Top 10 ASEAN Stories of 2011

From floods, to elections to a shameful attack in London, The Diplomat picks its top stories from Southeast Asia.

Southeast Asia was overwhelmed by political brinkmanship, territorial disputes and natural disasters in 2011. Perhaps just as important, the courts also figured prominently with some of the region’s more colorful and notorious personalities feeling the full brunt of the law. Here are some of the biggest ones:

1. Southeast Asia’s Big Wet

Storms killed more than 2,000 people across the region with record floods and billions of dollars in losses chalked up by business primarily in Thailand and the Philippines, with Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos also taking a massive knock.

Floods were a constant fear throughout most of the second half of the year, culminating mid-December in a storm dubbed Washi that triggered flash floods and mudslides in the Philippines and left a thousand dead. Hardest hit were the cities of Cagayan de Ura and Iligan, where more than 250,000 were homeless.That natural calamity, like the typhoons that struck earlier in the year, came suddenly and proved almost as deadly as the floods in Thailand, which persisted for months.

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The United Nations noted Bangkok had for years been warned about the need to develop a fully integrated approach to flood prevention. But the biggest impediment was convincing government, and this was made all the more difficult in Thailand where rapid changes in leadership had compromised the ability to plot long term strategies to combat floods.

International aid donors were quick to react with millions of dollars of food, supplies and medicine airlifted in. Harder to shift were attitudes. As waters rose, authorities complained that residents refused to budge, saying they feared looters.

Thailand is the world’s largest rice exporter and had expected a rice crop of about 25 million tons in 2012, a number that’s forecast to slump by a quarter. From livestock to poultry and computers to automobiles, industries are still counting the costs.

2.     Emerging Burma?

Thirteen months ago, the Burmese military allowed elections that resulted in the first civilian government coming to power since 1962. The poll – despite being widely regarded as a sham – has pushed the country in a direction welcomed by the international community.

President Thein Sein has revised laws on political parties, freed about 300 political prisoners, sought a conciliatory line with pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and stunned observers by defying one of its few allies, China.

Beijing had planned to build a mega-dam inside Burma, but the plan generated enormous local resentment, prompting Naypyidaw to suspend construction. The government has also legalized trade unions and eased censorship laws.

The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) applauded the moves and decided to award the ASEAN chair to Burma in 2014.

As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived on an historic visit to encourage further reforms, Suu Kyi lent some support by announcing she would contest up-coming by-elections once her National League for Democracy (NLD) party had been re-registered.

However, 1,700 political prisoners remain behind bars and complaints of human rights abuses persist, particularly in the countryside, where ethnic conflicts continue, prompting warnings that Burma’s ruling elite still had a long way to go before convincing skeptics its reforms are anything but superficial.

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3. Clean Malaysia

When a group of non-governmental organizations and opposition political parties decided to rally in support of fair elections in Malaysia, few had expected the police and politicians in Kuala Lumpur would react as harshly as they did.

Prime Minister Najib Razak had initially attempted to play down the protest by Bersih, which means “clean” in Malay, but changed his tune after Amnesty described the crackdown as the worst case of suppression seen in his country for years.

Police were deployed under “Operation Erase Bersih”. They sealed off roads, dispatched toxic water cannons and opened fire with tear gas as tens of thousands attempted to march towards the iconic Merdeka Stadium. Stampedes followed, and the crowds dispersed into smaller groups and taunted riot police armed with batons, guns and shields. Baton charges followed.

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, whose trial for sodomy was finally wrapped up at years’ end, was injured after police fired tear gas canisters into a tunnel. Protesters, however, remained defiant amid more than 1,000 arrests.

Most were too scared to wear yellow, the color synonymous with the movement. One man was dragged and kicked from outside the Chinese Maternity Hospital as tear gas was fired into the hospital’s grounds and next door at Tung Shing Hospital where protesters had sought shelter.

4. Yingluck Win Eases Tensions

Thailand was the only country in Southeast Asia to experience a change in leadership in 2011 after Yingluck Shinawatra and her Pheu Thai Party won a landslide victory over Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in July.

Her win resulted in an easing of tensions at home and across the border and paved a way home for her brother and former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a bloodless 2006 coup. Her victory also delivered some respite for Thais frustrated by the long running and bloody standoffs between the Red and Yellow Shirts.

Importantly, victory generated an improved political climate with Phnom Penh, allowing for an easing of tensions along their border. At the 900-year-old Preah Vihear Temple where at least 10 people were killed in February when fighting broke out between Cambodian and Thai troops. A further 18 died when fighting erupted in April along other parts of the border.

Many thought her first task would be to negotiate an amnesty for her brother. However, Yingluck’s priorities were to change rapidly as the country’s worst disaster since World War II began to take shape.

Floods would take a heavy toll and redefine her first months in office, winning applause from her supporters and, perhaps too predictably, criticism from her political opponents.

5. End of a Deadly Era

Almost nine years after bombings by Islamic militants left 202 people dead on the idyllic Indonesian island of Bali, the last of the bombers was finally arrested, signaling an end to an historic manhunt and the War on Terror in Southeast Asia as defined by the first decade of this century.

Omar Patek was captured by Pakistani authorities in January following an apparent tip-off from U.S. intelligence. His arrest wasn’t made public for another two months.

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The arrest afforded some closure for the relatives of victims and survivors of a tragic episode that heralded what became known as the Second Front in the War on Terrorism, covering Southeast Asia.

Osama bin Laden was killed soon after.

An explosives expert, Patek was Jemaah Islamiyah’s deputy field commander at the time of the first Bali bombing, committed amid calls for an Islamic caliphate across Southeast Asia. He’s also wanted in Australia, the United States and the Philippines, and is standing trial in Indonesia.

6. The Spratly Islands

Southeast Asian countries have seen an unwanted rise in tensions over the Spratly and Paracel Islands as China tries to flex its growing economic and military muscle. Tensions this year were perhaps at their worst yet with Chinese belligerence over the issue leading to rare protests in Vietnam.

Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and the Philippines also have claims over the chain. Chinese claims are ambitious as the Spratlys lie across a sea and largely within the 200-mile limit of the Philippines and a political stone’s throw from Malaysia and Brunei.

In Hanoi, where the Paracels are particularly sensitive, protests were allowed and held in the lead-up to an ASEAN Regional Forum in Bali that was dominated by the Spratly issue. There was also a push to drop the name South China Sea. No one could agree on that either. Manila is now referring to it as the West Philippine Sea, the Vietnamese call it the East Sea.

Then Manila decided enough was enough and sent a political delegation of four to Pagasa Island, populated by about 60 Filipinos, within the disputed chain. They declared it Philippine territory and Beijing was hopping mad, again. Foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu insisted China held “indisputable sovereignty” over the island chain despite the geographical realities. None of its neighbors agree.

7. Khmer Rouge Tribunal

The Khmer Rouge Tribunal hit its stride with the three most important surviving leaders of the ultra-Maoists confronting the U.N.-backed court for crimes against humanity and delivering shocking testimony before the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts in Cambodia (ECCC).

Prosecutors focused on the immediate forced evacuation of Phnom Penh and urban centers around the country after the Khmer Rouge seized control in April 1975. Brother Number Two Nuon Chea, one-time head of state Khieu Samphan and former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary denied the charges.

Nuon Chea says the Vietnamese were to blame for atrocities, including genocide. Between 1.7 million and 2.2 million people died under Pol Pot’s rule, which ended in January 1979 when invading Vietnamese forces pushed the Khmer Rouge into the countryside where conflict continued for another 20 years.

Construction of a massive Chinese-backed airstrip in the central province of Kampong Chhnang was telling. Beijing supported the Khmer Rouge throughout the Cold War.

At least 30,000 people were marched to the air strip and ordered to work. Conditions were so bad that many preferred suicide, choosing to leap under passing trucks. The court was told how every member of Pol Pot’s Standing Committee visited the site and encouraged people to work harder.

8. Singapore’s Irritated Elite

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When a government loses a handful of seats at a general election with little impact on the overall governing of the state, the media attention is usually minimal. But in Singapore, where the authorities have for years’ encouraged nothing but whole-hearted support for their leadership, such losses seemed tragic.

At the 16th parliamentary elections in May, the opposition polled better than ever. The People’s Action party (PAP), in office since independence in 1965, won a reduced 60 percent of the vote, down from 67 percent in 2006.

Still the PAP managed to win 81 of the 87 contested seats.

Singapore’s founding father, longest serving prime minister and, from 2004, the cabinet’s minister mentor Lee Kuan Yew, was upset and resigned. His son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, subsequently urged citizens to become part of a cause to build a better Singapore.

He also described the poll as a watershed. Housing shortages, problems with public transport, a growing wealth gap and immigration were blamed for the PAP’s worst performance in its history. Singapore’s ruling elite isn’t used to criticism. The prime minister’s commented: “… the issue is not policies or whether we are doing right or wrong, but who is in charge, in power.”

9. People Smuggling

For Australia, the year began much the same way as it ended. People smuggling and illegal immigration dominated its agenda with Southeast Asia, particularly Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.

A refugee swap with Malaysia was struck down by Australia’s High Court as overloaded boats ferrying human cargo from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Sri Lanka continued to land. This led to the December sinking of a boat off Indonesia, with perhaps 180 lives lost.

However, Prime Minister Julia Gillard insists a deal with Malaysia along with a regional solution remains the best way to combat people smuggling. More than 1,200 asylum seekers are being held in detention facilities on Christmas Island off Australia’s northwest coast.

10. Malaysian Heroics in London

One Malaysian deservedly won himself a place among the top stories of 2011 for being decent. Soft spoken Asyraf Haziq Rosli, stunned and bleeding, was filmed being helped to his feet after being beaten in East London at the height of the August riots.

The cameras then caught his apparent “rescuers” rifling through his backpack and stealing what they could. At least three million people watched the cowardly act on YouTube. But Rosli was applauded for his response, after initially suffering a broken jaw and lost teeth when 100 youths charged him and a friend.

“I feel sorry for them… It was really sad, for among them were children, boys in primary school. It was quite shocking,” the 20-year-old reportedly said.

Cameron said Rosli’s plight highlighted how things were “badly wrong in our society.”