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.
JAKARTA — If Claudio Ranieri was in front of a television when English Premier League soccer champions Leicester City hosted five-times European club champions Liverpool on Feb. 27, the mild-mannered Italian might have been tempted into an uncharacteristic show of anger. The 65-year-old had been sacked as team manager three days previously by Leicester City’s billionaire Thai owner and chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, founder of the King Power Group chain of duty-free shops. After a series of tepid losses, the team had been dragged into a struggle with a half dozen rivals desperate to stave off relegation from the premier league to the less high-profile English Championship, where Leicester City had languished for a decade prior to 2014. But with Ranieri gone, the team rediscovered the verve that brought them success the previous year. Ranieri’s ex-charges followed their comfortable 3-1 win over Liverpool with a March 4 victory over Hull City by the same margin.
JAKARTA — One of the world’s leading university ranking systems has found significant improvement in Asia’s tertiary education institutions over the past year, although long-established Western bodies continue to dominate the field in most key academic subjects. QS Quacquarelli Symonds, a London-based group, published its 2017 rankings covering 1,127 universities from 74 countries across 46 subjects. Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, described as “perennial rivals” by QS, led all universities in the field in 15 and 12 subjects, respectively. But the prominence of Asian universities has been increasing in recent years. While elite U.S. and European institutions are likely to remain at the top of the rankings in the near future, more Asian universities nonetheless are moving up the list, as regional economies grow and education spending increases. “It seems certain that Asia’s leading institutions will continue to strongly displace the second tier of North American and European institutions,” said QS research director Ben Sowter.
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.
JAKARTA — A tumultuous election campaign for the job of running one of the world’s biggest, most traffic-clogged and flood-prone cities drew to a relatively placid close over the final weekend before the Feb. 15 vote. Candidates in the race for the Jakarta governorship ended a last televised debate by grinning cheek-to-cheek in a group selfie photograph. As staged as it was, it was a rare cordial moment in a combative campaign. It came the day before Islamist groups held a last-ditch rally against the sitting governor, who they accuse of blasphemy. The rally drew a much smaller turnout than the hundreds of thousands of people who flocked to two similar protests in late 2016 against the incumbent governor, adding to the sense that the contentious election campaign had left participants drained. “It has been divisive but I am happy that the debate in the end is focusing on policies and programs, it takes the tensions down a bit,” said Sandiaga Uno, a candidate for vice governor and running mate of Anies Basdewan, one of two challengers seeking to oust the embattled incumbent, Bakuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as “Ahok.”
YANGON — Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy government are gearing up for their first electoral test since taking power last year, with April 1 by-elections looming for a small number of parliamentary seats. “Many of the vacant seats are in the NLD’s stronghold areas,” noted Nay Yan Oo, a Myanmar analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. The seats being contested were vacated when their occupants were appointed to various roles in the NLD government. Regulations require that lawmakers who join the administration must give up their parliamentary seats. There are 18 seats at stake, with 95 candidates from 24 parties seeking the support of 2 million voters.
YANGON — A Feb. 3 report by the U.N. Human Rights Council featured harrowing accounts by Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh of army abuses in northern Rakhine, including the gang rape of women and murder of children. In response to the report, Myanmar’s government, which is led by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, initially softened its prior outright denials of military abuse and promised to investigate the allegations. But on Feb. 7, it said it needed more information from the U.N. Naypyitaw’s earlier denials had prompted criticism from around the world. On Jan. 20, Yanghee Lee, the U.N. human rights envoy to Myanmar, said: “For the government to continue being defensive when allegations of serious human rights violations are persistently reported, that is when the government appears less and less credible.”
Previously, Myanmar railed against a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation on the Rohingya crisis, held in Malaysia on Jan. 19, during which Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak reiterated harsh criticisms of Naypyitaw’s policies, saying: “The killing must stop, the burning of houses must stop, the violation of women and girls must stop.” He had earlier urged international intervention in Myanmar and accused the government of “genocide” against the Rohingya.
YANGON — Myanmar’s minority Muslim Rohingya are holding fast to their identity in the face of official discrimination, public scorn and military action. Excluded from Myanmar’s 2014 census unless they assented to the epithet “Bengali,” most of the country’s roughly 1.1 million Rohingya live as virtual aliens in Rakhine State in western Myanmar. How long they have lived in Rakhine State and under what name is a highly contentious matter in Myanmar. “The Arakanese people and the Myanmar people do not accept the term Rohingya,” said Aye Maung, chairman of the Arakan National Party, the biggest party in Rakhine State. Like the Myanmar government, Aye Maung refers to the Rohingya as “Bengali,” implying that the Rohingya are foreigners. Rohingya disagree. “Nobody can deny us to call ourselves by our name, that is our right,” said Tun Khin, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK.
YANGON — The World Bank’s forecast on Jan. 30 that Myanmar’s economy will grow by more than 7% annually for the next three years appears optimistic in some quarters. In the latest issue of its Myanmar Economic Monitor, the World Bank said that while growth would most likely be around 6.5% for fiscal 2017 (ending March 31), it would then accelerate on increased investment in infrastructure and sectors such as hospitality. The adverse effects of floods in 2015 would wear off, particularly in the agricultural sector, which accounts for about 60% of the workforce and nearly 40% of the economy. In 2015/16, the final year of the previous administration headed by President Thein Sein, Myanmar’s annual growth was 7.3% — a significant increase from the 5.5% reached in 2011/12, the first year of Thein Sein’s presidency. “The World Bank forecast is somewhat at odds with the mood in the local business community,” said Stuart Larkin, a Yangon-based economic consultant.
JAKARTA – Many of Nepal’s ancient temples — which, along with its Himalayan scenery and trekking routes, have long been major tourist attractions — were damaged or destroyed in the earthquake. The famous white-domed Boudhanath temple in Kathmandu reopened in November, but the $2.1 million repair job was funded privately. Disputes over the introduction of a new constitution, intended to stabilize Nepal’s divisive politics, resulted in a damaging delay to the start of the National Reconstruction Authority, the government’s main post-earthquake rebuilding agency, which was not formed until early 2016. “Twenty-five years, 22 governments,” Chaudhary said, his usual steady baritone betraying a hint of exasperation at Nepal’s notoriously fractious politics and frequent changes of government. “Even to put in place the authority for reconstruction took a year — the parties were still fighting over who to put in charge,” said Chaudhary, who pledged $2.5 million of his own money toward the reconstruction of schools and homes.