A look back at some of the top stories from Southeast Asia in 2015:
1. Landslide victory for Myanmar’s National League for Democracy. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi may be constitutionally barred from becoming president of Myanmar but her party secured an historic victory in the general election. A tenth of the new members of the parliament were former political prisoners, including Suu Kyi herself. NLD’s victory was less surprising than the decision of the military and the incumbent military-backed civilian government to recognize the poll results. Will this lead to sweeping reforms in Myanmar next year?
2. Corruption scandal in Malaysia. First, there were allegations that state-run investment firm 1Malaysia Development Bhd lost a large amount of money due to anomalous transactions. Subsequently, Prime Minister Najib Razak was accused of pocketing more than $600 million from 1MDB. Najib denied the charge and insisted that the money was a donation for his political party from a supporter in the Middle East. Some of his influential allies were not convinced and they tried to persuade him to resign. Najib gets to keep his post (for now) but the scandal is expected to undermine his leadership until the end of his term.
3. Indonesian haze. The recurring haze from Indonesia affected residents of Singapore, Malaysia, and some parts of southern Philippines. Caused by forest fires, the haze reflected the inability of Indonesian leaders to stop plantation owners and farmers from clearing the land for palm oil. But responsibility for resolving the problem is not restricted to Indonesia alone, since several plantations in the ‘ground zero’ of the forest fires are owned by Singaporean and Malaysian companies.
4. Lese majeste cases in Thailand. Since grabbing power in 2014, the Thai junta has used the anti-Royal Insult law to silence and harass opposition leaders, activists, and even ordinary citizens. Some lese majeste cases led to convictions with harsh prison terms. The law is meant to protect the monarchy but the junta is using it to justify repression. Diplomats and foreign scholars are urging Thailand to review its strict implementation of the law but the junta responded by threatening to arrest critics — and recently, even began investigating the U.S. ambassador for insulting the king by questioning the application of the lese majeste law.
5. Corruption scandal in Indonesia. House Speaker Setya Novanto resigned his post after he was accused of asking for a 20 percent stake in the mining giant Freeport in exchange for the extension of the company’s contract to operate in Indonesia. The House leader found it difficult to deny the charges, since his conversation with a Freeport executive was secretly recorded but still insisted that he was only joking. He was being probed for ethics violation when he resigned as House speaker. He is still a member of Congress and leader of the powerful Golkar Party.
6. Rohingya refugees. Thousands of Rohingya boat refugees were pushed back into the seas by the governments of Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia early this year. The Rohingya are mostly Muslim but they are treated as illegal residents in Myanmar. The marginalized Rohingya are living in makeshift camps in western Myanmar, forcing many of them to seek refuge in neighboring countries.
7. Trade agreements and economic integration. Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei are included in the United States-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. Meanwhile, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines are also seeking to join the club. Negotiations over the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a regional free trade area including the ten ASEAN countries and those nations with existing free trade agreements (FTAs) with ASEAN – Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea – continued but did not conclude by the end of the year as had been hoped. Aside from TPP and RCEP, the plan to create a single economic community in the Southeast Asian region known as the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) also took off this year.
8. Cambodia’s opposition lawmakers boycott parliament. Last year, Cambodian politicians vowed to pursue a so-called “culture of dialogue,” which ended the decision of the opposition to boycott the parliament. This year, the opposition boycotted the parliament again for two months after some of their members were beaten by a pro-government group. A defamation case against the opposition leader was also revived. The opposition is now back in the parliament but it doesn’t mean the ruling party, which has been in power for more than three decades already, will stop its attacks against its political rivals.
9. Laos assumes leadership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Laos announced that the theme of ASEAN in 2016 is “Turning Vision into Reality for a Dynamic ASEAN Community.” Its great task is to help build the foundations for establishing the ambitious ASEAN Economic Community.
10. Philippines vs China maritime case. The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague ruled that it has jurisdiction over the case filed by the Philippines against China over the maritime disputes in the South China Sea (known in the Philippines as the West Philippine Sea). The case proceeded to oral arguments. The decision, expected around the middle of 2016, could also affect the similar claims of several countries in the region and China’s behavior with respect to its neighbors.
11. Death of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore’s founding leader Lee Kuan Yew passed away this year, an event that saw an entire country mourning his death and paying tribute to Southeast Asia’s most famous statesman. Global leaders also recalled the visionary leadership of Lee Kuan Yew and his success in leading the transformation of a small island state into a prosperous economy in less than three decades. Lee Kuan Yew’s party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), led by his son Lee Hsien Loong, maintained its leadership by clinching a landslide victory in September.
12. Human trafficking in Thailand. International scrutiny over human trafficking in Thailand continued in 2015, as a shocking expose led to several arrests and rescue missions related to slavery in Thailand’s seafood industry. The discovery of mass graves of trafficking victims in the country and the case of a senior police officer seeking asylum in Australia only heightened concerns about the issue in the country.
13. Vietnam passes transgender law. The new law in Vietnam now recognizes the right of transgenders to undergo sex reassignment surgery in the country. In addition, those who have undergone sex surgery can legally change their gender status. The LGBT community inside and outside of Vietnam welcomed the passage of the law but urged the government to improve it by recognizing the right of all transgenders, including those who are unable to undergo a sex surgery.