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Southeast Asia, explained

Indonesia's Ramadan porn block blitz

Fundamentalist IT minister back on the anti-porn crusade
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Indonesia's Information Technology Minister Tifatul Sembiring at a 2010 press conference in Jakarta (BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images)

What do you get when you allow an attention-seeking fundamentalist to head a massive nation's IT ministry?

A lot of anti-porn crusading.

Tifatul Sembiring, Communications and Information Technology Minister of Indonesia, hates porn.

He hates it so much that he told the Jakarta Globe two years ago that frequently checks porn sites on his mobile phone to ensure they are adequately blocked.

He hates it so much that he likened an Indonesian pop star's appearance in a leaked sex video to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. 

But Tifatul especially hates porn during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. For the second time in two years, Tifatul has vowed to purge Indonesia of online pornography during Ramadan. He told the Jakarta Post that the government is now on "high alert" to make Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority nation, "free of porn."

It is easily argued that Tifatul's views are significantly more conservative than the norm in Indonesia, where voters have time and again offered only scant support to his fundamentalist Prosperous Justice Party. He is perhaps best known for refusing to shake Michelle Obama's hand to sustain his religious purity. (He shook it anyway but said he was helpless to control such an "off the cuff" situation.)

But his party is best known for a much more awkward incident. Last year, a parliamentarian with the party resigned after fellow lawmakers caught him watching porn on his mobile phone.

In parliament.

If members of Tifatul's party can't keep up with his moral code, can he really expect the public to meet his expectations of piety?


Philippines: who you calling "Mongoloid"?

A firebrand Philippine senator in etymological hot water
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Miriam Defensor-Santiago, a senator and veteran lawmaker in the Philippines. (AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

"Stop molesting me, you Mongoloids!"

That zinger has forced an apology from a firebrand Philippine senator better known for standing her ground than conceding mistakes. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, whose own bio calls her a "dragon lady," was slamming critics who've urge her to leave the senate, according to the Manila-based Inquirer.

The problem is not so much the molestation but the use of "Mongoloid." Her quip has attracted a new cast of detractors: the Down Syndrome Association of the Philippines.The Philippines' GMA News and other outlets have reported that the association is castigating Miriam for using "insensitive" language.

Just what is a Mongoloid anyway?

The word derives from "Mongols," the ethnic group that conquered vast stretches of Asia during the 13th century. "Mongoloid" was coined by 19th-century European anthropologists who, in a worldview that now seems crude and outdated, used the term to describe every native ethnic group from Mongolia down to Southeast Asia.

The term took a nasty etymological turn in the 1800s when it was used to describe people with Down's Syndrome. Why? Because British doctor John Langdon Down likened the skin folds common in the eyes of those with Down's Syndrome to the folds common in the eyes of North Asians. (Surprise: English guys born in 1828 were not terribly sensitive.)

Unfortunately, the word is also shorthand for "idiot." Despite her rhetorical gifts, Miriam probably did not have the full, foul baggage of "Mongoloid" in mind when she used the word to trash her political enemies.

That's why she apologized.

In apologizing, Miriam at least managed to show off her excellent taste in books. She told ABS-CBN News that she lifted the casual use of "Mongoloid" from the slovenly, self-aggrandizing lead character Ignatius J. Reilly in the cult classic "Confederacy of Dunces," which earned its author a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1981. Though brilliantly composed, Ignatius is probably not the best person to quote on the Philippine senate floor.


Philippines: army pinky-swears top terrorist is dead

Still no proof most-wanted bomb maker died in US-backed strike
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The Philippine military said he was killed in a US-backed raid. But Zulkifli Bin Hir, a Malaysian terrorist bomb maker with a $5 million price on his head, may still be alive. (National Counterterrorism Center/Courtesy)

When Philippine forces slay one of Asia's most-wanted terrorists with America's help, apparently you're just supposed to take their word for it.

Even when they can't find his corpse.

Six months have passed since the Philippine military proclaimed the death of Zulkifli bin Hir, also known as "Marwan." That is no small announcement: the jungle-dwelling bomb maker, purported to be a central figure in the al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiya terror group, has been deemed worthy of a $5 million bounty from the American government.

But this bluster is offset by one detail: the military never found his body and various outlets, the New York Times among them, have quoted regional counterterrorism officials who say he's still alive.

Now, in lieu of letting this story quietly fade, the Philippine army is doubling down on its claim.

The Manila-based Inquirer reports that army leaders insist the "burden of proof" falls upon those who believe he might be alive. DNA tests of anonymous remains left behind by an air strike are still being processed, the Inquirer reports.

Their proof? "Intelligence reports" from the scene. That is quite likely military speak for someone -- a soldier? a villager? -- claiming the suspect is dead. At least in the Osama bin Laden killing, officials promised they conducted a DNA test before dumping his body into the sea.

It's unclear if even the US, which helped coordinate the air strike, is buying it. The National Counterterrorism Center has yet to remove Zulkifli from its wanted list and appears to still offer that $5 million head price.

If Zulkifli bin Hir is actually alive, he doesn't need a well-placed bomb to humiliate his enemies. He just needs a cheap camera and a YouTube account.


Petrol that funded Myanmar's junta now open to US firms

Obama clears American conglomerates to seek Myanmar's vast reserves
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Myanmar President Thein Sein meets with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a meeting in Naypyidaw, Myanmar in 2011. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

More than jade and rubies, more than labor or timber, oil and gas were the natural resources that made Myanmar's former junta rich while its citizens struggled.

Until this week, any American conglomerate striking a new deal with Myanmar's state-run energy sector would have run afoul of sanctions.

No longer.

The Obama administration, according to the Washington Post, is now allowing US firms to work with Myanmar's government to extract the nation's vast oil and gas reserves.

This is highly significant. It shows that the State Department leadership has grown confident enough in Myanmar's reforms that it will allow Americans to dabble in a sector marked by secrecy, land grabs and abuse. Were it not for the fossil fuels buried beneath Myanmar's central plains and near seas, the former junta -- now supplanted by a quasi-democracy -- would have lacked a core funding stream that kept corrupt generals in power.

Lucrative energy deals with non-Western countries, namely China, kept the former military government afloat. How they spent the $16 billion earned from oil/gas projects through the last decade -- a figure cited by Myanmar's Eleven Media Group -- is a mystery. (Safe to say little was showered on sectors that would improve lives in Myanmar: schools, hospitals and public infrastructure.)

Having recently returned from a June summit in which Myanmar's energy sector bureaucrats pitched opportunities to foreign investors, I can state with confidence that officials are keen to see more Western firms inside their country. (I say "more" because Total, a French firm, and America's Chevron already operate a pipeline long exempt from sanctions through a grandfather clause.)

As it stands, there are about 20 foreign companies from 11 nations operating in Myanmar's oil/gas fields. China is the big player in Myanmar's energy sector with Chinese interests largely responsible for making oil/gas projects amount to more than 40 percent of the country's foreign investment pledges. .

But the government is confident that many more lucrative deposits lie beneath the waters offshore. According to Myanmar government data, there are currently 25 blocks of barely explored or unexplored offshore terrain available to energy conglomerates.

And Western firms, endowed with the the most advanced technology, are best suited to go in, locate it, extract it and kick a percentage of their profits to the government. (Expect a 25 percent tax on profit coupled with a 12.5 percent royalty fee.) But unlike Chinese firms, American firms will be forced by the State Department to prove their operations are free of abuse.

Given America's energy needs, the Obama administration's decision is only slightly surprising. More surprising is US diplomats' rare defiance of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning opposition figure who has appeared to all but dictate America's Myanmar policy.

Aung San Suu Kyi has pointed out the obvious: for now, her government's oil and gas sector is murky and unaccountable. This is the landscape US operators will enter if they seek the wealth of fossil fuels buried beneath Myanmar's soil.


US State Department: forced labor on Thai fishing vessels still ignored

But the State Department declines to sanction Thailand for slavery in US-linked fishing industry.
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A migrant laborer sorting fish on a Thai vessel in 2011. (NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images)

For migrant workers trapped in slavery-like conditions on Thai fishing trawlers, the odds of being rescued by authorities remain slim.

But they're apparently not slim enough to merit the U.S. State Department knocking Thailand down to its lowest human-trafficking ranking. That very real threat, which carries the penalty of aid sanctions, was not meted out on Thailand in America's recently released Trafficking in Persons report. Each year, the State Department analyzes countries' efforts at halting trafficking and forced labor.

Global Post's recent investigation into the plight of seafaring migrants duped into slavery, "Seafood Slavery," suggested a shockingly frequency of murder on Thai boats. Equally discomforting is the link between the fish they snare and the American supermarket, which is partially supplied by an invisible deep-sea supply chain.

Thailand has dodged a bullet by holding on to its "watch list" status and hovering just above the worst ranking.

But is the government's enforcement improving?

Not really, according to the new report.

Last year's report determined that inspections of potentially abusive vessels were "practically nonexistent."

This year, the State Department contends that the government upped its investigations into this crime to three. Thailand's navy, according to the report, conducted "more than 1,000" inspections of long-haul boats and intercepted "thousands of undocumented migrant workers ... a population likely to contain trafficking victims." But it didn't identify a single one.

Without a special waiver, countries hit twice in a row with the second-to-last ranking, "Tier Two Watchlist," are meant to be bumped down to the worst ranking. It appears that Thailand got its waiver. It has now wallowed in this category for three years.

As one deputy boat captain told me two months ago: "Once a captain is tired of a guy, he’s sold to another captain for profit ... a guy can be out there for 10 years just getting sold over and over.”


Can Myanmar turn its economy up to 11?

Far-fetched national goal would triple per capita GDP in just five years
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Myanmar's President Thein Sein visits a Japanese power plant on April 22, 2012. (YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images)

Myanmar's President Thein Sein could be the planet's most optimistic head of state.

How else can you define a man who has vowed, against all odds, to triple his country's meager economy in a mere five years?

Myanmar is currently one of Asia's most broken and impoverished countries. Emerging from decades of despotic military rule, its schools are dilapidated, its banking system is a mess and only 13 percent of the population is plugged into the power grid.

But if the president gets his wish, it won't stay that way. His newly proclaimed national goal would hike the per capita GDP up to $3,900. That's higher than current figures in go-getter economies such as India and Vietnam.

The problem with this goal is that, in the eyes of most observers, it's practically impossible to reach. This Wall Street Journal post searches for other nations that have witnessed that speed of growth and turns up a few tiny, oil-rich states and several Asian and African nations recovering from bloody conflicts. Rwanda and East Timor are not promising economic role models.

More fascinating still is that this government goal defies predictions by, well, the government itself.

Thein Sein rolled out his plan last week while I was on assignment in Myanmar's commerical capital, Yangon. I had an opportunity to skim the government's media mouthpiece, The New Light of Myanmar, to see how the paper would handle the big news.

Coupled with the announcement was an admission: as it stands, state economists predict the per capita GDP won't even double, let alone triple, within the goal's time frame.

Does the president's endeavor signal he's out of touch with economic reality?

Or is this Thein Sein's version of a half-time pep talk urging his team to give it 110 percent?

Perhaps it's not so different from the United Nations-led 189-country pledge to "end poverty by 2015."


Myanmar: How American products slip through sanctions

Citizens of Myanmar may now enjoy Coca Cola legally, but foreign manufacturers have skirted sanctions for years.
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Coca Cola, Budweiser, and other popular products have been sold at high prices in Myanmar for years via foreign manufacturers. (Patrick Winn/GlobalPost)

YANGON, Myanmar — Great fanfare accompanied Coca Cola’s recent announcement that, after six long decades, the beverage behemoth would return to Myanmar, Southeast Asia’s pariah on the mend.

More from GlobalPost: Coca Cola to do business in Myanmar

In announcing the decision to enter the country, formerly titled Burma, Coke’s CEO didn’t squander the opportunity for drama. Coca Cola, he said in a press release, would refresh Myanmar just as it did Germany after the Berlin Wall fell and Vietnam after it resumed ties with America.

You might assume that, because the US has long forbid American businesses from doing business with Myanmar, its citizens have lived in a world devoid of Coca Cola. Not quite.


Angry Birds soar into Myanmar

What remote stretch of Southeast Asia will they strike next?
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Angry Birds fashion in Myanmar. (Patrick Winn/GlobalPost)
Sometimes a bit of pop detritus from Western culture drifts gently into faraway lands. Sometimes it crashes down and explodes like a Daisy Cutter. In some of the most impoverished places in Southeast Asia, Angry Birds are much more the latter. Disclaimer: I’m not referring to the addictive video game downloaded onto iPhones and iPads. I’m referring to specifically to Angry Birds fashion.

In Myanmar, clunkers make room for Chinese mini-cars

Now that Myanmar has changed its outdated commerce laws, Chery cars from China are appearing all over Yangon.
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One of many Chery cars from China makes its way down a crowded street in Yangon. (Patrick Winn/GlobalPost)

YANGON, Myanmar — As Myanmar continues to remake itself anew, the country’s perplexing and outmoded laws of commerce are beginning to become more sensible. Among the more confounding laws govern car sales. 

The old system ignored intense demand and allowed the import of only a few thousand vehicles per year. This manipulated the market so badly that Toyotas produced when Whitesnake was still cool sold for nearly $30,000.

As I wrote in a series titled “Burma Rebooted” last year, “traffic in Rangoon [Yangon] is like a procession of zombies on wheels, all resurrected from an auto graveyard.”

More from GlobalPost: The changing face of Myanmar

Those laws are still complex but beginning to come around. The government is now selling import licenses to vehicle owners that turn over their junkers for smelting and the market is slowly becoming normalized.

A notable breakout new car on Myanmar’s streets is China’s Chery QQ3, a little Tic Tac of a car that resembles a downmarket Mini. In fact, Chery’s own website claims that Myanmar’s government has “positioned QQ3 as a ‘national car.’”


An elite tastemaker rebrands Thailand

Government pays Monocle's Tyler Brule to modernize Thailand's image
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Tyler Brûlé, the Canadian entrepreneur, publisher and professional trend spotter, has been hired by Thailand's government to "rebrand" the country. (AFP/Getty/AFP/Getty Images)

After suffering a years-long run of bad press — airport seizures, political chaos, floods, etc. — Thailand's government has decided to pay a jetsetting tastemaker to rebrand Thailand to foreign investors.

Their choice is unexpected: Tyler Brule, a Canadian entrepreneur and marketing guru best known for founding Monocle, an urbane lifestyle magazine.

At first glance, this pairing feels odd.

Thailand, at its best, is equal parts chaos and joyfulness. It sounds trite but it's true: the country's appeal is owed in large part to a certain sweetness and warmth in Thai society.

But Brule's style can be alienating. His aesthetic, cultivated through Monocle, might be described as hipsterism for the opulent. Not that the magazine doesn't run great articles — it does — but it also seeks to make an art out of being relentlessly fussy in their cosmopolitan tastes.

According to this New York Magazine profile, his line of boutique stores, also called Monocle, sell items such as "eco-friendly Lebanese stationary" and a "limited-edition Finnish milking stool."

His strategy, he told the magazine, is to engage the type of people who "want to know if now is the time to buy a large tract of land in Madagascar in order to grow vegetables for the Koreans.”

So just how is Brule's Thailand makeover coming along?

Take a look. The campaign doesn't really rebrand Thailand. It largely reinforces the existing brand with familiar imagery — rice fields here, Bangkok's glowing skyline there — while trumpeting Thai hospitality and infrastructure.

The goal is not to remake Thailand in the eyes of Thais but, in Brule's words, "reaching people in Frankfurt and Hong Kong and Stockholm and San Francisco." He was paid an amount that, to my knowledge, has not been disclosed.

Can Brule accelerate Thailand's growth? Who knows? If he can compel his admirers to buy Finnish milking stools, he might just be able to convince investors to bet on Thailand.