Sunday, January 14, 2007

2006: A Year of Living Dangerously for Southeast Asia


By Thang D. Nguyen

JAKARTA—For Southeast Asia, 2006 was a year of living dangerously.


Indeed, a quick glance at each of the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) shows that while a few countries showed economic growth and political stability in 2006, others continued to be marred with political turmoil, corruption, poverty, disintegration, terrorism, and disasters—both natural and man-made.


For Indonesia, an ASEAN's leader and its largest member, 2006 was a relatively good year in security terms. For one thing, Jakarta has made peace with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and ended a three-decade war between the two. Most notably, on the eve of the two-year anniversary of the Asian Tsunami, which destroyed Aceh, the province ran peaceful and democratic elections.

Furthermore, the Indonesian government managed to arrest and put in jail a number of terrorists who launched the Bali bombings of 2003 and 2005; the J.W. Marriott Jakarta Hotel blast in 2003; and the bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta in 2004.

Nevertheless, the US and other critics have considered these verdicts to be lenient, particularly the recent release and vindication of Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, who is said to be the spiritual leader of the al Qada-linked \nJemaah Islamiyah (JI) , which was responsible for these attacks.

And exactly two years after the Asian Tsunami of 26 December 2004, the province of Aceh, northern Sumatra, was devastated again, this time with floods and landslides. The difference between this tragedy and the Tsunami is that the latter was natural while the former was man-made.


The cause of these floods and landslides, according to experts, was deforestation. A study by Greenomics, a non-governmental organization focusing on mining and forestry, found that affected areas contributed about 36 percent of timber to the reconstruction of Aceh and Nias, which had been hit hard by the Tsunami and earthquakes. \n The rest of the deforestation, the study said, was for farming and plantations.

To be sure, the Indonesian government had been warned about this tragedy. Last January, the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI) sent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) letter pointing out
To be sure, the Indonesian government had been warned about this tragedy. Last January, the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI) sent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) letter pointing out disaster-prone spots in Aceh. Unfortunately, the warning was not heeded.

"The floods and landslides were not natural disasters, but the fruits [sic] of daredevil negligence," WALHI disaster manager Sofyan told The Jakarta Post.


On the economic font, Indonesia's performance was unimpressive, particularly with increased poverty, inflation, and unemployment.

According to a World Bank study last November, Indonesia's poverty rate has reached 17.7 percent. Likewise, a survey by the TNS group found that 32 percent of respondents reported they are worse off because of increased transportation, food, and other costs of living.

And despite his polished international image, President Susilo is being criticized for failing to deliver his campaign premises on corruption, legal reform, and economic growth.

As for Thailand, ASEAN's second-largest member, 2006 was a year of turmoil. On 19 September, a military coup overthrew the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Sinawatra. The causes of the event were increasing pubic discontent of his dictatorship, corruption, and abuse of power. Even though it was bloodless, the coup has been dubbed a setback for Thailand's democracy.

What is more, just a few days before Christmas, the Thai baht was overvalued and put at a 9-year high against the US dollar and, as consequently, the Bank of Thailand had to issue a capital control to limit the flow of foreign currency out of economy.

While this was a temporary crisis that did not influence other countries, it sent a chilling reminder to Asia and the international investor community of the Asian financial crisis of 1997, which started out with in Thailand and contaminated other Asian economies.

More importantly, however, the coup leaders have failed to keep the nation secure until new elections, which are set for 2007. On New Year's Eve, a series of eight bombs went off in various locations in Bangkok, killing three and wounding 38 persons, including nine foreigners.

While it's unclear who was behind these attacks, Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont told reporters that "briefs from various intelligence agencies, based on evidence available, show that they [the blasts] came from groups that have lost political powers."

In the Philippines, ASEAN's third-largest member, weakened political leadership and terrorism continued to hinder the country's security and damaged ASEAN's image.

Last December, Manila was to host ASEAN's annual meeting in the city of Cebu, but called it off at the last minute, citing bad weather as the cause. But, alas, it was not the weather that shut down the event. For one thing, there was a terrorist threat in the area based on an Australian intelligence report.

Furthermore, the ASEAN summit was to take place at a heightened point in Manila as President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was under attack and, therefore, planning to call for an amendment of the Philippine constitution as a way to linger in power.

Amid criticism of the ASEAN non-summit, the Philippines announced that the event would take place in January 2007.

In Myanmar, the junta regime continued to defy both ASEAN's and international pressure to release democratic leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. In doing so, the junta leadership has damaged ASEAN's image as a powerless organization.

And three years after his retirement, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad turned around and launched a verbal attack on his hand-picked successor, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi. While Mahathir's attacks were acrimonious as usual, they did not seem to damage the soft-spoken Badawi. On the contrary, critics have now dubbed Mahathir a man with post-power syndrome. Despite this personal problem, Malaysia fared relatively well in security and economic terms.

As for Brunei, Laos, and Cambodia, 2006 was an uneventful event; these countries are usually quiet, by nature.

The last two members of ASEAN, Singapore and Vietnam, fared very well in 2006. Tiny Singapore, under the new leadership of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, posted positive economic growth.

Unlike the Philippines, Vietnam hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit successfully last December and was the fastest-growing economy in the whole ASEAN. With its new membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and political stability, Vietnam looks set to do well in 2007.

As ASEAN welcomed 2007, it is reminded of formidable challenges that its members have to deal with domestically, such as terrorism, disintegration, and poverty. As a group, ASEAN has to work much hearder to mend its already-damaged image; otherwise, it will be taken only as a talkshop--no more, no less.

The writer is a Jakarta-based columnist. His writing can be read at
www.thangthecolumnist.blogspot.com.

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