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.”
MANILA — In his final State of the Nation speech as president of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino III declared that his government had curbed corruption, long deemed a barrier to foreign investment, and overseen growth in a country once derided as “the sick man of Asia.” “More than five years have passed since we put a stop to the culture of ‘wang-wang,’ not only [on] our streets, but in society at large,” Aquino said in July 2015. “Wang wang,” note James Robinson and Daron Acemoglu, co-authors of “Why Nations Fail,” a much-lauded book published in 2012, is a term “derived from the blaring sirens of politicians’ and elites’ cars urging common people to get out of the way,” and is used in the Philippines to refer to corruption. Aquino’s July 2015 speech echoed his first national address as president, five years earlier, in which he asserted: “Do you want the corrupt held accountable? So do I. Do you want to see the end of wang-wang, both on the streets and in the sense of entitlement that has led to the abuse that we have lived with for so long? ” Fighting corruption and building confidence in the country’s once-laggard economy have been key themes throughout Aquino’s term in office, which is now coming to a close with voters scheduled to elect a successor on May 9.
MANILA — In sweltering Southeast Asia’s buzzing and vibrant cities, when the temperature hits the mid-30s and the traffic is so clogged that streets sometimes seem more like car parks than freeways, there is always the mall. Such is the refuge of choice in Manila, where over 150 malls host coffee shops, cinemas, restaurants, shopping and sometimes gyms and even churches. They offer all the amenities and conveniences that are hard to find elsewhere — though churches are ubiquitous — in the vast, chaotic city. “Especially in Manila, we don’t have parks, we don’t have recreational areas, and it’s very hot outside, the malls are well-ventilated,” said Maria Isabel Cristina, who was meeting an old schoolfriend in Greenbelt, one Manila’s biggest mall complexes, located in Makati, the high-rise, high-end business and finance hub.
“Malls are where people often arrange to meet,” said Geraldine Monfort, a flight attendant who was having a coffee in the same location. Prompted by the convenience and popularity of such vast malls, the country’s election commission has announced that 86 malls across the 7,500 island archipelago will double up as voting centers for the May 9 presidential election, when 55 million Filipinos are eligible to vote.
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.
TACLOBAN, LEYTE PROVINCE, THE PHILIPPINES –Dotted around the storm-wrecked city of Tacloban in the central Philippines are notices thanking not the government, the United Nations, or the Roman Catholic Church. They give gratitude to the Tzu Chi Foundation, a Taiwanese Buddhist charity that made its presence felt in the weeks after a devastating November typhoon. “Maraming Salamat Po [thank you very much] Tzu Chi Foundation,” reads one such cloth banner draped over a ruined shopfront on Tacloban’s smashed-up waterfront, a half mile or so from the town’s main Catholic church, Santo Niño. The Philippines’ 82 million Catholics comprise the third-biggest such population, behind Brazil and Mexico. It is a country known for public displays of devotion, taking in such elemental pageantry as annual voluntary and nonlethal crucifixions in memory of the death of Jesus.
PALO, LEYTE PROVINCE, Philippines — With tradesmen sawing and welding and hammering twenty feet up on scaffolding, and clattering rain pouring down through a gaping hole in the roof, it wasn’t a typical baptismal setting — especially one inside a cathedral. But on Christmas Eve in Palo, a town of around 60,000 people in the typhoon-hit central Philippines, 47 pairs of new parents formed a line from altar to door inside the wrecked Palo Cathedral, undaunted. Newborns nestled in their mothers’ arms for a Christmastime mass baptism into the Catholic Church — the majority faith in this archipelagic country of 105 million people. The joy of new life and the Christmas holiday comes on the heels of colossal tragedy, however, with Palo part of a region where at least 6,100 people were killed and 4 million left homeless by Typhoon Haiyan, known locally as Typhoon Yolanda. The Nov. 8 tempest was by many accounts the most powerful storm ever recorded.
BANDAR SERI BAGAWAN — The pre-summit chat was all about the absence of Barack Obama, but when pressed, Asian governments were quick to suggest that they had bigger concerns than the embattled American President’s no-show, with an October 17 deadline for the U.S. to raise its ‘debt ceiling’ hanging over the various summit meetings held in the Brunei capital earlier this week. American lawmakers have yet to cut a deal to raise Washington’s mammoth $16.7 trillion borrowing limit, the ‘debt ceiling, ‘which is set to expire on October 17. The stand-off forced the closure of much of the U.S. government and prompted President Obama to cancel his planned visits to Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. And while the government shutdown has prompted worldwide bemusement, the looming debt crisis has left Asia’s emerging economies nervous about the unheralded knock-on effects that could come about – if the U.S. ends up defaulting on its debt. Around 60% of China’s foreign currency reserves are thought to be American assets, so Prime Minister Li Keqiang’s words to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry – that “China is highly concerned with the United States’ debt ceiling issue,” according to a report in by the state-run China News Service – are no surprise.
BANDAR SERI BAGAWAN — At the 23rd Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and related summits in Brunei-Darussalam this week, there has seemingly been scant mention of the ongoing sectarian violence in Burma, which will chair the bloc for the first time in 2014. Asked if the issue had come up during the course of the various meetings and summits ongoing in Brunei, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natelagawa told The Irrawaddy, “Not to my recollection, except at the Asean meeting, when the Myanmar delegation briefed us on the situation in their country.”
YANGON — On the face of it, it was no more or less successful than most other meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), save for the occasional cabaret performances such as last year’s gathering in Cambodia, where the hosts infuriated fellow ASEAN member-states – particularly the Philippines and Vietnam – by peddling China’s line on the disputed South China Sea. Ahead of the grander East Asia Summit to be held nearer the end of the year, ASEAN foreign ministers and counterparts from world powers such as China, Japan, Russia and the United States gathered in the oil-rich sultanate of Brunei early this week to discuss security and the economy. With just over two years to go before the proposed establishment in 2015 of the ASEAN Economic Community – a regional version of the old European Common Market – the talks in Brunei were overshadowed by a range of issues, from the ceaseless brutality of the civil war in Syria to fugitive American whistleblower Edward Snowden to what to do about North Korea.