SINGAPORE — The Indonesian government remains concerned about the threat posed by the self-described Islamic State, despite the group’s recent territorial losses in Iraq and Syria including the ceding of the key city of Ramadi to the Iraqi army in late December. “Indonesia is very vulnerable,” said Dewi Fortuna Anwar, an adviser to Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla, airing Jakarta’s fears that Indonesian members of IS could return home to carry out terrorist attacks. “We are exploring the role played by religious leaders to develop counter narratives,” Anwar said, discussing the ideological appeal of the extremist group to hundreds of Indonesians thought to have traveled to Iraq and Syria in recent years. Anwar was speaking in Singapore at a regional forum organized by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
VIENTIANE — The capital of Laos is a low-rise, low-key city, especially when compared with the hulking high-rises and bustling streets of better known Southeast Asian cities such as Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. But Vientiane is fast shedding its sedate reputation amid a building boom ahead of a series of international summits that will bring U.S. President Barack Obama, China’s President Xi Jinping and a host of other world leaders to the city in 2016. Construction cranes tower over the city’s two- and three-storey shophouses and hotels — the din of diggers and drills drowning out the once quiet capital’s increasingly dense traffic. “So many shopping malls now — around 20 going up all around the city,” said Pouthong Sengchanh, standing over a model of the Vientiane New World project — a mix of shops, restaurants and offices newly stretching along the city’s Mekong riverfront.
JAKARTA — In a small fourth-floor office amid a jumble of buildings that make up Indonesia’s trade ministry, several staff members work on pamphlets and posters to inform Indonesian businesses about the new Economic Community of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, known as AEC. “It is mostly smaller businesses we talk to. They need the information about the AEC more than the big companies, who know about it already,” said Firlana Herva Mulia at the AEC Center. “They ask us about the opportunities, the strategy, the best way to deal with the AEC.” Many of her AEC Center colleagues are out on the road, part of a last-minute drive to spread the word to businesses in rural Java.
JAKARTA — After a year waging war on foreigners fishing illegally in the country’s waters, Indonesia’s straight-talking maritime minister wants to make the fight a global one and have such activities declared a transnational crime. “I’m pushing for illegal fishing to be a transnational crime, as there are too many other crimes linked to it, such as arms-smuggling, drugs,” said Susi Pudjiastuti, a businesswoman who was appointed Indonesia’s minister of maritime affairs and fisheries in October 2014 by President Joko Widodo, also a former entrepreneur. “We are starting now. Papua New Guinea, Norway, seems they agree. A few European countries will agree with us, Pacific countries, a few of them,” Pudjiastuti told the Nikkei Asian Review.
SOLO — In Indonesia’s recent local elections, Hadi Rudyatmo, a former sidekick of President Joko Widodo, seemed set to easily retain the mayor’s job in this city of around half a million people in central Java. But that does not say much about the current standing of Widodo himself in the national political scene. The nationwide vote for mayors and other local government positions was staged on Dec. 9. Although the country’s election commission is not due to announce results until Dec.18, provisional results indicate that Rudyatmo is likely to win Solo with around 60% of the vote. Siska Sitiawan Sanjaya and her brother Sandro voted together in central Solo early on polling day. Both opted for the incumbent who, like his better-known predecessor as mayor and current president, Widodo, goes by a nickname. “I choose Rudy,” Siska said. “I think he can manage Solo city well, and can make it better.”
JAKARTA — Local elections will be held simultaneously across Indonesia for the first time on Wednesday, after the issue of whether to directly elect mayors and other local government leaders spurred ructions, recriminations and walkouts in the national parliament last year. Back then, parties supporting President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who had just been elected to office, voted to retain the decade-old system of direct local elections, but the parties backing the losing presidential candidate, Prabowo Subianto, successfully voted to scrap it. Given that Indonesia had just elected Widodo, a former governor of Jakarta and mayor of Surakarta, as president, the assault on voters’ rights prompted a massive public outcry. The backlash was strong enough to not only prompt then-President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to issue a decree overturning the vote, but convinced parliament to boost the status of local elections. “There are 365 days in the year, there are more than 540 election locations,” Arief Budiman, a commissioner at the KPU, the Indonesian election commission, told the Nikkei Asian Review. “Before, we were constantly monitoring another election.”
KUALA LUMPUR — Laos, as the incoming chair of the 2016 Association of Southeast Asian Nations, has urged member states to agree on a region-wide regime for Special Economic Zones, which have proliferated in recent years. “We think that a framework for Special Economic Zones would be good to set up because we see that in each ASEAN member state, we develop different economic zones,” Laos Minister of Industry and Commerce Khemmani Pholsena told a business forum in Kuala Lumpur during the recent ASEAN summit. Whether Laos can persuade other governments in the region to sign up for a level SEZ playing field is questionable — despite the signing of the ASEAN community in Kuala Lumpur on Nov. 22, just hours before Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak ceded the chairmanship of ASEAN to Laos Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong. “SEZs in Malaysia and the industrial estates in the eastern seaboard of Thailand are much more advanced than SEZs in CLMV [an abbreviation for Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam]. Therefore, to create a common set of rules might be difficult,” said Vanthana Nolintha.
KUALA LUMPUR — It must have been through gritted teeth, but Malaysia’s troubled Prime Minister Najib Razak affected a sanguine air when asked about his reaction to U.S. President Barack Obama’s comments on the recent crackdown on dissent during their meeting on Nov. 20. “Malaysia is committed to reforms,” Najib said.The Malaysian prime minster added that he is “taking into account some of the president’s views” on freedom of speech and the role of civil society in a democracy — a contribution Obama sees as significant given that while in Kuala Lumpur he also met with the organizer of a demonstration in August demanding Najib’s resignation. Since a narrow 2013 election win, Najib has overseen the charging of hundreds of journalists, activists, cartoonists and lawmakers with sedition, while opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has been sent back to jail for allegedly sodomizing a male colleague — a criminal offence in Malaysia. “Najib has been in a touchy mode since the May 5, 2013 general elections. He does not seem to take criticism very well, and so I imagine that Obama meeting opposition people upset Najib,” said James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania.
KUALA LUMPUR — Obama held a separate press conference at a plush hotel away from the summit venue, where he repeated his view that the war in Syria — the seedbed for IS — was the fault of the Assad government, against which the U.S. has funded opposition militia groups. “It is not conceivable that Mr. Assad can regain legitimacy in a country in which a large majority of that country despises Assad, and will not stop fighting so long as he’s in power,” Obama said, at around the same time a terror threat forced the diversion to Canada of a Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul to New York, while Belgian capital Brussels, the European Union headquarters, remained in lockdown due to “a serious and imminent threat,” according to Prime Minister Charles Michel.