In too deep? Cambodia caught up in China-US rivalry

PHNOM PENH — Despite Kem Sokha being freed from house arrest a month ago, it was later announced that he will face trial on January 15, a decision that is unlikely to bolster Cambodia’s case for avoiding sanctions. To Kem Monovithya, a leading opposition politician and a daughter of Kem Sokha, the decision to try her father shows “there is no good will from the CPP [Cambodian People’s Party] controlled court”. It is not just opposition leaders who have been targeted. Though most have since been freed, dozens of local opposition activists were rounded up in the weeks prior to Sokha’s release, as the government issued lurid jeremiads about a coup attempt allegedly being orchestrated by Sokha’s fellow opposition leader Sam Rainsy. “We are very concerned about the human rights situation there. The Cambodians now have one month to respond and we will make our final decision in Feb next year,” commented outgoing Commission trade chief Cecilia Malmstrom in a 12 November post on Twitter.

Suu Kyi prepares to defend Myanmar against Rohingya genocide charges – UCA News

BANGKOK — The lead lawyer in the upcoming genocide hearings against Myanmar wants the United Nations’ International Court of Justice (ICJ) to push for investigators be allowed into the country. “We will be asking the court to order Myanmar to allow access to UN agencies that are duly authorized by the UN to gather the facts,” said Paul Reichler, head of International Litigation and Arbitration practice at U.S.-based law firm Foley Hoag. “We hope that the court will order Myanmar to allow access to its territory for this purpose.” Foley Hoag was hired by Gambia to lead its legal team at The Hague in the Netherlands, where the opening hearings in a case alleging genocide against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Myanmar, will take place from Dec. 10-12. Myanmar will be represented by State Counselor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi, who will “defend the national interest of Myanmar,” according to a government statement. Suu Kyi won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize and was a political prisoner of Myanmar’s military junta for 15 years, during which she was admired internationally for her fight against dictatorship.

Life-giving Mekong dying a slow death – Asia Times

BANGKOK — A confluence of drought and dams along the Mekong River has renewed concerns about the future of the 4,763 kilometer waterway, upon which tens of millions of people depend for their livelihoods in [mention China too? or maybe it just flows too fast there for it to matter] Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. The number of dams impeding the Mekong’s flow is fast multiplying, drying up segments of the once fast-flowing river and leaving the region facing imminent drought, according to the Mekong River Commission (MRC), a regional intergovernmental body that aims to jointly manage the river’s water resources. “China’s operators of the Jinghong Dam and the Thai operators of the newly opened Xayaburi dam in Laos conducted operations that actually exacerbated the drought,” said Brian Eyler, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Stimson Center, a US think tank. “Those dams and more than 70 others now operational in Laos and China all contribute to deteriorating downstream conditions related to the drought.”

Indonesia’s Widodo pits old school vs millennial – Asia Times

Indonesian President Joko Widodo and International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde (both center) at the IMF/World Bank annual meetings in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia on Oct. 12 2018 (Simon Roughneen

BANGKOK — Indonesian leader Joko Widodo is bidding to put a new generation shine on his second term administration with the appointment of young business entrepreneurs and other experts to his 12-member presidential staff. Whether the new blood appointments can counter the influence and power of the many old school politicians appointed to Widodo’s new Cabinet will likely determine the new government’s reform legacy. Re-elected to a new five-year term at polls in April, Widodo recently appointed seven new top advisors aged between 23 and 36. The move came after he tapped Nadiem Makarim, the 35-year-old founder of ride-hailing giant Gojek, as his education minister.

There be dragons, and a visit could cost US$1000 – The Times

Sunset over islands in East Nusa Tenggara. (Simon Roughneen)

BANGKOK — In a hint that Indonesia could be tiring of the drunken antics of young Western visitors to the holiday island of Bali, President Joko Widodo said he wants only “super premium” visitors to nearby islands that are home to the Komodo dragon, the world’s biggest and deadliest lizard. “Don’t mix with the middle lower ones,” Widodo told a conference in capital Jakarta, implying that Labuan Bajo, an island in eastern Indonesia that is the gateway to Komodo, one of the handful of islands where the eponymous reptiles can be seen, opt for well-to-do tourists. Local officials have touted a US$1000 “annual membership” fee to visit Komodo for a look at the lizards, which hunt deer and buffalo, packing a venomous bite that can kill an adult human. 

Peace shattered as marchers and police clash in Hong Kong once again – The Times

PHNOM PENH — Police fired tear gas at thousands of anti-government protesters in Hong Kong this morning as residents took to the streets chanting “revolution of our time” and “liberate Hong Kong”. The protest in the shopping district of Tsim Sha Tsui followed a march by hundreds of people to the US consulate to show “gratitude” for US support for the demonstrations that have agitated the Chinese-ruled city for six months. The stand-off today also marked the end of a week-long lull in demonstrations and came a week after pro-democracy candidates won a landslide victory in local elections.

Asia’s hidden economies point to harsh realities – Asia Times

PHNOM PENH — The deaths of 39 migrants found dead last month in the back of a truck in the United Kingdom were a grim and tragic reminder that, despite Asia’s world-beating growth rates, poverty and low pay continue to push people to risk their lives to work overseas. Vietnam’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita has quintupled to US$2,563 over the last 15 years, buoyed by one of the world’s fastest growing economies, but all 39 dead were economic migrants who had left impoverished areas of central and northern Vietnam in search of more gainful employment abroad. As with elsewhere in Asia, these rural regions are dominated by the so-called informal economy, outside of the reach of government protection and regulation. Based on estimates published last year by the World Bank, 47% of all employment in the East Asia and Pacific Region is informal.

Pentagon in the driving seat with Trump’s Southeast Asia diplomacy – Asia Times

PHNOM PENH – Perhaps trying to pick up the pieces after President Donald Trump skipped an October 31-November 4 series of summit meetings organised by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a ten country regional organisation, the United States Secretary of Defense Mark Esper spent the last week exchanging bromides and handshakes in South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam. The trip’s purpose, Esper said on the flight to Asia on November 13, is “to reinforce the importance of allies and partners, discuss key issues to make sure that they understand clearly that the INDOPACOM [Indo-Pacific] theater is DOD’s [Department of Defense] number one priority.”

A quiet festival as Cambodian opposition leader freed from house arrest – UCA News

Kem Sokha seen at his house in Phnom Penh after meeting U.S. ambassador W. Patrick Murphy on Nov. 11. 2019 (Simon Roughneen)

PHNOM PENH — Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha and U.S. ambassador W. Patrick Murphy did not say much after their one-hour meeting on Nov. 11, a day after a Cambodian court allowed Sokha, who is accused of treason, to be freed from house arrest. Sokha, 66, remains barred from political activities, so he was left to apologize to journalists at the end of the meeting, saying, “I’m not sure what political language is defined as, so I’m not sure what I can say and what I cannot.” But Ambassador Murphy called for the lifting of the charges against Sokha and implored the Cambodian government to “find a way to restore Mr. Kem Sokha’s entire freedoms and liberties.” Sokha was arrested two years ago during a Cambodian government crackdown on the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was later banned, before the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won all 125 seats going during the 2018 national elections, turning Cambodia into a de facto single-party state.

Phnom Penh’s China-backed building spree booms on – The Interpreter/RTÉ World Report

PHNOM PENH –Towering over low shops and French colonial–era townhouses grows a new city in tribute to the politics of the present Phnom Penh was long known as a relatively low-rise city, at least compared to towering neighbours such as Bangkok, Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh City, and Singapore. These cities all saw their skylines shoot up in recent decades – long before Phnom Penh’s belated boom – as their country’s economies expanded and modernised. Cambodia, too, has seen heady economic growth over the past two decades, rarely dipping below 8%. Yet the ravages of war and foreign occupation from the late 1960s until at least the early 1990s meant catch-up for the capital’s skyline did not come until midway through the current decade.