Southeast Asia Theater
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Nov. 24 that a proposed provision in Thailand's constitution would permit the nation's military to commit human rights abuses without fear of punishment, in violation of international treaties. A new constitutional provision before Thailand's legislative body, known as the the junta, or the National Council for Peace and Order, would exculpate the use of force by military personnel if the conduct is "carried out with honest intention" in the interest of national security. HRW referred to the constitutional amendment as a "license to kill." HRW acknowledged that Thailand's military forces have acted with impunity for decades, but stated: "International human rights treaties ratified by Thailand make clear that status as a government official does not permit immunity for serious rights violations. In addition, Thailand has international legal obligations to ensure the right to an effective remedy for victims of serious violations, including unlawful killings."
Burma's President Thein Sein signed a ceasefire Oct. 15 with eight armed rebel groups, in a bid to bring the country's multiple ethnic insurgencies to an end before the next month's general elections—the first since a nominally civilian government took over and pledged a democratic transition in 2011 after decades of dictatorship. The agreement seeks to incorporate rebel groups into the political process, ending a war that has persisted (with varying levels of intensity) since Burmese independence in 1948. But while the pact is optimistically dubbed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), seven armed groups involved in the peace talks did not sign the final deal. Among the seven non-signatories is the largest rebel army, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), with an estimated 25,000 fighters. Trying to put a good face on things, Thein Sein said, "history will judge the value of the NCA not by the number of signatories but how the terms of the NCA are effectively implemented." Also not signing on are the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Kokang armed factions along the Chinese border. One of the most significant groups signing on, the Karen National Union (KNU), actually entered a bilateral ceasefire with the government in 2012.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague ruled (PDF) Oct. 29 that it has jurisdiction to hear a dispute between the Philippines and China over parts of the South China Sea. At issue are a number of islands and shoals, which the Philippines says China has annexed illegally under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. China has long held that the PCA lacks jurisdiction to hear the case, saying that it would be open to bilateral negotiations with the Philippines over the issue. China has boycotted the proceedings, rejecting the court's authority in the case. Beijing claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, maintaining that its rights are based on history rather than legal precedent.
In the latest of a wave of deadly attacks on indigenous peoples in the southern Philippines island of Mindanao, a community leader was gunned down by armed men on a motorcycle in Agusan del Sur province on Sept. 28. Lito Abion, 44, a leader of the indigenous organization Tagdumahan, was slain in Doña Flavia village, San Luis municipality, where he long been an advocate for land rights and local autonomy—especially opposing large-scale gold-mining operations in the area. This year has seen several killings and violent attacks on Lumads, as the indigenous peoples of the region are collectively known. Following a call from the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines, the central government has formed a commission to investigate the attacks, led by Edmundo Arugay, director of the National Bureau of Investigation. But local rights advocates see the government's hand in the violence, pointing to a paramilitary group called the Magahat Bagani Force, said to be linked to the Philippine army. Some 3,000 Lumad residents of the municipalities of Lianga, Marihatag, San Agustin, San Miguel and Tago have been displaced by fighting in their villages and are currently taking shelter at a sports complex in Tandag City, Surigao del Sur province. The abuses have escalated along with a new counter-insurgency offensive against guerillas of the New People's Army (NPA) in recent weeks. (Rappler.com, Oct. 1; PIPLinks, Sept. 30 Inquirer, Sept. 6)
Thailand's national police authorities on Sept. 15 indicated that last month's deadly Erawan Shrine attack was carried out by Uighur militants. A Chinese national arrested by Thai police, Yusufu Meraili, is said to be from Xinjiang region, indicating he is likely an ethnic Uighur. Also arrested is Abdul Tawab, a Pakistani national who apparently ran a human trafficking ring that catered to Uighurs attempting to reach Turkey. Abudusataer Abudureheman AKA "Ishan," named as mastermind of the attack, is also said to be from Xinjiang, and is believed to have fled to Turkey. Thai authorities say several other suspects are Turks, who have ethnic and cultural links to the Uighurs. Many Turkish nationalists have vocally embraced the Uighur cause. Warrants have been issued for a Thai woman and her Turkish husband, both believed to be in Turkey, and two other Turkish men. Malaysia has made three arrests in the case—two Malaysians and a Pakistani man. Most of the 20 killed in the attack were ethnic Chinese tourists. Suspicion fell on Uighur militants as the bombing came just weeks after Thailand deported 109 Uighurs back to China, their heads covered in hoods. The move was widely criticized by rights groups, who said the Uighurs were could face persecution in China. If the claims are correct, this would be the first known Uighur terrorist attack outside China. No one has yet claimed responsibility. (Bangkok Post, Sept. 17; NYT, Sept. 15; BBC News, Sept. 14)
A bomb blast at the tourist-packed Erawan Shrine in downtown Bangkok killed at least 20 and injured some 80 more Aug. 17. The following day, with the city still on edge, a small explosive device was thrown from a bridge towards a crowded river pier, sending a plume of water into the air but causing no casualties. No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, and Thai authorities have been circumspect in assigning blame. Police say they have not ruled out any group, including elements opposed to the military government, which took power in a coup last year. But officials said the attack did not match the tactics of Muslim insurgents in the south. (Al Jazeera, Reuters, Aug. 18) Despite peace talks with the southern separatists, the insurgency continues at a low level. On July 20, a shoot-out with security forces left two presumed militants wounded in Nong Chik district of Pattani province. (Bangkok Post, July 20) Graffiti rejecting the peace talks was earlier this month spray-painted on roads in Khok Pho and Nong Chik districts of Pattani. The message written in Thai read, "What do we get from negotiating with the army?" Talks between the government and separatists, facilitated by Malaysia, are set to resume by the end of the year. (Bangkok Post, Aug. 2)
Here's another one to file under "Life's little ironies." Vietnam's Communist Party boss Nguyen Phu Trong (the country's "paramount leader") meets with Obama at the White House—a first, coming exactly 20 years after US-Hanoi diplomatic relations were restored. Why now? The Washington Post flatly states that Obama "is seeking to reconfigure a historically difficult relationship with Vietnam into a strategic partnership against China." White House officials "said Hanoi has been signaling interest in forging deeper economic and military ties with the United States," and also emphasized that Vietnam "is among the 12 nations involved in an expansive Pacific Rim trade pact." That's the Trans-Pacific Partnership—which is nearly openly conceived as a counter-measure to China's economic rise.
Environmentalists and indigenous leaders in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao are hailing the exit of Anglo-Swiss mining giant Glencore from the $5.9 billion Tampakan mega-project as a "victory for the people." Said Clemente Bautista of Kalikasan People's Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE): "Glencore, potentially the largest mining project in the country to date, ultimately failed in the face of massive people's resistance against foreign and large-scale mining." The project area covers 10,000 hectares in the provinces of South Cotabato, Sarangani, Sultan Kudarat and Davao del Sur. But Glencore is accused of "grabbing" a further 24,000 hectares of adjacent lands, including forest and farms, causing the displacement of some 5,000 residents—with the complicity of the central government.