Ominous signs for the year ahead

Floods, virus scares, moderate quakes, a refugee scandal and job losses – these were the major disasters to hit Southeast Asia in the last two months. A superstitious person might say these were ominous signs for the future. Things may get worse once the full impact of the global economic crisis is felt in the region.

The series of flooding calamities that struck Fiji, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and most recently Brunei was the first great natural disaster of the year in the Asia-Pacific region. Floods displaced thousands of residents, destroyed millions of dollars in property, and affected numerous development projects.

Landslides and floods were reportedly the worst to hit the region in more than two decades. Moderate quakes have frequently rocked the Malay region, especially Indonesia, in the past two months.

While strong rains were submerging different parts of the Asia-Pacific, health officials were compiling information about viruses which are spreading in their countries. Rising cases of dengue fever, chikungunya, bird flu and the ebola virus in several Southeast Asian countries have alarmed authorities.

Malaysia is grappling with rising dengue-related deaths – the worst in the nation’s history. The chikungunya virus is spreading in Malaysia and Singapore. Vietnam has confirmed that bird flu cases have been found in 13 provinces. To contain the virus, more than 50,000 poultry had to be slaughtered. Even Vietnam’s famous motorbikes are no longer allowed to transport poultry.

Last month, the Philippines reported that six persons had tested positive for the Ebola-Reston virus. This was the first time in the world that humans acquired the virus from pigs and not from monkeys. The ebola outbreak in the Philippines has worried many experts, since humans are more exposed to pigs than monkeys.

The series of floods and the virus scares were not reported as regional disasters, hence there have been no regional programs to address these issues. The first time regional leaders and the Southeast Asian community agreed to launch a region-wide inquiry was to resolve the Rohingya refugee scandal, which has become an international embarrassment.

The plight of the Rohingya people, an ethnic Muslim tribe in Myanmar, became headline news when it was exposed that Rohingya refugees who escaped from Myanmar were allegedly mistreated and abandoned at sea by the Thai army.

The Rohingya issue is a regional problem. Rohingya Muslims are unwelcome in their own country; one Myanmar envoy described them as “ugly as ogres.” A large number of Rohingya Muslims are fleeing to Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. But the refugees are also not welcome in these countries.

When U.N. goodwill ambassador Angelina Jolie visited Bangkok a few weeks ago, she expressed her concern for the sufferings endured by the Rohingya in refugee camps.

The persecution of the Rohingya is described by some writers as a form of cultural genocide. This highlights the lack of adequate measures in the region to protect human rights and immigration welfare. It is shameful that the “caring” Southeast Asian community is accused of being indifferent to the plight of the Rohingya.

One reason Southeast Asian governments are not enthusiastic about launching initiatives to address the flooding, virus scares, and even the deteriorating refugee situation in the region is their inevitable handling of the economic crisis as a topmost priority.

It is difficult for governments to ignore the mounting economic problems. Job losses are reported every day in almost all sectors of the economy. Factory towns are turning into ghost towns as entrepreneurs pull out their investments. The poor are suffering most since they lack social welfare entitlements.

The crisis is provoking civilian outbursts in many countries. In prosperous Singapore a disgruntled senior citizen, angry at not receiving a red envelope containing US$135 traditionally given at Chinese New Year, set a lawmaker on fire. News reports like this are forcing politicians to redouble their efforts to bring instant economic relief to their constituents.

In the past, American scholar Fredric Jameson complained that it was “easier for us to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the Earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations.” Today, as capitalism continues to implode, it is possible for us to imagine the collapse of the economic order.

But as we try to rationalize the shocking decline of the global economy, we seem to have overlooked the need to discuss and fix other equally important social concerns like the environment, health, immigration and human rights.

The situation will not become easier in the coming months. Political squabbles will intensify as elections draw near in Indonesia and the Philippines. Malaysia is besieged today by violent and nasty attempts of the ruling and opposition parties to control the Parliament. There is no hope yet that Myanmar’s junta will change its evil ways.

Indeed, 2009 is beginning to look like the “year of living dangerously” in Southeast Asia.

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