JAKARTA — During a visit to Jakarta on April 21, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence diluted some of the anti-trade rhetoric espoused by his recently-elected boss, President Donald Trump, saying that his country and Indonesia “can and will do more to expand commerce.” “We seek trade with Indonesia that is free and fair,” Pence said, adding that “we seek to create a win-win trading relationship for both of our nations and all of our people.” His comments mark a change in tone from the zero-sum views on trade coming from the White House under President Trump, rhetoric that prompted Washington to compile a list of 16 countries — including Indonesia — that have trade deficits with the U.S. Pence, who was on the second day of a visit to Indonesia after stopovers in South Korea and Japan and before heading on to Australia, announced that American companies, including ExxonMobil, General Electric and Lockheed Martin, would sign “11 major deals worth more than $10 billion” in Indonesia.
JAKARTA — In a campaign laced with religious and ethnic tensions, the minority Christian governor of Indonesia’s sprawling capital was unseated by a former education minister backed by conservative Islamists, unofficial results showed Wednesday. With nearly all the votes counted, Indonesian polling companies said Anies Baswedan won around 60% of the vote in a runoff election to lead the city of 10 million people, soundly defeating incumbent Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian of Chinese descent. The bitter campaign evolved into a test of ethnic and religious tolerance in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, long seen as a bastion of moderate Islam. Purnama, better known as “Ahok,” is facing blasphemy charges over remarks that allegedly insulted Islam’s holy book, the Koran. Hundreds of thousands of Islamist demonstrators took to the streets during the campaign, demanding that Purnama be jailed.
JAKARTA — Indonesia and Malaysia, which produce more than 80% of the world’s palm oil, are resisting proposals by European parliamentarians that could limit their access to the second biggest palm oil market after India. Government ministers from Malaysia and Indonesia, along with some regional palm oil producers, met in Jakarta on April 11 to plan a response to a resolution approved on April 4 by European parliament members concerning “palm oil and deforestation.” The parliamentarians requested the EU to “introduce a single certification scheme for palm oil entering the EU market and phase out the use of vegetable oils that drive deforestation by 2020.” They hope for an EU-wide ban on biodiesel made from palm oil by 2020, claiming that the expansion of palm oil plantations, mostly in Southeast Asia, is causing “massive forest fires, the drying up of rivers, soil erosion, peatland drainage, the pollution of waterways and overall loss of biodiversity.” Indonesia’s Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar called the EU proposals an “insult,” while the foreign ministry accused the EU of “protectionism” and of ignoring the rights of millions of Indonesian farmers whose main source of income is from small oil palm plots.
SINGAPORE — In contrast to the anguish and astonishment expressed in many national capitals, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen welcomed Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president in November. While the warm response augured well for Phnom Penh’s often troubled relations with Washington, prospects for improved bilateral ties have since faded. In January, the month of Trump’s inauguration, Cambodia pulled out of the “Angkor Sentinel” joint military exercises with the U.S. In early April Phnom Penh followed up that snub to Washington by halting a nine-year-old humanitarian program run by the U.S. military that involved building schools and maternity facilities in rural areas of Cambodia. These affronts were punctuated by testy exchanges between the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh and the Cambodian government, notably over a political parties law passed in February that will make it easier for the Cambodian courts to suspend or even dissolve opposition parties. “Any government action to ban or restrict parties under the new amendments would constitute a significant setback for Cambodia’s political development, and would seriously call into question the legitimacy of the upcoming elections,” the embassy said, referring to local elections scheduled for June and a national poll due in 2018. The law has been widely criticized in Cambodia, too. Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, described it as “an affront to the principles of liberal democracy, [which] effectively gives the ruling party a delete button which can be arbitrarily applied to their political opponents at any time.”
YANGON — Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, made a rare admission of fallibility in a televised address to the nation on March 30. “We did what we could for the sake of our country and the people in the first year,” she said in a speech marking the first anniversary of her civilian-dominated government. “We know that we haven’t been able to make as much progress as people had hoped.” That seemed an uncharacteristic acknowledgement of a sputtering economy under her National League for Democracy-led administration. Key economic data suggest that “progress,” as Suu Kyi herself conceded, has slowed. Approved foreign direct investment is estimated to have fallen by a third in fiscal 2016, which ended on March 31, from the record $9.4 billion achieved in fiscal 2015, the last year under the government of former President Thein Sein. Annual growth in gross domestic product is expected to slow to 6.5% in fiscal year 2016, from 7.3% the previous year, according to the World Bank.
YANGON — The governing National League for Democracy looks set to win most of the 12 national parliament seats contested in Saturday’s by-elections — Myanmar’s first vote since the 2015 poll when the NLD romped to a historic landslide victory over the army-backed incumbent Union Solidarity and Development Party. Ahead of a full official results announcement for all 19 by-election seats, possibly by late Sunday evening, ethnic parties looked the likely winners in the minority-dominated Rakhine and Shan states, while the now-opposition USDP won a seat in Mon state, an ethnic minority region south of Yangon. Than Chaung, a voter in the Yangon 6 constituency, said he voted “for Aung San Suu Kyi, for NLD.” Asked if he was happy with the progress made under the NLD government, he replied: “she will make changes, but slowly, we know that.”
SINGAPORE — On April 1, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy faces its first electoral test since taking power in Myanmar on the back of a landslide election win in 2015. The governing party will compete for a total of 2 million votes in all bar one of 19 by-election contests — seven of which are for regional parliaments — for seats vacated mostly by incumbents who joined the NLD-led government as ministers. With most of the contested seats lying in NLD strongholds in central Myanmar, the governing party is unlikely to face any major electoral setback for what are just 12 national legislature seats out of a total 664 in the country’s upper and lower houses of parliament. But with economic growth and foreign investment down slightly on previous years, sectarian violence in Rakhine State in the west and conflict between military forces and ethnic rebels in Kachin and Shan states in the east and north of the country, Aung San Suu Kyi has had a difficult first year as de facto leader of Myanmar.
TANJUNG GUSTO — Coming from all over Indonesia, vividly-garbed traditional dancers yelled ‘horas’, which means hello in the Batak language of north Sumatra. But the pageantry could not mask their disappointment at being snubbed by the country’s president. Hundreds of Indonesia’s tribal leaders had traveled to Tanjung Gusto, a small village on Sumatra, the biggest of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands. They arrived with high expectations that the government was about to grant at least some of their demands for control of what they claim as their ancestral lands.
JAKARTA — Malaysia’s environment minister is sure that 2017 will not see a repeat of the choking, eye-watering smog that covered parts of his country, as well as Singapore and areas in Indonesia, for around two months in 2015. “We are very likely to be haze-free this year. Even if it comes, it will not be as serious as before,” said Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, Minister for Natural Resources and Environment, on March 2. Mostly caused by the burning of peatland and forests to clear land for plantations in Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s haze has for three decades been a near-annual blight that makes air in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, two of Asia’s most dynamic cities, almost unbreathable and in turn, diminishes economic output. Prolonged bouts of the haze, such as in 1997 and in 2015, caused diplomatic ructions as Singapore railed against neighboring Indonesia over the impact of the pollution on its citizens and their livelihoods. But a new Indonesian government-backed alliance of farmers, businesses, environmentalists and concerned citizens aims to prevent more debilitating blazes in southern Kalimantan and western Sumatra, home to much of Indonesia’s lucrative palm oil and pulpwood sectors. “The Indonesian government is very serious on tackling the forest fires,” said Prabianto Wibowo, assistant deputy minister for forestry at Indonesia’s economic co-ordination ministry, speaking at the Responsible Business Forum in Jakarta on March 15.
JAKARTA — If Claudio Ranieri was in front of a television when English Premier League soccer champions Leicester City hosted five-times European club champions Liverpool on Feb. 27, the mild-mannered Italian might have been tempted into an uncharacteristic show of anger. The 65-year-old had been sacked as team manager three days previously by Leicester City’s billionaire Thai owner and chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, founder of the King Power Group chain of duty-free shops. After a series of tepid losses, the team had been dragged into a struggle with a half dozen rivals desperate to stave off relegation from the premier league to the less high-profile English Championship, where Leicester City had languished for a decade prior to 2014. But with Ranieri gone, the team rediscovered the verve that brought them success the previous year. Ranieri’s ex-charges followed their comfortable 3-1 win over Liverpool with a March 4 victory over Hull City by the same margin.