PHNOM PENH — The skyline of Phnom Penh is changing as fast as that of any Asian city. Yellow cranes gleam in the sun after late-afternoon squalls, towering alongside green-netted scaffolding wrapped around dozens of new high-rise apartment blocks going up across the city. These are, literally, the green shoots of a building boom that made up a sixth of Cambodia’s economic growth last year. They are a sign of a transformation underway in the capital as Cambodia tries to catch up with its more prosperous neighbors. But the rapid changes also highlight a challenge that has faced many cities across Asia in recent decades: with 200 million people having moved from countryside to city in East and Southeast Asia since 2010, how can cities manage large-scale urban growth in a way that facilitates economic growth without increasing pollution and traffic jams. In BKK1, an upmarket part of the city, “the roads are too narrow, the area is not ready for so much construction, many small builders don’t talk to the municipality, there is no coordination,” said Sebastian Uy, co-owner of real estate agency Le Grand Mekong Property.
SINGAPORE — More than 300 people have been diagnosed with the Zika virus in Singapore this year, while the figure for Thailand has reached 200. Though the numbers of Zika cases in other Asian countries remain in the single digits, outbreaks in these two trade and tourism hubs could take a heavy economic toll. Such impacts are already being felt in Latin America. The spread of Zika there has resulted in around 1,800 cases of microcephaly, and the World Bank estimates that Zika could result in losses of around $3.5 billion to Latin American economies, or 1% of gross domestic product in tourism-dependent ones. In Asia, the main impact is likely to be felt in Singapore, which will host a Formula One Grand Prix race from Sept. 16-18. The event attracts not only regional motor sports fans but also corporate guests attending business meetings during the race week. The current Zika outbreak is the first ever in the city-state. Though it has not sparked any panic yet, the rapid spread of infection has reminded many residents of the SARS crisis of 2003, which saw economic activity contract 4.2% in the second quarter of that year. China, Singapore’s biggest source of tourists, issued an alert on Sept. 7 urging visitors to Zika-affected countries to take precautions against mosquito bites.
JAKARTA — Concern is growing in Asia about the spread of the Zika virus, with a recent outbreak in Singapore followed by cases in Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. There is no vaccine or treatment for the virus, which usually causes only mild fever, rashes and red eyes in infected adults but can lead to a birth defect called microcephaly if a pregnant woman is infected. The spread of Zika in Latin America has led to about 1,800 cases of microcephaly and resulted in several prominent athletes refusing to participate in the recent Olympic Games held in Brazil. In February, the World Health Organization declared Zika, which can be spread sexually but is mostly mosquito-borne, a global public health emergency. In Asia, the threat of the virus spreading around the region is causing concern for hundreds of millions of people already on guard against dengue, malaria and other conditions spread by the same mosquitoes that carry Zika. With almost 300 Zika cases reported in recent weeks in Singapore, a trade hub and city-state that is home to significant migrant worker populations from across Asia, the fear is that Zika will spread rapidly throughout the densely populated region.
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.
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.
KUALA LUMPUR — Earlier this week Southeast Asia’s foreign ministers “reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace, stability, freedom of navigation in and overflight of the South China Sea,” according to an account given Friday by Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman. In comments possibly aimed at China, Anifah added that “the ministers remain seriously concerned over the ongoing developments and urged all parties to exercise self restraint.” He added that clearer rules over rights and responsibilities in the South China Sea are needed, including a long discussed but yet to be finalized code of conduct.
BANGKOK – In Aceh on the northern tip of Indonesia’s Sumatra Island, the refugees were in bad shape when they landed in early and mid-May after a long ordeal at sea. “They only had the clothes on their backs. Many had wounds from the fighting that had broken out at sea over food,” Nasruddin, a coordinator for the Geutanyoe Foundation, an Acehnese nongovernmental organization that has been working with the survivors, told the Nikkei Asian Review.
BANGKOK – For Rohingya, it surely seemed as if the Myanmar government was not taking the meeting seriously, much less committing to addressing the decades of discrimination and bias that prompt thousands of Rohingya to risk kidnapping and destitution overseas. “The [Myanmar] government just sent a low-level delegation. There was not even a Rohingya representative speaking at the meeting,” said Aung Win ,a Rohingya community leader speaking by telephone from a Muslim ghetto on the outskirts of Sittwe, the regional capital of Rakhine state.
BANGKOK – For now the numbers of people taking to the seas is likely to ease off, as the long rainy season hits Myanmar and Bangladesh, bringing with it the threat of cyclones and stormy seas. The change in weather should in theory give the concerned countries a five to six month window to deal with the causes of the crisis. But Aung Win, a Rohingya community leader living in a Muslim ghetto near Sittwe, the regional capital of Rakhine state, believes that many Rohingya will once again try to reach Thailand and Malaysia when the rains stop around October. “For sure, unless the government does something to make our lives easier, after the rainy season people will make for overseas,” Aung Win told the NAR.