Southeast Asia Theater
Burma announced on Nov. 14 that it has freed 452 prisoners ahead of a visit by US President Barack Obama. Burma's state-run media reported that the government has released the prisoners on humanitarian grounds and as a goodwill gesture by the nation. However, Burma's main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) criticized the government's move, saying that the government has not released any of the estimated 330 political prisoners currently incarcerated in Burma. It is unclear if any of the 452 prisoners released are political ones because the government has not provided details on which prisoners have been freed. Obama is scheduled to visit Burma on Nov. 19.
New fighting was reported from the southern Philippines island group of Mindanao Oct. 29, despite a recent deal on regional autonomy aimed at ending the decades-long insurgency. Former Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels accused the Philippine military of attacking its members in western Sulu province, sparking a gun battle that left four soldiers dead and several more wounded. The MNLF said marine troops attacked its followers at a village in Patikul municipality, who were only harvesting coconuts. But the military's Western Mindanao Command insisted that troops had clashed with militants of the jihadist group Abu Sayyaf. The army was reportedly sent into the area after reports that Abu Sayyaf's kidnap victims had been spotted. The military said two militants were also killed in the clash. (See map.) (Mindanao Examiner, Oct. 29)
The government of Indonesia this month responded to UN recommendations to recognize the rights of its indigenous peoples by claiming that none live in the country. In a response to the UN's Universal Periodic Review, a four–year human rights check-up for all countries, Indonesia said, "The Government of Indonesia supports the promotion and protection of indigenous people worldwide… Indonesia, however, does not recognize the application of the indigenous peoples concept… in the country."
Hundreds of residents of Van Giang district of Hung Yen province on the edge of Vietnam's capital held a protest Oct. 8 in front of the Central Office of Public Relations building in downtown Hanoi, demanding the return of land they say was illegally confiscated from them to develop a controversial satellite city. After villagers rallied in front of the building for some time, officials emerged to meet with them for about 30 minutes, but protest leader Dam Van Dong, told Radio Free Asia's Vietnamese service their complaints were not resolved. "We have made clear in our requests that the land which Hung Yen authorities of every rank have taken from us be returned," he said.
A prominent Cambodian radio broadcaster and rights activist was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment on Oct. 1 after being convicted of insurrection and inciting rebellion against the state. Mam Sonando, 71, runs the independent Beehive radio station and has been an outspoken critic of the Cambodian government. He was arrested in July on accusations of being involved in a plot to incite villagers in eastern Kratie to rebel against the Cambodian government in an effort to establish an autonomous region in the province. The court held that Sonando had been instrumental in inciting villagers in May to form their own state in the eastern province. An additional 13 people were convicted on similar indictments. Rights groups have denounced the charges and Sonando's supporters say he is being persecuted for criticizing the government. Several hundred people assembled outside the court in support of the rights activist as his sentence was being handed down. The Phnom Penh court also fined Sonando 10 million riel ($2,500). His wife has indicated that he plans to appeal the sentence.
Aung San Suu Kyi's visit to the US last week won wide media attention as she met with Hillary Clinton, was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, and addressed the US Institute of Peace. (VOA, Daily Beast, Sept. 18) The world paid little note as, simultaneously, fighting flared in Burma's northern Kachin state between government troops and the Kachin Independence Army, leaving at least 150 displaced. Villagers fleeing the fighting have taken refuge in the town of Hpakant in the west of the state, with local relief groups struggling to provide assistance to displaced residents. Pastor Naw Ja of a Catholic church in Hpakant said there are about 1,000 displaced persons being sheltered in his parish after fleeing fighting in nearby villages over the past months. "There are many difficulties—there are outbreaks of diseases such as flu, diarrhea, malaria and it's getting increasingly difficult to continue providing them with food and shelter," said Naw Ja. (Democratic Voice of Burma, Sept. 25)
Six men accused of murdering 13 crew members of two Chinese merchant ships on the Mekong River last year pleaded guilty Sept. 20 at their trial in Kunming, capital of China's Yunnan province. The defendants included Naw Kham (also rendered Nor Kham), purportedly one of the most powerful warlords in the Golden Triangle opium-growing region that straddles the borders of Burma, Thailand and Laos. The crew were massacred by an armed gang that attacked two cargo ships last October. Chinese media said the gang was involved in kidnapping as well as international drug running.
Despite a ceasefire signed earlier this year, new fighting broke out last week between Burma's army and both the southern and northern factions of the Shan State Army. Two Burmese soldiers were killed in a four-hour fire-fght with Shan State Army-North June 17 in Monghsu township, Loilen district. The SSA-S reported a clash with Burmese soldiers June 15 in Mongton township, Monghsat district. In both cases, the Shan State forces say government forces were the aggressors, with the SSA-S relinquishing a "forward operating base" to Burmese troops. "This puts doubt in our minds regarding building peace," said SSA-S spokesman Sai Lao Hseng. "How could we manage this if we cannot even build trust?" The SSA-S has sent a complaint letter to the government's Peace Making Committee.