2012 has etched itself into the history books. During the last twelve months Southeast Asia regularly made global headlines largely due to competing territorial claims between China and various neighboring states.
Certainly, the result was not what China hoped for.
Beijing's actions in the South China Sea and claims over the Spratly and Parcel Islands elevated the status of the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) on the global diplomatic stage.
Against this backdrop the United States continued implementing its "rebalance" to Southeast Asia, raising the diplomatic stakes in the confrontation, much to China's irritation.
The issue also divided ASEAN like never before. Several ASEAN members have overlapping claims with China in the South China Sea. Throughout the year Vietnam and the Philippines took the lead in challenging Beijing while Malaysia and Brunei adopted a more muted tone in the dispute.
Beijing tried to thwart efforts by Manila and Hanoi to establish a united ASEAN position on negotiations with China over its territorial ambitions. China wants to deal with each claimant bilaterally and has resisted efforts to bring the dispute before international courts.
Cambodia had a difficult year as chair of ASEAN. Phnom Penh – a long term beneficiary of Chinese aid and soft loans – often times pushed China’s agenda at summits between Southeast Asian leaders winning it few friends. A stalemate persists.
China could often rely on Cambodia’s legendary former monarch and King Father, Norodom Sihanouk for help in soothing regional relations. But the man who led Cambodia against the Japanese occupation in World War II, and after independence in 1953, passed away in October.
The public response to his death was overwhelming and of great concern to Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose government was under constant fire at home and from international human rights groups over allegations of widespread land-grabbing by the rich and powerful and an escalation in the government's use of violence.
Environmentalist Chhut Vuthy was shot dead in a confrontation over a land concession given to a Chinese company. Charges against Chhouk Bundith, a district governor who was photographed waving a gun after witnesses said he shot three women at a labor protest, were dropped. Equally incredulous was the jailing of veteran broadcaster Mam Sonando, who was convicted of trying to organize a secession movement. Mam Sonando, like Chhut Vuthy, also had a habit of criticizing the government, however, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun did not. The pair, after years of legal wrangling, were again jailed for the 2004 murder of Chea Vichea, a prominent union official who did have a habit of criticizing Hun Sen. That decision also outraged human rights groups who argued the pair were simply scapegoats.
Laos followed Cambodia’s lead and signaled it was also moving closer to China through a series of billion-dollar-contracts for the construction of dams, roads and railways. In order to achieve this, Laos has committed itself to Chinese banks and profits from the $3.5 billion Xayaburi Dam.
The dam will block the mainstream of the Mekong River, endangering fish migration patterns and much needed food stocks in Vietnam and Cambodia where 60 million people depend on the river for their livelihoods. Vientiane ignored objections, led largely by its traditional ally, Hanoi, where Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung was having his own troubles with a Communist Party that was angered by his handling of Vietnam’s economy. In August, the nation’s Appeals Court upheld convictions against nine former executives of Vinashin, Vietnam’s largest ship builder, for misappropriating funds. All had close ties with Dung.
In stark contrast was Indonesia’s economy, which enjoyed a stable year ahead of upcoming elections while the country’s Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa, positioned himself as a potential regional leader after he patched up differences — If only temporarily — within ASEAN over China’s advances in the South China Sea.
But the jailing of Umar Patek, a leader of the now defunct al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiya (JI) was also a welcome development for Indonesia. Patek was the last of the Bali bombers to be caught by Indonesian authorities, signaling an end to a horrific decade where the military focus was almost exclusively centered on counterterrorism.
A peace deal in the southern Philippines between The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the national government has also raised hopes for a more peaceful new year. The deal is yet to be approved by parliament but, if approved, it should go a long way towards shoring up support for President Begnino Aquino, whose election in 2010 was due in part to his pledge to find a lasting peace in the country’s south.
While Aquino enjoyed a solid year at the helm the same could not be said for the woman he replaced more than two years ago. Gloria Arroyo was charged with various crimes stemming from her nine years as president and her association with questionable businessmen.
Former Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva will also soon appear before the courts after being charged with the murder of a civilian during a crackdown on anti-government protests two years ago when he was in power. About 90 people were killed and 1,900 wounded during the confrontation between Red Shirts and the military.
Current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinwatra, however, had a better year after surviving a no confidence vote and Yellow Shirt protests. The Supreme Court also ruled in favor of her Peau Thai Party. But problems with Muslim insurgents in the country’s south and the economy persisted. Thailand's biggest fiscal headache was driven by the government's promise to pay rice farmers at higher than market prices for their product. The hope that this policy would push global rice prices higher has not been borne out. Instead, the policy has resulted in Thailand accumulating a mountain of unsold rice and debt.
While many Southeast Asian countries fared poorly in Transparency International’s annual corruption survey, Malaysia proved to be an exception. The country climbed to the 54th spot out of 176 countries, up from 60th a year earlier. The independence of Malaysia's judicial system was also bolstered when the High Court acquitted opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim of charges that he and many of his supporters said were politically motivated. His rival Prime Minister Najib Razak kept his political cards close to his chest, fending off demands for electoral reforms while at the same time threatening to call an early poll which never materialized.
Singapore again performed well on the corruption index, ranking as the 5th least corrupt country in the world. Less flattering was another survey that ranked the city-state as the most emotionless place on Earth. Singaporeans were annoyed but such feelings became harder to defend after the government, soon after the survey’s release, refused entry to what was believed to be a boat carrying 40 Muslim Rohingyas who had survived being shipwrecked after fleeing the violence in northern Burma. The deportation of immigrant Chinese bus drivers who called a strike – unheard of in Singapore for 26 years – didn’t help such perceptions.
But by year’s end it is Burma that has emerged as the region’s greatest hope, despite the continued violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine. Bolstered by an unprecedented visit to his country by U.S. President Barack Obama, Burmese President Thein Sein won over many of his country’s critics as his political reforms continued to make headway. There was even one suggestion – ludicrous and insensitive – that Thein Sein should be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. But such thoughts were likely dismissed after his military allegedly launched a surprise and bloody Christmas offensive against rebels in Kachin state, ensuring Burma will again be topping the international headlines for all the wrong reasons as 2013 gets underway.