Saturday, January 29, 2005

Where Monsoons Meet No. 5

Being a miscellany of recent stories from Southeast Asia.
  • Indonesia-Aceh. As I noted earlier in the week talks started on Friday between the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in Helsinki. It was the first time the two sides had met for nearly two years. But reports are already indicating that the meeting has ended earlier than expected. No specific reason has been offered for this though Martti Ahtisaari, the convenor of the talks, said in a rather laconic way that after such a long conflict it was not realistic for the sides to "start loving each other" so soon. At this point, it's quite difficult to speculate on what may happen next. But the Indonesian government is unlikely to concede GAM's two major demands: a withdrawal of government troops and outright independence. The latter demand, especially, would also be opposed by many of Indonesia's neighbours. But Reuters is claiming that the two sides will meet soon and there is some hope at least for a formal ceasefire to allow for post-earthquake reconstruction. There is excellent commentary on the situation in Aceh over at Money Doesn't Talk, It Swears.
  • Mekong Delta. I'm a little late on this story but it has longer term implications anyway. It may be stating the obvious but everyone seems in thrall to China's breakneck industrial development - creating what is in effect the new workshop of the world. Mostly, analysts fall into one of two camps: they either welcome this development as the best means for locking in China to the structures of global capitalist governance, or else they project China as an alternative nexus of power to that of the West. In all this frothy speculation, little is said about the very real and negative impact that China's development is having on its Southeast Asian neighours. This report highlights just one very obvious downside - China's threat to the livelihoods and environment of the Mekong Delta: "throughout Southeast Asia, farmers and fishermen complain that China's thirst for hydroelectric power is choking the Mekong, a waterway that sustains some 70 million people". The Mekong is literally the lifeblood for a huge swathe of Southeast Asia. But China's network of upstream dams is gradually choking off life downstream. As one Cambodian minister puts it: "China, they will work for their own country .... We are downstream, so we suffer all the negative consequences. If there is no more water for us, no more fish, no more vegetation, this is a big disaster". Not all disasters in the region are caused by the forces of nature. Read the rest. (Hat tip: Ash)
  • Philippines. The big story in the Philippines has been the debate over tax policy, specifically the plan to widen the imposition of VAT. Now this doesn't sound like a very sexy topic. But it actually goes to the heart of what's wrong with the Philippine political economy. In a brilliant dissection in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Randy David spells out what everyone already knows: that the tax burden falls disproportionately on the poor and lower middle class while the rich and the corporations are serial tax-evaders. More than this, taxes are not used for meeting public needs such as health, education and infrastructure but for servicing the balooning debt and purusuing armed offensives against insurgents in the name of national security. As Randy's acerbic comment says: "In view of this, it may make very little sense to warn the Filipino public that they face the consequences of an impending economic collapse if the fiscal deficit is not immediately solved. Many think they have nothing further to lose in the event of an economic crisis. They don't see themselves as meaningful stakeholders in the present system. Not a few may even believe that a crisis is what the country probably needs to bring the national leadership to its senses". In the Philippines at least taxation is still a potentially revolutionary topic. "Only a thin line separates taxation from exploitation, and our government seems bent on doing everything to erase it". Read the rest.

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