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.”
SYDNEY — The U.S. government’s latest annual Trafficking in Persons report, published on June 30, generated the usual mix of dismay and relief among countries named. In Asia, countries including Myanmar responded angrily to their downgrading in the influential rankings, which can affect their standing as U.S. trade partners among other aspects of their ties with Washington. The Philippines — despite, as the report noted, having a “significant problem” of sex trafficking — was upgraded to the top tier of countries for its efforts to counteract trafficking. The list, which this year rated 190 countries — two more than last year — includes countries which the state department says “fully meet the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA) minimum standards,” a level attained by only two other Asian countries, South Korea and Taiwan. The Obama administration’s “Asia pivot,” an attempt to enhance diplomatic and commercial ties with the world’s most economically dynamic region and to counter the growing sway of China, saw a thawing of ties with Myanmar. As well as relaxing most of its economic sanctions on the country, the U.S. quickly lifted Myanmar out of the bottom tier of its trafficking rankings under the quasi civilian government of former President Thein Sein. But the 2016 report saw Myanmar demoted to Tier 3, the bottom rank, alongside countries such as North Korea and Sudan.
YANGON – Prospects for an improvement in the Rohingya’s situation appear bleak after the Myanmar foreign ministry, which is headed by Suu Kyi, recently asked the U.S. to refrain from using the term “Rohingya.” Aung Win, a Rohingya community leader in the Rakhine capital of Sittwe, said that he was not surprised at the foreign ministry’s petition to the U.S. “The foreign minister and Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi understands very well about the Rohingya and what is happening in Rakhine state, but she is silent and not saying anything.” Rather than dealing with the Rohingya issue, some observers believe that Suu Kyi is now focused on changing the country’s constitution to allow her to become president. The new government has also said it wants to prioritize peacemaking with Myanmar’s many ethnic militias as well as promote economic growth. “I think the new government is more concerned right now about maintaining domestic political stability. The NLD probably doesn’t want to have to deal with the voices of the Myanmar’s extreme nationalists as it feels that it already has a lot on its plate,” said Miguel Chanco, Southeast Asia analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit.
SINGAPORE – After enduring two terms in prison in military-ruled Myanmar, Bo Kyi might have been forgiven for thinking he had overcome the worst life could throw at him. But in February, a decade and a half after he was released from jail, his doctor gave him some grim news: a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes. Not for the first time, the outspoken activist faced some life-changing decisions, perhaps the most significant since the day nearly three decades ago when he joined thousands of other students protesting against army rule in what was then Burma. “I changed my lifestyle since I found out,” Bo Kyi said, explaining that he has cut out beer, cigarettes and sugary food. He said the grinding neglect typical of life as a political prisoner in Myanmar did not cause his diabetes. But with poor hygiene and malnutrition common in Myanmar jails, the best Bo Kyi could say was that he is “not sure” how seven years behind bars has affected his health. The World Health Organization lists diabetes as one of the four main types of noncommunicable diseases, alongside cardiovascular diseases, such as heart attack and stroke, chronic respiratory diseases, such as asthma, and cancers. Worldwide, there were 415 million adults living with diabetes in 2015, according to the latest estimates published by the International Diabetes Federation. The IDF expects that number to hit 642 million by 2040.
YANGON — Hanging by Ma Thandar’s living-room window is a photograph of her late husband Par Gyi, his image warmed by the mid-morning sun. His grisly death in October 2014 was a stark reminder that despite five years of quasi-civilian rule in Myanmar, the military remains, in many ways, above the law. Ma Thandar — who ran for and won a parliamentary seat in Myanmar’s Nov. 8 national elections — has vowed to press on with her campaign to find out what really happened to her husband. She is among a handful of women, frustrated by lack of official progress in their home countries, who are making their voices heard on issues across the Asian political spectrum. Par Gyi, a journalist, was killed in detention by soldiers while covering one of Myanmar’s long-running civil wars. It took the army three weeks to reveal the whereabouts of his body. Senior officers claimed he was working for an ethnic rebel militia and that he was shot while trying to escape. However, Par Gyi’s body — dug up from the shallow grave in which he was hastily buried — showed signs of beating and torture. “I want to get justice but the progress is slow,” she said.
HANOI/YANGON — Asian garment manufacturers are signaling concern about disproportionate benefits for Vietnam over regional rivals in the textile sector as a result of major trade deals including the new, U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership and a free trade agreement with the European Union. Vietnam is already the world’s fourth biggest garment exporter, but will gain new preferential access to markets among the 11 other countries that have signed up to the TPP as well as the 28 EU member countries under the EU-Vietnam FTA. These are lucrative markets for Asia’s garment exporters and apparel makers of leading Western brands. “Vietnam’s trade deals will be a concern — not just for us, but the whole region,” said Khine Khine Nwe, secretary general of the Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association, told the Nikkei Asian Review.
YANGON – Reducing transport overheads will make doing business easier for Ruf Hou, owner of the Aung Min Thu Furniture Mart in Yangon’s Tamwe township, which depends on teak and other timber being trucked across Myanmar’s far flung road system to Yangon. Since 2011, the year the army ceded power to a military-supported civilian government, Aung Min Thu has more than doubled its staff roster to “around 100 people,” according to Ruf Hou. “Many companies come to us and offer to pay extra to have the tables, chairs done more quickly,” he said, discussing the impact of Myanmar’s recent economic growth, which he thinks will continue under a Suu Kyi-run government. “I think that a lot of investor, a lot of company will come to build factories in Myanmar,” he said.
SINGAPORE — It was no more than a glance, but Aye Aye Win’s respectful mid-sentence nod toward her 83-year-old father said as much as anything else about why she wants to remain in Singapore after three decades in the city-state, away from her family in Myanmar. The old man, Maung Htay, had been in Singapore “for a few weeks” to get medical treatment that Aye Aye Win said was out of his reach at home — a legacy of decades of meager health spending by Myanmar’s long-ruling military junta She runs a small shop in Peninsula Plaza, a vibrant commercial complex that is the center of Myanmar life in Singapore. Women, their cheeks painted with cream-colored thanaka — a Myanmar cosmetic made from tree bark — perch on high stools behind shop counters selling cellphones. Other shops selling longyi — a Myanmar version of the sarong — sit alongside restaurants dishing up Myanmar staples such as tea-leaf salad and mohinga, a popular curried fish and noodle soup. “I plan to stay here, though I know a lot of people who are going back,” said Aye Aye Win
YANGON — Tin Oo is pushing 90, but much like another nonagenarian Southeast Asian politician, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, the one-time commander in chief of the Myanmar army and co-founder of the National League for Democracy shows no sign of flagging. Shoulders back, spine straight, and a booming delivery that makes a microphone superfluous, Tin Oo was phlegmatic about the NLD’s landslide victory in Myanmar’s Nov. 8 election. It was the first openly contested vote since the NLD won the 1990 elections, an outcome ignored by the ruling military. “This is progress for our side,” Tin Oo said, displaying a mastery of understatement, even as election results showed the NLD taking around 80% of the 1,150 contested seats. But for Nyan Win, another veteran NLD leader, the electoral sweep prompted some poignant reflection. “We are thinking about all the prisoners, all who worked for the NLD, all who suffered,” Nyan Win said. “We hope this election is vindication of all the years of struggle.”
YANGON — One of the tropes the National League for Democracy will have to address before it takes office next April is the view that the party is light on concrete policies and untested in government. The latter is unavoidable, given that the army did not allow the NLD to govern after it won 80% of seats in the country’s flawed 1990 elections. As for economic policy, the party has a few ideas. “We have a plan, and we presented it in the early stages of the campaign,” said Soe Win, a member of the NLD’s central executive committee, referring to the election manifesto the party published in September. The NLD said it will keep the budget deficit under 5% of gross domestic product, cut the number of ministries and attempt to curb corruption in the bureaucracy, crack down on tax evasion, increase the independence of the central bank and focus on boosting agricultural productivity — a particularly important step given that around 70% of the population lives in the countryside.