River, connecting Kampong Chhnang to Kampong Thom provinces, Cambodia has asked China for a loan. Delays to the $200 million project were already announced in 2019. Approval is expected due to the good relations between the country and precedent of infrastructure building support. [Phnompenh Post]

20 July 2021

United States urge ASEAN members to act on Myanmar, rejects China maritime claims

(mt) Addressing a video conference with foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on July 14 urged the group to take joint action to help end violence, restore a democratic transition and release those “unjustly detained” in Myanmar. [The Irrawaddy] [The Straits Times]

The virtual session marked the first such high-level meeting between the two sides under the administration of US President Joe Biden. Both sides were scheduled to hold their first foreign ministers’ encounter via videoconference on May 25, but Blinken, who was touring the Middle East at the time, cancelled over technical difficulties after keeping his counterparts waiting.

Laos, which coordinates the bloc’s “dialogue relations” with Washington, had wanted the session to be held back-to-back with the ASEAN Regional Forum on security next month, but Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia were persuasive in preponing it.

The meeting comes amid rising concerns that the Biden administration has done little to engage ASEAN since taking office in January, focusing instead on the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a loose strategic coalition comprising of France, the United States, India and Australia, which is increasingly seen as a potential counterweight to growing Chinese influence and alleged assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific.

During the virtual meeting, Blinken urged his counterparts to take “immediate action” on the so-called “Five-Point Consensus” reached by the bloc’s leaders in earlier in April and appoint a special envoy to Myanmar. The ASEAN has been showing limits in firmly doing so both due to internal disagreements among group members, but also key foundational principles of the group of non-interference and consensus [see AiR No. 28, July/2021, 2]. The US official also asked for the release of all those “unjustly detained” in the country, and the restoration of Myanmar’s democratic transition. [Voice of America]

Blinken also emphasized his country’s rejection of China’s “unlawful maritime claims” in the South China Sea at the meeting and said Washington “stands with Southeast Asian claimants in the face of (Chinese) coercion”. [The Diplomat]

The remarks assume added significance, coming as they did hot on the heels of the fifth anniversary of the international tribunal ruling on the South China Sea [see also AiR No. 28, July/2021, 2].   On July 12, 2016, an Arbitral Tribunal established in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) found that Beijing’s claim to “historic rights” or “maritime rights and interests” established in the “long course of historical practice” in the disputed waterway were inconsistent with UNCLOS and, to the extent of that inconsistency, invalid.

20 July 2021

Cambodia: Government denies independent inquiry in activist’s murder

(nd) Five years into the murder of activist Kem Ley, the Cambodian government denied to allow an independent inquiry into his death. The activist and radio commentator, who was asking for an independent inquiry into the family wealth of Prime Minister Hun Sen, was shot in 2016 a coffee shop. The government has denied any involvement in his death. A former Khmer Rouge and government soldier pleaded guilty to the dead and was sentenced to life in jail. His claimed motive of outstanding depth of $ 3,000 was denied by Kem’s widow and human rights activists, claiming the murder was politically motivated.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, commented that Kem’s killing “marked the beginning of the end of Cambodia’s commitment to uphold human rights and democracy.” In a joint statement issued by 45 non-governmental organizations, he reiterated their call for an independent Commission of Inquiry under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Cambodia is a party and therefore has a duty investigate. [UCA News]


13 July 2021

United States, ASEAN to hold virtual meeting of foreign ministers on July 14

(lm) The United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will hold a foreign minister’s meeting virtually on July 14, marking the first such high-level meeting between the two sides under the administration of US President Joe Biden. [South China Morning Post]

Both sides were scheduled to hold their first foreign ministers’ encounter via videoconference on May 25. But US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was touring the Middle East at the time, canceled over technical difficulties after keeping his counterparts waiting. Many ASEAN officials viewed the technical glitch as a political slight, a sign Washington had not invested sufficient effort in planning for the meeting and was once again putting off the pivot to Asia by prioritizing other regions in the world—in this case, the Middle East.

Against this backdrop, United States Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman last month embarked on an 11-day diplomatic tour that included stopovers in Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand, aimed at signaling that Washington was finally turning its diplomatic focus to Southeast Asia to counter a rising Chinese clout in the region. [AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2]

The rescheduled meeting will be attended by Blinken and all foreign ministers from the 10-member ASEAN, including Myanmar’s junta-appointed top diplomat. Laos, which coordinates the bloc’s “dialogue relations” with the US, had wanted the virtual session to be held back-to-back with the ASEAN Regional Forum on security next month, but Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia were persuasive in preponing it.

ASEAN previously held a foreign ministers’ meeting with China in Chongqing on June 7 [see AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2] and, more recently, with Russia in Jakarta on July 6.

13 July 2021

Singapore says ASEAN to ‘expedite’ Myanmar plan, as grouping remains deadlocked in selection of envoy

(mt) The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is working to expedite the implementation of the so-called ‘five-point consensus’ plan reached by their leaders to deal with the crisis in Myanmar, Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan reiterated on July 7. [The Diplomat]

Nearly three months after the military coup in Myanmar, the 10 ASEAN member states in April announced a Five-Point Consensus for resolving the country’s state of grinding emergency. Of the five points, three refer to outcomes desired by the grouping: the cessation of violence; the delivery of humanitarian aid through the ASEAN Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance; and the beginning of political dialogue to end the crisis. The other two are mechanisms to achieve these outcomes: the appointment of an ASEAN special envoy and the dispatch of a delegation to Myanmar to meet all relevant stakeholders. [AiR No. 17, April/2021, 4]

But ASEAN leaders failed to agree on a time frame for the implementation of the consensus, and progress has been slow, even on what would appear to be the most straightforward point of consensus: the appointment of a special envoy.

A recent report by Japan’s Kyodo News suggests that there are currently three nominees: Virasakdi Futrakul, a former Thai Deputy Foreign Minister and veteran diplomat; Hassan Wirajuda, a former Indonesian Foreign Minister, and Razali Ismail, a Malaysian who in the 2000s served as the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to Myanmar and played a pivotal role in releasing Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in May 2002. [Kyodo News]

Citing ASEAN diplomatic sources, the news outlet claims that each of the three candidates is being pushed by their respective government, and that the choice “appears to have become intertwined with the domestic and strategic agendas of the nominating countries.”

A case in point, Indonesia believes that Hassan could establish momentum towards resolving the situation in Myanmar. But the country’s military seems to be leaning toward the Thai candidate, most notably because the military junta “is [said to be] no longer interested in the Indonesian model of democratic transition but prefers the Thai model where the military wields superior political leverage and policy influence.” 

Thailand, whose military is said to have close ties to neighboring Myanmar [see AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3], seems to be primarily concerned with ensuring its border security and commercial interests vis-a-vis Myanmar. Bangkok this week reiterated that it does not have the “luxury of distance”, and thus could not afford to be complacent about what is happening in neighboring Myanmar. [Bangkok Post]

13 July 2021

Indonesia seeks greater role for Italy in ASEAN

(sa) On 7 July 2021, Indonesian Ambassador to Italy Esti Andayani pushed for greater ASEAN-Italy cooperation in sustainable development at the ‘Italy-ASEAN Partnership for Development: A Look at Sustainable Development’. The Ambassador, who is also chief of the ASEAN Committee in Rome (ACR) noted the benefits of post-pandemic cooperation and highlighted the economic impact of Covid-19. [Antara News]

13 July 2021

Russia backs ASEAN five-point consensus on tackling crisis in Myanmar

(lm) Speaking during a visit to Indonesia, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week expressed his country’s support for the Five Point Consensus agreed by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to end the political crisis in Myanmar. [The Straits Times]

The diplomat’s comments assume added significance, coming as they did amid deepening engagement between Russia and Myanmar’s military, even as major global powers sanction its businesses and top leaders and call for a global ban on arms sales to the Southeast Asian country.

Independent news outlet Myanmar Now on July 6 reported that a 20-member Russian delegation led by two high-ranking Navy officers secretly visited Myanmar between June 13 and 19, ahead of its junta leader’s trip to Russia last month, citing a document it said it had obtained. [Myanmar Now, in Burmese]

Myanmar’s junta leader Min Aung Hlaing arrived in Moscow on June 20 to attend the Moscow Conference for International Security, marking only his second known trip abroad since the army overthrew the civilian government in February [see AiR No. 25, June/2021, 4]. His visit followed on a trip to Moscow by a delegation led by the country’s Air Force Chief, General Maung Maung Kyaw [see AiR No. 21, May/2021, 4].

Both visits lend weight to arguments that claim Russia is seeking an avenue to advance its strategic interests in Southeast Asia. Moreover, Moscow – which has seen a steady decline of its weapons exports since 2010 – might consider Myanmar a “gateway” for this lucrative market. For the military junta, in turn, Moscow provides an opportunity to diversify supplies and to reduce its dependency on China, Myanmar’s main weapons supplier.

6 July 2021

Cambodia-US relations: Washington ends military academy scholarship program

(dql) The US has decided to end its program with Cambodia to send students to top American military academies, citing concerns over China’s increasing military presence in Cambodia.  

The decision comes amid increasingly strained relations between Phnom Penh and Washington over the enduring political repression under Prime Minister Hun Sen and his embrace of China. [Reuters]



29 June 2021

Growing presence of private security companies in Mekong region

(dql) According to findings of the Washington-based Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS), Chinese businesses with risky investments in economic development zones in the Mekong region are increasingly turning to China-based private security firms for protection. Among the 49 foreign private security firms operating in Cambodia and Myanmar, 29 are China-based ones.

Given the range of services these companies provide to Chinese businesses and tourists – including running safety trainings for companies, developing security apps for tourists, and providing armed guards for individuals or property as well as even conducting pandemic control activities – the report concludes: “Chinese private security companies are increasing China’s soft power in Mekong countries. They also, down the line, could serve as vectors of hard power.” [C4ADS] [The Diplomat]

29 June 2021

China holds Belt and Road conference

(dql) China held on June 23 a virtual conference on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Attending countries include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, Chile, China, Colombia, Fiji, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Malaysia, Maldives, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkmenistan, the United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam. Unlike the two previous conferences in 2017 and 2019 when heads of state and heads of government took part, this year’s forum was held at ministerial level.   

Equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and ensuring climate-friendly growth in the post-pandemic era topped the conferenced agenda. Among the major outcomes of the conference were two initiatives: first, the Belt and Road Partnership on COVID-19 Vaccines Cooperation” which addresses especially developing countries in boosting international cooperation in vaccine research and development, production and distribution, and improving accessibility and affordability of vaccines globally; and second, the Initiative for Belt and Road Partnership on Green Development, which seeks to strengthen cooperation among BRI countries in several areas including as green infrastructure, green energy and green finance, and promote green, low-carbon and sustainable development.” [The Diplomat]

29 June 2021

Cambodia: Authorities charge environmentalists with insulting king, plotting against government

(lm) A Cambodian court has charged four environmental activists with royal defamation and conspiracy to plotting against the government, after three of them were arrested last week as they investigated river pollution in the capital Phnom Penh. [South China Morning Post]

The three activists from the group Mother Nature were arrested on June 16 while documenting runoff into a city river. Over the weekend, then, they were variously charged with “plotting” and “insulting the King”, which carry maximum prison sentences of 10 years and 5 years, respectively. [Human Rights Watch]

Mother Nature‘s Spanish founder, who was deported from Cambodia in 2015 after he criticized the government’s plans for a controversial dam was also charged in absentia. He said the charges were “completely fabricated” and reflected government paranoia about its own citizens. [Amnesty International]

Use of lèse majesté in Cambodia is a relatively new phenomenon, with the legislation only enacted in 2018. Back then, they triggered alarm from rights groups who warned they could be wielded to target dissent.

Moreover, the tussle over Cambodia’s environment and resources has long been a contentious issue in the kingdom, with environmentalists threatened, arrested and even killed in the past decade. The United States last week scrapped a wildlife conservation program with Cambodia for what it said was a failure to tackle logging and intimidation of environmentalists [see AiR No. 25, June/2021, 4].

Especially Mother Nature has faced a raft of legal troubles from authorities. Last month, three environmental campaigners affiliated with the group were sentenced to between 18 and 20 months in prison for seeking to protest government plans to fill and privatize a major lake in Phnom Penh [see AiR No. 19, May/2021, 2].


29 June 2021

British foreign minister’s Asean trip highlights UK’s plan to shift trade and foreign policy focus

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab last week concluded a three-leg tour of Southeast Asia, in what observers describe as an attempt of putting meat on the bones to the United Kingdom’s plan to reinvent itself in the region in the post-Brexit era. [South China Morning Post 1] [GOV.UK]

This was Raab’s fifth visit to Southeast Asia since becoming Foreign Secretary, demonstrating the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific, as set out in the UK’s “Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy” in response to China’s growing influence on the world stage [see AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4].

Significantly, the trip coincided with Britain on June 22 formally launching negotiations to join the 11-member Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade deal, a key part of London’s attempt to pivot trade away from Europe after Brexit. [South China Morning Post 2] [The Guardian]

The UK applied to join the free trade agreement in January, a month after Prime Minister Johnson had invited three Indo-Pacific countries – Australia, India and South Korea – to attend the recently G7 summit as guests [see AiR No. 51, December/2020, 4]. The existing members of the trade alliance are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

While in Vietnam, Raab delivered opening remarks at the 5th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) on London’s ambitions for its Indo-Pacific tilt to an audience of representatives from more than 50 countries. He also met with Vietnamese leaders, including President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh and Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son to discuss the implementation of the UK-Vietnam Strategic Partnership Agreement, in addition to subjects such as global health security, climate change and combatting serious organized crime.

The Foreign Secretary then travelled to Cambodia to meet Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, marking the first Foreign Secretary visit to Cambodia since the British Embassy was reopened 30 years ago. During the meeting, Raab set out his country’s ambition to formally ascent as a new “dialogue partner” of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ahead of Phnom Penh taking up the ASEAN chair. The 10-nation bloc’s leaders in April said they backed the Foreign Secretary’s recommendation for such a move. This status would give London the closest form of relationship with ASEAN. [Associated Press]

Raab wrapped up his three-nation trip in Singapore, where he met with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on June 24 to discuss geopolitical security and climate change, as well as the international response to COVID-19. The Singaporean Premier said after the meeting that the two countries had a “shared interest in upholding free trade, multilateralism and a rules-based international order”. [The Straits Times]

The visit also comes at a time of growing defense and security cooperation with the region, as the UK’s Carrier Strike Group 21 led by the HMS Queen Elizabeth, makes its maiden visit to the region. The 28-week deployment to Asia assumes added significance, considering that it marks the largest concentration of maritime and air power to leave Britain in a generation. Last week, stealth jets carried out operational sorties for the first time from HMS Queen Elizabeth in support of the ongoing British and US military intervention against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. [Naval News]

22 June 2021

8th ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus

(pr/lm) China’s Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe last week reiterated that his country will not bend when it comes to Taiwan, the South China Sea and other “core interests.” Commenting on the growth of China’s military power, Wei suggested it should be considered “part of the growth of the world’s peace forces”.

Speaking at the 8th ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), held online and hosted by Brunei, Wei acknowledged other countries’ “legitimate concerns” on unspecified matters but said China’s national interests must be fully respected and safeguarded. He listed not only Taiwan and the South China Sea – where China has overlapping claims with several Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members – but also Xinjiang and Hong Kong. [Nikkei Asia 1]

The meeting brought together defense ministers from the ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and their counterparts from the six so-called “plus countries” outside the group: the United States, South Korea, India, Russia, Australia and New Zealand. These gatherings have been held since 2010, but the latest session marked the first since US President Joe Biden took office.

The remarks assume added significance coming as they did a day after Taiwan reported the largest-ever air incursion by Chinese forces. The also came just a week after advanced economies, at the Group of Seven summit, had also urged Taiwan Strait stability and encouraged “the peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues”.

Significantly, ADMM-Plus members also welcomed the expansion of the ASEAN Direct Communications Infrastructure (ADI) in the ADMM Process to the Plus Countries. The ADI aims to enable a dialogue to promote de-escalation of potential conflicts and to defuse misunderstandings and misinterpretations during crisis or emergency situations. In 2019, the ASEAN’s defense ministers adopted a concept paper to expand the ADI to the eight so-called “plus countries” outside the group. [South China Morning Post] [The Straits Times 1]

The day before the ADMM-Plus meeting, Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto told an ASEAN-only meeting that the bloc needs to solidify its own Indo-Pacific strategy to preserve its “unity and centrality.” During the virtual gathering, defense ministers from ASEAN also called for an early conclusion of a code of conduct for the South China Sea. [Nikkei Asia 2]

The ASEAN-only meeting also approved the establishment of a new Cybersecurity and Information Centre of Excellence in Singapore to better facilitate exchanges among ASEAN defense establishments and protect against the threats of cyber-attacks, disinformation, and misinformation. This center will complement the ASEAN Cyber Defence Network in promoting regional exchanges, interactions, and cooperation on cyber-security matters. [The Straits Times 2]

22 June 2021

United States-Cambodia tensions grow as Washington suspends wildlife sanctuary funding

(lm) The United States is ending an aid program aimed at protecting one of Cambodia’s biggest wildlife sanctuaries, and will redirect the money to support civil society and private sector initiatives in the region. [The Straits Times]

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) said it had invested more than $100 million to protect the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary. But the sanctuary lost nearly 9 percent of its forest cover since assistance began in 2016. Washington alleges that Cambodian authorities had not adequately prosecuted wildlife crimes or put a stop to illegal logging. [Deutsche Welle

The announcement marks a further deterioration of bilateral ties between the US and Cambodia. [Nikkei Asia]

For the decision comes less than a week after an American diplomat invited to inspect the Ream Naval Base in coordination with Cambodian authorities was denied full access to the facility, leading him to cut short his visit and ask for it to be rescheduled without any limits to what he could see. [AiR No. 24, June/2021, 3]

That trip was organized after US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Phnom Penh on June 1 and asked Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to allow the embassy’s defense attaché to make regular visits to the base, citing Washington’s “serious concerns” about China’s “military presence” at the site.

Cambodia said it had fulfilled its commitment to allow a visit as requested, and if US officials were not satisfied, they could request another visit as long as it did not involve spying or violating Cambodian sovereignty.


15 June 2021

Myanmar junta defends response to crisis amid ASEAN criticism

(lm) Myanmar’s foreign minister has defended the junta’s plan for restoring democracy, after a meeting at which his Southeast Asian counterparts pressed the military to implement a five-point “consensus” concluded at the ASEAN Summit held back in April. [The Straits Times]

At the China-ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting on June 6, the bloc’s top diplomats expressed disappointment at the “very slow” progress made by Myanmar on its five-point roadmap for ending the turmoil that has continued since the army staged a coup an ousted elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi on February 1. [AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2]

But on June 8, in the only reference to the ASEAN proposal, state media in Myanmar cited Foreign Minister Maung Lwin as telling his ASEAN counterparts that the junta had made progress on its own five-step roadmap for the country, which was unveiled by the governing body of the regime, the State Administration Council, after the coup. [see The Global New Light of Myanmar]

What is more, in the only reference to the ASEAN proposal, Lwin was cited as saying “discussions were made cordially” on it during recent discussion between two high-ranking ASEAN officials and the Myanmar military leadership.


15 June 2021

Japan, Czech Republic work with Cambodia over human resource development

(ad) Japan has recently pledged to continue providing more scholarships and training courses to Cambodia through the Ministry of Interior. The cooperation between the two countries will focus on health, human resource training and social assistance. Similarly, the Czech Republic has also promised its assistance to Cambodia in the human resource industry. Their cooperation will focus more on trade, investment and human resource training. [Khmer Times] [Agence Kampuchea Presse]

15 June 2021

Cambodia to battle human trafficking with Vietnam and US

(ad) Vietnamese representatives in Cambodia have received numerous reports on Vietnamese citizens being targeted and cheated by human trafficking rings. According to the Vietnamese embassy in Cambodia, these rings are led by Chinese nationals and include Cambodian and Vietnamese nationals as well. The Vietnamese agencies have contacted authorities in Cambodia to combat and save victims. Human trafficking rings have been targeting migrant workers due to job losses during the pandemic. [Khmer Times]

On a similar note, the US has reaffirmed its commitment to battling human trafficking in Cambodia. The US embassy stated that “Human trafficking affects people in every country on earth, and the United States encourages stronger efforts in Cambodia to prosecute traffickers, protect victims and prevent human trafficking”. With human trafficking on the rise due to the pandemic, it is a serious cause of concern. [Phnom Penh Post]

15 June 2021

US says full access to Cambodia naval base during invited visit was denied

(lm) The United States’ embassy in Phnom Penh said on June 11 that its defense attaché had been refused full access to Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base during an invited visit, just days after Washington expressed concern about China’s military activities at the base. [The Straits Times]

While on an official visit to Cambodia, on June 1, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman raised questions about China’s military presence at the Ream Naval Base and sought clarification about rapid construction of two buildings just north of where United States-funded facilities were demolished by Phnom Penh last year. [AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2]

After meeting Sherman, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen agreed to let the US embassy conduct regular visits, with the embassy’s defence attaché invited to the base on June 11. He also suggested that the official should be accompanied by journalists to clear the doubt of alleged government plans for hosting Chinese military assets and personnel.

But during the brief visit, Cambodian military officials refused to allow the US official full access to the Naval Base. The defence attaché therefore ended the tour and requested Cambodian military officials reschedule the visit with full access at the earliest opportunity.

The embassy said routine and frequent visits by US and other foreign military attaches to the base would be an important step towards greater transparency and mutual trust.


8 June 2021

US Deputy of State visits Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, amidst Chinese push

(pr/ad/lm) United States Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman last week concluded an 11-day diplomatic tour that included stopovers in Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand, signaling that Washington is finally turning its diplomatic focus to Southeast Asia to counter a rising Chinese clout in the region. [Nikkei Asia] [The Diplomat] [U.S. Department of State]

Sherman was the first senior State Department official in the administration of US President Biden to visit member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Both sides were scheduled to hold their first foreign ministers’ encounter via videoconference on May 25. But US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was touring the Middle East at the time, canceled over technical difficulties after keeping his counterparts waiting. Many ASEAN officials viewed the technical glitch as a political slight, a sign Washington had not invested sufficient effort in planning for the meeting and was once again putting off the pivot to Asia by prioritizing other regions in the world—in this case, the Middle East. [Foreign Policy]

Against this backdrop, commencing her three-nation tour, Sherman visited Indonesia on May 31 for talks with Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi. While in Jakarta, the US top diplomat also met with officials from the ASEAN Secretariat and the ASEAN Committee of Permanent Representatives to discuss expanding and deepening the US-ASEAN strategic partnership. 

On June 1, then, Sherman travelled to Cambodia where she promised Prime Minister Hun Sen $11 million in COVID-19 aid. There were also discussions on future opportunities in the oil and gas sector for bilateral cooperation and investment in water and green energy. Another key topic was Cambodia’s debt settlement to the US. Prime Minister Hun Sen proposed a gradual repayment scheme as well as converting 70 percent of the debt into aid towards education and mine removal throughout Cambodia. [Agence Kampuchea Presse]

Importantly, Sherman’s visit – the first by a US official of her rank or above in years – came against the larger backdrop of concerns by Washington about rapid construction of two buildings at Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, just north of where United States-funded facilities were demolished by Phnom Penh last year. [see article in this edition]

On June 2, then, Sherman met with Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha in Bangkok, where she announced $30 million in coronavirus assistance to Thailand. The two also exchanged opinions on the situation in neighboring Myanmar, with Sherman saying she believed Bangkok and the ASEAN are taking constructive approaches to achieve peaceful solutions. [Thai News Agency]


8 June 2021

China hosts ASEAN foreign ministers 

(dql) As part of the 30th anniversary of the ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations, China hosted this week a special China-ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting in Chongqing.

High on the agenda was the ongoing crisis in Myanmar, with Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia expressing disappointment over Myanmar failure to keep the “five-point consensus” agreed by ASEAN leaders at a special summit in April with de-facto leader Min Aung Hlaing.

Other issues discussed during the meeting included the reopening of borders, even as several South-east Asian nations deal with a surge in Covid-19 infections, and the tensions in the South China Sea. [Straits Times]

With reference to the South China Sea, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged to “reach the COC at an early date,” and reassured that China stands ready “to work with directly concerned parties of the South China Sea to increase dialogue and consultation, properly manage differences, and continuously enhance mutual trust.” According to the readout of the meeting released by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Foreign ministers of ASEAN countries attributed peace in the region to “important and fruitful relations,” between China and ASEAN, and suggested to “maintain the momentum of COC consultations, and jointly maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea.” [Ministry of Foreign Affairs, China]

8 June 2021

Thailand: A year on, Thai dissident still missing in Cambodia

(pr/lm) One year after prominent Thai dissident Wanchalerm Satsaksit went missing in Phnom Penh, international human rights watchdogs have called on Thailand and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to conduct an independent inquiry into the case. [Al Jazeera]

Wanchalerm is believed to have been abducted in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh in June of last year [see AiR No. 23, June/2020, 2]. Human rights groups believe his kidnapping was part of a pattern of politically motivated disappearances since 2016 of at least eight Thai pro-democracy activists living beyond its borders in neighboring countries.

A criminal investigation into the disappearance of Wanchalearm has been formally under way in Cambodia since September 2020 but there has been little progress on the case, with authorities to the present telling his family, foreign diplomats, and United Nations agencies that nothing has been found. [AiR No. 38, September/2020, 4]

Importantly, Cambodia has ratified the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which requires governments to investigate reports of disappearance and take measures to protect the relatives of a disappeared person from intimidation. [Human Rights Watch]

Thai authorities, in turn, have not energetically investigated the case, despite repeated promises to resolve Wanchalearm’s enforced disappearance. When relatives of Wanchalerm approached the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) for a progress report on the investigations last week, they said that the status is “work in progress”. They also claimed that Thai authorities had to wait for the result of a Cambodian court investigation that has dragged on interminably. [Prachatai]

In related news, a petition has been submitted to Parliament, calling on Parliament President Chuan Leekpai to expedite the passage of four bills outlawing torture and forced disappearances, proposed by opposition and government parties. [Bangkok Post]

8 June 2021

Cambodia and Switzerland cooperate on Mekong Region Cooperation Programme

(ad) Last week, the Cambodian-Swiss Governmental Consultation was organized to oversee the Swiss Mekong Region Cooperation Programme 2022-2025, where representatives from Cambodia and Switzerland met to discuss progress on preserving the Mekong River.

The discussion was predominantly focused on governance and economic development. They also exchanged inputs on climate change impacts and better natural resource management. The Swiss government is set to grant $13 million per year between 2022 and 2025. Since 2002, Swiss government has given grants worth $142 million to Cambodia for its development. [Agence Kampuchea Presse]

8 June 2021

EU and WHO partner together to support Cambodia’s health system

(ad) The European Union (EU) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have announced joint support for Cambodia, specifically towards the country’s health care system. The aid looks to improve Cambodia’s preparedness and response to future health threats and comes in line with EU-WHO’s regional health program for ASEAN states. [Agence Kampuchea Presse]

A total of $3.5 million is being invested into this project, which is spanning over three years. The EU delegation to Cambodia stated that the support comes out of solidarity and that collective action is needed in the current COVID-19 crisis. Cambodian Health Minister responded that this solidarity was much needed by Cambodia to battle against COVID-19. [Phnom Penh Post]


8 June 2021

France pledges almost $150 million to Cambodia until 2026

(ad) France has pledged to provide up $146 million in concessional loans per year until 2026 to support development in Cambodia. The promise was made at the fourth iteration of the Cambodia-France Consultation Meeting held via video conference on June 1.

France is one of Cambodia’s most important partners, providing Cambodia with numerous grants for technical and financial support. In the past three years, Paris has provided Phnom Penh with more than $293 million through its Agence Française de Développement (AFD) for “clean water, education and capacity building, rural infrastructure rehabilitation, agricultural development, climate change mitigation, and post-COVID-19 tourism recovery projects”. [Agence Kampuchea Press]

Last month, the AFD announced it would provide $1.82 million to the Mekong River Commission to improve and expand its monitoring program along the mainstream and key tributaries of the Mekong river. [AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3]

8 June 2021

United States flags ‘serious concerns’ over Cambodia’s China-backed navy base

(lm) In a meeting with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on June 1, United States Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman expressed concerns about the presence of the Chinese military in the Southeast Asian nation, urging Cambodia’s leadership to “maintain an independent and balanced foreign policy”. [Reuters]

Sherman’s visit – the first by a senior US official to Phnom Penh in years – coincided with a column from Cambodia’s state-owned news agency highlighted on social media by Prime Minister Hun Sen. Indicating a desire by Phnom Penh to shift out of the shadow of Chinese patronage and pursue a closer relationship with Washington, it said it was “time for the US and Cambodia, in China’s shadow, to reset ties”. [The Sydney Morning Herald]

During the meeting, Sherman specifically sought clarification about rapid construction of two buildings at Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, just north of where United States-funded facilities were demolished by Phnom Penh last year. At the time, Cambodia said it had razed the building to allow for further expansion and would relocate the demolished facility, denying reports of Chinese involvement [see No. 45, November/2020, 2].

Ream faces the Gulf of Thailand that lies adjacent to the South China Sea, where China has aggressively asserted its claim to virtually the entire strategic waterway. Washington has refused to recognize Beijing’s sweeping claims, and the Navy’s 7th Fleet routinely sails past Chinese-held islands in what it terms freedom of navigation operations.

After the meeting, Cambodia authorized the visit of US military attaches to the naval base, as requested by Sherman. Prime Minister Hun Sen, who agreed to the visit, also suggested that the officials should be accompanied by journalists to clear the doubt of alleged government plans for hosting Chinese military assets and personnel. [Khmer Times]

The inspection may also provide an opportunity for Cambodia to verify that the Ream Naval Base maintains its neutrality, if it wants to benefit from US assistance under a $2.3 trillion COVID-19 stimulus relief and omnibus spending bill, which then US President Donald Trump signed into law last December. [AiR No. 52, December/2020, 5].

However, the US embassy in Phnom Penh has not confirmed when its officials would visit the naval base.

On June 2, then, Cambodia’s Defense Minister Tea Banh said that his country had reached out to China to request help with modernizing and expanding Ream Naval Base, adding that China would not be the only country given access to the facility. [Channel NewsAsia]

8 June 2021

ASEAN envoys urge Myanmar junta to free prisoners, follow agreement

(pr/lm) Diplomatic efforts to engage with Myanmar’s junta intensified over the past week, as officials from the Association of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) completed a visit to Myanmar on June 5 after two days of discussions with military leaders about implementing a regional “consensus”.[South China Morning Post] [The Straits Times 1]

ASEAN’s Rotating Chair, Brunei’s Second Minister of Foreign Affairs Erywan Pehin Yusof, and ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi arrived in Myanmar on June 3 for talks with junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. 

Their visit was preceded by a visit to Myanmar by the head of the International Red Cross, who met with Aung Hlaing on June 3 to share concerns on “the use of force during security operations” and to make the case for better humanitarian access to conflict areas and for the resumption of Red Cross prison visits. [Reuters]

On June 5, then, China’s ambassador met with the Myanmar general in Naypyitaw, a day before the special China-ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting to commemorate 30 years of relations between Beijing and the regional bloc. [The Irrawaddy] [see article in this edition]

The trip of the two ASEAN representatives came more than five weeks after the blocs’ leaders had concluded a “five-point consensus” in April to end violence; promote dialogue; deliver aid; appoint a special envoy; and send a delegation headed by the envoy to Myanmar to meet “with all parties concerned” [see AiR No. 17, April/2021, 4].

But the Min Aung Hlaing said later that Myanmar was not ready to adopt the plan. Further, the special envoy has yet to be appointed amid divisions within ASEAN over the best person or people for the job, the envoy’s mandate and the length of the envoy’s term.

Against this backdrop, one day before the officials embarked on their trip, Indonesia on June 2 called on the bloc to immediately name an envoy. But Jakarta, which initially favored a single envoy to lead a task force, is at loggerheads with Thailand, whose military is said to have close ties to neighboring Myanmar [see AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3] and has pushed for a “friends of the chair” body of multiple representatives. [The Straits Times 2]

In the latest indication of Bangkok’s approach towards Myanmar, Thailand’s Foreign Ministry said that it believed “that quiet and discreet diplomacy between neighbors would be more effective and in line with traditional Thai diplomacy”. [The Straits Times 3]

The compromise supported by most ASEAN states is for three envoys, likely made up of representatives from Indonesia, Thailand and Brunei. A “concept paper” released by Brunei to the bloc’s members last month proposed the envoys only hold the position for the rest of the year, when it would be reviewed by the next chair of ASEAN, due to be Cambodia.

ASEAN’s divisions also underpinned its rejection of a draft UN resolution to impose an arms embargo on Myanmar last week. Several ASEAN nations were comfortable with a weapons freeze being included in the non-binding resolution, they said, but resistance led by Thailand and Singapore ensured ASEAN requested the clause be removed. [AiR No. 22, June/2021, 1]

1 June 2021

ASEAN member states want to drop proposed UN call for Myanmar arms embargo

(lf) All ASEAN member states, excluding Myanmar, have proposed watering down a UN General Assembly draft resolution on Myanmar, including removing a call for an arms embargo on the country, in a bid to win the unanimous support, “especially from all countries directly affected in the region”. Observers believe that ASEAN member states are afraid sanctions would restrict the influence the bloc could have on Myanmar’s military leadership. [The Straits Times]

The resolution was drafted at the request of Liechtenstein, with the support of 48 countries, including the United Kingdom, European Union and United States. A previous vote on the non-binding resolution scheduled for May 18 was postponed indefinitely, because of a lack of support from Asian countries in the region [see AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3].

While many western nations have put targeted sanctions on junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and a combined 38 senior figures and also black-listed military conglomerates, ASEAN nations have so far largely avoided measures that would hit the junta’s finances. 

The Myanmar junta in late April rebuffed a plan by ASEAN leaders to help end violence in the country, saying any “suggestions” would need to fit with its stated road map and come after “stability” is restored. Leaders of the nine countries, together with coup chief Min Aung Hlaing, had earlier appeared to reach a five-point “consensus” during a special summit that included an immediate cessation of violence and the appointment of a special emissary to mediate talks between all parties in Myanmar [see AiR No. 17, April/2021, 4].

1 June 2021

Singapore, Cambodia deepen cooperation on environmental issues

(ad) Singapore is interested in cooperating with Cambodia on waste management and clean water production, and will assist Cambodia through improving and providing training and capacity building.

Singapore has previously supported educational development in Cambodia through scholarships and exchange programmes and look to support the Kingdom even more. Through bringing in expertise from Singaporean companies in wastewater management, Singapore hopes to train Cambodian government officials. [Phnom Penh Post]

25 May 2021

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen defends close ties with China, points at Beijing’s financial lifeline

(ad) Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has defended his close relationship with China after facing criticisms of being too dependent on Beijing. While attending the “The Future of Asia” conference through video channel, the premier on May 20 called concerns that Phnom Penh has become over-reliant on, and a proxy for, Beijing “unjust.”[Nikkei Asia]

The following day, the Chinese Foreign Ministry also stated that China reciprocated Cambodia’s relations and perceptions, saying that Beijing’s help was to facilitate Cambodia’s development in a “win-win” cooperation. [Agence Presse Kampuchea]

The Cambodian prime minister also remained defiant about European Union (EU) trade sanctions imposed on the country last August, saying that EU’s assessment “did not conform with reality” and that his government would not seek to overturn the decision.

Back then, Brussels partially suspended the “Everything But Arms” trade privileges granted to the EU bloc for 20 percent of Cambodia’s exports, over what it called persistent human rights abuses and anti-democratic repression in the country [see AiR No. 33, August/2020, 3]. The move was a blow for the country’s $10 billion garment manufacturing sector, which relies on the European market.

25 May 2021

Cambodia: Villagers set up guard tents to prevent farmland clearing for airport project

(ad) 40 families living in Kandal Province, have set up guard tents and blocked roads to their village to prevent their farmlands from being cleared. The clearing was part of the new Phnom Penh International Airport project. The residents protested that they were yet to receive compensation for the loss of their farmland. For some families, the farmland has already been cleared and they are left without any compensation. 

This is the third time a company has violated an agreement of giving compensation to the owner prior to clearing their land. 2,000 plots of land are to be cleared for the airport, of which 1,000 plots have already been cleared. [The Phnom Penh Post]


25 May 2021

Cambodia: ECCC denies request to forward case file of former Khmer Rouge naval commander

(ad/lm) The Pre-Trial Chamber of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) on May 20 denied a request of the international co-prosecutor to forward the case file of former Khmer Rouge Navy Commander Meas Muth to the trial chamber. [Khmer Times] [The Phnom Penh Post]

Muth, who was charged by the ECCC in absentia in March of 2015, is believed to have committed various crimes while acting as commander of a naval division during the Khmer Rouge regime, which ruled Cabomdia between 1975 and 1979. Among these are allegations of genocide, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, and crimes against humanity such as murder, extermination, imprisonment, enslavement, torture and persecution on racial and political grounds.

In November 2018, the co-investigating judges assigned to the case delivered conflicting closing orders on these charges. While international co-investigating judge Michael Bohlander issued an indictment sending Muth to trial, the Cambodian court member issued an order dismissing the case. The national and international co-prosecutors and the co-lawyers for Muth each lodged separate appeals.

Last month, then, the ECCC went through another round of internal wrangling when international and Cambodian court members delivered a split decision in the appeal against the conflicting closing orders, leaving the case in limbo. While the national judges opined that that the case file simply be held at the ECCC archives, the international judges upheld the indictment. [Voice of America]

18 May 2021

Mekong River Commission receives French grant to improve river monitoring network

(ad) The French government has donated $1.82 million to the Mekong River Commission (MRC) to improve and expand its monitoring program along the mainstream and key tributaries of the Mekong river. The funding, made available through the Agence Française de Développement (AFD), will span four years from 2021 to 2025. [Mekong River Commission]

The MRC is a regional/intergovernmental organization, consisting of member states Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Since 2007, MRC has established 60 hydro-meteorological stations along the river to improve recording and forecasting the river dynamics.

The new funding is a follow-up to two other grants of EUR 4 million France had donated for the first two phases from 2007 to 2022. Since 2006, France has granted the MRC over 10 million euros to support river monitoring, flood and drought management, climate change, and environmental management. [Agence Kampuchea Presse]

18 May 2021

Cambodia: UNDP and Khmer Enterprise to collaborate for SMEs development

(ad) Khmer Enterprise, a unit under the Ministry of Economy and Finance, is collaborating with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to boost the development of small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) and the e-Commerce sector in Cambodia. Previous collaboration between Khmer Enterprise and UNDP includes the Bluetribe Programme which also sought to empower SMEs through technical and financial support. [UNDP]

To create a sustainable ecosystem for SMEs whilst boosting domestic and international opportunities, the strategic partnership will introduce two key programs: an incubation program which will help SMEs gain skills and support and a small grants program to promote digitalization of these enterprises. The initiative could create 1000 new jobs by 2022.

18 May 2021

Cambodia: 100 families in Koh Kong protest to keep forest as state property

(ad) Over 100 families in Koh Kong province have called on local authorities to protect a vast area of forest, parts of which had been illegally cleared earlier this year. The protesters also demanded that forest encroachers must face punishment for transgressions. [The Phnom Penh Post]

This is one of many cases of encroachment on state land in Cambodia where land grabs and illegal logging are often associated with large economic land concessions granted by the government to local businesspeople or foreign investors. They might be for the construction of rubber plantations, hydroelectric dams or Chinese-backed gambling resorts.

18 May 2021

Cambodia and India to discuss bilateral FTA

(ad) Cambodia and India have begun looking into a possible bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA) to promote cooperation in all sectors – particularly trade – according to a readout of a virtual meeting between the Cambodian Minister of Commerce and India’s Ambassador to Cambodia held on May 13.

Trade between the two countries was valued at $190 million in 2020. Along with India, Cambodia is also looking at South Korea, Japan and other countries for establishing FTAs. It has already established an FTA with China in October 2020. [Agence Kampuchea Presse]


11 May 2021

EU and India to boost trade, Indo-Pacific partnership

(lm) The European Union and India have agreed to resume long-stalled talks on a free trade deal, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced on May 8. Brussel and New Delhi will also launch negotiations on reciprocal investments and on the protection of so-called geographical indications. [South China Morning Post]

Earlier on May 8, the first EU-Indian Leaders’ Meeting brought together all 27 heads of the EU member states and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Considering that previous EU-India summits have involved only the Indian prime minister and the heads of the European Commission and the European Council, the recent summit signals the bloc’s renewed interest in the Indo-Pacific region. [Reuters]

Last month, the EU Council asked the European Commission and high representatives to draw up the bloc’s Indo-Pacific strategy by September this year. In doing so, the Council unveiled the strategy’s main thrust, which included exploring closer economic ties with India and pledging to foster a rules-based order with “free and open maritime supply routes in full compliance with international law”, without naming China.

Earlier last week, the EU also said that efforts to ratify the proposed EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with China had been suspended after Beijing imposed sanctions on several high-profile members of the European Parliament, three members of national parliaments, two EU committees, and several China-focused European academics.

For a comprehensive examination of the decision, please consider Chris Devonshire-Ellis’ comment for [China Briefing].

11 May 2021

Cambodia: Five environmentalists convicted over plan to march to PM’s home

(lm) A Cambodian court on May 5 sentenced five environmental activists for up to 20 months in prison for seeking to protest government plans to fill and privatize a major lake in the capital, Phnom Penh. [Reuters]

Three of the activists had been held in pre-trial detention since their arrest in September 2020, soon after they had publicly announced a plan to march to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house to express concerns regarding plans to privatize and develop Phnom Penh’s largest remaining lake. The other two activists were sentenced in absentia. [Amnesty International]


11 May 2021

Cambodia: Authorities lift blanket lockdown despite rising infections

(lm) Authorities on May 6 lifted a blanket lockdown in parts of the capital, Phnom Penh, but said areas with high infection rates would remain under lockdown as the country battles against a record surge in infections. [The Straits Times]

Cambodia has recorded one of the world’s smallest COVID-19 caseloads but has seen COVID-19 cases surge since February, when an outbreak was first detected among its Chinese expatriate community. While health experts have warned about lifting curbs too quickly, the strict lockdown had triggered complains from residents about food shortages.

Meanwhile, the Information Ministry on May 4 ordered journalists to immediately stop reporting from areas classified as COVID-19 “red zones”, warning they would face prosecution. [Channel News Asia

4 May 2021

Cambodia: NagaWorld to lay off 15% of personnel

(nd) Cambodia’s largest casino, Chinese-run NagaWorld, will lay off 1,300 people and pay only a fraction of the severance that they are owed, calculating them on the basis of reduced wages in 2020. According to worker’s union and advocates, this highlights how the pandemic makes labor laws worldwide erode. In an effort to support the private sector, many countries have eased regulations for business, which comes at the expense of worker’s rights. NagaWorld profits dropped to US$102 million in 2020 from US$521 million in 2019. Activists warned this could set a dangerous precedent. [South China Morning Post]

4 May 2021

Cambodia: Warrant for Rainsy’s arrest

(nd) Acting President of banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Sam Rainsy, was issued an arrest warrant for incitement, allegedly calling on the public to disobey the pandemic-related lockdown. The warrant for arrest is based on an interview Rainsy gave, stating the government must eliminate systemic corruption in order to tackle the pandemic, and shall seek international help. The court argued these statements could amount to “provoke a serious national security issue.”

Cambodia is currently fighting against a recent spike in Covid-19 cases, imposing a strict lockdown, providing high penalties, which has been enforced by police rather violently, detaining many people forced to work outside for food. Hundreds of people protested food shortages in the capital Phnom Penh on Friday.

Rainsy is living in self-imposed exile in France. [Radio Free Asia 1] [Radio Free Asia 2]

27 April 2021

Agreement during ASEAN summit to prompt anti-coup activist call for continuation of protests

(lf) The long-awaited summit between the ASEAN member states on the crisis in Myanmar has been concluded with an agreement on five points: to end the violence, hold a constructive dialogue between all parties, send an ASEAN envoy, accept aid of and enable entry for the ASEAN envoy. Furthermore, the states agreed on a constructive dialogue with all parties involved in the conflict, as well as a strong ASEAN role in the further development of the crisis. However, Myanmar General Min Aung Hlaing, did neither set a timeline for the end of violence, nor did he specifically agree to end the killing of civilians immediately or to release political prisoners. The meeting was the first international cooperation on the crisis in Myanmar. The United Nations, the US and China view ASEAN as the adequate body to best deal with the situation. [Reuters 1]

Myanmar’s anti-coup protestors were disappointed by the outcome. Activist groups stated that the agreement did not reflect the realities of the ground in Myanmar, and did not make up for the around 750 people killed by the military since the coup began. While the state-run newspaper New Light of Myanmar reported on Min Aung Hlaing’s visit, commenting he discussed the country’s “political changes”, they made no mention of the consensus on an end to violence. [Voice of America] Activists were in particular disappointed over the weakened stance on the release of political prisoners, as a draft paper prior to the summit featured the release of political prisoners as one of the consensus points. Since the coup over 3,000 people have been detained. Therefore, activist have called for a continuation and deepening of the Civil Disobedience Movement and protests. Activists urge civilians to boycott schools and to stop paying their electricity bills and agricultural loans.  [Reuters 2] [Reuters 3]

Already before the summit, the ASEAN bloc received widespread criticism for only inviting the military and in particular the military leader Min Aung Hlaing to the table for a discussion on the situation, and not a representative of the National Unity Government. State leaders of Thailand and the Philippines, Prayut Chan-o-Cha and Rodrigo Duterte did not attend the summit. [South China Moring Post]

Shortly after the meeting, the junta announced to “positively consider” the agreement. On Monday already, one man was shot dead in Mandalay. [Reuters 4]

27 April 2021

Cambodia: Criticism over new law 

(nd) Following a new legislation heavily criminalizing breaking Covid-19 rules [see also AiR No. 16, April/2021, 3], human rights groups alleged the country took “a step towards a totalitarian dictatorship”. The new law provides fines as well as prison terms, granting the government the power to ban or restrict any gathering or demonstration indefinitely. This estimate was shared by Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch, ranking the country at 144th place on their recently released Press Freedom Index. The law was criticized as vague, with a lack of definition opening the door for arbitrary enforcement and disproportionate sanctions, possibly targeting government critics. It is believed to be unnecessarily punitive, with fines too high for people to pay. A group of UN special rapporteurs urged Prime Minister Hun Sen to revoke the legislation.

Additionally, after authorities disclosed personal information on positively tested citizens, it is feared that people might be reluctant to even get tested. Human rights groups fear that the law and other measures taken in order to tackle the pandemic are part of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s efforts to increase his power and decrease the value of human rights. [The Guardian]

Over the weekend, police arrested even more people and reportedly threatened and beat violators of the new law with a cane. Some have already been sentenced to one-year prison terms. [The Star]

27 April 2021

Report warns of shrinking civic spaces in Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand

(lm) In a submission to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Switzerland-based organization International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) has warned that journalists and media workers in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam face an increasingly repressive legal landscape. 

In the report, the group expresses its concern about the fragility of press freedom in the three countries, highlighting the enactment of new laws and the emergence of practices that are incompatible with human rights law and standards aimed at restricting information and expression on the coronavirus pandemic. The ICJ also underscores the continued abuse of existing laws equally incompatible with human rights law to arbitrarily restrict information and expression during the pandemic, by explicitly targeting journalists and social media users. [ICJ]


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]

27 April 2021

Brunei’s ASEAN diplomacy faces challenges

(nd) Brunei had made the Covid-19 pandemic priority of its ASEAN chairmanship, following its domestic success against it, also because a code of conduct for the South China Sea was deemed unlikely to be concluded from the beginning.

Following the military coup in Myanmar on February 1, though, this prioritization was forced to change, and ASEAN proved divided over how to respond. Maritime states around Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines, denounced the coup, while mainland neighbors Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam were more hesitant and invoked the principle of non-interference, two positions to be united by Brunei.

The budget for its diplomatic corps was increased by 7 % for 2021. Since the coup, Brunei has been rather active, releasing a statement within 24 hours, emphasizing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and the ‘will and interests’ of Myanmar’s people.

Brunei has met with the junta representatives, which received criticism and is further complicated by the emerge of the parallel government, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH). A second statement by Brunei was watered down, showing the remaining divide, but also indicating that even the neutral chair denounces the violence on protesters and that ASEAN wants a solution for the sake of stability. Following the looming of a “federal army”, Indonesia called for a special ASEAN meeting, which will be in person. To invite and prioritize General Min Aung Hlaing over the newly formed National Unity Government (NUG) of the CRPH indicates that Brunei considers the General part of the solution.

At the upcoming meeting, the members have to release a joint statement, for which it will be difficult for Brunei to broker unity, with Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte absent. [East Asia Forum 1]

Thailand has been rather silent, despite increasing airstrikes in neighboring Kayin state and 23,000 displaced people, at least 3,000 of which made it into Thailand. While the government did set up temporary shelter anticipating a surge in numbers, at the same time pushed away incoming refugees, excluding NGOs and UN representatives access to the people. This reaction is unsurprising, given the approach to Rohingya refugees, who were pushed back, and other refugee groups from the 1980s still considered to be “temporarily displaced”. 

The influx indicates the high implications growing violence in Myanmar will have on Thailand. Parallelly, Thailand is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, so there is no legal protection for refugees. A prime ministerial regulation from 2019 provided a distinction between economic migrants and asylum seekers, but was criticized for deterring refugees and violating the principle of not sending back who might be subject to harm. Practice is based on “voluntary return” and “resettlement” to third countries. [East Asia Forum 2]

In any case, a special summit exclusively to deal with Myanmar is unusual and shows a departure from an indirect and informal diplomatic style, which was characteristic of ASEAN, and something that did not occur after the coup in Thailand in 2014. Analysts suggest, the successful role Indonesia assumed during the democratization in Myanmar in the 2010s under then-president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), and his Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, is a legacy that Indonesian President Joko Widodo does not want to see crumbling down during his term. [Channel News Asia]

27 April 2021

UK to deepen its position in Southeast Asia

(nd) UK Foreign Minister Dominic Raab visited Indonesia and Brunei Darussalam to enhance trade and security ties with the two countries and discuss future cooperation. He also met with ASEAN Secretary General to discuss the UK’s commitment as a new dialogue partner to the ASEAN bloc. This visit is part of the UK’s “Global Britain” agenda, focusing on Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific after its exit from EU. As a former colonial power, particularly in Malaysia, Singapore, and Myanmar, and other places, the UK aims to reinvigorate its historic position of influence and leverage in the region.

Already, the UK is a core member of the Five Power Defense Agreement (FPDA), a security arrangement involving Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance with the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. As part of freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) meant to deter Chinese activities, the UK has sent warships to the South China Sea since 2018. As part of a multinational naval force, the new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier strike group will be dispatched next month. It also discusses with Japan over a UK military base. In Brunei, the UK has the only remaining permanent military presence with a contingent of 1,000 personnel, and has control over the British Indian Overseas Territory, including Diego Garcia, a joint U.S.-U.K. military facility located between Tanzania and Indonesia. 

Following its exit from the EU, the UK will have to maneuver its way into becoming an official dialogue partner to ASEAN now. In November 2019, the UK appointed an ambassador especially for the bloc, and concluded bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) with Singapore and Vietnam by the end of 2020. Its trade priority is the inclusion into the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a constellation of 11 Pacific rim countries. Given the tensions between US and China, the UK will have to carefully avoid to be pulled into the conflict, recently seen by the imposition of sanctions due to rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims, which was countered by retaliatory sanctions by China, as well as the UK’s support of Hong Kong’s democracy movement.

Additionally, the UK has provided over $385 million in development aid annually to Southeast Asia in recent years, and revitalized its Newton Fund by investing up to $132.5 million to support science and innovations collaboration in the region, using more soft power instruments. [The Diplomat]


20 April 2021

ASEAN leader to meet on April 24

(lf) The leaders of the members of ASEAN have finally agreed to meet in Jakarta on April 24 on the situation in Myanmar. The ongoing violent conflict between the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed group causes the neighbor country to worry about a civil war. Coup leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is expected to attend. [Thai PBS world]

ASEAN has long struggled for a cohesive response to the situation. It is rooted in ASEAN’s core principle of non-interference, which was invoked frequently by members, and it therefore lacks a mechanism for regional action. While the international community has condemned the coup with some imposing sanctions, the responses have not been successful yet. [East Asia Forum]

Ahead of the meeting, Southeast Asian states were discussing the possibility of sending a humanitarian aid mission, in order to foster dialogue between the military and the protestors. [Reuters]

20 April 2021

Cambodia: Further measures against the pandemic

(nd) A recent spike in Covid-19 cases has put Cambodia “on the brink of death,” as Premier Hun Sen warned, imposing lockdowns in the capital Phnom Penh and a nearby city. Violators were threatened with jail term. Between the cities, police blocked roads and demanded ID cards. February saw a cluster of cases among the Chinese expatriate community. Since hospitals have reached their limits, schools and event locations were turned into treatment centers. [Asia Times]

Over the weekend, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen sealed off the capital Phnom Penh and nearby Takhmao city in Kandal province for two weeks, following most residents’ defiance of his prior lockdown order. Residents reported on low food supplies and the inability to stay home due to the need to work. Since the latest outbreak on February 20, at least 30 people who criticized the government’s response were arrested on charges of incitement. Much of the criticism is related to the efficacy of Chinese-made vaccination, which enjoy less public trust. Last week, Hun Sen said all civil servants have to be inoculated with the vaccine or will be fired. [AiR No. 15, April/2021, 2] Human Rights Groups criticize that people are neither informed enough about the vaccinations nor about the laws criminalizing criticism of the pandemic management. [Radio Free Asia]


20 April 2021

Cambodia: Disputes with the opposition

(nd) Following opposition leader Kem Sokha’s New Year Call for Unity, the president of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) clashed with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), with a spokesman emphasizing the country was already unified under the rule of long-serving prime minister Hun Sen. The CNRP was dissolved in 2017, leading to an absolute win for CCP in the general election.

Meanwhile, acting CNRP president Sam Rainsy and Prime Minister Hun Sen clashed as well over Rainsy’s call to trust Chinese-made vaccinations, which are highly distrusted among Cambodians. Earlier, Rainsy compared the quality of the different vaccinations, but insisted that even a less effective vaccination is better than none at all. By April 12, 1,099,811 Cambodians had been vaccinated with the Chinese-made Sinopharm or Sinovac vaccines or the India-based UK AstraZeneca vaccine. [Radio Free Asia]

13 April 2021

Cambodia, China unlikely to gain from Naval Base

(nd) Despite much attention on the establishment of a Chinese naval base in Cambodia, referring to China’s expanding military presence in the region, China is not likely to gain much strategically due to Cambodia’s geographic position. In comparison to Thailand, where the average water depth is 50m, the waters off Cambodia’s coasts are only 5 to 10 meters deep, which does not permit major naval action, with practically no possibility to use submarines. Additionally, the specific location is relatively unimportant in relation to international sea lanes of communication.

Even if argued, the Ream Naval Base could be a stopover point for China to protect and control its shipping lanes in the Malacca Strait, this function is already assumed by Chinese facilities at Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands. Additionally, China stands to lose more diplomatically from it, provoking a security escalation with Thailand. Despite seemingly orbiting closer to China, Thailand has secured a $400 million arms sale with the US in 2019. Amid the rising tension in the South China Sea, Vietnam has also engaged more closely with the US on security issues and purchased US defense equipment after the lift of an arms embargo by the Obama administration in 2016. Two years later, Vietnam joined the Rim of the Pacific, the world’s largest maritime exercise.

Lastly, the advantage of a Chinese facility in Cambodia is dependent on a long-pursued infrastructure project to connect the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand and providing an alternative to the Malacca Strait, the so-called Kra Canal in southern Thailand. Due to its cost intensity, there are talks of a bridge instead of the canal, which is of no use to Chinese navy. [The Diplomat]


13 April 2021

Cambodia: Backlash against artist for photo editing

(nd) Cambodia condemned the photo-editing of pictures taken from genocide victims. An Irish artist digitally added color and smiles to black and white pictures of victims, which prompted a backlash. Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts called the editing to “seriously affect the dignity of the victims”, urged to remove the pictures and considered legal action in case of non-compliance. Between 1975 and 1979, an estimated 2 million people were killed by the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge regime, through starvation, forced labor, torture and mass executions. [Channel News Asia]

13 April 2021

Cambodia: Vaccine management

(nd) So far, the Covid-19 pandemic has caused 24 deaths in Cambodia. As citizens are seemingly skeptical about vaccines, the government announced to answer a refusal of vaccination with a job dismissal. This practically applies a duty to get a vaccine for soldiers and other civil servants. Prime Minister Hun Sen highlighted they were still voluntary but would be mandatory in the future, especially pointing to the most densely populated and worst-hit Phnom Penh and Kandal province. Additionally, the Labor Ministry pointed to a possible dismissal for garment workers if they refuse to be vaccinated.

It remained open whether it was just an effort to make more people get a vaccine or an actual policy. The vaccination campaign started in February, with 600,970 people having volunteered, of which 566,420 have been vaccinated, with 142,400 having received their second dose according to the Ministry of Health. The Ministry of Defense, which is co-responsible, has vaccinated 190,106 people with the first dose and 112,723 with a second dose. The government is fearing a spike in cases, most significantly due to Khmer New Year, which is why the government imposed a two-week travel ban. The Ministry of Health has also developed plans to treat patients at home, due to the underfunded healthcare system.

The Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is ruling the de-facto one party state, after the largest opposition party was forcibly dissolved in 2017 and sweepingly winning the 2018 general election. Critics asserted that rather than government pressure, people should be informed better about the vaccinations and risks. Human rights groups have often emphasized how CPP has also used the pandemic to greatly expand its authority over society. [See also AiR No. 14, April/2021, 1]

It also remains to be seen whether the government can secure enough vaccines to achieve its inoculation goal. So far, Cambodia was gifted 1.3 million doses of the Chinese Sinopharm, bought 1.5 million doses of the Chinese Sinovac and received 324,000 doses from Covax, while expecting another 4 million Sinovac vaccines for $40 million. [Asia Times]


6 April 2021

Cambodia: Two suspicious deaths call for probe

(nd) Two recent deaths, one in police custody allegedly through torture, one in quarantine, have prompted their families and human rights groups to call for a probe by the authorities. The bloody and bruised body of the man in custody went viral and suggested the use of torture. According to local rights groups, torture is a common method for the police to obtain answers. Families rarely receive justice, and if then  but only upon intervention by Prime Minister Hun Sen. The second person allegedly killed himself in quarantine, but authorities provided little information. Moreover, this is not the first death in quarantine, with another person dying in January allegedly due to a heart attack after falling and hitting his head on a toilet bowl, but again authorities released little information about the circumstances. [Radio Free Asia]


6 April 2021

Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam low on US report on human rights 

(nd) According to an annual US State Department report, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam imposed heavy restrictions on freedom of expression and the press last year, holding political prisoners and interfering with the rights of citizens to peacefully protest. All three record cases of arbitrary arrest, unlawful killings, and torture in police custody. Laos last year tightened its grip on online freedom, removing critical postings. While corruption was investigated, human rights abuses remained unpunished. 

After the dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the beginning of 2021 saw a politically motivated mass trial in absentia against leaders and activists. The government also engages in efforts to censor free media, through control of permits and licenses for journalists and media outlets, pushing them into self-censorship.

For Vietnam, the report mainly pointed to restrictions on political participation and a lack of independence of the judiciary, as well as arbitrary arrests and killings by the government. Reportedly, political prisoners were tortured in custody. Running up to the Communist Party Congress in January 2021, the government cracked down on independent journalists, publishers, and Facebook personalities to mute criticism. [Radio Free Asia]


23 March 2021

Cambodia: Economic diplomacy and hurdles to take

(nd) Cambodia’s foreign engagement is characterized by a certain ‘economic pragmatism’ — the alignment of foreign policy with economic development interests, referring to it as economic diplomacy. The global economic shift to East Asia was recognized as a good opportunity for Cambodia to develop and modernize its industries, production and services, and to develop infrastructure connectivity. ASEAN, China, Japan and South Korea are Cambodia’s key economic partners. Internally, Cambodia strived to economically reform and develop human resources, successfully so with a growth rate of 7% over the past two decades.

Due to democracy issues and human rights violations, the partnerships with the EU and the US are strained, except China. Still, the power asymmetry towards its biggest investor China and its influence pose certain risks. Therefore, the economic diplomacy strategy of 2021–2023 is an important step to further promote trade, investment, tourism and the development of Cambodian cultural identity and shall enhance Cambodia’s international integration, diversify its economic partners, expand its export markets, and attract foreign investors and tourists. It contributes to Cambodia’s vision of becoming a higher-middle-income country by 2030 and a high-income country by 2050. With the Cambodia–China Free Trade Agreement, the Cambodia–South Korea Free Trade Agreement and Cambodia’s participation in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, it achieved further regional connection.

Amid Covid-19, Cambodia’s economy contracted by 3,1%, forcing it to launch an economic recovery plan as part of a broader effort to build more national resilience towards external shocks. Nationwide, the consensus seems to be that the economic performance is bound to national security. Cambodia will therefore boost healthcare spending, invest in its workforce, and release a digital economy policy framework to take advantage of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. [East Asia Forum]

23 March 2021

Cambodia, US to plead for end of deforestation

(nd) The US government urged the Cambodian government to stop deforestation and preserve biodiversity. In the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary, five environmental activists were detained for documenting illegal logging in February this year, among them Ouch Leng, whose activism has also been honored by the Asia Society. The Sanctuary saw severe deforestation in 2016, after which it was classified it as a wildlife sanctuary.  USAID established the $21 million Greening Prey Lang project in 2018 to promote jobs, protect the sanctuary’s biodiversity and aid forest patrols. Still, forest is lost due to rising Chinese demand for luxury furniture and it is linked to factors like weak law enforcement and opaque governance systems. And USAID was criticized for collaborating with the Ministry of Environment, which is infamous for turning a blind eye on deforestation. The Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN) patrol group, was banned from entering the forest by Cambodian authorities last year for attempting to conduct a Buddhist tree blessing ceremony to protect the forest.

Deforestation does not only threaten biodiversity but has effects of increasing flooding and erosion in the Mekong River basin, and is linked to climate change due to tree’s ability to capture greenhouse gases, according to USAID. [Voice of America]

23 March 2021

Myanmar: Rising death toll and more international efforts to pressure the military

(nd) Lawmakers from the National League for Democracy (NLD) have urged the largest foreign-owned oil and gas companies to suspend business ties with the military regime, saying the money earned will be used to reinforce human rights violations. Per month, Myanmar receives earnings of about US$75 million to US$90 million from oil and gas sales, paid through state-owned company Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE). In an effort to cut the junta off these supplies, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), the Burmese government in exile representing the NLD, sent a notice to France’s Total SE, Malaysia’s Petronas, Thailand’s PTT and South Korea’s POSCO, criticizing them for their failure to condemn the coup, and urging them to suspend their tax payments. [Irrawaddy 1]

Also, CRPH is negotiating with Karen National Union (KNU), Restoration Council of Shan State and Kachin Independent Army (KIA) to form a federal army to protect the protesters. They have cleared all ethnic armed groups from the terror list. In light of the growing violence, so far peaceful protesters started to use self-constructed weapons, such as molotov cocktails, and built barricades from tires, bricks or bamboo. [FAZ in German]

Meanwhile, the efforts of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) spreads virally, with a “social punishment” campaign against the families of senior members of the regime. On social media, protesters identified names, addresses and other personal information on relatives of the military generals, and urged people to shun and shame the individuals, and to boycott their businesses. [Frontier Myanmar 1

Four employees of a private bank were detained for allegedly inciting people to join the civil disobedience movement (CDM). [Irrawaddy 2] Due to the ongoing strikes, companies struggle to pay salaries amid closed banks. [Nikkei Asia 1] With an ongoing strike, the military has fired officials from the Foreign Ministry and has pressured banks to reopen in an effort to avoid an economic collapse. [Frontier Myanmar 2]

With the junta using more excessive force, the death toll rose to over 250 and reports of at least 5 cases of torture in detention have surfaced. Internet shutdowns let information spread slowly. Protesters erected barricades in the streets, which were set on fire making Yangon look like a battle zone. [Asia Times 1] In an effort to intimidate citizens, security forces randomly opened fire in residential areas and at individual residences. Shortages of food and drinking water continued, hinting at a looming humanitarian crisis. Adding to internet blackouts, phone services were cut off in some areas. Protesters reported they refrain from forming groups, which are randomly attacked and shot at by the police.

The military continued to target journalists and closed down the last independent newspaper, The Standard Time Daily, following 7Day News, The Voice, Eleven Myanmar, and the Myanmar Times. Private media outlets have been operating in the country since 2013, after the lifting of the ban on independent media since 1962.  [Radio Free Asia 1] Police also continued to raid homes in search of protesters; over 2,000 people have been arrested. [Radio Free Asia 2] To mark the one-month anniversary of the protests, activists organized a car convoy, others lit candles, joined by Buddhist monks. Reportedly, members of the security forces were attacked and died, as well as two policemen during protests. After security forces have occupied more than 60 schools and university campuses in 13 states and regions, Unicef, Unesco, and private humanitarian group Save the Children, issued a statement condemning the occupation of education facilities as a serious violation of children’s rights. [South China Morning Post 1]

Following the attack on Chinese businesses on Sunday, an unsigned editorial, published on the website of state-run CGTN network, suggested that China might be “forced into taking more drastic action” in Myanmar if its interests are not more firmly safeguarded. The editorial added, “China won’t allow its interests to be exposed to further aggression. If the authorities cannot deliver and the chaos continues to spread, China might be forced into taking more drastic action to protect its interests.” China is deeply involved in Myanmar’s economy and shares a 2,200-kilometer border, which is of interest for Chinese infrastructure projects giving it a corridor to the Indian Ocean. [The Diplomat 1] Inter alia, China is extracting minerals in Myanmar, whose shipments have delayed significantly, making a global price rise likely. China controls 80% of the world’s rare earth mineral supplies. [Asia Times 2]

According to experts, the systematic crackdown on the Rohingyas executed by the military since 2017 is just postponed and likely to restart, possibly turning protests into a “prolonged crisis”. Recently hired Canadian-Israeli lobbyist for the junta, Ari Ben-Menashe, said the military want to repatriate Rohingyas. [Voice of America]

Sam Rainsy, exiled Cambodian opposition leader, Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, Indonesian lawmaker Fadli Zon, Philippine Senator Kiko Pangilinan, former Singapore Deputy Speaker Charles Chong, and former Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya signed a statement urging all ASEAN nations to unite in sanctions against Myanmar and to end impunity. The politicians criticized the “impotence” of ASEAN amid the human rights abuses, and suggested to suspend Myanmar’s membership in the regional bloc. [Benar News]

In some of the strongest comments yet, Indonesian President Joko Widodo urged the violence to stop immediately and to press current chairman of ASEAN, Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, to call an urgent meeting. [Reuters] Following Indonesia and Malaysia’s joint push for an urgent high-level meeting of ASEAN, Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan will visit Brunei, before going to Malaysia and Indonesia. [Channel News Asia]

The European Union on Monday imposed sanctions on 11 individuals linked to the coup in Myanmar. The EU already had an arms embargo on Myanmar, and has targeted some senior military officials since 2018. Stronger measures are expected in a move to target the businesses run by the military, mainly through two conglomerates, Myanmar Economic Holdings and Myanmar Economic Corp. [Nikkei Asia 2]

According to Thai media, the Royal Thai Army had supplied 700 sacks of rice to Myanmar army units on Myanmar’s eastern border allegedly on the orders of the Thai government. The commander of the task force denied it and said it was regular trade. Residents told a Reuters reporter the crossing was not a normal trade route. The allegedly supplied army units were cut off by forces of the Karen National Union (KNU), who have pledged allegiance to the protest movement. [Bangkok Post]

Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi was charged with violating an anti-corruption law, with a possible prison sentence of 15 years, adding to four previous charges with other offences. [South China Morning Post 2]

The influential, Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (Mahana), a government-appointed body of Buddhist abbots, urged the military to end violence against protesters. It was submitted to the Union Minister for Religious Affairs and Culture. The statement mentioned the CDM, which would greatly benefit from support by Mahana. As a rather conservative organization, the clear cut with the military is significant, according to analysts. It might unleash monastic opposition, which has historic precedents. [The Diplomat 2]

Ousted lawmakers of NLD are exploring if the International Criminal Court (ICC) can investigate crimes against humanity committed by the military since the coup. Following the toughening crackdown, hundred have fled Myanmar to bordering Thailand, which has prepared for a big influx of refugees, as well as to India. [South China Morning Post 3]


16 March 2021

Cambodia, South Korea to invest in mine clearance

(nd) South Korea has announced to fund Cambodia’s mine clearance efforts with $10 million from 2021 to 2025.It forms part of the Cambodian Mine Action and Victims Assistance Authority (CMAA) and is also supported by Australia, New Zealand, UNDP and the government. Mines severely affect the lives and food security of residents, their access to safe water, adequate housing, safe and secure land for cultivation and irrigation, roads. Part of the project are immediate emergency response and medical treatment, physical rehabilitation and therapy, socio-economic inclusion and mine risk education. [Khmer Times]

16 March 2021

Cambodia: Cremation order to exempt Muslims

(nd) Cambodia’s mandatory order to cremate the bodies of all people who die of COVID-19 will exempt Muslims, who will be able to bury their dead “according to their own traditions and customs.” Cremation is forbidden in Islam, therefore the order sparked concern among Muslims in Cambodia, who constitute between 2 and 5% of the population. Cambodia has so far reported only one fatality from the virus so far, with a caseload currently at 1,060. Sri Lanka was the first country to put such order in place and also reversed it last month to accommodate Muslim people.

The World Health Organization recently rejected claims that bodies of people who have died of a communicable disease should be cremated. [Anadolu Agency]


16 March 2021

Cambodia: CNRP member arrested over Chinese vaccine criticism

(nd) A member of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was arrested for allegedly inciting social unrest by claiming that Chinese-made vaccines aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 were unsafe and had caused several deaths. The woman made such statements on her Facebook page, police spokesperson saying it “gravely affected social security.”

It is one in a string of arrests of political opposition and social activists on unspecified charges without a warrant or explanations provided. At least two other CNRP activists were recently arrested for the same reason, as well as environmental activists, NGO members, and Buddhist monks. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen had both spoken in favor and against Chinese vaccine, and there have been no confirmed reports in Cambodia of deaths caused by use of the Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccine. [Radio Free Asia]

9 March 2021

Cambodia: CNHR to dismiss UN criticism of recent sentences against opposition figures

(nd) Following the UN rights officials’ criticism of lengthy prison sentences for opposition figures in mass trials rendered in absentia, the Cambodian Human Rights Committee (CHRC) has rebuffed the statement by UN rights experts. The CHRC denied that the court procedures and ruling were groundless, stating democratic space in Cambodia was always open for those who exercised their rights and freedom in accordance with the Constitution and the law, adding that law enforcement against perpetrators was not restriction of rights.

The CHRC referenced Sam Rainsy’s November 9, 2019 plan to return to Cambodia and overthrow the government, calling it a coup, and pointing to sufficient evidence against Rainsy and other overseas politicians. Also, the Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of Cambodia in Geneva published a statement dismissing the UN rights experts’ criticism. [Phnompenh Post]

9 March 2021

Cambodia: Reducing independence on US dollar

(nd) Cambodia aims to reduce its dependency on US dollar, following an increase in demand in the Cambodian riel. As a substitute, the country introduced digital currencies and phased out small-denomination US dollar bills, aiming at a better economic control and fighting money laundering and the black economy. Cambodia has a dual currency system, which has been running since UN peace keeping operations brought US dollars with them in 1993. [Voice of America]

9 March 2021

Cambodia: Hun Sen to remain in office until he wants to stop

(nd) At a press conference after receiving the Covid-19 vaccination, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced to remain in office as long as he wants, backing away from promises late last year to be the leader for the next 10 years. Hun Sen is the world’s longest serving leader, with 36 years in office. Recently, rumors had it that his eldest son Hun Manith, a four-star general in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, would be his successor.

The largest opposition party, Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), was dissolved in 2018, resulting in a landslide win for Hun Sen’s party and a de-facto one party state. In an ongoing mass trial against opposition members, which was highly criticized by rights groups and foreign embassies, former CNRP leader Sam Rainsy was sentenced in absentia to 25 years in prison. [See also AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1] [UCA News]

2 March 2021

Cambodia: Opposition politicians sentenced in mass trial

(nd) Cambodian opposition figure Sam Rainsy was sentenced in absentia to 25 years in jail for allegedly plotting to overthrow Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government. He was also stripped of rights to vote and stand as a candidate in an election. Rainsy has lived in French exile since 2015. Besides Rainsy, eight other opposition politicians, including Rainsy’s wife, were sentenced in absentia to between 20 and 22 years in jail. Cambodia started mass trials against more than 150 opposition figures for treason and incitement in November last year, which was heavily criticized internationally. Many of the defendants were unable to face the charges in person. Rights groups say the trial is politically motivated and aims at keeping opposition politicians from contesting in the country’s general election. Hun Sen is the longest-serving leader in Southeast Asia, with 36 years in power and ruling in a de-facto one-party state since the dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party in 2017. [ABC]

2 March 2021

Cambodia: Local protest in support of land law activists

(nd) In solidarity with six arrested activists, land dispute victims from nearly half of Cambodia’s two dozen provinces protested in their respective communities for the government to drop charges. Additionally, protesters urged the government to intervene with local authorities and provincial governments to resolve disputes, and stop security forces from intimidating and arresting villagers.

Widespread land grabs are common, with authorities seizing land from local farmers in order to use it for development projects or foreign invested enterprises without paying fair compensation for their lost livelihoods. Adding to the six charged, according to local NGOs another 172 activists are facing charges of “incitement to commit a felony” or “provoke social disorder” after demanding the return of their land. [Radio Free Asia]

2 March 2021

Cambodia: US worried about internet gateway

(nd) Following the announcement of the Cambodian government to set up a national internet gateway [See also AiR No. 7, February/2021, 3], the US voiced concerns over the freedom of expression on the internet. Critics said the gateway will enable authorities to further surveil and censor internet users in the country. The sub-decree was signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen February 16. It will require internet service providers to reroute their services through a National Internet Gateway (NIG) within the next 12 months. While the government argues, the move will boost Cambodia’s information technology infrastructure, rights groups stated the government was aiming at setting up internet regulations similar to China’s domestic firewall. [Voice of America]


23 February 2021

ASEAN member states tighten grip on cyberspace

(nd) The Thai government issued a warning not to break the law using the audio social media app Clubhouse. The Digital Minister said authorities were watching Clubhouse users and political groups if information was distorted and laws potentially violated. The app quickly developed into a discussion platform about the monarchy, despite the topic raised by student protesters still a fierce taboo, and whose criticism is punished harshly. Many Thai users registered following Japan-based critic of the Thai palace, Pavin Chachavalpongpun, and joined the app. He gained more than 70,000 followers in his first five days on the app. His Facebook group, Royalist Marketplace, was shutdown in August 2020, only to reopen and attract 300,000 followers the next day. The government’s crackdown on protesters has regularly included charges under cybercrime laws, mostly on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

The app gathered popularity quickly and was blocked earlier this month in China after thousands of mainland users joined discussions often censored in China, including about Xinjiang detention camps and Hong Kong’s national security law.

Last Wednesday, Indonesian authorities announced the app had to register as an Electronic System Operator (PSE) to seek permission to operate, and could be banned if it fails to comply with local laws. Indonesia has previously banned Reddit, Vimeo, and many pornography sites. [South China Morning Post] [Reuters]

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen last week signed a sub-decree to enable the creation of the country’s long-planned National Internet Gateway (NIG), a Chinese-style firewall, which possibly gives authorities even more powers to crackdown on online free-speech. All internet traffic will be routed through a single portal managed by a government-appointed regulator. All internet traffic metadata shall be stored for 12 months and can be assessed by the authorities.

A telecommunications law from 2015 already gave significant powers to request user traffic data from internet service providers to the authorities, and the criminal code and the “fake news” legislation were used to crack down on government critics. All these efforts, however were reactive and put in after a post, despite blockages of websites, that could be circumvented via VPNs. The NIG enables a preventive action, mounting up to censorship.

Since Cambodia is unlikely to provide a national alternative to the popular social media platform Facebook, the authorities will have to force the platforms to abide by its rules. By having a single gateway for all traffic, Cambodia might have significant leverage over the social media website, being able to threat to shut them off. Such a tactic worked well for Vietnam.

Indeed, the timing is suspect. The NIG is expected to be launched next year, which in mid-2022 will see local elections, and general elections in 2023. The ruling party dissolved its only opponent, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), in 2017. Leaders are in exile and mostly hindered from returning to the country, not even to face charges in ongoing court proceedings. [Asia Times]

In Thailand, analysts commented that the Thai cyberspace has become highly politicized after the coup, with the addition of legal tools to enable a broad and deep surveillance.

The Computer Crimes Act was enacted in 2007. Already in 2015, a “cyber warfare” unit was founded with the military, and the Technology Crime Suppression Division with the Royal Thai Police. The Ministry of the Digital Economy and Society was established in 2016. According a WikiLeaks documents, the military unit was setup with the help of an online surveillance firm and installed broad tools to collect data. The military was accused in 2016 of buying decryption technology to monitor private communication on social media. A 2017 report claimed hackers worked for the government between 2016 and 2017 to block media sites, WikiLeaks and websites that provide tools for censorship circumvention. A new cybersecurity agency and hacker training center were setup in 2018, further enabling control of online content. In 2019, a “anti-fake news center” was opened in Bangkok, employing 40 full-time staff to monitor and forward discussion in possible violation of the Computer Crimes Act to the Technology Crime Suppression Division. Officers working for the Digital Economy and Society Ministry can request computer data from service providers without a warrant. According to a Comparitech survey on privacy protection published by the end of 2019, Thailand was ranked among the lowest in the world.

In the Malay-Muslim-majority southern provinces the state’s system of surveillance is even more sophisticated, collecting DNA-samples for a DNA databank to fight insurgencies. In 2020, phone numbers were registered using a facial recognition system, and failure to register cut the individual off service. Phones have been used to set off bombs. Later, it was announced that the 8,200 security cameras in the southern provinces could be fitted with a facial recognition system and be run with artificial intelligence (AI) in the future, similar to the system in China. The UN criticized this development in 2020. [The Diplomat]

16 February 2021

Mekong river level remains low

(nd) Reportedly, the water level of the Mekong River dropped to a worrying low, which could at least partly be attributed to outflow restrictions from Chinese hydropower dams upstream, according to the Mekong River Commission (MRC). Low rainfall and dams on the Lower Mekong also contributed to the low level. Level fluctuation affect fish migration, agriculture and transportation, on which nearly 70 million people rely for their livelihoods.

Last year, China agreed to share dam data with the MRC, and the member countries Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. China notified that following construction the flow will be normalized by January 25. Following a brief rise, the level dropped again in February. [Bangkok Post]

16 February 2021

ASEAN-EU strategic partnership

(nd) The new ASEAN–EU Strategic Partnership, announced in December 2020, not only eradicated the donor–recipient dynamic, but the EU might need ASEAN more than ASEAN needs the EU. The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell has declared it “no longer a luxury but a necessity”.

Issues of cooperation include the economy, ASEAN integration, COVID-19 responses, sustainable development, maritime cooperation and cybersecurity. But on terms of strategy, they still differ. While both agree on principles like a rule-based international order, multilateralism and free trade, a commitment to human rights and democracy is not a prerequisite for ASEAN.

The EU arguably has pushed more for a strategic partnership than ASEAN did. Still, the EU is a major development partner and ASEAN’s largest donor. For that, the EU might have to focus more on influencing ASEAN norms and values, to shape the partnership according to EU’s terms. It remains unclear whether the EU can reach its goal, to enhance EU security and its defense profile in the Asia Pacific, be granted membership in the East Asia Summit and ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus.

The EU has to first ensure coherence in the bloc’s responses towards ASEAN, and avoid the implication of some members’ unilateral Asia Pacific or Indo-Pacific strategies. Also, coherence is needed in relations to the member states of ASEAN. In specific issues, the EU has adopted different stances on member states, such as Cambodia on trade privileges, to Indonesia and Malaysia over palm oil, and stalled FTA talks with Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. The situation in Myanmar, which both have so far only commented on, can have implications on the future of the strategic partnership. In 2009, FTA negotiations with ASEAN were stalled due to insecurity of how to deal with Myanmar’s human rights record.

Going forward, ASEAN and the European Union will need to find coherence between their values, interregional and regional positions, and divergent interests among their member states. They will have to agree on how to deal with bilateral and regional issues, and how to carve out a space for the new strategic partnership in regional, multilateral and plurilateral arenas. [East Asia Forum]

16 February 2021

ASEAN to have less trust in China

(nd) China’s so-called vaccine diplomacy appears to be unsuccessful, according to a survey by the ASEAN Studies Centre at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. In a poll conducted from mid-November to January with 1,032 people across ASEAN, 44.2% said China provided the majority of help to the region during the Covid-19 pandemic. Still, and despite proactive efforts to secure vaccine deals in the region, 61.5% of respondents said they would choose the US over China in the ongoing US-China rivalry, a rise of 7.9% in support for the US compared to last year. While new possibilities were associated with the incoming Biden administration, many grow increasingly wary of Chinese influence in the region. China was named as most influential economic power in the region by 76.3% of respondents, 72.3% of which voiced concerns thereof. Of 49.1% who named China as the most influential political and strategic power in the region, 88.6% indicated being worried about this influence.

China was also low in terms of trust among global powers: Additionally, some 63% responded to have “little confidence” or “no confidence” that China will “do the right thing” for the global community, rising more than 10% in comparison to last year. Analysts commented, this trust deficit is upward trending. Its economic and military power combined is viewed as a possible threat to sovereign interests. [Nikkei Asia]

16 February 2021

China, Cambodia to suspend military exercise

(nd) The Cambodian government suspended the fourth annual, two-week military exercise with China, which was set for next month. Officially citing the need to cut spending amid the Covid-19 pandemic, some commented it was a move not to anger the new administration of US President-elect Joe Biden. Also cited were severe repercussions of a flooding in October 2020, destroying much of Cambodia’s infrastructure and food supply, causing 40 deaths. 

The deputy president of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Eng Chhai Eang, rejected budget-related claims and stated that China paid the expenses in the last years. Rather, he referred to Cambodia’s aims to appear more neutral with respect to foreign policy. Following Western criticism of the dissolution of CNRP in 2017 and a wider crackdown on civil society, Cambodia grew closer to China, isolating itself also from investors from the West. With more investment from China, Cambodia increasingly backed China with respect to international issues, such as the dispute in the South China Sea. Although China remains the largest investor in large-scale infrastructure projects, criticism is growing with regards to the increased dependency on China as well as negative behavior of Chinese business men, such as in Sihanoukville in the south-west. China still provides military assistance to Cambodia, and despite earlier claims of Prime Minister Hun Sen to only use WHO-approved vaccines, Cambodia started inoculation on Wednesday using 1 million doses of Sinopharm donated by China. [Radio Free Asia]

16 February 2021

Cambodia: Logging protesters released

(nd) Following their arrest last week, five environmental activists were released last Monday. They were protesting against illegal logging inside the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary, one of Cambodia’s largest wildlife sanctuaries. One of the protesters was Ouch Leng, who received the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize. As a condition of release, the five had to sign an agreement stating they would not enter restricted areas without permission again. Parallelly, a complaint was filed against Ouch Leng’s Cambodian Human Rights Task Force, which allegedly is not registered with the Interior Ministry. [Cambodia Daily]

16 February 2021

Cambodia: Illegal workers unable to register, facing deportation

(nd) Cambodian labor rights groups have urged the government to support Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand. Thailand harbors more than 400,000 illegal immigrant workers. In an effort to curb the spread of Covid-19, Thailand has introduced a registration system for workers to obtain a pink card, which so far 120,000 have applied for. The deadline ran out on February 14, now many face deportation or imprisonment. The registration process is rather complicated and costly (around 10,000 baht, U.S. $300), and scammers made it worse for the workers. The rights groups have therefore called for an extension of the deadline. [Benar News]

9 February 2021

Japan-ADB cooperation agreement on ASEAN energy projects 

(dql) In a move to strengthen its footprint in Southeast Asia against China, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has reached an agreement with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) under which both sides will cooperate on clean energy projects in the frame of the Cleaner Energy Future Initiative for ASEAN (CEFIA), covering areas of renewable energy, energy conservation and efficiency, and other technologies for low carbon energy transition.

Established in 2019, the CEFIA seeks to accelerate the deployment of sustainable energy and low carbon technologies in Southeast Asia. [Modern Diplomacy]

9 February 2021

ASEAN, Indonesia to intervene in Myanmar

(nd) Following a bilateral meeting, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced to talk to current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Brunei, to convene a special meeting on the coup in Myanmar.

 While ASEAN disposes of a Human Rights Declaration and the Charter calls for the strengthening of democracy, good governance and rule of law, at its core understanding lie the overarching principles of non-interference and sovereignty. Since democracy as such is no prerequisite for the membership in the bloc, its backsliding does not warrant for a response. Such is mimicked in the statement by ASEAN chair Brunei, “noting” the commitment to democracy and the rule of law but calling for a dialogue and the return to normalcy. The Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia referred to the principle of non-intervention and labelled the coup an internal matter. Vietnam called for a stabilization and Malaysia for a discussion to ‘avoid adverse consequences’ of the coup. Indonesia voiced the strongest opposition, referring to uphold the ASEAN charter and use legal mechanisms to resolve the issue. Given the intentionally non-enforceable commitments to democracy in the charter, forging a common stance seems difficult.

Historically though, Indonesia assumed the position of a role model for Myanmar, which according to analysts warrants for a heightened responsibility now. Indonesia itself successfully transitioned from dictatorship to democracy. A significant role within Myanmar’s transition to democracy was assumed by former general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), Indonesia’s first directly elected president. Besides assisting Myanmar with minority conflicts, drafting of laws and education on democratic institution, the presence of himself and former military allies who turned into democratic reformers were the most obvious message sent. In contrast to current president Widodo, whose agenda is focused on domestic issues, SBY was looking for an international statesman position with a democracy-infused diplomatic agenda. Therefore, some suggested SBY to function as Indonesia’s envoy to Myanmar to advocate credibly for military reforms. 

Any intervention in Myanmar is shadowed by a fear of Myanmar gravitating further to China if pressured too much. As well as the muted bloc’s response carries the fear of further coups and authoritarian takeovers in the region. [Reuters] [Benarnews] [East Asia Forum]

2 February 2021

Cambodia: Political return of Cambodian Prince

(nd) Former Cambodian Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh will reassume leadership of royalist Funcinpec party, returning to politics two years after a severe car accident. Ranariddh is the son to Norodom Sihanouk, who governed Cambodia in the 1950s and 1960s and served as king from 1993 to 2004. Funcinpec won the 1993 elections that were organized by the United Nations, and lost all seats by 2013. Ranariddh and Prime Minister Hun Sen from the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) were once strong opponents, until they were coalition partners in 1997. Shortly after, Hun Sen’s forces conducted an attack on and murdered many of commanders loyal to Ranariddh, who went into exile briefly. The subsequent coalition of the two partners left Funcinpec as the junior member. Additionally, in 2006 Hun Sen contributed to a split within Funcinpec, which prompted the foundation of a brief and unsuccessful successor party. Ranariddh returned to Funcinpec in 2015.

Due to his dependency on the CPP, analysts deem Ranariddh’s return of no major impact. Still, his announcement highlights a necessity to maintain a democratic covering amid an ongoing political crackdown, following the dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party. [The Diplomat]

26 January 2021

ASEAN human rights hit by pandemic

(nd) According to deputy Asia director at the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, human rights took a hit amid the Covid-19 pandemic, which highlighted inequalities and vulnerability. Malaysia for instance excluded their 3,5 million migrants and refugees from government aid programs. For a lack of governmental support in Myanmar, some of the overlooked people relied on armed rebel groups for aid instead. In Singapore and partly in Thailand, the virus transmission was blamed on migrants, creating an anti-immigrant sentiment.

Apart from economic differences and hardships, the pandemic allowed to “reinforce” existing policies to target dissidents under the umbrella of health protection, as seen with protesters in Thailand. According to US-based rights advocacy group Amnesty International, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte told soldiers and neighborhood leaders to shoot “troublemakers” protesting during community quarantine, furthering the “climate of impunity”, which was set off by his infamous drug on war, resulting in increased killings of activists. In this militaristic atmosphere, police officers were found to have committed abused enforcing stay-at-home orders. [Voice of America]

19 January 2021

China’s vaccine diplomacy in Southeast Asia 

(nd) After Chinese company Sinovac announced a 78% efficacy rate during its trials of CoronaVac, Brazilian scientists reported a significantly lower rate of 50,4 %, casting doubt on China’s so-called “vaccine diplomacy” in Southeast Asia. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) threshold for advised use is 50%. Indonesia’s own trials found an efficacy of 63,3%, with Indonesia’s food and drug agency to be the first in the world to approve use of the Sinovac vaccinations. Despite the high numbers and the prominent vaccination of President Joko Widodo, the Indonesian population is rather reluctant to receive a shot due to concerns over safety and efficacy. [Asia Times]

Thailand and the Philippines have also already purchased doses of CoronaVac, with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte criticizing Western vaccination makers for their unscrupulous prices. Vaccinations produced by Moderna and Pfizer-Biontech have shown efficacy rates of about 95%, but are more expensive and have to be transported and stored in costly freezers. Besides the price and its availability, buying Chinese vaccinations will potentially bring more general benefits, with China having already announced it will look kindly on purchasers of its products. [Asia Times]

Despite China being the country’s closest ally and economic patron, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced last year to only purchase WHO-approved vaccines, which to date doesn’t include any of the at least four vaccinations produced by China, which prompted observers to state that it will take the country until at least mid-2022 to be able to vaccinate more than 60% of its population. The Chinese government and state media downplayed the efficacy results, but they still raised already existing public doubt over the reliability of Chinese vaccinations, and the more general notion of unsafe and hasty production of vaccinations against Covid-19 generally. Yet, early this week Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen accepted a donation of one million Sinopharm vaccine doses from China, contradicting previous pledges. Hun Sen argued amid a Thai Covid-19 case surge, he cannot afford to wait, and referred to the rollout of the vaccine in China, Indonesia, Egypt and Brazil. [Nikkei Asia]

During his visit to the Philippines, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi promised half a million doses of Covid-19 vaccines, US$1.34 billion in loan pledges for infrastructure projects and US$77 million (500 million yuan) in grants. Philippine Foreign Minister Locsin, however, also made reference to the South China Sea dispute. According to observers, in light of the incoming Biden administration, the donation and investment in infrastructure was an effort to present itself as a partner to revive heavy-hit economies in the regions. [South China Morning Post]

19 January 2021

China in the “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific” 

(dql) Shortly before Joe Biden will be sworn in as US President in this week, the Trump administration declassified and published the “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific”, approved by President Trump in 2018 and stamped secret and not for release to foreign nationals until 2043. 

The 10-page national security strategy paper identifies maintaining “U.S. strategic primacy over the Indo-Pacific region,” and promoting “a liberal economic order, while preventing China from establishing new, illiberal spheres of influence and cultivating areas of cooperation to promote regional peace and prosperity” one of three national security challenges, along with North Korea’s threat to the US and its allies as well as the advancement of US global economic leadership. 

Furthermore, the document assumes that the “[s]trategic competition between the United States and China will persists,” with China “circumvent[ing] international norms and rules to gain advantage,” and seeking to “dissolve U.S. alliances and partnerships,” in order to “exploit vacuums and opportunities created by these diminished bonds.”

As an desired outcome with regards to China, the “United States and its partners on every continent” shall become “resistant to Chinese activities aimed at undermining their sovereignty, including through covert or coercive influence.” [White House, USA]

For a concise assessment of what has been achieved under this strategic framework, see Grant Newsham in [Asia Times] who argues that “Trump and his staff are handing off to Joseph Biden an Indo-Pacific that is better off than it was in 2017. 

19 January 2021

Cambodia: Exiled opposition leader denied entry

(nd) In an effort to attend in person the mass trial against her and more than 100 defendants, exiled former minister and opposition figure Mu Sochua, vice president of the now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was denied entry into Cambodia for a lack of a visa. After her Cambodian passport was revoked in 2019, she was travelling on her US passport now. Mo Sochua went into exile along with many other opposition politicians in late 2017 after the CNRP was dissolved by the Supreme Court, which was followed by a broader crackdown on oppositional voices and independent media. [Asia Times]

12 January 2021

Cambodia: Opposition defendant will not be issued travel documents

(nd) According to a government spokesperson, opposition officials in self-imposed exile will not be issued passports or visa and will have to find “their own way” to enter Cambodia to face charges of incitement and treason, because they organized a coup d’état to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen. 

The comments suggest a presumption of guilt of the CNRP exiles, which is why the international community already called on the government it has to grant the right to fair trial to the defendants. According to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the right to a fair trial combines many fundamental rights, including the right to a court, the right to a public trial, the right to equality, the right to an independent and impartial trial, the right to an expedited trial, and the right to presumption of innocence.

Phnom Penh Municipal Court in November summoned at least 113 individuals with connections to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) facing charges of conspiracy and incitement. In September 2017, the arrest of CNRP President Kem Sokha for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government, was followed by the party’s dissolution by the Supreme Court and a wider crackdown on the opposition, NGOs, and the independent media, which enabled the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in the July 2018 general election. [Radio Free Asia]

5 January 2021

Cambodia: Civil groups demand transparent oil production

(nd) Following the announcement of Prime Minister Hun Sen that Cambodia extracted its first drop of crude oil from fields in the Gulf of Thailand [See also AiR No. 52, December/2020, 5], anti-corruption groups and senior officials from the opposition and banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) applauded the success but simultaneously demanded transparent and efficient revenue management. They demanded that revenues must be invested in education, health, the expansion of infrastructure and access to water, while pointing to the country’s bad reputation with regards to corruption. In Transparency International’s 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index, Cambodia was ranked 162nd out of 198 countries. [Radio Free Asia]

5 January 2021

ASEAN countries, US to seek last minute deals

(nd) Only weeks before the official end of the Trump administration, countries across Southeast Asia seem to pursue last minute security and economic agreements with the US in light of president Donald Trump’s transactional approach to diplomacy. During the Trump presidency, trade with the US increased despite of his relative lack of interest in the region, while the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden is widely associated with a stricter emphasis on human rights and democratic values. In early December, the Philippines received $29 million in military equipment during a visit, with an announcement of additional $18 million worth of military equipment and training.

For Indonesia’s planned sovereign wealth fund, the US International Development Finance Corp. signed a letter of interest for a $2 billion as one of the first countries to sign up, with an aimed estimated total of about $15 billion from around the world. The US also extend tariff exemptions for Indonesia, possibly with an eye on cooperation against Chinese maritime actions in the South China Sea. Due to its geographic position, the region will play a pivotal role in geopolitics in the coming years, to stand strong against Chinese aggression and growing influence, but still, in the region, democratic governance is deteriorating, and left unaddressed.

Economically, the region has benefitted from the Trump administration, with ASEAN having received about $24.5 billion in direct investment from the US in 2019, with exports from Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia on the rise since 2017. Additionally, US-based power company AES announced to join a development project for a liquefied natural gas terminal in Vietnam, which also agreed to import up to $500 million in American pork over the next three years. This was seen as a reaction to mitigate the trade imbalance, still US accused Vietnam of currency manipulation after. [Nikkei Asia]