Category Archives: east asia

Thailand’s “colored” protesters

Red shirts. Yellow shirts. Blue Shirts. Pink Shirts. White Shirts. Orange Shirts. Purple Shirts. Black Shirts. Be careful what you wear in Thailand today because your politics are determined by the color of your shirt. One writer suggests that tourists should wear floral shirts in Thailand in order not to be identified with any of the political forces there.

The two main conflicting groups are the Yellow Shirts and Red Shirts. The Yellow Shirts belong to the People’s Alliance for Democracy while the Red Shirts are supporters of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship. The Yellow Shirts are consistent critics of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted from power in a 2006 coup. Most of the Red Shirts are supporters of Thaksin.

The Yellow Shirts adopted the color yellow as their protest color in honor of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the most revered figure in Thailand. But it doesn’t mean the Red Shirts are opposed to the king. The Red Shirts are also not leftists. They adopted the color red just to differentiate themselves from the Yellow Shirts.

The Yellow Shirts accused two prime ministers last year of being puppets of Thaksin. To force change in government, the Yellow Shirts organized provocative street actions last August. They occupied the Government House for several months. They shut down Bangkok’s major airports last December, which crippled travel in the country. The Yellow Shirts agreed to end their protests when a court order disqualified allies of Thaksin from running for public office again.

A few days after the Yellow Shirts declared victory, the Red Shirts began to organize their own street actions. The Red Shirts became anti-government protesters while the Yellow Shirts quietly supported the new government.

The Red Shirts have been effectively replicating the tactics of the Yellow Shirts. The Red Shirts also occupied the Government House a few weeks ago. They were able to gather tens of thousands of protesters in Bangkok. The protesters claim they mobilized 100,000 people on April 8. They were supported by taxi drivers, who used their cars to block traffic at Victory Monument, a busy intersection in Bangkok. During the rallies, Thaksin has been addressing his supporters through a video phone.

The Red Shirts succeeded in forcing the cancellation of a major ASEAN Summit in Pattaya which embarrassed incumbent Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. There is now a state of emergency in Bangkok, but the Red Shirts are defiant.

If the Bangkok airport shutdown clinched the victory for the Yellow Shirts, would the botched ASEAN Summit lead to the disintegration of the Abhisit government? The airport crisis gave the Yellow Shirts an opportunity to deliver their message to the world.

The Red Shirts also successfully delivered their message to the world a few days ago when they stormed inside the venue of the summit, forcing the military to whisk away the heads of state of Southeast Asia and other invited Asian leaders by military helicopters. That was a symbolic and surprising victory for the Red Shirts who wanted to portray Abhisit as a leader who is unpopular and incapable of effectively governing the country.

The Yellow Shirts are not active today, but they might stage a comeback again to fight their red-shirted rivals. The Red Shirts are confronted today by a different set of “colored” protesters: the Blue Shirts. The Blue Shirts emerged when the Red Shirts began to mount a serious challenge to the government. First, the Blue Shirts said they only wanted to protect public utilities, like the airport. But the Red Shirts soon accused them of being thugs hired by the government.

In Pattaya the Blue Shirts engaged the Red Shirts in the streets. The Blue Shirts were armed with sticks and iron rods while holding pictures of the king and queen. Journalists reported that the military made no attempt to disarm the Blue Shirts. Most reports have indicated that the Blue Shirts are essentially a pro-government militia with probable backing from politicians loyal to the government.

Which are the most popular “shirts” in Thailand: Yellow, Red or Blue? All of them have core constituencies. They all believe in democracy. They all respect the king. It is difficult to ascertain which has the support of the majority.

It is important to note that an increasing number of Thais are getting annoyed by the political crisis in the country. When the Red Shirts were leaving the summit venue in Pattaya, a group of people wearing black shirts began throwing stones at them. Most likely they were angry citizens. A video was uploaded on YouTube showing how furious pedestrians drove away Red Shirts who were blocking traffic in a Bangkok street.

Perhaps the decision of many Thais to wear “neutral” colors can be interpreted as a political statement too. Twitter users have been expressing their discontent by announcing that from now on they are only going to wear orange, white and purple shirts.

There is another option for Thais: wear pink. The Pink Shirts want a political formation based on love and peace. Pop singer Jintara has a lively music video for the song “Mop see chom-poo” which preaches the doctrine of the Pink Shirts.

The political spectrum in Thailand today is literally bright and colorful. The traditional left, right and center political labels give way to the politics of the multicolored “shirts.” I call it Rainbow Politics. The “colored” protesters may be funny and brave sometimes but their brand of politics is not helping Thailand.


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.

Legal repression rampant in Asia

There is a disturbing trend of legal repression in many Asian countries. Human rights abuses are on the rise, the legal profession is under attack and the independence of courts is compromised.

Human rights lawyer and UPI-Asia columnist Basil Fernando has written several articles about the creeping repression in Sri Lanka. State and non-state elements have been harassing human rights lawyers in Sri Lanka. Death squads are on the rise again. The police have taken a leading role in the administration of justice. The violence in Sri Lanka has prompted six former U.S. ambassadors to write the president of Sri Lanka urging the leader to protect the rule of law in the country.

Fernando mentioned that Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Defense has uploaded a report on its website in which a group of lawyers was branded as traitors for representing members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. A few months ago, a letter was published by a group called Mahason Balakaya (Battalion of the Ghosts of Death) which threatened lawyers who defend suspected terrorists. The letter warned that, “In the future, all those (who) represent the interests of the terrorists will be subject to the same fate that these terrorists mete out to our innocent people.”

The media in Sri Lanka is also under attack. The veteran editor of Sri Lanka’s Sunday Leader was killed by four unknown assassins. At least 20 persons raided the premises of Sirasa TV and damaged its communications equipment. Sirasa TV is an important independent media network in Sri Lanka.

Fernando writes that the spate of political killings and harassment in the country is “part of a scheme to physically exterminate parties considered undesirable by the current regime.”

The human rights situation in the Philippines is also worsening. The killings of leftist activists have not stopped. Activist and UPI-Asia columnist Gerry Albert Corpuz has written about the false criminal charges filed by the government against leaders of progressive groups.

Among those who were arrested for multiple murders and attempted murders is a prominent labor lawyer who has handled more than 700 labor cases and other controversial cases involving the president of the republic. More than 20 union and peasant leaders in the Southern Luzon region have been charged with several criminal cases as well.

The aim in filing these absurd cases is to prevent the grassroots leaders from organizing political activities that threaten to further destabilize the corrupt and unpopular incumbent government of the Philippines.

UPI-Asia columnist Awzar Thi has written about the shocking prison sentences given by Myanmar courts to more than 60 people for participating in activities deemed subversive by the government. The detainees were sentenced to long years of imprisonment. The prison terms were unbelievable: two years for reporting about the cyclone aid effort; six years for sending false information abroad; 20 years for keeping defaced images of national leaders in an email inbox; and 65 years for five monks and 14 members of the 88 Generation Students group.

The junta is conveying a message to other dissident groups and individuals that if they continue to join protest actions or write something that embarrasses the junta, they may face a jail term of up to 65 years. A lawyer believes that new criminal laws were invoked so that the junta can tell the international community that Myanmar has no political prisoners in jails, only criminals.

Another writer surmises that the harsh prison terms prove that the junta is “determined to ensure that the elections it plans for 2010 as part of its roadmap to democracy suffer no disruption and that the population will be sufficiently cowed not to repeat what happened in 1990.” The May 1990 general election was won by the opposition party, the National League for Democracy. But the junta has refused to recognize the election results.

Regulating the Internet is also becoming frequent in the region. Thailand has blocked websites that insult the monarchy. Cambodia has threatened to remove a website for showing half-naked Apsaras – female spirits from Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Vietnam has introduced new regulations on blogging. Malaysia has arrested bloggers who defy the government.

News reports of rampant human rights abuses in the aforementioned Asian countries are no longer surprising. Media censorship is also not unusual. But the boldness of these states in using shock tactics to punish their enemies is a further cause for alarm. It seems these governments are getting more desperate and barbaric.

This trend is expected to continue, and may in fact worsen, as more Asian countries grapple with the global economic recession. The financial crisis has exacerbated poverty, joblessness, and hopelessness in the region. This drives more people to express anger against ineffective governments. Aside from traditional methods of repression, governments are now using new legal instruments to prevent social unrest in their countries.

The recent and current waves of state-sponsored violence in many Asian countries are “preemptive strikes” against potential political actions by marginalized forces in society. The legal repression serves as a direct warning to all those who will dare challenge the status quo: the state will be ruthless in defeating all threats to its existence.

Governments are not just preparing stimulus packages to revive the struggling economies of their countries. They are also testing the legal instruments to be used to maintain peace and order once the recession turns into a depression. If economic stability seems an impossible objective at the moment, governments will shift their attention to order and survival, which are more realizable goals.

Political scientist Gerald Heeger wrote that “politics in underdeveloped societies has become preeminently a politics in search of order.” Since “development has proved to be an elusive goal, order, in contrast, is both more tangible and, so it seems, more necessary.”

The political killings, harassment of lawyers, and harsh prison terms for dissidents provide a glimpse of the fascist character of many parties in power. Beware of governments that have stopped believing that economic growth is still possible this year. They will now focus their attention on enhancing political control through coercion, repression, and naked brutality. Poverty and violence will be the main stories of the year 2009.

What will be the response of progressive political forces? 

The politics of oil, rice and milk

Malaysia: Praise for the mysterious masked man, Philippines: Phenomenal video protests, and Malaysia: Campaign to boycott US goods – posts written for Global Voices.

The year 2008 will be remembered in the future for two world-changing events: U.S. President-elect Barack Obama’s electoral victory and the Wall Street crash. The year was also memorable because many people became aware of global problems when things such as oil, rice and milk surprisingly and suddenly attained immense political value.

In many parts of the world, especially in Asia, the problematic economy was indicated by the rising price of rice, which is the staple food of most Asians. Take rice off the table and it could spark uprisings. A “rice revolution” erupted in Bangladesh when workers protested against skyrocketing food prices.

The rice price crisis triggered widespread panic in both rich and poor countries in Asia. To prevent social unrest, many governments vowed to review their agricultural trade policies and land reform programs.

Then and now, oil remains a precious and dangerous political commodity whose price fluctuations have tremendously impacted the stability of big and small economies. Last year, fluctuating oil prices surprised everybody from a record high of almost US$150 per barrel in July to a low of US$50 in December.

Price speculation was clearly behind the erratic behavior of the oil distribution market. High oil prices, however, produced some positive results. Governments are now more aggressive in tapping alternative energy sources, consumers have modified their lifestyles to reduce dependence on oil, and oil companies have promised more transparency in their financial transactions.

Milk became a symbol of infant deaths last year when several China-made milk products were found contaminated with traces of the harmful chemical melamine.

Recently, the guilty milk companies in China issued statements of apology for producing tainted goods. But the damage had been done already with thousands of babies afflicted with kidney and urinary ailments after drinking the tainted milk. The scandal also affected China’s export industry.

If there was a positive consequence to the milk scare, it was increased consumer awareness of food safety issues. Besides milk, many Chinese food products are now subject to stricter regulations in many countries. Several health groups also used the issue to prove that breast milk is superior to infant formula milk products.

In the United States, the subprime mortgage woes resulted in the foreclosure of properties. Thousands of Americans lost their homes, unable to pay their mortgages. The debacle in the real estate sector hit financial institutions and heavy losses triggered a global crisis.

If there was something to be proud of last year, it was the electoral victory of Barack Obama. A majority of Americans, captivated by Obama’s promise of change, voted in his support. His historic victory has since inspired many young people in other countries to believe that change can also happen in their lifetime. The old phrase, “When America sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold,” could be given a new positive meaning. When Americans voted for Obama, the rest of the world applauded.

Last year, the Olympic Torch and the shoes of Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi became the two most important symbols of protest. Popular social networking website Facebook also deserves a special mention for being a vehicle for various protest campaigns. Egypt’s general strike last April was announced through Facebook.

The Olympic Torch relay around the world was delayed several times because of numerous protest actions. Activists disrupted the torch relays to highlight China’s poor human rights record. Many groups used creative and daring tactics during the torch relay parades to draw the attention of people to atrocities committed by the Chinese government.

The Iraqi journalist who threw a pair of shoes at U.S. President George W. Bush during a press conference in Baghdad is a hero to many Arabs. He has since also earned the admiration of many activists around the world. The shoe throwing was significant as it symbolized the anger of many people against the foreign policies of Bush.

The politicized objects of the past year – rice, oil, milk, the election ballot, the Olympic Torch and shoes – gave people a new understanding of the problems, issues and events in the world. The future seemed bleak when rice and oil prices rose, milk was tainted and homes confiscated by banks. Hope came in the form of votes and frustration was expressed by throwing shoes.

The year 2009 has not begun well. The situation in Gaza is a warning that killing machines and other objects of mass destruction will probably dominate the world this year.

Related entries:

2008 Southeast Asia
The shoe, the shoe
Rice revolution

Southeast Asia: Controversies and tragedies of 2008

Myanmar: Nine activists arrested during peaceful march; and Thailand: Revenge of the reds – posts written for Global Voices.

In the previous post (Southeast Asia: Newsmakers of 2008), I wrote about the major events that took place in Southeast Asia. In this article, I will highlight other less popular stories which became controversial as well.

Let’s start with a sizzling topic: sex. Malaysian politicians were involved in numerous sex scandals: a politician was caught on videotape having sex in a hotel with a lady friend; and an ex-Cabinet Minister was accused of molesting a woman.

In Cambodia the issue of using sex and women to promote products on TV was discussed by bloggers. A Filipino lawmaker demanded an apology from BBC for a comedy show which depicted a Filipina maid “as an object of sexual ridicule.” Also in the Philippines, doctors in a hospital were caught laughing hysterically in an operating room while removing a can of cologne spray inside a patient’s bottom.

There were marriage issues too. A published article in Singapore drew criticism for announcing the discount rate for Vietnamese brides. Cambodia has stopped processing documents for the marriage of its citizens to foreigners in a move to minimize the possibility of human trafficking.

The National Fatwa Council of Malaysia has ruled that the physical aspect of yoga is ok but the mantras and other spiritual elements are forbidden. A film by a Dutch politician, Fitna, has provoked rallies in Indonesia because of its "anti-Islam message."

Concerning urban development, many Cambodians became worried over the construction of too many casinos in Phnom Penh. Street vendors were banned in Hanoi’s thoroughfares. Several Singapore homeowners opposed the building of dormitories for foreign workers near their villages.

Also in Singapore, the new rules and taxes for cigarettes elicited some discussion in the blogosphere. Another controversy was the proposal to legalize organ trading in the country.

Singapore faced a security nightmare when a terrorist escaped from a high-security cell. Indonesia confronted the past by executing the Bali bombers. Meanwhile, bomb blasts have been reported in Myanmar this year.

Ferry disasters were reported in the Philippines. More than 700 died after a ship capsized in central Philippines last June. Scores of Myanmar migrants suffocated to death in a lorry while being smuggled in southern Thailand last April. More than 3,000 residents lost their homes due to fire accidents in Yangon and Mandalay last February. More than 50 persons died while partying in a bar in Bangkok during the New Year’s Eve celebrations.


Let’s now turn to other topics.

Thailand’s transvestite toilets became popular in the world. Thailand also experienced its first snowfall in history. Bangkok Freeze and Singapore Freeze were successful actions.

Showbiz personalities in Indonesia are entering the political arena. Due to high oil prices, water buffaloes are popular again in the fields of Laos and Thailand.

There is a wonderful project in Vientiane which helps the street kids of Laos by training them to be cooks. Apparently, “feather-boa bicycle bandits” have invaded Vietnam’s city streets.

Media vs government

Several cases of press freedom violations have been reported in the region. Two journalists in Vietnam were arrested whose only crime was to expose the corruption in a government agency. Another example: The Economist’s special report on Vietnam was censored by authorities.

Other disturbing news: Copies of The Burma Daily were confiscated in Cambodia; harassment of journalists in Cambodia and the Philippines has not stopped; the website of the critical and independent paper The Irrawaddy was hacked; and TV reporters in the Philippines were kidnapped by bandits.

A Vietnamese activist blogger faces tax fraud charges. A dissident Singapore blogger was arrested. Indonesia has blocked several websites.

It is not surprising that the region has a low press freedom index.

Citizen media

Let’s now discuss some of the citizen media activities/campaigns of the past year.

Malaysian bloggers have become politicians; Malaysian politicians have become bloggers (For example, Mahathir Mohamad). Bloggers have warned of holding a strike as protest against dirty politics in Malaysia. Recognizing the power of blogging, the government said it wants to befriend bloggers.

Filipino bloggers supported the 2008 Blog Action Day against poverty. Catholic bishops in the Philippines have been preaching on You Tube. A Filipino migrant group in Hong Kong has set-up a blog to pressure the government to investigate the mysterious death of a Filipina worker. The Twitter Suu participatory media project aims to send millions of messages to Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi “to let her know she has worldwide support.” A senior citizen in Malaysia has been blogging his complaints against a consumer company in Malaysia.

Blogging has been recognized in Vietnam as a powerful tool of expression. Cambodia’s young bloggers were hailed as the country’s new intellectuals (Far Eastern Economic Review). In Myanmar, a veteran journalist has criticized the behavior of many bloggers. An Australian blogger became famous/controversial in the Philippines when he exposed the decadent activities of his rich friends in Manila.

Happy New Year!

Related entries:

Press freedom violations
Ship of state

Southeast Asia’s newsmakers of 2008

The big story of the year in Southeast Asia was the global economic downturn. A rice and food price crisis hit the region last summer, compounded by the dramatic rise of oil and gas prices. When prices of these commodities began to stabilize, Wall Street announced the crash of several banks and major financial institutions in the United States.

The recession in the United States was felt in Southeast Asia, affecting the real estate, financial services and export industries in the region. Singapore was the first Asian country to experience recession this year. Because of the negative economic indicators, many began to worry that the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-1998 would plague the region again.

Some of the memorable events which captured the gloomy economic outlook of the times were the following: Thousands of Filipinos queuing for a kilo of subsidized rice across the Philippines; scores of poor Indonesians in East Java dying in a stampede while waiting for alms; and Singapore investors publicly protesting when their incomes were lost in the wake of the Wall Street crash.

The economic downturn has produced a few encouraging developments: It forced consumers to save money; entrepreneurs have started to look for innovative ways of doing business; and policymakers have admitted that there is a need to rethink their economic philosophies.

The past year was also a period of escalating domestic political upheavals in the region. Malaysia’s opposition party managed to secure several more seats in the Parliament during the elections last March. Party leaders even claimed that they were ready to form a new government.

The Philippines was rocked by a corruption scandal early this year. The First Family was implicated in the controversy. The President of East Timor survived an assassination attempt.

It was a chaotic year for Thailand: Two prime ministers were forced to step down from power; the country almost went into war with Cambodia over a border dispute; and the airport crisis a few weeks ago has weakened the dollar-earning tourism industry.

During hard and harsh times, people are more willing to express their anger in public. The year 2008 was also a year of provocative protest actions. Last June thousands of Malaysians protested in the streets against the government decision to reduce fuel subsidies and raise fuel prices. This was followed by succeeding protest activities which highlighted the opposition to the repressive laws of the government like the Internal Security Act. Fuel protests were also registered in Indonesia.

There were two major protest actions in the Philippines this year: Last February, an estimated crowd of about 80,000 gathered in Metro Manila’s financial district to express disgust over the alleged involvement of the First Family in a scandal-ridden national broadband network deal. Two weeks ago, thousands went to the same venue to protest the controversial proposal by administration lawmakers to amend the Constitution so that the term of incumbent politicians, including that of the president, would be extended.

The most famous protest action of the year was organized by Thailand’s People Alliance for Democracy. The group was able to mobilize thousands of people every day from August to December. The protesters succeeded in occupying the Government House, Parliament Building, and lastly the two major airports in Bangkok. Their determination and stubbornness were helpful in persuading the courts to rule against the interest of the ruling government. The group has vowed to return to the streets if they don’t see reforms in government.

When people are protesting in the streets, most likely governments would initiate measures to discourage these activities. In Myanmar the junta ordered the arrest of more than 60 people for participating in activities deemed subversive by the government.

The detainees were sentenced to long years of imprisonment. The prison terms were unbelievable: two years for reporting about the cyclone aid effort; six years for sending false information abroad; 20 years for keeping defaced images of national leaders in an email inbox; and 65 years for five monks and 14 members of 88 Generation Students group.

Thailand has charged several foreigners for allegedly violating a lese majeste law. Indonesia’s recently passed anti-porn law was criticized because of its possible negative impact on free speech and traditional art.

The armed conflict between Philippine government troops and Muslim separatist rebels in several areas of Mindanao Island has displaced more than half a million innocent civilians. Mindanao is located in the southern Philippines. The conflict escalated when the two parties failed to sign a draft peace agreement last August.

Media harassment cases have been reported in the whole region. Internet users have experienced many forms of censorship as well. Prominent bloggers and some journalists in Malaysia and Myanmar were arrested for refusing to toe the line set by the government.

Vietnam wants to introduce some new regulations on blogging. Thailand is blocking Web sites that purportedly insult the monarchy. Jakarta’s police want Internet shops to record their customers’ IDs in a guest book to prevent cyber crime.

Natural calamities were big news as well. A destructive cyclone hit Myanmar last May. More than 100,000 people were killed. Myanmar is still suffering as cyclone refugees continue to suffer from hunger and illnesses. The junta’s incompetence was another disaster which worsened the situation. The government relief work was too slow and inadequate. The junta even considered refusing international aid.

Floods killed scores of people in northern and central Vietnam last November. It was the worst flooding in the country in almost 25 years. A landslide in Kuala Lumpur this month was linked to the negligence of government authorities and irresponsible hillside developers.

Who are the newsmakers of the year? Thailand’s PAD protesters for showing resoluteness. Their legacy is still under question but their bravery must be recognized. Former Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra is another newsmaker. He was ousted from power two years ago but his name continues to inspire animosity, love, cynicism and devotion among Thai citizens.

Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim scored a landslide electoral victory despite being accused of another sodomy charge. Cambodia’s Hun Sen was reelected this year; but the opposition claimed there was massive electoral fraud. The Philippine’s Gloria Arroyo has survived another impeachment attempt.

The region’s athletes who participated in the Beijing Olympics should be commended. After 12 years Malaysia won an Olympic medal. Another important victory was the silver medal of Singapore in table tennis. This was Singapore’s first Olympic medal in 48 years. Sadly, Brunei failed to participate in the games.

The China milk scandal was a big issue in the region too. China is the major trading partner of Southeast Asian nations. China-made milk products, and later even other food items, were scrutinized, strictly regulated and banned.

The U.S. presidential election was closely monitored in the region. Both candidates – John McCain and Barack Obama – are popular in the region. McCain was a former Navy pilot during the Vietnam War while Obama lived in Jakarta for five years. Obama’s victory inspired many people to reflect about the need for change in their local politics.

For Southeast Asia, 2008 was a year of terrible disasters, both natural and manmade. Rice consumption was reduced, milk products were contaminated with melamine, jobs were lost, bloggers were arrested and homes were destroyed. But the situation is not hopeless. The people expect reforms in governance. They are ready to mobilize for change, and if needed, throw shoes at politicians during press conferences.

Related entries:

Yearender 2005
Yearender 2006
Yearender 2007

Rethinking the Bangkok protests

Links: Examples of health-related projects in Brunei. The importance of not losing face in Thai society. The largest Facebook group in Singapore. The bindabaat practice in Laos.

Two posts for Global Voices: Thailand political crisis: Reactions from the region and Thailand: Foreigner who stayed in the airport blockade.

It was the judiciary that ordered Thailand’s unpopular ruling party to be disbanded on Tuesday, but it was the daily protests by the People’s Alliance for Democracy that made the national leadership almost powerless to govern. Today, PAD is both popular and unpopular. It was able to oust the government, but its victory is questioned by many analysts in Bangkok and around the world.

PAD is criticized for using undemocratic tactics to achieve its goals. Despite its insistence that it espouses nonviolence, PAD has been accused of instigating violent acts that have affected innocent civilians and members of the press. By shutting down Bangkok’s two major airports last week, PAD inconvenienced hundreds of thousands of passengers in Thailand and nearby countries.

The airport takeovers have weakened Thailand’s tourist industry. PAD’s daring activities in the past few months have scared local and foreign investors, which has worsened the country’s economic problems.

PAD defends its extralegal actions by citing the futility of demanding institutional reforms under a government it labeled as a proxy of ousted Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra. But PAD’s moral ascendancy to speak on behalf of oppressed Thais is doubted because of its incestuous ties to other sections of the elite, particularly Bangkok’s business bosses, military generals and the royal family.

Others have already discussed the dangerous ideals promoted by PAD. Critics have written about the fascist leanings of PAD and its secret financiers. Meanwhile, it is also important to point out the relevance of the Bangkok protests to ongoing and future political actions in the country and in different parts of the world.

If PAD were a genuine radical group, would the media still describe the airport takeover as irresponsible and unwise? If this happened in Myanmar, would we still condemn the actions of the anti-government protesters? Or would we focus more on the wrongdoings committed by the junta? If PAD’s effective street tactics were adopted by insurgents in Iraq, what would be our reaction?

People power uprisings will always be bothersome, especially to disinterested individuals and groups. We have to review our attitude toward PAD. Are we angry at PAD because it rejects free elections? Are we against PAD’s support for a military takeover? Or is our anger directed mainly at the annoying street protests and airport takeover?

It is crucial to distinguish the undemocratic philosophy of PAD and the group’s right to use extralegal means to fight what it believes to be a despotic government. Failure to highlight the validity of mass assemblies and provocative collective actions today would probably lead us to reject similar political practices in the future, even if they are organized by genuine radical groups.

Another factor that has contributed to the unpopularity of PAD is the use of unflattering names by the academe and media to describe the group. PAD’s political identity is somewhat ambiguous. The group has been called fascist, royalist, cultist, elitist, anti-poor, terrorist and anarchist. These labels are correct and at the same time wrong.

PAD is more than just an urban-based movement that worships the king. It has a constituency that sincerely believes in justice, empowerment and democracy. For many years, it has demonstrated an impressive record of mobilizing the middle class through peaceful means. And do groups with devoted and disciplined followers always have to be described as cults?

This is the dilemma. There seems to be no precise term to accurately describe the politics of PAD. The available terms are often used by the West to describe extremist political movements. Using these inadequate terms to identify PAD does not often allow the public to properly understand the crisis in Thailand. This kind of dilemma was noted by a European scholar who said that “we lack the very language to articulate our ‘unfreedom.’”

PAD may be unworthy to lead the democracy movement in Thailand, but that does not mean that the issues it raised against the government were false. There is corruption, poverty and injustice in Thai society. Electoral fraud is a valid issue. Bribery, cronyism and abuse of power are rampant.

Unfortunately, these problems are not properly understood by the reading public in the world. Their information about the Bangkok protests has been obscured by our uncritical and simplistic use of labels to identify the political forces in Thailand. Maybe it is more convenient to describe PAD as fascist and royalist than to elaborate on the many problems afflicting Thailand.

PAD may be irrational for advocating a refined form of dictatorship. On the other hand, we should recognize that our practice of naming things in Thailand according to what we think they are is also not completely rational.

Related entries:

Bangkok protesters
People Power
In other words

Bangkok’s notorious protesters

Global Voices has created a special coverage page about the airport chaos in Bangkok. I wrote these roundups:

Thailand: Airports reopen but crisis not yet over
Thailand: Airport crisis hurting ordinary persons. The New York Times links to the post.
Thailand: How will the airport chaos end? Read the French translation.
Sleepless and stranded in Thailand. Read the Spanish translation.
Thailand: Airport takeover and Twitter. Read the Italian translation.
Thailand: Protesters occupy airports. Read the Spanish translation.

Anti-government protesters led by the People’s Alliance for Democracy finally attained their goal of ousting the Thai government on Tuesday, after conducting provocative street actions for several months and demanding the removal of the elected government, believing it to be a proxy of ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The Constitutional Court disbanded the three main parties in the ruling coalition on Tuesday, after finding them guilty of electoral fraud. It also banned Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat from politics for five years, along with other top party leaders, forcing the selection of a new head of government.

There is no doubt that PAD’s pressure was instrumental in bringing about this outcome. The group had upped the ante last month and vowed to push for a “final battle” campaign to remove the elected government. On Nov. 24 they were able to surround the Parliament building. The following day they took over a major airport in Bangkok. On Thursday they occupied Bangkok’s second major airport, paralyzing air travel in the country. These actions stunned the world.

On Wednesday the protesters withdrew from the airports, after eight days of occupation, and air traffic began to flow again.

The airport takeover was bold but not surprising. The group that succeeded in mobilizing thousands of people in the streets for several months could surely manage to shut down the country’s airports. This is the same group that overran Thailand’s Government House last August.

That PAD and its leaders could continue their street actions despite the concerted efforts of different government agencies to undermine the group is solid proof of its organizational prowess. The persistence of its supporters to advocate for change and to act without fear is simply astonishing.

PAD was right in choosing the airport for staging its decisive battle against the government. The new airport was a pet project of Thaksin’s. During the 2006 coup, the poor construction of the airport was mentioned as one of the lapses of the Thaksin administration. Most important of all, occupying the airport would embarrass the Thai government. It would prove the ineptness of the leadership, its failure to properly implement the laws, and its lack of support from many sections of the population.

Bangkok is a major transport hub in Asia. The airport takeover stranded more than 300,000 passengers in Thailand. The travel plans of thousands of tourists from nearby countries were affected as well. The airport protest actions were not meant to elicit domestic support. PAD was aiming for a global audience. It wanted to convince world leaders that extralegal reform was needed to end the political crisis in the country.

PAD prepared well for the airport siege. It had adequate supplies, manpower and other emergency logistics needed to secure the airport facilities. A member of PAD claimed they could have remained inside the airport for many months without going hungry. But PAD did not anticipate one thing: The Mumbai terror attack.

On the same day Bangkok protesters occupied the airport, scores of gunmen unleashed a terror campaign in the city of Mumbai, India. Almost 200 were killed and 300 were injured. Bangkok’s airport surprise received less global attention than the Mumbai attacks. It didn’t help that the airport takeover was described by many as a terrorist act. PAD was compared to the terrorist group which claimed responsibility for the attacks in Mumbai.

PAD has been called many names but only a few have called them a terrorist group in the past. The Mumbai tragedy has somewhat influenced the vocabulary and sentiments of everybody. It is now difficult to imagine PAD protesters as peace loving, passionate and idealistic individuals. Disrupting public order is perceived as less romantic and revolutionary today.

Even if unconnected, the horrendous events in Mumbai can be indirectly linked to the airport chaos in Bangkok by many persons. Both were violent, illegal and they happened at the same time. This makes the airport takeover more unacceptable.

Assuming that PAD can defend its actions, it cannot deny its close ties to powerful sections in the military. PAD also has very rich supporters; it is not the political organization of the poor and exploited. The urban middle class, once the core supporters of PAD, are also beginning to distance themselves from the group. PAD has reinterpreted democracy by shunning free elections and asking the military to launch a coup.

PAD should be commended for having launched a series of big street actions in the past months. Organizing these actions is not easy even if there are available financial resources. The group was able to sustain its campaign by mobilizing thousands of ardent supporters. It succeeded in attacking several physical symbols of power like the Government House, Parliament building, homes of Cabinet ministers, and finally the airports. PAD has accomplished what any genuine revolutionary group would have done even in other places.

But there have been no solidarity statements for PAD from progressive organizations around the world. No human rights group has promoted its cause. Perhaps PAD failed to capture the imagination of radicals in other countries. Or maybe the radicals knew that PAD’s goals were not worth endorsing.

Related entries:

Thailand at the crossroads
Thailand and Philippines

Unfriendly neighbors in Southeast Asia

Links: Rats invading the fields in west Myanmar. Thailand bans websites that insult the monarchy. Press freedom index in Malaysia. Indonesia’s anti-porn law.

There are numerous border disputes in Southeast Asia. The most well-known case today involves the historic Preah Vihear temple and the four square kilometers of territory around it, which are claimed by both Thailand and Cambodia. Last month, Thai and Cambodian soldiers violently clashed near the controversial temple.

Fortunately the clash produced few deaths and injuries. But unfortunately, it generated ultranationalist and racist sentiments in both countries. Many Thais, including politicians, accused Cambodians of betraying Thailand in the past.

On the other hand, some Cambodians criticized their neighbor for being arrogant. Thailand and Cambodia do not only share borders, they also have a common political and economic history.

The border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia is just one of the many quiet conflicts in Southeast Asia, especially in the Indochina region. There are still unsettled border feuds between Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia today. Recently, a maritime dispute in the Bay of Bengal was reported between Myanmar and Bangladesh.

In other parts of the region, the Philippines has not renounced its claim over Sabah, which is part of Malaysia today. Some Filipino scholars believe Malaysia has been secretly supporting the Muslim insurgents in the southern Philippines to protect its interests in Sabah.

This year Singapore was recognized by the World Court as the owner of a tiny but important island in the Singapore Strait, which is also claimed by Malaysia.

These border disputes are partly colonial legacies. Western powers created artificial boundaries in the past which inflamed ethnic rivalries.

It is also understandable why governments today are asserting their geopolitical interests. Each country has to protect its sovereignty and more importantly, it has to secure the territories with abundant resources. But the aggressive behavior of many leaders in the region may also be a tactic to gather domestic support for their unpopular administrations. Nationalism is being invoked for the wrong reasons.

The border disputes in the region signify the lack of camaraderie among Southeast Asians. Every country believes its people are superior over their neighbors. This form of racism seems to be endorsed by social and cultural institutions of many countries in the region. An editor of the Bangkok Post raised this point when he exposed what Thai schools are teaching his daughter:

“Like most Thais, she feels Burma is fierce and heartless, Cambodia cannot be trusted and Laos is inferior to Thailand – because the history textbooks teach her so.”

Many people in Thailand believe they once owned parts of their neighboring countries, making them feel they are the greatest in the region. In a similar way, almost all Filipinos think that other Southeast Asians have learned agriculture by studying in the Philippines.

Last month, homeowners in a village in Singapore protested the construction of a dormitory for migrant workers, citing security concerns, the migrants’ poor hygiene and the negative impact of the building on real estate prices in the area. They have forgotten that many of their ancestors were also migrants and that most of the migrant workers today in Singapore have come from neighboring countries in the region.

The unfriendliness of Southeast Asians to each other is really disappointing. But this condescending behavior toward fellow Southeast Asians is almost no different to what the people in the region are showing to their fellow citizens in their home countries.

The dominant Buddhist Thais are not on good terms with many ethnic Malay Muslims who are living in southern Thailand. The Catholic majority in the Philippines is denying Muslim Filipinos in the southern Philippines their right to self-determination. Many residents of West Papua are asserting their independence from Indonesia. Racism is again a very serious, if not the most important, political issue in multi-ethnic Malaysia.

The unspoken hostility between Southeast Asians makes it difficult and almost impossible to implement region-wide initiatives. For example, there have been proposals for sending a unified team to the Olympics, the use of a single currency like the euro for Europe, and the issuance of a single visa for the whole region.

A divided Southeast Asia does not benefit the interests of each country in the region. It makes it easy for big countries like China, Japan and the United States to obtain advantageous deals from Southeast Asian countries.

The United States has clinched military basing agreements with several Southeast Asian countries; Japan has been successful in acquiring one-sided bilateral economic agreements in the region; and China is acting like the big brother of Southeast Asian nations.

Things could be different if Southeast Asia were united. Powerful countries would rethink their negotiating tactics if they were dealing with a united Southeast Asia, instead of a small country with little economic and political bargaining power.

But many Southeast Asians do not realize this need for unity. They have overlooked the advantages of creating a united regional bloc since they are distracted by trivial conflicts. It seems they prefer to convince themselves that their neighbors are inferior instead of reaching out to their fellow Southeast Asians.

China, Japan and India are among the big powers in Asia. A united Southeast Asia could alter the balance of power in this part of the world.

Related entries:

Solidarity in Southeast Asia
Human rights in Southeast Asia
2008 Olympics

Economic recession and Asia’s experience

Links: Literacy education among Vietnam’s ethnic population. Avril Lavigne is too sexy for some Malaysian politicians. Singapore is harassing Burmese activists. Laos is pronounced as Lao (silent ‘s’).

Indonesia: Views on the U.S. Financial Crisis, a post written for Global Voices. Read the Bangla translation. Check out my profile in Voices Without Votes. Blog Action Day 2008.

The financial crisis in the United States has weakened the economies of many nations. Investment banks are falling. Unemployment is rising. Inflation is getting worse. Poverty is expanding. These are obvious indicators of an impending – or has it already arrived? – global economic recession.

To point out the seriousness of the problem, economists and other commentators are comparing the present economic downturn to the Great Depression of the 1930s. The similarities are difficult to ignore: bank failures, a stock market crash, soaring unemployment and homelessness, and the fact that in both periods, it was the decline of the U.S. economy that triggered the global economic crisis.

The Great Depression has always been used as a benchmark to explain and measure economic upheavals. The mere mention of the term creates panic among people, especially Americans. Today, everybody is talking about the Great Depression again. Thanks to the Wall Street crash, everybody is worried that the world will again experience the horrors of the Great Depression era.

Like the rest of the world, most Asians are terrified of the Great Depression. But this fear must be put into context. Asians share the global anxiety about the uncertain future of the U.S. economy and world economy. They dread the possibility of a prolonged economic crisis. But it is not always adequate to invoke the threat of the Great Depression in order to remind Asians about the gravity of U.S. economic woes.

Somehow, Americans and Asians have different memories of the Great Depression. Yes, Asian economies were also down at that time; but most of them were colonial subjects of Western powers. Many Asians blamed their social problems on colonial economic policies. While the West was trying to cope with the depression, Asians were struggling to become free nations. Many Asians remember the Great Depression as the period when independence movements started to expand in their countries. For many Asians, stories about poverty were subsumed in their collective memories of colonial bondage and the struggle to resist the foreign intruders.

It is not the Great Depression of the 1930s, but rather the 1997 Asian financial crisis that is a more appropriate reference point to capture the attention of Asians. Before 1997, many Asian countries were called “tiger” and “dragon” economies because of their amazing economic output. Many Asians thought the positive performance of their economies would continue for a long time. Then the fatal economic crash came in 1997.

The financial crisis spread like wildfire through the region. Suddenly, rising economies like Thailand and Indonesia quickly went down. Confidence in many Asian economies declined. Economic indicators became negative overnight. Asians became poorer, and markets became unstable. Many Asian countries have yet to fully recover from the 1997 downturn.

For many Asians, the Great Depression seems too distant and ancient, while the 1997 Asian crisis is very recent and concrete. Thus, it is not surprising that many Asian commentators are highlighting the 1997 crisis to explain the possible impact of an imminent global financial meltdown. If Asians are worried about the deteriorating condition of the U.S. economy, it has more to do with the fear that their recovering and struggling economies will be unable to withstand the aftershocks of another economic recession, after the last one hit the region only a decade ago.

Remembering Asian countries’ struggles to rebuild their economies after 1997 is relevant too in order to understand Asia’s reactions to the financial bailout program of the U.S. government. On one hand, there is pessimism that the United States will be unable to solve its economic problems. It was the West, led by the United States, that lectured Asia about the need for market reforms in 1997. So far, these neoliberal economic prescriptions have failed to revive the economies of Asian countries.

On the other hand, there is a feeling of contempt for the United States. Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad echoes this sentiment in his blog: "We cannot forget how, in 1997-98, American hedge funds destroyed the economies of poor countries by manipulating their national currencies. (Asian) governments were told not to bail out any company or bank that was in deep trouble. The Americans claimed that these companies or banks were inefficient, and they should be allowed to go bankrupt and perish. Better still, they should be sold at fire-sale prices to American investors. Yet today, we see the U.S. government readying $700 billion to brazenly bail out banks, mortgage companies and insurance companies."

The global economic catastrophe must be viewed from different perspectives. The American worldview is relevant, but it is not applicable nor should it be imposed on the rest of the world. For example, Asia has its own unique historical and social experience, which means it needs a different approach to solve its economic problems.

Related entries:

Myanmar and relief invasion
Gloria and Ramos