1. Thai referendum a first step towards democracy, says junta
Thailand is no stranger to political instability, with a merry-go-round of coups and insurrection in recent years. This weekend’s referendum on a draft constitution is, the junta says, a first step in the transition to democracy and greater stability. Foreign investors, though, have already fled – foreign direct investment in Thailand fell by more than 90 per cent in the first half of the year. The junta has responded with ever more stringent security measures and last week demanded ousted prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra pay an US$8 billion bill for her part in the country’s failed rice subsidy scheme.
What next? General elections are scheduled for next year but how the military positions itself in the interim will be closely watched. There are some powerful variables: how will Yingluck’s supporters react if she is jailed for negligence? And if the ailing King Bhumibol passes away, the junta maybe decide a return to democracy can wait.
Quoteworthy: “Do not say the referendum will define who loses or wins. I have never lost to anyone. I just want to maintain my power,” – General Prayuth Chan-ocha.
2. New security laws in Malaysia ‘stifle dissent’, say Prime Minister’s critics
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is under unprecedented scrutiny for his role in the 1MDB scandal, after the US Justice Department last month filed civil lawsuits alleging that more than US$3.5 billion was misappropriated from the state fund. This, however, coincides with a raft of new security laws coming into effect, giving Najib the power to suspend civil liberties in any region he declares a “security area”. Fighting terrorism is the claimed justification for the new laws but Najib’s critics suggest stifling dissent is the true objective.
What next? Despite the corruption allegations and increasing criticism, Najib retains the support of his party, so change at the top remains unlikely. But the new security laws may be put to the test sooner rather than later, after a pro-democracy group promised a series of anti-Najib rallies.
Quoteworthy: “The public perception in terms of the timing of the draconian law is that Najib wants the law in order to stay in office,” – Wan Saiful Wan Jan, head of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, a Malaysian think tank.
3. Singapore’s PM warns U.S. credibility is at stake over TPP trade deal
Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong appeared alongside US President Barack Obama during his state visit to Washington, extolling the virtues of the 12-nation Transpacific Partnership Pact (TPP). Lee laid out the stakes and insisted that US credibility was on the line. The pact does not include China and is therefore a key plank in Obama’s ‘Asian pivot’. But time is running out for ratification, given there will be just a single lame-duck session following the November election.
What next? Both candidates for the US presidency – Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – have advertised their opposition to the TPP, although Clinton previously supported it. This suggests that, no matter who Obama enlists to support the deal, the political mood in the United States could make passing it increasingly difficult.
Quoteworthy: “Right now I’m president, and I’m for it. And I think I’ve got the better argument. I’ve made this argument before. I’ll make it again. We are part of a global economy. We’re not reversing that,” – US President Barack Obama.
4. Duterte sends a message to the powerful in his war on drugs
During the Philippines’ presidential campaign, Rodrigo Duterte was forthright about his plans: he would implement a brutal crackdown on the drug trade, just as he had when mayor of Davao City. He was duly elected and is so far delivering on his promise, with police and vigilantes alike now licensed to execute dealers. Last week, the crackdown entered a new phase, as police commandos killed six bodyguards employed by a mayor accused of overseeing the local methamphetamine trade. The message was clear: in Duterte’s drug war, power is no protection.
What next? Michael Siaron was a rickshaw driver gunned down in Manila, accused of being a “pusher”. His family has insisted he was no drug dealer and the image of his wife cradling his body went viral, galvanising critics of Duterte’s approach. But Duterte promised to kill 100,000 criminals in his first six months, so is unlikely to be discouraged.
Quoteworthy: “These are not the wealthy and powerful drug lords who actually have meaningful control over supply of drugs on the streets in the Philippines,” – Phelim Kine, a deputy director of Human Rights Watch in Asia.
5. China activist sentenced for subversion, fourth case in week
A Chinese human rights activist was on Friday given a three-year suspended prison sentence for subversion by a mainland court – the fourth such case last week. Christian activist Gou Hongguo pleaded guilty to being trained overseas in “subverting state power” then sought to turn the public against the government and overthrow the socialist system, according to the Second Intermediate People’s Court in Tianjin (天津). During the televised trial, lawyers and activists warned that shadowy foreign forces – a euphemism for the United States – were funding, directing and encouraging activities bent on destabilising China’s government.
What’s next? President Xi Jinping (習近平) has been clamping down on foreign-backed organisations and probably will continue to do so as long as the US State Department – and other foreign governments – fund charities and train activists to spread democracy, including methods of evading the authorities.
Quoteworthy: “If you look at the kind of evidence and so-called facts that they used to accuse the defendants, none of what they did amounted to subversion,” – Mark Toner, US State Department spokesman
6. Firebrand returns to power in Nepal, finds himself in tug-of-war
The Nepalese parliament last week elected Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known as Prachanda, as prime minister, returning the Maoist firebrand to a position he held for nine months after winning power in 2008. Nepal’s broader geopolitical significance owes to the fact that China and India vie for influence, making the country the site of an ongoing proxy tug-of-war. Traditionally, India has held sway, given it controls Nepal’s main overland trade route. However, Prachanda’s predecessor, KP Oli, pursued closer ties with Beijing. Will Prachanda continue down this path or reverse course?
What next? The immediate challenges are obvious: expedite reconstruction following last year’s earthquakes and fashion some consensus around the new constitution. Less obvious is whether Prachanda can negotiate the various obstacles without alienating one of India or China.
Quoteworthy: “He should balance relations with both neighbours. They are both economic powers and he should try to win benefits for Nepal from both,” – Guna Raj Luitel, editor of Nepali daily Nagarik.
7. South Korea-China ties strained over U.S. Missile system, K-pop pays price
Beijing’s anger at Seoul for deciding to deploy a US missile system has officials concerned about economic retaliation. Shares in K-pop companies slumped over speculation entertainment exports to China could be affected. China’s reaction has come as a shock to some, as ties are the closest they have been since a trade spat in 2000, but Beijing refuses to believe the system is there to protect the country from North Korea. At the UN, the US dismissed Chinese claims that deploying the Thaad missile system would aggravate tensions. US Ambassador Samantha Power lashed out at her Chinese counterpart Liu Jieyi for blaming Washington for the crisis. At around the same time, a North Korean rocket almost hit Japan.
What’s next? The US deployment of missiles in South Korea is unlikely to change as long as Washington is committed to the so-called ‘pivot to Asia’ policy. With Wednesday’s near-miss, Japan is now likely to upgrade its current missile system with newer American technology.
Quoteworthy: “Any notion that there’s some predicate by anybody other than Kim Jong-un and the DPRK regime is not grounded in reality and it’s not grounded in history,” – Samantha Power.
Compiled by Thomas Sturrock and Ben O’Rourke