Southeast Asia


Stress, study and suicide: Why Singaporean students are suffering

Evangeline Kinajil-Barfield

Society and culture | Southeast Asia


For many, Singapore represents the modern face of Southeast Asia. Held as a global hub of commerce, culture and tourism, the city-state also boasts the world’s best education system, according to a 2015 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study.

It would be then almost unbelievable to think that this contemporary education system could be a “pressure cooker” of toxic cultural beliefs that are harming the nation’s students.

For most Singaporean students, academic success holds an essential place in their lives. For these students and their families, school is not only a place to grow and socialize – but an institution where academic achievement is king and capital for guaranteeing the best future possible.

Beginning as early as kindergarten, Singaporean children are groomed to practice and perform exceptionally. While most five year olds would be playing outdoors, many Singaporean children have already begun enrichment activities to ensure they surpass their fellow classmates.

[caption id="attachment_5766" align="aligncenter" width="256"] From Kindergarten, many Singaporean children begin CCAs to prepare for primary school.[/caption]

This ferocious competition continues until a student graduates, often with parental support. This “support” normally consists of extra tuition and co-curricular activities, known as CCAs.

In 2014, it was reported that a OECD survey had found that at fifteen years old, the average Singaporean student was spending approximately 9.4 hours on homework every week – nearly double that of the global average of five.

These 9.4 hours seem minuscule compared to what students complete in exam periods, with some only sleeping three hours a night.

What is more alarming, in this modern education system, is that students have been suffering far worse than just exhaustion and sickness for nearly two decades.

In 2001, the New Straits Times reported on the suicide of primary school student Lysher Loh. A cheerful young child and a “top student” by all accounts, Lysher committed suicide by jumping from her fifth-floor apartment window in the face of mounting academic stress.

She was ten.

This horrifying incident was preceded by a survey undertaken by Singapore Press, which found that in 2000, students aged between ten and twelve were more afraid of examinations than of their parents’ dying.

If these unsettling findings do not highlight how insidious these academic environments have become, the fact that they continue across Southeast Asia should.

[caption id="attachment_5773" align="aligncenter" width="533"] These stress laden academic environments are not only isolated to Singapore but can be found across Southeast Asia. Image from Miltos Gikas[/caption]

On the 22nd of March 2016, the South China Morning Post reported that twenty-two students had committed suicide in Hong Kong since the start of the academic year. The average suicide rate in previous years was twenty-three.

But what is it about these stress-laden environments that is causing such strain on Asian students and how can they be remedied?

For one, the competitive nature of Singaporean schools plays a substantial role. Judged strictly on their marks, students are often pressured to compete with one another for academic dominance.

The constant examination of students’ performance also increases the pressure on the youth. A prime example is the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). These exams determine whether a student may proceed to high school and, if so, what stream of classes they are allowed to participate in.

The limitations of this form of education can easily be seen. Children as young as twelve are faced with academic testing that essentially determines the course of their education, and in many aspects their future.

[caption id="attachment_5782" align="aligncenter" width="468"] Singaporean students face constant examination of their academic performance from an early age. Image from Richard Lee.[/caption]

Although, in recent years, the Singaporean government has begun to address this system, it is the underlying cultural beliefs that exist in the Singaporean psyche that are the key to ending this “pressure cooker” environment.

The Mandarin Chinese concept of Kiasu, or the extreme fear of losing, is not only tremendously important to Singaporean students, but also to their parents.

It is this idea of Kiasu that leads families to pressure their children towards achieving academic greatness, not only to allow them to have the best opportunities possible, but to bring a sense of pride to their families.

Kiasu, however, is not the only traditional ideal that continues to plague modern Singapore. Within Singapore and throughout Asia, there still exists a stigma around mental illness, thus stopping many students from speaking out and seeking help.

Even in the most modern Asian countries, the importance of mental health remains overlooked and clouded with shame. For many, to have a mental illness is to be seen as weak.

To change cultural ideals, especially ones so deeply ingrained as Kiasu, demands years of purposeful re-education.

Whether this is through greater awareness on the part of the parents about their children’s mental health or communication between mental health services and Singaporean youth.

Although many families and teachers only want the best for these young students, this relentless environment of competition is not only stealing away the chance for these children to enjoy school, but in some cases, their lives.

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Carry on doctor: Vietnam

Robin Spurr

Society and culture | Southeast Asia


Had I been told I would be spending 48 hours in a Vietnamese hospital during my travels, I would have refused to leave Australia. But, I survived the experience, and now am only horrified by my preconceptions.

Sprawled on my bedroom floor in the hotel, strategically placed between bed and bathroom, my room-mate walked in and trod on me. It was at this point I admitted that I needed medical help. For six hours, I had played a humiliating game of musical chairs and heads down thumbs up, with the toilet, and wasn’t winning.

But I did not want to go to hospital in Vietnam.

I pictured over-crowded hallways, filled with loud noises and bad smells, and questionable cleanliness. I woke up the next day, without the faintest idea how I’d passed out, and couldn’t feel my hands or feet.

Fast-forward two hours, I am in hospital, foreign words flying over me. I’m being spun over onto my front (none-the-wiser) having my shorts pulled up. Flailing weekly, and mumbling a language even I didn’t understand, a needle was put in my bottom. This woke me up. If the bright lights, magnified by the clean white walls and off-blue, glittery lino hadn’t already.

[caption id="attachment_5630" align="alignnone" width="235"] TMP's writer Robin Spurr upon admission to hospital[/caption]

Soon, I had the first of seven drips in one hand, a pot of Cháo (rice soup) in the other, and was being wheeled out of the emergency room. The journey was short, if slightly bumpy, over cracked tiling. The first stop was an X-ray, where my interfering necklace was shoved into my mouth. Then was the ultra-sound, where I looked affectionately, if dazed, at my swollen insides.

I was by no means alone here. New friends and old came to distract me. The Vietnamese students and staff from An Giang University (AGU), gave me so much support when we had only just met. Even other visitors to hospital were quick to offer me advice and assistance. Despite the language barrier, the kind intentions were felt.

The doctors and nurses were approachable. As I became more hydrated, I became more helpful, miming what did/didn’t hurt. This communication was largely successful, aside from one confusion.

Small pots had been pushed coyly in my direction. Having only ever peed into these, I assumed that was what was wanted, especially as my offerings were accepted. It wasn’t until we got Google translate out, that confusion cleared. The nurse’s phone repeatedly shouted; “s**t…S**T!”. I laughed; dehydration making me hysterical. I could be of no service in this department, having taken enough costive medicine to block up a drain.

It wasn’t until leaving I found out what illness I’d had; gleaned by the translation of my supervisor from AGU and me Googling my pick n’ mix bag of medicine (including a veterinary grade muscle support for cows). I had a strong bought of Gastroenteritis --“Gastro”, a tummy bug. Which annoyed me, as it didn’t exactly capture the experience; a tummy bug on steroids.

Writing a Trip-Advisor review about my time in hospital, I would probably give it a solid 4/5. It defied my expectations. Guilty at my reluctance to be treated, which had made me more ill, I reconsidered my preconceptions.

Returning home, everyone’s reaction to me being hospitalised were the same; horror.

But my time on the ward showed me that we need better education about countries harshly labelled “third world”. Our view of ‘abroad’ encourages us to believe our standards are above all others. As I learnt, hospitals everywhere will treat everyone to the best of their abilities.

Even in my dehydrated state, I remember being put at the front of queues, and given a private room. Was this cultural courtesy favouring guests, or a need to give me a positive outlook on the medical service to take back home? I received a level of care equal to the NHS in the UK (in its current state, probably better), even if it was a little rough around the edges.

I cannot deny who I was might have played a part. I was a Caucasian traveller in a private hospital. The CIA World Factbook defines density of doctors/population as 1.19/1,000 and hospital bed density as 2/1000 in Vietnam (compared with 2.81 /1,000 and 2.9 beds/1,000 in the UK). This would make hospitals crowded and understaffed as I expected. But not where I was.

My two-day stay, including my medicine, food, treatment and transport to and from hospital came to A$ 100. That seemed cheap (especially with health insurance). But for many locals, that would be a month’s wages (approximately A$168), and would mean a stay in a public hospital, which is not free. As researcher on healthcare in Vietnam, Quan Hoang, argues “Be rich or don’t be sick.” This is where the scare-stories have stemmed from.

Development is needed in Vietnam’s healthcare, particularly in the public sector, to protect people from the ‘medical poverty trap’ that Vong describes. But it also needs support from the outside world; not tearing down by fussy tourists.

I will never let my preconceptions make me ill again. It won’t stop me travelling. I will just pack more Imodium and painkillers and hope that the St Christopher my mum gave me (in desperation) will save my iffy immune system from future travel drama.

If not, I will head straight to hospital.

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Increasing boys prostitution in Indonesia

Farabi Ferdiansyah

Society and culture | Southeast Asia


He walks into the terrace house with a red face, and lowered head. He shakes hands and sits on the floor cross-legged. His head bowed down, staring at the floor at the Safe House for the Children in East Jakarta. In his 16 years Castro (pseudo name) has lived a life that many of us know nothing about. He spent four months this year being trafficked as a child prostitute.

He sits in silence. The sounds of the throaty croaking of frogs and the pat, pat, pat of raindrops falling on the rooftop fill the room.

A moment later, another boy in a blue navy sweater and chino jeans comes in. He’s followed by the housekeeper Zainal, who says, “He doesn’t want to be interviewed alone.” Brian (pseudo name) wants to join Castro for the interview.

Brian sits beside Castro, straightens his short black hair, and smiles broadly and shakes hands. Brian is 17-years old and has known Castro for more than 12 years.

“You are lucky. You are the first [of who] is able to interview them,” said Zainal.

The boys look at each other, smile and Brian begins to joke around without say anything. Castro brightens and begins joking with him. Together they tell their story that involves tragedy, poverty, and exploitation.


[gallery ids="5438,5437" type="slideshow" orderby="rand"]

Brian and Castro have made the Safe House for Children at Bambu Apus, in East Jakarta. Police brought them here after they were rescued in a police raid on a child prostitution ring in Bogor (30/8) that involved 148 boys.

The National Police’s Criminal Investigation (Bareskrim) arrested three pimps who are accused of selling the boys to men through social media.

The suspects could face multiple charges under article No. 11/2008 on Information and Electronic Transactions (ITE) Law, Law no. 44/2008 on Pornography, and Law no. 21/2007 on Combating Human Trafficking.

[caption id="attachment_5454" align="aligncenter" width="416"] A poster condemning sex with a minor as a crime. The photo was taken at KPAI headquarters in Central Jakarta. Photo by Farabi Ferdiansyah[/caption]

Erlinda, a commissioner from the Indonesia Child Protection Commission (KPAI) said that underage male prostitution in Indonesia is increasing every year.  KPAI says in 2016, 300 to 400 boys reported they had been sold for sex.

Erlinda said child pornography and cyber crime reports during January – October 2016 recorded 414 victims. The numbers are higher especially when it comes to trafficking underage males for prostitution. She stated many victims don’t want to report to the KPAI.

Pribudiarta Sitepu a Deputy of Child Protection of The Ministry of Woman’s Empowerment and Children Protection said sexual abuse against boys is higher than the girls.  “SKTA (the survey of violence against children) reported 1 of 12 boys, and 1 of 19 girls got sexually abused.”

Authorities say young males are more vulnerable to exploitation. “Because the perpetrator assumes the boy is strong, masculine and will not tell to his parents,” Sitepu added.

[caption id="attachment_5463" align="aligncenter" width="301"] KPAI reports on Child Pornography and Cyber Crime Abuse in Indonesia. Design by Farabi Ferdiansyah[/caption]

A Study by End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purpose (ECPAT) reported children from broken families were much more vulnerable to online sexual abuse that those from non-broken families. If the children could not find happiness and comfort at home, they would look for it outside.

Brian and Castro came from the same town in Nias, North Sumatra. They were just four and five years old when the tsunami swept Nias in 2004 and their lives changed. After the disaster, their parents were living in misery and could not take care of them. So they were adopted by Maranatha Orphanage, Bogor, with many other children.

The boys had free education and lived in the orphanage for 10 years,  but two years ago they ran away before finishing the orphanage program. They were bored and wanted freedom.

Esti (pseudo name) a worker at the orphanage said “they've got a problem in the school [being] disobedient to orphanage's rules.”

The orphanage tried to persuade them to come back to the dorm, but the boys could not be found. The boys, who at the time had been 14 and 16 years old,  rented a small house in Bogor. They were jobless, alone and vulnerable.

Brian recalls how an older man named Rico befriended them. He flashed money and introduced them to the world of illegal boys sexual exploitation. . Brian said Rico lied to him. “Rico said if you want a job, come to his boarding. When I visit[ed] his boarding, he coerced me to please him. That was not a job that I expected.”

“You don’t need to work hard. Just work one day [and] you can earn more money than the salary of the common people who work hard,” Castro added.

Besides that, they said Rico often treated Brian and Castro to snacks or drinks.

“When you've already been lured in, it is hard to get out,” Castro said.

They need money to pay rent for the house and their living costs.

“Honestly, I feel strange and uncomfortable around them, but it is all about money,” said Brian.

Since they were under 18 years-old, the boys could fetch a better price than adult men.  Customers paid between Rp 1.000.000 (75$) to Rp 1.500.000 (113$). Castro and Brian say they earned around Rp 100.000 (8$) to Rp 1.000.000 (75$), normally about Rp 500.000 (38$).

“The highest amount that I received was Rp 1.000.000 (75$), depends on the tip from the guest,” said Brian.

[caption id="attachment_5471" align="aligncenter" width="459"] During 8 cases in September 2016, 168 victims (148 boys and 20 girls) of sexual exploitation and commercial children were sold for sexual services to adults in Indonesia. Graphics by: ECPAT Indonesia.[/caption]

Their pimp, Rico had experience in prostitution business. Rico had already been arrested for online prostitution involving girls. He was sentenced to three years for human trafficking and after serving a two-and-half year in prison was released on 24 November 2015.

With his huge circle of contacts in sex prostitution, he went to work and set up a sex trafficking business involving boys.

To promote the boys, they were required to submit a biography that included their name, age, and a photo.  “He asked us to take a picture topless,” said Brian.

After that, he invited the children to his community called RCM (Rico Ceper Management) and added them to his Facebook group, Berondong Bogor.

The boys said Rico used social media, such as Facebook, BBM Messenger, and a gay mobile application to get customers in cities, such as Jakarta, Bandung, and Banten. Besides that, Rico also had a foreign customer such as; Malaysian and Singaporean.

“Sometimes, I went to Jakarta, and sometimes they came to Bogor. Mostly, the customers are from Jakarta. We usually meet in Tebet, South Jakarta,” said Brian. “They provide all transportation and a hotel.”

Almost the customers were adults with good a profession such as police, manager, doctor, and etc. “Most (customers) are adults that are already married - have a wife and family,” Castro said.

Ahmad Sofian, the coordinator of End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purpose (ECPAT) acknowledged that the customers could be considered ‘classy’ men with money. “There are adults over their 30’s that have position (good job).”

[caption id="attachment_5475" align="aligncenter" width="328"] A poster stating #BeAResponsibleTourist meant to inform tourists that buying sexual services from children means prison. Photo taken at ECPAT Indonesia at East Rawajati, South Jakarta. Photo by Farabi Ferdiansyah.[/caption]

Erlinda said child sex abuse in Indonesia is considered an extraordinary crime along with narcotics and terrorism because it corrupts mindset of the children about norms of life. “The wrong of thinking, bad behavior, anti-social, and assume sex with underage or same-sex is normal.”

The Indonesian government supports severe punishments against the perpetrator of child sexual abuse including forced chemical castration or the death penalty. It believes a strong penalty is the only way to stop the child sex abuse.

Recently, the death penalty was imposed on two cases of child sexual abuse in West Jakarta and Bengkulu. This proves that strong state stance against child sex abuse.

Another side to of this story is rehabilitation for the abused children. Erlinda says the victim must get comprehensive rehabilitation for trauma recovery. If they don’t get rehabilitation, the victim might be a perpetrator of child sex abuse.

“[Of] around 70-80 percent of [victims] who do not recieve comprehensive rehabilitation, during [their first] couple months can be[come] a perpetrator or have a personality similar to the perpetrator,” said Erlinda.

Brian and Castro spend their days at the Safe House for Child managed by the Ministry of Social to get rehabilitation under expert surveillance along with the vocational skills to re-enter society.

When they complete their rehabilitation in December, Brian and Castro want to start a new life with their family. “I want [to go] back to Nias - we still have our parents there. We['ve] already [been] living here (Bogor) for 12 years,” Brian said.

Neneng Heryani head of Safe House PSMP Handayani said the progress of Brian and Castro is good. They are learning screen printing and have a good attitude.

“However, living with [their] family is the best rehabilitation for children,” said Neneng.

Neneng said it was hard to find their families in Nias because the boys had not seen their parents for 12 years. They don’t remember the address or siblings. But, finally the team was found their parents after searching for four days.

“We will [be] going to Nias together, and returning Brian and Castro to their family on December 26 - 12 years after the Tsunami disaster,” Neneng added.

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The Rohingya

Hares Shirbaz

Politics | Southeast Asia


An article from the Economist once called the Rohingya people ‘the most persecuted people on Earth.’ I, a refugee from Afghanistan now settled in the Netherlands with my family, arguably agree.

The first time I heard about the Rohingya was while reading a Dutch article in March 2014. It reported that Australian and American pilots sent in to find Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 - the infamous airplane that disappeared while on route to Beijing – had spotted a large boat filled with starving and dehydrated refugees. They also spotted floating corpses but upon realising they too were refugees, they flew the plane past them, not bothering to call for a rescue team.

I could barely believe what I had just read. I read it a second time, appalled. I understood the importance of finding the  remains of the MH370 passengers, but could these pilots not have paused just briefly to call a rescue team to these starving, dehydrated people probably in dire need of medical attention?.  After reading the article for the third time I stumbled across the word “Rohingya.” The refugees had been Rohingya people.

Not knowing who they were, I decided to look it up. Just who were these Rohingya that the MH370 search planes had so easily ignored?

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority from the Rakhine (also known as Arakan) a states in Myanmar. They make up around  forty per cent of the population. The majority  sixty per cent of the population in Rakhine are mainly Buddhists. ‘The differences between the Rohingya miniority within the Buddhist majority are currently dividing Rakhine with accute ethno-religious tensions.

The government of Myanmar and hard-line Buddhists claim that  Rohingya are illegal immigrants from the neighbouring country of Bangladesh. According to state rhetoric, the Rohingya arrived in Myanmar during British rule between 1824 till 1942. The Rohingya are not accepted as citizens but instead classified as “resident foreigners”.

The Myanmar government  even refuses to refer to these Muslims as “Rohingya,” instead titling them as “Bengali” in order to support their theory of the Rohingya being foreigners rather than from Myanmar.

The Rohingya refuse to accept this title and claim that their ancestors arrived in Rakhine before British rule. Rohingya theory states that during the 1404 war that reinstated  Min Saw Mon as King of the Launggyet Dynasty after being overthrown by rival Ava Kingdom, a small group of Muslim Bengalis migrated into the territory now called Rakhine. They came with Min Saw Mon when he returned to Myanmar after fleeing to Bengal to seek help from the Sultan Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah to regain his throne. The Rohingya claim this historical legacy as  their legitimate link to Myanmar.

Fast forward to 2016 and I’m  having a discussion with a young woman from Myanmar about a Quartz article criticising Aung San Suu Kyi for not protecting the Rohingya. I agreed with this critique.  Aung San Suu Kyi is revered as the leader of Myanmar who  promises to end military rule and bring democracy and freedom to all the people of Myanmar. This should include the Rohingya.

The young woman thought differently.

She claimed that these Muslims were “terrorists” who’d raped and looted.   Her comments shocked me. She soon ended our discussion as she felt I didn’t understand her.  I on the other hand, was infuriated. The Rohingya are lynched on a daily basis. How could she claim they were the aggressors? I felt curious. I wanted know why she thought this way. I decided to visit her Facebook page and what I saw shocked me - she was a normal student just like me. I saw pictures of her on holiday, with friends and family and with a sign demanding equal rights for women. My anger turned in to confusion. How could this young bright woman who demands equal rights for women not demand these rights for the Rohingya people?

You see I was a refugee too. In 1997, my family and I fled from the Taliban when they took over Afghanistan. We came to The Netherlands and were received with open arms by the majority of the people. The Dutch gave my parents the opportunity to start a new life. My sisters, brothers and I were granted the opportunity to go to school and study. They gave us a new home but most importantly, they accepted us. We didn’t look like them, talk like them, ate different things, and prayed to a different god, but they didn’t let these differences scare them. Their acceptance is the reason why this small country is known for its tolerance, and why I hold it as such an important country to take example from

I thought about destiny and how fearful a life we might’ve had if we’d fled to Myanmar instead of The Netherlands. I thought about the possibility of my family and I sitting in an improvised pontoon, fleeing from possible persecution, hungry and thirsty under the hot sun. Suddenly we would hear the engine of a plane approaching. The plane would fly past us and our hopes would disappear with it. The idea frightens me but the Rohingya are used to it. They are used to being ignored, be it by the Myanmar government, foreign search planes or the rest of the world.

That is their bleak destiny.

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Red Horizons: The NPA’s survival under Duterte

Miguel Galsim

Politics | Southeast Asia


Communist insurgents ambushing a police patrol and disappearing into the jungle is an image from a bygone era, but for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte the rebels of the Communist Party of the Philippines – New People’s Army (CPP-NPA) are a persistent reality. Having plagued presidents since the 60s, it is hardly surprising Duterte used his sanguine relationship with the Communists to kickstart peace negotiations.

Furthermore, with openly socialist individuals handpicked for policymaking positions, and negotiations continuing with the NPA’s political counterpart, hopes for a final peace are running high. However, the optimism surrounding a possible deal should not overshadow the questions of how durable a negotiated settlement will be, and if the deal will ultimately dismantle the NPA. And even if negotiations fail, especially given Duterte’s recent announcement to lift a ceasefire with the NPA, the insurgency may still defy government offensives.

Whether Duterte pursues peace or casts a heavy hand, the NPA will not necessarily demobilise during his administration. The insurgency survives off continued grievances in the countryside and the opportunities provided to it by a feeble state, as Patricio Abinales, Francis Domingo, and many other scholars have argued. Unless Duterte makes substantial strides towards resolving these issues, the NPA will survive.

Poverty in the Philippine countryside is undoubtedly a driving grievance that fuels support for the NPA. A mixture of infrastructure underdevelopment and social inequalities between wealthy landlords and disgruntled labourers creates a milieu from which the NPA can easily enlist grassroots support. With a sympathetic mass base, recruitment pools are ever-present, intelligence and offensive efforts against insurgents are frustrated, and the capacity to extract revolutionary tax from local businesses remains unimpeded. Significant government reforms toward a socialist system, or at the very least towards developing neglected rural communities, will be necessary to erode this foundation of NPA influence.

Herein lies the rub – the Duterte Government would face significant opposition to structural reform from entrenched business circles, who are likely to oppose progressive agrarian and labour reforms. Additionally, public support for policy concessions to the Reds is not guaranteed as the Social Weather Station’s Fourth Quarter report for 2016 shows. While it indicates that public satisfaction with Duterte’s reconciliation efforts is much higher than the attempts of his predecessors, the sample was not as enthusiastic for Communist reconciliation as it was for a majority of Duterte’s other policy initiatives. Allegations of broken ceasefires by Philippine armed forces could also allude to reluctance within the military establishment to show lenience to insurgents. Accordingly, the policy revolution desired by the NPA in order for it to disarm would encounter massive resistance from multiple sectors of Philippine society.

Even if the negotiation process succeeds (or continues positively), the NPA could actually benefit from policy reforms yielded by the discussions. With any government concessions perceived as the fruit of NPA pressures, outlets of grassroots support may be maintained. Anticipated prisoner releases will also bolster NPA morale and operative numbers. In addition, the legitimacy bestowed upon the NPA by the negotiations may lessen disincentives to the NPA’s financial contributors. If anything, Duterte’s negotiations will provide breathing room to the insurgency, rather than act as its death knell.

[related_article align="left" show_image="yes" index=1 text="Duterte and the queer community"]

Closely related to the Government’s policy struggles are its operational incapacities. A historical constant of the archipelago has been the central authorities’ inability to extend its coercive capacity to its more far-flung regions. As RAND reported in 2009, a factor of NPA sympathy is their ability to provide law and order where oft-corrupt government officials could not. Adding to the security apparatus’ troubles is the increasing need to build coercive capacities against other violent rebel groups and other states in the region, thus siphoning energy away from anti-NPA efforts. The result is a Government that cannot easily militarily eliminate or displace NPA insurgents, especially when insulated by local sympathisers.

The incapability of extending governance to NPA strongholds also poses another problem – even if the Duterte presidency is significantly more socialist, especially with prominent leaders of the left in policymaking circles, why would the NPA bother disarming if the armed forces lack the capacity to discipline these remote areas? Furthermore, why would remote communities support military and central law enforcement when a history of abuse by security forces still lingers?

So even if rural development is achieved, it does not spell the disarmament and disbandment of the NPA. A vacuum of effective authority would still exist in the hinterlands, of which the NPA will remain the locally-supported actor to fill this role. The Communists would also wish to retain a military capacity in case the government reneged on any aspects of the deal.

Regardless of the outcome of President Duterte’s most recent burst of anti-NPA rhetoric, the insurgency cannot be expected to disband or disarm. Until concerted efforts towards rural development and extension of governance are made under the new administration, the best case scenario for the negotiations is a pacified but operative NPA, continuing to survive on the margins where a weak government cannot yet displace them.

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Respect Timor, Leste ye be judged

Dominic Huntley

Politics | Southeast Asia


Australia's relationship with our newest neighbour has reached a critical juncture. Timor Leste has successfully forced Australia into a conciliation at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague over maritime boundary disputes, and now Australia will be required to justify to the world its maritime claims, and to itself the righteousness of bullying a nation it often claims to have liberated.
The specific delineation of maritime boundaries in the Timor Gap is nothing new. In 1989, during Indonesia's rule of Timor Leste, a treaty was signed which gave Australia expansive sovereignty over much of the sea, including the rich seabed resources that are valued at some US $10 billion.
Since Timor Leste's independence the treaty has been revised twice, in 2002 and 2006. The 2006 treaty included the stipulation that no renegotiation occur for 50 years. In 2012 however revelations of Australian spying during the treaty negotiations prompted Timor Leste to seek revisions to the treaty due to the feeling that it had been signed under unfair circumstances.
Australian perfidy has not been just limited to spying but has also included a cynical withdrawal from compulsory dispute resolution procedures under the UN conventions on the law of the sea (UNCLOS) a mere two months before Timor Leste became independent in 2002. Australia has also been highly reluctant to accept international arbitration, claiming that the Permanent Court of Arbitration has no jurisdiction.
The irony of holding such a position in the face of Australia's strong support for the recent ruling in the Hague on disputed territory in the South China Sea and Australia's strong support for it appears lost on the Australian government.

For Timor Leste this is just another challenge to be faced in gaining recognition as an independent nation. A nation that was colonised for four centuries and then occupied for two decades must once again prove itself worthy of its own existence. Ironically of its two neighbours it is former ruler Indonesia which has demonstrated a willingness to renegotiate boundaries.
For Australia however this issue is not just about maritime boundaries, or even Australia's role as an international actor. This sort of issue cuts right to the heart of that most domestic issue of national identity. What sort of country does Australia want to be? What does it mean to be Australian?
Australia, like all the Western settler societies, has a historic tension in its identity. The juxtaposition of Enlightenment values and the extraordinary racial and gendered hypocrisy has resonated throughout the last 228 years of European presence on this continent.
This has applied to Australia's approach to its neighbours just as much as its approach to people at home. Australia was a proud colonial power for some eight decades, and abducted tens of thousands of South Pacific Islanders to work in conditions reminiscent of the antebellum American South.
The transformation of Australian society since the 1960s has been perhaps the most extraordinary and valuable events in this nation's history. A nation that loudly proclaimed its 'whiteness' has become one that enshrines the rhetoric of cosmopolitanism, truly the greatest achievement of our society.
It is however a work far from complete. A short excursion to the Top End, or indeed, a short conversation with anyone not a middle-class, White Anglo-Saxon male will show that there are still enormous gaps in privilege and power between different segments of our society.
This is replicated in our government's approach to the maritime dispute. A rich and powerful country like Australia has the responsibility to support our much weaker, vastly poorer neighbors. Attempting to gain advantage at the expense of a country such as Timor Leste is more a hallmark of imperialism than of the modern society we purport to be.
For a country with a history like Australia, there are a thousand and one hurdles to cross before it can be absolved of past sins. Missing even one is unjustifiable, but this is surely one of the bigger ones.
Australia not only takes on the role of a regional leader in the development, but views itself as being the sort of country that does those things. This identity can never be justified so long as we treat our neighbors with the sort of arrogance and disrespect that we are showing Timor Leste and its people.
Australian leaders should also remember the legacies of their predecessors, and how those people are now viewed. How many today laud the achievements of Billy Hughes or Stanley Bruce? How many are nostalgic for the days of Australian colonialism in the Pacific?
The answer is about the same as how many will be proud of our actions in the Timor Gap when our children come to write the history books.

4 minute read

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Gambling for jade on the China-Myanmar border

Patrick Cordwell

Society and culture | Asia


The unofficial lotteries and clandestine casinos of China are the source of many tales of instant wealth and dramatic financial loss. But in Yunnan province, you’re more likely to see amateur gamblers pin their hopes, and their savings, on lumps of rock as they hunt for precious jade.

Jade is big business in China. In Yunnan province alone, the industry employs more than 500,000 people and annual sales of the precious stone have reached nearly US $2.5 billion. The prized stones flow across the border from Myanmar, and most find their way to counters in cavernous showrooms and glittering jewellery emporiums in Ruili, a small city near the frontier.

But not all jade that trades hands in Ruili is beautiful and polished.

Raw jade is covered by base material, meaning that in its natural state, it’s impossible to tell the quality of the stone within. Its true value is therefore concealed, fuelling fantasies that a rock could be hiding a glittering jadeite secret. For hundreds of years, this mystery has driven the thriving business of du shi – ‘gambling rock’.

The idea is straightforward. A raw stone of any shape or size is purchased – neither the buyer nor seller know what is inside. The buyer slices it open, revealing the stones’ true value. For most its worthless, but there’s always a chance of finding priceless jade hidden inside.

Those who get lucky can sell the stone to a jewellery company and profit immediately, or take a further gamble by keeping it and hoping that the price of jade continues to increase.

[related_article align="left" show_image="yes" index=1 text="Should we boycott Myanmar?"]

It’s a game that appeals to the twin Chinese passions of gambling and jade, a valuable stone that has etched itself into Chinese culture. Long ago, Confucius believed it to reflect the virtues of a true gentleman – its fine texture representing wisdom and its purity signifying loyalty and benevolence. With such symbolic value, jade has become an age-old cultural obsession.

It is no surprise then that thousands flock to Yunnan to try their luck at du shi. This eagerness is only inflated by dramatic stories that tell of peasants uncovering endless wealth as they break open stones to reveal precious jadeite.

In one famous story, a jade trader from Sichuan Province purchased a stone in Myanmar for US $9,000. Inside he found a rare jadeite with seven different colours, and the estimated value skyrocketed to US $60 million.

But there’s no such luck for the overwhelming majority who try their hand at du shi. Like any form of gambling, the sad stories of extreme financial loss and hardship are much more common. People often take out loans or borrow large amounts of money from family and friends to finance a bet on a worthless rock containing nothing of value.

Such was the case for Long Jiheng, a jade-gambler when the industry first exploded in the 1990s after the construction of a bridge connecting jade-rich Kachin State in Myanmar to jade-hungry Yunnan. According to him, he purchased a 1000kg raw stone for over US $1 million. It didn’t contain the precious jade he was sure that it was hiding. “I planned to commit suicide by jumping into the river to end all of the mess”, he said.

As Chinese websites offering du shi mushroom all over the Internet, the scale of gambling is only set to increase. It’s now possible to peruse pages upon pages of stones at every price point, and take a chance without travelling to Yunnan as hundreds of thousands have done in the past.

The only threat to the industry is the continued supply of jade from across the border. But with the United States recently lifting sanctions on Myanmar, including those on jade, it seems likely that the precious stones will continue to flow eastwards from Kachin State.

And as long as there is supply, the demand for du shi will continue. As the Chinese proverb goes, “there is a price for gold, but no price for jade”.

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Drug war, still poor

Miguel Galsim

Society and culture | Southeast Asia


People in the Philippines support the Drug War, and it is not surprising to see slum residents voicing support for the anti-crime crusade, says Monsoon contributor Miguel Galsim.

In reality, it is often the poorest in Philippine society who have to deal with drug-related crime and experience in the flesh the destruction of families and communities by the shabu industry. Accordingly, many votes for Duterte were votes against the spectre of drug crime. Many people hoped for a better future.

Yet, hope quickly morphs into anxiety when the brutality of the war does little to alleviate the poverty of those on the receiving end of drug crime. So long as the poor remain on the periphery of policymaking in the Philippines, the same problems of drugs and crime will persist, and the poverty that breeds this criminality will remain entrenched if genuine structural reform centred on the Filipino poor is ignored.

Many have argued the Drug War is a war on the lower class. President Duterte denied this, and recently Philippine National Police Director General Dela Rosa stated that the war would soon target the higher echelons of the drug trade. What is undeniable, however, is that slum dwellers are often caught in the crossfire with little say in the war that is often touted as being waged for their benefit.

The police enter the slums and arrest and/or kill whoever is named on a list provided by the barangay (district/ward) captain, although it is rarely verified how the information was gathered, or if it is even accurate.

Concurrently, the encouragement of vigilantism has given unprecedented impunity to contract killers, regardless of the purpose of the hit. The contraventions against due process within these operations also go without saying, further entrenching power in the hands of the state, pushing the poor further into the periphery.

Maximo Garcia was one day labelled a pusher by one of these lists, and hurriedly declared to the police that while he had used shabu in the past, he was not involved in its distribution. He thought he was safe. Four days later gunmen on a motorcycle attempted to kill him. His five-year old granddaughter, Danica, died instead.

A contract killer, profiled by the BBC, kills on the order of a police officer, her boss. Also impoverished, contract killing became a way to feed her family. However, leaving the field appears not to be an option as she claims the officer “threatened to kill anyone who leaves the team.”

[caption id="attachment_4709" align="aligncenter" width="446"] President Duterte shows a copy of a diagram showing the connection of high level drug syndicates operating in the country during a press conference at Malacañang on July 7, 2016. Image taken under a creative commons license from Flickr.[/caption]

Both situations are not only symptomatic of a wider disenfranchisement of the urban poor, but indicative of ignorance surrounding the root causes of drug crime and usage, particularly poverty. Killing 100,000 pushers may decrease crime for a while, but when people continue to live in crushing poverty the urge to use narcotics as an escape mechanism, or to kill and extort in order to survive, remains constant.

Across the ocean, the example of Colombia demonstrates how underlying political problems can prevent effective solutions to crime. Even though the government conducted an all-out assault on the Medellin Cartel, destroying it by 1993, crime rates did not suddenly decrease, nor did narcotics operations.

Income inequality and the incapacity of the state to monopolise security resulted in the continuation of organised criminality to present. Similarly in Mexico, the collapse of certain cartels does not spell peace, as the underlying issue of “anaemic public institutions” remains unresolved.

In general, a greater distribution of wealth and extension of services needs to be achieved. In July, the Duterte administration announced plans for rice subsidies benefitting the country’s poorest, although the effectiveness of its implementation remains unknown.

Additionally, the administration should consider expanding its CCT (Conditional Cash Transfer) program, contrary to its July announcement, and refining its scope to prevent wastage. Moreover, the government would do well to incentivise infrastructure providers to extend critical services like electricity and water to slum districts. A concerted effort from the government and relevant private sectors is necessary to gradually lift the nation’s lowest socio-economic bracket.

From the perspective of slum residents, a more effective strategy against crime would be to include the urban poor in decision making, especially by engaging grassroots community leaders and unionists.

Reinforcing and elongating the proposed rehabilitation and incarceration programs for surrendered drug users – which are often under-resourced and ineffective, further demonstrating the state’s ignorance of underlying issues – would also be critical for reducing recidivism within impoverished communities.

Failing to understand the situation of the poor, especially in urban slums, the Drug War is doomed to continue marginalising these people and trapping them between the extremes of poverty and a hail of bullets.

The crusade may destroy the current syndicates, but crime will continue to spring out of the neglected margins. If these shortcomings remain unrealised, innocent boys and girls will continue to be made unnecessary sacrifices in a brutish government policy.

5 minute read

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