Southeast Asia Theater
The European Council announced June 19 that it has approved the European Union-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA) and the EU-Vietnam Investment Protection Agreement (EVIPA), both to be formally signed this week in Hanoi. EVFTA and EVIPA are hailed as the most ambitious agreements concluded between the EU and a developing country. Under EVFTA, upwards of 99% of tariffs on goods from both sides will be lifted. (Asia News Network, June 26) The deals were approved just two weeks after a Vietnamese environmental activist was sentenced to six years in prison for "anti-state" Facebook posts. Nguyen Ngoc Anh, a shrimp farming engineer, is accused of writing posts that urged people to take part in peaceful protests in June over corporate pollution. The posts especially noted the Formosa Plastics disaster in 2016, in which a Taiwanese-owned steel plant dumped toxic waste into the ocean off the coast of central Vietnam, killing millions of fish. Vietnam's government has accused Facebook of violating a draconian new cybersecurity law that came into effect in January by allowing the posts. (The Guardian, June 7)
Amnesty International on May 29 released a report asserting that Burma's military is continuing to commit war crimes and human rights violations in the context of its campaign against the rebel Arakan Army in Rakhine state. The campaign began after the Arakan Army launched coordinated attacks on police posts in Rakhine on Jan. 4, killing several officers. The report finds that the military has fired indiscriminately in civilian areas, killing and injuring civilians and damaging homes and other property. Soldiers have at times obstructed access to medical treatment for civilians, including children, injured by such attacks.
Seven soldiers imprisoned in Burma for killing 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys have received an early release—serving less time than the reporters who uncovered the massacre they were convicted of. The soldiers were sentenced in 2018 to 10 years in prison for the killings at the village of Inn Din, but they "are no longer detained," prison officials told Reuters. The news agency said the men were freed in November. This means they served less than one year of their 10-year terms. They are the only people to have been convicted for atrocities committed during the 2017 military campaign against the Rohingya in western Rakhine state, in which more than 700,000 were displaced. Meanwhile, the two Reuters reporters who were imprisoned on charges of revealing "state secrets" for reporting the massacre were also just released—after serving 16 months. The reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, received a presidential amnesty on May 6.
A Burmese court in Sittwe on March 19 sentenced prominent Rakhine ethnic leader Aye Maung to 20 years in prison for treason and defamation stemming from a January 2018 speech made one day before deadly riots broke out in Mrauk-U township. Maung, a member of parliament and former chairman of the Arakan National Party, was arrested along with writer Wai Hin Aung days after giving "inflammatory" speeches. Maung is said to have accused the ethnic Bamar-dominated ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) government of treating the ethnic Rakhine people (also known as the Arakan) like "slaves." Seven people were killed the evening after the speeches, when Rakhine protestors seized a government building and police opened fire. Maung’s lawyers are unsure if he will appeal at this time, as a new trial in the case could result in a death sentence. Both Maung and Aung received 18 years for treason and two for defamation.
Twin explosions have left at least 20 dead and some 80 wounded at the cathedral in Jolo, capital of Sulu province in the restive southern Philippine island of Mindanao. The first blast went off inside the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel as Sunday mass was about to start. This was followed a few seconds later by another blast in the cathedral's parking area. The attack came just days after the Bangsamoro Organic Law was approved by voters in the region, creating a new Muslim-led autonomous government, The new Bangsamoro autonomous region replaces the weaker Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). More than 1.5 million ARMM residents voted "yes" to BOL ratification, while some 199,000 voted "no." Of the five provinces in the autonomous region, the only one to reject the BOL was Sulu—by a vote of some 163,500 to 137,630.
Over 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have been driven from Burma's northern Rakhine state into neighboring Bangladesh by the Burmese army's brutal "clearance operations," ostensibly launched in response to attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in August 2017. But over the past weeks, the state has seen a new outbreak of attacks—this time by the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine insurgent group opposed to the central government's Burman-centric rule. Ambushes by Arakan Army fighters have targeted both the Burmese army, or Tatmadaw, and the Border Guard Police. Fighting in several townships has left some 2,500 displaced. Last month, the Tatmadaw announced a four-month ceasefire in Burma's north to facilitate peace talks with multiple armed groups fighting for local autonomy, but that announcement excluded Rakhine state. (Asia Times, Al Jazeera)
Authorities in Bangladesh and Burma must immediately halt plans to send Rohingya refugees back to Burma's Rakhine State, Amnesty International said Nov. 14. A first wave of organized returns could begin as soon as this week, following the announcement of a bilateral agreement between Bangladesh and Burma last month—which Amnesty says falls short of international obligations. "This is a reckless move which puts lives at risk," said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty's regional director for East and Southeast Asia. "These women, men and children would be sent back into the Myanmar [Burma] military's grasp with no protection guarantees, to live alongside those who torched their homes and whose bullets they fled."
The massacre of nine farmworkers, including two minors, killed Oct 20 at Hacienda Nene, outside Sagay City in the central Philippine island of Negros, constituted the single most deadly attack against peasant activists under the Rodrigo Duterte administration. A fact-finding mission led by human rights and civil society groups has pointed to members of the Special Civilian Auxiliary Army (SCAA), a private militia associated with the Armed Forces of the Philippines, as the most likely perpetrators of the "Sagay 9" massacre. The investigators found that members of the paramilitary group opened fire with M-16 rifles on the farmworkers as they were having their evening meal. Most victims reportedly suffered shots to the head, and three of the dead bodies were doused with gasoline and burned afterwards. The fact-finding mission was led by the Children's Rehabilitation Center, Karapatan National Alliance for the Advancement of People's Rights, the National Union of Peoples' Lawyers, the Salinlahi Alliance, and Gabriela Women's Party congressmember Arlene Brosas.