Commodity prices, cronyism threaten Burma’s economy: UN – The Irrawaddy/Asia Sentinel

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.

As US and Vietnam get closer, rights concerns grow – Christian Science Monitor

BANGKOK — Five days of joint US-Vietnam naval exercises that started Monday in Vietnam are the latest signals of growing cooperation between the one-time enemies.But as the US and Vietnam draw closer, the communist government’s human rights record is raising questions among activists whether the US is sufficiently vocal about political, economic, and free speech violations in Vietnam, a single party state.According to Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch: “There is a real need for sustained US pressure on Vietnam to free political prisoners, respect freedom of expression and the vibrant blogosphere that is making Vietnam one of the fast growing users of the Internet in South East Asia, and repeal repressive laws that Hanoi uses to quash individuals and groups that the government doesn’t like.”

Malaysian rare-earth anger links up with poll reform calls – Asia Times

BANGKOK – With Western countries and Japan seeking to get around China’s domination of the crucial but mis-named “rare earths” sector, a potentially game-changing processing site slated for Malaysia looks set to become a major election issue as that country gears up to vote. Opposition politicians and local activists from Kuantan – where Australia’s Lynas Corp hopes to build a processing plant for rare earth minerals mined in Australia – are protesting against the project.  The plant will provide “a crucial link in developing a non-Chinese supply of rare earth metals,” according to Yaron Voronas of the Technology and Rare Earths Center, an online forum for the industry. The 17 materials, which are not in fact “rare”, but difficult to mine in commercially viable amounts, are growing in economic and strategic importance because they are a key component in high-tech devices such as mobile phones and computers, as well as military hardware such as night-vision goggles and guided missiles. Despite having only around 35% of estimated global rare earth deposits, China currently supplies approximately 95% of the global market – as mining and processing in western countries has been largely mothballed over environmental worries. Green concerns have animated protests against the proposed Malaysian site, which awaits the granting of a Temporary Operating Licence from the Malaysian Atomic Energy Licensing Board, initially approved in February but postponed pending an appeal by locals and activists who have come out against the project