US Defense Secretary's Troubled Southeast Asia Visit

But China’s hostile policies in SCS also gain it no friends

US Defense Secretary's Troubled Southeast Asia Visit

By: B A Hamzah

The three-day visit of US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to drum up regional support to confront China, which started today (July 28) in Singapore couldn’t have come at a worse time as Southeast Asia struggles to roll back the Covid-19 pandemic. Governments all over the region are preoccupied with matters of life and death – and in some cases, political survival.

The challenge to public health, economy, and the social fabric is unprecedented. There is no regional country which is not worried as Covid-19 is an issue that risks mutating into a political crisis –the P variant – as thousands more people contract the hyper-transmissible Delta variant. The global death toll from this invisible virus is more than 4.2 million with infections totaling 196 million and counting.

Source: ISEAS

Hospitals are full and overflowing. In some countries, the sick must sleep on the floor and along congested corridors. Front-liners are exhausted. They too have been infected. Resources are getting scarcer and patience with inept governments is getting thinner.

The region is further troubled by the adverse impact of climate change. There is severe flooding in some parts of China, Taiwan, and the Philippines. Failure to deal with these domestic concerns is slowly taking a toll on regime stability. In Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, many unhappy netizens are calling for regime change. As the trust deficit gets wider, as more people lose jobs, and the hospitals get crowded, we can expect more demonstrations and street protests.

With so many domestic issues on their plates, geopolitics has taken a back seat for many Asean member states. This is not the time to push for a geopolitical agenda like building a coalition against China, our neighbor, which has made 29 percent of its total free vaccine donations to Southeast Asia.

Of course, out of politeness, and as a matter of diplomatic courtesy bordering political expediency, the leaders in the region have lent an ear to the visiting US defense secretary. Nonetheless, while Austin’s choice for stopover in three cities is practical, skipping Indonesia, a key member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is not wise.

The Vietnam stop over makes plenty of sense. Vietnam portrays itself as being at odds with China, a situation that pleases Washington. Vietnam has gone to war with China twice recently, in 1979 and 1988. Despite losing the two wars, Vietnam continues to challenge its neighbor in the disputed Spratly and the Paracels. Although Hanoi and Beijing are at odds with each other mainly at sea, the ruling communist parties remain on good terms and maintain a cordial relationship.

The Philippines has been a treaty ally of the US since 1951 and hence Manila is expected to give unfettered support in the event of a US military confrontation with China. The unpredictable President Duterte has been critical of the US and unlikely to allow the US military to use the Philippines’ territory against China as provided for under the 1951 Treaty. Nor would he allow Philippines soldiers, in my view, to join the US to fight China under his watch. However, his six-year term will expire in May 2022, and he will be ineligible for re-election. Washington is hoping a more friendly person is elected president.

Whoever replaces Duterte as president, however, will find it hard not to continue with his foreign policy of avoiding military conflict with China in its archipelagic waters. On balance, Duterte’s overtures towards China receive a mixed review. China has not been very gracious in returning Duterte’s goodwill. Many Filipinos feel they have been shortchanged despite Duterte’s kowtow to set aside the decision of the international arbitration (2016) on China’s claims in the South China Sea.

Manila expected Beijing to be more forthcoming. On the contrary, Chinese fishermen continue to steal fish from the Scarborough Reefs. The presence of more than 200 fishing boats at Whitsun Reef in March this year – filled with cadres instead of fishermen – is alarming, business as usual.

Singapore is a key military partner of the US in the region. US forces need access to basing facilities and airfields on the island state to support military operations.

There is a presumption in Washington that the countries in Southeast Asia are supportive of the US anti-China policy. Austin’s choice of stopover suggests a US long-term policy of engaging with states in the region that Washington believes will carry the US can. After years of neglecting the region, in my view, no regime in Asean, not even Singapore, would be willing to get entangled in a US-led military confrontation with China. Although many have subscribed to the US-led economic groupings like the Pacific Economic Cooperation Community as well as the scuttled Transpacific Trade Partnership Agreement, no one in the region wants to go to war with Beijing.

Fighting a US war against China is not an option for an Asean that maintains strong cultural and economic ties with China, especially in trade. The US and other anti-China members of the Quad –the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, for example – are transactional powers; moreover, they are not from the region. Unlike the QUADS members, no Asean member states consider China a threat to their security. Even the Asean states with territorial disputes in the South China Sea, Vietnam included, do not refer to China as an enemy state in their official publications.

This doesn’t mean the claimant states tolerate China’s hostile activities in the South China Sea. However, they prefer to deal through diplomatic means and where diplomacy failed, as in the case of the Philippines, they will resort to legal recourse like arbitration, for example.

Two claimant states are likely to take China for arbitration if China continues to intimidate the activities of their companies in the disputed waters. Reports of recent aerial incursions in the Malaysian airspace in mid-June this year have not gone well with a country that has gone out of its way to please China.

As Asean countries review their security concerns and priorities the fact that China has been their neighbor since time memorial is not lost on them. Asean countries will likely stay out of any effort by those who want to wage war against China for reasons best known to them. We, in Asean have no business getting caught in the crosshairs as the US and its coalition members prepare for war. Their war is not our war.

All things equal, however, it takes two to tango. China must not take Asean friendship for granted. It cannot continue with its hostile policies in the South China Sea and hope all the claimant states will keep quiet. There is a limit to Asean patience. The minimum China could do is to stop using force in its relations with all stakeholders as a matter of national policy.

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Six Months After Myanmar’s Coup, Life is Worse in Nearly Every Metric: Analysts

Observers predict that the junta’s inability to govern will lead to a power struggle in the long term.

Six Months After Myanmar’s Coup, Life is Worse in Nearly Every Metric: Analysts

Six months after Myanmar’s military staged a coup to remove the country’s democratically elected government, life in the Southeast Asian nation is worse by nearly every metric, according to analysts, who said the junta’s prospect for maintaining power in the long term appears unlikely.

On Feb. 1, the military seized power from Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), alleging that the party’s landslide victory in the country’s November 2020 election was the result of extensive voter fraud.

The junta detained the NLD leadership on what are widely seen as politically motivated charges and has violently suppressed mass protests, arresting at least 5,442 people and killing 939, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).

Earlier this week, the junta’s Union Election Commission (UEC) announced that the 2020 election results had been annulled, claiming that more than 11.3 million ballots—representing nearly one-third of the country’s registered voters—had been discounted due to fraud and other irregularities orchestrated by the NLD. The junta has yet to produce evidence of its claims, and the NLD and several of the country’s other political parties have rejected the move as unlawful.

Aung Kyi Myunt, a member of the NLD’s central executive committee, told RFA that the military had been working to remove the party from power for months in the lead up to the coup and that the country’s political situation is now in shambles.

“They came in with weapons, destroying branch office signage, and in some places removed NLD flags or entered NLD offices and unlawfully confiscated documents, equipment, and computers as they wished,” he said.

“Some NLD officials were arrested and imprisoned under various charges, while others have been tortured or killed, or are now in hiding. Some elected [lawmakers] have taken shelter in ‘liberated areas’ [under the control of anti-junta militias] or moved to safer places.”

The remnants of the NLD responded to the coup by forming the shadow National Unity Government (NUG) in May and backing the formation of the People’s Defense Force (PDF) militia, which has proved to be a formidable adversary in protecting the public from junta forces throughout the country.

People queue as they wait to use ATMs in Yangon, April 7, 2021. AFP
Economy on the ropes

Myanmar’s economy has also suffered in the aftermath of the military takeover, with hundreds of thousands of jobs lost amid the widespread closure of factories and other businesses.

While some of the downturn can be attributed to the disastrous impact of the coronavirus, the Asian Development Bank estimates that Myanmar’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is currently shrinking by nearly 10 percent, compared to a growth of 3.3 percent in 2020, suggesting that the previous government had managed to steer the economy in the right direction after the pandemic reached the country in March last year.

A statement issued by the Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association last month said that 52 factories have been shut down on either a temporary or permanent basis since the coup, as orders from international buyers fell from tens of thousands to thousands.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) said last week that labor market conditions in Myanmar have also worsened since the military took over. As many as 1.2 million jobs were lost in the second quarter of 2021, predominantly in the construction, tourism, and hospitality sectors.

A World Bank report released this week said that the twin impacts of the military takeover and coronavirus pandemic could double the poverty rate in Myanmar, and suggested the economy is headed for a recession. The Bank pointed to domestic protests, labor shortages, telecommunications shutdowns, and a failing health sector as having the greatest impact.

Dr. Soe Tun, a businessman in Myanmar’s largest city Yangon, said the coup had left Myanmar’s economy in a state of “turmoil.”

“Foreign investors are shutting down businesses and leaving the country, while local businesses are struggling hard to survive,” he said. “Everything is slowing down.”

Meanwhile, the kyat has depreciated significantly in the past six months, increasing from 1,330 to the U.S. dollar on the day of the coup to 1,630 on Friday.

The daughter of Zwee Htet Soe, a protester who died during a demonstration against the military coup, cries during her father's funeral in Yangon, March 5, 2021. AFP
‘Worst’ ever rights situation

Watchdog groups say the coup has had a devastating impact on the human rights situation in Myanmar, citing widespread reports of torture, as well as the number of deaths and arrests documented by the AAPP.

Min Lwin Oo, a lawyer with the Asian Human Rights Commission, said the people of Myanmar have been living in a state of anxiety and fear for the past six months.

“Our children have been subjected to abuses of the rights of minors, women have been subjected to sexual abuse and harassment, men have been brutally beaten during arrests and cruelly tortured at interrogation centers,” he said.

“The people have been living in fear. They have no guarantees protecting their property. They cannot move about freely or even breathe freely. The situation has gone from bad to worse.”

The AAPP recently said that people between the ages of 18 and 35 accounted for the highest number of deaths attributed to the junta, and that 61 minors were among those killed.

A spokesman for the group told RFA that the last six months have been worse for human rights in Myanmar than during any other time in history.

“Many were killed during the protests on the streets and there were a lot of young people among those shot dead,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Some were arrested at home or killed because of false information provided to the military by informants. We have endured a succession of military dictators, but this present dictatorship is the worst.”

RFA has also documented a significant downturn in media freedom since February, with some 90 arrests of journalists. Following the coup, the junta shut down eight media outlets, including DVB News, Mizzima News Agency, Myitkyina Journal, Tachileik News Agency, Seven Days, Myanmar Now, Modern, and The 74 Media.

Volunteers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) pray in front of bodies of people who died from COVID-19 during their funeral at a cemetery in Mandalay, July 14, 2021. AFP
Ailing healthcare system

Efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 in Myanmar were dealt a serious blow when the military seized power on Feb. 1 and the country’s healthcare system is now at the brink of collapse due to a poorly managed third wave of the coronavirus.

The number of COVID-19 infections rose Friday to a total of 289,333 since Myanmar’s first recorded case in March last year. The official monthly infection rate has jumped from around two percent of those tested in April 2020 during the first wave to 23 percent earlier this month, and at least 8,552 have died.

The country’s public hospitals are operating at maximum capacity and had been turning away all but the most seriously ill, while others were forced to settle for treatment at home amid shortages of basic medical necessities, including oxygen supplies critical to mitigating hypoxia.

Tens of thousands of people, including many healthcare professionals, have left their jobs to join a nationwide Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) in opposition to junta rule. Many have faced arrest for voicing criticism of the regime.

More than 4,600 people have died from COVID-19 over the past two months, according to the junta’s Ministry of Health and Sports, although the actual number is believed to be substantially higher, based on reports by charity groups that provide free burial services.

A doctor in Mandalay, who declined to be named, said CDM doctors and health workers have had to carry out their work in secret as the junta continues to make arrests.

“There is absolutely no freedom at all. Right now, providing medical treatment is like smuggling,” he said. “We have never seen anything like this before in this country.”

Doctors estimate that between 80 and 100 doctors and health workers have been detained since February.

Police fire water cannons at protesters as they demonstrate against the military coup in the capital Naypyidaw, Feb. 9, 2021. AFP
Grasp on power tenuous

Aung Htoo, a Sweden-based Burmese lawyer, said that while the military has so far been able to use the threat of violence to maintain a grip on the nation, its inability to govern effectively suggests that a power struggle is likely to ensue.

“In order to lay the groundwork for the country’s long-term stability, an administrative machinery based on a strong and balanced constitution will be needed,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service, adding that the people no longer accept Myanmar’s 2008 charter, drafted under the then-ruling military regime.

“It is impossible to achieve stability under the 2008 Constitution, as the [current] junta has hoped for. Looking back at the past six-month period, I don’t think there is a possibility for peace and stability in the country even though the junta has now taken control in the urban areas.”

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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