Concerns about freedoms—of the press, of speech, and of the internet—have been at the forefront for a number of Southeast Asian countries in 2018. Crystal Eye Studio / Shutterstock.com

Akan Datang: A final round-up for 2018

Author: Aisyah Llewellyn
Published:

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! This will be the last Akan Datang column of 2018 as we end the year with a two-week break here at New Naratif. What a year it’s been. The first Akan Datang column was published seven months ago, back in May 2018, and since then it’s grown to take in the voices of our contributors around the region. What started as an experimental space for a regional news wrap has become a collaborative column that highlights all the stories to watch in Southeast Asia—I’m truly heartened at how it’s developed, the invaluable input from our contributors and the feedback we’ve received. We’ll be back with you in 2019. Thanks for reading.

Over at New Naratif this week we continued our coverage of West Papua with this piece that looks at the experiences of four former political prisoners and their struggle for independence which is available in both English and Bahasa Indonesia. We also published this piece on the censorship of the arts scene in Cambodia where even cultural products like pop music are subject to repression.  

We also aired the latest episode of our fortnightly podcast series Southeast Asia Dispatches in which Teodosia Dos Reis and Laura McDowell attend the anniversary of Timor-Leste’s Santa Cruz Massacre, Teguh Harahap looks at the future of Kuda Lumping dance seances in Indonesia, Tehmina Kaoosji talks to MP for Batu Kawan Kasthuri Patto about ICERD and Malaysia, and Victoria Milko reflects on the lack of protection for women against violence in Myanmar. Southeast Asia Dispatches is available on Spotify or you can subscribe on iTunes.

We’re also thrilled to announce the launch of our new book ahead of the holidays which features an anthology of articles from our first year. You can buy it here.

Here are all the stories to watch in Southeast Asia this week along with a wrap of some of the main themes that dominated the news cycle in 2018…

Myanmar

Over in Myanmar our contributor Victoria Milko has this news:

The next big thing in Myanmar is the Reuters appeal court date on 24 December which is definitely one to watch out for. Until then, here’s a round-up of 2018.

In 2018 Myanmar was routinely making international headlines for the continued Rohingya crisis, the breakdown of the peace process, as well as the trial of Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. In both instances, the country solidified itself as a pariah, receiving condemnations from several international governing bodies, heads of state, international activists and beyond.

Repatriation of the Rohingya remains on hold, with no suggestions on steps that need to be taken to guarantee the safety and freedom of movement for the Rohingya that will be implemented upon their return. Despite mounting evidence, the Burmese military still refutes that it’s responsible for genocide.

Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo remain behind bars, with the likelihood of a presidential pardon seemingly slipping away with every passing week. Proposed amendments to legislation seek to continue to choke media freedom in the country, too, while Aung San Suu Kyi explicitly expresses distrust of the media she once used to pander her cause.

The peace process faced several major setbacks this year, with several groups withdrawing from the official process. Civil war continues in several of Myanmar’s states, with a high concentration of attacks in Kachin and northern Shan states, with civilians often caught in the crosshairs. Restriction in aid delivery, direct targeting of civilian areas, and use of civilians as forced labour continue in these regions. Rape continues to be used as a tool of war. There seems to be no end in sight.

It seems unlikely that 2019 will bring about progressive change that many in the international community have called for. Proposed legislation regarding freedom of expression, land rights, and human rights all remain bleak. Myanmar continues to seek political refuge in the arms of nations with their own abysmal human rights records, while ignoring calls of declared jurisdiction from the ICC.

Let’s see where 2019—the last full year before general elections—takes us.

Indonesia

Over in Indonesia it’s always a slightly edgy time of year as we head towards Christmas, and right on cue we have the news of a foiled terrorist plot which saw two suspects arrested for planning to carry out attacks in West Java. As you may recall, Indonesia saw some of its worst terrorist attacks in years in 2018 following a string of bombings in Surabaya back in May. Still, we have yet to see news of Muslims in Indonesia being banned from wearing Santa hats during the holidays—a story which usually resurfaces every year.

It also wasn’t a great year for Indonesia in the realm of human rights. Every week there appeared to be another story focusing on oppression of ethnic minority groups, be it constant victimisation of the LGBTQ community across the archipelago, or an uptick in blasphemy convictions—many of which we handed down by Medan District Court in North Sumatra.

With presidential elections brewing in April 2019, it’s highly likely that this trend will be set to continue and, as I wrote back in August, voters will have a tough choice on their hands when it comes to picking a candidate who will truly champion human rights cases and ensure freedom of expression in Indonesia. We also published this piece on the Indonesian government’s struggles to deal with historical human rights abuses back in October.

As election season heats up in earnest in 2019, we hope to bring you continued coverage from the ground of all the issues this tumultuous time usually stirs up.

Malaysia

Over in Malaysia our Consulting Editor for Sabah Jared Abdul Rahman has this wrap up:

It’s been an interesting year for Malaysia. Most notably, the country saw a change of government for the first time ever. The Barisan Nasional coalition government’s long-standing reign was overthrown by the Pakatan Harapan coalition, despite the former’s many spectacular attempts to unscrupulously secure their position of power, in the nation’s 13th general election. 

Although the jury is still out on whether “Malaysia Baharu” is fact or fantasy, there does seem to be at least some change in the air. Like what? We can now exhale the words 1MDB, Najib and corruption in the same breath and not be arrested. That’s a start.

Across the pond to Malaysia’s Borneo contingent, the loosened shackles have been particularly exciting. Perhaps there’s hope yet for reinstating Sabah and Sarawak as equal partners, on par with Malaya, as per the original 1963 Malaysia Agreement. Perhaps there’s hope yet for these two undernourished lands to receive what is owed to them, like recognition and equal treatment.

Vietnam

Over in Vietnam, our contributor Mike Tatarski has this update:

It may have only included teams from ASEAN, but Vietnamese fans celebrated the country’s AFF Suzuki Cup 2018 championship as if they had won the World Cup. The men’s national team beat Malaysia 1-0 in Hanoi last night to clinch their first AFF title in a decade, and enormous nationwide celebrations ensued. I watched the match from downtown Saigon, where the city had set up huge screens along Nguyen Hue Street’s pedestrian area, and the atmosphere was absolutely electric. Central streets were jammed with motorbikes and raucous scenes of joy for hours, as the victory culminated a great year for Vietnamese football. The men’s team is now the top in Southeast Asia, and they next play in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates starting 5 January.

On Friday, Vsmart, the smartphone arm of Vingroup, launched its first four phone models in the conglomerate’s latest foray into a new industry. The models, produced in Hai Phong, are being sold at a discount at first, with the top-of-the-line version costing under USD300. The firm plans to launch higher-end models next year and is aiming for a 30% market share by 2020, which is incredibly ambitious given the popularity of Apple, Samsung and several Chinese smartphone brands in Vietnam.

Looking back on 2018, Vingroup’s various moves have been one of the most fascinating storylines in Vietnam. In addition to smartphones, they have also launched VinFast, an automotive company, with an electric motorbike and three car models on the way. The massive company also began construction on VinUni University near Hanoi in an effort to bring a world-class university to Vietnam. They are truly moving toward a cradle-to-grave ecosystem, as Vingroup already has branches in primary education, healthcare, tourism, housing, medicine, convenience stores and more. Even though Vingroup is privately owned, its ambitions have been touted by the government, as Vietnam strives to create its first “national champion” that aims to take on more well-known foreign companies.

The internet has been another focal point this year, with mass protests in June spurring crackdowns on social media posts, while a controversial Cybersecurity Bill comes into effect on 1 January. Over the past 12 months, Facebook and Google have become more popular than ever before, and one of the big stories of 2019 will be how the Vietnamese government takes on those two tech giants as it tries to reign in Vietnam’s free-wheeling social media sphere.

Over the course of the year we published a number of pieces on crackdowns against freedom of assembly across the country as well as this piece by jailed activist Will Nguyen who has since been released.

Finally, a year-long anti-corruption campaign spearheaded by Nguyen Phu Trong, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam (and now president as well), ensnared numerous high-level current and former officials. Trong’s drive to purge the party of corruption has garnered international headlines throughout the year, and will surely continue in 2019. Trong has also consolidated power, and despite the summer’s unrest related to a proposed bill on special economic zones and simmering territorial disputes with China, he appears unassailable moving into the new year.

Singapore

From Singapore, our Chief Editor, Kirsten Han, has this update:

It would have been nice to wind down and chill out for the Christmas holidays, but Singapore and Malaysia are still wrapped up in disputes over both air and sea borders. It’s allowing both governments to score political points, to the detriment of people on both sides of the border.

2018, though, has been a tough year for civil society in Singapore. From the Select Committee (in which both our Managing Director PJ Thum and I were given a fairly rough ride) to declaring New Naratif contrary to Singapore’s national interest, to jailing an artist for an illegal one-person “procession”, to blocking websites and charging independent website The Online Citizen‘s Chief Editor (plus a reader who wrote a letter to them) with criminal defamation, the government has clearly thrown any intention of governing the Internet with a “light touch” out the window. With a slow leadership transition underway and elections rumoured for 2019, activists (including me) fear they’ll be in a rough ride.

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 aisyah.llewellyn@newnaratif.com !

See you in 2019! 

 

Aisyah Llewellyn

Aisyah Llewellyn is a British freelance writer based in Medan, Indonesia, and New Naratif's Deputy Editor. She is a former diplomat and writes primarily about Indonesian politics, culture, travel and food. Reach her at aisyah.llewellyn@newnaratif.com.

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