KUALA LUMPUR — It was a meeting to mark the 25th anniversary of relations between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China, held in the the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming, in a region known for historically close trading links with the Southeast Asian countries to the south, including Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. Surprisingly, given the location and the commemoration, ASEAN member state Malaysia issued a statement on behalf of the bloc criticizing China over its territorial claims in the contested South China Sea. The statement noted that recent developments in the disputed sea — where China has been building artificial islands and constructing what it calls “defensive facilities” while the U.S., an ally of the Philippines, has been conducting naval patrols and reconnaissance flights in the name of freedom of navigation — had raised concerns about a spillover clash with China. Those fears, the statement added, had “the potential to undermine peace”. “We stressed the importance of maintaining peace, security, stability, safety and freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea,” the ASEAN foreign ministers said. But in an about-turn more startling than the earlier statement, Malaysia, which chaired the bloc in 2015 before passing the leadership to Laos, a Communist-ruled country with close ties to China, led the way in issuing a sudden retraction, saying there were “urgent amendments to be made.”
SINGAPORE — Every day by sundown during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the cooks and serving staff at the Singapore Islamic Restaurant are swamped. On a recent evening, there was barely a seat to be found as hungry diners settled in for iftar, the post-fast evening supper, with the aroma of the house special, biryani — a mixed rice dish — wafting through the crowded restaurant and onto the muggy street outside. “This is the busiest time for us,” said owner Kalil, leaning back against a railing outside the restaurant, which sits almost opposite the Sultan Mosque and around the corner from Arab Street, an area known as Kampong Glam that is a hub for Islamic life in the city-state. For Muslims, almost a quarter of the world’s population, Ramadan means a month each year of waking before dawn to eat suhour, the pre-fast meal, and working, hungry, through the day until nightfall, when eating is allowed once again. As the setting sun beats a tawny glow off the Sultan Mosque’s golden minaret, people queue at stalls for kebabs, rice, and fruit such as dates, the latter a popular snack to break the daylong fast.
Manila – The sun had not yet risen on May 9 when voters started lining up at Santa Lucia school in San Juan, Manila, awaiting the 6 am start of voting in national elections. Inside the school, television crews and photographers had staked out a spot an hour earlier, kicking off what turned out to be a sweaty five-hour vigil before presidential candidate Grace Poe arrived to cast her ballot. When Poe finally showed up, a throng of voters whooped and applauded. “Grace Poe, Grace Poe, Grace Poe,” they chanted, as cameras and microphones swirled and jostled around the diminutive senator. But for some of those same San Juan residents who waited all morning in the near-100-degree heat for a glimpse at the would-be president, cheering was one thing, voting another. Hernando Diodoro, a 66-year-old retiree, sat with several buddies of a similar vintage on a bench along the narrow lane through which Poe’s motorcade edged toward the school entrance. Diodoro said he knows Poe’s driver—“a nice guy”—and that the 47-year-old Poe, elected a senator for the first time only in 2013, is popular in this part of Manila. All the same, Diodoro—and all bar one of the bench-load of old codgers lined up in the shade—said they opted for another candidate. “I like Duterte, he means new rules,” said Diodoro, referring to Rodrigo Duterte, who just a few hours later would be so far ahead in the unofficial election results that Poe herself would concede.
SINGAPORE – East Timor, also called the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, wants to delineate maritime boundaries in the Timor Sea with its neighbors Indonesia and Australia in a way that Dili believes could be worth up to $40 billion in oil and gas revenues. Frustrated at perceived stonewalling by Australia, the Timorese government initiated “compulsory conciliation” on April 11 under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea — a move that could lead to the establishment of a commission to report on the boundary issue to the U.N. Secretary General. That document could in turn be used as a basis for any future boundary negotiations. The dispute is becoming increasingly heated on both sides. In March, around 1,000 Timorese protested outside the Australian embassy in Dili at Canberra’s perceived intransigence.”The government and the people now consider that the establishment of permanent maritime boundaries is a national priority,” Timorese Prime Minister Rui de Araujo told a conference on the issue in Dili on May 19. Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told the Nikkei Asian Review that “the Australian Government is disappointed that Timor-Leste has decided to initiate compulsory conciliation over maritime boundaries. Australia has repeatedly made clear to Timor-Leste our preference for a full and frank discussion of all issues in the bilateral relationship.” Citing a past agreement between the two countries to shelve the boundary issue, DFAT added that “both countries agreed to a moratorium on boundary negotiations to allow joint development of the resources. We also agreed not to pursue any proceedings relating to maritime boundaries — this includes compulsory conciliation.”
KUALA LUMPUR — U.S. President Barack Obama has just wound up a visit to Vietnam that saw two former antagonists, who for two decades have been growing trade partners, draw even closer, with the dropping of a U.S. arms embargo against the communist-ruled country. “He himself said the welcome of Vietnamese people has touched his heart. [He was] very moved and very thankful,” said Vietnam’s new prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, in an interview with foreign media given on Wednesday. Obama was greeted by thousands of well-wishers on the streets of Hanoi, the capital, and Ho Chi Minh City, the biggest city and economic hub of the country, which was previously known as Saigon. However, the visit was marred by signals that Vietnam, a one-party state, remains unwilling to cede ground on freedom of speech, with several noted advocates of democratic reforms prevented from meeting with Obama as scheduled and with the government staging a sham election to the country’s communist-run parliament on the day of Obama’s arrival. One positive note prefaced Obama’s arrival in Vietnam last Sunday, with the release from jail of one of the country’s most determined dissidents, Father Nguyen Van Ly. The Catholic priest was first imprisoned by the communist regime in 1977, two years after the end of the Vietnam War, and had spent much of the intervening 38 years in jail or under house arrest.
KUALA LUMPUR — Relatives of passengers who were onboard a Malaysia Airlines jet that disappeared more than two years ago have pleaded with the Australian, Chinese and Malaysian governments to keep looking for the missing aircraft. The relatives’ concerns were raised after the head of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, which was leading the underwater search for MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean, said there was no indication that the search would be continued beyond August after the designated 120,000 sq. km of ocean had been combed through. “We are gravely concerned about the impending completion of the search in the current targeted area,” the Voice370 group told Agence France-Presse. Voice370 is made up of the families of the 239 people onboard on the plane, which was en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8 2014 when it disappeared. Voice370 aims “to seek the truth about the incident and find our loved ones onboard MH370,” according to the group’s Facebook page. ATSB Chief Executive Martin Dolan said on May 20 that there was a “diminishing level of confidence we will find the aircraft,” but added that “the remaining 13,000 sq. km is still a lot of territory and it’s still entirely possible the aircraft is there.”
MANILA — When Pope Francis visited the Philippines in 2015, he was greeted with the adulation you would expect in what is one of the world’s most distinctively and devoutly Catholic countries — but not that way by the person who was elected this week as the nation’s new president. An estimated six million people turned out in the steaming tropical rain to hear the Pope say Mass in Manila’s Rizal Park, with hundreds of thousands more lining the city’s streets to catch a glimpse of the papal motorcade and maybe even snare a fleeting blessing from the outgoing Argentinian. However there was one man who was not impressed by the pageantry, or even by the Pope, it seems. Rodrigo Duterte, the mayor of Davao, the biggest city in the southern Philippines, was caught for hours in Manila’s infamously clogged traffic — the jam made worse by the huge throng in town to see Pope Francis. Duterte, famously abrupt and blunt, let his frustration get the better of him and called Pope Francis “a son of a bitch” — or “son of a whore,” depending on translation — remarks that predictably earned the mayor the scorn of Church leaders in the Philippines, home to around 80 million Catholics.
MANILA — If crowds are anything to go by, the May 9 presidential election is a foregone conclusion. Two days before the vote, leading candidate Rodrigo Duterte drew between 300,000 to 500,000 people at his final election rally at a landmark grandstand near Manila’s Rizal Park. The turnout was at least double that of any other candidate. “This is the next president of the Philippines,” yelled supporter Angel Valeron, one of thousands of fist-pumping “Dutertards,” clad in red t-shirts bearing the slogan “Iron fist,” a reference to the 71- year-old Duterte’s no-nonsense style of running Davao on the southern island of Mindanao. “Dutertard” is a slur leveled at Duterte supporters by rivals, but since appropriated by backers of the Davao City mayor in self-styled defiance. As mayor for 22 years, Duterte oversaw a clean-up of the once dangerous and chaotic city, allegedly even participating in the extrajudicial shooting of alleged criminals. Duterte said he will do the same nationally if elected, telling the crowd in Manila that he will “butcher” criminals. “If I make it to the presidential palace, I will do just what I did as mayor. You drug pushers, hold-up men and do-nothings, you better go out,” Duterte said, drawing a thunderous roar from the crowd.