Myanmar ceasefires and Thailands naughty ministers

Indonesia farewells the beloved BJ Habibie

Hello friends!

We’re busy again this week! I’m still working on my new plans for Dari Mulut ke Mulut, including a brand new About page. Please feel free to forward and spruik this issue to all friends and colleagues to celebrate. 

Haze is the word this week, but with so many countries involved and some complicated intra-Asean words its better we take a proper look later in the week as a stand alone issue. Plus I found a great meme about it which doesn’t really fit the tone here. 

For anyone on their trial or has been considering signing up for minute, do so here for $6 a month or $60 for the year: 

This past Sunday I was up early enough to imbibe in my favourite wholesome Jakarta activity — Car Free Day! I did a fair effort, walking from Pasar BenHil all the way up to Monas. At Bundaran HI, I spotted this beautiful, simple tribute to the late former president BJ Habibie. For a loud, raucous event like CFD, this stood out.

See you later in the week,
Erin Cook


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UMNO and PAS have formally made their pact. The two-day Kuala Lumpur event was our ‘what to watch’ last week and it seems like it went kinda exactly as expected. “The confusion within the government now is because of the absence of brave and worthy Malay leaders,” UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said in what is exactly the kind of racialised commentary we were worried about. In response, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has wondered aloud, “I cannot understand how UMNO can work with PAS because UMNO is ‘kafir.’ How can they cooperate with PAS?”

I cannot get into the Raja Permaisuri Agong Twitter stuff. I just can’t. But, I am very impressed that she’s made a point of calling to drop police reports against an activist from Klang who reportedly posted critical comments about her. That’s all I’m going to say, it’s done my head. 

What to watch. Haze, baby! 


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Just last night I was lamenting with pals that Indonesia had seemed very quiet the last few months and then suddenly IT’S ALL HAPPENING. So much is happening, in fact, that it can’t be contained here. As I’ve mentioned at the top (and then repeatedly throughout the email itself), haze is huge and covers a lot so I’m pulling that out for a special one. AND all this legal affairs business is huge. We’ve talked about the criminal code in-depth at Indonesia dan Lain-Lain this week, while I’ll be taking a look at President Joko Widodo’s motivations for the Diplomat. Which means a reading list special for the weekend! Phew, okay. 

That said, keep an eye on this Tempo business. The iconic magazine regularly designs brilliant covers, now Jokowi stans are mad that it’s resonated

Of course, let’s start with the passing of former president BJ Habibie. We talk about him and his legacy this week on Indonesia dan Lain-Lain, but I do want to reiterate something I said on that episode here. I think there are very few leaders anywhere in the world as widely respected and admired as Habibie is here in Indonesia and that’s a beautiful legacy to live. I know a lot of my close friends hope soon there will be a leader with a similar vision.

State electricity provider PLN has been really in it since a massive black-out in Java last month. Now it says it will build a small power plant in Senayan dedicated to the MRT. Interestingly, MRT president director Wiliam Sabandar says the black-out saw a 13 percent drop in passengers in August after the event. Which I’m still a little surprised by, even after seeing all the freaky viral video of passengers being led out of the tunnels. 

Bad economic news ahead of President Jokowi’s inauguration next month. The overly-optimistic ambition to hit 7 percent-plus growth in his first term fell flat, but now the World Bank is warning growth may not even reach 5 percent next year.

What to watch. Haze, obviously. But there will be increasing talk about the authoritarian turn, to borrow the favoured phrase of a certain institution, in the coming weeks which we will stick very close to here. 


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Hasn’t Thammanat Prompaw been a naughty man. Currently the Deputy Minister for Agriculture, the military man was known as a “fixer” for the post-coup junta (according to Wikipedia, I had never really paid attention to him until this exploded). Thai media reported in July that he had been jailed in Australia all the way back in 1993 while a junior army officer, but he said it was over a “minor offence” and it largely disappeared. 

That is, until Australian journalists started digging. Reporters from the Sydney Morning Herald found that it was no minor offence at all, rather he pleaded guilty to “conspiracy to import a commercial quantity of heroin with a street value of up to $4.1 million.” He also ratted on co-conspirators in exchange for a lighter sentence. The whole thing is amazing so I suggest reading it in full before checking in with the follow-ups. 

He won’t be going anywhere, though. "All past governments also had flaws. ... But all [current] cabinet ministers were subject to background checks. Those critics should look at whether past governments had problems,” Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha said after last week’s cabinet meeting. An extraordinarily blase response from a leader whose government supports capital punishment for drug offences. He also bought his PhD.

The Pope is coming!!! How do you get on the Vatican junket? I want to see him. 

What to watch. Flooding and heavy storms in the Northeast have devastated the region and left at least 33 people dead. The Prime Minister has been widely criticized for his apparent disinterest in the disaster, sharing photos of himself at a cooking demonstration. “So in conclusion, you’re a chef. You should give up being the prime minister, you asshole. You impede the parliament,” one particulary irate netizen posted. He says he’ll go on telly tonight to raise money, but is it going to be enough?


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Today (lucky we’re a touch late!) the Senate will begin hearing proposals to legalising divorce in the archipelago. CNN Philippines reports that some of the grounds set to be considered include: ‘physical violence, grossly abusive conduct, drug addiction, habitual alcoholism, chronic gambling, homosexuality, bigamous marriage and marital infidelity.’ I hope we see some movement here ASAP! 

Does President Duterte care about the SOGIE bill or not? He’s made comments in the past suggesting his support, most recently last Tuesday saying he would mark the legislation as ‘urgent.’ But Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo followed up the following day, saying Duterte is looking more for a general antidiscrimination bill. My understanding is that activists argue a broader bill will not sufficiently protect LGBT Filipinos and will dilute the real purpose of the SOGIE bill. Celebrity hairdresser Ricky Reyes shows how complicated and divided the debate really is with some gross commentary.

The hunt is on to replace Armed Forces chief of staff Gen. Benjamin Madrigal Jr., who will retire at the end of this month

What to watch. This weekend marks the 47th anniversary of the declaration of Martial Law under former dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Annually, Filipino outlets produce brilliant pieces looking back on how it all happened and reassessing the impact and influence Martial Law has today. 


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Sadly, we have no update just yet on pressures to the Thai government over the disappearance of Laos activist Od Sayavong. Two years on from the collapse of a pyramid scheme, an estimated 30,000 investors who poured money into the dodgy company are still waiting to be repaid. The Cambodia-Laos border is officially 86 percent demarked, lets get it done!

What to watch. This isn’t one looking forward, rather reflecting on the past. Timor-Leste independence hero Xanana Gusmao was freed from being a political prisoner by Indonesia’s late president BJ Habibie, paving the way for the successful independence referendum. BJ Habibie’s name was featured frequently in our Timor-Leste reading list recently. Xanana Gusmao returned to Jakarta to make his final respects to Habibie on his deathbed. The video has gone viral, so make sure you watch it too.


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As mentioned at the top, haze will have its own dedicated post later this week. That’s certainly the dominant story but we still have a few things to check in on. Speaking at the PAP women’s event last week, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat made some very pre-campaign sounding remarks. The party must continue to represent the everyday Singaporean and "we do this by staying close to the ground, to better understand the needs of our people, to design the right policies and execute these well." He also said a bunch of stuff that has retriggered my PTSD from years of listening to men talk down to the women’s organisations of a particular party back home in ~solidarity so I’m leaving it there. 

President Halimah Yacob visited the Philippines to celebrate 50 years of diplomatic ties. Nothing too interesting to report though. More on firms planning to move their operations from Hong Kong to Singapore amid the on-going demonstrations there. Also, very happy to have read this one from Kirsten Han on the compare/contrast the two cities have been the subject of recently. 

What to watch. Haze, if you can see! That’s a bad joke, I’m sorry, I’ve already been chided this morning from a Singapore-based friend for making gags. Hold tight for a haze special on Thursday. There’s multiple levels to this — health, environment and intra-Asean relations. Ooh, boy. 


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Let’s talk ceasefires. Speaking on Friday, the government said it hoped talks to begin tomorrow will bring peace to Shan State. Government negotiators will meet with representatives from four groups affiliated with the Northern Alliance in Kengtung town. There’s a lot riding on these talks with recent sharp escalations in violence in the state. 

“If the results from these discussions are not good, it will be concerning for the prospects of a cease-fire extension,” government spokesman Zaw Htay said. Earlier in the week, three of the Northern Alliance groups — the Brotherhood Alliance — announced a temporary one-month ceasefire. “We will try to build trust with them for one month as a trial period,” Ta’ang National Liberation Army official Tar Phone Kyaw told the Irrawaddy last Monday.

Meanwhile in Karen State, a Tatmadaw-controlled road project is prompting accusations of a violation of the ceasefire signed in 2015. The project will widen an unpaved road for nearly 40 kilometres through Karen National Union-controlled territory, but ethnic Karen say it means the Tatmadaw can bring in loads of officers and conduct land-grabs under the guise of infrastructure development. In other Karen news, the funeral for activist Por Cha Lee Rakcharoen, better known as Billy, whose remains were found in a Thailand national park earlier this year has taken the neighbours to task. "You used rules for dogs, not laws for humans,” wife Pinnapha Phrueksapan said of Thai officials.

The BBC’s Jonathan Head went to Rakhine State to take a look at the transit camps established by the government which would house repatriated Rohingya refugees. The government denies that villages in the area were demolished to build the camp, while questions linger about how free those who make take up the offer will be. The BBC’s reporting prompted an op-ed from the Washington Post. It’s no surprise, then, that Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has again laid the blame of the second failed repatriation at the feet of Myanmar.

Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business and three other partners will take a look at the impact the internet shutdown in Rakhine State has had ahead of a September 30 campaign of self-imposed blackout. 

When China doesn’t care about Myanmar’s human rights record, will the US

What to watch. Peace talks this week will hopefully give us an idea of what to expect in Shan State in the coming months. That we’ve even gotten here is a small wonder, but meaningful and long-lasting peace will be a miracle. 


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Vietnam’s bubbling confrontation with China in the South China Sea is coming to a head. On Thursday, Hanoi demanded Chinese vessels still operating within its exclusive economic zone get out asap. The Vietnam Oil & Gas Group and Exxon Mobil project worth billions will still go ahead, the Foreign Ministry confirmed Thursday amid reports of China attempting to strong arm the US-owned firm. “Any activities that hamper Vietnam’s oil and gas exploration in Vietnamese water are violations of international laws,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang blunted said Thursday. 

A day later the US got involved, sailing a warship around the Paracels — contested by China, Taiwan and Vietnam. The move drew protests from Beijing, which said the US was indulging in  "navigational hegemony," a truly beautiful turn of phrase. Naval spokesman Cdr. Reann Mommsen said the sail was a challenge to requirements for approval from the claimants prior to ‘innocent’ passage, adding that "the unilateral imposition of any authorisation or notification requirement for innocent passage is not permitted by international law, so the United States challenged these requirements."

What to watch. An escalation in rhetoric around the South China Sea escalated sharply towards the end of last week, I’m certainly curious to see if this is the peak or if Hanoi wants to keep swinging. 


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Oh. Nikkei Asia Review reports that despite a directive issued by Prime Minister Hun Sen spelling the end of the online gaming industry at the behest of China, we’re not actually sure of what the law will end up being. "We are not sure yet if it's an absolute ban or not," Ros Phearun, deputy director general of Cambodia's Ministry of Economy and Finance, told NAR. 

Still, there’s one business ripe in Sihanoukville — importing Chinese goods, relabelling as Made in Cambodia and then shipping out to the US. Honestly, this story has been relentlessly covered and there’s not much fresh in it but it’s always interesting. In the first half of this year, imports from China rose over 30 percent to US$3.77 billion, while Cambodia’s exports to the US in the first quarter increased 22.4 percent to US$820.66 million. 

Opposition figure Sam Rainsy has been charged with insulting the king by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Friday. “...but now, all Cambodians are Hun Sen’s hostages, even the [current] King. [Sihamoni] is afraid of Hun Sen and wants to maintain his throne, so there is nothing we can expect from a king who is the puppet of Hun Sen,” Sam Rainsy said in an interview with Radio Free Asia on Thursday. It is the second time he’s been done for insulting the king this year. The smart, if not obvious, money is on the charges being hyper-drummed up in an effort to ensure the self-exiled opposition icon won’t be return anytime soon. 

What to watch. I’m super curious to see what happens with this gambling law. I tend to see Hun Sen as always falling in line with China, which is probably a little too simple. The NAR piece includes some interesting commentary on what the prime minister envisions for Sihanoukville but we’ll have to wait and see.

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