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.”
JAKARTA – Unlike the imposing and often inaccessible buildings of the European Union in Brussels, ASEAN’s low-rise offices sit in the shadow of a partly constructed overhead railway in the southern part of Indonesia’s traffic-clogged capital. Nine months after the group’s 10 members established the ASEAN Economic Community, which aims to promote the free movement of goods, services, capital and labor, the headquarters symbolizes both ASEAN’s aspirations and its limitations. The EU was previously known as the European Economic Community, but ASEAN’s adoption of the “community” moniker does not mean it will emulate Europe’s radical, sovereignty-pooling measures, such as a common currency, central bank and free movement of labor. “The appetite to surrender sovereignty simply is not there,” said Jayant Menon, lead economist at the Asian Development Bank in Manila. “I don’t see a single currency coming into play in ASEAN, and I don’t see that as a bad thing.”
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.
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.
JAKARTA – Meeting Indonesian President Joko Widodo on Monday to discuss mutual trade and investment prospects, UK Prime Minister David Cameron told media that “we [the U.K. and Indonesia] are natural business partners and there is much more we can do.” In return for considering British investments, Indonesia wants greater access to the U.K. and to the wider European market for its exports, which are mostly commodities such as palm oil, rubber, coal, coffee, copper, oil and natural gas. “The lower tariff [is] needed on Indonesian [primary] products like wood, clothing, coffee and fisheries,” Widodo said after meeting Cameron, adding that British applications for investment in Indonesian infrastructure would be considered.
YANGON – Asked about Shwe Mann’s political eyelash-batting, however, the NLD’s Han Tha Myint stressed it was too early to discuss post-election possibilities, much less commit to backing Shwe Mann. “He has to deal with his colleagues in the party first,” said Han Tha Myint, the NLD’s economics point man and now party spokesman. “We don’t have any official stance on [forming a coalition with him].”
YANGON – Ahead of the proposed establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) at the end of 2015, many of Myanmar’s businesses are trembling.
“There is a perception among people in Myanmar that local products are low quality,” said Nwe Ni Wai, Executive Director of Yangon-based United Paint Group. She worried aloud that companies in Myanmar might struggle to compete with rivals from more advanced markets in the region, and in turn might struggle to make the most of opportunities in other markets.