Laos is dry and the Philippines is shaking

Things are changing at Dari Mulut ke Mulut

Hello friends!

I’ve spent the last week on an (unannounced) hiatus, trying to think about how I can improve this project. Not just for how I can add more value for readers, but also how I can keep it as the most nerd-fun I have every week! So I’ve come to some decisions. 

Firstly, you’ll see that this looks different to usual. I haven’t really mixed up the lay-out since I got a new Mac and could use Emoji flags so I’m playing around with a new look this week which hopefully makes it a touch easier to read. I’ve also heard from some readers that they’re here for xyz countries, so skim over countries abc and this will hopefully make it easier to do so while still keeping it comprehensive. 

I’m also moving towards a more forcecast/forward-looking take. I think one of the real values of this is identifying domestic and regional trends early on, so I’ve added a ‘keep an eye on’ section. This is typically developments that I think have the potential to become larger stories or be very interesting. As we shift towards this though, you’ll note some this week are a little obvious. The Vietnam one especially, but I’ve fleshed it out! 

Secondly, I’m going to drop back down to once a week. The idea initially with twice-weekly blasts was to keep a closer eye on developments as they happen but half the length of each email. What ended up happening was I just doubled my workload, became bogged down in the minutiae of stories which, while fascinating, didn’t really develop and struggled to stick to my own schedule. 

This change will also include much longer blasts. Previously, in paying homage to Asean’s all-are-equal model I tried to include much more about the smaller member states at the cost of developments in the larger countries. Sadly, the time has come to combine our three minnows — Brunei, Timor-Leste and Laos — into one segment. While the three have absolutely nothing in common beyond small populations and little news, it frees up time and space to really get into our bigger spots. Obviously, still covering them as extensively as possible when the time comes.

The forward-thinking idea will also see a shift in the day it is sent. While each blast looks at the developments of the week, turning that forward means I’d like to be sending it Mondays. I’m totally open to suggestions on this, however, and if subscribers have other ideas please let me know. 

Today I’ve brought this from beyond the paywall to all subscribers, so the non-premium readers can see what we’re up to. If you’d like to sign up and join us regularly do so here for $6 a month or $60 for the year, and DMKM also offers institutional memberships.

All Asean member state plus Timor-Leste students are eligible for a free membership, so if you qualify please hit that reply button and I’ll activate your membership. Please also pass this on to any students/interns/mentees/young smarties in your life!

Thanks so much and see you next Monday from easy, breezy Bali!
Erin Cook


A couple of terrorism updates in Indonesia this week. We have the confirmation that the twin suicide bomb attacks in Jolo, southern Philippines, in January was conducted by an Indonesian couple. The attack killed 20 and left loads injured just after the first of the Bangsamoro Organic Law votes. There was a lot of back and forth between Indonesian and Filipino authorities over reports the attackers were Indonesian but that went quiet in recent months. 

Now, Indonesia says yes, they were Indonesian nationals and confirmed that the pair had been nabbed in Turkey trying to cross over into Syria to join ISIS in 2017 before being sent back home. Sidney Jones is quoted in this piece as making it explicitly clear that these attacks do not qualify as ‘returnees’ rather ‘deportees.’ I’m very keen to pop along to the Jakarta Foreign Correspondent Club event this week to hear more from her, so will be back! Densus 88 has been busy again in Sumatra. This JAD one just simmers away lately. 

In Ahok watch: the former Jakarta governor says he will not be returning to political life. “I will never become a minister. I am already damaged in this republic. I’m not being pessimistic, I’m just laying out the facts,” he said after receiving the Roosseno Award on Monday. Which is sadly very true, in my view. Still, it does make me wonder why he joined the PDI-P in Bali just a few weeks before the campaign period this year. It’s odd to me that this has never been explained and disappeared from the news cycle as the election geared up.  

The planning ministry expects to see up to 6 percent GDP growth over the next five years under an ambitious investment program. Investment in infrastructure will be targeted, much as it was under the first five year Jokowi term. The President is yet to approve it, but it’s fairly straightforward. Meanwhile, Destry Damayanti has been approved as the new senior deputy governor of Bank Indonesia. She is the first woman to hold the second-top-job at the central bank since 2009. She told Bloomberg that she expects global uncertainties to continue and will focus on supporting domestic growth and the current-account deficit.

Keep an eye on what opposition supporters do next. This one is a slowburn, but with the politicking heats up towards inauguration anything can happen. Prabowo and Megawati might even dine together! Oh wait


The trial of Najib Razak has been a bit of a dull one so far, but evacuation of the court over a bomb threat is probably a bit too much colour. A threat received around lunchtime on Thursday saw authorities the whole dang Kuala Lumpur Court Complex, delaying the hearing for the day. Police have not yet identified who made the call. Malay Mail reports the call was made at 11am but the court was not cleared until 12.30pm. I can’t work out if that’s a reporting discrepancy or what. It’s starting to get very juicy for Jho Low too, but where is the ‘fat boy’? 

It’s messy in party politics again (still?). The UMNO-PAS agreement is close to complete, Umno secre­tary-general Annuar Musa says. It will likely be revealed next month and is expected to include a resolution to divvy up seats and avoid running candidates against each other. But, wait! You may say. Where would that leave UMNO’s other allied parties whose bases’ don’t feel, uh, represented by PAS. Annuar says relax, this pact is the first of many the party intends to broker. 

UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is laying down the battlelines, having a crack at the DAP. He says anyone seen to be palling about with the centre-left party can consider themselves dead to the UMNO-PAS coalition. I don’t think anybody aligned with DAP will be too heart-broken, but he singled out the party’s ‘Malaysian Malaysia’ policy which would end the Malay First rule as cause. It’s a no brainer, but gives us a clear idea of how things will look in the coming months. 

Keep an eye on the Najib trial. It’s the first of his five (so far, at least!), but we’re getting to the pointy end of proceedings now. 


Tan Cheng Bock makes his move. After having issues with a permit earlier, the former PAP member launched his Progress Singapore Party on Friday. Still no date for an election, but this might make it interesting for once! Tan has entertained the possibility of Lee Hsien Yang, brother of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and obviously also son of Lee Kuan Yew, joining the party. Back in January, the non-PM Lee posted to Facebook saying: "I have known Cheng Bock for many years and he has consistently put the interests of the people first. We are fortunate that he has stepped forward to serve Singapore." So maybe not out of the realms of possibility, I suppose? 

Tan also took a swing at the ruling PAP, saying good governance is ‘eroding’ after their endless streak. "I have spent a great deal of my life in public office. But as I sat back and watched what has been going on in Parliament and in our political system, I am concerned. I believe the processes of good governance have gone astray. I worry because I see the foundations of good governance eroding,” he said. As if, says the PAP.

Keep an eye on PSP. It’s all going to be election speculation for at least the next few days given Tan Cheng Bock’s explosive debut. 


The analysis is in on Vietnam’s freshest South China Sea tensions. STRATFOR has a very handy explainer, so for those who haven’t dug in yet catch up here. South China Morning Post has coverage of both sides of the story, looking at Vietnam’s extension of an oil rig at the centre of the latest clashes as well as China’s new long-range research vessel which “represents the pinnacle of China’s oceanic survey technology.”

Keep an eye on South China Sea, duh. The combination of this latest flare-up, Duterte essentially tapping the Philippines out of the cause for another three years and Cambodia’s naval base moves it’s an interesting dynamic ahead for Asean. 


Severe droughts in Laos has the country’s rice growers down and out. Less than half of the typically available land is primed for rice growing this season, with the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry saying around 40 percent of land has been planted upon. No rain and the drying river turning irrigation systems dusty is about to create a big problem in little Laos. Across the border in Thailand, environmental activists are pressuring the Thai government to not buy power generated from Lao hydropower

Keep an eye on hydropower. If Thai activists succeed in killing off the contract (unlikely) which has promised to purchase 95 percent of electricity generated in a dam set to be completed in October, Laos will need to begin thinking about diversifying infrastructure options to back growth and development. Likewise, such a devastating drought and the future food insecurity of an absolute staple is going to cause chaos. Several seasons in a row of it is untenable. 


You’d be hard-pressed to have missed Wall Street Journal’s coverage of the on-going Chinese naval base this week. It says that a ‘secret agreement’ was signed between China and Cambodia earlier in the year which would give China a 30-year lease on the naval base near Sihanoukville with automatic 10-year renewals after that. It cites US officials which had sighted an early draft of the document. Military personnel and arsenal would be allowed on the base, WSJ reports. 

What are you on about, Cambodian officials have said in the week since. Defence ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat says it would be impossible to hide such a thing with satellites monitoring the space and journalists poking about. "It doesn't matter how many years they keep saying it; it's still not true. We have announced that it is not true. There is no such thing. It's fabricated news, it's fake news."

The espionage trial of two former Radio Free Asia journalists, Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, who are accused of handing over documents to a foreign power. RFA shut up shop in Cambodia during that horrible period in 2017 where media crackdowns sprung up quickly and completely. "You know that you are not a journalist any more, so why did you still send a report?” a prosecutor asked Uon Chhin. "I did it out of passion," he replied. It doesn’t look good for the pair and I hope we see a similar outpouring of support from the international media community as we have in Myanmar and the Philippines recently. 

Keep an eye on this bloody naval base! It’s been a slow burn with denials from Cambodia becoming increasingly agitated. But no smoke without fire, I suppose. And it’s very smokey. 


Myanmar authorities met with Rohingya representatives in Bangladesh over the weekend to begin repatriation talks. Recognition as Rohingya and not the derogatorily used ‘Bengali’ is high on the list. “We hope this discussion will be fruitful. We told them that we won’t return unless we are recognised as Rohingya in Myanmar,” Rohingya leader Dil Mohammad told AFP. A repatriation pact signed late 2017 saw very few take up the offer and violence has continued in Rakhine State. 

While in Turkey Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad weighed in, suggesting Rohingya people should be given citizenship or their own land to form a state. I can’t tell if he means state in the way Malaysia uses ‘state’ or if he means sovereign territory. Regardless, it is a bonkers suggestion that will never fly and would immediately be met with: well, is Malaysia about to give up the land? 

Keep an eye on the outcome of these talks. Similar discussions failed last year and while Bangladesh has promised it will not force anyone to return, its patience is wearing thin. On the other side of things, China has told Myanmar it will help do whatever it takes. Hardly inspiring


State of the Nation Address week! Last year was much more dramatic, with Gloria Macapagal Arroyo rolling Pantaleon Alvarez for the Speaker of the House. This year almost looked like the race to the Speaker chair could again eclipse the presidential address, but a cleanly resolved power-sharing arrangement between challengers was hatched. Former Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alan Peter Cayetano will hold the spot for 18 months before handing over to Lord Allan Jay Velasco to finish out the three year term. President Duterte touched on his greatest hits during the speech and, like I wrote last week for the Diplomat, few surprises were on offer. 

A bloody week in Negros Oriental, Central Visayas. Four people, including former mayor Edsel Enardecido, were gunned down in two separate attacks on Saturday morning. This brings the province’s death toll from gun violence to a staggering 11 in six days. The Enardecido attack happened in Ayungon, the same town where four police officers were shot and killed allegedly by communist insurgents. Police are yet to say if any of the incidents are related. 

At least eight people have been killed in Batanes, the archipelago’s most northern province, following two quakes early Saturday morning. Measuring 5.4 and 5.9 at very shallow depths, reports of tremors being felt from Taiwan and Japan give an idea of how big it was. The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology reported a third quake reaching 5.8 off the coast later Saturday. Around 100 people are injured, as of Sunday morning. President Duterte planned to visit the most damaged of the areas on Sunday. 

Keep an eye on opposition to reimplementing the death penalty. With a few bills up to see Duterte’s dream of the return of capital punishment realised, previously unsupportive government-aligned senators and congresspeople are switching sides. Expect to see the Catholic lobby get very excited over this one, as well as opposition lawmakers.


Facebook has removed a whole bunch of pages and accounts linked to Russian propaganda services. Thailand is one of four countries targeted in the sweep, with Coconuts reporting 12 accounts and 10 pages were removed. Twitter accounts linked to those were also deleted. Of course, it’s usually quite easy to tell who benefits and how from these sorts of things but no one is allowed to explicitly state it. So let’s just quote from Coconuts BKK: ‘New Eastern Outlook’s page information indicated it was first created in May 2010, at the height of anti-government Redshirt protests gripping Bangkok.’

(Sidenote, I recently watched The Great Hack on Netflix which is super compelling about the Cambridge Analytica case. But one of the ultra-involved characters is like ‘oh I don’t want all these powerful people to know where I am!’ while she is very, very clearly in Thailand.) 

Thaksin’s back, sort of. Celebrating his 70th birthday with supporters in a video call session he used the opportunity to criticise the freshly inaugurated cabinet. “We shouldn’t allow people who ignore the law to interpret it,” he said in the Friday call.

"It's time for the country to have fair rules. Do not let unreasonable and brazen people set the rules. If this is allowed to continue, it will end up with conflict," he also said, according to Bangkok Post’s report. Bloomberg says reports suggest he was calling in from Dubai, where he has spent much of his time since being convicted of corruption and fleeing the Kingdom.

Thaksin’s comments follow Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha’s first parliamentary address since becoming (somewhat) elected leader. His 34-page statement covered key issues including ‘economy, education, labour and the fight against drugs and corruption,’ AP reports. Pravit Rojanaphruk took a look at the proceedings for an op-ed, taking great delight in opposition MPs chiding Prayuth.

The Deep South violence continues. Four people were killed in an attack Tuesday night believed to be retribution for a Muslim insurgent suspect left in critical condition after “interrogation.”

Keep an eye on Prayuth’s performance in the parliament. As junta leader he developed a reputation for being quick to explode over criticism and lash out at media, opposition or just plain ole regular Thai people. How he is going to keep it together under parliamentary scrutiny is anyone’s guess, although the smart baht is on ‘it’s just a matter of time.’