Southeast Asia Theater
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.
Public commemorations are taking place in Burma to mark the 25th anniversary of the uprisings which launched the country's pro-democracy movement—the first time the anniversary has been openly commemorated in Rangoon. Hundreds of thousands took part in the "8888" protests, which began on Aug. 8, 1988. But six weeks later, at least 3,000 protesters were dead, thousands more imprisoned, and the military firmly in control. Aung San Suu Kyi, who emerged as the leader of the pro-democracy movement and is now the opposition leader, participated in the commemorations. A new activist formation, 88 Generation, has emerged to coordinate the remembrance. The current reformist government has tacitly approved the commemoration, even though some of the former generals serving in it are implicated in the violence. (BBC News, AAP, Aug. 8)
The Supreme Court of the Philippines on July 23 issued a "temporary environment protection order" against 94 "small-scale mines" that extract nickel in Zambales, Central Luzon region. Activists who brought the petition claim that among the "small" mines are at least five fronts for giant nickel miners from China. The mines are operating under small-scale mining permits (SSMPs) that can be granted by provincial authorities in special minahang bayan, or People's Mining Areas, under a new policy instated by the Benigno Aquino administration. But local peasants charge that the mines are operating outside the designated areas, and go essentially unregulated, causing grave pollution to local waters. The Chinese parent companies, said to really be a single coordinated venture, are identified as Jiangxi Rare Earth & Metals Tungsten Group, Wei-Wei Group, and Nihao Mineral Resources Inc. They set up the five "small mines" through Filipino dummy companies, bribing officials to look the other way. The SSMP policy, enacted by executive order last year, has sparked a new mineral rush in the Philippines. (Philippine Star, July 24; Inquirer Mindanao, July 15, 2012)
The Obama administration is finalizing an agreement with the Philippines that will allow the US to deploy more troops and weapons in the archipelago nation. The deal avoids the contentious issue of establishing permanent bases and instead will have more US troops using Philippine bases. Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III, the head of Pacific Command, said the US is seeking access that will enable it to help the Philippines in its defense as well as to aid in responding to disasters. The US maintained large military bases in the Philippines for nearly a century, but the last one, Subic Bay, closed in 1992. Subic Bay is today a "special economic zone," but the former base is still used by US military ships. The deal comes as President Obama has publicly weighed in for the Philippines in its maritime border dispute with China. (NYT, Digital Journal, July 13; NYT, June 8)