Southeast Asia Summary: August 23-26, 2021

Somewhat unexpectedly, Myanmar was increasingly on the minds of Southeast Asian writers, despite (or rather, because of?) events in Afghanistan and Kamala Harris’s visit to Vietnam.

There may be two connections between Afghanistan and Myanmar. First, with many commentators mentioning how the days of American-led regime change and nation-building are over, there may be less faith in both the willingness and capacity to rewrite given societies’ social contracts. Second, as the US shifts its attention from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific in order to counter China, the realization is growing that the international community, particularly the democracies, are not going to risk an anti-China alliance over Myanmar, a country led by a military that is not known for being sensitive to foreign pressure. So long as Myanmar can be kept from being a wholly-owned subsidiary of the PRC, it’s enough, especially for India, which is vulnerable in its increasingly restive Northeast.

Myanmar’s The Irrawaddy asks, “Can a UN Arms Embargo on Myanmar Work?” The short answer seems to be that there is very little political will in ASEAN, collectively considered, for such a step, plus the country’s defense requirements are largely domestically sourced, thus leaving the autarchically-inclined junta relatively immune to an arms ban.

Another piece in that publication goes into more detail as to why the intensifying focus on China means Myanmar’s junta will get a pass. One of the biggest reasons is the degree to which China is already involved in local, separatist groups spread from Assam to Shan, and China raised the specter of supporting “secessionist forces” in India, if the latter continued to cut deals with China.

Singapore’s The Straits Times says, considering the snail-like pace of ASEAN’s negotiations with Myanmar, the situation will take months and perhaps years to resolve, “if at all”. The article concludes that the people of Myanmar will have to sort out their own salvation.

But, the international community may have difficulty avoiding the Myanmar question in a couple weeks when the UN will have to determine who the rightful occupant of Myanmar’s seat is, Kyaw Moe Tun or someone selected by the junta.

Publications across the region are still asking what the Afghanistan debacle says about US commitment and competence, but the emphasis has shifted slightly. There is not much of a sense that the US is on course to abandon the Indo-Pacific, but there are questions about why the US allegedly left its NATO allies in the lurch in Afghanistan, as reported in The Straits Times. According to that article, Japan and South Korea have the least to worry about when it comes to the solidity of their alliances with the US, while India and Taiwan have less “clearly defined” relationships with the superpower.

In an article reprinted from The Financial Times, they conclude that the world is confused about American priorities, because the Americans are too. If Trump’s theatrics were an aberration, it no longer appears that his foreign policy was.

President (and vice-presidential candidate) Duterte of the Philippines has caused some confusion in the Philippines after reportedly assuring Chinese President Xi Jinping last Friday that “the Philippines will remain neutral on geopolitical issues and remain true to what he has guaranteed”, to which the Chinese ambassador replied that the origin of the virus should indeed not be politicized. As a writer in The Manila Standard asked, “What did he guarantee?”

Vietnamese publications reported that among other topics discussed, the US and Vietnam agreed on “ASEAN’s central role in the East Sea, Mekong and Myanmar issues as well as the principle of respecting international law in dealing with regional issues, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, ensuring security, safety, and freedom of navigation and aviation.” “[T]he US treasures [its] comprehensive partnership with Vietnam on the basis of respecting for each other’s independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and political institutions, and not interfering into internal affairs of each other. She reaffirmed that the US supports a strong, independent and prosperous Vietnam.”

The Vietnamese prime minister also met with the Chinese ambassador in appreciation of China’s donation of vaccine, but he also spoke up for ‘internationalization’: the PM stressed that Việt Nam consistently pursues the foreign policy of independence, self-reliance, multilateralisation and diversification of ties, proactive and active international integration, and being a responsible member of the international community. The PM also declared that Việt Nam does not ally with one country to fight against another. The two sides need to strive to maintain peace and stability, settle disagreements at sea in the spirit of high-level common perceptions, the Agreement on basic principles guiding the settlement of sea-related issues and abide by international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, he said. He added that the two countries need to partner with ASEAN to fully and seriously implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), as well as step up negotiations on an effective and practical Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC). (VietNam News)

In other words, although China has insisted in recent days that Vietnam brackets off the South China Sea from other bilateral issues, they seem to miss the point. While Vietnam is happy to cooperate bilaterally with China on a variety of issues, when it comes to the South China Sea, Vietnam is happy to appeal to international law and international powers.

In Thailand, there is continued rumination about why US VP Harris only went to Vietnam and Singapore on her Southeast Asian trip. The “real reason” is not because of Thailand’s perceived democratic deficits but just that Thailand is “no longer relevant” economically, especially in comparison to Vietnam.

Speaking of democratic deficits, Thai publications are mulling over the meaning of the uptick in political violence in the country, particularly at the anti-government protests of the last few weeks. With some protesters having been shot by as yet unknown assailants, there is speculation that the ominous “third hand” has appeared–people often dressed in black with no clear political agenda killing protesters or police. One possibility is the police.

Coincidentally, a video of police officers extorting and then murdering (or accidentally killing while torturing) a suspect three weeks ago was just released by a Thai lawyer. “[S]ociety knows that the use of torture in interrogation is not unusual,” The Bangkok Post writes.

One of the police officers involved, nicknamed “Joe Ferrari”, was found to own multiple high-end sports cars. The Prayut government has promised swift justice, but the bigger question for many is the lack of accountability within the police and within the structures of Thai state authority more generally. Despite making less than US$2000/month, Joe Ferrari had amassed at least 29 luxury cars. “Somehow the Office of the Inspector General, the Anti-Money Laundering Office (AMLO) and the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) keeps missing these high-earning cops and generals”, as The Thai Enquirer put it.

In another coincidence, the NACC announced that it cannot report PM Prayut’s assets as it could be sued for releasing personal information, says The Nation.

Fortunately, PM Prayut’s spokesperson announced that ‘government agencies are prepared to counter fake news’.

In Khaosod English, a publication that tends to tilt against Bangkok’s military-royalist-industrial complex, a piece by the Taiwanese foreign minister was published that argued for Taiwan’s inclusion in the UN.  

In Malaysia, the new prime minister, Ismail Sabri, has made encouraging comments towards the opposition and minorities, but his previous quotes from his various stints as a cabinet minister are circulating. During his maiden speech, he spoke of the “Malaysian family”, but there is a debate as to who the real Ismail Sabri is. “The Ismail Sabri of old that we knew was an old style race-based politician who believed his political longevity depended on the stout championing of Malay supremacy, rights and privileges. But that was pre-Covid-19”. “This is a different Ismail Sabri we are seeing and hearing,” says one optimistically.

In Ismail Sabri’s defense, although he has not opted for a unity government, he has come to an agreement on political reform with the opposition, an agreement described by some as “rare and possibly historic”.

But, some still see little cause for hope: “People are quick to denounce the current prime minister for this kind of propaganda but the reality is that there has never been, and there will never be, an alternative to the race-based politics of this country… It is sad this desperation of non-Malays to be accepted in this country and every little ounce of inclusivity and race blindness is gulped down with such fervour”.

Finally, in Indonesia, The Jakarta Post is reporting on what is perceived as a major step back towards an oligarchical, Suharto-style constitution and possibly allow President Jokowi a third term. Bambang Soesatyo, Speaker of the Indonesian legislature (the MPR), announced a plan for a “limited amendment” to the Constitution that will grant the legislature the power to extend presidential powers and create 50-100 year plans for the country.

The Post notes that this amendment is being pushed forward as the country is distracted by COVID-19, and it is illegal to protest in the streets.

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