Southeast Asia Theater
In another grim signal of a widening war in northern Burma's opium zones, last week saw an outbreak of intense fighting between government forces and ethnic rebels, prompting some 50,000 Kokang civilians to flee across the border to China. The clashes at the town of Laukkai (also rendered Laogai), Shan state, saw government air-strikes and helicopter strafing on villages controlled by the Kokang rebel group, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and two allied militias. Some 50 government troops have been killed in the fighting, and soliders have recovered the bodies of several rebels. A line of refugees 10 kilometers long has reportedly piled up at the Chinese border crossing of Nansan. (AP, Feb. 14; Democratic Voice of Burma, Feb. 12; The Irrawady, Feb. 11)
Well, the interminable cartoon wars have now hit Malaysia. On Feb. 10, the Malaysian Federal Court upheld a "sodomy" conviction and five-year prison term of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, a decision clearly as politicized as it is reactionary. That same day, cartoonist Zulkiflee Awar Ulhaque, popularly known as Zunar, was arrested at his home—charged under the country's draconian "sedition" law for tweeting a cartoon critical of the ruling, and portraying the judge in the case as Prime Minister Najib Razak. (BBC News, The Malaysian Online, Jurist) Said Shawn Crispin of the Committee to Protect Journalists: "We call on authorities to release Zunar immediately, drop all charges against him, and get to work reforming the sedition law that Prime Minister Najib Razak once acknowledged has no place in Malaysian society." Not all voices have been so forthright, however...
Despite a democratic opening and hopes for peace with the ethnic insurgencies in the northern hinterlands, horrific accounts of rights abuses continue to emerge from the multi-sided war over Burma's opium production. According to reports from village leaders, Burmese army troops on Jan. 19 tortured, raped and killed two young volunteer teachers. The women were both Kachin and Christians, so may have been targeted for ethnicity or religion. The attacks came when the village of Shabuk-Kaunghka, in Shan state's Mungbaw township, was occupied by a Light Infantry battalion that entered the area following clashes with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). New fighting erupted after three police officers and a local highway administrator were detained by the KIA while carrying out a road inspection in the area. They were released after mediation, but clashes continue.
A Philippine National Police Special Action Force (SAF) operation on Jan. 25 turned into a "dusk to dawn" gun-battle with Moro rebels in restive Mindanao Island. At least 30 police troops were killed in the clash at the village of Tukanalipao, Mamasapano municipality, Maguindanao province. Mohagher Iqbal, chief negotiator for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) later said the clash was triggered by lack of coordination on the SAF operation. SAF forces were hunting Malaysian national Zulkifli Bin Hir AKA "Marwan"—named by the US FBI as a bomb-maker for the Abu Sayyaf extremist faction. The SAF incursion was resisted by local militia of the MILF and breakaway Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).
A military court in Thailand on Nov. 24 sentenced web editor Nut Rungwong to four-and-a-half years in jail for publishing an article five years ago that the court ruled defamed the nation's king. Thailand's lese-majeste law, which punishes people who defame, insult or threaten the monarchy, is one of the harshest in the world with jail terms of up to 15 years. Rungwong's sentence was cut in half because he pleaded guilty to the charge. Rungwong edited the Thai E-News website which is now blocked by censors. He was charged for publishing an article in 2009 written by Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a former university political scientist and radical Thai intellectual who fled to Britain in 2009.
George Orwell, and especially his dystopian novel 1984, has long been appropriated by neocons and (before that) Cold War hawks in the West. It's almost heartwarming to know that international despots still consider it dangerous. Seemingly oblivious to their own irony, police in Egypt last week arrested a 21-year-old student near the entrance of Cairo University for carrying a copy of 1984. It is unclear if the student, identified only as "Mohamed T," will face charges. The Egyptian Interior Ministry actually issued a statement explaining the arrest, innocently and not quite accurately saying that the novel "talks about military regimes which rule in corrupt countries." (The Week, UK, Nov. 10)
Protesters in the Philippines this weekend marked the fifth anniversary of the country's worst political massacre—and the world's worst mass killing of journalists. Nobody has been convicted of the massacre of 32 journalists and 26 others in the town of Ampatuan on the southern island of Mindanao. The victims were shot dead and buried in three pits after being ambushed by some 100 gunmen near the town of Shariff Aguak, Maguindanao province. Mary-Grace Morales lost both her husband and her sister on Nove. 23, 2009, when they were part of a convoy to cover the filing of candidacy papers for a local politician. "I want the world to know my husband and my sister died in the massacre and there were many people killed," she told the Radio Australia form the vigil held at the massacre site. "It's been five years and there is no justice. I don't know if there is any justice." Philippine journalist Nonoy Espina said half of the local media workers were "wiped out" in one day.
Some 500 people gathered Nov. 16 at a Central Luzon property of the family of Philippines President Benigno Aquino to commemorate a confrontation 10 years ago between government forces and striking workers, and to demand justice for the seven men killed. Protesters, all local rural workers, burned an effigy of Aquino riding a bulldozer. In what survivors group Ambala calls the "Hacienda Luisita massacre," police and military troops retook a section of the Central Azucarera de Tarlac (CAT) sugar complex that had been occupied by members of United Luisita Workers Union (ULWU). Although security forces were acting on a court order, the strikers resisted, saying talks were ongoing with the management of both CAT and Hacienda Luisita Inc (HLI), the landowner. Aquino at the time of the massacre was a lawmaker representing the local Tarlac province in Manila, while also serving as manager of the Hacienda Luisita estate. The estate is owned by the Cojuangco family—that of the president's mother, ex-president Corazon Aquino.