Akan Datang: our contributors’ take on the stories to watch in Southeast Asia this week, curated by Regional Editor Aisyah Llewellyn.
Hello New Naratif readers and welcome to another week in Southeast Asia! This week the region is abuzz with sedition charges in Thailand, a Bill that clamps down on freedom of expression in Singapore, and former ISIS members who are desperate to return to their homeland of Indonesia.
This week over at New Naratif we published this piece on freedom of expression in Singapore by a former lecturer who shares his experience teaching in the city-state. We also published this article on Indonesia’s long-marginalised Ahmadiyya community who continue to live in legal limbo and fear for the future ahead of the elections on 17 April 2019. Also new on the site this week is this piece by Xuyen Nguyen about visiting the refugee camp where she was born and reflecting on the choices refugees are forced to make.
We also have this special podcast which features our Managing Director PJ Thum speaking at the University of California, Berkeley, about “Operation Coldstore” and its role in Malayan history, how it has shaped Singapore’s governance, and why it matters to the ruling party.
Here are all the stories to watch in Southeast Asia this week…
From Singapore, our Chief Editor, Kirsten Han, has this update:
Keep your eyes on freedom of expression in Singapore this week—the PAP government tabled the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill for its first reading last Monday, and the reactions are still coming in. The Bill, which is meant to help Singapore grapple with “fake news” and misinformation campaigns, contains a shocking amount of state overreach: any Minister is able to issue correction notices, takedown orders, or block access to online content, to individuals inside or outside Singapore. And even if you disagree and would like to take the case all the way up to the High Court, you’re required to first comply with the direction and lodge an appeal with the same Minister who issued the order before you have access to the courts.
There has already been pushback by the Asia Internet Coalition (made up of big tech companies), human rights NGOs, press freedom groups, and Singaporean journalists, bloggers, and academics. The Bill is expected to have its second reading next month, so there’ll probably be more noise made about it for the rest of April. (I’ll be losing sleep over it for the next month, for sure!)
From Cambodia, our Consulting Editor for Cambodia, Matt Surrusco, has this news:
Cambodia is currently gripped by ongoing power outages, which have been in the news in the last week or two, but will surely be something to watch this coming week and for the next month or so. This is a hot topic of discussion in Cambodia because it’s affecting most people in Phnom Penh (as the power is out in the morning or afternoon each day depending on neighborhood) and from what I’ve heard the outages are longer in rural areas.
This week the Prime Minister, Hun Sen, also threatened to cut power, “over the coming Khmer New Year period of anyone who claims recent power outages are due to a government plan to build support for new hydropower dams.”
And then announced plans to build a new dam a few days later!
Over in Peninsular Malaysia, our Consulting Editor for Bahasa Malaysia/Melayu, Adriana Nordin Manan has this dispatch:
After attempts to delay the trial by the defence team, at long last the first trial of former Prime Minister Najib Razak related to 1MDB began on Wednesday 3 April 2019, 10 years to the day since he entered office. For an interesting take of what to expect and what the stakes are in the trial, look here.
How about in examples of state violence? In a shocking development in the 2016 and 2017 disappearances of a Shia Muslim social activist, Amri Che Mat and Pastor Raymond Koh, the Malaysia Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM) revealed that its recently concluded inquiry on the incidents found that Amri and Koh were likely abducted by the Royal Malaysia Police, specifically the Special Branch. Even more alarmingly, the head of the Special Branch during the abductions, Mohamad Fuzi Harun, is now the Inspector General of Police. The Federal government has said that investigations will commence once Mohamad Fuzi retires in early May. Even if that’s less than a month away, the agony endured by Amri and Koh’s families and public outrage at purported state violence and cover-ups should translate to urgent investigation. Anything less is a travesty. For more background on the case, and a discussion on its underlying issues of state-led religious persecution, Al Jazeera English has this piece.
From our archives: a look at Amri and Koh’s cases, and their families’ long struggle for answers.
Doing right by a country also means not sacrificing the public interest at the altar of narrow, albeit powerful, groups. The Federal government announced a shock reversal to its decision last month to accede to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. When announcing the decision, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed, who cut a lonely figure as the sole cabinet member at the rostrum, all but named one royal household (out of the country’s nine) as the reason. Is this all there is to it, or could power jostling within the Federal government’s Pakatan Harapan coalition also be at play here?
The wayang (behind the scenes action reminiscent of shadow play) of Malaysian politics continues. It has also heated up a few notches, if you ask those of us who remember the history of Mahathir’s relationship to Malaysia’s royalty, especially one royal household in particular.
From Sabah, Consulting Editor for Sabah, Jared Abdul Rahman, has this news:
Everyone’s talking about Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad launching his party PPBM (or “Bersatu”) in Sabah over the weekend. Everyone’s also talking about the prospect of Sabah and Sarawak having their status as equal partners restored.
So here’s something different: the Sabah Fire and Rescue Department has recorded as many as 1,706 open burnings so far this year. March has been the worst, with 979 cases alone.
Given the severe drought conditions, as well as increasing air pollution index, Sabah’s Department of Environment has urged the public against open burnings.
But like our political decisions, sometimes it takes a lot more for us to stop shooting ourselves in the foot.
We’re still talking about the elections in Thailand, which took place last week, but which appear to still be dominating the headlines.
One of the reasons why is the news that anti-military party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit has been hit with a slew of charges including sedition, helping a suspect escape and illegal assembly. The sedition charge means that Thanathorn will be tried in a military court and, if convicted of all the charges, the leader of the Future Forward Party could potentially face almost 10 years in prison.
If you want to know more about the background of the elections and Mr. Thanathorn’s rise within Thai politics, the Bangkok Post also has a good piece which tries to explain this most recent twist in the election tale:
“Why such hate and venom? It’s not hard to see. The FFP’s political platform aims at the heart of the status quo and the current power structure with the military at the centre.”
In Indonesia, footage emerged last week of a number of Indonesians who joined Islamic State and who are now living in the Al-Hol refugee camp in Al-Hasakah in Syria. Several members of the group featured in a video, which was posted by the online investigative news site Tirto, where they begged to be allowed to return home.
In the wake of the footage, the Indonesian authorities have said that they are trying to work out the true identities and nationalities of around 50 people who say they are from Indonesia. “We have to verify whether they really are Indonesian citizens or not,” Arrmanatha Nasir, a ministry spokesman, told a news conference in Jakarta on Thursday”.
We can expect to hear more about this story in the coming weeks as Indonesia, like a number of other countries, tries to decide what to do about former ISIS members who want to come home now that the so-called “caliphate” has crumbled.
And that’s a wrap on this week in Southeast Asia! If you have a tip on a news story you would like to see featured in Akan Datang, then send it to us via firstname.lastname@example.org !
See you next week!