Asia in Review Archive 2021


Date of AiR edition

News summary

31 August 2021

Indonesia: Papuans reject vaccination amid distrust

(nd) Papuans have rejected Covid-19 vaccinations out of their distrust and fear towards the Indonesian army. Some argued Indonesia’s military will use the inoculation program to poison and wipe Papuans. In this setting, the decades of conflict, ongoing allegations of racism and human rights abuses are fueling conspiracy theories.

Earlier, Papua navigated rather well through the health crisis, which could be overturned by rising cases of the Delta variant and an underfunded health system unable to manage a higher case load. Local activists have called on the central government to raise the number of less than 30,000 inoculated Papuans, who in turn would only accept a dose administered directly by the World Health Organization. The armed forces are tasked to support the nationwide vaccination drive, including in Papua.

Following an UN-sponsored vote, which is widely claimed rigged due to its low participation rate, Indonesia took over the former Dutch colony in 1960, spiking decades of violent conflict and ongoing calls for independence. Papuans routinely face anti-black discrimination. Recent protests against the vaccination program were answered heavily by a high number of security forces, spiking rumors it was rather meant to limit independence-seeking Papuans’ movements than reduce infections. Tension in the region was on the rise since rebels assassinated Indonesia’s top intelligence chief in April, prompting a crackdown and the designation of local separatists as “terrorists”. [South China Morning Post] [See also AiR No. 34, August/2021, 4AiR No. 18, May/2021, 1]

31 August 2021

Indonesia: Low presidential approval rates amid alleged elite preference in vaccinations

(nd) Political elites have admitted to have been administered a third dose of Covid-19 vaccines, while most of the citizens have not received their first shot. During a meeting with President Joko Widodo, which was live streamed, Military Chief Hadi Tjahjanto and East Kalimantan Governor Isran Noor said that they received booster shots, which are officially only given to healthcare workers at the moment. The video was later taken offline.

Only 22% of its 270 million population have received their first Covid-19 shots as of last week, with just 12% being fully inoculated. [Bloomberg] This comes amid Widodo’s approval ratings having fallen to the lowest in five years, likely due to the immense surge in Covid-19 cases. The survey, which was conducted between July 30 and August 4, involved 1,220 respondents and showed that only 59% of respondents were satisfied with the president. Indonesia’s Covid-19 cases and casualties are among the highest in Asia, and with more than 50% of Indonesians employed in the informal sector, social restrictions have had drastic economic effects on people’s livelihood. [Reuters]

31 August 2021

Indonesia to talk to the Taliban

(nd) In recent talks, Indonesia called on the Taliban, to form an inclusive government and respect women’s rights. Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi talked to Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, deputy director of the Taliban’s political office, in Qatar last week before two bombs detonated at the airport, killing over 100 people.

As the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, Indonesia has in recent years tried to negotiate for an end to the conflict in Afghanistan. Earlier this month, Taliban forces seized Kabul and the Western militaries were forced to hastily withdraw their personnel, returning 20 years after being ousted by an US-led military coalition following the attack of September 11, 2001.

During their rule in the 1990s, women’s rights were suppressed, for example, access to education was cut off for women and girls, which is why women’s rights advocates in the wake of the fall of Kabul voiced their concerns over the Taliban’s future policies in that matter.

Last week, experts also raised the issue of Afghanistan once again becoming a possible safe haven for terrorist groups. [See also AiR No. 34, August/2021, 4] Authorities are also investigating whether Indonesian militants were among the prisoners released by the Taliban. Shortly before the fall of Kabul, Indonesian police arrested dozens of suspected members of the militant group Jemaah Islamiyah, who they blame for the 2002 Bali bombings. [Benar News]

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

China, Japan to compete over Indonesian auto market

(nd) China and Japan are increasingly likely to compete over Indonesia’s growing automotive market. After an aborted attempt in the early 2000s, China’s Chery Automobile Co. Ltd. has announced last week to re-enter Indonesia in 2021, with a wider range of products and besides investing in a production facility in Indonesia. Wuling and Dongfeng Sokonindo (DFSK) are other Chinese manufacturers increasingly popular, for they all cater successfully to the Indonesian need for reliable after-sales service assurance. Indonesia has both recently built the infrastructure to stimulate demand for cars and a still low ratio of car ownership of 99 cars per 1,000 people in 2021. Also, as part of President Joko Widodo presidential regulation on electric cars in 2019, it was announced to collaborate with Chinese manufacturers, who relocated to Indonesia. 

In this market, however, Japan has operated successfully since the 1970s, with a 2016 report stating the majority of cars in Indonesia are Japanese, who are also determined to produce electronic vehicles. In comparison with the Japanese, the Chinese electric models are cheaper while offering a comparable quality, also due to China being the world’s leading producer of electric vehicles, and the manufacture of many components. In 2020, China had 93 battery factories, granting privileged access to materials and hosts production plants.

CATL, China’s largest producer of lithium-ion batteries, plans to establish a component production site in Indonesia in 2024, while the world’s two largest plants for nickel processing, the Weda Bay Industrial Park and Morowali Industrial Park, are located in Indonesia, and majority owned by Chinese firms.

Recently, Japan and China also competed bidding for the construction of a railway between Jakarta and Bandung, which China won. [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]

24 August 2021

China, Japan to compete over Indonesian auto market

(nd) China and Japan are increasingly likely to compete over Indonesia’s growing automotive market. After an aborted attempt in the early 2000s, China’s Chery Automobile Co. Ltd. has announced last week to re-enter Indonesia in 2021, with a wider range of products and besides investing in a production facility in Indonesia. Wuling and Dongfeng Sokonindo (DFSK) are other Chinese manufacturers increasingly popular, for they all cater successfully to the Indonesian need for reliable after-sales service assurance. Indonesia has both recently built the infrastructure to stimulate demand for cars and a still low ratio of car ownership of 99 cars per 1,000 people in 2021. Also, as part of President Joko Widodo presidential regulation on electric cars in 2019, it was announced to collaborate with Chinese manufacturers, who relocated to Indonesia. 

In this market, however, Japan has operated successfully since the 1970s, with a 2016 report stating the majority of cars in Indonesia are Japanese, who are also determined to produce electronic vehicles. In comparison with the Japanese, the Chinese electric models are cheaper while offering a comparable quality, also due to China being the world’s leading producer of electric vehicles, and the manufacture of many components. In 2020, China had 93 battery factories, granting privileged access to materials and hosts production plants.

CATL, China’s largest producer of lithium-ion batteries, plans to establish a component production site in Indonesia in 2024, while the world’s two largest plants for nickel processing, the Weda Bay Industrial Park and Morowali Industrial Park, are located in Indonesia, and majority owned by Chinese firms.

Recently, Japan and China also competed bidding for the construction of a railway between Jakarta and Bandung, which China won. [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

Possible religious extremist spillover from Afghanistan to Southeast Asia

(nd) Policymakers, security officials and experts in Southeast Asia are alarmed that the Taliban’s takeover might inspire religious extremism in the region, while also preparing for a refugee influx. The return of Taliban has boosted the morale of militant groups in Southeast Asia, and has inspired some to undertake military and other training in Afghanistan, according to analysts and a former militant.

Fear rose in Muslim-majority nations Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Muslim communities in the region, including in southern Thailand and the southern Philippines, who have long been fighting against the spread of religious extremism. The worst attack were the Bali bombings of 2002, killing 202 people at popular nightclubs. Al-Qaeda’s Southeast Asia branch, Jemaah Islamiah (JI), was responsible for the attacks.

The southern Philippine island of Mindanao, for instance, has long been a base for Muslim militants, also allied with the Islamic State group, the largest of which is the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, is a likely hotbed for rising extremism. Despite a peace deal in 2014, separatists in 2017 laid siege in Marawi for five months.

An Indonesian security source said seven Indonesians that had joined the Islamic State (Isis) in Afghanistan were among 5,000 prisoners freed by the Taliban from a former US airbase last Sunday. Authorities announced to be on alert for their possibly attempt to return to Indonesia. According to researchers, JI distributed an Arabic-language manual containing Taliban strategies and fighting tactics via WhatsApp chat groups, including proposals to invite the Taliban to set up a branch in Indonesia.

In Malaysia, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and largest Islamist political organization applauded the Taliban’s victory for freeing Afghanistan from “the clutches of inhumane colonialism”.

Additionally, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, nearly 400,000 people have fled their homes this year, in addition to those 2.9 million internally displaced Afghans by the end of 2020. [South China Morning Post] [Nikkei Asia]

24 August 2021

Indonesia’s reluctance to encourage more Chinese language proficiency 

(nd) Despite China being Indonesia’s largest investor and trading partner and the approximately 7 million ethnic Chinese in the country, a 3.3% of the total population, there is seems to be no increased incentive for Indonesians to learn Mandarin, which can be attributed to political reasons.

Historically, president Suharto cut ties with China in 1957 to fight the spread of communism, during which a regulation foresaw the forced naturalization of Chinese defendants, which created a social stigma. During the still tabooed mass killings 1965-66, ethnic Chinese formed a large group of victims. Likewise, ethnic Chinese were prominently targeted in the May 1998 riots following the Asian Financial crisis of 1997 that were leading to the downfall of President Suharto and the democratic transition period. While interest in learning Mandarin increased since 1999, after the naturalization regulation was abolished, some education institutions offered Mandarin but often failed to provide sufficient standards due to a lack of teachers and respective university-level language education.

Since 2000, the Chinese community in Indonesia has supported Indonesia’s Ministry of Education to bolster Chinese language classes, eventually leading to the implementation of Confucius Institutes (CI) as a Chinese-Indonesian joint initiative with the first having been established in 2011. As part of scholarships, students travelled to China. Despite a stipulation in their contract obliging them to teach upon their return, most graduates, however, opted to work for Chinese companies in better paid positions instead. Still, however, Chinese language proficiency stays behind the potential. [Jakarta Post]

24 August 2021

Papuan pastor to accuse Indonesian state of injustice

(nd) In an open letter, Pastor Dr Socratez S. Yoman criticized the Indonesian government with respect to police forces once again dispersing protesters forcefully. He was referring to Reverent Dr Benny Giay, chair of the Kingmi Synod in Papua and moderator of the West Papua Council of Churches (WPCC) being refused entry to the Papuan People’s Representative building while conducting a vigil march on August 16.

The protests days before this incident were organized by a network of civil organizations behind the Papuan People’s Petition (PPP), who reject Jakarta’s plans to renew Special Autonomy in Papua. [See also AiR No. 29, July/2021, 3] During protests in May, Victor Yeimo leading figure in the West Papuan pro-independence movement and foreign spokesman for the West Papua National Committee (KNPB) was arrested and charged with inter alia treason and incitement, for his alleged role in anti-racism protests in 2019. Protesters were forcefully dispersed by police, using water cannons.

Protesters also called for Yeimo’s unconditional release from prison. With Yeimo’s health reportedly deteriorating, human rights advocates, including the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders have voiced concerns.

The protest was also directed against a recent decision to label the West Papua Liberation Army as terrorists. The ongoing armed conflict between guerillas of the Liberation Army and the Indonesian military have escalated after the killing an Indonesian intelligence chief in July.

West Papua was granted Special Autonomy status 20 years ago, being criticized by the community as having failed to enable Papuan self-determination. The newly passed billed allows for the region to be organized into provincial or district divisions, thereby dilluting Papuan leadership. [Asia Pacific Report 1] [Asia Pacific Report 2] [Radio New Zealand 1] [Radio New Zealand 2]


17 August 2021

Indonesia to apologize to Nigeria for incident with diplomat 

(nd) Following the mishandling of a Nigerian diplomat, Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry apologised last week and announced to launch a formal investigation. Nigeria recalled its ambassador to Indonesia and summoned Indonesia’s ambassador after a video on social media showed three Indonesian immigration officials pinning the diplomat into the back seat of a moving vehicle, while the diplomat screams “I can’t breathe” and “my neck, my neck”. The Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs commented to regret the incident, which it emphasized was in no way related to the commitment of the Indonesian government “as host country or in accordance with the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations.”

According to Indonesian authorities, immigration officers went to the diplomat’s apartment building after receiving a tip about expired residence permits by a group of foreign nationals. He was uncooperative and refused to hand over his documents. According to the immigration officials, he attacked them in the car and was therefore held down. He produces his documents only while he was questioned at the local immigration office. [Channel News Asia] [BBC] [Voice of America]

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

Indonesia: Police to arrest 48 suspected Islamic militants 

(nd) During nationwide raids, the Indonesian police arrested 45 suspected Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and three Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) militants. JI is affiliated with al-Qaeda, JAD is a domestic network of cells linked with the so-called Islamic State.

JAD was blamed for major terrorist attacks in the country, including suicide bombings that targeted churches in Surabaya in May 2018. JI supported militant networks in Syria by sending recruits and collecting charities during large religious gatherings Indonesia, sending them to Syria. JI was also blamed to be responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings, killing 202 people. While JI was banned in 2008, it was given space and autonomy to engage in social welfare, charitable, educational and religious activities, if the members refrained from violence. This, according to analysts, will pose a long-term threat to Indonesia’s stability, when it manages to establish significant military support. [Benar News]

17 August 2021

Indonesia: Criticism for honoring militia leader 

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 August 2021

Indonesia: Website for faster investment proposals launched

(nd) In an effort to battle economic repercussions of the pandemic, Indonesia has launched a website to facilitate and process investment proposals more easily. Indonesian President Jokowi has pledged to overcome bureaucratic hurdles such as red tape, strict labor laws and poor infrastructure, also to compete for foreign investment with neighbors such as Vietnam and Thailand. The webpage grants more authority to the new investment ministry to intervene whenever local authorities do not act fast enough.

The webpage is part of the controversial Job Creation law, which was passed last year amid protests from unions, environmentalists and other critics, alleged it was too much in favor of business actors. Indonesia is Southeast Asia’s largest economy. [Reuters] [See also AiR No. 41, October/2020, 2AiR No. 41, October/2020, 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

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

Indonesia, US to announce “strategic dialogue” 

(nd) Upon the start of an annual joint military exercise, Indonesia’s foreign minister Retno Marsudi during her visit to the US said Indonesia has entered a “new era of bilateral relations” with the US. After meeting Retno, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the launch of a “strategic dialogue” with Indonesia, involving cooperation with respect to trade, investment, public health and security. With respect to the latter, it was specifically referred to defending freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Retno welcomed US engagement in the region and emphasized Indonesia’s central position to their strategic goals. This move comes amid the latest US diplomatic efforts, with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visiting Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meeting virtually with his counterparts of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as the Biden administration seeks to show the region is a priority, countering China’s growing influence. [See also AiR No. 31, August/2021, 1] Indonesia entertains good relations with China, on whom they were heavily dependent for their vaccination campaign. The annual “Garuda Shield” joint exercise will run between August 1-14 and with more than 3,000 soldiers will be the biggest ever joint exercise between the two nations. [Reuters 1] [Benar News] [Reuters 2]

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]

10 August 2021

Indonesia: Residents in Lombok claim abuse by construction project

(nd) Residents on Lombok Island claim they have been threatened and not received fair compensation in relation to the Mandalika Special Economic Zone, a multi-billion-dollar project partly funded by the China-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). It is part of a program introduced by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in 2016 as “10 new Balis,” to attract more tourists. Reportedly, hundreds of police, soldiers, and the local government’s security personnel have blocked the road leading to the neighborhood, as well as cut their access to drinking water. Additionally, UN rights experts in April urged the Indonesian government to respect resident’s rights, who have been subjects of land grabs, forced evictions, and intimidation. Advocates have identified gaps in AIIB’s environmental and social framework system leading to human rights violations, raising fears similar situations could occur across Southeast Asia. AIIB was founded in 2016 and is controlled by about 26 percent of voting shares by China. [Radio Free Asia]


3 August 2021

Indonesia: Debating the military’s virginity tests

(nd) According to a military spokesman, female recruits of the Indonesian Armed Forces are still required to undergo a virginity test. This statement follows the army chief of staff’s indication that the rule shall be abrogated, testing all recruits only for their ability to follow basic military training.

The policy change was welcomed by rights activists, including Human Rights Watch (HRW), who referred to it in 2014 as “discriminatory and invasive” practice. Now, the military spokesman added that hymen examinations were also required for fiancées of military officers. 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), so-called virginity testing has no scientific merit or clinical indication, urging the military spokesman to reiterate they were adhering “to our eastern value.” 

According to a HRW report from 2015, the tests happened in military hospitals across the country, with applicants being examined in large halls divided only by curtains into separate rooms. Those subjected to the tests later referred to them as traumatic, crying in the interview with HRW. Women make up about 15 percent of the Indonesian military. [Benar News]

3 August 2021

Indonesia: Abuse of disabled Papuan by Air Force members

(nd) President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo was urged to apologize following criticism on an action by two members of the Indonesian Air Force (TNI AU) members against a Papuan. A video footage showed two Air Force members tackling and pressing down a mute Papuan, stepping on his head. A TNI AU spokesman apologized and announced consequences for the members. [Tempo] [Jakarta Globe]

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

Indonesia, US to hold joint drills

(nd) Indonesia and the US started joint drills on island defense on Sunday with over 4,500 service members, making it the largest exercise ever conducted by the two countries. It is part of the annual Garuda Shield exercises and conducted on Sumatra, Sulawesi, and Kalimantan for two weeks. A similar exercise is scheduled in the US later this year, following the beginning of the construction of a joint maritime training center in Batam, in the Strait of Malacca. Such efforts are seen by Indonesia as deterrence against Chinese aggression in the disputed sea, recently referred to by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin during his address in Singapore as to have “no basis in international law.” China is Indonesia’s second largest trading partner, with lately partnerships between their provinces having increased in various sectors, and infrastructure projects as well as the development of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) as part of the Belt and Road Initiative won ground, deepening economic ties. Likewise, China has donated vaccination jabs. [The Diplomat] Still, Indonesia frequently clashed with China on its military assertiveness in the South China Sea. Both countries held joint naval exercises last May in an effort of Indonesia to remain a balance between the two super powers. In July, the Indonesian navy conducted a large drill in the southern part of the South China Sea. [Nikkei Asia]

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

Indonesia, Netherlands to become third-largest foreign investor 

(nd) As of the second quarter of 2021, the Netherlands has become the third-largest source of foreign investment for Indonesia, with investments worth $1.1 billion. This amounts to 13.8 percent of roughly $8 billion of Indonesia’s overall foreign direct investment in this quarter, surpassing Japan. Singapore remains the largest investor, followed by Hong Kong, with Japan and China ranking just behind the Netherlands. [Jakarta Globe]

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

Indonesia: Arrest of fugitive separatist leader

(nd) After his escape from prison, the Indonesian police arrested a Papuan separatist leader serving a life sentence for killing three police officers in 2016. 

For decades, Papua has a low-level separatist insurgency simmering, following Indonesian annexing in 1963. In 1969, an UN-backed vote formally incorporated it to Indonesia, although critics do not accept it for only 1,000 people participated. The area is resource-rich but underdeveloped and, therefore, among Indonesia’s poorest regions. Rebel attacks continue, most famously in April with the killing of an army general, prompting President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to step up efforts against the insurgents, inter alia designating the separatist rebels a terrorist group. This move was criticized by rights activists due to feared human rights abuse and the obstruction of a peaceful dialogue. [Benar News

20 July 2021

Indonesia: Swiss referendum to help with palm oil conflict, Minister says

(nd) Following a Swiss referendum approving the comprehensive economic partnership agreement (IE-CEPA) between Indonesia and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) from 2018 by 51.6%, Indonesian deputy trade minister commented this was a strong message with respect to the EU’s treatment of palm oil. EFTA is not an EU member but nevertheless has influence on European trade. The referendum was initiated due to opposition by Swiss anti-palm oil activists. The IE-CEPA is currently in the ratification process and will grant lower duties once implemented. The minister also commented this fact might influence the outcome of the dispute settlement with the EU at the World Trade Organization (WTO). Following a major pushback in the EU against palm oil, Indonesia has filed a lawsuit at the WTO claiming discriminatory measures on palm oil and oil palm crop-based biofuels. Indonesia is the world’s top palm oil producer with a production totaling 51.58 million tons in 2020. [Jakarta Globe]

20 July 2021

Indonesia and the G20 summit presidency

(nd) In preparation of Indonesia’s G20 summit presidency in 2022, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in May issued a Presidential Decree to create a national committee for the organization, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Finance, and the Coordinating Ministry for Economic Affairs. The most pressing issues were identified as the global recovery from the pandemic, stronger resilience and partnership among the member nations, and the necessity for structural reforms. While global trends of rising populism and polarization and economic inequalities remain, the pandemic has arguably accelerated these trends and also uncovered, that G20 itself not only did not respond to it well but also in a fragmented, non-coherent way, reflecting a national rather than a global governance approach. Additionally, the tension between the US and China weakened the format, calling for structural reforms. Another point of criticism is the fluidity of the summit agenda, which allows every host country to bring a new point to it. Indonesia is likely to represent developing countries, with Jokowi focusing on the need of debt restructuring for low-income countries and financial support for developing states to mitigate the repercussions of the pandemic, including the detrimental effect to the youth with respect to education and employment.

The G20 grouping was initially found in 1999 in a response to the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997. [The Diplomat]

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

Indonesia: Former Minister sentenced

(nd) Ousted maritime affairs and fisheries minister Edhy Prabowo was sentenced to five years in prison for accepting bribes with respect to the export of lobster larvae. The Gerindra Party member, who denied the charges, was also fined and banned from running for office for three years.

The anti-corruption body (KPK) has prosecuted numerous politicians, officials and businessmen since 2002, and has thereby become one of the country’s most respected agencies. Transparency International (TI) corruption index saw Indonesia drop to rank 102 of 180 countries due to worsening graft. [Reuters]

20 July 2021

Indonesia to ratify autonomy law for Papua

(nd) Last week, the Indonesian parliament ratified a new autonomy law for Papua in order to initiate development in its poorest region. Activists opposed the move, arguing this was meant to tighten Jakarta’s grip on the resource-rich area. Protesters, demonstrating against the law, were arrested in Jakarta and Jayapura. Critics also say the Bill was ratified without consulting regional key groups. 

A similar law was enacted already in 2001 and had 20 articles revised, to support healthcare and education, boost proceeds from oil and gas, introduce affirmative action for indigenous Papuans in local politics and initiate a special autonomy fund for the region. In the farthest Eastern provinces of Papua and West Papua a low-level insurgency for independence has been simmering for decades, after a UN supervised vote in 1969, which prompted Indonesia to consider it part of its territory. [Reuters]

20 July 2021

Indonesia: 42 Western artists banned for explicit content

(nd) The Indonesian Broadcasting Commission censored 42 songs by Western artists arguing their content was “immoral”, which critics called futile in the age of the internet. The songs will be banned on the radio before 10 pm, with censored versions after 10 pm for they contain “words of violence and obscenity or allude to sexuality.” The Commission commented the purpose of this was to ensure Indonesian broadcasting “upheld integrity”, “fostered character” and protected the national identity as “faithful and pious”. 

With similar bans and censorships of musicians and artists in the 1960s during the Presidency of Sukarno, and banning of communist songs during the Suharto era, this move is far from uncommon. Due to the unprecedented reach of the internet and the use of streaming providers like Spotify nowadays, the latest actions were ridiculed and not taken too seriously. Also, according to a research by in 2021, Indonesia’s use of VPNs is the highest in the world, with 55 per cent of internet users. [South China Morning Post]

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]

13 July 2021

Indonesia: Number of child marriages rising 

(dql) According to data released by Indonesia’s Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection (PPPA), the number of child marriage dispensations saw a sharp rise in 2020, with 63,383 decisions compared with 23,145 in 2019. [Antara News]

13 July 2021

Indonesia: Free Papua Movement terrorist fugitive arrested

(dql) A joint task force of the Indonesian police and military captured Gumanggup Enumbi, a terrorist fugitive belonging to the Free Papua Movement (OMP) separatist group, in the province Papua, on his way to an event of the group. Along with Guamggup, two others were also caught suspected to be involved in OMP. [Antara News]

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

Indonesia seeks further economic cooperation with Australia, and US, advances vaccine diplomacy with Russia 

(sa) As Indonesia’s Covid-19 situation intensifies and batters the economy, Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry reached out to countries near and far in boosting its current and future prospects. 

On 6 July 2021, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi with her Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, who visited Jakarta, disclosed that they had signed a Memorandum of Understanding in cooperating in human health drugs and equipment, particularly Covid-19 vaccines, therapeutic drugs, and diagnostic equipment. [Antara News

For the geopolitical signal of Lavrov’s visit to Indonesia (and Laos), see Kavi Chongkittavorn in [Bangkok Post] who argues that “Russia is back in Southeast Asia,” treating the region as “one of its core interests,” and determined to “further integrate its economy with the region’s economic dynamics.”

On 7 July 2021, Indonesian Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs Airlangga Hartarto revealed that, after meeting with Australia’s Ministers for investment and trade through the Indonesia-Australia Economic, Trade and Investment Ministers’ Meeting, both sides have agreed to develop their economic cooperation to bolster economic recovery and aimed at revamping the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA). [Vietnamplus 1]

On 8 July 2021, Airlangga Hatarto met with the US Ambassador to Indonesia Sung Kim to discuss avenues for expanding trade. Hatarto noted that even though Indonesia was ASEAN’s largest economy, the US had greater trade flows with other nations with only 30 billion USD in trade with Indonesia. A day later, the White House announced to send 3 million Moderna Covid-19 vaccines to Indonesia, marking one of the Biden administration’s largest single shipments yet. [Vietnamplus 2] [CNN

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.

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]

6 July 2021

Indonesia: Indonesia signs agreement with Brunei on anti-money laundering 

(sa) On July 1, 2021, Governor of the Central Bank of Indonesia Perry Warjiyo with the Managing Director of the Central Bank of Brunei (BDCB) Rokiah Badar signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to strengthen the integrity of the financial systems of both countries through cooperation in fighting money laundering and preventing terrorist use of the finance system. [VietnamPlus]

6 July 2021

Indonesia: Indonesia taps into allies to tax overseas citizens 

(sa) An amendment to the general provisions and taxation procedure law will soon allow the Directorate General of Taxation authority to seek assistance from partners in collecting taxes from overseas citizens. The Director General of Taxation at the Finance Ministry Suryo Utomo revealed the plan at a working meeting at the House of Representatives (DPR) in Jakarta on June 5, 2021. 

Suryo disclosed that Indonesia has received word from 46 partner countries in gaining their assistance on taxing Indonesians living abroad, while further disclosing that the Government has signed avoidance of double taxation agreements with 13 other countries, namely, Algeria, the United States, Armenia, the Netherlands, Belfia, the Philippines, India, Laos, Egypt, Suriname, Jordan, Venezuela, and Vietnam. [Antara]

The amendment comes at a time when Indonesia mulls raising the tax rate on the ultra-wealthy and fears of those Indonesians leaving for abroad and taking their assets with them. [South China Morning Post

6 July 2021

Indonesia: Canadian warship docks in Jakarta

(sa) Canadian Warship Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) Calgary called into Jakarta’s port between July 1 to July 3on Operation Projection, a Canadian mission to preserve global peace and security while deepening ties with allies abroad. The ship conducted exercises with the Indonesian Naval Ship KRI Bung Tomo before leaving for the Australian coast for other deployments. [Antara]

6 July 2021

Indonesia: Indonesia receives vaccines from US as Covid-19 situation worsens 

(sa) Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi secured four million Covid-19 vaccines from the US, through the COVAX global vaccine sharing programme, after a call with the US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.  [The White House, USA]

The development comes as Indonesia faces according to some “Asia’s worst coronavirus outbreaks”, with hospitals facing severe shortages of oxygen as they are stretched to capacity. ] On Sunday, 63 patients in Sardjito hospital on Java had died after it nearly exhausted its’ oxygen supplies. In Jakarta, the Government revealed that since early May, daily funerals had risen by tenfold. [Reuters 1]

Luhut Pandjaitan, the minister coordinating the Covid-19 response, said that his government expects cases to rise in the next two weeks. [Reuters 2]

29 June 2021

South Korea-Indonesia relations: Strengthening cooperation on joint fighter jet project

(nm) Last week, the South Korean and Indonesian foreign ministers agreed to strengthen cooperation on a joint fighter jet project, in addition to other mutually beneficial projects. The agreement was reached during Chung Eui-yong’s last stop of his five-day trip to Southeast Asia which had also included visits to Vietnam and Singapore.

Under a 2015 bilateral agreement, Indonesia agreed to contribute 20 percent of the cost for the joint development of the KF-X-fighters by Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), which is seen as a cheaper alternative to the US-built F-35 which Seoul is so far using. Prototypes of the fighter had been unveiled in April, but Indonesia has been seeking renegotiations of its share since 2018. In addition to strengthening their commitments to the joint jet project, Chung and his counterpart Retno L.P.Marsudi also discussed expanding cooperation regarding vaccine procurement and public health efforts. [Korea Herald] [SCMP]


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

Indonesia: Religious leader receives second jail term 

(sa) On 24 Jun 2021, extremist religious leader Rizieq Shihab of the banned Islamic Defender’s Front (FPI) received another four years of jail time for spreading false information on Youtube regarding his Covid test. The same court had already handed him an eight-month jail term in May for violating Covid restrictions through several mass events, including his daughter’s wedding. 

After the verdict was delivered, the leader rejected the ruling and said he would contest it, calling the rulings against him politically motivated in a bid to silence him.  Outside the East Jakarta Court, where he was being tried, hundreds of his supporters had gathered. As his followers tried to approach the court, police dispersed the crowd using tear gas and water cannons, while detaining anyone who refused to leave the area.  [Al Jazeera 1]

Rizieq’s organization FPI was banned in December due to the group’s interests’ conflicting with that of the nation state ideology, which emphasizes unity and diversity, in contrast to the FPI’s use of violence, provocation, and division. Rizieq in November 2020, after returning from a self-imposed exile, called for a “moral revolution” in Indonesia. [Al Jazeera 2

The growing clout of radicals such as Rizieq mirror the results of a report written by Yatun Sastramidjaja and Amirul Adli Rosli at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, who argue that religious micro-influencers such as Rizieq spread anti-Covid belief through propagating anti-vaccine messages accompanied by conspiracy theories, anti-government narratives, and anti-Chinese sentiment. These micro-influencers have between 10,000 to 50,000 followers and use their Muslim identity to reach out to what is the world’s largest Muslim-majority population through social media. One of the examples of the messages being found was a video by a channel supporting the FPI that called the vaccines a “tool by the Jewish to depopulate Muslims” and further casted doubt on the efficacy of Chinese vaccines. The report further revealed that zealots further propagate anti-government and anti-Chinese sentiments in similar manners. [ISEAS] [South China Morning Post]

29 June 2021

Indonesia: Foreign Minister attends G20 conference in Italy

(sa) Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi is visiting Italy for the G20 Conference as she drums up support for its’ G20 presidency next year and reaffirms ties with Western allies. 

Before the G20 meeting, she engaged in meetings with her Italian and Canadian counterparts, Luigi di Malo and Marc Garneau in Rome on 27 June, 2021 to discuss Indonesia’s G20 2022 Presidency. Both di Mali and Garneau expressed their support for Indonesia in taking leadership of the bloc.  [Antara]

With her Italian counterpart, they further engaged in trade, investment, vaccines, as well as other issues regional and international in scope. With regards to trade relations between Indonesia and Canadia, both ministers recognized the initiative of the Indonesia-Canada Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement and its scope to accelerate trade between their two nations. [The Jakarta Post] [see Asia in Review No. 25, June/2021, 4)

The Minister for Foreign Affairs is soon to travel to the Italian city of Bari for the G20 meeting with several other G20 foreign ministers and other strategic partners. It is expected that the meeting will discuss several issues from the Covid pandemic to maintaining peace and stability. 

29 June 2021

Indonesia: Indonesia opens new maritime center with US in Batam 

(sa) On 25 June 2021, Indonesia and the US broke ground for the construction of a new maritime training center at the Batam Navy Base in a ceremony attended by US Ambassador to Indonesia Sung Y. Kim and representatives of Indonesia’s Coast Guard. [Antara

The training center, as is the base it belongs to, is strategically located at the intersection of the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea. (Reuters)

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

Indonesia: Refugees seeking asylum in Indonesia stuck in legal limbo 

(sa) As Indonesia is not signatory to the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol related to the Convention, refugees are not allowed to settle in the country permanently. This is problematic for the 13,435 refugees living in Indonesia according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Representative Dwi Prafitria. Legally, all refugees, according to human rights lawyer Ranto Sibarani based in Medan, are ‘just transiting’. 

The questionable legal status of such refugees makes it such that the Indonesian government can control what goods and services the refugees have and do not have access to. In Massakar, on the Island of Sulawesi, refugees there cannot work, study, nor access government services such as health care. Refugees in the city are given roughly 1.25 million rupiah (US$86) per month by the International Organization for Migration to cover necessities. According to recipients, it is only enough to afford two meals a day. 

The prospects of relocating the refugees are limited as countries signatory to the UN 1951 Convention or 1967 Protocol have liberty in deciding when to accept refugees. Combined with Covid-19, where most countries have closed borders, the chances of refugees moving elsewhere further dwindles. [South China Morning Post]

Such news spells troubling times ahead for recently arrived Rohingya refugees seeking brighter times in the future. [AiR No. 24, June/2021, 3]


22 June 2021

Indonesia: Investigation launched into death of politician critical of Sulawesi Island gold mine

(sa) Indonesian police are investigating the death of Helmud Hontong, the deputy regent of the remote Sangihe islands in North Sulawesi Province who had opposed a proposed gold mining project on the island. Indonesia’s human rights commission Komnas HAM and environmental groups which are rejecting the project for its threats to Sangihe’s ecosystem had demanded such a query. 

Travelling from Bali Island to Makassar city, it was reported that Hontong felt dizzy, lost consciousness, and bled from his mouth and nose 20 minutes into the flight. The representative was pronounced dead on arrival at Sultan Hasanuddin International Airport. 

PT Tambang Mas Sangihe, the firm commencing the project, is owned 70% by Canadian firm Baru Gold Corporation and 30% by others. Baru Gold denied any linkages to the death and re-iterated its commitment to “mitigate[ing] disturbances to the rare flora and fauna of the island.” [Reuters]

22 June 2021

Indonesia: Minister meetings in Czech Republic and Canada

(sa) Indonesian Trade Minister Muhammad Lutfi and Canadian Minister of Small Business, Export Promotion, and International Trade Mary Ng recently had a bilateral meeting on Monday. During their meeting Lufti and NG launched a plan for starting talks  on the Indonesia-Canada Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (ICA-CEPA), with the first round of negotiations expected to be before the end of 2021.

On the same day, Environment and Forest Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar and her Czech counterpart Czech Richard Brabec signed a Letter of Intent (LOI) aimed at strengthening cooperation in protecting biodiversity and the environment. [Antara 1] [Antara 2]


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

Indonesia: Majority Muslim group blocks minority Muslim mosque-construction in East Java

(sa) On 7 June, several hundreds of Muslims identifying by the Nahdlatul Ulama Muslim group, the largest Muslim organization in Indonesia, pressurized the Sraten Village local government in East Java to halt the construction of a Muhammadiyah, the second largest Muslim organization, mosque. Nahdlatul Ulama has an estimated 80 million followers while Muhammadiyah has around 30 million. The conflict stems out of the group’s religious and political differences. [Human Rights Watch 1]

Human Rights Watch attributes such troubling relations to a 2006 regulation issued by the 2006 Indonesian Government of then President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The regulation is dedicated to “Religious Harmony, Empowering Religious Harmony Forums, and Constructing Houses of Worship”, and paved the way for “majority religious group in an area to effectively veto minority religious groups from constructing houses of worship.” Militant Islamist groups, in aiming to close Christian churches in Muslim-majority provinces, often cited the regulation. 

President Jokowi Widodo had promised in 2014 to repeal the regulation, acknowledging that it was being used to close religious minorities’ worship places. However, he failed to do so, and in 2019 picked Ma’ruf Amin, a Muslim cleric and the drafter the regulation, to be his Vice President. [Human Rights Watch 2]


15 June 2021

Indonesia: Papua separatist leader arrested for fake news

(sa) Manuel Metemko, Chairman of the West Papua National Committee (KNPB), was arrested last week by the Nemangkawi Task Force, a joint military and police team, in Merauke District in Papua on charges of incitement through misinformation and spreading hatred on social media. [Union of Catholic Asia News]

KNPB is a group of Papuan non-governmental organizations (NGOs) campaigning for a self-determination referendum for the Papuan people of West Papua.

15 June 2021

Indonesia: Terrorist attack on airport in Papua

(sa) On June 3, Papuan terrorists descended upon Aminggaru Airport in Ilaga, Puncak District, Papua Province, in the process burning several utilities such as the control tower, a civil helicopter, an excavator, and houses of the airport’s employees. Security personnel engaged in a gunfight with the terrorists. Three dead civilians and three injured civilians were counted amongst the casualties [Antara 1]. 

Such attacks are a trend in the hit-and-run tactic employed by the Papuan separatists as they seek to leverage an element of surprise in striking state facilities, civilians, and inciting terror. Recent targets have included school teachers, street food vendors, and students, on top of security personnel [see AiR No. 21, May/2021, 4].

The Indonesian State in response has been deploying greater number of troops to counter rising insurgencies with some success. Last month, Densus 88, a special operations counter-terrorist group nabbed ten terrorists suspected to carry out Church bombings [see AiR No. 22, June/2021, 1].

The push to secure Papua comes as Indonesia’s House of Representatives renews Papua’s autonomous status [see AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2]. Several politicians have described its security status as a challenge towards development, with People’s Consultative Assembly Speaker Bambang Soesatyo commenting that it is not “easy to develop Papua if the armed Papuan terrorists’ acts of terror against innocent civilians there get intensified and escalated.” [Antara 2]  

15 June 2021

Indonesia’s former graft investigator warns of death stroke for anti-corruption agency

(sa) Novel Baswedan, a former senior investigator at Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), outed during a civic knowledge test in May, recently mentioned in an interview to Reuters that his firing could be the end to the well-known agency. [Reuters]

Novel is one out of 75 other investigators sacked who also failed the civil service examination. He and the other officials at the time were investigating into the corruption of social aid programs, more so Covid-19 aid. [see AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3]

In recent years, Indonesia’s corruption has been worsening with its Corruption Perception Index dropping by three points, marking a sharp change from its upwards improvement since 1995.  [Transparency International] Novel remarked that in the past cases could run up to the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Lately, it has been in to tens or hundreds of millions of dollars (Reuters).

15 June 2021

Indonesia receives deported citizens from Malaysia and Rohingya refugees 

(sa) Indonesia is preparing to receive around 7200 illegal migrants from Malaysia [Reuters 1]. The development comes as Malaysia grapples with a recent spike in Covid-19 cases that saw the country enter lockdown on June 1 [see AiR No. 22, June/2021, 1]. 

The 7200 people are expected to be mostly of vulnerable status as Indonesia’s Coordinating Ministry for Human Development Femmy Eka Kartika Putri clarified that in their communications with Malaysia, that Indonesia desired groups such as women and children, who are usually held in detention centres, to be repatriated first. [Reuters 1]

Besides the repatriation of its own citizens, Indonesia also received 81 Rohingya refugees who set off from Bangladesh’s shores as the refugees landed on Idaman Island in Aceh. The refugees have been at sea for 110 days and initially started with 90 refugees on February 11 when it set sail. Indian Coast Guards had found 8 people dead when it tracked the vessel in February. [Reuters 2]

The fate of the refugees in Indonesia are unknown as Wahyu Sisilo, founder of the Migrant Care, an Indonesian non-governmental group, remarked that Indonesian authorities are ill-prepared to receive the planned influx of 7,200 to-be-repatriated Indonesian citizens. According to him, “there are no specific mitigation efforts post-deportation”.  [Reuters 1]

15 June 2021

Indonesia, along with South Africa and Mexico, backs G7 Global Tax reform proposal 

(sa) Indonesian Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati along with the Finance Ministers of South Africa Tito Mboweni and Mexico Arturo Herrera Gutierrez, in a joint article with U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, endorsed the Group of Seven (G7)’s proposal to the international tax system. [Reuters]

The changes are solely targeted at multinational firms as the G7 economies agreed on a minimum global corporate tax rate of at least 15%. Beyond raising tax rates, the changes are also targeted at tax havens to prevent mass capital outflows from the countries multinational corporations such as the likes of Google and Facebook who shift their profits to low-tax offshore havens. [Reuters]

The expected capital inflows and outflows because of the proposed changes are set to have clear losers, it has been expected that Ireland, Brazil, and Hungary are expected to lose from the deal. [Allianz]

15 June 2021

Indonesia: Transportation Minister meets with South Korean Ambassador affirming transportation cooperation

(sa) Indonesian Transportation Minister Budi Karya Sumadi met with South Korean Korean Ambassador Tae Sung Park on 14 June 2021 in discussing the two countries’ commitments with regards to the former’s transportation projects. [Antara News]

Two key projects were discussed, the first project was the Bali Provincial Government’s collaborations with the South Korean government of which there are two components. The first component is to conduct a pre-feasibility study, through the KRNA, on the construction of a light-rail transit (LRT) connecting the Ngurah Rai Airport and Seminyak.  The second collaboration of the Bali Government is its financial cooperation proposal to South Korea for a feasibility study on the same LRT line. [Antara News]

The second project was the Jakarta MRT Fatmawati – Taman Mini Indonesia Inda (TMII) route, which South Korea expressed a desire to cooperate in its construction. Besides these two, several other projects were discussed such as a coal transportation railway line in Sumagsel, Hang Nadim Airport in Batam, and more. [Antara News]


15 June 2021

Indonesia: Indonesian Minster for Maritime Affairs and Investment meets with Chinese Foreign Minister as South China Sea region receives ASEAN attention

(sa) Indonesian Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment, Luhut Pandjaitan, met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in China for the inaugural meeting of the China-Indonesia high-level dialogue cooperation mechanism, with both sides signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to enable a “platform for closer dialogue” between the two governments. 

Beyond the MoU, the dialogue between the two sides sought to bolster collaboration a number of areas including healthcare and Covid vaccines, Belt and Road initiative projects, maritime issues as well as cultural and civic exchanges.  

While the dialogue might pay the way for a stronger Sino-Indonesian relations, the South China Sea issue and in particular China’s claims of parts within Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone around the Natuna Islands may prove to be a stumbling block in the relationship, with Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi calling the region “a test” for Sino-ASEAN relations. [South China Morning Post] [Jakarta Post]

15 June 2021

Indonesia purchases new frigates from Italian shipbuilder

(sa) Last week, Indonesia signed a deal with Fincantieri, an Italian commercial and military shipbuilder that services the Italian Navy, for six new frigates. In addition, Indonesia purchased two frigates soon to be retired from the Italian Navy and placed into Fincantieri care. [Defense News

The move comes as Beijing asserts dominance over the South China Sea region, which Indonesia has laid claims to, through sending its navy and building naval bases. [South China Morning Post]

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]

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

China-Indonesia relations: Joint Covid-19 vaccine production plan 

(dql) During a meeting on Saturday with the Indonesian president’s special envoy Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced that Beijing plans to jointly produce Covid-19 vaccines with Jakarta, as part of a deepened Covid-19 cooperation between the two countries. The announcement comes as Indonesia seeks to step up its vaccination drive after a slow roll-out. 

The bulk of Indonesia’s 92.2 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines has so far come from China, while Indonesia was the first country outside China to authorize the Sinovac jab. 

During their meeting, Wang and Luhut also vowed to strengthen their cooperation on Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, in particular getting the Jakarta-Bandung high speed rail completed on schedule. [South China Morning Post]

For a discussion of the latest developments of Indonesia “quietly warming up to China”, see Derek Grossman in [Foreign Policy] who argues that the US “will have to live with significantly improved Chinese-Indonesian ties since the Natuna Sea standoff,” complicating Washington’s efforts to counter Beijing in the Indo-Pacific.


8 June 2021

Indonesia: Legislators work to renew Papuan autonomy, with a focus on development

(sa) With Papua’s Special Autonomy Law No. 21/2001 due to expire in November, legislators in Indonesia’s House of Representatives (DPR) are working on renewing the law.

The law, beyond granting autonomous powers to the region, also provides significant funds to the region aimed at developing the region. For the time period 2002 to 2020, an estimated Rupiah 94.24 trillion was transferred to Papua from the Central Government. [Antara]

Despite a roughly 20-year fund transfer period, some Papuan communities have expressed disappointment with the initiative asserting that the promises of prosperity went unfulfilled. Kinawe Yikwa, a local church leader in Wamena, Papua, expressed their sentiments saying that the funds promised failed to reach “all members of communities.” [Antara]

While the Central Government lays out Papua’s future legal infrastructure, it is also dealing with a charged political and security atmosphere as Papuan separatists have been ramping up with operations with planned church bombings being foiled by counter-terrorist police groups [see AiR No. 22, June/2021, 1]

8 June 2021

Singapore reaffirms cooperation with Indonesia and Malaysia

(tcy) In a phone call on June 3, defence ministers of Singapore and Indonesia reaffirmed the close and longstanding bilateral defence relationship between the two countries, exchanging views on regional security challenges and ways to strengthen cooperation amidst the COVID-19 pandemic on areas such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, as well as maritime security. [The Straits Times]

Two days earlier, Singapore’s defence minister also touched bases with his Malaysian counterpart, and both leaders expressed their commitments for the Singapore and Malaysian Armed Forces to continue working closely in spite of the challenges brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic. [Bernama]

1 June 2021

Indonesia pushes for seafarer welfare

In the ASEAN meeting “Intersessional Discussion on Covid 19: Responses of ASEAN Member States to Seafarer Access to Crew Change, Repatriation, and National Vaccination Programs” held virtually last week in Thailand, Indonesia reaffirmed its commitment to the wellbeing of seafarers. 

Capt Hermanta, director of shipping and maritime affairs at the directorate general of sea transportation under the Ministry of Transportation, who led the Indonesian delegation, emphasized Indonesia’s actions towards seafarers through assisting in crew changes, repatriation, as well as their future inclusion in Covid-19 vaccination. 

He revealed that since April 24, 2020, Indonesia had helped 6,653 sailors through crew changes and “the return of 57,142 Indonesian migrant workers”. Furthermore, as of May 6, 2021, a total of 8,123 vaccines had been administered with 1,487 seafarers receiving their second shot. The Indonesian Government planned to vaccinate a total of 15,000 seafarers by the end of the year. 

The meeting was attended by nine other ASEAN countries, as well as dialogue partners China, Federation of ASEAN Shipowners Associations (FASA), and South Korea, and also the International Maritime Origination (IMO). [Tempo]

1 June 2021

Indonesia releases Iranian tanker

(sa) An Iranian-registered tanker, labelled MT Horse, had been released on Saturday. It was seized by Indonesia in January on the grounds of suspected illegal oil transfer. A court decision earlier last week had allowed the vessel to leave. [Reuters]

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

Indonesia: Papua heats up as counter-terrorist special ops nabs 10 suspected terrorists

(sa) Densus 88, the National Police’s counterterrorism squad, arrested 10 suspected would-be suicide bombers in Indonesia’s Papua on Friday, 28th. According to Adjunct Senior Commissioner Untung Sangaji, chief of the Merauke district police, the suspects had planned to bomb multiple churches in Merauke, Jagebok, Kurik, Semangga, and Tanah Miring. [Antaranews

Densus 88 is the result of a long-term collaboration between Australia, the US, and Indonesia in building up the counter-terrorism capacity of Indonesia following the 2002 Bali attacks. The unit receives funding and training from the Australian and American governments. [The Conversation]

Such events come in the wake of broader developments as the Indonesian state seeks to crack down on terrorist activities in Papua. Earlier last month, the state declared certain armed criminal groups, namely Papuan separatists, as terrorists following their assassination on the Indonesian Armed Forces’ provincial intelligence chief (AiR No. 18, May/2021 1).

However, greater troop influx into the region has stoked human rights fears as the UN has received reports of excessive force, including “extrajudicial killings, harassment, arbitrary arrests, and detention of indigenous Papuans” according to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Ravina Shamdasani. [Reuters


25 May 2021

Indonesia: Government urged to boycott Israeli products amid Palestinian solidarity rallies

(sa) Chairman of the House of Representatives (DPR) Commission VIII Yandri Susanto has urged the Government to boycott Israel’s products over its actions over the Gaza strip. [Tempo].

Meanwhile, in a broader reflection of popular sentiments, dozens of organizations and their followers gathered in front of the US Embassy to express solidarity with the Palestinian cause and decry Israeli occupation. [Jakarta Globe]

President Joko Widodo has earlier condemned the Israeli attacks on Palestine (See AiR No. 20, May/2021, 3).

25 May 2021

Indonesia rises in Fragile State Index 

(ra) In the latest Fragile State Index (FSI) for 2020, Indonesia is ranked at the 96th place among 178 reviewed country. The list is topped by Yemen on the 1st place as the most fragile state worldwide, followed by Somalia and South Sudan.  The FSI, annual report published by the US think tank the Fund for Peace and the Geneva-based news magazine the New Humanitarian, measures a country’s progress in four aspects – economic, social, community cohesion and political progress. 

Indonesia has seen improvement in all aspects except for one – political progress, which has decreased due to the weakening of state legitimacy and provision of public services. [Kompas] [FSI]

25 May 2021

Indonesia: Social security data leaked to hacking forum

(ra) A social media user posted on an online forum personal data one million Indonesian citizens, while claiming to have access to data of 270 million people in Indonesia. The data resemble those held by BPJS Kesehatan, Indonesia’s Healthcare and Social and Security Agency, whichruns the country’s Indonesia’s universal healthcare program. BPJS Kesehatan confirmed a social security data leak but claimed that the breach is much smaller in scale than claimed by the hacker.

Another Indonesian agency, the Communication and Information Ministry, also claimed that far fewer samples of data have been leaked, counting 100,002. [The Straits Times

Currently, BPJS Kesehatan is identifying the root cause of the data leak. On Friday, it was called in by Indonesian authorities to conduct this investigation. Some experts say that the data leak points to Indonesia’s weak cyber security. [Reuters]

25 May 2021

Two Indonesian soldiers killed by Papuan rebel groups

(ra) Two Indonesian soldiers were killed in attack on 18 May while on patrol in the Yahukimo regency of the province Papua. Indonesian security authorities blame Papuan rebel groups for the lethal attack.

Additionally, four military personnel suffered gunshot wounds from a Papuan separatist group in Papua’s Pegunungan Bintang Regency.  

Patrolling efforts in Papua have been recently heightened after the province saw increased violent attacks by armed separatist terrorist groups over the past months, including the killing of General I Gusti Putu Danny Karya Nugraha, Papua’s intelligence chief, in April. [The Straits Times] [Antara News]

Additional 400 troops have been recently deployed in response to the worsening conflict,with regards to its resolution Paulus Waterpauw, an indigenous Papuan and head of Indonesian police intelligence, expressed his determination to suppress the separatist groups in the strongest word made so far: “The objective is to wipe out those behind these horrible acts of violence.” He added that ‘[t]his operation will go on until we get the maximum result. As long as they have not been arrested, we will do our utmost to incapacitate them and catch them.”  [Reuters]

Papua had declared independence from the Dutch in 1961, but Jakarta seized control  two years later. While Indonesia claims that Papuans had voted in favour of being part of Indonesia in the 1969 referendum, the vote has been widely considered as heavily rigged. 

25 May 2021

Indonesia: Main body of sunken Indonesian navy submarine still lost at sea

(ra) KRI Nanggala-402, a submarine of the Indonesian navy, has not been located after search efforts since it sank on April 21. The sinking of the submarine, which was built in 1977 in Germany, has raised questions about the quality of Indonesia’s defense equipment. Furthermore, the sinking has cast doubt about Indonesia’s military readiness. Currently, Chinese rescue vessels are involved in the salvage operation and have recovered some piece of debris from the submarine. [Al Jazeera]

18 May 2021

Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei condemn Israeli Attacks on Palestine

(ra) Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Malaysian Prime Minister Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah issued a statement urging all parties in the current Israel and Palestine conflict to accept international presence in the region temporarily and called upon the United Nations to conduct and emergency session to protect Palestinians. [Australian Financial Review

In their statement, the leaders reaffirmed their support for a two-state solution based on pre-1967 border agreements between Palestine and Israel. They have also urged all parties in the current escalation of violence to exercise restraint and halt all attacks on civilians. [The Star]


18 May 2021

Indonesia: SBY and AHY asked to apologize to current leader of the Democratic Party 

(ra) Prominent members of the opposition Democratic Party in Indonesia, Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono (AHY) and his father Soesilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), former Indonesian President 2004-2014, have been asked to apologise to Moeldoko, the current General Chariman of the Party. The request comes from spokesperson of the party, Muhammad Rahmad. [CNN Indonesia, in Bahasa Indonesia]

The apology is requested on the grounds that SBY and AHY had spread rumours and false news about Moeldoko in an internal leadership conflict within the Democratic Party AHY and Moeldoko, where according to the party’s Deputy Analyst Syahrial Nasution, AHY’s rightful place as the leader of the Democratic Party was illegitimately given to Moeldoko in a highly contested, extraordinary congress of the party in March. [CNN Indonesia, in Bahasa Indonesia]

The appointment of Moeldoko as party chairman, who is Indonesian president Joko Widodo’s current chief of staff, is seen as a step to broaden the president’s grip on the parliament , in which Widodo’s already controls 74% of the 575 parliamentary seats. [Reuters]


18 May 2021

Indonesia: Members of Papuan separatist group prosecuted, killed

(ra) Lesman Waker, commander of Lekagak Talenggeng, a group demanding for Papuan independence, has been killed by Indonesian police in Papua. Police accuse Waker’s group of killing Brigadier General Putu Dani, an Indonesian senior intelligence official. Waker himself was accused of inciting an ambush which killed a policeman in April. [Reuters]

Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, has demanded the release of Victor Yeimo, another Papuan independence leader, who was arrested by Indonesian police earlier this month. He was charged with treason for a statement made in 2019, which called for an independence referendum for Papua. [HRW] [AiR No. 19, May/2021, 2]


18 May 2021

Indonesia: Pro-Islamic State militants kill civilians

(ra) Members of the Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT) group have killed four farmers in Central Sulawesi province on 11 May. The MIT are suspected to be pro-Islamic State (IS). Kalemago, where the MIT conducted the killings, is a village in Poso regency, which has long been a stronghold for MIT operations. 

In 2016, the Indonesian police and military created a task force together to track down MIT members. [Benar News

18 May 2021

Indonesia: Employees of Corruption Eradication Commission relieved of duties

(ra) 75 employees in Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) have been relieved of their duties after failing a civic knowledge test (TWK) which tests whether an employee espouse the core values of integrity, neutrality and anti-radicality. [Kompas] [BBC Indonesia, in Bahasa Indonesia] In accordance to Law Number 19, KPK employees must have their status changed from independent employees of the agency to civil servants, for which the passing of the TWK is required. [Antara News] The most recent TWK test was taken by 1,351 KPK employees. [CNN Indonesia, in Bahasa Indonesia] 

Some of the 75 KPK employees who were relieved of their duties were in the midst of investigating corruption cases in Indonesia, including corruption involving social assistance programs. [BBC Indonesia, in Bahasa Indonesia]

Indonesian netizens on Twitter have trended the hashtag #BeraniJujurPecat! in response to the decision to relieve 75 employees of Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK).  [CNN Indonesia, in Bahasa Indonesia] The hashtag is a play on the slogan ‘Berani Jujur Hebat’ used by the KPK since 2011. The slogan describes how corruption happens when individuals are not brave enough to be honest. [Detik] However, the recently trending hashtag, with the text “Berani Jujur Pecat”, suggests that one’s honesty can lead to being fired.

On 17 May, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo asked the KPK to reconsider its dismissal of its 75 employees. In a video uploaded to the Presidential Secretariat’s official YouTube channel, Jokowi further argued that the test should be used as a starting point to put in place improvement measures for the KPK at both an organizational and individual level, but not as a basis for dismissing its employees. [The Jakarta Post]

11 May 2021

Indonesia condemns Israeli police raid of Al-Aqsa Mosque

(dql) Indonesian President Joko Widodo condemned violence of the Israeli police against Palestinians at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem as well as the expulsion of Palestinian civilians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem. He called on the UN Security Council “to take measures on the repeated violations carried out by Israel,” adding that Indonesia will be steadfast in its support for the people of Palestine. [Antara News]

Israeli police on Monday stormed the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam located in occupied East Jerusalem, and attacked the Palestinians who were on guard to prevent raids by Jewish extremists. [Anadolu Agency]

11 May 2021

China-Indonesia relations: Joint naval exercise

(dql) Part of the PLA Navy’s annual training program, China and Indonesia held a joint naval exercise in waters off Jakarta, involving guided-missile frigates from both countries and including communication drills, search and rescue operations and formation maneuvers. [CGTN]           

The exercise comes on the heels of Beijing’s announcement that it was sending three rescue ships to assist Jakarta in recovering the Indonesian submarine which sank in late April. It comes also amid tensions over fishing rights near the Natuna Islands in the South China Sea. Indonesia regards the waters off the Natunas as part its exclusive economic zone, while Beijing claims it has historical rights to fish there. [South China Morning Post]


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

Indonesia: Court strikes down government decree on hijab ban at schools

(dql) Indonesia’s Supreme Court has invalidated a recent governmental decree which bans schools from forcing students and teachers to wear clothing that identifies people with a certain religion, in particular the hijab. In its decision the Court called the decree “not legal,” as it contradicts “existing laws on the jurisdiction of local governments, child protection and the national education system.” [UCA News]

The government issued decree in February in response to criticism of a state vocational senior high school in West Sumatra which ordered female students to wear a hijab at the school, irrespective of their religion. [AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2]

11 May 2021

Indonesia: Papuan independence leader arrested

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

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

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

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

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

4 May 2021

Chinese-Indonesian copper mine deal to be cancelled

(nd) A deal which foresaw the construction of a US$2.5 billion copper smelter on the eastern Indonesian island of Halmahera in a joint project of Freeport McMoran Copper & Gold (FCX) and China’s Tsingshan Steel have collapsed. Following the end of the deadline of 31 March, the government has acknowledged the project will return to its original site at a Gresik, East Java. Global copper prices have mounted to a record price of US$10,000 per ton on the London Metal Exchange, driven by global demand for electric vehicles. [Asia Times]


4 May 2021

Bangladesh, Indonesia push for early trade deal

(lm) During the inaugural session of their Foreign Office Consultations (FOC), Bangladesh and Indonesia on April 29 agreed to work towards the singing of a Preferential Trade Agreement (PTA) to boost bilateral trade between the two countries. [Prothom Alo] [United News of Bangladesh]

With the third phase of the IBTA (Indonesia-Bangladesh Trade Agreement) still pending, both sides agreed to sign pending Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) and agreements on a fast-track basis to expand the volume of bilateral trade and investment.

4 May 2021

Indonesia: Criticism of Indonesian navy

(nd) In a reaction to the sunken submarine, Indonesian lawmakers are urging to ground its sister ship until proven seaworthy. Additionally, they stated this incident highlighted the threat of Indonesia’s ageing military equipment, criticizing the government for failing to modernize quickly enough. The sunken vessel was made in 1977 in former West Germany, the sister vessel in 1981. Existing equipment was not maintained well enough, and salaries and allowances for personnel are below average.

The debate emerges amid the economic repercussions of the pandemic and increasing Chinese incursions in the disputed South China Sea, leaving Indonesia in dire need of a functioning navy. China is aware of this weakness and President Joko Widodo’s primary focus on modernizing infrastructure and economic wellbeing, which has been significantly tied to China. [South China Morning Post]

4 May 2021

Indonesia: Landslide at controversial construction site kills three

(nd) A landslide caused by heavy rainfall at Batang Toru plant construction side killed at least three people, with many remaining missing. The China-backed hydropower plant construction is controversial due to its environmental impacts on endangered Tapanuli orangutans living there, and its soil being prone to earthquakes. A lawsuit against the project in 2018 was unsuccessful. It is the second deadly landslide at the construction site, which forms part of several infrastructure projects built across the Indonesian archipelago as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). [Radio Free Asia]

4 May 2021

Indonesia: Papuan armed groups declared terrorists

(nd) Following the lethal attack by the Free Papua Movement (OPM) on the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) provincial intelligence chief, the Indonesian government has declared armed criminal groups (KKB) in Papua terrorists. Before, at least another nine guerillas were killed by Indonesian forces. The attack happened near the Grasberg mine, the world’s second-largest copper mine.

Indonesia’s easternmost province has been the site of decades of guerilla warfare for independence against local security forces. The government said it has reached its decision after consulting with the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR), the State Intelligence Agency (BIN), the National Police chief, the TNI commander, figures from regional administrations and legislatures, local public figures and grassroots leaders. Information accessibility is a problem in Papua, where allegations of extrajudicial killings and breaches of human rights, also against peaceful protesters and citizens, have shadowed the reputation of security forces and authorities. [Jakarta Post]

4 May 2021

Indonesia: Another cabinet reshuffle

(dql) In the second Cabinet reshuffle in just over four months, President Joko Widodo’s plan to reorganize several agencies and create an investment ministry were approved by parliament. The new ministry will be headed by the current head of the Investment Coordinating Board (BKPM), coordinating both foreign and domestic investments, and improve investment climate on all levels. The Education and Culture Ministry was combined with the Research and Technology ministry. The current head of the Indonesian Institute of Science (LIPI) was appointed chief of the newly formed National Research and Innovation Agency.

In the previous cabinet reshuffle in December last year the health minister was ousted for mismanaging the pandemic response, while substitute ministers were appointed for the two embroiled in corruption cases. It also saw new appointments for trade, tourism and religious affairs. [Channel News Asia]


4 May 2021

Indonesia: Firebrand cleric’s lawyer arrested

(nd) Indonesia’s counterterrorism police arrested the lawyer of firebrand cleric Rizieq Shihab, Munarman, for inciting people to commit terrorist acts and pledging allegiance to the Islamic State.

Munarman was the general secretary of the Islam Defenders Front (FPI), which was disbanded in December last year. At his house and the former FPI headquarters, police found chemicals for use in explosives. The raids were in connection with the attack on a Catholic church on Palm Sunday in Makassar. Munarman, a former human rights lawyer, has been Shibab’s lawyer since his trial for breaches of pandemic restrictions began in March.

Indonesia has been fighting against terrorism, mostly carried out by al-Qaida-linked group Jemaah Islamiyah, since the Bali bombings in 2002. [The Diplomat]

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]

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

Indonesia: Lost submarine sank, crew of 53 presumed dead

(nd) The sunken Indonesian submarine in the Bali Sea broke into pieces, with all 53 crew members declared dead. The cause is yet undetermined. Singapore and Malaysia have dispatched ships, and the US, Australia, France, and Germany have offered assistance in a four day international search effort. [Voice of America]

27 April 2021

Indonesia: General killed at Papuan clashes

(nd) In an ongoing clash between security forces and a rebel group in the easternmost Papua province, an Indonesian brigadier general was killed. The clashes started 2 weeks ago and was prompted by rebels who set fire to schools and shot a teacher. He is believed to have been executed by the West Papua Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Free Papua Organization. The insurgency has been going since the 1960s, when Indonesia annexed the former Dutch colony. Since last year, attacks conducted by rebels saw a rise. While the extracts of gold and copper from the Grasberg mine have created significant tax income for the government, indigenous Papuans remain poorer, sicker and more likely to die young than people elsewhere in Indonesia. [Voice of America]

27 April 2021

Indonesia: Death sentences via Zoom

(nd) As a repercussion of the Covid-19 pandemic and high numbers in Indonesia, courts have retreated to virtual court hearings, including for cases of murder and drug trafficking, which can carry the death penalty. Since last year, nearly 100 inmates have even been sentenced to death via video ruling, according to Amnesty International, who called it inhumane and degrading.

Last week, six terrorism convicts were sentenced to death for being involved in a prison riot in 2018, killing five police officers. The riot involved 155 prisoners and lasted 40 hours. The defendants accepted the sentence and announced not to appeal. The Islamic State claimed the riot to be done by his fighters. [Benar News]

Experts argue that virtual hearings significantly violate the defendant’s fair trial rights and hinder the quality of the defense. Bad internet connection plays a part, as well as the missing personal contact with the defendant. Singapore has sentenced via video at least one to hang since the pandemic has started. Although Indonesia did not carry out executions for several years, they are still rendered due to the high public support for the ultimate punishment as a form of retaliation. [Voice of America]

20 April 2021

Coordination in the South China Sea: Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia

(lp) Last week, the Philippines and Malaysia reaffirmed their commitment to the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on defense cooperation signed in 1994. Similarly, Vietnam and Malaysia announced that they will sign a MOU this year to strengthen cooperation in maritime security. Moreover, Malaysia and Indonesia will pursue a joint development of oil and gas elds on their maritime boundaries. These latest cooperation form part of a broader effort to find unified ranks towards China, dating back some years. Analysts welcomed the move, which could solidify the bargaining position of Southeast Asian Nations towards China, which prefers unilateral agreements. The biggest obstacle to such joint action were called “intramural differences” by experts among themselves, such as conflicts over illegal fishing, which are concentrating resources and limiting bargaining power. [Manila Bulletin] [South China Morning Post]

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

Malaysia, Indonesia and the Middle East

(nd) A recent peer-reviewed academic article [access to the paper here] sheds light on the relation between Malaysia and Indonesia with the Middle East. While Malaysian Foreign Minister recently visited Turkey, Qatar, and Iran, the UAE announced to invest $10 billion in Indonesia’s sovereign wealth fund.

While they face the usual options and constraints middle powers do, it is important how foreign policy and domestic issues are intertwined for the Southeast Asian nations. The conflicts in the Middle East have affected both countries, with particular influence of Saudi Arabia, which together with the UAE, is the largest regional trading partner and investor. Saudi Arabia has acted as a major supporter of religious activities and education. It was also involved in the Malaysian 1MDB state fund scandal, with former Prime Minister Najib Razak claiming a donation from the Saudi royal family. Due to these connections, both Malaysia and Indonesia have largely followed Saudi Arabi’s foreign policy line, with regard to Yemen, Qatar and Iran, with some exceptions. With respect to Iran, though, both countries followed then-President Donald Trump in withdrawing economically. The government led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad recalled troops from Yemen in 2018. Mahathir also organized a summit of Muslim-majority countries, generating criticism from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE to stay away.

The Syrian civil war highlighted a limited ability to influence the course of events, leading to a focus on humanitarian assistance, and to mitigate the domestic pushback by countering the rise of Islamic extremism by joiners to the Islamic State. While Malaysia adopted a top-down approach through the Prevention of Terrorism Act in 2015, Indonesia combined state action with activity by different agents, from security services to local authorities and the two largest Muslim social movements in the country, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah. [The Diplomat


20 April 2021

Indonesia, South Korea to deepen defense relation

(nd) Last week’s high-level visit by Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto to South Korea highlighted the increased security interests between the two countries. Although security ties date back and a defense agreement was signed in 2013, recently there is a push to boost relations and broaden cooperation to fields of cybersecurity. This forms part of a general South Korean policy to enhance ties to Southeast Asia.

At the center of the most recent trip was the rollout of the KF-X indigenous fighter jet, which Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo attended virtually, highlighting the importance paid to the relationship. Still, the Indonesian approach to the KF-X/IF-X fighter jet program, which has been delayed due to issues on both sides, was not commented or clarified. [The Diplomat 1] Their presence none the less signify their continued commitment for acquisition, further diversifying Indonesia’s air force, whose majority is from USA and Russia. Due to its superior features, the acquisition of KF-21 might impact the future balance of military air power in Southeast Asia. In comparison to defense needs due to Indonesia’s geography and the plan to modernize the military, though, the acquisition is more likely aimed at preserving a status quo that initiating an arms race. [The Diplomat 2]

20 April 2021

Indonesia: Manhunt for alleged blasphemy

(nd) Following the declaration of Joseph Paul Zhang to be a prophet, the National Police will start a cross-border manhunt. Such claims might be considered blasphemy, stirring interreligious tension in the Muslim majority country and violate Indonesian law. Indonesia’s Criminal Code (KUHP) prohibits blasphemy, with a five-year prison term for deliberately spreading hatred, hostility, or contempt against religions. On his Youtube channel, he posted videos allegedly insulting Muslims. As immigration data showed, he might have left the country early 2018, which will make international cooperation necessary for his capture. The Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), an Islamic cleric organization partly funded by the government, and the Nahdlatul Ulama, the country’s largest Muslim organization, said Joseph’s statements amount to blasphemy and condemned his insult of the prophet. While the organization urged a firm answer by authorities, they also asked Muslims to remain calm. [Jakarta Globe]


20 April 2021

Indonesia: Constitutional Court to disqualify elected district head

(nd) The Constitutional Court disqualified elected district head in East Nusa Tenggara, Orient Riwu Kore, over his American citizenship. According to the court, he obtained US citizenship in 2017, which he did not give up by the time he registered for the leader election. Indonesian law requires Indonesian citizenship for candidates contesting in elections. The court also ordered a reelection within 60 days. A verdict by the Constitutional Court cannot be appealed. Orient received 48% of the votes and was backed by the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) and the Democratic Party. [Jakarta Globe]

20 April 2021

Indonesia: Another cabinet reshuffle

(nd) After the House of Representatives approved President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s plan to merge the Research and Technology Ministry with Education Ministry and create the Investment Ministry, another cabinet reshuffle is expected. It was approved on April 8 and marks the second reshuffle since Jokowi’s second term in 2019, replacing six ministers and adding five deputy ministers. The President is able to appoint ministers, but needs the House’s approval to change the setup to the ministries.

According to the decision, the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN), a governmental body established in 2019 and tasked with coordinating research initiatives, would become an autonomous body directly under the President. Analysts argue, the merger is an opportunity for Jokowi to appease Muhammadiyah, the second-largest Islamic organization in Indonesia after Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). Education ministerial seats are usually reserved for Muhammadiyah and religious affairs minister seats for NU, due to their large number of followers and political influence. [Jakarta Globe]

20 April 2021

Indonesia: 31 arrested over church attack; women recruited more frequently

(nd) Following an attack on a church on Palm Sunday in Makassar, police have arrested at least 31 suspected members of terror group Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD). A newly-wed couple bombed the church, and were killed instantly, hurting 20. They were believed to be JAD members. The group was declared a terror organization with ties to the Islamic State and disbanded in 2018. The US made this move in 2017 already. Currently, JAD is the most active organization in Indonesia, at least since 2018. [Jakarta Globe] During a raid on Thursday police shot and killed a man allegedly linked to the church attack. The man ignored warnings by the police and attacked them while they tried to arrest him. [Benar News]

Meanwhile, recent attacks by female militants highlighted efforts by extremist groups to target women with online propaganda via social media. During the pandemic, people generally spend more time online, which applies all the more to housewives. Often targeting migrant workers deemed to earn money, militants would start dating them and establish a relationship in order to brainwash them. Additionally, women are still considered “less of a threat” than men and are therefore scrutinized less closely. [South China Morning Post]


13 April 2021

Indonesia, China future of stalled BRI projects 

(nd) Several projects, which form part of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have been significantly delayed due to financial and environmental considerations, most lately the Jakarta-Bandung High-Speed Rail project. The Chinese Foreign Ministry was citing the pandemic, as a matter of fact, many projects were stalling before the outbreak.

According to a recent analysis, Indonesia should use this as a reminder to address potential problems of large-scale BRI infrastructure projects before signing up. BRI project implementation began in 2013 through a comprehensive strategic partnership negotiated by then-President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and has initially prompted controversy and opposition in Indonesia. Points of criticism were the untransparent financing and corruption, financial viability as well as environmental issues. After many delays, the railway project is estimated to be $1.39 billion over budget, mainly because of issues with land acquisition and work incident, like the burning of the fuel distribution pipe, which collided with the construction of the train line. Despite needed investments from China, Indonesia still has a certain bargaining power, for China is depended on Indonesia for the realization of a maritime route from China to Rotterdam. [The Diplomat]

13 April 2021

Japan, Indonesia deepen defense cooperation

(nd) As part of “two plus two” security talks end of March, Japan and Indonesia reached an agreement for exports of Japanese defense equipment, mainly for air force navy, and mostly inspired by China’s growing aggression in the South China Sea.  Japan could deliver up to eight of

Mogami-class stealth frigates to the Indonesian Navy, built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Mitsui Engineering and Shipbuilding at shipyards in Nagasaki and Tamano. Four of the vessels shall be delivered in late 2023 or early 2024, with the remaining four to be built by the state-run company PT PAL at its shipyard in Surabaya under a technology transfer agreement. The $3.6 billion worth deal is the largest ever arms deal between Indonesia and Japan and will enhance the Indonesian Navy’s long-range patrol capabilities. In 2020, Indonesia’s military spending jumped up sharply to $9.26 billion, a 19.8 percent increase from the year before, when it was the second-lowest in Southeast Asia.

As response to China’s expansive “nine-dash line” claim, which was rejected by an international tribunal ruling in 2016, the Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI) have started to boost its maritime defense. In light of recent tensions between China and the Philippines in the Whitsun Reef, which lies within the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), Japan and Indonesia expressed their “grave concern over the continuation and escalation of an attempt to change the status quo by force”.  [The Diplomat]


13 April 2021

Indonesia, Britain deepen bilateral ties 

(nd) Indonesia and Britain have agreed to deepen security, defense and trade ties, highlighting the deployment of naval vessels, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, to the Indo-Pacific for later this year. The vessel will sail through the highly disputed South China Sea, which was criticized by China earlier, announcing measures to safeguard its sovereignty. After leaving the European Union, Britain was highlighting its commitment in the Indo-Pacific. They also signed a memorandum of understanding to cooperate on counterterrorism, and Britain reassured to support ASEAN with respect to Myanmar. Britain aims to obtain Dialogue Partner status with ASEAN, which will allow it to join the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting and the ASEAN Regional Forum. 

Bilateral trade amounted to US$2.24 billion last year, with British investment increasing by 35 per cent to US$72.5 million. Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi voiced concern over a proposed legislation for due diligence with respect to negative environmental effects on a range of agricultural commodities, including palm oil, for which Indonesia is the world’s largest producer. [South China Morning Post]

13 April 2021

South Korea: Homegrown supersonic fighter set revealed

(dql) South Korea’s arms procurement agency announced that the country’s first homegrown supersonic fighter jet, the KF-21 Boramae, will be ready to fly with weapons aboard by 2028. Released last Friday, the fighter jet, is expected to undergo flight tests through 2026 and become combat ready by 2032.

With all tests successfully completed, South Korea will join an exclusive group of nations which have developed an advanced supersonic fighter, including the US, Russia, China, Japan, France, Sweden and a European consortium of the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and Spain. [Korea Herald] [Asia Times]

A joint project between South Korea and Indonesia in which Seoul holds 80% of shares while Jakarta seeks 20%, the KF-21 is facing problems as Indonesia has not made its milestone payments after the initial tranche of 203.4 million USD. Furthermore, Jakarta has not sent back Indonesian personnel working that is involved in the project and that were withdrawn due the COVID-19 pandemic. A talk between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto failed to address this issue. [Defense World]

13 April 2021

Indonesia: More ambitious goal for sovereign wealth fund

(nd) President Joko Widodo announced the goal to rise US$200 billion for Indonesia’s sovereign wealth fund, known as Indonesia Investment Authority, in the next two to three years. His earlier target was US$100 billion, and initially US$15 billion. The fund received pledges from the United Arab Emirates, Japan, the US and Canada. It allows investors to chose to put money in various industries, from health care and tourism, to technology and the development of a new national capital city planned on the island of Kalimantan. The fund forms part of Indonesia’s long-term, infrastructure-driven development plan. As one of the world’s largest nickel exporter, Indonesia is set to become a hub for battery making, often in joint ventures with Chinese companies, and ongoing talks with Tesla. Widodo was also promoting the country’s hydropower potential, with projects on the Kayan River in Kalimantan and the Mamberamo River in Papua. Widodo also supports a move to expand the mandate of Bank Indonesia, the country’s central bank, for it to not only manage the currency, but also sustainable economic growth and job creation, which to some observers might jeopardize the bank’s independence. [South China Morning Post]


6 April 2021

Indonesia, Japan to sign military equipment and technology transfer agreement

(nd) Indonesia and Japan signed an agreement for the export of Japanese-made military equipment and technology. The agreement comes amid rising tensions in the South China Sea due to Chinese expansive claims. In an effort to modernize its defense, Indonesia reportedly held talks with Japan in November last year already, possibly supplying new-generation destroyers to the Indonesian Navy. Details of the defense agreement remained unreleased. Both underscored the importance of upholding the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific based on the rule of law.”

Worried about an effort to change the status quo, Japan voiced concerns about China’s new coast guard law, allowing its coast guard to open fire on foreign vessels in the disputed waters. The law was criticized by other Southeast Asian countries – Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam – and the US. China and Japan have territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands, which China calls the Diaoyu Dao. [Benar News]


6 April 2021

Indonesia: The future of the internet and freedom of speech

(nd) The revision of the Electronic Information and Transaction Law (ITE Law), enacted in 2008 and revised in 2016, has been an often-debated project. Journalists and academics have criticized how the law threatens freedom of speech and the ambiguous provisions lead to undue criminalization of online speech. In February, President Joko Widodo announced a revision to remove ambiguous articles, without mentioning which ones. Defamation, hoaxes and hate speech have the greatest potential to suppress freedom of speech, while another Article allows the government to restrict internet access, which was inserted in 2016 and used during the political crisis in West Papua in June 2020. Analysts suggested a revision to also target regulations on internet access restrictions by the government. Also, the ITE Law did not appoint a designated independent regulatory body to regulate internet usage. The law states that the government has the authority to oversee the provision of the internet, raising questions on the independence of internet regulators, especially when opposition politicians or activists are involved. Given current public statements, a future revision is more likely to rather provide formulations of interpretation guidelines for enforcement by governmental institutions than a deeper revision. [East Asia Forum]

6 April 2021

Indonesia: Further arrests and raids after church attack

(nd) Following the suicide bombing at a cathedral in South Sulawesi on Palm Sunday, Indonesian supporters of Islamic State (Isis) are calling for more attacks. The two attackers were the only deaths in the attack, and 20 wounded. The attack was attributed to Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), the largest Isis-linked group in the country. Counterterrorism police on Monday discovered five home-made bombs during raids in Jakarta and West Java. Security forces have upgraded their security in the week, which is holy both for Christians and Muslims.

JAD has thousands of sympathizers and supporters in the country and has been behind all major terror attacks in Indonesia over the past five years. Police and non-Muslims are their main targets. According to analysts, attacks will continue since they are rooted in a 2015 call by late Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was killed in 2019 by US special forces in Northern Syria. Following an estimate, there are currently 70 JAD members in South Sulawesi. [South China Morning Post]

On Wednesday, a woman entered Indonesia’s National Police Headquarters in Jakarta and shot at officers before being shot dead by police. The 25-year-old university dropout was described as lone wolf and affiliated with the ideology of the Islamic State. Jemaah Islamiyah was considered the major terror network in Southeast Asia, responsible inter alia for the bombings on the island of Bali in 2002, but was significantly weakened in crackdowns over the past decade. [The Diplomat]

Following the attack, further arrests and separate raids have led the police to links to the banned Islamic Defenders Front (FPI). Its leader Rizieq Syihab, who recently returned from self-exile in Saudi Arabia, is currently on trial for alleged health protocol violations. According to the government, at least 35 members or former members of the group were related with terrorism and 29 of them were convicted. [Jakarta Globe]

30 March 2021

UAE to invest 10 billion USD in Indonesia’s sovereign wealth fund 

(dql) The United Arab Emirates will reportedly invest 10 billion USD in Indonesia’s new sovereign wealth fund, marking the largest foreign investment the Indonesia Investment Authority (INA) and the first since its February launch. Spending will focus infrastructure projects, including roads and ports, along with tourism, agriculture and other “strategic sectors.” [Aljazeera

30 March 2021

Indonesia: Certifying outermost islands

(dql) The Indonesian government is looking to certify outermost islands, including those bordering other nations, such as Karang Unarang Island in Nunukan District (bordering Malaysia), and aiming at circumventing any unilateral claim over the Indonesian territory. In an attempt to shield the country’s border areas against foreign territorial claims, the government has declared 111 outer islands that include some not previously stated as border areas. [Antara News]


30 March 2021

Japan, Indonesia conclude defense equipment deal

(dql) Japan and Indonesia concluded a deal to facilitate exports of Japanese-made defense equipment to the Southeast Asian country. It was signed after the foreign and defense ministers of Japan and Indonesia met in Tokyo to hold two-plus-two talks, during which they shared “serious concerns” about China’s “continued and strengthened unilateral attempts to alter the status quo by force” in the South and East China seas, and also condemned the recent killings of peaceful protestors by security forces in Myanmar.

Both sides also agreed on the need to strictly implement UN resolutions banning Pyongyang from testing ballistic missile and nuclear technologies. Japan, furthermore, pledged to extend 453 million USD in loans to assist Indonesia in natural disasters response and offered fisheries patrol vessels to support Jakarta’s efforts to strengthen law enforcement at sea. [Kyodo News]


30 March 2021

Indonesia: Suicide bomb attack at Catholic Church

(dql) On last Palm Sunday, the first day of the Easter Holy Week, a Catholic church in the city of Makassar in Indonesia’s South Sulawesi province was hit by a suicide bombing, wounding some 20 people. While there has been no claim of responsibility this far, the Police believe that the two bombers belong to Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), an Islamic State-inspired group suspected of suicide attacks in the city of Surabaya in 2018. [Channel News Asia] [Reuters]

On Monday, Densus 88, the Indonesian National Police’s counter-terrorism squad, arrested 13 suspected terrorists in four provinces, with four of them arrested in Sulawesi believed to have assisted the two suicide bombers in preparing the blast. They are all members of a study group named Villa Mutiara. [Antara News 1]

In a separate development, Densus 88 arrested a man on suspicion of fundraising for Jamaah Islamiyah in Banten province. [Antara News 2]

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]

23 March 2021

Indonesia: Further arrests of JI militants

(nd) 22 arrested suspects are connected to the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) militant group, one of them a leader who was recruiting and training new members. In a raid, police seized weapons and extremist literature. The trainings were military-style and aimed at attacking police. JI is linked to Al Qaeda and carried out a string of bombings in Indonesia, including the 2002 bombings in Bali killing 202 people. JI was banned in 2008 and significantly weakened by counterterrorism operations, including the arrest of 10 militants earlier this month, and 22 in January. The leader managed to recruit 50 members in the past 5 years. [ABC]

23 March 2021

Indonesia: HRW report on Islamic dress code

(nd) According to a report by Human Rights Watch, Indonesian girls and women face social pressure, bullying and harassment if they don’t comply with mandatory Islamic dress codes in schools, workplaces and government offices. The report identified more than 60 discriminatory local, regional and provincial by-laws enforcing dress codes for women and girls implemented since 2001. According to the report, the dress codes are a sign of rising intolerance and religious conservatism in the Muslim majority country. In an effort to mitigate such tensions, a decree recently banned the mandatory wearing of hijabs in public schools. [South China Morning Post] This development highlights rising pressure by conservative Islamic forces.

16 March 2021

Indonesia, Germany to fund green infrastructure projects

(nd) Germany will fund green infrastructure projects in Indonesia to reduce carbon emissions and promote energy efficiency. €2.5 billion ($2.9bn) will be distributed over 5 years through German National bank (KfW). Part of the scheme will be technology transfer and a campaign to promote public awareness. Indonesia’s government announced in 2017 to reduce marine waste by 70% by 2025. [Pinsent Masons]


16 March 2021

Indonesia’s position between China and the US

Besides achieving more unity in the ASEAN bloc, Indonesia’s effort to find a peaceful solution in Myanmar is also a means to showcase its democratic credentials with the Biden administration, analysts say. ASEAN has recently found itself in a a multi-country power struggle, with China, the US, India and Japan aiming at a greater influence in the region.

Kurt Campbell, the architect of former US President Barack Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’, is now the Indo-Pacific coordinator on the National Security Council. Likely, Indonesia is expected to play a leading role in the region, which Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi assumed with respect to Myanmar, engaging in a so-called shuttle diplomacy, holding talks with regional and international leaders. For Indonesia, the Myanmar coup shall not result in further US-Chinese tensions, having enjoyed more than 70 years of bilateral relationships with both major powers. Despite needing US support amid Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, Indonesia aims to diversify its strategic partners, and does have stronger economic ties with China than the US. Also, Chinese support on infrastructure projects, a key pillar of President Joko Widodo’s agenda, is much higher, being the second largest foreign investor in Indonesia 2020 with a total realized investment of US$4.8 billion. [South China Morning Post]


16 March 2021

SIPRI international arms transfers report 2020

(dql) According to the 2020 international arms transfers report of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), released last week, the US remains the world’s largest arms supplier in 2016-2020 accounting for 37% of the global arms exports, followed by Russia (20%), France (8.2), Germany (5.5%) and China (5.2%). Together, these five countries accounted for 76% of all exports of major arms. Besides China, Asian countries listed among the top 25 countries which accounted for 99% of global arms exports include South Korea (2.7%, ranking at 7), the United Arab Emirates (0.5%, 18), and India (0.2%, 24)

Against the backdrop of the US-China rivalry, the US allies Australia (accounting for 9.4% of US arms exports), South Korea (6.7%) and Japan (5.7%) were among the five largest importers of US arms.

23 Asian countries were among the 40 largest importers including Saudi-Arabia, India, China, South Korea, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Iraq, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Thailand, Oman, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Jordan, the Philippines, Azerbaijan, Myanmar, Taiwan, and Malaysia. [Reliefweb]

9 March 2021

Indonesia: Additional patrol vessels for Natuna Sea

(nd) The Indonesian Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry introduced two new modern patrol vessels in an effort to boost the protection of the country’s marine and fisheries resources from illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing activities. The ships will be used for routine patrols in the Malacca Strait and North Natuna Sea. The ships have a maximum speed of 29 knots and are fitted with drones to document possible confrontations.

Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone and territorial waters are vulnerable

(nd) Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met in Riyadh for talks to sign memorandums of understanding (MoU). The relationship between the Kingdom and Malaysia are longstanding. The ties between the two countries are deepening, with many joint initiatives on the horizon. Saudi Arabia was the first country Yassin visited as Prime Minister. [Arab News]

9 March 2021

Indonesia: Two Islamic militants killed

(nd) Indonesian security forces killed two, suspected to be members of the East Indonesia Mujahideen (EIM) militant group, killing one police officer. The village Poso in a mountainous district is considered an extremist hotbed in Central Sulawesi province. Following the bombings on tourist island Bali in 2002, killing 202, the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country initiated a crackdown on Islamic militants. EIM’s leader, Abu Wardah Santoso, was killed by security forces in 2016, with his son among the two killed this week. [The Star]

9 March 2021

Indonesia: Review of cyber laws

(nd) President Joko Widodo ordered a review of the electronic information and transaction (ITE) law due to ambiguous and prone to abuse wording. Critics said it was an attempt to attack freedom of expression. The numbers of cases under the ITE law almost doubled from last year, with observers blaming it for contributing to Indonesia’s deteriorating democracy. A survey by pollster Indikator Politik Indonesia from last year found that around 70% of respondents were worried about expressing their opinions publicly. The elastic clauses of the ITE law have frequently been used by people in power and against journalists or activists. The national police chief in February already introduced guidelines for ITE cases, which tell officer to prioritize persuasion and mediation, and to use legal indictments only as “the last resort”. [Nikkei Asia]

23 February 2021

Indonesia to finalize jet purchase

(nd) Seemingly, Indonesia has settled to buy fighter jets from France and the US, as well as an early-warning radar system from Italy, while ultimately not risking US sanctions by adding the Russian jets it already operates. Delivery is expected over the next three years. If materialized, it will be one of the biggest defense purchases made, raising questions whether Indonesia’s Covid-ridden economy can afford it. Indonesia’s defense budget for 2021 is at US$9.2 billion, including $3 billion for military modernization. Also, Indonesia would be the first Southeast Asian country to operate the French Rafale jet, currently in service in France, Egypt, Qatar and India. Additionally, Indonesia also purchased six unmanned aerial combat vehicles (UACVs), adding to Chinese-, Israeli-, and French-made drones Indonesia has been operating for three years.

Most likely, the new equipment will be used in the South China Sea, where a recent Chinese law which allows its coastguard to use force against intruders has caused yet another rise in tensions. [Asia Times]

Meanwhile, the French navy announced that an amphibious assault ship and a frigate are travelling to the Pacific for a three-month mission, involving two transits through the South China Sea and joint drills with US and Japanese militaries, scheduled for May.

Signaling France’s growing presented in the disputed waters, the travel comes shortly after a French nuclear attack submarine and a naval vessel sailed through the South China Sea. [South China Morning Post]


23 February 2021

Indonesia to rally among ASEAN for a joint stance on coup in Myanmar

(nd) In an effort to promote among ASEAN member states a common stance on the coup in Myanmar, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi travelled to Brunei last week. Brunei currently holds the ASEAN chair. She already discussed the issue with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and is expected to meet China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi Wednesday.

Retno commented, Indonesia “prioritised” efforts to ensure a democratic transition in Myanmar, and has held talks with regional foreign ministers and counterparts in India, Australia, Japan and Britain, and the UN special envoy to Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener. Last week, Indonesia and Malaysia called for a special ASEAN meeting on the coup. The member states responses were mixed, but mostly in adherence to their principle of non-interference, calling it an internal affair.

According to analysts, Indonesia is looking for a better response to the military coup both regionally and internationally, underlining its regional role as peacekeeper and communicator. [South China Morning Post]

Meanwhile, Indonesia is reportedly pushing Southeast Asian countries to agree on an action plan over Myanmar’s coup that would keep the junta to its promise of holding elections, involving also monitors to ensure they are fair and inclusive. [Reuters]

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

Multinational maritime exercise AMAN-2021 commences

(lm) The seventh edition of the week-long maritime exercise AMAN formally opened on February 12. Conducted in two phases – harbor and sea – the maritime drill also includes the International Maritime Conference, which will be held under the auspices of Pakistan’s Navy from February 13 to 15. [Dawn] [The Express Tribune]

Conducted biannually since its initiation in 2007, the exercise will bring together naval forces from 41 countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, China, Japan, Turkey, Philippines, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia. Significantly, Russia last December confirmed that its Black Sea Fleet will also participate in the drills, marking the first time in a decade that the Russian navy will take part in a joint military exercise with NATO members [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1].


16 February 2021

Indonesia: CEO appointed to sovereign wealth fund

(nd) As Chief Executive of Indonesia’s new sovereign wealth fund, the Indonesia Investment Authority (INA), President Joko Widodo appointed US-educated senior banker, Ridha D.M. Wirakusumah. The fund is targeted to be managing US$20 billion (RM81 billion) to finance infrastructure projects in the near future. Last week, other seniored professionals were appointed for the fund’s board of directors. In an effort to avoid the fate of Malaysia’s 1MDB fund, the recent appointments shall create trust among investors. Several countries have already expressed interest. Skepticism was sparked by the fact that investors will contribute the major share to the investment, and Indonesia did not ensure legal certainty with regards to the government of the fund yet. [Malaymail] [See also AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2]


16 February 2021

Indonesia: Possibilities of the sovereign wealth fund

(nd) Indonesia’s sovereign wealth fund (SWF), Lembaga Pengelola Investasi (Investment Management Authority, or LPI), which is expected to be launched in the next weeks, will be different from usual SWFs. It does not rely on commodity export earnings or balance-of-payments surpluses, but will be based on the government initial funding of US$1 billion, subsequently US$5 billion. The LPI will have the stimulus of national development as primary goal. As such, the LPI could buy infrastructure assets from debt-ridden SOEs. Many foreign investors have already expressed interest, including the US, Japan and the United Arab Emirates, envisioning a volume of US$16 billion.

President Joko Widodo’s big interest is building Indonesia’s infrastructure. To facilitate that, the government has mobilized state owned enterprises in all relevant industries, which enabled SOEs to grown fast. Since 2014, their assets almost doubled to US$630 billion, or 56 per cent of GDP in 2019. Capital therefore was used from state budget, with the financing also organized by SOEs, expanding their leverage.

Although there is still concern over corruption similar to Malaysia’s 1MDB, there will be significant control by big, foreign investors demanding transparency and a good governance set-up. Still, the state sector is struggling with corruption and nepotism.State enterprises such as insurer Jiwasraya and pension fund Asabri saw major fraud cases. Adding to that is the development of a politico-business network around Minister of State-owned Enterprises Erick Thohir. To counter-balance that, the roles of civil society organizations, the media and academia will have to be strengthened, [East Asia Forum]


16 February 2021

Indonesia: Preacher dies in police custody

(nd) A 28-year-old Islamic preacher died in police custody after refusing to be hospitalized for an illness. He was treated at a police hospital and not, as requested by his family, in an Islamic hospital. There was no autopsy. The National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) announced to inquire into his death. According to KontraS, a human rights group, at least nine detainees in the past three months have died in detention due to mistreatment, illness, suicide and fighting among inmates. They blame it on overeager policemen and a lack of transparency and accountability.

The preacher was arrested for a Tweet ridiculing the head gear of an Islamic cleric and member of the presidential advisory council, violating the Electronic Information and Transactions (ITE) Law. He has been provocative on social media before, criticizing President Joko Widodo in 2017 for dissolving Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), the local branch of an international group seeking to establish an Islamic caliphate, and defending hardline cleric Muhammad Rizieq Shihab. Shihab’s Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) was dissolved late last year and he is awaiting trial for Covid-19 regulation violations. These events raised accusations the government is acting increasingly hostile against Muslims.

Additionally, Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation commented that freedom of speech and assembly were being attacked recently by enforcing the electronic information act (EIA) on social media postings.  According to the Association for Freedom of Expression in Southeast Asia (SAFEnet), the conviction rate of EIA 96.8%, and an imprisonment rate of 88%. Arguably, this was due to the articles of EIA ignoring the principle of ultimum remedium punishment, meaning prosecution as a last resort. [Benar News]

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

Indonesian-Iranian ties to be tested 

(nd) In recent years, relations between Shia-governed Iran and majority-Sunni Indonesia have been remarkably well. In line with its foreign policy of non-alignment and the inclusive Pancasila principle, Indonesia avoids to pick sides and has maintained religious openness, both containing hardline clerics and protecting minorities. Recently though, conservative Islam has gained more ground in Indonesia, prompting the administration of President Joko Widodo to take action against hardliners, such as the ban against Islamic Defenders Front (FPI). This move and also the still unresolved killing of six FPI members spiked criticism, the government was out against Muslims. On the other hand, Islamic conservatism made it into the policy realm, causing increased persecution of religious minorities and a deterioration of religious freedoms. In an effort to attract investment from Sunni Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom built mosques and universities across the country, and established a scholarship system for academic exchange, resulting in an increased popularity of its puritan and conservative interpretation of Islam among Indonesian Muslims.

In that scenario, Iran seemingly adapted a pragmatic approach in primarily pursuing trade and economic alliances, as US sanctions have left Iran mostly isolated from other countries. In recent years, there were reciprocal state visits, Iran did not criticize Saudi investments and Indonesia supported Iran’s “right to obtain nuclear weapons.” Due to rising anti-Shia sentiment, the role of religion is more or less downplayed. Still, it is a topic, according to Human Rights Watch, who say there is a rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Indonesia, and Iran is actively promoting Shi’ism. This activism is facilitated by institutions like the Jakarta Islamic Center (ICC), which is located closely to LIPIA, the largest Saudi-funded university in Indonesia. The ICC is not managed by the executive branch of the Iranian government, but under the Office of the Supreme Leader of Iran, distancing such efforts from the diplomatic and political realm.

With growing religious conservatism, it might present tough for Indonesia to maintain this balanced road. On the one hand, Indonesian vice president Mar’uf Amin, as head of both the Nahdlatul Ulama and the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI), drafted many fatwas against minority groups, including the Shia. The newly elected members and head of MUI, however, seemed to point into a more moderate direction. Also, efforts to protect religious minorities were voiced just recently, for unity is always a major concern for multireligious nations. [The Diplomat]


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]

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

Indonesia: Tesla to officially propose investment 

(nd) Following its public invitation to invest into the country, Indonesia has received an investment proposal from US electric vehicle (EV) maker Tesla. Tesla was looking for new sources and warned that the high costs of batteries remain an obstacle to the spread of EV technology. Another interest of Tesla is a possible SpaceX rocket launch pad on the island of Biak in northern Papua.

Nickel is a key component for EV batteries and Indonesia the world’s biggest nickel producer. In an effort to not only export raw nickel, Indonesia stopped all shipments last year and intensified efforts to develop a nickel supply chain, processing the material into metals and chemicals used in batteries.

This vision has long been pushed for by Chinese investors, focused on developing a fully-integrated supply chain, covering stainless steel, lithium batteries, copper wire and other finished products. Currently, four copper smelters are being built. The Chinese built smelters are $1 billion cheaper than the planned Finnish-designed facility at Gresik in Surabaya, due to technological advancements and a requirement for quick construction. When asked about his concern over the intense Chinese involvement, Chief Investment Minister Luhut Panjaitan responded: “We invited everybody and no-one came, except the Chinese”, adding “Like it or not, happy or not happy, whatever is said, China is a world power that can’t be ignored.” Another large investor in the field is South Korea, with lithium battery-maker LG Chemical and car manufacturer Hyundai announcing an investment volume of $11.3 billion. [Reuters] [Asia Times]

9 February 2021

Indonesia: Ban of mandatory Islamic attire for schoolgirls

(nd) The Indonesian government passed an edict to stop public schools from forcing female students to wear religious attire. Last month saw an outrage on social media over female students in West Sumatra being forced to wear a hijab. Human rights groups welcomed the decision, with a researcher at Human Rights Watch emphasizing that still more than 20 provinces have mandatory religious attire dress codes. In Aceh, a conservative province on the western tip of Sumatra, the ban will not apply.

The move shows the latest attempt to fight religious intolerance, with religious clothing having been a hot issue in the past. Already in 2016, Jakarta’s former Chinese Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, nicknamed Ahok, called for such a ban. Ahok drew criticism from hardline Islamic groups and was sentenced in May 2017 to two years in prison over blasphemy charges, highlighting the power of Islamic pressure groups. Last Month, recently appointed Minister of Religious Affairs Yaqut Cholil Qoumas vowed to protect the rights of religious minority groups Shia and Ahmadiyah. In December last year, the government banned the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI) [AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1] [The Diplomat]

9 February 2021

Indonesia: Sovereign wealth fund without China

(nd) Indonesia’s sovereign wealth fund, called the Indonesia Investment Authority (INA) has appointed advisory board members and received investment commitments from Japan, US, Canada, Netherlands and Australia. Eventually, investors will be able to choose to either invest in the “master fund” or “thematic fund”, which can be a particular industry or project. The fund will be used to finance President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s infrastructure projects, with an initial volume of US$5 billion, and an eventually planned US$20 billion. China’s absence in the round of initial investors has led to the suspicion Indonesia intentionally left China out. One reason is to avoid Chinese control over key Indonesian infrastructure, although the majority sum for the projects will come from foreign capital. A second reason is the aim to diversify its portfolio by including different countries. In 2020, China was Indonesia’s second-biggest foreign investor with an investment volume of US$4.8 billion, following Singapore with US$9.8 billion, according to Indonesia’s investment board (BKPM). Since 2015, Chinese investment in Indonesia grew by 559% and included over 10,000 projects in various industries. Both reasons resonate well with an ongoing anti-China sentiment in the country.

A major obstacle for the sovereign wealth fund will be securing trust of international investors. The legal proceedings with regards to the Malaysian 1MDB fund were just settled. Also, two of Widodo’s cabinet ministers, Edhy Prabowo, former fisheries minister, and former social minister Juliari Batubara, were forced to resign over graft charges. Indonesia slipped 17 places in Transparency International’s 2020 Corruption Perception Index. According to analysts, it is also central to establish checks and balances, reporting guidelines and transparency mechanisms to distract investor’s worries about the management of the fund. Additionally, experts argue sovereign wealth funds are usually installed when a country has a big surplus and disposes of foreign-exchange reserves or has big natural resources, all of which is lacking in Indonesia.

About US$450 billion shall be spent on infrastructure projects through 2024, including the new capital construction in East Kalimantan, with 30% coming from national sources. [South China Morning Post]

9 February 2021

Indonesia, US to meet over VFA

(nd) In an effort to straighten out differences over the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), the Philippines and US announced to meet. This comes amid rising tensions with China in the disputed South China Sea. Last year, President Rodrigo Duterte’s unilateral decision to terminate the VFA in February was suspended in November for a second time. Duterte’s decision came amid the US denying a visa to a senator, who was involved in Duterte’s infamous war on drugs.

The VFA outlines legal guidelines for US troop to operate on a rotational basis in the Philippines. According to experts, other bilateral defense agreements, like the Mutual Defence Treaty (MDT), cannot be implemented without a valid VFA. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized this correlation in his reaction to the Philippine’s protest of a Chinese Law allowing its coats guard to open fire on foreign vessels. China claims almost the entirety of the South China Sea for itself, despite the rejection of such claims in a 2016 international tribunal ruling. [Reuters] [See also AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1] Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. commented the Philippine would not contest the newly enacted law, in an effort not to re-open litigation on Chinese territorial claims. [Benar News]

2 February 2021

Indonesia: Chairman of Democratic Party alleges takeover attempts

(nd) Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, current chairman of the Democratic Party (DP), alleged that officials of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s inner circle have tried to force a leadership succession, threatening DP’s sovereignty and existence. Agus is the son of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who succeeded his father as chairman last year. DP was the ruling party from 2004-2014. Currently, the party only holds 7.8% of the House of Representative’s 575 seats. Agus has sent a letter to Widodo, requesting a declaration. [Jakarta Globe]


2 February 2021

Indonesia: Arrest over insult of Papuan activist

(nd) Politician Ambroncius Nababan was arrested over insults he made online. He was referring to Natalius Pigai, a former member of the National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM) and black human rights activist from Papua as an ape in social media posts. Nababan is a member of Hanura Party and the ruling coalition. His comments are a possible violation of a 2008 law to eliminate racism and discrimination, which carries a five-year prison term. He issued an apology.

Many voiced their anger, sparking fears of similar protests to those in 2019, which were triggered by perceived racism of security forces. The protests left 40 people dead. The separatist United Liberation Movement of West Papua and the West Papua National Committee were blamed for the protests, which resulted in calls for a vote on self-determination. In 2020, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, activists created the hashtag “PapuanLivesMatter” to criticize racist treatment of Papuans across Indonesia.

The separatist conflict has been ongoing since the 1960s, after the region declared its independence from Dutch colonial rule in December 1961, which was rejected by both the Dutch and later Indonesia, annexing it in 1963. [Benarnews]

26 January 2021

Myanmar, Indonesia to urge safe return conditions for Rohingyas

(nd) In an effort to weigh in on the solution of the Rohingya refugees, Indonesia urged Myanmar to create safe conditions to return from Bangladesh to Rakhine state. During a virtual ASEAN meeting, the bloc members supported the repatriation plan. The ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) reminded the bloc members of the ongoing clashes between Myanmar’s military and Arakan Army, creating an unsafe environment into which a return cannot be forced. APHR renewed calls to exert more pressure on the Burmese government in this regard.

In November 2018 and August 2019, previous plans to repatriate Rohingya refugees failed due to the lack of a guarantee for their safety and rights. Indonesia took in over 11,000 Rohingya refugees since 2015, according to the Indonesian Foreign Ministry. With regards to the about 400 Rohingya refugees residing in Aceh province, Amnesty International Indonesia emphasized the government should not rush repatriation unless the conditions in Myanmar are safe. [Benar News]

Brokered by China, Bangladesh and Myanmar met last week to discuss the repatriation of Rohingya refugees last week. While Bangladesh has announced a successful agreement on the repatriation of 1 million Rohingya refugees, the Burmese side has downplayed the significance of the meeting’s conclusion. The media coverage was either non-exiting or listed under “national” in an unprominent location. Observers see this as a sign of how little pressure with regard to this issue is felt by — the Burmese civilian and military leadership. [Anadolu Agency]

26 January 2021

Indonesia: Oil tankers seized

(nd) Indonesian coast guard seized Iranian- and Panamanian-flagged vessels off Kalimantan province. The vessels had turned off their automatic identification system (AIS) and did not respond to a radio call. The vessels were caught transferring oil from the loaded Iranian to the empty Panamanian tanker, which is managed by Shanghai Future Ship Management Co.

It is required for vessels to use transponders for safety and transparency, following rules of the International Maritime Organization. In the past, Iran has been accused of switching off AIS to conceal its oil sales in order to circumvent US sanctions. Former President Donald Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal with Iran in 2018 and reimposed sanction to prevent Iran from exporting oil. [Reuters]

26 January 2021

Indonesia, US to charge Bali bombers

(nd) Nearly 18 years after their capture, US military prosecutors charged three Guantanamo Bay inmates involved in the 2002 Bali bombings and 2003 Jakarta attack. The suspects are the leader respectively aides of Indonesian jihadist group Jemaah Islamiyah, which was assumed to be al-Qaeda’s first representative in the region. The attacks were carried out with al-Qaeda support.

The announcement came on the first day of the Biden administration. As Brack Obama’s vice president, both wanted but failed to close Guantanamo Bay. The Trump administration did not attend to the prison, which still inhabits 40 detainees. [Malay Mail]

26 January 2021

Indonesia: High speed rail project open to investors

(nd) After Japan denied to support the construction of a high-speed railway to Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city, the government offered China and other countries to step in. The consortium of Japanese investors wanted to focus on expanding an existing medium-speed rail project from Jakarta to Surabaya through the northern side of Java, while the Indonesian government prefers the line to pass through the southern part of the island. The Indonesian-Japanese deal was signed in 2019, aiming to cut travel time in half, with an investment volume of 60 trillion rupiah ($4.3 billion) and an expected completion date in 2025.

China has stepped up its infrastructure investment in Indonesia, remarkably with the Jakarta-Bandung high speed rail, which forms part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and will be completed next year. The project was given to China instead of Japan, after China agreed to provide a loan without a government guarantee, illustrating the two countries’ struggle for influence in the strategically important Indonesia. According to observers, Indonesia could still involve other countries in the project through the recently launched sovereign wealth fund, naming South Korea for its experience in building high-speed rail lines. [Benar News]

26 January 2021

Indonesia: Another water drone found

(nd) Only a month after the latest find in the Indonesian exclusive economic zone (EEZ), a fisherman found an underwater drone featuring Chinese symbols off Riau Islands. The previous drone was found south of Sulawesi. These drones feature a dual use, for they can be used both for oceanographic research, and military purposes. [Tempo]

26 January 2021

Indonesia: Merger of Islamic banks

(nd) President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo announced the establishment of Bank Syariah Indonesia (BSI), which shall become the country’s largest Islamic bank. It is a merger of state-owned Islamic banks Bank BRI Syariah, Bank Syariah Mandiri, and Bank BNI Syariah, which now has an asset value of Rp 239.56 trillion (around $17 billion). Hopes are for BSI to rise among the world’s top 10 Islamic banks by 2025. The merger is a strategy to catch up with the sharia economy, whose development includes countries without a Muslim-majority population, for example Japan, Thailand, UK, and the US. [Jakarta Globe]

26 January 2021

Indonesia: American graphic designer deported for tweet on LGBT and visa access

(nd) American national, Kristen Gray, residing in Bali was deported after tweeting the island was “LGBT friendly” and easily accessible amid the pandemic. It prompted a backlash on social media about western privilege and a lack of cultural awareness. The LGBT community in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country faces discrimination and sometimes violence. According to a Pew research center Survey, only 9% of Indonesians agreed that homosexuality is acceptable. The decision to deport Gray was based on pictures shared on her Twitter account, assuming Bali was “queer friendly” and accessible to foreigners despite the Covid-19 pandemic, while Indonesia has tightened border restrictions in order to curb to spread of the virus. Also, it is investigated in possible violation of tax laws by working in Indonesia. Also, two Russian social media influencers were deported for driving a motorcycle into a diving spot in Bali. Other incidents were reported in the last years, citing a declining quality of tourists and criticizing the government for regardless of that pushing such mass tourism. Picking up on Gray’s comments on her deportation, media report had it linked mainly to her statement on the LGBT community.

Bali became a hub for so-called digital nomads, referring to individuals who work remotely and in multiple countries. [South China Morning Post 1] [South China Morning Post 2]

26 January 2021

Indonesia: Stepping up efforts to counter extremism

(nd) A presidential decree was enacted early January to allow members of the public to police religious extremism. The decree was deemed necessary due to a lack in sufficient police staff. It was commented as a “soft approach” to tackle violent extremism by involving the public at an early stage.  Citizens shall be trained in “community policing”, which was presented as empowerment and part of democracy. Critics say the public’s involvement in policing could cause polarization and tension in the society. It was considered conservative Muslims might perceive it as being targeted by the government. With specialized units to counter extremism, for example the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT), there was no need for such a step.

The move comes amid concentrated efforts to fight extremism. Last month, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a hardline group led by Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, was banned for disrupting peace and security. Rizieq returned from self-exile last year and was arrested in December for violating coronavirus restrictions. A police shooting of six FPI members in December is still being investigated. Additionally, revisions of the electoral law foresee to ban former members of the domestic branch of Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) from running in elections. HTI was banned in 2017 for promoting a Sharia-based state, rejecting Indonesia’s “Pancasila” ideology. [Benar News]

A recent reshuffle of the minister of Religious Affairs is seen as a continuation of the current administration’s harsh measures against Islamist groups. Retired General Fachrul Razi, was replaced by Yaqut Cholil Qoumas from the National Awakening Party. His party is affiliated with the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization. The position is traditionally awarded to a cleric or politician affiliated with NU. NU did not support Razi’s policy initiatives, which is why his term was considered ineffective. The main priorities of Qoumas’ term are combating Islamic radicalism and protecting the rights of religious minorities. Due to their vital support to ban both HTI and FPI, NU’s perceived one-sided actions have draw criticism for not being committed to tolerance and pluralism. Another statement of Qoumas, to review the status of Ahmadi Muslim minority and reaffirm their religious and civil rights, was followed by a strong pushback from conservative Islamists. Ahmadi Muslims were declared a deviant sect in 2005 in a religious ruling (fatwa) by the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI). Qoumas subsequently stated he only intends to restore their citizen rights, leaving the fatwa untouched, which is perceived at the root of the discrimination. [East Asia Forum]

26 January 2021

Indonesia: ISIS support declined

(nd) According to a recent analysis conducted by the think tank Institute of Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), support for the Islamic State (ISIS) in Indonesia declined in 2020. Cited reasons for the decline were an improvement in law enforcement, which heightens the individual’s stake and the collapse of ISIS. So far, fears of economic downturn fueling extremist action did not materialize amid the ongoing pandemic.

While the threat was referred to as manageable, militants still resort to creating small “pop up” cells to conduct targeted operations, with the online network enabling quick substitution of a lost leader. The recruitment would still target young people at schools or in mosques, which is why the government’s biggest task is to prevent this regeneration. As part of this, the report strongly suggests to avoid deaths of suspect since vengeance was the most powerful motive for terrorist attacks.  [South China Morning Post]

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 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

Indonesia: President to back rights committee’s suggestions in FPI killing case

(nd) Following a probe into the killing of six members of the now-disbanded Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) in December, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo followed recommendations of the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) to charge the police officers who shot. Komnas HAM’s investigation found evidence of rights violations in the killing of four of the six men, who were shot in police custody.[Benar News]

19 January 2021

Indonesia: New police chief selected

(nd) President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo selected the Head of the police’s Criminal Investigation Agency Gen. Listyo Sigit Prabowo for the top position as National Police. His appointment still needs the approval of the House of Representatives, which, however, is expected to happen smoothly due to the comfortable majority the government coalition holds in the House. Gen. Listyo served as the district police chief in Solo in 2011, when Jokowi was still the mayor.  [Jakarta Globe]

19 January 2021

Indonesia, Malaysia to cooperate on palm oil promotion

(nd) In light of international criticism against palm oil and the circumstances of its production, the world’s largest producers, Indonesia and Malaysia, are planning to join forces to run an advocacy campaign in Europe. Therefore, they have engaged through the Council of Palm Oil Producing Countries (CPOPC), in a request to hire an advocacy firm to change the negative perception of the product.

Producers are accused of destroying biodiversity rich rainforest and mistreatment of migrant workers. In the EU, the discussions around the European Green Deal could result in restrictions for the use of palm oil, a commodity used in various products ranging from lipstick and pizza to biodiesel. In 2019 the EU decided to phase out palm oil by 2030 due to deforestation concerns, with companies having launched “palm oil-free” products. While the exports to India and China are much higher, the sentiment in Europe is important for the global reputation of the commodity.

This is the first time the two countries are working together against the threats to their good. [Reuters]

19 January 2021

Indonesia: Chinese survey ship driven off Natuna Islands

(nd) The Indonesian Maritime Security Agency (Bakamla) intercepted a Chinese survey ship sailing near its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) off the Natuna Islands with a switched off automatic identification system (AIS). The United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) entail provisions that require all ships transiting archipelagic states to have functioning AIS.

The incident comes shortly after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Jakarta and amid already heightened concerns over China’s increased militarization of the contested South China Sea.

Earlier this month, the Bakamla was armed by the Indonesian coast guard with 20 submachine guns for 10 of its patrol boats and also permitted to acquire military-grade weapons themselves, with the rationale that they are still heavily underequipped in comparison to the Chinese coast guard. In November, the announcement to move the headquarters from Jakarta to the Natuna Islands in light of Chinese and Vietnamese fishing boats encroaching in their EEZ, signals the need to respond faster and more determined in order to protect maritime sovereignty. [Radio Free Asia] [Asia Times]

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]

12 January 2021

Indonesia: Bakamla armed against rising tensions in the South China Sea

(nd) Last month, the civilian maritime force, Bakamla, in the northern Natuna Island armed its vessels with machine guns due to recurringly intruding vessels from China and Vietnam. While Indonesia does not consider itself as a claimant sate in the South China Sea, China’s historic fishing right claims overlap with Indonesia’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The move is delicate due to its possible effect on bilateral relations. China is Indonesia’s largest trade partner, with a trade volume of US$79.4 billion in 2019. With the efforts to curb the Covid-19 pandemic, Indonesia is dependent on vaccination, with 1.2 million doses of Sinovac having arrived in early December.

Bakamla was authorized last summer to procure weapons, and ships were fitted with remote-controlled Stabilised Naval Gun Systems in December. This was also in response to an increase in calls from parliament and the public, in an effort to curb anti-China groups. Analyst therefore did not interpret the latest move as a toughening of Indonesia’s position but rather an effort to prevent an escalation. The same logic applies to Vietnamese fishing boats, due to an unresolved overlap of the respective EEZ claims. While an increase in arms might serve as a deterrence, the numbers of ships are still outweighed by those of the Chinese coastguard, which is why Bakamla still relies on larger ships of the Indonesian Navy.

Experts expect Chinese naval actions to be more focused on the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam this year, while it usually carefully balanced its moves to not be putting pressure on all claimant countries at the same time, possibly to avoid a multilateral reaction. [South China Morning Post]

12 January 2021

Indonesia: Underwater vehicle Chinese-made

(nd) The autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) that was found off South Sulawesi last month, which sparked concerns of a security breach or espionage attempt, was made in China. The location is strategic due to its sea lanes used for trade, and the resource-rich waters are rich fishing grounds and energy reserves alike. Due to the rising tensions in the South China Sea, security officials have voiced suspicion about Chinese maritime activities. Still, the location of origin is unclear and no country had claimed the vehicle.

According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), marine scientific research in a country’s exclusive economic zone should only be conducted with the consent of the respective state. [South China Morning Post] [See also AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1]

12 January 2021

Indonesia: Challenges for the dependency on coal industry

(nd) As a repercussion of Covid-19, there was a lower demand for fossil fuels, including coal, consumption of which is expected to fall by 8% this year. Coal is Indonesia’s country’s largest export commodity, and has seen demand drops both in export and domestic markets, fueling existing concerns around overcapacity.

As a solution to at least create local demand, the government aims to gasify coal, to turn solid coal into the liquid fuels methanol and dimethyl ether (DME) that can replace imported liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). Environmental and climate issues remain with this coal-based technology, which questions the project’s economic viability. Despite this criticism, the project is already far along, with an estimated commencement date of 2023/2024.

Most importantly, the passage of the highly controversial omnibus bill will make extraction more favorable by lowering requirements for environmental impact assessments, which will save costs. In order to fulfill the commitment to the Paris agreement, the discussion of new renewable energy focuses on coal gasification and nuclear, and not on the development of wind and solar.

Analysts warn that by depending even more on coal extraction, Indonesia could get stuck economically without a diversified energy portfolio. The decrease in coal demand shall be used as a moment to exit toward a more decentralized, sustainable energy future. Not only neighboring countries India, China, Vietnam, or Thailand shifted toward renewables. [The News Lens]

Also, with respect to oil and gas, the industry’s big players, like Chevron and perhaps ExxonMobil, as well as major oil companies BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Total, heading for such a shift and scaled back investment in traditional oil and gas projects. 

Of Indonesia’s 128 geological basins, half have been explored, but foreign investment is at its lowest-ever point. According to experts, its best bets is deep-water exploration in prospective areas like offshore northern Sumatra, northern Papua and the Makassar Strait. In the Andaman Sea, northwest of Aceh, Abu Dhabi-based Mubadala Petroleum, Spain’s Repsol, BP and Malaysian state oil company Petronas invested in four adjacent blocks all under active exploration at depths of 1,000-1,500 meters. 

For such projects, international expertise and funding was necessary, which is hindered by risk-averse domestic and state-owned companies and a bureaucracy, aiming at nationalizing the resources, compelling firms to buy overpriced Indonesian goods and service. Timing of approval of an operation is another issue for investors. According to analysts, Indonesia shall therefore implement incentives and measures to make such operation more attractive, otherwise its bargaining power towards foreign investors will increasingly weaken. [Asia Times]

12 January 2021

Indonesia: Preliminary report of probe in FPI member killing

(nd) Following the killing of six members of the politically influential Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) members by police officers last December, a report of the Indonesian Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM) found that only two were gunned down during an exchange of fire, but four others were detained and later shot, reinforcing claims of “extra-judicial killings” made earlier by the FPI. Police, however, argued, that one of the four detainees tried to seize an officer’s weapon during a change of vehicle which triggered a scuffle that ended in the shooting at close range. 

As nominal head of the National Police, president Joko Widodo now has to decide whether there will be a full-scale investigation in the case. Since there are still gaps in the report, it is expected that Komnas HAM will be tasked with forming an independent team of investigators. [Asia Times]

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]

5 January 2021

Indonesia, Australia, to ensure non-violence of released cleric

(nd) After the release of Abu Bakar Bashir, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs urged Indonesia to make sure the 82-year-old will not incite further violence. The radical cleric is the suspected mastermind of the 2002 Bali bombings, killing 200 people including many Australian nationals, which he denied. He was jailed in 2011 for entertaining links to militant training camps in the Indonesian province of Aceh and considered the spiritual leader of the al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) network. The JI leader was arrest last December. [See also AiR No. 50, December/2020, 3][Channel News Asia]

5 January 2021

Indonesia: Unmarked water drone discovered

(nd) Following the discovery of an unmarked underwater surveillance drone, the Indonesian Navy is investigating its country of origin. The drone was found in Indonesia’s waters off South Sulawesi province in December. The type of underwater drone can be used for both surveillance in the fishing and oil industries and also for military purposes. Since its discovery, discussions about espionage were sparked on social media, referring to its similarity with Chinese vehicles called Sea Wing found in 2019 off Riau Islands and East Java last year.

The location is noteworthy according to analysts, since it was found in a crucial maritime route connecting the disputed South China Sea to Darwin, the northernmost Australian city. Indonesia does not regard itself as claimant state in the dispute over the South China Sea, but China claims rights to areas overlapping with Indonesia’ exclusive economic zone. Currently, Indonesian law contains no regulations on unmanned underwater vehicles, with military observers now urging the government to draft a new legislation. [Radio Free Asia]

5 January 2021

Indonesia: Chemical castration for convicted child molesters

(nd) A new regulation enacted by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo foresees chemical castration with a duration of up to two years as an additional punishment for convicted child molesters. The crime must have involved more than one victim and resulted in severe injury. Child molestation is punishable by up to nine years in prison under Indonesia’s criminal code (KUHP).

According to the Women Empowerment and Children Protection Ministry 5,640 child sexual abuse cases have been recorded in 2020. [Jakarta Globe]

5 January 2021

Indonesia: Influential Islamic clerical body supports vaccinations

(nd) The influential Islamic clerical body Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) issued a recommendation allowing the use of vaccines, paving the way for the country’s fight to curb the Covid-19 pandemic. Vaccines are traditionally banned under Islamic law, now a halal certificate developed by China’s Sinovac Biotech will be issued to counter the surge of misinformation in social media. In November, MUI elected more moderate leaders, fueling optimism for the 90% Muslim population. [South China Morning Post] [See also AiR No. 49, December/2020, 2]

5 January 2021

Indonesia: FPI banned

(nd) Indonesia’s chief security minister Mahfud MD last week announced that the controversial, but politically influential, hardline group Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) has been banned on grounds of vigilantism and links to terrorism. Mahfud added that the FPI was officially disbanded in June 2019 for failing to renew its permit as an officially registered mass organization, but continued unlawful activities since then. Last week’s ban was co-signed by the Home Affairs Minister Tito Karnavian, Justice Minister Yasonna Laoly, Communications Minister Johnny Plate, Attorney-General Burhanuddin and police chief Idham Azis, as well as by the director of the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) director, reflecting the government’s determination to link the FPI to the Islamic State (ISIS) and other active terrorist groups.

The ban comes nearly three weeks after FPI leader Rizieq Shihab was arrested for breaching coronavirus rules. Upon his return in October, 50,000 supporters greeted Shihab at the airport, triggering the first of several violations against the laws to curb the Covid-19 spread, upsetting authorities, including President Joko Widodo, which led to the sacking of the police chiefs of Jakarta and West Java. Shihab’s arrest was accompanied by the still-investigated killing of six of his bodyguards by police forces on a highway. 

Shihab seems to be unimpressed by those steps, announcing that he was embarking on a “moral revolution” and warning that religion and religious leaders are not to be alienated from politics and the state.

The move to ban the party was criticized, with analysts saying that another outlet will be found and the ban “feeds the narrative that the government is against Islam.” Other analysts said it could revive the so-called 212 Movement, a coalition of conservative Muslim groups, which were responsible for the 2017 downfall of Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama on blasphemy charges.  [Asia Times] [Aljazeera]