Saturday, April 20, 2013

Indonesian President Heads to Myanmar During Heightened Sectarian Tensions

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (2013 photo)
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will head to Burma Tuesday for his first state visit there since 2006. The trip comes as rising ethnic and religious violence in Burma tests the special relationship that has long bound the two southeast Asian nations.

Indonesia and Burma have a lot in common. Both were once military dictatorships that are now headed by former generals. Both have made the painful transition to democracy and have seen conflicts mar the way.

Scholars and government advisers say those similarities have created an understanding that change takes time, and that has kept Indonesia from pressuring Burma to speed up the pace of reform.

"It’s quite obvious when countries start reforming the political system like Indonesia in the past, we experienced a lot of difficulties in the early stages, a lot of communal conflicts, violence and other behavior which is not conducive for democracy. What happens in Myanmar at this stage is only part of the new realities under democracy," said Teuku Faizasyah, President Yudhoyono’s aide for international affairs.

In the years after mass protests in 1998 brought down former autocratic president Suharto, Indonesia worked to ease its military out of government. At the same time Indonesia used its close ties with Burma to nudge that country’s military regime toward more openness.

Burma watchers say progress has been notable. Since taking over the government two years ago, Burma’s president, Thein Sein, has loosened controls over the media, released political prisoners and helped negotiate cease-fire agreements with rebel groups.

But ethnic and sectarian clashes have escalated in Buddhist-majority Burma, threatening those celebrated reforms.

Human rights groups and the United Nations have pressured the government to do more to lessen sectarian tensions since last June, when rioting broke out between Buddhist and Muslims in western Rakhine state. Instead, the violence has spread, forcing more than 100,000 people from their homes.

Many of those fleeing the violence have gone abroad and some have sought refuge in Indonesia. For now, Jakarta is favoring engaging with the Burmese government instead of criticizing it.

Moe Thuzar, a researcher on Myanmar at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, says Indonesia’s approach is similar to the non-intervention strategy used in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.

"Indonesia, as a founding member of ASEAN, is a big proponent of quiet diplomacy, and it’s how things have worked when it comes to advising fellow member countries and to bring about commitments toward change without splashing it in the headlines."

That approach has earned Indonesia Burma’s trust. In August last year former vice president Jusuf Kalla visited Rakhine state. Then, in January, foreign minister Marty Natalagawa gained rare access to one of the areas hit hardest by last year’s anti-Muslim violence.

While Jakarta has expressed concerns about the violence spreading through Burma, however, the president’s aide Teuku Faizasyah says it’s up to the Burmese people to solve the problem.

"Certainly we’ve given our support on how to best handle the problems. We can help in providing training and other ways of bringing little understanding among ethnic groups. But in the end it must be between Myanmarese themselves," Faizasyah said.

Indonesia experienced similar internal violence following its transition to democracy and is well aware of the complexities of dealing with reform. Some analysts say that if Indonesia, which is majority Muslim, is seen to be siding with the Rohingya, it risks dividing ASEAN and could jeopardize its leading role in the regional grouping.

Indonesian companies are also looking to Burma for investment opportunities. If Jakarta starts to exert pressure, it could lose some of its leverage.

Murray Hiebert, a senior fellow on Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, says it is important that Indonesia share experiences, provide support and moral encouragement rather than impose pressure.

"The leadership in Myanmar these days is trying to do reforms, they’re really engaged on issues like human rights, how to address communal violence. I think for a country like Indonesia to go in and try to be too pressure-some would just raise hackles," Hiebert said.

Some parliamentarians in Indonesia have talked with their counterparts in Burma about security reform and the potential for discussions with people involved in drafting the Helsinki agreement that brought an end to decades of fighting in Indonesia’s Aceh.

Burma’s legislature has undergone some of the greatest reform in the country - though much of the government is still filled with military figures. Lawmakers in Indonesia say if the parliament is more empowered, it can take a greater role in shaping Burma’s future.-Voice of America (April 20, 2013)

Haze in Singapore due to fires in Sumatra

Parts of Singapore were hazy on Friday, even though the latest PSI reading, at 4pm, was in the "good" range of between 28 and 43.

Since 1pm, the sky has been hazy and members of the public have given feedback on a burning smell across many parts of Singapore.

"The haziness and burning smell are from the fires in Sumatra, brought over by prevailing winds blowing from the southwest or west," said the National Environment Agency (NEA).

Since 17 April, satellite images have shown smoke plumes originating from hotspots in Riau province being blown towards Singapore by the prevailing winds, it added.

The NEA said the winds are forecast to occasionally blow from the southwest or west for the next few days. During this period, hazy conditions are expected occasionally.-Channel News Asia (April 20, 2013)

Malaysian PM to skip ASEAN summit

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak will not be attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Brunei next week, diplomatic sources said yesterday.

Najib dissolved parliament on April 3, paving the way for fresh elections next month.

The 59-year-old Najib, who took office in 2009, is facing voters for the first time as leader of the 13-party coalition.

A ranking official of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Najib will not attend the summit.

“We understand he is not attending,” the official told The STAR.

The DFA said on Wednesday that President Aquino and Prime Minister Najib have no scheduled bilateral meeting during the summit in Brunei on April 24 to 25 and that the Sabah claim would not be discussed by the two leaders.

The sultanate of Sulu said yesterday that the Philippines and Malaysia will “covertly” discuss the Sabah claim of its heirs during the ASEAN summit.

Abraham Idjirani, spokesman of the heirs of the sultanate, said the Sabah standoff has now become a regional issue that the Philippines and Malaysia and the rest of the ASEAN members could not afford to ignore.

Idjirani said yesterday that despite the pronouncement of the DFA that the Sabah claim will not be raised by the Philippines during the ASEAN summit, the Sultanate of Sulu believes that Philippine and Malaysian officials would discuss the issue “covertly.”

“It will be discussed. But it will be done covertly. The Philippines and Malaysia do not want to alarm the other member countries about the seriousness of the issue,” said Idjirani.

The crisis started when supporters of the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu forced a standoff with Malaysian security forces in Lahad Datu, Sabah last February.

Malaysian forces later launched air strikes and ground assault that allegedly killed several Filipino gunmen and Malaysian soldiers.

Many Filipinos residing in the affected areas in Sabah have evacuated and returned to Tawi-Tawi and other parts of Mindanao.

Idjirani said Indonesia would be one of the ASEAN member countries that would be alarmed if the standoff in Sabah is not resolved.

“Sabah is a neighboring territory of Kalimantan. (Indonesia) does not want to be alarmed by the situation. Malaysia and Indonesia are neighbors. Indonesia may appeal to Malaysia or the Philippines to take things slow,” Idjirani added.

DFA spokesman Raul Hernandez said President Aquino and Razak have no scheduled bilateral meeting during the summit in Brunei on April 24 to 25.-ABS-CBN News (April 20, 2013)

Philippines among most gender equal nations

The World Bank identified the Philippines as a world leader in gender equality, particularly in the fields of legislation, management and government.

In its World Development Indicators report released on Thursday, the international organization cited latest data showing that 55 percent of Filipino lawmakers, senior officials and managers are female.

The number, taken from 2007 to 2011 statistics, is the highest in the World Bank report with data from 88 countries.

The Philippines is among the two only countries in the world with more women than men in the said professions, using the International Labour Organization's standard classification of occupations.

Although the report said that gender inequality is most prevalent in developing countries, the Philippines, a lower middle income nation, is one exception.

"The share of women in high-skilled occupations ... indicates women's status and role in the labor force and society at large," the report explained.

Following the Philippines' lead is The Bahamas, a chain of island in the Caribbean, with 52 percent of leaders who are female.

Barbados, another island country in the Caribbean, is in relatively far third with 47 percent.

Ranking fourth is Latvia with women landing in 45 percent of top occupations, while the Cayman Islands are fifth with 44 percent.

The United States, the largest economy in the world, is tied with Latin American country Puerto Rico with 43 percent.

Indonesia, one of the Philippines' peer in Southeast Asis for one, only records 22 percent of high government and business positions given to women.

The world's most gender unequal nations in the world include those that have a dominant Muslim population, the lowest being Pakistan with women occupying only 3 percent of seats in legislation, governance and management.

Also at the bottom of the scale are Azerbaijan (7 percent), Lebanon (8 percent) and Saudi Arabia (8 percent).

"These patterns of inequality begin at an early age, with boys routinely receiving a larger share of education and health spending than girls, for example," World Bank said in the report.

The study, World Bank said, is a compilation of "relevant, high-quality and internationally comparable statistics about global development."

Other indicators cited in the report under people development are prevalence of malnutrition, HIV, unemployment and underemployment, as well as maternal mortality, adolescent fertility and under-five mortality.-The Philippine Star (April 20, 2013)

Philippine, Thailand trade officials meet next month on tobacco tax row

Philippine and Thai trade officials will discuss next month how Bangkok can fully comply with the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruling on tobacco favoring Manila, a Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) official told on Friday.

“Technical discussions have been set in Bangkok early next month,” Foreign Affairs Undersecretary for international economic relations Laura Q. Del Rosario said in a text message.

Del Rosario said the Philippine delegation will include officials at the assistant secretary-level from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI).

Discussions will “focus on the technical points of the case,” Del Rosario said.

The Philippines’ permanent mission to the WTO had asked its Thai counterpart to schedule meetings with concerned Thai agencies that have yet to comply with the WTO ruling.

In 2011, Thailand lost the tobacco case lodged by the Philippines before the WTO in behalf of the Philippine unit of cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris. Manila had alleged that Bangkok slapped discriminatory taxes on cigarettes imported from the Philippines.

To comply with the WTO decision, Thailand last year adopted a royal decree abolishing the value-added tax (VAT) exemption enjoyed by resellers of locally made cigarettes, making them at par with imports, which were not VAT-exempt.

But Thailand has yet to fully comply with the WTO ruling even as the reasonable period of time to comply lapsed last year. For one, the Thai Customs’ Board of Appeals (BOA) ruling issued last November concerning certain customs valuation entries of imported tobacco from 2002 to 2003 was “inconsistent” with WTO rules, the Philippine WTO mission had said.

The Philippine-Thai tobacco row is on the agenda of the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body (DSB) meeting on April 24.-Interaksyon (April 20, 2013)

Friday, April 19, 2013

Philippine economy to grow 6.2 pct in 2013: UN report

The Philippine economy is expected to expand by 6.2 percent this year on the back of strong private consumption, according to a report launched by the United Nation's regional development arm today.

The UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific' s (UNESCAP) latest forecast on Philippine growth is higher than the 5 percent it projected in its year-end update for 2012.

"Speedy growth could materialize if progress on the public- private partnership gains more momentum, helped by the upgrade of the country's rating to investment grade status in March," the UNESCAP's Economic and Social Survey of Asia and the Pacific 2013 report said.

The UN report, however, warned that poor demand for Philippine products in the country's major trading partners could slow economic expansion this year.

UNESCAP's projected economic growth for the Philippines this year is within the government's full-year growth target of 6 to 7 percent.-The Philippine Star (April 18, 2013 7:00PM)

Cambodia's PM Hun Sen urges Thailand to keep peace

File photo : Hun Sen//EPA
Prime Minister Hun Sen urges Thailand to maintain peace with Cambodia as both nations are currently facing International Court of Justice (ICJ) hearings in Hague over the interpretation of the 1962 ruling on the Preah Vihear temple.

Speaking at the opening ceremony of a new building for the Kampot City hall on Thursday, Hun Sen said keeping the peace is very important in maintaining harmony for both inside and outside Cambodia especially with a neighbouring country like Thailand.

"We have to solve any problems peacefully and we don't want small issues turning into conflicts between both countries," Hun Sen said. "And must peacefully avoid negative affects on all factors of our two nations."

He added, he was pleased with the present situation between Cambodia and Thailand, especially during the Cambodian New Year when both nationalities were able to go back and forth across each others borders.-The Nation (April 19, 2013)

US warship arrives in S'pore for Southeast Asian deployment

A US warship designed to fight in coastal areas arrived Thursday in Singapore for its Southeast Asian deployment, underlining President Barack Obama's new strategic focus on Asia.

The deployment of the USS Freedom comes at a time of heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula and as China publicly flexes its naval muscle in the South China Sea, where it has competing territorial claims with some Southeast Asian states.

US Navy officials said the Freedom, a new class of vessel called the littoral combat ship (LCS), sailed into Changi Naval Base at around 11:00 am (0300 GMT) in Singapore, a long-standing US ally that assists in logistics and exercises for forces in Southeast Asia.

The ship, the US Navy's first LCS which is designed to fight close to the shore, will be deployed for the next eight months in the region, where it will participate in naval exercises and visit other ports.

Regional security expert Ian Storey said the Freedom's deployment signals Washington's commitment to ensuring freedom of navigation in the region, which hosts some of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

"The forward deployment of these ships is part the US pivot, rebalancing away from Iraq and Afghanistan and towards Asia," said Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

"It demonstrates to US allies and friends that it is committed to maintaining a strong presence in the region to ensure stability. In naval terms, it also underpins the US' commitment to ensuring freedom of navigation," he told AFP.

US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta announced last year that Washington will shift the bulk of its naval fleet to the Pacific by 2020 as part of a new strategic focus on Asia, where China is an emerging power.

China is embroiled in a maritime dispute with four Southeast Asian countries -- Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam -- over territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Beijing claims nearly the entire sea, including areas much nearer to the other claimants. Manila and Hanoi have been the most vocal in criticising China over alleged heavy-handedness in enforcing its claims.

While not a claimant, Washington has said it has an interest in the area to ensure freedom of navigation.

"We plan on spending most of our time here in Southeast Asia. This will be Freedom's neighbourhood for the next eight months," said US Navy Commander Timothy Wilke, the ship's commanding officer.

"We are eager to get out and about, work with other regional navies and share best practices during exercises, port visits and maritime security operations."

Singapore has agreed to the rotational deployment of up to four LCS. This means the vessels will not be permanently based in the country and crews will live aboard during ship visits.

Euan Graham, a maritime security expert at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said Beijing "is obviously cautious about any enhancement of the US military presence around the South China Sea".

But he added that China also understands that Freedom's presence is "not a major step-change in the naval balance in the region".

China however would be keen to learn about the performance of the ship, a versatile vessel that can be used for surface warfare as well as to hunt for mines and submarines and is suitable to maritime regions like Southeast Asia, Graham said.

He said the timing of Freedom's deployment also counters perceptions that US budget cuts would "undermine the sustainability of the US forward presence" in Asia.

USS Freedom is the first of up to four American warships Singapore will host. US Ambassador to Singapore David Adelman said the second is expected within 20 months.

While analysts point to USS Freedom's tour of duty in Southeast Asia as proof of more American muscle in a region prone to territorial conflicts, Adelman called it a "new chapter" in an "increasingly important part of the world". 

It's also another chapter capturing close ties between the US and Singapore.

"Here in Singapore, the United States continues to have the assets to do what we've always done, which is partner with our friends and important allies here. And I think the USS Freedom is 'Exhibit A' to our continuing commitment to security here in Southeast Asia," said Adelman.-Channel News Asia (April 19, 2013)

EU to lift sanctions as part of sea-change in ties with Myanmar

The European Union plans to announce a sea-change Monday in ties with Myanmar, lifting the last of its trade, economic and individual sanctions as it embarks on a new relationship with the Southeast Asian state, diplomatic sources told AFP.

A year after first suspending sanctions against Myanmar in reward for its historic reforms, EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg will announce a definitive end to restrictive measures but leave in place an arms embargo, the sources said.

"There will be a very positive message to Myanmar, hope for a new relationship" on Monday, said a diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity.

On April 23 last year, the ministers agreed to a one-year suspension of measures targeting almost 500 individuals and more than 800 firms to bolster a reform process which the same month saw opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's election to parliament.

Among the sanctions, hundreds of people were targeted by a travel ban and asset freeze, while on the economic front the EU had barred investments and banned imports of the country's lucrative timber, metals and gems.

During a visit to Brussels last month, the first by a Myanmar head of state, President Thein Sein urged the EU to lift sanctions, saying "we are one of the poorest countries in the world."

He received pledges of EU economic assistance coupled with calls to protect his country's ethnic minorities.

Since the former premier took over the presidency in March 2011, thousands of political prisoners have been released and elections held.

EU development aid since has more than doubled to around 150 million euros for 2012-2013, with Brussels pledging to explore the feasibility of a bilateral investment agreement.

The EU has also offered to reinstate a preferential tariffs deal with Yangon.-Channel News Asia (April 19, 2013)

Malaysia election

In Malaysia, the 13th general election has been called by Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak after a year-long speculation.

More than 13 million Malaysians will go to the polls on May 5. This is the first time that the ruling party has gone through the full five-year term before dissolving parliament.

Critics claim that the ruling coalition has lacked confidence to face the electorate on several contentious issues. It faces growing anger due to rising racial and religious tensions, allegations of corruption involving its leaders directly or indirectly, the rising cost of living, police brutality, continued detention without trial and the awarding of scholarships to students based on racial quota and not merit.

Najib, who became prime minister after his predecessor quit four years ago, has never led the party in a general election and political pundits argue that this has put him in a difficult position to force through any potential policy changes.

The election could be the closest in history. Najib needs to reverse the huge gains the Anwar Ibrahim-led opposition alliance Pakatan Rakyat (PR) made in 2008, when the ruling National Front lost five of 13 states and the two-thirds majority which it had enjoyed since Independence about 57 years ago.

The issues of the campaign include race, vote buying, electoral fraud, Hudud law and corruption.

The race card

A key factor in Malaysian elections is the question of race.

Most, if not all, parties are race-based and candidates are chosen with their ethnicity as the main consideration. Both sides of the divide are using the race card subtly or otherwise in their campaigns.

Despite several measures and concessions made to please the Chinese electorate, the community appears to be steadfast in its anti-establishment stand.

The Chinese-majority state of Penang which fell to the opposition for the first time is a symbol of non-Malay support for any party.

Several Malay NGOs are using the racial sentiment by calling for Malays to unite in order to preserve their supremacy which is enshrined in the Malaysian constitution.

They have openly demonstrated against policies that they claim has eroded their legislated special rights, especially in Penang where the 42-year-old New Economic Policy (NEP) favouring them, has been dismantled.

The government argues that the private sector is almost absolutely controlled by the Chinese and has very little opportunities for the Malays.

The private sector say this claim is unfair, as it does not receive preferential treatment from the government and they are all self-made with meritocracy being the most important consideration. Meanwhile, the government critics say, state funds are mainly from the revenue of the taxpayers which should be allocated for all.

The two hottest election battlegrounds are Penang and another opposition-ruled state Selangor in central Malaysia. The states attract the highest number of investments, providing strong revenue to the federal government. Najib has declared that these two states must be won at any cost while the opposition is fighting hard to keep them in its stable.

Vote buying?

To win back diminishing popular support, the current administration started giving out cash handouts from last year to almost every segment of the society, saying that this was to alleviate the hardship brought about by the rising cost of living.

Civil servants, who traditionally support the ruling party, were given higher salaries and allowances. The opposition claims this is tantamount to vote buying, but the people are not complaining.

To counter this, the opposition alliance announced that it will bring down fuel prices and cut car prices drastically. And as another major draw, it announced that it will provide free education right up to tertiary level if it comes to power.

Electoral fraud

Claims of electoral fraud and allegations of the election commission as the ruling party’s tool were brought to the fore by the clean election movement called Bersih meaning clean.

Three major demonstrations were held over the last two years by the group. It attracted tens of thousands of protestors which turned violent when the police used brutal methods to quell them.

The government made some concessions finally but Bersih claims they are not enough with evidences of tainted electoral roll surfacing often.

Another major factor in the election is the more than three million first time voters.

While they are said to be generally leaning towards the opposition, the National Front has put in a lot of resources to win their hearts by using social media, an important campaign tool. The mainstream media are all owned by the government or linked to it.

Islamic law 

Another contentious issue is the move by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) to try and usher in a future where the Islamic way of life becomes a part of every day life in Malaysia. PAS says they are willing to discuss the issue, but the implementation of the Hudud law is a matter beyond question and not up for negotiation or debate of any kind.

Despite disagreement with its partners over this, it has started pushing for the implementation of hudud in the state of Kelantan which it had been ruling for the last 20 years. Several Islamic practices are already in place there.

It says hudud would address a multitude of issues affecting Muslims. However, the non-Muslims fear that there will be long-term direct and indirect effect on them although on the surface it is meant only for the Muslims.

The opposition alliance is now in a bit of a fix over this - supporting the plan will mean losing non-Muslim votes while opposing it will see a backlash from Muslim voters. Depending on how the opposition alliance handles this issue, it will affect not only the thinking of Muslim voters but also the stand of the fence-sitters and new voters.


Corruption has never played a big role in Malaysians' voting decision in the past. However, things have changed this time around with the rapid advent of news portals and the social media.

The opposition has capitalised on this and used it to expose many corrupt practices involving government ministers and their family members. Although Najib announced strong measures to eradicate corruption, it does not seem to be winning the hearts and minds of the people, as those implicated continue to hold office.

Others who have been charged have either won their cases or have their appeals pending.-Aljazeera (April 19, 2013)

Asia’s largest private cord blood bank opens in Singapore

Asia’s largest private cord blood storage facility was opened Thursday in Singapore by Cordlife, which aims to encourage parents to preserve samples of their children’s stem cells.

According to Mr Jeremy Yee, executive director and Chief Executive Officer of Cordlife, only around 25 per cent of children born in Singapore have their cord blood stem cells put into storage by their parents.

Umbilical cord blood at birth is rich in stem cells that can be stored and later used for treatment if the child contracts diseases like leukemia, cerebral palsy, and other blood and immunodeficiency disorders.

The Yishun facility, Cordlife’s third in Singapore, boasts a storage capacity of 650,000 units and state-of-the-art technology, the company said.

Mr Ted Tan, deputy chief executive of SPRING Singapore, who attended the opening ceremony, paid tribute to Cordlife, saying the company’s success is “an excellent showcase of Singapore’s high standing in the healthcare services arena, especially in the Asian region.”

“To continue to stay ahead of competition, apart from sustaining our clinical expertise, our healthcare companies must continue to build strong business capabilities, pursue innovation and invest in their people to provide quality care and ensure business growth,” he added.

Cordlife currently has collaborations with local private hospitals and clinics like Thomson Medical and Raffles Hospital to increase public awareness of cord blood banking services in Singapore. 

At Cordlife, it costs just shy of S$7,000 to have your baby's cord blood stored for 21 years. 

Stem Cord, the only other private cord bank in Singapore, charges an enrolment fee of S$1,580 and S$275 a year.-Channel News Asia (April 19, 2013)

Amnesty: Indonesia 'failing to uphold' Aceh peace terms

Acehnese demonstrators wave banned separatist flags during a protest outside the palace guesthouse in Banda Aceh on 4 April 2013
Indonesia has failed to uphold its 2005 peace agreement commitments with Aceh province, a new report says.

The region could see renewed violence if these issues are not addressed, the Amnesty International report warns.

It says victims are still waiting for justice due to the government's failure to establish a truth commission.

Rights groups say at least 15,000 were killed in the 30 years of fighting between the Indonesia military and the Free Aceh Movement.

The war ended in 2005 after the two sides signed a peace deal giving Aceh more autonomy.

Both sides are accused of human rights abuses.

Victims are still waiting for justice, truth and reparation almost eight years after the conflict, the report says.

"Family members still do not know what has happened to disappeared loved ones and are struggling to get by, while those responsible walk free," Isabelle Arradon, Amnesty International's deputy Asia Pacific director, said.

"The situation is breeding resentment that could sow the seeds of a future return to violence," she added.

One Aceh resident, Murtala, told the BBC Indonesian service his father had been arrested by mistake.

"The following year, in 1999, my brother was killed, and then another brother. We don't know where their graves are," he said.

"My brothers' children are also asking where their fathers' graves are. This is our burden, our sadness."

There has been no response to the report from the Indonesian government so far.

A presidential spokesman told the BBC that he had not read the report yet and so could not comment.

Tensions between Jakarta and Aceh have been running high recently over the decision by Aceh's parliament to use the flag of the now defunct separatist Free Aceh Movement as its official symbol, the BBC's Karishma Vaswani in Jakarta reports.-British Broadcasting Corporation (April 18, 2013)

Aung San Suu Kyi meets Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

Nobel laureate and Burma opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi (L) shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Abe's official residence in Tokyo 18 April 2013.
IMF chief Christine Lagarde has been summoned by a French court to answer questions over alleged abuse of office during her time as France's finance minister, her lawyer has said.

Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during her first visit to Japan in 27 years.

Mr Abe said he supported Burma's reforms, pledging to help Burma "in building its future".

Aung San Suu Kyi told reporters about the need to stop communal violence in Burma through the "rule of law".

She was last in Japan in 1986, when she worked as a researcher in Kyoto University.

Her week-long visit, which analysts say has highlighted Japan's interest in investing in Burma, ends on Friday.

When asked about the recent communal violence in Burma, Ms Suu Kyi said she opposed violence "committed by anybody against anybody".

"We must learn to accommodate those with different views, but if we want our people to sort out differences we must give them security," she added.

Last month more than 40 people died in clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in the central Burmese town of Meiktila.

Activists have criticised Ms Suu Kyi for not speaking out more forcefully against the violence.

They say that Ms Suu Kyi, who was detained for most of the last two decades because of her efforts to bring democracy to military-ruled Burma, has the moral authority to speak up for Burma's minorities.

Meanwhile, reports from Brussels say the European Union is preparing to lift most sanctions against Burma on Monday - except those on arms sales - in recognition of Burma's reform process.-British Broadcasting Corporation (April 18, 2013)

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Philippines, U.S. military aim for territorial defense force

The Philippines and U.S. military are considering the development of a force capable of handling the Philippines' strategic interest in the South China Sea, a high-ranking U.S. military official said Wednesday.

The statement comes amid rising tension between China and other neighboring countries over some disputed areas in the South China Sea.

During the closing of the two countries' military exercises dubbed Balikatan (Shoulder-to-Shoulder) 2013, Lt. Gen. Terry Robling, commander of the U.S. Marine Corps Forces in the Pacific, said that while the territorial disputes in the Asia-Pacific region will have to be worked on through diplomatic channels, "having a strong defense" is also one tool that can be used, although, he hopes, as a last resort.

"One of the things that I talked to (Philippine military chief) Gen. (Emmanuel) Bautista about was a roadmap for us training with the armed forces of the Philippines," Robling told reporters.

He said they hoped to get the forces to the point of a "national maneuver force" that is best designed for territorial defense.

"I think, at some point, that will happen, but probably, not in the next exercise," he added.

The Philippines remains locked in a territorial row with China over parts of the Spratly group of islands and the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. Tensions flared up in 2011, with the Philippines bringing the issue before the United Nations for arbitration.

The dispute has prompted the Philippine military to shift its strategic focus to territorial defense from internal security threats, which had concentrated on the suppression of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group and communist rebels.

Last year, two missions under the umbrella of Balikatan 2012 were conducted in waters off Palawan province in the central Philippines which is close to the South China Sea, although officials of both countries stated those were not directed at China.

Maj. Gen. Virgilio Domingo, the Balikatan 2013 exercise director from the Philippine side, said officials for Balikatan 2014 will have to discuss whether similar drills will be held again in Palawan.

China for the first time participated Monday in a multinational maritime disaster response tabletop discussion under Balikatan 2013. Beijing's representative joined other delegates from Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Thailand, South Korea and Vietnam.

Hailing it as an accomplishment by itself, China's participation was also regarded by Robling as "very significant" not only in showing the transparency of Balikatan, but also toward the objective of making China a "better partner in the future" in the aspect of humanitarian assistance and disaster response.

"Humanitarian affairs and disaster relief operations -- there is no one country that has domain over that. We need every country in the region to be able to hold together and help countries in need," Robling said.

In his formal remarks at Wednesday's closing ceremony, Robling said Balikatan 2013, which opened April 5, not only strengthened the Philippines and U.S. forces' combined ability to defend each other, but it also "improved the multinational military and civilian disaster response coordination in Southeast Asia and throughout the region."

"We continue to share our long-standing relationship that has contributed to the regional security and stability, one deeply rooted in the Balikatan spirit of cooperation," he said.

Even with the fresh threats from North Korea, Balikatan proved to be an opportunity for the Philippines and the United States to ensure their "operational readiness" against "any emergency that both our countries may face," Domingo added.

"For whatever assistance the United States may require, or we may require from them, I guess, this Balikatan exercise is a test of how we can work together, shoulder to shoulder," he said.

Officials of both countries, meanwhile, expressed interest in eventually expanding Balikatan in the future to include other countries such as Australia and Japan.

Domingo said Australia's participation, for example, "will improve and broaden the perspective of the joint and combined exercises," noting its own unique capabilities.

Some 8,000 American and Philippine troops participated in Balikatan 2013, which also included engineering and humanitarian projects, and with the United States sending C-130s, F-18 Hornets and MV-22 Ospreys.-ABS-CBN News (April 18, 2013)

Taiwan holds first live-fire military drill since 2008

Taiwanese military maneuver M60A3 Patton tanks during Han Kuang military exercises in Penghu county, 17 April 2013

Taiwan has held a live-fire military drill for the first time since 2008.

The drill, which involved its army, navy and air force, simulated a Chinese attack on Taiwan's Penghu Islands.

It is the first time live ammunition has been used in Taiwan's annual military drills since Ma Ying-jeou became president.

China, which views Taiwan as part of its territory, released a defence white paper on Tuesday criticising "Taiwan independence separatist forces".

The operation involved the test of Taiwan's Thunderbolt-2000 multiple rocket launch system for the first time, military officials said.

"[In] the past few years, the Chinese communists have conducted a massive build-up in both quality and quantity following fast economic development," President Ma Ying-jeou said.

"In the fact of the threat, we have to make some preparations if we are to sustain peace in the Taiwan Strait."

Cross-strait relations have improved since Mr Ma assumed office in 2008, but he has come under criticism for getting too close to China, correspondents say.-British Broadcasting Corporation (April 18, 2013)

Indonesia Softening Mining Policy After Industry Backlash

Indonesia appears to be softening a controversial mining policy amid industry criticism and legal challenges to rules whose implementation could cost Southeast Asia’s largest economy up to $10 billion a year in lost exports.

The world’s top exporter of thermal coal, refined tin and nickel ore has pushed to boost exports of finished products and maximize benefits from a sector home to giants such as Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold and Newmont Mining.

Last year Indonesia asked all miners to submit plans to build refineries or smelters ahead of a January 2014 ban on raw mineral exports. Until then a 20 percent tax on ore exports has been levied.

Deputy Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Susilo Siswo Utomo said the focus is to add value to exports, and for that smelters need not necessarily be built.

“The word process does not mean you have to build a smelter. Sometimes you need to wash, to separate the soil and mud. This is also processing,” Utomo told an Australian mining conference in Jakarta on Tuesday.

“We also realize that not all minerals can be processed,” Utomo said.

The government hopes construction will have started on at least 10 smelters by the end of the year when a more concrete processing policy will be in place, he added.

Utomo’s comments come after Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Jero Wacik was quoted in local media as saying the rules were “impossible.”

“We will see what form it will take, so that the law can be carried out, but we are not blocking ourselves,” Wacik told reporters last week.

The rules led to layoffs and forced multiple smaller mines to close as ore shipments came to a standstill, costing the industry $164 million a month in lost sales of nickel and bauxite alone.

Lost exports

Up to $10 billion could be lost annually in exports if the smelter requirement and the export ban remain in place, said a senior Jakarta-based analyst with a US mining company, who did not want to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter. Mining exports from Indonesia last year totaled $31.3 billion.

In a joint meeting in Jakarta on Monday, the country’s top mining associations criticized the processing rules. For lead, zinc and copper, building smelters is not economically viable because of the size of Indonesia’s reserves and the slim refining margins, the Indonesian Mining Association said.

The policy shift would be good news for companies such as Freeport and Newmont, which process ore in the form of concentrate already, but do not smelt all of it locally. Freeport said last month it remained reluctant to build smelting operations in Indonesia..

The smelting requirement has also been a sticking point in their contract renegotiations with the Indonesian government.

“These are interesting and significant developments,” Australian senior trade commissioner Kym Hewett told Reuters on the sidelines of the mining conference, referring to the ministers’ comments.

“Value-adding and processing of minerals mean a lot of different things. It’s not just all smelting and refineries,” Hewett added.

“It remains to be seen where it goes.”-The Jakarta Globe (April 17, 2013)

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Explosions hit Boston Marathon

Two people have been killed and at least 23 injured in two explosions at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, police say.

TV footage showed bloodied runners and spectators being treated at the scene and the road strewn with debris.

Boston police said a third incident occurred at the city's JFK Library and was under investigation.

In a TV address, President Barack Obama said those responsible would feel the "full weight of justice".

"We don't yet have all the answers," he said. "We still do not know who did this or why."

President Obama said he had called Boston Mayor Tom Menino and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick to offer federal assistance.

He said the government would increase security around the US "as necessary'' but did not say whether the White House thought the incident was part of a larger plot.

Mr Obama stopped short of calling the incident an act of terrorism.

The BBC's North America editor Mark Mardell says perhaps this was merely caution, although given that the president will face criticism for not using that word, it is certainly deliberate and may be significant.

Boston's police commissioner has urged people in the city to stay indoors, and not congregate in large groups.

The city mayor's office has set up an emergency hotline for friends and relatives on +1 617 635 4500.

A spokeswoman for Massachusetts General Hospital in the city told Reuters news agency that it was treating 19 victims of the explosions in its emergency room, but information about their condition was not immediately available.

The Federal Aviation Administration has created a no-fly zone over the area, while security at key sites in Washington DC and New York has been tightened.

Vice President Joe Biden - breaking off from a telephone conference call on gun control - said: "Our prayers are with those people in Boston who have suffered injury."

State police officer Roupen Bastajian had just finished the race when he heard the blasts.

"I started running toward the blast and there were people all over the floor," he said.

"We started grabbing tourniquets and started tying legs. At least 25 to 30 people have at least one leg missing, or an ankle missing, or two legs missing."

The first explosion came at about 14:50 local time (18:50 GMT), approximately two hours after the winners crossed the line.

There was a loud explosion on the north side of Boylston Street, just before the finish line. Another loud explosion occurred a few seconds later, and smoke rose from the scene of the blasts.

Bloodied victims were initially rushed to a medical tent set up to care for fatigued runners.

Emergency services descended on the scene, which was quickly locked down.

Stragglers heading for the finish line were rerouted away from the smoking site of the blasts.

Mike Mitchell of Vancouver, Canada, a runner who had finished the race, said he was looking back at the finish line when he saw a "massive explosion."

Smoke rose 50ft (15m) in the air, he told Reuters news agency, and people began running away and screaming after hearing the noise. "Everybody freaked out," he said.

A fire then broke out at the John F Kennedy presidential library a few miles away from the finish line.

Police said it may have been caused by an incendiary device but did not appear to be related to the bombings.

The annual Boston Marathon attracts a large field of runners and hundreds of thousands of spectators.

British police are reviewing security plans for Sunday's London Marathon, the next major international marathon, following events in Boston.-British Broadcasting Corporation (April 16, 2013)

Indonesia may have to import coal by 2020

Indonesia is currently the world’s biggest thermal coal exporter but Southeast Asia’s largest economy may have to import the fossil fuel in the next decade to meet its power needs, the country’s main utility firm says.

State-owned PT Perusahaan Listrik Negara (PLN) coal division head Helmi Najamuddin said in an interview recently that the country exported 305 million tons of coal last year but only consumed 67 million metric tons for domestic needs.

“Coal consumption was only 18 per cent of the total output in 2012 as the rest was exported. But the domestic need for coal will surge in the coming years and we may have to import coal to meet the demand,” he said at PLN’s headquarters in Jakarta.

Helmi cited research by Wood Mackenzie, an Edinburgh-based global energy research group, which said that while Indonesia’s coal reserves were only 3 per cent of the world’s total resources, the country remains the biggest coal exporter in the world as its exports were higher than its domestic consumption.

Indonesia’s coal reserves are estimated at 20 billion tons, according to data from the country’s mining associations, which is smaller than other countries such as China, which has coal reserves of 115 billion tons, and Australia, which possesses around 76 billion tons of reserves.

“Next year, the country will need 67.8 million tons of coal to produce electricity [from both PLN and independent producers]. This may increase to 101.4 million metric tons in 2017 and 125.7 million tons in 2020, which means at that time we may have to import coal,” he said.

This year, the government set the quota under its domestic market obligation (DMO) policy for coal miners at 74.2 million tons for 2013 or 9.4 per cent lower than the 82.02-million-ton quota imposed for 2012.

Out of the total quota, PLN, while still receiving the lion’s share for 2013 of 49.29 million tons has been allocated less than in 2012 as delays in building power plants meant that PLN only used 60 per cent of the 57.2 million tons allocated to it for 2012.

Helmi said the government should not lower the DMO merely because PLN did not consume all the coal that had been allocated because several of its coal-fired power plants had not entered operation as planned. “We acknowledge that we must speed up the construction of the power plans but lowering the domestic quota, which means increasing exports, is not the answer,” he said.

In addition, he said, the country did not levy an export tax on coal producers, thus encouraging miners to sell their coal overseas.

In response to PLN’s complaint, the Energy and Mineral Resources Ministry director general for electricity Jarman Sudimo said the DMO policy was to ensure the domestic need for coal remained covered.

“The ministry’s geology body has said that Indonesia has proven coal reserves of 28 billion tons and 120.34 billion tons of potential resources. Under the assumption that we produce 350 million tons of coal per year, these reserves will still be available for the next 80 years and thus our position is still safe for now,” he said.-Asia News Network (April 16, 2013)

Thai-Cambodian border hearing opens

File photo: Cambodian police officials standing outside the Preah Vihear temple on 18 July 2012
The UN's highest court has begun hearings on the ownership of land beside an ancient temple on the Thai-Cambodian border.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled in 1962 that the Preah Vihear temple belonged to Cambodia.

However, a border dispute remains over the surrounding areas of land, which both Cambodia and Thailand claim.

Fighting in the area in April 2011 left 18 people dead and tens of thousands displaced.

Both sides agreed to withdraw troops from the disputed area in December 2011.

On Monday, Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said that the dispute had "darkened relations" between the two countries.

He warned that failure to clarify the boundaries would "probably have unfortunately consequences which would prevent the two states from living in a friendly, peaceful and co-operative environment".

Thailand, which will make its case on Wednesday, said that it would "fight the case transparently and with [its] best effort".

Thailand was broadcasting the hearing live on its state-run television channel on Monday, AFP news agency reported.-British Broadcasting Corporation (April 16, 2013)