DILI — Celebrating with party supporters at the headquarters of his National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction, or CNRT, Xanana Gusmao was his usual mix of backslapping and banter last Tuesday. “I’m anti-smoking, don’t be like me,” he said, laughing, before lighting one up. He could afford to be a bit facetious given that three days earlier the coalition he leads won a parliamentary majority in what was the second election in less than a year in East Timor, also known as Timor-Leste. The last vote in July 2017 led to a minority government led by Mari Alkatiri of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, or Fretilin. But Gusmao and his coalition allies in the Alliance for a Parliamentary Majority blocked Alkatiri’s budget, and soon after, in January, the government fell, only 4 months after it was sworn in. Alkatiri, a Muslim of Yemeni descent in what is one of only two Catholic majority countries in Asia, told me that he thought his party would win at least 30 seats, up from 23 last year.
GEORGE TOWN — Not many people give Malaysia’s opposition much hope of ending the Barisan Nasional’s 13 election winning streak, when the country goes to the polls next Wednesday May 9th. “For a government to rule for 60 years in a democracy, it shows there is something wrong with the country,” said Harindra Singh, a volunteer canvasser with the Democratic Action Party, the biggest of the 4 parties that make up the opposition coalition. The Barisan Nasional, or National Front, has governed Malaysia since independence from the UK in 1957. In the last elections held almost 5 years ago to the day, the Front lost the popular vote by 3% but still won enough of a majority of parliamentary seats to once again form a government.
RANGOON — One of Burma’s thousands of former political prisoners, Bo Kyi fled to Thailand after he was freed from jail in 1997. He then spent the best part of 2 decades keeping track of and lobbying for the release of others jailed in his homeland for opposing the country’s former military dictatorship. His Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), or AAPP, opened an office in Rangoon, after Burma, officially known as Myanmar, after the army surprisingly handed power to a civilian government in 2011. The high point of that transition came in 2015 when the National League for Democracy, the party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, probably the world’s best known political prisoner since Nelson Mandela, won parliamentary elections. But now, three weeks after the AAPP opened a museum in Yangon commemorating those jailed fighting for democracy, Bo Kyi is angry. “We have a hybrid regime, we do not have democratic government, we still have political prisoners,” he said.
SINGAPORE — The recent exposé of how polling firm Cambridge Analytica mined Facebook for information on voters was focused mainly on the United States. But the investigation, which aired on the UK’s Channel 4 last month, has caused ructions in Malaysia after Mark Turnbull, a Cambridge Analytica executive, was filmed bragging that they helped the governing coalition retain power in the country’s last elections in 201, apparently by using social media to profile voters and deliver campaign messages. “We’ve done it in Mexico, we’ve done it in Malaysia and now we’re going to Brazil,” Turnbull said. With another election due anytime between now and August, Malaysia’s opposition predictably seized on that claim. The government in turn said it had nothing to answer for, blaming Mukhriz Mahathir, a former ally turned opposition member, for personally hiring Cambridge Analytica.
JAKARTA — East Timor is a tiny country, with a land area around the same as the North of Ireland and a population of 1.3 million people. Its existing oil and gas reserves will be depleted in less than a decade, and with little sign of growth in other parts of the economy, it badly needs this deal with Australia How much money it ends up getting will depend on fluctuating oil and gas prices and on what subsequent deal is worked out to extract and process the underwater oil and gas. The companies with rights to drill in the field have floated, pun intended, the idea of a floating platform in the Timor Sea to process the gas there. But Australia wants to pipe to Darwin and use existing facilities, which would mean an 80% revenue cut for East Timor. The Timorese want pipe to East Timor and process there, giving a Dili 70% revenue cut but potentially allowing the Timorese to develop spin-off industries that could modernise its economy.
JAKARTA — When the Indonesian government invited the United Nations’ human rights commissioner to Jakarta, it must have known that Zeid Ra’al al Hussein, a Jordanian diplomat who is nearing the end of his 4 year term, would have plenty to say about proposed changes to country’s criminal code. Indonesian parliamentarians will vote soon on measures which include criminalizing not only gay sex but all sex outside marriage between men and women. Al Hussein joined foreign minister Retno Marsudi in addressing a conference at the ministry on Monday last week, telling the officials and diplomats that human rights are not restricted by geography, ethnic group or gender. Two days later, after meeting Indonesian President Joko Widodo, al-Hussein was less bland, claiming that the proposed changes “betray strains of intolerance seemingly alien to Indonesian culture.”
KUALA LUMPUR — Denying Mahathir permission to meet Anwar was another reminder of what the opposition sees as a rigged status quo. “We have been governed by an autocratic and unfair system for many years,” said Nurul Izzah Anwar, who pointed out that Prime Minister Najib Razak was allowed meet her father. During the last elections held in 2013, the opposition coalition — then known as the Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance) — won 52% of the popular vote but gerrymandered rural constituencies meant they finished with only 40% of seats. If Mahathir does somehow replace Najib, he will be world’s oldest head of government. Although he has no problem speaking at a podium or walking the streets meeting supporters – in age terms it would be like Americans electing George Bush Senior in 2016. It is not just Mahathir’s age that make him a surprise choice. An authoritarian prime minister from 1981 to 2003, he implemented many of the rules that will make it difficult for him to return to office.
MANILA — A banner draped over the facade of Manila’s De La Salle University reads “Stop the killings. Start the healing.” But Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is adamant that the killings will go on precisely because the country needs healing — from drugs. Officially around 4,000 people have been killed in police counter-narcotics operations since Duterte took office in mid-2016. High as that is, over 2.000 more have died in drug-related killings, some attributed to gang turf wars, and several thousand more again have been shot in unsolved murders. The exact number of dead is unknown due to what the United Nations believes to be differences in terminology in official reports as well as the slow progress of investigations.
SHAH ALAM — More than a month into the murder trial in one of the most brazen, cunning and perplexing assassinations seen in a long time, defence lawyer Gooi Soon Seng was on the front foot. “When was the first time you identified them, when was the first time you saw the CCTV footage?” Seng asked Wan Azirul, a police investigator and prosecution witness. The lawyer was referring to 4 North Korean men seen on footage from Kuala Lumpur International Airport on February 13 this year. That morning, Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half brother of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un was poisoned with VX, a chemical weapon, while waiting at the airport to board a flight to Macau. The grainy security camera videos could be key to the case against the only two people standing trial in the case, which is being tried In a small courtroom about 20 miles from the centre of Kuala Lumpur.
MANILA — President Donald Trump said on Monday he had a “great relationship” with his Philippine counterpart, Rodrigo Duterte on Monday, amid contradictory messages from the administration of each country over whether human rights were discussed. The two presidents bonded during their much anticipated first formal meeting on Monday, held on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific summit in Manila. The two presidents shared a joke at the media’s expense, with Mr Trump laughing as Mr Duterte joked that the press are “spies.” According to Harry Roque, a Philippines government spokesman, the two presidents bonded over another shared dislike, former US President Barack Obama, who Mr Duterte dismissed as “a son of a whore” due to Mr Obama’s criticism of the violent anti-drugs campaign launched by Mr Duterte in 2016.