Prospects fade for ASEAN migrant worker deal – Nikkei Asian Review

Myanmar migrants discussing their struggles with people smugglers and traffickers on the outskirts of the Thai capital Bangkok (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

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.

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Race to the bottom for Asia’s sand miners – Nikkei Asian Review

Construction workers mixing concrete in Myanmar's Irrawaddy Delta (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

JAKARTA — As Asia’s economies grow and its cities modernize, the region’s voracious appetite for construction materials has driven demand for sand — alongside illegal trade of the commodity — to unprecedented levels. With rapid urbanization and infrastructure expansion, some countries are mining surrounding seas and their river and lake beds at a pace that could have grave implications for the environment. Along with gravel, cement and water, sand is needed to make up the trillions of tons of concrete used so far in laying Asia’s new roads and constructing tens of thousands of urban buildings. Around a third of the world’s land area is classed as desert, but, rounded and smoothed by the heat and wind, desert sand grains are useless for construction. Sand also makes for a bulky, heavy cargo and the high transportation costs mean that sand is usually dug up or dredged relatively close to where it ends up being used. “International trade is limited, unless the two countries in question are close neighbors,” said Zoe Biller, an industry analyst

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Booming Southeast Asian vehicle sales drive urban congestion – Nikkei Asian Review/FT

As car sales increase in Myanmar, traffic jams are increasingly common in Yangon, the biggest city and commercial center of the country (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

JAKARTA — Vehicle sales in Southeast Asia are set to outpace all other regions of the world during 2017, according to industry research, highlighting surging economic expansion in some parts of the region. But the growing number of new cars and trucks in urban centers is likely to worsen commerce-stifling traffic jams in major cities such as Bangkok, Jakarta and Manila — adding urgency to much needed transport infrastructure upgrades throughout much of the region. BMI Research — part of Fitch Group, a financial information company — has forecast that total vehicle sales in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will grow 8.1% in 2017, a marked increase in the combined 3.1% car sales growth the previous year across the 10 ASEAN countries, and more than double the sales growth rate of 3.7% projected for Asia as a whole in 2017. “Looking at passenger cars specifically, we expect Cambodia, the Philippines and Vietnam to be the best performing autos markets in the ASEAN region in 2017 with forecast growth of 20.4%, 19.2% and 18.0% in passenger car sales respectively,” BMI said in a recent report on the sector, citing “solid economic growth, strong private consumption and tax reform” as drivers of the car sales spike.

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Pence softens Trump’s trade talk during Indonesia visit – Nikkei Asian Review

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence addresses American CEOs in Jakarta on April 21 2016, flanked by Indonesian counterpart Jusuf Kalla (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

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.

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Christian governor of Jakarta ousted after tense election in world’s biggest Muslim country – Los Angeles Times

The winner of Jakarta's gubernatorial election Anies Baswedan (left) embraces running-mate Sandiaga Uno at their campaign headquarters in central Jakarta on April 19 (Simon Roughneen)

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.

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Asian palm oil producers slam European moves to restrict market access – Nikkei Asian Review

Indonesia's co-ordinating minister for economic affairs Darmin Nasution at a recent business conference in Jakarta (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

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.

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Indonesia’s indigenous leaders press land claims – RTE World Report

Traditional regalia on display at Tanjung Gusto in North Sumatra (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

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.

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Jakarta takes steps toward haze-free Southeast Asia – Nikkei Asian Review

Sofyan Djalil, Indonesia's minister for agrarian and spatial planning, right, watches  a March 15 2017 panel discussion on curbing Indonesia's peat forest fires (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

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.

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Australia and Indonesia try to mend fences – Nikkei Asian Review

Indonesians protesting in Jakarta in Feb. 2015 against Australian government efforts to prevent the execution of  2 Australian citizens on drug trafficking charges (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

JAKARTA — Two neighbors with a fractious history sought to put recent disputes behind them as Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull agreed at the weekend to restore military cooperation and reduce restrictions on some exports ahead of a possible free trade deal later this year. “Great result for Australian farmers. It will now be easier to export more sugar and beef to Indonesia,” Turnbull tweeted on Sunday, referring to Indonesia’s agreement to reduce tariffs on Australian sugar to 5% and allow more live cattle exports from Australia to the country of 250 million people. Widodo’s Feb. 25-26 visit to Sydney was his second trip to Australia since he took office in 2014, and the first since he personally showed Turnbull around Jakarta in November 2015. That meeting came shortly after the Australian prime minister took power in Canberra, on the back of an internal Liberal Party coup against incumbent Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

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Jakarta’s municipal election, a test of Muslim-Christian relations, goes to a runoff – Los Angeles Times

Woman voting at polling station in central Jakarta in the city's Feb. 15 gubernatorial elections (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

JAKARTA — After a tense campaign marred by religious protests and phone-tapping allegations made by a former president, Indonesia’s capital will have to wait two more months to learn who will run the city of 10 million people. Incumbent governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as “Ahok,” will face a runoff election in April against a former education minister who was backed by Islamist protesters, turning the election into a test of religious tolerance in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country. Purnama, a Christian of Chinese descent and an ally of President Joko Widodo, won around 40% of the votes cast Wednesday according to preliminary counts. That was roughly the same as his rival, Anies Basdewan, a Muslim whose reformist credentials came under scrutiny when Islamist supporters sought to have the sitting governor jailed over a speech in which he allegedly insulted Islam.

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