U.S. President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Burma and the 21st Summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Phnom Penh dominated news coverage in the region during the past month — and rightly so. Obama’s Burma trip put a global spotlight on the reforms being implemented by the civilian government in that country, while the ASEAN Summit exposed the continuing failure of the regional grouping to address the maritime disputes between China and several ASEAN member countries over the South China Sea.
But aside from these issues, the month of November was also memorable because of the phenomenal protests that took place across Southeast Asia. For example: The anti-government Pitak Siam (Protect Thailand) network mobilized 20,000 people in Bangkok; more than 15,000 participants joined Malaysia’s “Green Walk”; a bus strike in Singapore, the first labor strike in the city in almost three decades, stunned the city-state; and a peaceful protest camp set up by monks and farmers to oppose a copper mine project was brutally dispersed by Burmese riot police.
Pitak Siam leaders vowed to paralyze Bangkok on November 24 to force the ouster of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whom they accused of being corrupt and a puppet of her brother Thaksin, Thailand’s former prime minister who was removed by a military coup in 2006. Pitak Siam was able to gather, by some estimates, more than 20,000 people in the streets, but it failed to sustain the crowd and attract more supporters which prompted its leader to announce the premature ending of the rally. The violence between protesters and police may have also discouraged Bangkok residents from joining the action.
Malaysia’s “Green Walk” was organized by the Himpunan Hijau group to protest the construction of the Lynas Advanced Material Plant in Kuantan, which is expected to be the world’s largest rare earths refinery. The “Green Walk” started with 70 participants in September. After two weeks and 300 kilometers of walking across the country, the “long march” ended in Kuala Lumpur with the number of marchers reaching over 10,000.
Kuantan residents and environmentalists have long opposed the project because of its possible detrimental impact on the health, safety, and environment of the community. Earlier last month, Malaysia’s High Court rejected petitions to stop the plant from beginning to process rare earth minerals, prompting some to organize the “Green Walk.”
Citing unfair treatment, about 171 Chinese drivers from the SMRT bus company staged a strike last month in Singapore, paralyzing five percent of bus operations in the city. The drivers were questioning the alleged higher salaries and benefits given to Malaysian workers. The strike was described as the first labor strike in Singapore since 1986. It has been so long that a strike was reported in the prosperous city-state that it took some time before the media and the public recognized the action as a labor strike. The Acting Minister of Manpower quickly denounced the work stoppage as an “illegal strike” and he was joined by hundreds of commuters who were stranded for several hours.
Despite antagonizing a segment of the commuting public and the official condemnation of the bus drivers, the strike yielded some gains for the workers who were finally given a small salary increase.
In Burma, six community campsites were established by monks, farmers, and activists to stop the China-financed copper mine operation in Monywa, Sagaing Division. Protesters have rallied against the environmental impact of copper mining and also against the large-scale displacement of farmers affected by the project. For the first time since elections, the government dispatched massive riot police to drive out the protesters. Government forces have come under criticism for using excessive force, including unleashing tear gas and water cannons against peaceful monks. The crackdown is a blow to Burma’s reformist image.
The various protests mentioned in this article made headlines in their respective countries, and embody larger political trends in these nations. “Green Walk” could be an election issue in Malaysia next year. The failure of Pitak Siam has affected the strength of opposition forces in Thailand. The bus strike of foreign workers in Singapore might be a sign of growing tension between local and foreign residents in the city state. The popular protest camp highlights the grassroots resistance against numerous development projects across Burma.
Bigger protests tackling the same issues might be organized in the next few months which could make 2013 a very exciting, yet socially tense, year for Southeast Asia.