Friday, August 23, 2013

Asia-Pacific navies to hold joint drill in S. China Sea

The navies of the 10-member ASEAN and eight other countries, including the United States, Japan, China, Russia, India, will participate in a joint exercise in Indonesian waters of the South China Sea next year, the Indonesian Navy announced Thursday.

It said "Komodo Multilateral Exercise 2014," aimed partly at countering maritime threats, will take place in April 2014 in the waters off the Natuna and Anambas archipelagos, located between the Malaysian Peninsula and the island of Borneo.

Both Natuna and Anambas are located in the South China Sea where territorial disputes between several ASEAN members and China have escalated in the past.

The statement added that the exercise, which will also include the navies of South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, will also focus on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Host Indonesia will deploy 12 warships during the exercise, it said.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. - ABS-CBN News

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Thailand, conservative but tolerant, may legalise gay marriage

Pattanachat Monkhatha (L) and Vitaya Saeng-Aroon (R) walk pass a billboard near a department store in Bangkok August 16, 2013. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

On a sweltering Saturday night in Bangkok's Patpong entertainment district, a group of men spill out of a neon-lit bar blasting dance music. Among them is Aashif Hassan and his long-term partner, both visitors from Malaysia.

"We're celebrating tonight. Where we're from, it's illegal to be gay. Here we feel liberated," said Hassan.
Known for its laissez-faire attitude, Thailand has positioned itself as a holiday destination for gay couples and could soon be cashing in on another niche market if a proposed law makes it the first Asian country to legalise gay marriage.

Other Southeast Asian countries such as Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei ban sexual relationships between men, but Thailand has become a regional haven for same-sex couples.

A civil partnership law in the works aims to give lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) couples the same rights as heterosexuals. One lawmaker sees it passing by next year.

Same-sex unions are not currently recognised under Thai law, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman. That stops gay couples applying for joint bank loans or medical insurance.

In 2012, a group of lawmakers and LGBT activists formed a committee to draft legislation recognising same-sex couples. But critics of the law say it will not give a level playing field because it raises the age of consent to 20 from 17 for homosexual couples. For heterosexuals it is 17.

Rights activists have another problem: the law would force transgenders to register their birth gender on their marriage certificate. Thai law makes it impossible for people to change their gender on a national identification document.

Beyond legal aspects, some wonder whether Thailand, quite conservative in many ways, is really ready to blaze this trail.

Homosexuality was decriminalised in 1956 but considered a mental illness as recently as 2002. Many Thai Buddhists believe homosexuality is a punishment for sins committed in a past life.


In one notorious case in 2011, Nurisan Chedurame, 24, was found dead on her village rubbish dump with her head smashed in. Local media quoted police as saying her involvement with another woman was the reason she was murdered.

That same year, two women thought to have been in a sexual relationship were shot in a rice field outside Bangkok.

A worrying pattern of violent crimes prompted the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission to write to the Thai government in 2012 demanding that police stop dismissing gender-based violence as crimes of passion.

Anjana Suvarnanda, a co-founder of the Anjaree Group, an LGBT rights group, said violence towards lesbians was often blamed on the victims. Many turn to mainstream social networking sites like Facebook to air their grievances.

"Our inbox is overflowing with messages from women whose parents are pressuring them to marry men," said Anjana.

Thai film and television has no shortage of LGBT stars. But Prempreeda Pramoj Na Ayutthaya, a transgender rights activist and programme officer at UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural agency, in Bangkok, said acceptance is often superficial.

"The entertainment industry accepts us with open arms because we poke fun at ourselves and make people laugh. But if we want to be taken seriously in a field like medicine we are not afforded the same courtesy," Prempreeda told Reuters.

Her friends will hesitate to back the draft bill, she said, because they do not want to be identified by their birth gender.

Wiratana Kalayasiri, an opposition lawmaker pushing the civil union bill, said getting it on the agenda was tough as most members of parliament have conservative views on the issue.

"At first they bad-mouthed me and wondered if I would be struck by lightning for backing this," he said.
But many now see the merits of appealing to LGBT voters, he said, predicting the bill would pass in "less than a year".

Rights activist Anjana believes there is no time to waste.

When her friend collapsed and fell into a coma, it took hours for staff at a Bangkok hospital to attend to her.

"They insisted her husband sign the medical release form. Her partner is a woman, but the nurses refused to acknowledge this," said Anjana. "We urgently need the law to protect us. The rest, including less societal pressure, will follow." - Reuters

Malaysian economy grew 4.3% in 2Q

Malaysia's economy grew 4.3 percent in the second quarter, slowing considerably on a year-on-year basis and prompting the central bank Wednesday to lower its full-year growth forecast.

The pace of growth announced by Bank Negara fell short of analysts' forecasts, and was down from 5.4 percent growth in the second quarter of 2012.

Bank Negara blamed slack external demand for Malaysian goods due to global economic weakness and said it had revised its growth projection for the year to 4.5-5.0 percent.

It had previously set a forecast of 5.0-6.0 percent.

"While domestic demand is expected to remain firm... the weak external sector in the first half of this year will affect our overall growth performance for the year," the central bank said in a statement.

Malaysia's performance has slowed from a 2012 fourth quarter in which Southeast Asia's third-largest economy expanded by a surprising 6.4 percent, its best showing in more than two years.

The central bank said domestic demand growth of 7.3 percent had lent support in the second quarter.

Prime Minister Najib Razak's government pumped huge amounts of money into the economy via investment drives and cash handouts to voters ahead of hotly contested May general elections that were won by his long-ruling coalition.

But exports have steadily softened this year. They contracted 6.9 percent in June, the fifth straight month of decline.

A poll by Dow Jones Newswires of 15 economists before the second quarter data came out had yielded a median forecast of 4.7 percent growth.

Najib campaigned on a record of steady economic stewardship and a promise to turn Malaysia into a "high-income developed nation" by 2020.

The government has promised major infrastructure projects and financial market liberalisation to attract foreign investment and boost growth in order to reach that goal. - Channel News Asia

Thailand holds interest rate amid economic weakness

Thailand on Wednesday left its benchmark interest rate at 2.5 percent amid concerns over sluggish economic growth.

The move, which follows a trim to interest rates in May, comes after official figures showed persistent weakness in the kingdom's economy in the first two quarters of the year.

"Continuing with monetary policy easing will support economic growth," said Paiboon Kittisrikangwan, secretary of the Thai central bank's Monetary Policy Committee (MPC).

Thailand has suffered two consecutive quarterly economic contractions this year, with figures Monday showing the economy shrank 0.3 percent in the three months to June compared to the previous quarter. This followed the revised 1.7 percent contraction in the three months to March.

Manufacturing output eased 1.0 percent on a year-on-year basis, with manufacturers hit by slowing domestic demand and ongoing global weakness, the National Economic and Social Development Board said in a statement, as the US and China struggle to get up to speed.

The central bank forecast gradual recovery in the US, China and the EU, adding that there was little risk of inflation on the horizon.

Analysts at Kasikornbank said the move was expected, as policymakers seek to keep the pressure off both private sector and household borrowers.

"We expect the MPC to maintain the current rate of 2.5 percent until the end of this year," Nalin Chutchotitham, Market and Economic Research Specialist at Kasikornbank told AFP.-Channel News Asia