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Southeast Asia, explained

It's official: Obama's flying to Myanmar

The first in-office president to set foot on Myanmar soil
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President Barack Obama waves as he disembarks from Air Force One on November 7, 2012. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Pointing out that some major event in Myanmar would be unimaginable two years ago is almost becoming cliche. 

But how else can you describe an American president granting a visit to Myanmar's ruling ex-generals on their home turf? 

Fresh off his election victory, Barack Obama will become the first standing U.S. president to ever set foot in Myanmar, formerly titled Burma. Reuters reports that the White House has confirmed what Southeast Asia watchers have known for weeks: the president plans to swing through Myanmar duing a late November regional tour timed to the East Asia Summit, a major gathering of Asian heads of state.

Foreign policy wise, this is Obama's first big post-election move that would have been virtually impossible during the campaign. Though leaders are pursuing reforms much faster than expected, Myanmar's quasi-democratic government is still under the sway of an army blackened by a long history of well-documented abuses.

Had Obama toured Myanmar three or six months ago, the press release from Mitt Romney's camp would have written himself: "While working Americans suffer, the president is drinking tea with despots."

With Romney out of the way, Obama is free to reward Myanmar's government-on-the-mend with a heaping dollop of credibility without risking much scandal.

Long-time critics of the ruling party won't like this one bit. 

But Myanmar's reform-movement optimists will delight in this historic visit. And the White House will tighten its ties with a country that is drifting away from an overwhelming reliance on China. 


"A Thai-blooded girl wins the election"

Thai press cheers on Bangkok-born, congresswoman-elect Tammy "Ladda" Duckworth
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Tammy Duckworth (Wikimedia commons)

"A Thai-blooded girl wins the election to the U.S. Senate."

That's the headline running today in Thailand's largest newspaper, Thai Rath. This outlet and others are giving the U.S. House of Representatives-race victory of Bangkok-born Tammy "Ladda" Duckworth near-equal billing to the re-election of President Barack Obama.

Describing Duckworth as a "girl" is a little off.

Perhaps "certified bad ass" is a better fit. As a U.S. Army helicopter pilot deployed to Iraq in 2004, Duckworth's legs were largely destroyed when an insurgent fired an RPG at the underside of her Black Hawk. "I found out later the pedals were gone, and so were my legs,” she told the publication Stars and Stripes, adding that "I’m not about to let some guy who got lucky with an RPG decide how to live my life.”

Duckworth was born in Bangkok to an American father, a marine, and a Thai mother. She'll be sworn in as an Illinois district U.S. House representative in January.

Most of the Thai-language headlines, like this one in Matichon, play up the fact that Duckworth, once sworn in, will be the first U.S. House rep with Thai blood. She recently explained to Thai supporters (in Thai) that she was heartened by their campaign donations and that she'd use the money prudently "because running for office in the states means you need a really big budget," the outlet Pracharat reports.

In the end, Duckworth, a Democrat, racked up far more campaign donations than her Republican opponent, who accused her of relying too heavily on her "personal narrative as a war hero instead of her ideas for office," according to the Chicago Tribune.


Fighting outside pressure, Laos proceeds with super dam

Transforming the Mekong River into a hydro-power express
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Thai villagers affected by the construction of the Xayaburi dam in Laos hold models of fish in front of the administrative court in Bangkok on August 7, 2012. (PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images)

Laos -- remote, landlocked and impoverished -- has little to offer in the way of international trade. But one commodity it can sell is its rivers or, rather, the power that can be tapped from its rushing river currents.

As commodities go, it's a hot one: neighboring Thailand, Vietnam and southern China are energy hungry and eager to ensure that their economies have the juice to keep humming. The Mekong River, which threads mainland Southeast Asia, is being aggressively dammed up to supply that energy. If all planned dams come to be, the river will eventually be studded with nearly 20 hydro-power dams.

Enter the Xayaburi Dam, a $3.8 billion project loathed by environmentalists. Laos, defying complaints from the U.S., regional authorities and environmental watchdogs, has just announced it will go forward with the dam's construction, the BBC reports.

As Radio Free Asia reports, a full 95 percent of the dam's energy will be zapped to Thailand. International Rivers, an NGO opposed to the dam, insists that the project will "destroy the river’s complex ecosystems," threaten fish species, displace villagers and perhaps permanently disrupt the Mekong's natural order.


Indonesian maids "on sale"

A tacky ad enflames Indonesian pride
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Indonesian domestic workers claiming they've fled abusive employers inside a shelter at the Indonesian embassy in Kuala Lumpur on June 23, 2009. Maid abuse has become the latest irritant in a diplomatic spat between Malaysia and Indonesia, as labour groups press for better protection for vulnerable migrant workers. (SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Given the economics of equatorial Southeast Asia, maids generally flow from Indonesia to Malaysia.

The former is a populous archipelago where, by World Bank standards, more than one in ten live in poverty. The latter is a mid-sized nation with an upper class strong enough to support a large market for live-in housekeepers.

But while Indonesians continue to migrate to Malaysia to cook, clean and raise kids for wealthier Malaysians, this army of maids sometimes sends home tales of abuse. The tension stoked by these accounts grew so bad in recent years that Indonesia barred the export of maids to its neighbor for two years. The ban was lifted just four months back.

Now, as the Jakarta Globe reports, a crude ad has revived Indonesia's ire. Tacked to trees around Malaysia's capital, it reads bluntly: "Indonesian maids now on SALE!!! ... Now your housework and cooking come easy." A photo of the ad circulated after an activist, Anis Hadiyah, posted it to her Twitter account.

Distasteful? Doubly offensive given Indonesians' well-publicized disgust over abused housekeepers? Yes and yes.

But the ad, while worthy of condemnation from civil society, is generating an undue level of reprisal and threats of policy overhaul from authorities.

The head of Indonesia's migrant worker placement agency tells Today Online that he's threatening to "permanently" bar maids from working in Malaysia. The Malaysian government, forever paranoid over class disturbance, has reportedly ordered the woman who designed the ad to serve two weeks and jail as they decide whether or not she's upended "national security."

I phoned the three numbers listed on the ad to find out if she's still in jail. No one answered.

What's worse? That some woman had crass ads stapled to trees? Or that crass ads stapled to trees are considered a legitimate threat to Malaysia's national security?


Pay-to-play deluxe wings in Vietnam's public schools

Charging pupils for air-conditioned, well-equipped classrooms
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A student holds a flag during a ceremony marking the new school year at a local elementary school in downtown Hanoi on September 5, 2012. (HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)

In America, if you're seeking a public school classroom with vastly superior teachers and technology, you'll probably need to move to a district with a much-higher tax base.

In Hanoi, Vietnam's capital, parents willing to shell out a few hunded bucks can seat their kids in public school classes with perks such as better-qualified instructors, flashy computer projectors and air conditioning.

As the outlet Thanh Nien reports, Hanoi moms and dads with extra cash are privy to deluxe classrooms set up alongside classes for kids from not-so-rich families.

And according to VietnamBridge, these classes can rival private schools' quality.

The difference? Government employees are collecting the cash, which can reportedly add up to roughly $100 to $200 per month for one student.

Perhaps this is inevitable in public schools that already charge parents. In Vietnam, as of much of Southeast Asia, tax-funded public schools aren't necessarily free.

Parents are often asked to pay for uniforms, tuition and meals. And as the newspaper Tuoi Tre reports, even parents sending kids to non-VIP classes are squeezed for extra fees attributed to the cost of watering campus trees and hiring crossing guards.


Asia's newest elite drink? Elephant dung coffee

$1,100 a kilo for coffee beans picked from piles of feces
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A Thai mahout sits atop an elephant in between polo matches at the King's Cup Elephant polo tournament at Hua Hin, Thailand, in 2011. (Paula Bronstein/AFP/Getty Images)

Perhaps feeling pressured by Singapore's new $32,000 cocktail, one of Thailand's more elite resort chains is releasing "one of the most expensive and exclusive" varities of coffee in the world.

The coffee is ground by hand and brewed at 93 degrees Celsius in a syphon machine "using technology developed in 1840 in Austria." According to the resort's press release, the result is a "very clean and flavourful taste," which is a curious way to describe coffee brewed through beans picked from elephant feces.

At $1,100 per kilo -- roughly $27 a cup, by my math -- it really ought to be the cleanest, most flavorful taste on the planet.

As the java warms your lips, you can imagine the elephant caretakers sinking their hand into mounds of waste to retrieve coffee beans digested by graceful pachyderms. Because that's how the beans are collected. (This is assuming you've already taken all of the Instagram photos needed to exhibit your rarified tastes.)

Does anyone actually buy this stuff?


Myanmar's president: "condition of the country" could lead to extra term

Does Aung San Suu Kyi really have a shot at leading Myanmar in three years?
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Myanmar president Thein Sein (center) greets supporters as he arrives at Yangon International Airport upon his return from a landmark tour of the US on October 1, 2012. Myanmar leader Thein Sein has said in an interview he would accept democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi as president if elected, but added he could not alone amend rules that bar her from power. (SOE THAN WIN/AFP/Getty Images)

The answer to Myanmar's big question -- can the troubled nation become a legit democracy? -- is still three years away.

As it stands, the quasi-democracy is very much controlled by a clique of active and former army generals, many of whom fill out Myanmar's parliament. Whether they will allow a planned 2015 election to cede power to outsiders is up for speculation.

President Thein Sein, the face of Myanmar's reform movement, has told the Western press that he'll step aside in 2015. He even told the BBC that he could tolerate the election of Aung San Suu Kyi, the beloved dissident-turned-parliamentarian, to the president's seat.

So it's interesting to hear that, after a much-publicized tour in the United States, his answer to the media back home sounds somewhat different.

Asked about a next term, according to the state-run New Light of Myanmar, he said that "in his foreign tour he made clear that he would serve only for the first term and only the condition of the country and the desire of the people could overturn his decision."

Parsing Thein Sein's translated words is only so useful. He does not answer media questions in English.

But when asked whether he'll stay on after the much-awaited 2015 election, offering caveats such about "the condition of the country" is a different answer than "no."


Running bootleg software in Asia? Beware U.S. lawsuits

Sued by Massachusetts, Thai seafood exporter settles for $10,000
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A stall selling pirated CDs and movies in Bangkok, Thailand. ( PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images)

Here's is a chilling development for every foreign business trading with the United States: if you're running pirated software on your work computers -- and a lot of you are -- you may be sued by a U.S. state.

Just ask Narong Seafood, a Thailand-based exporter of such fine products as frozen breaded shrimp topped with cheese sauce.

The family-run firm has just settled with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for allegedly using "pirated software products," according to the Massachusetts government Web site. (The Boston Globe reports that a Microsoft Office suite was the bootleg software in question.) 

This, the Massachusetts attorney general says, provides an "unfair cost advantage over rivals who play by the rules." The settlement fee: $10,000.

Brace for an understatement: software piracy is rampant in Asia. I could make a cocktail right now in my Bangkok apartment, go purchase a pirated operating system and return home before the ice finished melting. These pirated discs aren't sold in dark alleys. They're sold in well-kept, air-conditioned shopping malls. (Via "torrenting," of course, they're also available to anyone on the planet with a computer and a decent Internet connection.)

Most pirated Microsoft Office suites sold in Bangkok probably sell for $9.70 or 300 Thai baht. Legal copies sell for about $200.

More interesting still is that American government attorneys would confront a firm within the Thai seafood industry over a software infraction when much of the industry is known to be complicit in forced labor. (I reported on these abuses in "Seafood Slavery," a series published earlier this year.)

Again, just ask Narong Seafood.

The company is so eager to distance itself from this horrific reputation that they've (smartly) splashed almost every page of their Web site with this disclaimer: "NARONG SEAFOOD AGAINST ANY FORM OF CHILD LABOUR, FORCED LABOUR AND HUMAN TRAFFICKING."


Myanmar's debut at America's biggest war games

A pariah army joins the planet's most elite battle drills
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Thai soldiers training in Cobra Gold, America's largest war games, run through chemical attack drills on February 14, 2012. About 13,000 military personnel from seven nations -- South Korea, Indonesia, Thailand, the U.S., Singapore, Japan and Malaysia -- are involved in the exercise. (PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images)

The speed at which America and Myanmar have grown closer has a way of making predictions from just months ago look silly.

Here's one from February on the subject of Cobra Gold, the world's largest American war games, held each year in Thailand. (Here's my report, with video, from the exercises: War Games in Paradise.)

"But welcoming Burma's army to Cobra Gold, for the moment, is a huge long shot.

Hillary (Clinton) sitting down with Burma's new reformist president is, for most, politically palatable.

U.S. troops collaborating with an army known for forced labor, shelling ethnic villages and firing on protesters is not. In the minds of most international observers, Burma's army still evokes villainy."

That prediction, written before a GlobalPost altered its house style to go with "Myanmar" instead of "Burma," was mine. It appears that I was wrong.

As the BBC and many others are reporting, America is poised to allow Myanmar's army to join its massive military exercises in early 2013. Those highly dubious of the government's reform movement will find this move apalling. The U.S. generals who will (likely) approve the invite are keen to draw Myanmar's army away from Chinese influence.

Here's one aspect of my prediction that I got right.


Malaysia: moral panic over couple's sex blog

"What do we have to apologize for? Hurting your soft, sensitive feelings?"
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A self-published photo of Alvin Tan and Vivian Lee, two Malaysians potentially facing criminal prosecution for starting a sex blog. (Screengrab)

In face-conscious Malaysia, blowing the country's mind with a sex tape is not just the domain of celebrities.

Mere civilians, simply by posting a little online kink, can become celebrities overnight.

If Alvin Tan, 24, and Vivian Lee, 23, were American or European, they would be just another forgettable sex-blogging couple. But they're ethnic Chinese Malaysians, an education-focused, conservative, close-knit demographic that dominates the nation's business world. Both appear to be high achievers: Lee is a recent college graduate and Tan, according to the Channel News Asia, is a law student at the National University of Singapore.

Their now-suspended "Sumptuous Erotica" blog, an archive of raw photos and videos shot during their intimate couplings, has made them the talk of Malaysia. News of their blog has appeared in almost every major publication in the country.

According to the Malaysia Insider, a police chief says the couple may have violated "obscenity" laws. The Malaysia Star ran devoted an entire story to a psychiatrist's unflattering appraisal of the duo's mental health. Yet another piece in the Star quotes various parents suggesting Tan should be castrated and totally unsubstantiated assertions that the couple must be on drugs. "It is all right for Westerners to do this but not Asians," Lee told The Star. "This is double standard. I cannot understand why people have to judge us.”

What's behind this obsession with a couple of attention-seeking, twenty-something amateur pornographers?

It's not the porn per se. Even in Muslim-majority Southeast Asian nations such as Malaysia, online pornography is accessible. The country mostly seems fixated on the fact that two young, ethnic Chinese Malaysians would take a chainsaw to their family reputations. Perhaps doubly shocking to Malaysians is how they appear relatively unfazed by the notoriety.