Southeast Asia Theater
A Cambodian court on May 30 convicted 23 workers and activists for inciting violence during a mass garment workers' strike but suspended their jail sentence, which had caused much controversy and international scrutiny. The ruling reverses the February decision of an appeals court, which refused the release of the workers and activists facing criminal charges. It has been reported that international brands such as H&M, Puma and the Gap have threatened to pull out of Cambodia if efforts are not made to prevent further human rights violations, fearing a "public relations problem." Dave Welsh, a representative of the US-based labor group Solidarity Center, stated in regard to the ruling: "The main thing is there's just an enormous amount of relief—first of all with them, with their families, and with the trade union and human rights community in general—that they are going to be freed."
Speaking to reporters May 14 from an undisclosed location somewhere in the mountains of Talaingod, Davao del Norte province, on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, a group of traditional indigenous elders, or datu, said: "We want peace here in Talaingod. But if they take away our land, we will fight. We will fight with our native weapons." The group was led by Datu Guibang Apoga, who has been a fugitive from the law since 1994, when he led a resistance movement of the Manobo indigenous people against timber and mineral interests, fighting company personnel and security forces with bows and arrows and spears. Wearing their traditional outfits, the tribal leaders threatened to return to arms unless the Philippine government demilitarizes their lands and respects Manobo territorial rights.
A sickening story in the NY Daily News May 8 relates how eight "vigilantes" in Indonesia's autonomous enclave of Aceh attacked a 25-year-old widow they believed was about to have "adulturous" sex (despite the fact that her husband is deceased!), gang-raped her, brutally abused both her and her putative boyfriend, covering them in sewage—then marched her over the local sharia court, where she was sentencted to be "caned." That's publicly whipped with a cane, nine strokes for the woman and putative lover apiece, the gang-rape and sewage affair apparently being deemed insufficient punishment. Note that the woman and putative lover were "about to" have sex—that is, they never even consummated the act. At least we are told that "[p]rominent Islamic leader Teungku Faisal Ali said he supported the caning, but that he thinks the rapists should be treated more harshly than the couple."
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) officially ended four decades of armed struggle in the Philippines on March 27, when it formally signed a pact with the government on regional autonomy that had been agreed on in 2012. Under the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, the MILF drops its claims for a separate state in the southern region of Mindanao and agrees to parliamentary self-rule in the new Bangsamoro autonomous region, to be established by 2016. A local police force will assume law enforcement functions from the Philippine police and military. The region will not be under an officially secular government. Sharia law will apply only to Muslims and only for civil cases, not for criminal offences. The MILF, with some 10,000 armed followers, will "gradually" decommission its forces and put the weapons "beyond use." The Bangsamoro, or Moro Nation, will replace another autonomous government that was brokered in the 1990s with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). (AFP, March 27; Philippine Daily Inquirer, March 26)
Four people were killed when Cambodian military police opened fire on garment factory workers marching to demand higher pay in a Phnom Penh industrial zone Jan. 3. Hours later, police dispersed a protest camp that supporters of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) had maintained since mid-December in the city's Freedom Park. The move came as the government announced emergence measures barring public protests by the CNRP, which accuses the Hun Sen government of rigging elections held in July. The ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) accused the CNRP of using the deadly street clash as a "pretext" to suspend talks over the impasse. The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Huamn Rights LICADHO decired the police violence as "horrific." (AFP, AP, Jan. 4; Reuters, Xinhua, Jan. 3)
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in its newly released annual Southeast Asia Opium Survey (PDF) finds that opium production in Burma continued to increase in 2013—up 26% to an estimated 870 metric tons. This is the highest amount since the UN began keeping track in 2002. In 1999, the Burmese regime promised to eradicate opium production by 2014, but production has increased every year since 2006. The UNODC report acknowledges that eradication efforts have failed to address the political and economic factors that drive farmers to grow opium in the first place. With poppy fetching 19 times more than rice, struggling peasants have few other options to make a living.
An in-depth Sept. 29 Reuters report on the multi-billion-dollar but very murky jade trade in Burma raises the specter of "blood jade"—without actually using the phrase. Almost half of all jade exports are "unofficial"—apparently spirited over the border into China with little or no formal taxation, representing billions of dollars in lost revenues. Official statistics are said to indicate that Burma produced more than 43 million kilograms of jade in fiscal year 2011-12, worth a low-balled $4.3 billion. Yet official exports of jade that year stood at only $34 million. (It isn't explained how all that "unofficial" jade made it into the production stats in the first place.) China doesn't publicly report how much jade it imports from Burma, but jade is included in official imports of precious stones and metals, which in 2012 were worth $293 million—a figure too small to account for billions of dollars in Burmese jade.
A three-vessel Freedom Flotilla carrying some 50 West Papuan and indigenous Australian protesters bound for the restive Indonesian territory of West Papua began its voyage from Queensland, Australia, this past week—to the dismay of both Austrailian and Indonesian authorities. The protestors, who hope "to reconnect two ancient cultures and to reveal the barriers that keep human rights abuses in West Papua from the attention of the international community," expect to make landfall in early September. "The initiative of Indigenous Elders of Australia and West Papua will build global solidarity and highlight the abuses of human rights and land rights carried out under the occupations of their lands on an international stage," the statement on the Flotilla's website reads.