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Southeast Asia- 2009

Regional Developments

  • The year witnessed consolidation of democratic institutions in Indonesia, change of leadership in Malaysia, recurring instability in Thailand and a weakening in the position of the president of the Philippines.
  • Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono won the Presidential Elections in October 2009 and his Democratic Party won a majority percentage of votes in the April 2009 Parliamentary elections. The ten party coalition was formed in May 2009 which joined government led by Democratic Party. After Presidential elections, Yudhoyono had to face public scrutiny over the friction between Corruption Eradication Commission and government agencies and police.
  • Consequent to the November 2008 party elections, Najib Tun Rajak won the UMNO presidency and became Prime Minister in April 2009. He announced reforms in mandatory equity holdings by Bumiputera and passed strictures about religious conversion of minors.
  • With the dissolution of People’s Power Party (PPP) by the constitutional court and the banning of leaders including Prime Minister Somchai, the opposition led by Abhisit Vijjajiva came to power in January 2009. He faced stiff resistance from PPP supporters. The March 2009 street clashes between pro-government and Thaksin supporters led to the cancellation of the ASEAN summit in February–March 2009. The reverberations of these clashes were also felt during the Fourth East Asia Summit which was held in Pattaya, Thailand.
  • In another development, adding fire to the ongoing feud between Thailand and Cambodia on the Preah Vihar temple perimeter issue, Cambodia appointed Thaksin as the adviser to the Cambodian government on economic issues in November 2009 leading to a diplomatic row. Thailand has been trying hard to extradite Thaksin for initiating trials against him in Thai courts for mass misappropriation and graft cases during his tenure as Prime Minister of Thailand.
  • The Philippines was at the centre of attention right since January due to the Hello Garci episode. ‘Hello Garci’ was the recording of a phone conversation between President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and then Election Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano during the 2004 elections in which large scale rigging was suspected.
  • On the issue of Myanmar, Obama stated in Tokyo during his visit to Japan on November 14, 2009 that the military junta should unconditionally release all political prisoners, halt any conflict with ethnic minorities and work towards the democratic process by initiating dialogue with the democratic opposition. This policy has been seen as a policy of engagement and Obama admitted that neither sanctions nor engagement of other parties has alleviated the situation in Myanmar. This policy is seen as an attempt to get the stakeholders like European Union, military junta, opposition parties, human rights organizations and regional organizations on board prior to provincial and federal assembly elections in Myanmar in 2010. This proactive engagement is primarily aimed to seek release of Aung San Suu Kyi prior to elections.

Multilateral Institutions

ASEAN

  • In terms of multilateral structures, the ASEAN Charter is still being contested as vague and a non-committal attitude has been developing among the member nations because of the human rights issues as well as interference in domestic matters which impinge on regional security. The non–performance of the ASEAN Regional Forum and the subtle progress made by the East Asian Summit has forced countries like Japan and Australia to put forward their own versions of multilateral security structures, with Japan espousing the cause of an East Asian Community without United States while Australia is sponsoring the Asia-Pacific Community which would include the United States.

ASEAN+3 and East Asian Summit

  • The ASEAN+3 summit meeting in October 2009 called for tackling the global financial crisis and enhancing pragmatic cooperation among the partners. The stress was more on disaster management, comprehensive economic partnership Agreement in East Asia and trade finance issues. It adopted a resolution on Nalanda University for learning.

APEC

  • Even in the APEC, an economic grouping of 21 nations which held its 17th Economic Leaders Meeting November 14-15, 2009, the stress was more on financial crisis, inclusive growth and methods to overcome the recessionary phase in global economy. The issue of opening of the membership to other countries was not discussed in the meeting; the moratorium is expected to end in 2010.

Terrorism and Insurgency

  • In February 2009, Mas Selamat Kastari, the former leader of a JI cell in Singapore, escaped from the Whitley Road Detention Centre in Singapore. Despite a massive search operation, the Singaporean authorities failed to locate and re-capture Kastari. He was subsequently arrested in Malaysia in April 2009.
  • In March 2009, a Philippino Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) activist Giovanni de Ocampo, was arrested. Police recovered a large cache of IEDs and weapons meant for JI cadres in Indonesia. His arrest buttressed the fact that JI was reintensifying and reinvigorating its jihadist agenda through terror attacks in the archipelago.
  • The twin blasts at the Ritz Carlton and Marriott Hotels in Jakarta in July 2009, which left nine people dead (including two suicide bombers) and more than 50 injured, was found to be the handiwork of Jemaah Islamiyah. This was first major terror incident in 2009.
  • In September 2009, the most wanted terrorist in Asia, Noordin Top, was killed by the Indonesian Counter Terrorism Force; Top was also a fundraiser for terror outfits in the region.
  • The ongoing insurgency in the Southern Philippines aggravated in 2009 when a government-backed peace accord did not get approval from the Philippine Supreme Court leading to renewal of violence in Mindanao.
  • The insurgency in Thailand continued unabated with recurrent blasts in 2009. The Indonesian liberal Islamic Organization, Muhammadiyah, proposed to mediate in the talks between the government and insurgent groups.

India and Southeast Asia

  • India signed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with ASEAN nations in August 2009 after more than five years of intense negotiations. This would translate into tariff liberalization for more than 90 per cent of products as well as tariff elimination by 2016 for more than 4000 product lines. During the signing of FTA, Vietnam echoed its demand for Market Economy status in order to ratify the agreement. Subsequently, the market economy status was subsequently accorded to Vietnam in October 2009.
  • Vice President of India Hamid Ansari visited Myanmar February 5-8, 2009 and discussed issues like border trade, opening of new check posts and cooperation on counter insurgency issues.
  • Indian Army Chief General Deepak Kapoor visited Myanmar October 11-13, 2009 and discussed matters pertaining to counter-insurgency and training of Myanmarese military personnel. He also raised India’s apprehensions about the Chinese railway links up to Myanmarese border areas.
  • The Vietnamese Defence Minister visited India in November 2009 and signed an MoU on Defence Cooperation between the two countries.
  • Foreign Minister of Thailand Kasit Piromya visited India December 22–27, 2009 and discussed issues of connectivity, cultural ties and enhancing trade links between the two countries. He stressed on the building of a strategic partnership between the two countries.

Prepared by Pankaj Kumar Jha, Associate Fellow at the IDSA