Saturday, May 04, 2013

In race for investment grade, Philippines speeds past Indonesia

The Philippines and Indonesia, declared as the darlings of investors worldwide, are now on uneven footing, with Manila overtaking Jakarta in securing Standard and Poor's (S&P) nod for an investment grade.

On Thursday, S&P raised its sovereign credit rating on the Philippines to 'BBB-/A-3' from 'BB+/B'. The rating firm assigned a stable outlook, which means the new credit score will hold for at least the next six months to a year.

S&P also raised the country's long-term Asean regional scale rating to 'axA-' from 'axBBB+', the transfer and convertibility assessment to 'BBB' from 'BBB-', and affirmed its Asean regional scale short-term rating of 'axA-2'.

In contrast, S&P revised its outlook on Indonesia to stable from positive and affirmed its 'BB+' long-term and 'B' short-term sovereign credit ratings and 'axBBB+/axA-2' ASEAN regional scale rating.

A 'BB+' is a notch below investment grade, which starts a 'BBB-'.

Both countries have been on the radar screen of investors looking for better yields than what they can get from crisis-ridden Europe and still-struggling US. The two Southeast Asian nations enjoy an economic list from domestic consumption.

Indonesia, however, is still saddled with heavy fuel subsidies, which has dented its finances. Bloomberg said Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has delayed cutting fuel subsidies to allocate more funds to infrastructure spending.

The Philippines, in contrast, has weaned itself from subsidies with the liberalization of the power industry as early as the 1990s.

"For the Philippines, this is yet another confirmation that [President Benigno] Aquino’s reforms have borne fruit, which would help in attracting not just short-term flows, but long term direct investments," Bloomberg quoted Credit Suisse Group AG economist Santitarn Sathirathai as saying.

"The rating momentum for Indonesia is moving in the wrong direction,” the economist added.

Japnese financial group Nomura said it believes the divergence between the two countries will continue because of the lack of reforms in Indonesia ahead of the 2014 elections.

'In contrast, after the 13 May mid-term elections, the Philippines will likely have a more supportive legislative body to sustain fiscal reforms," Nomura said.-Interaksyon (May 04, 2013)

Indonesia says 2 arrested for Myanmar Embassy plot

Police officers stand guard outside a house where police found explosive materials following a raid in Jakarta, Indonesia, Friday, May 3, 2013. Indonesia's elite anti-terror squad seized five homemade bombs and arrested two suspected militants who allegedly planned to attack the Myanmar Embassy to protest that country's treatment of Muslims, police said Friday. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)
Hours after Indonesia announced it had foiled an alleged plot to bomb the Myanmar Embassy in Jakarta, hundreds of hard-line Muslims gathered outside the mission Friday calling for jihad in that country to fight against persecution of their Islamic brothers.

Two suspected militants were arrested the night before, and five homemade bombs were seized from a backpack they were carrying after authorities were tipped to their whereabouts, said National Police spokesman Brig. Gen. Boy Rafli Amar.

Their interrogation led to a rented house where other explosive materials were found.

Amar said the men, Achmad Taufiq, 22, and Sefa Riano, 29, were part of a cell allegedly involved in recent attacks against Indonesian police.

"They have a link with terrorism from evidence we have seized," Amar said. "We are still investigating and searching for other alleged group members." Amar would not say when the embassy attack was to have taken place.

He said the suspects told authorities they wanted to retaliate against Myanmar for recent attacks on Rohingya Muslims there.

Meanwhile, up to 2,000 police were deployed Friday to secure the Myanmar Embassy and its ambassador's house before a demonstration by the Islamic Defenders Front. Several hundred protesters showed up dressed in white with some holding banners that read: "We want jihad" and "Stop genocide in Myanmar."

They gathered in the street in front of rows of police, peacefully waving flags and shouting: "Muslims unite! Will not be defeated!"

The U.S. Embassy issued a notice urging its citizens to stay away from the area. Truckloads of officers, many in riot gear, were placed at nearby buildings and hotels while water cannons and armored vehicles were parked on the street.

Similar protests with hundreds of participants were also held in the central Java town of Solo and at a Buddhist temple in Medan, the provincial capital of North Sumatra.

Sectarian violence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar has killed scores, and thousands of Muslims have been driven from their homes. Earlier this week, one person was killed and 160 mosques, homes and shops were destroyed in an area not far from Yangon, Myanmar's biggest city.

Members of the Rohingya ethnic group in particular face severe discrimination. They are considered to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, despite the fact many were born in Myanmar.

Indonesians have rallied in defense of Rohingya Muslims in the past, and last year jailed radical Islamic cleric Abu Bakar Bashir sent a letter to Myanmar's president threatening to attack the country over their persecution.

Ten days ago, Bashir issued a new call for jihad and urged Indonesian Muslims to go to Myanmar to fight.

Bashir is the spiritual leader of al-Qaida-linked militants blamed for a string of deadly attacks in Indonesia, including the 2002 bombings that killed 202 people, mostly foreign tourists, on the resort island of Bali.

"I can't wait to go to Myanmar for jihad to defend our Muslim brothers there," said Adit Pratama, 26, who attended Friday's demonstration, adding funds are now being raised to help Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and for those who are ready for jihad there.

A month after initial Bashir's threat, a would-be suicide bomber surrendered to police after a change of heart, saying he had contemplated targeting Buddhists over the Rohingya issue.

Terrorist attacks aimed at foreigners in Indonesia have been largely replaced in recent years by smaller, less deadly strikes targeting the government, mainly police and anti-terrorism forces.-Yahoo News (May 04, 2013)

Thai PM files lawsuit over ‘prostitute’ facebook post

A lawyer for Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has filed a defamation suit against an influential cartoonist alleging he compared the premier to a prostitute in a facebook post, police said Friday.

Chai Rachawat, a cartoonist for a prominent daily newspaper, posted pictures of Yingluck on Tuesday accompanied by the words “… a prostitute is not an evil person, the hooker only sells body. But an evil woman sells the nation”.

His post apparently took aim at the premier’s appearance at a democracy forum a day earlier in Mongolia where she gave an unusually fiery speech condemning the 2006 overthrow of her brother Thaksin in an army coup.

“A lawyer authorized by the Prime Minister filed lawsuits against him for defamation,” Police Colonel Pattarapol Sanitwong Na Ayudhya of Bangkok police told AFP.

The lawyer also filed two further claims — one for libel and one under the contentious computer crime act, he added.

Combined, the charges can carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail, a second police official said requesting anonymity.

In her address to the conference in Ulan Bator on Monday, Yingluck decried “anti-democratic forces” in Thailand for toppling her brother — who now lives in self-imposed exile but maintains a deep influence over Thai politics.

“Thailand lost track and the people spent almost a decade to regain their democratic freedom… Thailand lost international credibility,” she said, adding her government, elected in a landslide in 2011, was also being undermined by those same unnamed forces.

Her speech caused uproar in the bitterly politically divided kingdom, with rival academics and senators demanding the premier swiftly apologise for her comments.

A lawmaker from Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party condemned the cartoonist’s post as “a violation of women’s rights and insult on women” that defamed the premier.

“Chai Rachawat’s defamatory comment calling the country’s leader a whore is totally unacceptable,” MP Jarupan Kuldiloke said in a statement on behalf of the party’s women lawmakers.

Bangkok police said they will now probe the allegation against Chai Rachawat — whose real name is Somchai Katunyutanan — before deciding whether to press charges.-Philippine Daily Inquirer (May 04, 2013)

Myanmar leader plans landmark US visit

THEIN SEIN TALKS. Obama meets with Myanmar's President Thein Sein. Photo by Pete Souza from
Myanmar's leader plans a landmark visit to Washington this month, a source said Thursday, May 2, as the United States eased visa restrictions in a sign of support despite a surge in anti-Muslim violence.

President Thein Sein, who would be the first leader of the country to visit in half a century, is planning to be in the American capital around May 20 or May 21, a staff member at the US Congress told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The trip would include a summit with President Barack Obama at the White House. Administration officials said they had no announcement to make but have previously said that they were studying a visit by Thein Sein.

In another step towards thawing relations, Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday ended a 1996 ban on US visas to Myanmar nationals accused of hindering democracy during the country's decades of harsh military rule.

Separate restrictions remain on visas for nationals accused of human rights violations. A State Department official said the 1996 ban was overly broad by including government workers, officers and even some pensioners.

"Clearly many people in those categories are now contributing to the reform process and need to engage" through visits to the United States, the official told reporters on condition of anonymity.

Suspended sanctions

Obama has suspended most sanctions, although he issued a declaration Thursday that keeps them on the books. The move allows the United States to reimpose restrictions in response to future setbacks, unlike the European Union, which recently terminated most measures entirely.

The US decisions recognize "the important changes the government of Burma has made and encourage and empower the government and the people of Burma to continue on the path of political and economic reform," the State Department official said.

The congressional source said the administration was considering starting to use the name Myanmar, the leaders' preferred usage, rather than Burma, as favored by exiled groups.

Washington is also reviewing whether Myanmar can enter an agreement that gives duty-free access for some 5,000 goods.

Obama paid his own visit to Myanmar in November, when he praised the nation for its transition but called for progress on reforms, particularly in the treatment of ethnic minorities.

But Thein Sein's visit is expected to be controversial due to a surge in violence against the Rohingya, a Muslim people who are not considered citizens by Myanmar.

A recent Human Rights Watch study accused Myanmar of a "campaign of ethnic cleansing" against the Rohingya, saying that at least 211 have been killed since June 2012 and tens of thousands more forcibly displaced.

Jennifer Quigley, executive director of the US Campaign for Burma, a Washington-based pressure group, accused the Obama administration of only responding to positive developments and not to setbacks.

"To invite him at this point of time would really just reinforce the message of a positive relationship when there really has been no move by the US government to tie this to the Burmese government taking necessary steps" to curb the violence, she said.

The State Department official distanced the visa easing from the communal violence, saying that the United States had "profound concerns" but pointing to a statement by Thein Sein in support of religious freedom and tolerance.

"The military regime, for half a century, would respond to conflict with more violence and repression. This central government is trying to do things differently," the official said.

It would be the first visit to Washington by a head of the country since military leader Ne Win was invited in 1966 by president Lyndon Johnson.

Thein Sein has previously visited the United States to attend the UN General Assembly, but only held meetings in New York.

A former general, Thein Sein surprised even many skeptics by launching a raft of reforms after taking office in 2011 as a nominal civilian, including freeing political prisoners and relaxing censorship.

He has allowed opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi to take a seat in parliament, a drastic turnaround for the Nobel Peace laureate, who spent most of the previous two decades under house arrest.-Rappler (May 04, 2013)

Ship for Southeast Asian Youth Programme (SSEAYP) alumni hold 25th International General Assembly in Laos

The Philippine Embassy in Vientiane reported to the Department of Foreign Affairs that the 25th Ship for Southeast Asian Youth Program (SSEAYP) International General Assembly (SIGA) was hosted by Laos from April 22 to 26. 

SSEAYP International (SI), which was established in 1987 and is comprised of the SSEAYP alumni associations in all ASEAN countries and Japan, has been meeting annually for a general assembly. This was the first time that Laos hosted the event. 

A total of 400 participants gathered for the assembly, including 226 foreign participants, 150 Lao participants and 24 youth representatives from Lao line ministries. Fourteen (14) participants from the Philippines were among those who joined the General Assembly, led by SI Philippines President Ma. Aurelia P. Florentino. Ms. Florentino was a participating youth (PY) of the SSEAYP in 1975. 

Other Filipino participants who joined the delegation were Mr. Baibon Sangid (1990), Mr. Pocholo Gonzales (2000), Mr. Feliciano Manuel Manlulu II (1991), Mr. Elmer Ronquillo (1991), Ms. Ma. Teresa Cuerdo (1985), Dr. Edwin Vallo Antonio (1997), Mr. Douglas Austria (1985) Mrs. Luisa Austria (1985), Ms. Sahlee Camposano (1991), Dr. Clement Camposano (1991), Ms. Zenaida Rico (1981) and Mr Arthur Rico (1981). 

The opening ceremony of the 25th SIGA was held on April 25. It was attended by Lao Foreign Affairs Deputy Minister Sunthone Xayachak; Lao Youth Union Secretary General Vilayvong Bouddakham; Lao Information, Culture and Tourism Deputy Minister Savankhone Razmountry; Ambassadors and representatives of the ASEAN and Japan; officials from the diplomatic missions in Vientiane; Lao Youth Union officials; and other Lao government line ministries. 

The Ship for Southeast Asian Youth Programme started in 1974 and has produced an alumni registration of more than 100,000 from the 10 ASEAN countries and Japan.  

The SSEAYP International General Assembly brings together members of the various alumni associations in each of the participating countries to reestablish linkages and friendships and hold workshops and panel discussions to continue the learning process of each other’s country and the region. The respective alumni associations are also given time to report on the activities that it has undertaken in the past year, particularly its socio-civic undertakings. 

At the welcome reception held on April 25, various individuals and ex-PYs were recognized for their achievements in different fields. One of the awardees was Edwin V. Antonio, a PY of SSEAYP 1997 and currently the Executive Council Officer in the National Committee on Northern Cultural Communities under the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.-Philippine Information Agency (May 04, 2013)

10 abducted children handed over to Vietnam

10 abducted children handed over to Vietnam
China's Ministry of Public Security on Friday handed over 10 children trafficked from Vietnam to its Vietnamese counterpart in a border city in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region.

At a ceremony in Fangchenggang city, Liu Ancheng, head of the ministry's criminal investigation department, urged the two countries to boost cooperation to stop human trafficking.

The abducted baby boys were in poor health and suffered from pneumonia and other diseases when they were rescued by Chinese police on July 15, 2011, according to a notice released on the ministry's website.

One infant was unconscious because the human traffickers gave him sleeping pills to stop him from crying, it said.

The children - from 10 days old to seven months old when they were rescued - received medical treatment and promptly recovered, it said.

Chinese police informed their Vietnamese counterparts of the children's situation and asked them to check their identities and find their parents - partly the reason why the children were handed over more than a year after being rescued.

Before the handover on Friday, some of the children were living in a welfare institution, while others were with foster families in Fangchenggang.

Police from Guangxi and Guangdong also arrested 43 suspects, including 10 from Vietnam, in the joint action.

Some months before the operation, police from Fangchenggang were tipped off that a criminal gang was smuggling children from Vietnam and selling them to places including Shanwei and Jieyang in neighboring Guangdong province.

Liu, at the Ministry of Public Security, said the criminal gang was experienced and organized, made use of the complex geographic conditions of the border area in Guangxi, and that its members were assigned specific tasks.

The difficult terrain near the Beilun River, the cross-border river, has made human trafficking possible as smugglers are able to avoid checkpoints at the border by using countryside roads at night, Liu was quoted by China Central Television as saying.

He said the criminal suspects in Vietnam "used flashlights and body language at the border to communicate with their associates who came to pick up the babies instead of using phones".

It remains unclear whether the suspects have been sentenced.

According to data released by the Ministry of Public Security, Chinese police have rescued 1,804 trafficked women and 41 children from Vietnam since 2009.

Chen Wei, a lawyer from the Beijing Yingke Law Firm, urged the Chinese government to stop granting buyers immunity from prosecution to eliminate human trafficking.

Chinese law stipulates that whoever buys an abducted woman or child can face a sentence of up to three years in prison, but adds that buyers who neither obstruct the police's rescue actions nor abuse the child can be exempted from prosecution.

"Cracking down on buyers is the key to eliminate human trafficking," Chen stressed, adding that the government should also tighten up patrols at the border.-China Daily (May 04, 2013)

Friday, May 03, 2013

S&P lifts Philippines to investment grade status

A month after the Philippines obtained its first investment-grade lift, Standard and Poor's Ratings Services on Thursday also upgraded the country to above-junk status.

In a report, S&P said it raised its sovereign credit ratings on the Philippines to 'BBB-/A-3' from 'BB+/B'. The rating firm assigned a stable outlook, which means the new credit score will hold for at least the next six months to a year.

S&P also raised the country's long-term Asean regional scale rating to 'axA-' from 'axBBB+', the transfer and convertibility assessment to 'BBB' from 'BBB-', and affirmed its Asean regional scale short-term rating of 'axA-2'.

"The upgrade on the Philippines reflects a strengthening external profile, moderating inflation, and the government's declining reliance on foreign currency debt," said S&P credit analyst Agost Benard.

"We expect the country to move into a near-balanced external position because of persistent current account surpluses, in which large net transfers from Filipinos working abroad more than offset ongoing trade deficits," he said.

Finance Secretary Cesar V. Purisima said this ratings action is another vote of confidence and affirms the market's recognition that the Philippine economy's "underlying soundness" is on a par with countries that are already considered investment grade.

“We are very pleased that S&P, along with Fitch, has also now affirmed the Philippines’ strong economic and fiscal gains, progress that has been made thanks to the discipline and prudence in financial management instilled by President Aquino in his administration.  Truly, good governance—tuwid na daan—is bringing structurally sustainable growth for the Philippines!" Purisima said.

"For now, we must redouble our efforts to remove the remaining constraints to our growth if we are to reach even greater heights. The Philippine Government will continue to focus on infrastructure development, on creating a larger fiscal space to support social investments, and on further opening up the economy," he added.

Trade Secretary Gregory L. Domingo said the upgrade "is a tremendous stamp of approval by ratings agencies on the good governance agenda of PNoy [that] will further support the continued rush of investment."

Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan said S&P's move "should further strengthen the confidence of the investment community on the economy," adding that, "It is a recognition that the governance and economic fundamentals of our country for medium to long term growth are strong."

"In the medium to long term, investment growth is what drives expansion of employment opportunities. Poverty can't be licked for good without employment growth," he added.

Budget Secretary Florencio Abad said the Aquino administration would maximize the benefits of the credit rating upgrade since this would bring down the cost of borrowing for the country.

“[This will] eventually widen our fiscal space especially for infrastructure spending. An investment grade credit rating also lowers our country’s risk profile, which could help us attract more investors and create more jobs," he said.

In a statement, MalacaƱang said S&P's upgrade would translate to "lower costs for hospitals, schools, and other vital structural improvements for the benefit of our people."

"It is further indicative of sustained confidence in the Philippine economy: of our collective resilience, optimism, and growing potential, amidst global economic uncertainty, borne not just on the shoulders of discipline and prudence that has marked the economic policies of the Aquino administration, but also on the hard work and dedication of the Filipino people," the Office of the Presidential Spokesperson said.

Businessmen welcomed S&P's move, the second since Fitch Ratings last month gave the Philippines its first investment grade rating.

S&P's upgrade is "[d]efinitely another plus that will make the Philippines more prominent in the radar screen of investors and fund managers looking for an investment destination," said Management Association of the Philippines (MAP) president Melito S. Salazar Jr.

"This is a welcome development. All improvements in the country's global ratings are good for business," said American Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines (AmCham) senior adviser John D. Forbes.-Interaksyon (May 03, 2013)

Indonesia, China 'committed to peaceful solution' to South China Sea issue

Indonesia and China are committed to a peaceful solution to the South China Sea issue, Foreign Affairs Minister Marty Natalegawa said here on Thursday after meeting with his counterpart Minister Wang Yi.

"Both Indonesia and China, also other countries in ASEAN, believe that we need to implement the Declaration of Conduct on the South China Sea and continue negotiations to form a Code of Conduct (CoC). There is no opposition among one party to another here," said the minister.

Marty emphasized related parties need to reach a comfort level to continue the negotiations for the Code of Conduct.

Meanwhile, Minister Wang Yi reiterated China’s stance on the South China Sea issue, saying his country wants to settle disputes in the South China Sea by conducting consultations with related countries.

"China will do its best to maintain peace and stability in the disputed area. This will not change. We are committed to our stance which is reflected in our policy and our action on the field," the minister added.

As to the negotiation process of CoC, Minister Wang Yi said China is open for discussion. However, he emphasized that the draft of a CoC needs to be agreed on by all parties.

China, Taiwan and four ASEAN member countries--Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam--are involved in overlapping claims to parts of the South China Sea.-Interaksyon (May 03, 2013)

Why fast fashion giants flock to Vietnam's garment industry

From factory fires to slave labor, the growth of mass manufacturing in South East Asia has not been problem-free, but having shed its "sweatshop" reputation, the region could have lessons for Bangladesh.

The building collapse near Dhaka last week that left 550 dead and missing has unleashed global consternation over conditions in the factories that produce fast fashion -- cheap, catwalk-inspired clothes -- for top global brands.

Amid talk of consumer boycotts, Bangladesh needs to reform its industry before fashionistas wonder "if they should be wearing blood-stained dresses", Kalpona Akter of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity told AFP.

Communist Vietnam -- which produces clothes for disposable fashion industry giants Zara, Mango and H&M -- shows it is possible to have "extremely strong" labor laws, fair wages and a healthy garment industry, experts say.

"It is not a race to the bottom here," Tara Rangarajan, program manager of the International Labour Organisation's Better Work project in Vietnam, told AFP.

"Sweatshops are part of a short term, immediate payback, low cost strategy. (Vietnam wants to) be competitive in the long term on something besides just cheap labor," so it is trying to enforce and improve its laws, she added.

Buyers are attracted to Vietnam -- where wages are some three times higher than Bangladesh -- if "they have reputations they are trying to maintain", she added.

Garment exports, worth $3.1 billion in the first quarter of 2013, were up 18.3 percent year on year. The government's "number one priority" is boosting technology, Vietnamese legal expert Nguyen Dinh Huan told AFP.

In contrast, Bangladesh has "specialised in low cost production" and embraced the sweatshop model rather than investing in technology and upgrading, said Nayla Ajaltouni coordinator of the Collectif Ethique sur l'etiquette.

"The industry has grown very quickly, (which) is why we're seeing this concentration of chronic health and safety issues," she told AFP.

Outrage over the recent building collapse could prove a turning point, she said. Minimum wages were increased in Bangladesh in 2011 "not for philanthropic reasons but because protests were starting to disturb the supply chain".

"It is a bit cynical but this disaster is also a critical point where brands can be pushed to move forward -- by the media, by citizens," she added.

In Thailand, standards in factories improved significantly after a fire at a toy factory killed 188 people in 1993, although activists say conditions particularly in smaller factories can still be problematic.

In Cambodia, where the garment industry developed in the 1990s, avoiding the "sweatshop" label was a conscious strategy, with the country embracing an ILO Better Factories program -- which union leaders say has only been minimally effective.

Several thousands of garment workers marched in the capital Phnom Penh on Wednesday to mark May Day and demand better pay and working conditions.

But Abdus Salam Murshedy, president of the Exporters Association of Bangladesh, said that Bangladesh "already has world class factories... some buyers just avoid placing orders there to maximise their profits".

The trouble is "consumers are never really presented the real relationship between cheap clothes and labour abuses and health and safety standards, because of marketing, branding," said Anne Elizabeth Moore, an award-winning author.

"In this set-up, buyers really aren't motivated to care about labour issues unless they're going for the altruism dollar, which is a long shot," Moore, who has written extensively on the global garment industry, told AFP.

But attention on the recent accident in Bangladesh "is pressuring all companies, whether they were in that building or not, to tighten their supply chain -- which is good," said one Hong Kong-based manager with a global fashion brand who did not want to be named as her company policy bars her from talking to the media.

"But ultimately buyers cannot go in and change the system in Bangladesh. (The government) needs to take responsibility," the manager added, pointing out that unlike Vietnam, Dhaka neither imposes a standard annual minimum wage increase nor allows garment workers to unionise.

Unless standards improve, Dhaka also needs to realise that its cash-cow industry -- which accounts for some 80 percent of export earnings -- is at risk, she said.

"A lot of buyers are looking into Myanmar, Kenya, Ethiopia. They don't see Bangladesh as a long term hub anymore... there are too many problems."-ABS-CBN News (May 03, 2013)

Gun attack in Thailand's south leaves six dead

Workers clean the debris following Wednesday night's shooting outside a grocery store in Pattani province, southern Thailand, 2 May 2013
Six people, including a young child, have been killed in southern Thailand after a gun attack at a village shop, police say.

At least four gunmen fired bullets at the shop in Pattani province before escaping on motorbikes.

The attack comes days after a second round of peace talks between Muslim separatists and the Thai government.

More than 5,000 people have been killed since a separatist insurgency reignited in the Muslim-majority region in 2004.

A toddler was among those killed in the attack on Wednesday night. Another man was also injured, according to reports. All those killed were believed to be Buddhists.

A note left at the scene did not identify the group behind the attack, but said it was in retaliation for the deaths of some of their fellow members.

That may have been a reference to events nearly three months ago when 16 insurgents were killed during an attempt to overrun a Thai military base, says the BBC's Jonah Fisher in Bangkok.

This attack casts further doubt on the recently started peace process between the Thai government and one separatist rebel group, the BRN, our correspondent adds.

Two rounds of talks have been held in Malaysia. At the most recent last week, Thai negotiators urged rebel leaders to demonstrate their credibility by reducing attacks.

Thailand is a Buddhist-majority country, but Muslims are the majority in the three southern provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat.

Muslim militants, who are fighting for greater autonomy, are believed to carry out the almost daily gun and bomb attacks against civilians and security forces in the area.-British Broadcasting Corporation (May 03, 2013)

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Myanmar Muslims face uncertain future after attack

They slept terrified in the fields, watching their homes burn through the night. And when they returned on Wednesday, nothing was left but smoldering ash and debris.

One day after hundreds of Buddhists armed with bricks stormed a clutch of Muslim villages in the closest explosion of sectarian violence yet to Myanmar's main city, Yangon, newly displaced Muslims combed through the wasteland of their wrecked lives. Unable to go home, they faced an uncertain future — too fearful of more attacks even to leave.

"We ran into the fields and didn't carry anything with us," Hla Myint, a 47-year-old father of eight, said after the mobs overran his village.

Tears welling in his eyes, he added, "Now, we have nothing left."

Thet Lwin, a deputy commissioner of police for the region, put the casualty toll from Tuesday's assaults at one dead and nine injured. He said police have detained 18 attackers who destroyed 157 homes and shops and at least two mosques in the town of Okkan, 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Yangon, and three outlying villages.

The unrest was the first reported since late March, when similar Buddhist-led violence swept the town of Meikthila, further north in central Myanmar, killing at least 43 people. It underscored the failure of reformist President Thein Sein's government to curb increasing attacks on minority Muslims in a nation struggling to emerge from half a century of oppressive military rule.

Muslim residents said a mixture of local villagers and people from nearby areas were responsible for the attacks around Okkan. Police gave no details on who was behind the assaults. But a local politician from the pro-government National Union party, Myint Thein, said members of a Buddhist campaign called "969" were involved.

The movement, which urges Buddhists to shop only at Buddhist stores and avoid marrying, hiring or selling their homes or land to Muslims, is small but has spread rapidly in recent months, and human rights activists say it has helped fuel anti-Muslim violence.

Stickers and signs bearing the 969 emblem — each digit enumerates virtues of the Lord Buddha, his teachings and the community of monks — have been popping up on shops, taxis, and buses in numerous towns and cities, including Yangon.
Hla Myint said that after the March violence, residents of Okkan began conducting informal security patrols to protect the village. But nothing happened for weeks and authorities told them not to worry.

"Things happened unexpectedly," he told The Associated Press. "When the crowds came, they shouted things like 'Don't defend yourselves, we will only destroy the mosque, not your homes, we won't harm you.'"

They burned his village's mosque, whose corrugated iron roof lay crumpled on the ground between the building's charred walls, and "they destroyed our houses" anyway, he said.

Around 300 police stood guard Wednesday in the area, which was quiet. Debris from trashed shops in Okkan spilled into dirt roadsides. The town's market was crowded, but Muslims were absent.

It was not immediately clear what would happen to the newly displaced in Okkan. Some were taking refuge in the few houses that were not razed; others simply sat in the open, under the shade of trees.

Several Muslims said they didn't feel safe, but would not leave because they feared more attacks elsewhere. They wondered how they would survive and get food.

Hla Aung, a 39-year-old Muslim who lost his home in the violence, said police did nothing to protect him — echoing reports of idle security forces in Meikhtila and elsewhere. "They didn't help us. They did not do anything. That's why it's really difficult to trust them."

Aung Myint, 46, who lives in a predominantly Buddhist area nearby that was undamaged, said several men from his village were beaten after they tried to convince the attackers to stop. "We didn't dare to help them because we were worried for our own security," he said.

Stopping the spread of sectarian violence has proven a major challenge for Thein Sein's government since it erupted in western Rakhine state last year. Human rights groups have recently accused his administration of failing to crack down on Buddhist extremists as violence has spread closer to Yangon, at times overwhelming riot police who have stood by as machete-wielding crowds attacked Muslims and their property.

Last week, New York-based Human Rights Watch accused authorities in Rakhine state — including Buddhist monks, local politicians and government officials, and state security forces — of fomenting an organized campaign of "ethnic cleansing" against a Muslim minority known as the Rohingya. Hundreds of people were killed there, and some 125,000 people, mostly Muslims, remain displaced with large swathes of the state effectively segregated along sectarian lines.

On Monday, a government-appointed commission investigating the Rakhine violence issued proposals to ease tensions there — including doubling the number of security forces in the volatile region and introducing family planning programs to stem population growth among minority Muslims.

Muslims account for about 4 percent of the nation's roughly 60 million people. About one third of the nation's population consists of ethnic minority groups, and most have waged wars against the government for autonomy.

Pitman reported from Bangkok. Associated Press video journalist Raul Gallego Abellan in Okkan contributed to this report.-Yahoo News (May 02, 2013)

Lao labourers urged to upgrade skills

Lao labourers have been urged to improve their education levels, technical knowledge and skills, and social sensibilities in order to fully participate in the country's socio-economic development and improving quality of life.

Bounnhang Vorachit ( fourth right ), high level Party and government officials and other invited guests stand for the national anthem at the meeting.

Vice President Bounnhang Vorachit urged Lao labourers throughout the country to improve themselves in his address at the meeting held on Tuesday in Vientiane to mark the 127th anniversary of International Labour Day which falls on May 1 every year.

Bounnhang highlighted the opportunities and challenges regarding labourers' development amidst scientific and technological progress, modernisation, and regional and international integration.

“Progress and integration is both an opportunity and challenge because despite the fact our workers and labourers have increased in number, on average their education, technical knowledge and skills remain low,” he stated.

High level Party and government officials, along with hundreds of representatives from mass organistions and students attended the meeting to salute the achievements of the international workers' movement in world history.

Bounnhang reminded the gathering that the enthusiasm of Lao labourers in developing their skills is limited. Moreover some of them just keep working without learning Party directions policies, and government laws, so as a consequence their sense of responsibility to the nation and organisational awareness is low.

On the other hand, many workers have to contend with unsafe working environments, said Bounnhang, who is a Permanent Member of the Government Secretariat.

Many workers and labourers are not well protected enough, employed in unsafe workplaces with unregulated sanitation and hazardous conditions. Often they do not understand their rights or role in society, but simply keep working to maintain a meagre existence.

Some business units do not respect the Labour Law and force workers to work unlimited overtime without appropriate compensation, while many have still not implemented the minimum wage rise the government announced at the start of 2012.

Some businesses were cheating by including allowances and other benefits in their calculation of the total monthly payment of the minimum wage or have yet to fully implement the policy.

“The Party and government acknowledge that the careless behaviours of employers affect the rights and legal interests of Lao workers and labourers,” Bounnhang said.

Bounnhang, a Politburo member, stressed that the Party and government must give persistent attention to solving the issues relating to the Lao labour situation and workers' living conditions.

In this regard, he represented the Politburo to call on Party committees, trade unions at all levels, civil servants and trade union members to pay attention in regards to political ideology and social strata concept training for Lao workers.

They should focus on educating them about the Party direction and government policy, laws and regulations, ethics, labour discipline, as well as ensuring there is sufficient employment available to them.

He called on the authorities to enhance the protection of the rights and interests of Lao workers and labourers who are still disadvantaged and may be affected by the free flow of labour when the Asean Economic Community is established in 2015.

He also called on all members of trade unions to be good role models, enhancing the discipline of trade union members working in government agencies, to prevent negative behaviours such as corruption, bribery, legal violations, inertia at work and absenteeism.

In comparison with other neighbouring countries, the Vice President noted, Laos is lagging behind regarding outstanding labour characteristics, while negative behaviours such as extravagance, cheating, greed, narcotic drugs, laziness, carelessness, and legal violations are common in the workplace.-Asia News Network (May 02, 2013)

Malaysia's clean-polls pledge smudged by ink flap

Malaysia's opposition and clean-polls activists said Wednesday the integrity of weekend elections was in doubt after revelations that indelible ink meant to prevent fraud can be easily washed off.

Pressured by huge demonstrations for free and fair polls in recent years, the country's long-ruling government is introducing indelible ink in Sunday's vote, the first in history in which the opposition has a chance of winning power.

But reports have mounted that security personnel who took part in early voting had easily been able to clean off the ink, which is applied to a person's finger to show they had voted and is supposed to remain visible for at least a week.

"Definitely we are concerned. The whole integrity of the electoral process has come into question," said veteran opposition politician Lim Kit Siang.

"(The Election Commission) should immediately address this problem. Otherwise it will be a black mark on the commission and undermine the public confidence in the results."

The Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition that has ruled since independence in 1957 has been under pressure over charges it sought to manipulate the vote through an allegedly biased electoral system.

The opposition has claimed that electoral rolls in some closely fought constituencies contain huge numbers of unaccounted-for voters and say the government has dragged its feet on addressing such issues.

They also accuse the Electoral Commission of being in Barisan's pocket. The government has promised a clean election.

But commission officials appeared to acknowledge on Wednesday that the ink system was not foolproof. Commission secretary Kamaruddin Baria said some officials had failed to shake the bottles before applying the ink, meaning it could be washed off.

"This is the first time (the ink is used). I cannot guarantee anything," he told AFP, but added that he was "confident" the commission had cleaned up the electoral roll and there would be no multiple voting or other irregularities.

Maria Chin Abdullah, a member of electoral reform group Bersih, said the ink flap "reconfirms our fear" that the government was resisting reforms to stamp out alleged cheating.

The ruling bloc has faced numerous accusations of fraud in past votes, including cases of voters well past 100 years old yet still listed on electoral rolls, massive vote-buying and army officials filling out ballots for soldiers.

Hard-fought campaigning officially got under way on April 20, and police have said more than 1,000 reports of election violence and intimidation have been made. No deaths have yet been reported.-Channel News Asia (May 02, 2013)

Officials threaten anti-illegal logging activists in Cambodia

4 kratie

When activists Mom Sakin and Sorn Siyan took a stand against illegal logging in Kratie province last month, they were allegedly threatened with violence and lawsuits from officials.

“Powerful people who wanted to intimidate us shot their guns into the air to prevent us from going into the forest,” Sakin, a member of the provincial branch of the Community Peace Network, said yesterday.

When the activists burned seven cubic metres of illegally logged timber they later found in the forest, the threats intensified.

Some of those threats allegedly came from a Forestry Administration official and a high-ranking police officer.

“I’m afraid of being shot, so I have fled to Phnom Penh,” Siyan told the Post yesterday. 

Sakin has done the same and has been hiding in the capital for the past two weeks.

Stories like these are becoming more frequent among human rights defenders and activists, particularly those seeking to counter illegal logging, rights group Adhoc said yesterday.

“So far in 2013, 48 [human rights defenders] and activists have been threatened for their work relating to the protection of environmental and natural resources,” Adhoc said in a statement. “Those working to protect poorer Cambodians against rights abuses have repeatedly found themselves threatened and intimidated by the authorities, often at the bequest of rich and well-connected business figures.”

A total of 238 human rights defenders faced judicial harassment in 2012, and 46 new cases of courts being used to intimidate activists have already emerged this year, Adhoc’s research shows.

Increasing were incidents of rights workers being accused of inciting protests after visiting communities to explain human rights, Adhoc president Thun Saray said.

“But, in fact, the law states that it’s not incitement unless they urge people to use violence or destroy property,” he said. “The authorities want people to agree with their resolutions. Whoever doesn’t is considered to be provoking them.”

Adhoc urged the government to respect human rights and to co-operate with defenders and activists in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. 

“Those threatened have not had any protection offered from the authorities. Rather, threats and intimidation have come from officials, including local, provincial and judicial authorities,” Adhoc’s statement adds.

Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said Cambodia operated under the rule of law, meaning courts were not used to intimidate people.

“Dispute resolution under the law is not threats,” he said. “Those who think it is are rebels who – like the Khmer Rouge – make campaigns to destroy rule of law.

“Adhoc and other civil society just like government officials are subject to the law. It does not mean NGOs are not touched or government officials are not touched.”

Chan Soveth, deputy head of Adhoc’s land section, is himself facing possible court proceedings over his dealings with villagers in a land dispute in Pursat.

His organisation, he said, was looking at ways of co-operating with the authorities to avoid conflict.

“But if we stop helping communities, problems will happen,” he said.

Despite the threats she has received, Sakin is also committed to fighting for her community and will brave the forest again soon.

“I will return to Kratie to join more patrols. If I go alone, I will be scared, but I will feel safe as part of a group,” she said.

Kong Kimny, governor of Kratie province’s Snuol district, denied threats had been made against Sakin and Siyan.-Phnom Phen Post (May 02, 2013)

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Philippines buying 2 brand-new warships

The Philippines is getting two brand-new frigates as part of the modernization program of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, Defense Undersecretary Fernando Manalo said on Monday.

He told reporters that the Department of National Defense (DND) had earmarked P18 billion for the purchase of the two vessels through a public bidding. He said a number of countries, including South Korea, Spain and Singapore, would participate in the bidding.

Manalo also disclosed that the DND had been negotiating for a government-to-government acquisition of 12 jet fighters from South Korea.

He said the DND had decided to scrap previous plans to acquire refurbished frigates since secondhand vessels would be more costly to maintain. He said the DND had allocated P9 billion for each frigate, or fast warship.

“The purchase of the frigates has been in the pipeline,” Manalo said.  “We are just waiting for the Navy to submit their ‘decision package.’ After that, we will review it and issue an acquisition decision memorandum signed by (Defense) Secretary Voltaire Gazmin,” he said.

Manalo said the process could take a week. “After that, we’ll schedule one or two prebid conferences.”
“We originally wanted to buy secondhand frigates but then we realized that it would be expensive in the long run if we are going to buy secondhand,” he added.

He noted that older ships required more maintenance repairs compared to new vessels. He said the DND had previously approved P6 billion for each refurbished frigate.

The Philippine Navy has only one battleship, the 48-year-old Hamilton-class cutter BRP Gregorio del Pilar, which the Philippines acquired from the United States in 2011.

A second warship, the BRP Ramon Alcaraz, would finally sail to the Philippines in June after undergoing repairs in Charleston, South Carolina.

The Navy earlier said the Alcaraz, a 45-year-old frigate, was expected to arrive this month.

The Hamilton-class cutter was acquired for P450 million by the AFP from the US Coast Guard on May 22, 2012, as part of the US government’s military assistance program for the Philippines.

In his State of the Nation Address last year, President Aquino announced that the Alcaraz would arrive from the United States in January 2013 as part of the much-needed AFP upgrade.

“We are not sending paper boats out to the sea. Now, our 36,000 kilometers of coastline will be patrolled by more modern ships,” the President then said, referring to the decades-old vessel, which the US Coast Guard decommissioned on March 30, 2012.

Formerly known as USCGC Dallas, the AFP’s second frigate was named after the late Commodore Ramon Alcaraz, a World War II hero who commanded the Q-boat Abra, which shot down three Japanese aircraft.

Like its sister ship, the Alcaraz was classified as a high-endurance cutter built in 1968.-Philippine Daily Inquirer (April 30, 2013)

Myanmar panel urges more troops in Rakhine

A government-appointed commission has proposed to double the number of security forces in western Myanmar's Rakhine state to ease tensions there in the wake of deadly sectarian violence last year.

The report, released on Monday, also recommended the introduction of family planning programmes to stem population growth among minority Muslims, cited as a reason for increased hostility from Rakhine Buddhists in the area.

It emphasised, however, that if the government went ahead with a proposed family planning programme, it should "refrain from implementing non-voluntary measures which may be seen as discriminatory or that would be inconsistent with human rights standards".

The long-awaited report contained responses to the violence last June and October that killed nearly 200 people and left 140,000 homeless, mostly Rohingya Muslims in an area dominated by ethnic Buddhists.

The committee said it was unlikely the estimated 100,000 displaced Rohingya Muslims would be returned to their homes anytime soon, saying the widespread segregation of Buddhists and Muslims is a temporary fix that must be enforced for now.

The violence appeared to begin spontaneously, but by October had morphed into anti-Muslim pogroms across western Rakhine state that spread last month into central Myanmar.

'Ethnic cleansing'

President Thein Sein appointed the 27-member panel last year to investigate the causes of the conflict and recommend measures to prevent further violence.

The panel included former political prisoners, Christians, a Hindu, Muslims, and Rakhine Buddhists, but did not include any Rohingya Muslims.

Overcrowding, poor sanitation and malnutrition were said to be of critical concern particularly in camps for Rohingya whom the report referred to as "Bengalis", a reference to their reported South Asian roots.

Shwe Maung, a Rohingya member of parliament from Rakhine state, objected to the commission's terminology, saying that the word "Bengali" fails to reflect reality and people's sense of their own identity.

"The report is unfair," he said. "The usage and recommendations are similar to what Rakhine ethnic people have been demanding."

The report also calls for all ethnic groups to learn the Myanmar language.

Phil Robertson, the Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director, welcomed calls for more aid for the camps, but said the official report should have addressed allegations of authorities' involvement in ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

"Doubling the number of security forces in [Rakhine] state without first ensuring implementation of reforms to end those forces' impunity is a potential disaster," he said.

Robertson said family planning initiatives could be problematic if they are not implemented carefully.

"It's quite chilling to start talking about limiting births of one particular group," he said.

Hate speech

The report also called for a crackdown on hate speech and stepped-up aid for the displaced ahead of monsoon rains expected in May, and urged the government to determine the citizenship status of all those living in Rakhine state.

The issue has posed a major challenge to the government of Thein Sein, who took office after a long-ruling military junta stepped down two years ago and has since embarked upon a series of reforms.

Most Rohingya are effectively stateless despite the fact that some have lived in Myanmar for generations. Predominantly Buddhist Myanmar does not include Rohingya as one of its 135 recognised ethnicities.

Last week, Human Rights Watch issued the most comprehensive and detailed account yet of what happened in Rakhine state last year.

The report accused authorities, including Buddhist monks, local politicians and government officials, and state security forces, of fomenting an organised campaign of "ethnic cleansing'' against the Rohingya.-Al Jazeera (April 30, 2013)

Thai rebels press for independence, set to scupper peace talks

Leaders of a Muslim rebel group in southern Thailand said they will press for an independent state and made other demands that are likely to scupper a second round of peace talks, which started in Malaysia on Monday.

Resistance to Bangkok's Buddhist rule has existed for decades but flared up violently in 2004 since when a campaign of bombings and roadside shootings has killed over 5,300 people, according to monitoring group Deep South Watch.

Thai security forces say the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN)is the main insurgent group behind the attacks, although they acknowledge that other armed groups operate in the region.

The government made no comment on the BRN's message - aired on social networking website YouTube on Sunday - but officials, who dismiss any notion of independence or regional autonomy, are certain to reject the demands.

In the clip, Hassan Taib, one of the BRN leaders, said running "our own government in the fairest way" in the region was one of the group's objectives.

Another leader, Abdulkarim Khalib, demanded that Thailand drop all charges against alleged Muslim separatists and unconditionally release all detainees. The BRN statement pledged to continue its actions "until the demise of colonialism".

Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha said the clip left unchanged the Thai government's stand that the rebels had broken the law.

"The insurgents are all Thai people and we won't accept them as anything else," told reporters in Bangkok. "They are Thais who broke the nation's law and are answerable to that."

The southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat were once part of an independent Malay Muslim sultanate until annexed by predominantly Buddhist Thailand in 1909. About 80 percent of residents are Malay-speaking Muslims, while most of Thailand is populated by Thai-speaking Buddhists.

Thailand is the world's No. 1 rubber producer and most of it is grown in the south. Insurgents have targeted plantation workers in the past but the impact on trade has been limited.-The Star (April 29, 2013)

Philippines made it to the CNN list of the "World's 5 hottest stock markets"

hottest markets philippines
Philippine stocks have soared to all-time highs this year, as the Southeast Asian nation earned its first-ever investment grade credit rating.

The Philippines earned a BBB- rating and a stable outlook from Fitch Ratings in March. The ratings agency gave kudos to the country's resilient economy and its moderate budget deficit thanks to improved fiscal management by President Benigno Aquino.

View Full list here: World's 5 hottest stock markets

In addition to the investment grade rating, investors have been drawn to the Philippines because it's shielded from the economic slowdown in China, said Ashraf Laidi, chief global strategist at City Index in London.

"The economy doesn't depend on exports to China like many other countries in the region," said Laidi. "It's more tied to domestic consumption."

The iShares MSCI Philippines Investable Market Index ETF (EPHE) has raked in more than $180 million this year, and is up almost 20%. - Money CNN (April 30, 2013)

Sunday, April 28, 2013

North Korea set to stage major military drill

North Korea appears to be gearing up for a major military exercise, a report said on Sunday, amid tensions over an expected missile test and South Korea’s pullout from a joint industrial complex.

Preparations are under way near the North’s western port of Nampo for a combined live-fire drill involving artillery units and air force jets, the South’s Yonhap news agency said, citing a Seoul government source.

“It appears that the scale of the drill will be quite big,” the unnamed official was quoted as saying, voicing fears of military provocations against the South or a missile test by Pyongyang during the exercise.

A North Korean artillery attack on a South Korean island in November 2010 killed four people. Seoul also holds Pyongyang responsible for the sinking of one of its naval vessels with the loss of 46 sailors the same year.

Angered by new United Nations sanctions over its third nuclear test in February and joint South Korea-US military drills — due to end on Tuesday — the North has for weeks been issuing threats of missile strikes and nuclear war.

The expected missile launch has kept Seoul and Washington on heightened alert for the past month, particularly on key dates such as the founding anniversary of the North’s military and the birth of its late founding leader.

But Pyongyang, which has a habit of linking high-profile military tests with key dates, celebrated the key dates without the test, fanning speculations that the wait may even take months.

Another Seoul military official quoted by Yonhap said the communist North may try to “fan military tension” after South Korea pulls out all its remaining workers from a jointly run factory park.

Kaesong — built in 2004 just north of the border as a rare symbol of inter-Korea cooperation and a valued source of hard currency for the impoverished North — has fallen victim to the growing cross-border tensions.

Seoul on Friday announced that it would withdraw all of its remaining workers from the site after Pyongyang rejected its ultimatum to join formal negotiations on restarting the stalled operations.

Dozens of workers returned on Saturday and the remaining 50 are expected to leave on Monday, a move that experts say could lead to the permanent closure of the complex, seen as a bellwether of stability on the Korean peninsula.-Philippine Daily Inquirer (April 28, 2013)

Malaysian populist windfall fuels debt fears

It has never been more lucrative to be a voter in Malaysia, where political rivals are showering the public with cash in a desperate electoral battle, stoking concerns over rising national debt.

With May 5 elections expected to be Malaysia’s closest ever, the long-ruling coalition has given billions of dollars in new cash, pay rises and other handouts to civil servants, the poor, elderly, farmers and students.

The opposition, which holds four of 13 states, has likewise made a range of state-level payouts, and promises still more perks if it wins federal power for the first time in Malaysia’s 56 years of independence.

The bidding war began shortly after the opposition stung the Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition in 2008 elections, but has spiralled of late.

“It’s been a windfall for Malaysians these past five years,” said Francis Loh, president of Malaysian democratic rights group Aliran.

The bonanza has seemed farcical at times.

Barisan recently denounced opposition campaign pledges as a blueprint for insolvency.

But Prime Minister Najib Razak promptly upped the ante with billions in new promises of his own — sparking opposition outrage that he copied their ideas.

The unprecedented giveaways attest to the high stakes of an election in which a ruling elite is desperate to retain power and its rich perks, while the opposition fights to make the most of its best shot yet at governing.

But warnings are emerging that Malaysia — which already has Southeast Asia’s highest debt-to-GDP ratio, after Singapore — is at best endangering a goal to become a “developed nation” by 2020 and at worst courting disaster.

“Today’s politicians are bent on planting the seeds of an economic crisis for our children to inherit,” said Wan Saiful Wan Jan, who runs the IDEAS think-tank.

If Malaysia meets financial catastrophe in the future, “economic historians may well trace back the root cause to this general election,” he added.

Few analysts see an immediate threat of disaster, noting the situation can be managed if some hard post-election political choices are made.

But some say much-needed development spending could shrink further if increasingly hard-fought politics continue to trump economic planning in a country where populist subsidies have come to be expected by many voters.

Such spending fell from 28 percent of the 2010 budget to 20 percent this year.

“There is a concern if populist spending were to get in the way of infrastructure spending which will have longer-term repercussions on the economy,” said Gundy Cahyadi, a Singapore-based economist with OCBC bank.

Under Barisan, resource-rich Malaysia developed into a regional economic success, enjoying decades of growth, foreign investment inflows, and rising living standards.

But lower-cost rivals China, Indonesia and others have forced a re-focusing on high-tech manufacturing and services even as critics say Malaysia’s education system is failing to prepare graduates for a move up the value chain.

Economic growth was a solid 5.6 percent last year, but much of that is credited to election-minded deficit spending. Debt has doubled since 2007 to 53.7 percent of GDP.

In emailed comments to AFP, Najib said “our debt will never exceed 55 percent of GDP,” but critics note “hidden” public debt such as state-guaranteed loans may have doubled since he took power in 2009.

Malaysia politics analyst Bridget Welsh estimates that since taking office Najib has given out $19 billion in public funds — $1,400 per voter — for “political spending” that benefits Barisan.

That is “the most ever in the lead-up to Malaysian polls” said Welsh, of Singapore Management University.

In campaign stops, Najib regularly references the largesse, telling voters to pay back it at the ballot box.

“If he wins, it will become a crutch politicians rely on, an extension of money politics,” she said.

Moves by the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Pact) alliance include a water subsidy in a key state won in 2008 that has drained 20 percent from the state’s operating budget. Cash payments in Pakatan states also have grown.

If it wins federal power, it promises to make university education free, scrap various taxes and fees, and raise subsidies, moves it says will cost $15 billion per year.

Barisan counters that they will cost $65 billion, or 80 percent of today’s federal budget.-Philippine Daily Inquirer (April 28, 2013)