South East Asia Since Obama’s Visit: Still Much Unrest

(Hoi An, Vietnam) – Southeast Asia hit the world stage in a big way this November, as international media breathlessly followed President Obama’s historic visit to the region, and the major ASEAN conference that coincided with his visit.

The prevailing mood was one of optimism, especially in regards to former pariah state Burma: perhaps now, things would finally start to get better, as the newly-elected Obama lent his legitimacy to the region.

Unfortunately, Southeast Asian unrest also seems to have synced up disturbingly nicely with Obama’s visit.

Thailand exploded only days after Obama left, as pro-monarchy Yellow Shirt protesters demanded the end of the Yingluck Shinawatra presidency and rioted in the capital, claiming that the Thai Prime Minister is merely a puppet of her deposed brother,Thaksin Shinawatra. The aged and immensely popular Thai King recently made a rare public appearance on his 85th birthday, perhaps timed to coincide with the outburst of anger. Although Yingluck will likely keep her job for now, those at the top of the heap in Thailand aren’t known for staying there very long.

Meanwhile, after Obama’s stirring Yangon University speech, the Burmese government briefly became somewhat redeemed in the eyes of the world–perhaps because it was what most observers wanted to see. Obama even went so far as to refer to “Burma” as “Myanmar” on multiple occasions, going against the grain of US policy.

And then, days after that fleeting love-in, the Burmese government attacked peacefully-protesting monks and civilians with incendiary weapons at a mine site, causing horrifying burn wounds and horrifying many progressive-minded citizens. The government has pledged to investigate the situation, but it’s questionable if anything will come of this.

Further, the Rohingya Muslim minority—who received a shout-out in Obama’s speech—continues to be herded into internationally-displaced-persons camps, stuck between an unwelcoming Bangladesh, and an openly-hostile Burmese government, which continues to deny this systematic persecution is taking place. 

Last but not least, Burma was once again ranked as one of the most corrupt nations on the planet by Transparency International Wednesday—and TI suspects more abuses will come to light as the country opens up.

One country maintained the relative status-quo post Obama visit. That’s Cambodia, where the day-to-day human rights routine is none too good, and is only getting worse as Prime Minister Hun Sen continues to consolidate his grip on power.

Seventy-one-year-old Land rights campaigner and journalist Mam Sonando is still serving out a 20 year sentence, poor Cambodians continue to suffer from egregious land-grabs, and the ecological stability of the Mekong Delta remains under serious threat from Chinese-backed dam projects.

Not that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen acknowledges his administration has done much of anything wrong: recently, he insisted that there were no political prisoners in Cambodia—and cannily stated that he could not release political prisoners, as the courts are independent and he’d have to “break the law” to release them.

Perhaps Aung Sang Suu Kyi had it entirely right when she issued this warning to Obama about the difficulty of reforming a system: “I say difficult because the most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight. Then we have to be very careful that we are not lured by a mirage of success.”

This warning applies, one suspects, not only to Burma but to Southeast Asia on the whole. We must proceed—but with measured expectations.