PHNOM PENH — In parallel signals that press freedom remains under duress in parts of Southeast Asia, courts in Cambodia and Myanmar recently ordered reruns of cases against prominent journalists. The decisions, announced within days of each other in late September and early October, came as other countries in the region weighed up new laws concerning freedom of speech. On Sept. 30, a court in the central Myanmar city of Mandalay ordered a re-hearing in a lawsuit against Swe Win, the editor of local news publication Myanmar Now, who was accused of defaming a prominent Buddhist monk. Then on Oct. 2 a judge in Phnom Penh ordered a reinvestigation of former Radio Free Asia journalists Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin, who are facing between seven and 15 years in jail over charges of espionage and the production of pornography. On the day of the Cambodia announcement, Sothearin told reporters outside the court that he was “very disappointed” with the prospect of reinvestigation, which local civil society groups said showed that the charges were politically-motivated in the first place. Both the Cambodian and Myanmar decisions mean a double prolongation of cases that otherwise had looked to have run aground, and Rohit Mahajan, RFA’s vice president of communications and external relations said that the Cambodian case decision was “an admission of there being no real evidence to convict.”
KUALA LUMPUR — While Philippine citizens disagree with the Duterte administration’s head-in-the-sand response to Chinese aggression in the disputed South China Sea, a substantial number still support his so-called drug war that has claimed thousands of lives. But there are serious public misgivings about the industrial-scale extrajudicial killings that could yet result in President Rodrigo Duterte being charged by international prosecutors. Last week several hundred protesters marked the third anniversary of a landmark international tribunal ruling in favor of the Philippines and against aspects of China’s expansive claims to the South China Sea. The same week survey by local polling outfit Social Weather Stations showed 87 percent backing for the proposition that the Philippines “should assert its right to the islands in the West Philippine Sea (the local name for the South China Sea) as stipulated in the 2016 decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA). However President Duterte, who marked three years in office on June 30, has several times referred to an apparent threat by China to go to war should the Philippines assert its claims to the sea based on the court’s ruling, which China refused to recognize.
KUALA LUMPUR — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has singled out China for its “extreme hostility” to religion and accused the ruling Communist Party of demanding “that it all alone be called God.” Pompeo was speaking at the release of the U.S. Government’s 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom on June 21. “In China, the government’s intense persecution of many faiths — Falun Gong practitioners Christians, and Tibetan Buddhists among them — is the norm,” Pompeo said. “The Chinese Communist Party has exhibited extreme hostility to all religious faiths since its founding. The party demands that it alone be called God.”
KUALA LUMPUR — The United States has kept Malaysia on its watch list of countries that do not meet minimum efforts for the elimination of human trafficking. The 2019 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, launched on June 20 by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said Malaysia’s government had not demonstrated overall increasing efforts compared with the previous year. But the report noted that Malaysia’s year-old government led by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had initiated an official Royal Commission of Inquiry into the mass graves of human trafficking victims at Wang Kelian near the border with Thailand. “In general, the situation has not changed in any significant way,” said Dobby Chew of human rights group Suara Rakyat Malaysia.
SINGAPORE — Efforts by Southeast Asian lawmakers to highlight religious discrimination could help prevent future atrocities along the lines of the recent expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya from Myanmar, according to the head of the the United Nations’ human rights fact-finding mission to the country.“Religious persecution matters because, left unchecked, it leads up to atrocity crimes. This is a condition that is not unique to Myanmar but to the region as a whole,” said mission head Marzuki Darusman, an Indonesian lawyer. But the MPs may have their work cut in the wake of growing politicization of religion and persecution of minorities.“it is very important to spread the message of freedom of religion, but this is a region where religion has been exploited for political purposes,” said Kyaw Win, a Muslim from Myanmar and founder of the Burma Human Rights Network.Indonesia has seen the hounding and jailing of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the Protestant ex-governor of Jakarta, and the August 2018 imprisonment of a Buddhist in North Sumatra after she allegedly complained that the speakers at a neighborhood mosque were too loud.
SINGAPORE — In a highly-anticipated policy address in Singapore, acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan warned today (June 1) China that “behavior that erodes other nations’ sovereignty and sows distrust of China’s intentions must end.”At the same time, America’s top defense official stopped short of demanding countries take sides in the US-China economic and military face-off and said that there is still a chance for the two superpowers to come to terms.“The United States does not want any country in this region to have to choose or forgo positive economic relations with any partner,” Shanahan said, adding in a veiled reference to China that “some in our region are choosing to act contrary to the principles and norms that have benefitted us all.”
SINGAPORE — Just over a year ago the United States moved its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, sparking protests in Muslim-majority countries and drawing official condemnation at the United Nations. An estimated 30,000 people demonstrated in Jakarta as Indonesian President Joko Widodo said his country “rejects” the American move as it “may disrupt the peace process in Israel and Palestine.” In late 2017, when US President Donald Trump announced he would live up to his campaign promise to move the embassy, the Malaysian government endorsed a huge protest at the US embassy in Kuala Lumpur, while Asia’s Muslim UN representatives lined up in New York to excoriate the US.
KUALA LUMPUR — New economic data shows that foreign remittances sent to Asian countries hit US$300 billion for the first time last year, underscoring the ever-rising importance overseas work for the region’s laborers despite world-beating economic growth rates. Freshly released World Bank statistics put the total amount of remittances for 2018 to countries in South Asia, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia and the Pacific at $299.6 billion, a sum that does not include what are believed to be substantial informal flows of money sent home by regional migrants. Globally and in Asia, remittance figures are growing year by year, despite heady 6-7% gross domestic product (GDP) growth in countries such as the Philippines, a nation which has around 10 million of its citizens working abroad across various vocations. The 2018 amount of regional remittances was around $25 billion greater than in 2017 and $125 billion more than in 2008. Worldwide, remittance flows now account for more than foreign direct investment to middle and low income countries excluding China, the World Bank data shows.
KUALA LUMPUR — On April 7, Taiwan’s foreign ministry posted a short video clip on Twitter that it said showed the razing of a Catholic Church building in Shaanxi in central China. The tweet tagged Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, who had said in a March 8 speech in Hong Kong that “the Chinese government’s abuse of members of Catholic communities has continued” — despite a September 2018 deal between the Catholic Church and Beijing ostensibly covering the appointing of bishops in China. Questions sent to the Taiwanese foreign ministry about the source and date of the video had gone unanswered at the time of this writing, but leveling of the building was reported on websites such as AsiaNews.it, which publishes articles from Catholic sources inside China and which dated the razing to March 31. Asia News reported April 9 that local Catholics in the diocese also had rallied to protect a Marian shrine from police and government officials who were seeking to destroy it. An estimated 12 million Chinese Catholics are split between the so-called “underground” Church, the faithful who follow the Pope, and the government’s Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. The Vatican has expressed hope that the September deal could lead to better relations between its faithful and those Chinese subject to the state-run version. But the clip, if authentic, is but the latest indication that China’s Catholics continue to be oppressed.
DUBLIN — Business deals worth more than US$60 billion were arguably the least significant aspects of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Italy and France during the past five days. The key moment arrived in Paris on Tuesday when German Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted that the European Union wants “to play an active part” in Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). “We, as Europeans, want to play an active part [in the project] and that must lead to a certain reciprocity and we are still wrangling over that a bit,” she said at a media briefing after talks with Xi, French President Emmanuel Macro and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Her comments came despite pressure from the United States to block BRI deals and a recent statement by the EU branding China a “systemic rival.”