Southeast Asia is a big place - get across it.

A New Year, A New Asean

Hmm, probably not

Hello friends!

I have no concept of time anymore. When were the boys rescued from the cave? Did I visit Makassar in 2018 or a hundred years ago? How long has Malaysia been New for? Last year was a biiiig one and just FYI, this year is going to be even bigger.

Rather than a wrap-up of my fave reads like at the end of 2017, this year I’m looking ahead. I’ve got my eye on some threads in the first half of this year which we’ll cover twice a week here at Dari Mulut ke Mulut. Stay across it this year for $5 a month or $50 a year:

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We’ll crack into it properly from Tuesday.

See you then!

Erin Cook

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Thailand, you really had me going there for a minute. All last year I was like, nope don’t bite the election date temptation it’s just a junta gag. And then you kept saying Feb. 24 over and over and look at me now, egg on my face. The first democratic election since the 2014 coup has been pushed back probably to make room for preparations for the coronation of King Maha Vajiralongkorn in May. The reasoning is that an election would then kick off months of blah blah and get in the way. The latest it can be held now is May 9 so honestly I have no idea what is going on. Bringing up the Asean summits to June probably wasn’t a great idea, no?

As this is all just kicking off today, I’ll be back next week with a clearer idea of what we can expect and some ripper local analysis. I’d be very interested to see how young Thais react to this, given there’s been a small but noticeable pushback against the junta as all the transparently political movements develop.

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In Indonesia, you already know what it is! Election time, baby! I’m going to keep an eye on what impact having representative and presidential elections on the same day has, the party results (particularly PDI-P) and the mechanics of rolling out such a huuuuge election across the archipelago. And who wins president, I guess. I’m extra excited to see what happens when former Jakarta governor Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama is freed from jail later this month (jeeze, where has the time gone!?).

I think we should also anticipate more natural disasters. Last year was a horrible one for natural disasters here, from earthquakes to tsunamis and landslides. I can’t imagine there’s any reason to think that trend will be slowing down anytime soon. Political responses to natural disasters are very interesting to me, I wonder if we’ll start seeing these worries reflected more in local politics.

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President Rodrigo Duterte kicked off 2019 in the Philippines with one of his filthiest ‘gaffes’ yet. I don’t imagine he’s made any New Year’s Resolutions to cut that behaviour out. A midterm election in May will see all seats in the House and a dozen senators chosen. Sadly, I think we can expect the same violence which has marred elections in the past. Local elections saw nearly 20 incumbents, four candidates, three former elected officials and eight civilians killed early 2018. Ako Bicol Party-list Rep. Rodel Batocabe was also murdered shortly before Christmas. It’s not looking good.

Charter change is also on the horizon — maybe. It passed the House early December, but is unlikely to get through the Senate at least until after the election. Let’s shove this out of our minds until the back-end of the year. Much like Indonesia, natural disasters should be the top concern. An earthquake off the coast of Mindanao thankfully did not cause a tsunami at the end of December but further north wasn’t as lucky with Typhoon Usman claiming a death toll of at least 122. War on Drugs will continue, of course.

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Vietnam started the year off by bringing its very VERY controversial cybersecurity law into effect. You could’ve marked it on your calendar, but just because it’s not a surprise it doesn’t mean it should be under-appreciated. Activists are rightly worried, particularly given the spate of arrests in recent years which I would expect to continue. I’m curious to see if the crackdown on corrupt (or ‘corrupt’) officials continues and how the consolidation of power for party boss/president Nguyen Phu Trọng plays out.

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Ooh, Singapore! Off to a cracking start with Jolovan Wham looking at a jail sentence for hosting a public Skype session with Hong Kong democracy wunderkind Joshua Wong. I can’t wait to see if there becomes more of an international backlash against some of these moves — including executions — but I doubt it. An election must be held by 2021, but the conversation has leaned towards a potential 2019 date. Before then I’d like to see much more coverage of prime minister-in-waiting Heng Swee Keat.

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Timor-Leste, I think, is going to be a quietly interesting one. It’s had a few years of political upsets and while I don’t think we’ll see another election this year will continue with fractured alliances. The Greater Sunrise will continue to loom largely, and it’ll be interesting to see if a majority view will emerge over how best to approach ballooning debt and a push for on-shore refinement.

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Like most of us, I was extremely alarmed by the mid-year collapse of a hydropower plant in Lao’s southeast province of Attapeu. The Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy plant collapsed July 23, causing massive flooding across the province. There are two key issues here which I think are vital in Laos-watching this year. Firstly, we know the official death toll provided by the government could not possibly be true. The final figure was between 20 and 30 people killed, with hundreds displaced. Laos is considered one of Asia’s ‘black holes’ when it comes to media freedoms, so it’s very difficult to find independently reported figures. Work from both Radio Free Asia and Channel News Asia showed that the extent of damage had been underreported in those official figures, with a CNA video showing whole villages wiped out. The cracks which appear in the Laotian government’s tight grasp is what I’ll be watching this year.

And the second issue is the continuation of hydropower projects. Laos is the most impoverished country in Asean and the exporting of power makes up for an easy 30 percent of its GDP. Despite reporting in the second half of 2018 which suggested a slow-down in construction, I would not expect that to last very long at all. China’s BRI has extended further loans for dam construction this year, which should see a boom in construction and a lot of hand-wringing over Laos’ emerging status as another BRI ‘debt trap.’

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A general election in Myanmar next year is the road we’ll be on for much of 2019. Repatriation plans for the Rohingya communities in Bangladesh (which have been put on the backburner for a minute now with Bangladesh’s own electoral dramas) as well as continued media freedom crackdowns haven’t shown any signs of resolution. Honestly, I’m very down on Myanmar. I know we all overdosed on those ‘Myanmar isn’t democratic and thus broke our hearts’ pieces last year and the year before, but it’s just so relentlessly upsetting and uninspiring. I have been buoyed somewhat by some of the beautiful profiles we’ve read of people doing extraordinary things in the country, so even if we just continue on that path I’ll be pleased.

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One of my goals this year is to go to Brunei and get some dang stories myself. I’d be very interested in looking further into diversification of its economy and succession plans for Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah’s eldest son, Al-Muhtadee Billah. I also want to go stay at that AirBnB spot in Kampung Ayer but that’s more of a personal goal I guess.

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Cambodia really got on my last nerve in 2018 and I’m not sure 2019 is going to bring much hope. All this silly talk about allowing opposition figures to take part, but only those sanctioned by PM Hun Sen. Ugh. It’s just a very sad, hopeless start to the year. I know this is heavy editorialising and if you have some feel good Cambodia stories please send them my way! I love that country and it’s broken my heart.

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New Malaysia is going to take more than one calendar year to build! I’m keeping an eye on two things: the succession of Anwar Ibrahim to prime minister and the development of former PM Najib Razak’s corruption case(s). Anwar taking over from boss/former-mentor/former-enemy Mahathir Mohamad has been a quiet obsession of mine in recent months. Maybe I just like the high drama (yep, probably) but no smoke without fire, I say! This should be Mahathir’s last full year at the helm, but we’ve been given no clear succession plan and increasing chatter that there’s a split between the two. Anwar, for his part, has hit back at these rumours but boy they sure just keep coming up, no? Najib will have a joint trial with former 1MDB CEO Arul Kanda Kandasamy and should be in court early March. That perp walk!!

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