JAKARTA — Official crackdowns on emigrants in Malaysia and Thailand have cast further doubt on over prospects that member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations can finalize a long discussed deal on migrant workers’ rights. In June and July around 100,000 mostly Myanmar migrant workers fled Thailand after the military government in Bangkok announced hefty new fines for undocumented workers and their employers. Then, starting July 1, Malaysia made a series of arrests of alleged undocumented migrant workers, affecting more than 3,000 workers and around 60 employers accused of giving work to illegals. These tough actions — though a reprise of previous years’ crackdowns — come as the region’s governments mull proposed enhancements to the 2007 ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers, signed in Cebu in the central Philippines during one of Manila’s past tenures as the group’s chair. Two years after the Cebu declaration, ASEAN countries started moves toward a set of region-wide legal norms, but progress has been slow. With Manila again chairing ASEAN this year, there has been a renewed push to address migrant rights — an important social and political issue in the Philippines.
JAKARTA – Unlike the imposing and often inaccessible buildings of the European Union in Brussels, ASEAN’s low-rise offices sit in the shadow of a partly constructed overhead railway in the southern part of Indonesia’s traffic-clogged capital. Nine months after the group’s 10 members established the ASEAN Economic Community, which aims to promote the free movement of goods, services, capital and labor, the headquarters symbolizes both ASEAN’s aspirations and its limitations. The EU was previously known as the European Economic Community, but ASEAN’s adoption of the “community” moniker does not mean it will emulate Europe’s radical, sovereignty-pooling measures, such as a common currency, central bank and free movement of labor. “The appetite to surrender sovereignty simply is not there,” said Jayant Menon, lead economist at the Asian Development Bank in Manila. “I don’t see a single currency coming into play in ASEAN, and I don’t see that as a bad thing.”
JAKARTA — The international tribunal decision against Beijing’s claims to much of the South China Sea has provoked a mixed response in the region, with indications that it may tone down some rivalries while sharpening others. Most revealingly, after years of acrimony with China over rival claims in the disputed waters, the Philippines initially took a conciliatory tone, inviting China to bilateral talks over the matter. Despite a jubilant reaction from his countrymen following the July 12 ruling, which was overwhelmingly in favor of Manila, the normally strident new President Rodrigo Duterte said he would not “flaunt” the decision. Instead, he reiterated his desire to improve relations with China, his country’s biggest source of imports. “War is not an option,” Duterte said. “So, what is the other side? Peaceful talk.” Despite Duterte’s muted response, China has refused to compromise — insisting that any talks must exclude mention of the tribunal’s verdict. The tribunal, convened at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, suggested that Chinese naval maneuvers in waters around islands near the Philippines are illegal. Yet Beijing has continued to block Filipino fishermen from working around Scarborough Shoal, 190km off the Philippine coast and 800km from mainland China.
JAKARTA – Petroleum-rich Brunei rarely makes the news. Hardly a surprise, given that the Sultanate’s 422,000 population and 5,200 km sq. land area make it one of the world’s smallest countries. But last year the Abode of Peace was headline material. And it wasn’t because 2014 marked 30 years since independence from the United Kingdom, a time-marker that went unnoticed. In April, Brunei’s autocratic ruler Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah introduced harsh punishments for infractions of Islamic law.
JAKARTA – In the short term, the outlook for the economy of Brunei-Darussalam is positive, with annual growth in gross domestic product (GDP) expected to approach 6 per cent for 2014, after contracting last year. Longer term, however, the outlook for the US$16 billion economy is murky, at best.
BANDAR SERI BAGAWAN — The pre-summit chat was all about the absence of Barack Obama, but when pressed, Asian governments were quick to suggest that they had bigger concerns than the embattled American President’s no-show, with an October 17 deadline for the U.S. to raise its ‘debt ceiling’ hanging over the various summit meetings held in the Brunei capital earlier this week. American lawmakers have yet to cut a deal to raise Washington’s mammoth $16.7 trillion borrowing limit, the ‘debt ceiling, ‘which is set to expire on October 17. The stand-off forced the closure of much of the U.S. government and prompted President Obama to cancel his planned visits to Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. And while the government shutdown has prompted worldwide bemusement, the looming debt crisis has left Asia’s emerging economies nervous about the unheralded knock-on effects that could come about – if the U.S. ends up defaulting on its debt. Around 60% of China’s foreign currency reserves are thought to be American assets, so Prime Minister Li Keqiang’s words to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry – that “China is highly concerned with the United States’ debt ceiling issue,” according to a report in by the state-run China News Service – are no surprise.
BANDAR SERI BAGAWAN — At the 23rd Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and related summits in Brunei-Darussalam this week, there has seemingly been scant mention of the ongoing sectarian violence in Burma, which will chair the bloc for the first time in 2014. Asked if the issue had come up during the course of the various meetings and summits ongoing in Brunei, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natelagawa told The Irrawaddy, “Not to my recollection, except at the Asean meeting, when the Myanmar delegation briefed us on the situation in their country.”