Southeast Asia Theater
Burma's President Thein Sein on May 23 signed into law a bill requiring some mothers to space the births of their children three years apart. The Population Control Health Care bill, passed by parliament last month, allows authorities the power to implement "birth-spacing" in areas with high rates of population growth. Though the bill has no punitive measures, US deputy secretary of state Anthony Blinken and rights activists worry it will be used to repress women's rights as well as religious and ethnic minority rights. Speaking on the matter, Blinken stated: "We shared the concerns that these bills can exacerbate ethnic and religious divisions and undermine the country's efforts to promote tolerance and diversity." The government claims the bill and three others like it were aimed at bringing down maternal and infant mortality rates and protecting women and minorities, but activists argue that there are better ways to accomplish this goal.
After weeks of escalating tensions along the remote mountain border, a Burmese MiG-29 fighter jet carried out an air-strike on Chinese territory March 13, killing four people working in a sugar-cane field in Yunnan province. Chinese authorities stepped up security along the border and registered a diplomatic protest. Burma, after initially denying everything, issued a statement expressing "deep sorrow" over the deaths. But Beijing says there have been at least three similar incidents of bombs from Burmese government forces falling in Chinese territory in recent weeks, and warned of "decisive" measures if there were any more. This all concerns the fast-escalating war in Burma's northern Shan state, where the rebel army of the Kokang ethnicity has again taken up arms against the government. More than 50,000 people—mostly Kokang—have fled the fighting into Chinese territory since the war was re-ignited earlier this year, and Burma accuses local military commanders in China of allowing the rebels to establish a staging ground in the border zone. (BBC News, March 16; Al Jazeera, March 15; Reuters, IBT, March 14)
In another grim signal of a widening war in northern Burma's opium zones, last week saw an outbreak of intense fighting between government forces and ethnic rebels, prompting some 50,000 Kokang civilians to flee across the border to China. The clashes at the town of Laukkai (also rendered Laogai), Shan state, saw government air-strikes and helicopter strafing on villages controlled by the Kokang rebel group, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and two allied militias. Some 50 government troops have been killed in the fighting, and soliders have recovered the bodies of several rebels. A line of refugees 10 kilometers long has reportedly piled up at the Chinese border crossing of Nansan. (AP, Feb. 14; Democratic Voice of Burma, Feb. 12; The Irrawady, Feb. 11)
Well, the interminable cartoon wars have now hit Malaysia. On Feb. 10, the Malaysian Federal Court upheld a "sodomy" conviction and five-year prison term of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, a decision clearly as politicized as it is reactionary. That same day, cartoonist Zulkiflee Awar Ulhaque, popularly known as Zunar, was arrested at his home—charged under the country's draconian "sedition" law for tweeting a cartoon critical of the ruling, and portraying the judge in the case as Prime Minister Najib Razak. (BBC News, The Malaysian Online, Jurist) Said Shawn Crispin of the Committee to Protect Journalists: "We call on authorities to release Zunar immediately, drop all charges against him, and get to work reforming the sedition law that Prime Minister Najib Razak once acknowledged has no place in Malaysian society." Not all voices have been so forthright, however...
Despite a democratic opening and hopes for peace with the ethnic insurgencies in the northern hinterlands, horrific accounts of rights abuses continue to emerge from the multi-sided war over Burma's opium production. According to reports from village leaders, Burmese army troops on Jan. 19 tortured, raped and killed two young volunteer teachers. The women were both Kachin and Christians, so may have been targeted for ethnicity or religion. The attacks came when the village of Shabuk-Kaunghka, in Shan state's Mungbaw township, was occupied by a Light Infantry battalion that entered the area following clashes with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). New fighting erupted after three police officers and a local highway administrator were detained by the KIA while carrying out a road inspection in the area. They were released after mediation, but clashes continue.
A Philippine National Police Special Action Force (SAF) operation on Jan. 25 turned into a "dusk to dawn" gun-battle with Moro rebels in restive Mindanao Island. At least 30 police troops were killed in the clash at the village of Tukanalipao, Mamasapano municipality, Maguindanao province. Mohagher Iqbal, chief negotiator for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) later said the clash was triggered by lack of coordination on the SAF operation. SAF forces were hunting Malaysian national Zulkifli Bin Hir AKA "Marwan"—named by the US FBI as a bomb-maker for the Abu Sayyaf extremist faction. The SAF incursion was resisted by local militia of the MILF and breakaway Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).
A military court in Thailand on Nov. 24 sentenced web editor Nut Rungwong to four-and-a-half years in jail for publishing an article five years ago that the court ruled defamed the nation's king. Thailand's lese-majeste law, which punishes people who defame, insult or threaten the monarchy, is one of the harshest in the world with jail terms of up to 15 years. Rungwong's sentence was cut in half because he pleaded guilty to the charge. Rungwong edited the Thai E-News website which is now blocked by censors. He was charged for publishing an article in 2009 written by Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a former university political scientist and radical Thai intellectual who fled to Britain in 2009.
George Orwell, and especially his dystopian novel 1984, has long been appropriated by neocons and (before that) Cold War hawks in the West. It's almost heartwarming to know that international despots still consider it dangerous. Seemingly oblivious to their own irony, police in Egypt last week arrested a 21-year-old student near the entrance of Cairo University for carrying a copy of 1984. It is unclear if the student, identified only as "Mohamed T," will face charges. The Egyptian Interior Ministry actually issued a statement explaining the arrest, innocently and not quite accurately saying that the novel "talks about military regimes which rule in corrupt countries." (The Week, UK, Nov. 10)