KAITEHU – “Two hours walk, it grows there,” Bendita Ramos said, pointing back over her shoulder and beyond her pink-painted 2 room house toward mist-shrouded hills behind. She was talking about bitter bean, a poisonous legume growing wild in the Timorese countryside. The bean needs arduous and careful preparation before it can be eaten as a supplement to a corn and rice-dominated diet. “We have to boil it 7 or 8 times, and change the water each time,” Ramos said.
SEKSAK, BATTAMBANG — On the back 7 to 10 percent growth over much of the last decade, Cambodia’s government insists it is trying to build what it calls a sustainable land policy, including reclaiming fertile terrain lost to landmines and bombs — legacies of the country’s years of civil conflict. But others say a corrupt and Chinese-influenced administration is trampling the rights of citizens in the name of economic development in what remains a country still recovering from long-finished wars. Until six months ago, the fields behind Ly Susmat’s house in Seksak village in the western Battambang province were not safe to walk. That was before the NGO Mines Advisory Group pitched down in the village to clear mines and unexploded ordnance, a dangerous and economically-debilitating legacy of civil war in a country where around 80% of the people depend on farming for a living. He has got some land to farm safely now, but that’s just a start. “I need capital to rent a plough, I want to grow highland rice here,” Ly Susmat says, waving an arm toward an 8,000 meter square plot of land outside Seksak, a former Khmer Rouge stronghold in the west of the country.
LUANG PRABANG — Although Laos will soon to join the World Trade Organization, in economic terms it remains very much Southeast Asia’s forgotten country, a landlocked backpacker magnet of unexploded ordnance and winding roads, nicely topped off by stunning jungle, river and mountain vistas. Lying between China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma and Thailand, Communist-ruled Laos has worked off what economists like to call “a low base,” with the country’s economy averaging 7-8 percent gross domestic product growth, built on hydropower development – which has raised the hackles of international environmentalists – and a mining boom. The ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) started opening slowly to the outside world in the late 1980s, around the same time as neighboring Vietnam’s doi moi or renovation reforms got underway, in which a similar one-party Communist regime slowly liberalized parts of its economy. But despite the parallel paths, Vietnam’s much bigger economy – though recently struggling with slowing growth, graft scandals and inflation – is much more diversified than that of Laos. One of the world’s poorest countries, Laos’ annual per capita gross domestic product by purchasing power parity is just US$2,700 per year, ranking it 177th in the world and well below Vietnam’s US$3,400.
BANGKOK — Thailand’s political temperature has cooled somewhat after the country’s Constitutional Court declined Friday to outlaw another yet surrogate political party for fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, in a ruling that puts the ball back in the Thaksin-backed government’s court on reforming the country’s charter. In returning the issue to the government, the court dismissed a potentially-incendiary royalist complaint that the attempt by the government to amend the constitution amounted to a plot to overthrow the Thai monarchy. “The verdict is a sane outcome, as the judiciary refrained from overstepping the mark and left the legislature intact,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, who teaches at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “There was no evidence that any of this had anything to do with undermining the constitutional monarchy.”
BANGKOK — The United Nations believes that Burma’s economic prospects could be undermined by volatile commodity prices, as the country’s reliance on the the ups and downs of oil and gas revenues could hinder much-needed fiscal modernization The UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia-Pacific predicts 6.2 percent economic growth for Burma in 2012 but warns that the region remains vulnerable to fluctuating prices of commodities such as oil and the ongoing debt crisis in Europe. All the same, Western companies appear eager to tap into Burma’s natural resource bounty, as US and EU sanctions are relaxed or suspended in the wake of a succession of recent reforms such as the freeing of political prisoners and the holding of free and fair by-elections on April 1.
BANGKOK — When incumbent Jose Ramos-Horta lost the March first round of Timor-Leste’s presidential election, some saw it as the end of an era for Timorese politics that began with the country’s independence in 2002. Ramos-Horta, along with opposition leader Mari Alkatiri and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, have dominated since independence, with the top jobs of prime minister and president passing between the sometimes comrades, sometimes rivals. The new President of the country also known as East Timor is former army chief Taur Matan Ruak – a man the from same resistance fighter leadership that fought in the jungles against Indonesia’s elemental 1975-99 occupation, which by some estimates killed a third of the country’s people. Although the new President doesn’t have Ramos-Horta’s international profile, his personal prestige as army head and ex-jungle fighter backed by the opposition Fretilin party machine – meant that Ramos-Horta was knocked out of the race in the first round with 21 percent of the vote. Taur Matan Ruak is a nom de guerre, meaning “two sharp eyes” — a soubriquet he acquired after joining Timor’s Falintil resistance fighters in 1975.
BANGKOK — Thailand’s growing curbs on freedom of speech have seen a grandfather sentenced to twenty years in jail for insulting the country’s monarchy, while a U.S citizen awaits a possible similar fate in a ruling due tomorrow. Last month Ampon Tangnoppakul, 61 was sentenced to 20 years in prison on charges of insulting Queen Sirikit in four sms texts sent to an official working for Thailand’s former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva. Ampon’s despondent wife Rossamarin spoke to Asia Sentinel on Monday in a coffee shop near her home in Samut Prakarn in eastern Bangkok. Her jailed husband, she said, “is still very stressed by everything and gets sick often.” In court last month, Ampon claimed innocence and his family insist that he does not even know how to send mobile phone text messages.
HO CHI MINH CITY– With average per capital annual incomes of just over US$1,000, Vietnam is officially a lower-middle income country. In Hanoi, the seat of government and commercial capital Ho Chi Minh City – still popularly known as Saigon – property prices are on an upward curve with new buildings sprouting-up faster than new growth in Vietnam’s lush tropical rainforests. But Vietnam must also address rising inflation, forecast by Standard Chartered Bank at 19.7 percent in December and with an 11.3 percent rise forecast for 2012. The Dong is expected to continue to depreciate throughout the year, given Vietnam’s US$8 billion current account deficit and low foreign currency reserves. With the State Bank of Vietnam attempting to sop up liquidity, tight monetary policy is starting to put pressure on the banking sector, with the result that some small banks have raised interest rates as high as 18 percent despite a request from the bank to keep it to 14 percent.
HO CHI MINH CITY — Late on a Tuesday evening, sitting four floors up in a Ho Chi Minh City cafe overlooking the city’s landmark opera house, a worried man who used the pseudonym Long had the look of someone who thought he was being watched. “I drove around the city for 45 minutes before heading here,” he said, hunched over and leaning forward on his seat in a restaurant that was almost empty. Looking around uneasily, he confided, “I wanted to make sure I wasn’t being followed.” At the heart of Long’s problems, and those of his fellow members of a Mennonite Church offshoot, are what they deem as unfair land seizures that see the government turn over property over to companies as land for factories and apartments. Landowners frequently complain about unfair compensation and criticize the laws on land use, which they say are often abused by corrupt local officials.