April - Konfrontasi 2: The Rendang-ing

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Malaysia election news is breaking as I write this so there will be much more next week, but you can always follow along here for twice-a-week updates.


Erin Cook  

Decades after peace is declared in archipelagic Southeast Asia former foes have taken up arms once again, this time united against one common enemy – MasterChef UK.

But it’s not all fun and delicious food this week with the arrival of a boat of 56 Rohingya refugees in Malaysia. This led to a lot of speculation that this could be the beginning of a much larger exodus and given that repatriation talks continue to falter and this morning’s news of five Rohingya being rescued by Acehnese fishermen I think we’ll be seeing more of this.

The first boat made news after reaching Southern Thailand on Sunday. Thai fishermen and authorities loaded them up with supplies before they headed off to preferred destination Malaysia. Tuesday it arrived in Langkawi where immigration authorities will process them. Reports have emerged of Myanmar authorities threatening the families of those who fled.

Things to watch on this beyond more boats is how Malaysia reacts – Najib Razak is vocal in supporting the Rohingya community but is often accused of exploiting the cause for his own gain and now we’ve got an election. Additionally, Duterte has called the crisis a ‘genocide’ and has offered asylum. This could well be just one of his ~whacky comments that shouldn’t be taken seriously, but as one of the big Asean players who voted against a UN motion last year it could be a shift in sentiment. Maybe. Hopefully.  


Finding the Singapore Select Committee story a bit farcical? You’re not alone. Enter New Naratif and Sonny Liew. Alleged misrepresentations of testimonies made by independent witnesses, including NN’s Kirsten Han, will now be reviewed. My favourite story is BACK! Let’s consider the options for 38 Oxley Road. The Uber-Grab merge isn’t going too smoothly, with the Competition and Consumer Commission of Singapore likely to hit the speed breaks.


Myanmar is becoming a big problem for Mark Zuckerberg. In an interview with Vox this week, he was very much on the defensive saying the company is horrified etc. etc. by the ways the platform has been used in Myanmar. Smells like bullshit, says an alliance of groups which had been involved in tipping off Facebook to inflammatory and extremist content. They accuse Facebook of taking up to four days to even respond.   

An open letter from Myanmar-born Buddhists offers a glimmer of hope, denouncing the actions of the NLD government in Rakhine State. Al Jazeera’s 100 Faces of Rohingya is a stunning piece of work. Buddhist Bangladeshi families have been resettled on land fled by Rohingya, according to this AFP report. Myanmar’s migrant workers are having a tough time in Thailand proving their nationality.


We’re a bit all over the place in Thailand this week but there’s still a lot to catch up on. Most importantly: rest in peace to the Thai point, a favourite of all watchers. I love a ‘food as soft-power’ story and this one from Munchies on the Thai government supporting restaurants in the US is world-class. I could read forever about the Belarus couple arrested in Pattaya who claim they have evidence of Russian involvement in the US 2016 election.

And now the serious stuff. Prayuth Chan-ocha made a gag about beheading a soap star after she voiced her support for democratic elections. Yeah, good one. After the first round of loosening the reins on campaign and political restriction, Pheu Thai is ready to go. Hundreds of members reaffirmed their support for the party at a meeting on Wednesday and this one from AP provides a bit more background on the party’s more recent history. Thaksin is staying away and it’s probably for the best. Let’s take a look at Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and his Future Forward party.   

Surely the bigger impact on Chiang Mai tourism would be worsening pollution rather than ‘blasphemy’?


I really enjoyed this one from Cambodia this week. I feel like so much of Cambodia news is bleak and hopeless, but this one about gender activist Catherine Harry has made me a load more optimistic that, like everywhere, the youth will sort it out. And if you’re not convinced, here’s one from OZY about the hardworking young women living in Phnom Penh’s DT and TT dorms. Tarantulas may be on the way out after over-harvesting takes a toll. We’re not talking politics this week since I’m working on a piece for next week and sometimes it’s just TOO MUCH.


Southeast Asia Globe takes a look at the Lao royal family and its legacy today.


It’s a bit quiet on the Timor-Leste front ahead of elections next month.  


Come on Brunei, give me something!


Vietnam’s reputation as the region’s most rapidly developing economy is having a toughie as China ups the pressure on oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea. PetroVietnam has been quite open about this, which is a rarity. This is going to be an extraordinarily slow burn – and a no-brainer to a lot of even casual watchers – but the economic story of Vietnam I think is set to become one of the most important in Southeast Asia and the shining example of China impact more widely. Which is to say: expect to see this time of analysis a lot more frequently. Six have been jailed on charges of attempting to overthrow the government (yes, that familiar refrain) including prominent human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai.


As I’m writing this, I’m watching Facebook Live commenters fight over who should be Malaysia’s prime minister as Najib Razak prepares to announce the formal dissolution of parliament which will prompt the Election Commission to set a date within 60 days for a vote. All election coverage can be found here. Beyond that, there have been some updates in the Kim Jong Nam assassination case, with the prosecution resting and the defence wondering how legit the poison test was.


The big news this week from the Philippines is the launch of the vice-presidential recount which could see Leni Robredo turfed for Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr. Yeah, that one. I’ve got what you need to know at the Diplomat.

And then there’s Boracay. The resort island is the one that you see in all the tourism campaigns and rightfully so, it is gorgeous! And in an effort to keep it that way it will be closed down for six months for clean up. Something’s a bit fishy here though, some are saying. Resort workers will be left high and dry for the period and there’s a couple of rumours that an unnamed Chinese casino will be permitted to continue construction. I think given what we know about Duterte and China in recent months, there’s a possibility that may be the case so keep an eye out!


Indonesia. Okay. Let’s talk about Sukmawati Sukarnoputri, sister of Mega, putri of Sukarno. She wrote and published a poem called Ibu Indonesia, which pretty much said some of the elements of Islam are not as ‘beautiful’ as traditional Indonesian customs. This is not really a controversial position at all and it’s a point oft-repeated. But we’ve got a couple of hardline groups trying to maintain relevance, and here comes the ‘blasphemy’ finger-pointing.

Sukmawati was forced to apologise on Wednesday and said she’d only been trying to promote Islam Nusantara as the natural fit for the country. Fair cop, says the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) who also received a direct apology. Still, she has been reported to the police by Hanura, who say her comments are ‘worse than Ahok’s’. There’s supposed to be a rally against her today with 10,000 people attending but tell you what, the amount of people meant to be attending versus the people who actually do is usually such a wild discrepancy it makes me feel better about my own 21st. We’ll see!    

Indonesia has been named as the third most affected country in the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook data scandal behind the US and the Philippines. The Philippines hasn’t reacted nearly as swiftly as Indonesia, where it was briefly suggested Facebook would be shut down until it got its house in order. Communications Minister Rudiantara has been trigger-happy with blocking sites and apps in the past, but appears to have slowed down somewhat in this case instead asking the National Police to investigate. I don’t have any special insight here, but I do know that the Finance Ministry and tax department have often pointed to the social media giant as the next target after a long-running battle to get taxes out of Google operating here. I would hazard a guess that this would be a big ole influence on how this is dealt with. Not to mention half the country – an easy 130 million Indonesians – are on the platform.

And the rest! Loved this one on app-drivers and Google maps, East Asia Forum takes a look at food policy and we’re unlikely to see Prabowo declare this month.