Ahead: A verdict in Manila

Searching for Thailand's lost activists

Hello friends!

I’ve been thinking long and hard how to keep this project going and how I want it to look, so today is a bit of a test. Mondays will be a look ahead at the stories that could (or should) dominate the week from the region or are just kinda interesting to me. 

Protests in the Philippines against the anti-terror bill are continuing, but I haven’t got a brief for it here since we had the loooong one last week.  

Let me know what you think! If you’re interested in a more in-depth look across Southeast Asia, join us on the premium list for $6 a month or $60 for the year: 

Erin Cook


Maria Ressa speaks in Munich in January (c/o Hubert Burda Media on Flickr)

Headline verdict 🇵🇭

  • Maria Ressa and former Rappler writer Reynaldo Santos Jr will finally hear the verdict today of the high profile cyber libel case and foreign ownership questions which threatens Rappler’s future and that of press freedoms in the Philippines. The charges go back to a 2012 report which alleged links between a prominent businessman and crimes like murder and human trafficking. “This is an existential moment for us, for our democracy,” Ressa said Wednesday. 

  • Ressa’s own Rappler has, of course, excellent coverage of this and I’ll be sticking close to them today. Already there’s an excellent primer on the legal issues at hand and the likelihood of Ressa or Santos seeing jail time (low). 

Search for answers 🇹🇭

  • Where is Wanchalearm Satsaksit? Demands to expose the truth about where the Thai democracy activist is are growing rapidly. Family of the activist allege Wanchalearm was forcibly abducted from his apartment in Phnom Penh in early June. He had been living in Cambodia in self-imposed exile for six years after fleeing a summons following the 2014 coup. The AFP reported last week Cambodian authorities had declined an investigation saying an official missing report had yet to be filed or Thai counterparts contacted.  

Is it on? 🇸🇬

  • Expect an odd (-er than usual) election season in Singapore shortly with all signs pointing to a return to the polls as the pandemic rolls on. This week the opposition party, Progress Singapore Party, will release its line-up of candidates while Facebook has said it has already removed misleading election-related posts. 

  • An announcement last week with a string of COVID-related restrictions, including timed voting periods and checking temperatures of voters before entering voting areas, has sparked widespread suspicion the vote is coming sooner rather than later. Restrictions will also likely apply to campaigning, given that public gatherings are still off the table. How could that make for a fair election, Kirsten Han asks?  

  • For the curious and the obsessive alike, I highly recommend GE Watcher here on Substack. As we get closer to a date I’m finding the anonymously penned newsletter an excellent resource in parsing rules and regulations around the election. 

Indonesia’s COVID toll climbs 🇮🇩

  • I’ll be keeping a close eye on Indonesia’s COVID-19 cases this week. Last week marked two weeks since Eid — and mudik, the traditional of travel during and at the end of Ramadan. While mudik had been officially banned reports suggested huge numbers of travellers hitting the road. Last week we saw two days in a row of ‘the highest daily surge yet’ and new cases appear to be hovering around 1,000 a day. The death toll has pushed past 2,000. Alongside that, with the pressures on the economy, restrictions have eased somewhat and malls etc. are back open at half the capacity. 

Living for drama 🇲🇾

  • The fallout from the party room coup of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) will leak over to this week, after Mahathir Mohamad and five other turfed senior members will challenge their terminations via the courts. The case claims executive secretary Muhammad Suhaimi Yahya, who was appointed to the role by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, does not have the power to boot them from the party. It will also challenge Muhyiddin’s temporary leadership of Bersatu.  

  • Mahathir Mohamad sat down with the South China Morning Post for a long interview which touched on a range of subjects — Trump bad, Najib bad — and set the scene for forthcoming upsets. He attempted to shoot down speculation of a fresh fracture between himself and frenemy Anwar Ibrahim. “Without being together, we will not have the kind of clout we need to unseat the government, and the government has a frail majority,” he said. February was messy, I’ll be watching to see if he can clean it up. 

A cry for help 🇻🇳

  • This one got pushed down the Vietnam news alerts thanks to the success in containing COVID-19. Vietnam-born Australian Chau Van Kham, who was arrested and jailed back in January 2019 for his links to Viet Tan, has ‘gone missing’ within the jail system and the Australian government have not done enough to help him, his family says. 

  • “My father is of old age now without any forms of communication to the outside world, I worry not only for his health but his mental state … it frightens me how he’s doing inside. He’s now on a long journey until his release with no support from the Australian government at all, it seems like they’ve forgotten about him,” son Dennis told the Guardian.  

Cambodia and Timor-Leste share a bowl 🇰🇭 🇹🇱

  • Cambodia is set to ship 30,000 tonnes of milled rice to Timor-Leste, a move both countries say shows deepening economic cooperations. Timor has typically, like loads of other places, relied primarily on Vietnam for rice but is now looking further afield. I think this is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, Vietnam had shut down rice exports early into the pandemic but said it would resume normally from May, which I guess is either not the case or shows importers are less willing to have all the eggs in one basket so to speak. Secondly, is this a sign of Timor getting developing stronger bilateral relations with Asean members? Maybe! Or maybe I’m just a real one-note kinda gal! 

Terrorism expert Nasir Abbas told VICE that disguises are part and parcel of terrorist organizations’ efforts to blend in and conceal their plots. Bakso vendors, given their near ubiquity, rarely raise any eyebrows.

"Indonesian police have captured roughly 2,000 terrorists. We’ve seen an array of disguises, but recently since 2019, we’ve seen multiple terrorists attempt to pass as bakso sellers. This is likely due to the ease of the job,” said Abbas, who is himself a former leader of the now-outlawed Southeast Asian terrorist group, Jemaah Islamiyah.

“Bakso is an everyday dish that is easy to make for cheap. Most sellers simply use a cart to sell their product in various places. Members of terrorist cells often lead nomadic lifestyles, picking up jobs here and there.”

The way this case is handled will be a signal of what lies ahead. Maria faces a multitude of other cases that expose her to decades behind bars, though they are recognized as being equally spurious. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines has called this barrage of lawsuits a “shameless act of persecution by a bully government.” The U.S. Senate has condemned the “unjustified judicial proceedings” against Maria and urged the Filipino authorities to drop all charges. And the United Nations has noted that the “pervasive attacks” against human rights defenders and “assault on judicial independence” in the Philippines casts doubt on the fairness of trials.

It has not always been this way. The Philippines was one of the founding members of the United Nations. It played a leading role in the drafting of the international treaty — the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights — that enshrines the right to a fair trial and freedom of expression. Until recently, the country had one of the region’s fastest-growing economies, and it is one of Asia’s oldest democracies.

Before the junta began reforms, Myanmar lay at the very bottom of the World Press Freedom Index. Between 2010 and 2016, it climbed 20 places, but has slid back since and this year stood at 139 out of 180.

“In my opinion, the sense of freedom the reporters feel on the ground matters more than the ranking decided by others,” said Aung Hla Tun, the deputy information minister, adding that Myanmar was higher than its neighbours, Thailand and Bangladesh.

“Thai people respect ghosts and spirits,” he said. “Everyday we pray and, you will notice, our country has not had many cases of coronavirus. The spirits listen to our prayers.”

In every crowded corner of Bangkok, whether by a tin-roofed shack, a glass-plated skyscraper or a marble-pillared government hall, there are said to be spirits who need placating. A coronavirus lockdown is no excuse.

The spirits also require spirit houses, which look like dollhouses mounted on pedestals. These range from a few pieces of plywood hammered together to create a miniature bungalow to gilded structures with ornate spires that cost tens of thousands of dollars. The figurines, sized to live inside, typically fit easily in the palm of a hand.