Copy-cat war on drugs in Indonesia

President Joko Widodo has stopped executing foreigners for drug smuggling – after two rounds in 2015 and 2016 – but that doesn’t mean that his war on drugs is over. Instead, the battlefield is shifting from the execution chambers to the streets. Widodo has empowered the National Narcotics Bureau and the Police to use force against drug traders, with little oversight.

The President seems drugs obsessed – he once called drugs the ‘Number 1 problem’ facing Indonesia, despite evidence showing that the figures he cited, such as 4.5 million addicts, were grossly overestimated.

He has also ignored the growing global consensus that heavy-handed tactics have failed to stop both drug usage and smuggling globally, and that a more effective approach is to look at drugs as a public health issue. To make matters worse, Indonesia has cut funding for rehabilitation.

A popular policy?

Yet the policy has proved popular nationally. ‘The government can resume execution – at any time – as a populist tool to show the public that they are tough on crime,’ says Ricky Gunawan, a human-rights lawyer with the Jakarta-based LBH Masyarakat (Community Legal Aid Institute). ‘To date no politician has been brave enough to publicly say that the way we are dealing with drug problems in Indonesia isn’t just failing, but is also damaging to human rights.’

Since the war on drugs has moved to the streets, LBH Masyarakat has noted an uptick in extra-judicial killings.

‘These killings are now more visible on the news,’ says Gunawan. ‘Last year there were at least 14 deaths [in total], while in three months from January to March this year [there were] at least seven killings. This is obviously worrying.’

What is driving this? One factor may be that Widodo’s administration openly admires the well-covered, brutal war on drugs being fought by President Rodrigo Duterte in the neighbouring Philippines.

‘It may be that the killings with impunity in the Philippines are creating a more permissive atmosphere for such killings in the region,’ says Gloria Lai, Senior Policy Officer with the International Drug Policy Consortium. She believes Duterte’s crackdown may be contributing not just to recent killings in Indonesia, but also to similar cases in nearby Thailand and Cambodia.

Civil war, mental illness, poverty, gang violence: the many roots of homelessness

01-06-2017-philippines-homelessness-590.jpeg

© Iris Gonzales

Philippines

Maria Precilda met her partner Marvin Bueta in 2014. It was love at first sight. Now a young mother, she lives with her family in one room in a Manila slum.

I was working as a cook for a middle-class family in a city to the east of Manila.

I had left my hometown in the southern province of Leyte to find a job. We didn’t have a lot of money so I had to stop school to support my parents and two siblings.

And then I met Marvin. He was a construction worker across the street from where I worked. He took my breath away. I got pregnant and had to stop my job as a cook. Marvin brought me to his parents in Bicol, a province in the south. I couldn’t go home because I was afraid to tell my parents I was pregnant. I was only 21.

He had to go back to Manila to earn a living while I stayed with his family in their village. There were more than 10 of us who shared a cramped space. I slept in the living room; all the time my belly was growing.

After I had the baby Marvin and I needed to find our own place. We did not know where to start. We stayed with Marvin’s brother and his family in a slum area in Manila for two months. It was another cramped space. And again we slept in the living room. Sometimes our baby cried and woke up the whole household. It was difficult, not good for anyone.

Finally, we had to move. We found a room for rent in the nearby block. It cost $50 a month. It’s expensive and eats a huge chunk of Marvin’s monthly income of $119. I can’t work yet because I have to take care of our baby, Mark. So this is our home for now.

Interview by Iris Gonzales.

Britain

Amanda Dunn lives in Luton just outside London. The 47-year-old mother of three lost her job at a local airport and was evicted when she couldn’t pay the rent. She’s been in a B&B for the past 6 months with her 13-year-old twin daughters.

Shelter

I lived in a two-bed flat. One of the bedrooms I had to shut off because of the damp. Central heating wasn’t working or the cooker. Eventually I called the council. They served the landlord notice to repair it. At this point I refused to pay the rent – I told him ‘You’ve got to come and fix the heating’ – he refused. So it ended up in court. I got evicted and then we were put here.

I had to apply for housing benefit which took forever. When the woman from the council came she said, ‘There’s an eight to nine year waiting list for council properties here in Luton... Your best option is to start looking further north.’

My daughter Katie is just like a stick. She gets stuffed with takeaways every night but the dietician said it’s not the sort of food she should be having. And there have been a couple of instances at school where Rachel has shouted at teachers. They understand though – it’s not like Rachel at all to lose it.

My own mental and emotional health has got worse. I just cry. All the time. I can’t sleep without sleeping tablets.

We looked at a place by the airport. The man was happy with me being on benefits, the woman called me scum.

I want nothing more than to get a job. I’ve always worked – but you go to these interviews and they look at your address and ask: ‘Why are you in a hotel?’

Original interview provided by Shelter. Edited by Amy Hall.

US

Derek Chartrand Wallace lives in Berkeley, California. He is a 37-year-old, full-time college student surviving on financial aid.

A few semesters ago I experienced serious mental trauma including crippling social anxiety, depression and insomnia. I’d never been through anything like that before and was totally unprepared for the effects on my home life, friendships and studies. I couldn’t afford a therapist which meant I had to struggle on my own. I’ve only recently started to get my life back together.

Nithin Coca

In the interim my marks suffered which meant that the financial aid I rely on was put on hold. I couldn’t afford the room I was renting so I had to put my stuff in storage and start staying with friends and co-workers. That gets old fast so this year I’ve often been on the street, sleeping in abandoned buildings, construction sites, even in empty trucks.

Lately I have been using my storage space as a safe house at night. But it is against the rules so who knows how long I can keep that up? Dodging police is always a thrill a minute and being ‘homeless under cover’ has felt a lot like being a superhero with a secret identity.

Homeless shelters here are on a needs basis so the elderly, disabled, women and children have first priority over able-bodied males like me. I applied for Food Stamps [Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program] but was rejected for being a full-time student on financial aid (even though it is on hold). But there is a lottery for low/no-income dwellings through the County Housing Authority and I’m going to apply for that.

Interview by Nithin Coca.

Mexico

Threatened by gang violence, Osman Rivera, fled his home in Honduras. The 48-year-old father narrowly escaped kidnapping as he travelled north to Mexico.

Tamara Pearson

I’ve been working for 30 years painting cars. But the pandillas (gangs) charge what’s called a ‘war tax’. If you don’t pay, they kill you or your family. I was making only enough to cover costs and pay the tax.

I left on 13 December 2016. I crossed the Guatemala border, then travelled to Mexico. After that I took a combi (van-bus) with six other migrants and two Mexicans. After one of the Mexicans got off, a black combi without number plates began to follow us. It was late and the black combi kept trailing us. I was suspicious.

When our bus stopped to allow the other Mexican to leave, I jumped out too. The road was on the edge of a steep hill and I rolled down. The others were kidnapped [migrants are robbed and held to extort money from their families]. Armed men used lights to look for me. I stayed in a ditch filled with water. I waited six hours, then at midnight made my way to the road. A man on a bike told me the immigration police were near so I went into the forest and kept walking. Eventually I got a lift. I arrived in Mexico City on 30 December.

At the moment I’m staying in the Tochan migrant refuge. I’m sleeping on a mattress on the floor in the common room, because all the rooms are full. My plan is to legalize my stay here and eventually go to Baja California to start a car painting shop. I want to help my family. I have a seven-year-old boy and I want to give him a future.

Interview by Tamara Pearson.

Malaysia’s slide from pseudo-democracy toward authoritarianism

Anti-corruption protesters in Malaysia

Anti-corruption protesters in Kuala Lumpur. Embezzlement and deceit are rife among Malaysia’s ruling elite. © Alexandra Radu

It is the kind of blatant, money-grabbing corruption that should have led to an immediate change in government. Yet not only is the ruling coalition still in power, it is now strengthening its hold, cracking down with unprecedented ferocity on the opposition, the nascent independent press, and civil society.

A year ago, the ‘1MDB scandal’ broke in Malaysia. More than $1 billion had been embezzled from the 1Malaysia Development Berhad fund, including $681 million deposited into Prime Minister Najib Razak’s bank account.

‘You’d think the Prime Minister would have stepped down by now,’ says Colin Rajah, president of Global Bersih, an international NGO calling for clean and fair elections in Malaysia. ‘Any other head of state would have, in shame.’

The story is a complex web of deceit, connecting Malaysia’s ruling elite to Middle Eastern royalty, investment bank Goldman Sachs, and offshore tax havens. At its centre is Prime Minister Najib, who in 2009 became chair of the 1MDB advisory board. Originally set up as a government-run development fund, 1MDB quickly ran up huge debts in dubious business dealings. Despite investigations, the truth about the fund and its missing billions remains unclear.

‘This is just the tip of iceberg,’ Rajah says. ‘What has been uncovered is not all [of it].’

Faux-democracy

Malaysia is a curious post-colonial creation, a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country that has, for the most part, maintained relative harmony. It was one of the infamous Asian Tigers that experienced rapid growth in the 1980s and 1990s. Its supposed stability made it a popular destination for foreign investment and it is often cited as a success story for liberal economic growth in the Global South.

The reality is starker and Malaysia’s democratic credentials are suspect. The ruling United Malays National Organization (UNMO) has been in power since 1957. Until 2008, the coalition that it leads, the Barisan Nasional (BN), maintained a super-majority almost consistently, allowing it to change the Constitution at will. This popularity was partly due to the country’s rich natural resource wealth – primarily oil, but also, later, oil palm – which allowed the government to lavish benefits on the Muslim Malay majority in an official ‘reverse affirmative action’ policy. Elections existed, but they were little more than a rubber stamp, seemingly fair but, in fact, a tool to entrench power in the hands of the BN elite.

According to Rajah, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who was in power for nearly two decades, ‘put in place institutionalized corruption, from the top all the way down, with power concentrated in the Prime Minister’s office’. In 2008, the BN lost its super-majority. In 2013, the coalition lost the popular vote, partly due to the unifying power of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Yet the gerrymandered voting system, in which rural Malays had disproportionate power, meant that the BN still captured a remarkable 59 per cent of the seats. Two years later, Anwar was jailed on trumped-up charges of sodomy, and the loss of his leadership has fractured the opposition.

One thing that did not change after the 2008 and 2013 elections was the ruling coalition’s high level of corruption as it continued to embezzle the country’s natural resource wealth.

Muzzled media

Malaysia’s independent media outlets – MalaysiaKini, The Edge and Sarawak Report – took last year’s 1MDB story that The Wall Street Journal had broken, and ran with it. Civil-society groups that had been pushing for clean and fair elections for years got involved, organizing massive Bersih (‘clean’) rallies not only across Malaysia but around the world. At one point, the government tried to ban the movement’s colour, yellow.

Yet, despite all this, Najib refused to step down. Instead, he began to consolidate power, first within his own party, then by neutering the independent investigation. The official inquiry found that the money in his bank account was ‘a gift’ from the Saudi royal family. Protesters were thrown in jail or had their freedom to travel rescinded.

The government is looking to force independent media to register with the state, the final nail in the coffin for the nascent industry

Pressure was put on media that covered the scandal. Several sites, including The Malaysia Insider and Sarawak Report (which is based in Britain) were blocked, leading to a drop in readership and advertising revenue.

‘When you’re a small outfit, having your ad revenue cut has a major impact,’ says Shannon Teoh, president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Malaysia. ‘Advertisers moved on [when] the brand became toxic. Many companies do not want to be on the bad side of government.’

The Malaysia Insider became financially unviable and closed in March. Sarawak Report continues but is still regularly blocked by the Malaysian authorities. The few open media sites that remain, such as The Edge Weekly or MalaysiaKini, are facing increased financial and oversight pressures.

‘A certain space had been opened through independent online media,’ explains Shawn Crispin, Senior Southeast Asia Representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists. ‘The government is deliberately cracking down on [this media] because it has been leading the way with increased revelations.’

In the coming months, things may get worse. The Sedition Law, a hangover from the British colonial era, is being used more and more to muzzle free speech. The government is also looking to force independent media to register with the state, which could be the final nail in the coffin for the once-aspiring, nascent industry.

Broken image

Malaysia remains a side-story, meriting little global attention. Yet the situation could get a lot worse. Increased corruption; declining commodity prices; and a new generation of Malaysians who don’t want to play by the old rules: these challenges mean that the only path forward for the ruling coalition is blatant, rather than hidden, authoritarianism.

The Sarawak regional elections that took place in May provide a hint of what’s to come. The BN won 72 of 82 seats despite the 1MDB scandal and massive regional corruption. The election was anything but fair: authoritarian tactics included refusing to allow civil-society groups to enter the state, repressing non-state approved journalists and blocking independent media sites.

There has been little outcry globally. Countries such as the US and Britain have chosen to remain close to Najib despite everything that has happened.

‘Malaysia is a clear case of the US downplaying its commitment to democracy, rights and press freedom in pursuit of larger strategic goals – to the point it is embarrassing,’ says Shawn Crispin.

Colin Rajah fears that the lack of attention could lead to increased disenfranchisement within the country, exacerbating racial tensions.

‘The tragedy for the global community is that we’re always too late. It only comes to [our] attention when things are like Libya, Syria – how did it blow up? But it’s been going on for years and years, and I fear Malaysia is getting to that point.’

Nithin Coca is an activist and writer. He splits his time between California and Southeast Asia.

A burning problem

Girls in masks Indonesia

Young girls protect themselves from thick smoke as forest fires swept across Sumatra and Borneo in September 2015. The fires are set to clear the jungle to plant oil palms. © Sijori Images/ZUMA Wire/Alamy

Pekanbaru, in the heart of the biodiverse, tropical island of Sumatra, is one of Indonesia’s richest cities. It is a modern boom town, with paved roads, glitzy shopping malls and thousands of young, mostly male, migrant workers. When I visited last September, the city was unexpectedly dark and gloomy. Across the island, hundreds of fires were raging, blanketing the city in a haze that blocked the sun and forced residents to don air masks. Pollution was at 10 times the acceptable level.

The fires soon engulfed two million hectares as the poisonous cloud spread across Southeast Asia. The economic toll: north of $30 billion, including an estimated half-million respiratory tract infections and 100,000 premature deaths, according to Greenpeace. In addition, the fires spewed out as much greenhouse gas as Brazil produces in a year.1

‘It was very shocking,’ says Teguh Surya, Forest Campaigner with Greenpeace Indonesia. ‘Singapore, Malaysia, southern Thailand and the Philippines were all affected.’

To many experts and activists, the fires were no surprise. Years of rampant deforestation, the draining of wetlands and the expansion of monoculture acacia and palm oil plantations left the landscape scarred, unnaturally dry and ripe for disaster. The trigger came in the form of an unusually strong El Niño, which brought dry conditions to much of the island nation.

But El Niño is not to blame for the fires.

According to Robert Field of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, there is no natural fire cycle in Indonesia. The fires are all caused by people and are ‘completely preventable’.

Draining the peat

The main reason for starting the fires is that they make forested land much more valuable.

‘Fire is a tool,’ notes Herry Purnomo, a researcher at the Centre for International Forestry Research in Bogor. After the trees are burned, ‘people claim the land and it makes them rich’. He estimates that every acre of destroyed forest pumps about $500 in short-term benefits into the local economy. Scale that up to two million hectares and it’s a pile of quick cash.

According to the World Resources Institute, more than 35 per cent of the fires in Sumatra are on pulpwood concessions. Most of the rest are on or near land used by oil palm growers. Lindsey Allen, executive director of the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) says: ‘Most of these fires are a direct result of the industrial manipulation of the landscape for plantation development.’2

Neither oil palm nor acacia grow naturally in Indonesia. Both plants require dry land, so plantation owners drain the peat and clear the forests.

It is the extraordinary capacity of Indonesia’s peatlands to store carbon that makes the fires so dangerous. According to Wetlands International, ‘Indonesian emissions from peat soils due to logging and drainage account for 60 per cent of the total Indonesian CO2 emissions.’3

The red fruits of the palm oil tree which are crushed to release the valuable oil. Indonesia is now the world’s top palm oil exporter.

Roni Bintang/Reuters

When a peat fire starts, it can be nearly impossible to put out. ‘Fire in peatland spreads easily underground and goes widely in many different directions – that’s the problem,’ notes Jatna Supriatna of the Research Centre for Climate Change at the University of Indonesia.

The thick smoke and deadly pollution also spread across the region, especially into neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia. The two countries caused an uproar, despite the fact that both have significant investments in the palm oil and wood pulp industries. According to a study by the Yale MacMillan Center, more than two-thirds of Indonesia’s palm oil production is controlled by Singaporean and Malaysian companies, often through joint ventures with local companies. The major players – Singapore’s Sinar Mas and Wilmar International, and Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur Kepong – have invested billions.

‘Singapore and Malaysia complain, but I don’t see any significant effort from these countries to work with Indonesia to solve the fire problem,’ says Purnomo.

Booming demand

Endemic corruption doesn’t help. During the three-decade Suharto dictatorship, an astounding $35 billion was stolen by the ruling family, and that example shows no sign of fading. Family members and cronies still control some of the country’s biggest businesses.

More than two-thirds of Indonesia’s palm oil production is controlled by Singaporean and Malaysian companies

For example, the Sinar Mas Group is led by Indonesian billionaire Eka Tjipta Widjaja. According to Forbes Asia, satellite imagery confirmed fires across Sinar Mas’ huge palm oil plantations. The company vigorously denied the charge. Other palm oil billionaires include Sukanto Tanoto of Asian Agri; Martua Sitorus, co-founder of the world’s largest palm oil trading company, Wilmar International; and Ciliandra Fangiono, head of First Resources. All claim no knowledge of the cause of the fires.

But the problem reaches beyond Indonesia’s neighbours into the world’s biggest economies. Most of the country’s palm oil is exported. First it was shipped to Europe to make biofuels and as a key ingredient in processed foods. Then the US market exploded due to health concerns about hydrogenated oils. Palm oil was the cheapest alternative. Today, the top importing countries are India and China, where there is a booming demand for cooking oil for a growing middle class.

According to RAN, there are several global brands at the end of the palm oil supply chain. PepsiCo, the Japanese noodle maker Nissin, Kraft and Heinz are just some of the companies that will neither confirm nor deny that palm oil used in their products comes from recently burned, or illegally deforested, land.

‘The majority of companies remain overly complacent with their supply chain,’ stresses Fiona Mulligan, Palm Oil Campaigner with Greenpeace. ‘Companies must work together as a driving force for change – no trader, producer or consumer company can accomplish this by itself. And all are, in some way, complicit in causing Indonesia’s fires.’

RAN Agribusiness Campaign Director Gemma Tillack agrees. ‘As palm oil plantations spread across Indonesia and beyond, rainforests are falling faster than ever and systematic abuse of communities and workers’ rights is rife.’

As the rains finally doused last season’s fires, President Joko Widodo – prompted by the upcoming Paris talks – promised to end planting on peat and announced the creation of a peatland restoration initiative. And it’s said that the new commissioner of the Indonesian Corruption Eradication Commission has a well-known green streak.

Let’s hope that corruption in the forestry sector will be one of his priorities.

Nithin Coca is an activist and writer. He splits his time between California and Southeast Asia.

  1. Carbon Brief, nin.tl/carbon-brief.

  2. The Guardian, nin.tl/guardian-fires.

  3. Wetlands International, nin.tl/peatlands-assessment .

‘The earth in Indonesia is on fire’

Indonesian peat forest

Indonesia's beautiful peat swamp forests are under increased threat from unscrupulous corporations wanting to clear the land to grow cash crops. Department of Foreign Affairs, Australia under a Creative Commons Licence

Some of the most severe fires in human history are burning right now in Indonesia, creating an environmental catastrophe in a region with precious biodiversity, and putting the health of tens of millions of people at risk.

‘The earth in Indonesia is on fire. Companies destroying forests and draining peatland have made Indonesia’s landscape into a huge carbon bomb, and the drought has given it a thousand fuses,’ said Bustar Maitar, Indonesian Forest Project Leader for Greenpeace Southeast Asia.

Scientists now estimate that the fires will produce more CO2 emissions this year than the entire United Kingdom. Many are blaming El Niño, which is bringing dry conditions through much of Southeast Asia, but the truth is that the fires are almost 100% human caused, and directly benefit 2 of the world’s biggest industries – palm oil and pulp/paper.

From green to red

According to local NGOs, before 1997 fires were rare in Riau Province, the heart of palm-oil country today.

‘There is no natural fire there – it is all caused by people,’ said Robert Field, an Associate Research Scientist at Columbia University with expertise in Indonesian fires. ‘Fire is completely preventable.’

There’s a reason palm does not grow naturally in Indonesia. Much of Sumatra and Kalimantan are peatlands, naturally wet and swampy. Before palm arrived in Sumatra, brought as a cash crop by the Dutch, local people never planted on peat, living instead alongside rivers and on higher ground. Because palm requires dry land to grow, palm-oil plantation owners drained the peat, leaving the land in an unnaturally dry state. This dry state is a tinder box for fires.

Here’s the problem – Indonesia’s peatlands contain some of the densest carbon stock in the world. Peat forms a critical component of the natural carbon sink in Southeast Asian forests, regulating climate globally. Much like what we saw in 1991, when Saddam Hussein lit up oilfields in Kuwait which then burned for months, when a peat fires starts, it can be nearly impossible to put out.

Fire is a chief tool for clearing land to turn into corporate plantations, or for palm oil that often ends up in corporate supply chains

As Robert Field explained, ‘Water table levels [have begun] to drop and peat will begin to dry out... under these conditions there just can’t be any burning on peat.’

Palm-oil demand came from abroad. Initially, it was Europe in the early 2000s, where demand for biofuels as an alternative to gasoline expanded the market for Indonesian palm. Later, demand came from the US, where palm was seen as a quick, cheap replacement for hydrogenated oils, which were being slowly banned across the country. More recently, the driver is the growing demand for cooking oils in fast-growing China and India. Global companies that use palm oil that is likely sourced from deforestation include PepsiCo, General Mills and Kraft, as named by the US-based Rainforest Action Network.

This is global, multibillion-dollar business, run by giant companies. On the ground, fire is a chief tool for clearing land to turn into corporate plantations, or for palm oil that often ends up in corporate supply chains.

‘We must recognize that fire is mostly caused by people,’ said Herry Purmono, scientist of forest governance at the Indonesia-based Center for International Forestry Research, and a Professor at Bogor Agricultural University. ‘Primarily, to transform land from forest to oil palm.’

Fires are probably the worst way to clear forest. But they are the cheapest, and they serve another function – a de-facto land grab. Pristine forests are difficult to convert into palm oil or pulp plantations. But recently burned forests? That’s another story.

Indonesia knew months beforehand that this would be an especially bad year for fires. Warning bells were sounded as early as March, when it became clear that we were in line for an especially strong El Niño.

‘I’m afraid that many will enjoy El Niño – because after burning they can claim the land, and then plant with acacia or palm,’ said Herry Purmono.

Despite this, efforts to take common-sense steps to mitigate fire risk – such as opening up canals that were draining peatland and strictly enforcing anti-burning bans – didn’t happen, as attested by the current massive fires spreading haze as far as Phuket, Thailand.

The victims are, not surprisingly, the poor, and locals. Pollution levels in Pekanbaru, the capital of Riau, make Beijing seem like a clean-air paradise. They hit 480 API (air pollution index) earlier this month, more than 10 times the acceptable level. The particulates being breathed by millions in Indonesia, and in neighbouring countries, could cause detrimental health effects with costs estimated in the billions by Greenpeace Southeast Asia. Already nearly 11,000 people die from pollution in Indonesia each year, much of it caused by fires. That number will likely rise.

Solutions

Much needs to be done, especially in Indonesia, to hold accountable those responsible for the fires. There were signs that the country’s new president, Joko Widodo, was taking the fires more seriously than his predecessors when he took the unprecedented step of arresting several palm-oil executives who had fires raging on their concessions.

‘The government seems to be finally beginning to move. The problems have just got so bad,’ Bill Laurance from James Cook University in Townsville, Australia, told New Scientist in an interview.

‘The actions of the Indonesian government focus mostly on fighting fire, not the underlying causes – poverty, conflict and large companies’

But this is not just an Indonesian problem. It is a global problem, connected by supply chains and transnational corporations. Any effort to stem the fires needs a stronger push for truly sustainable supply chains and accountability on the demand side as well, beyond the headline-making but ineffective zero-deforestation pledges.

‘Unilateral no-deforestation policies are not working. Companies must eliminate the economic incentive to trash forests with an industry-wide ban on trade with anyone that clears forests,’ according to Bustar Maitar.

Singapore, which as the country closest to Indonesia faces dangerous haze levels, has begun removing from its grocery stores products from companies connected to the fires. If more countries did the same, this could have a powerful effect of forcing companies to think twice before letting fires encroach on their land, or from purchasing palm oil or pulp from those companies.

Another key is restoring the ecosystem and returning Indonesia’s tropical forests to a healthy state, as they were before 1997 when fires did not occur annually. Furthermore, there needs to be a greater recognition that stopping fires is more than firefighting, but a larger social and economic problem.

‘We recognize that fire is mostly due to social politics rather than biophysical causes,’ said Herry Purmono, ‘but that the actions of the [Indonesian] government focus mostly on fighting fire, not the underlying causes – poverty, conflict and large companies.’

That means changing how we think about disasters. Billions are pouring into firefighting right now, but a lot less money is spent on ecosystem restoration and forest preservation, which could have prevented the disaster. According to Andrew Schroeder of Relief Web, which works extensively in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, this is part of a larger problem whereby development money goes to disaster recovery rather than prevention. He says that USAID spend 30 times as much on disaster relief as it does on disaster preparedness: ‘This is a longstanding issue in the industry – it is a lot harder to raise funds for things that are ongoing than for things that haven’t happened yet.’

It remains to be seen whether the tragedy taking place across Southeast Asia translates into concrete action to transform the economic incentives that drive forest fires. Until then, Indonesia will keep on burning.

The failed politics of appeasing China

20.07.15-tibet-590x393.jpg

SFT HQ under a Creative Commons Licence

Last week, news broke that one of Tibet’s most revered Buddhist monks and fierce activists had died, following 13 years of ill-treatment and torture in a Chinese prison. He had been refused medical care despite calls from his family and international NGOs.

This is the reality in modern China today. The tragic death of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche shows very clearly the choice at stake when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) meets in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia at the end of this month to choose the host of the 2022 Games. Amazingly, despite everything that has happened since they last hosted the Olympics in 2008, Beijing is the leading candidate.

Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was jailed for life in 2002 on what were almost certainly trumped-up, falsified charges, ironically just one year after the IOC awarded the 2008 Summer Games to Beijing. The reasoning then was simple – awarding the games would push China to further open up and respect human rights and freedoms.

The country had been making remarkable progress, albeit measured against the horrific atrocities of the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s and the Great Leap Forward of the 1960s. Against that backdrop, was there really any way to go but up?

This, of course, is a theory favoured by many in international affairs, and institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Liberalized economies lead to liberalized governments. The short-term suffering of people like Tenzin Delek Rinpoche and countless other Tibetans is just a ‘necessary cost’ of the vast equation of liberalism, in which, somehow, all of us will be better off.

It was the same logic that led to China’s entry to the WTO in 2001, alongside the granting of most-favoured nation trade status from the United States that same year and, more recently, the easing of visa restrictions for Chinese travellers and their big wallets into Europe.

Of course, you won’t find any Tibetans or Uighurs among those travellers, as China’s two-tiered system makes it nearly impossible for ‘unsavoury’ minorities to get a passport to leave the country. Another cost of liberalism.

Still, it hasn’t really worked, this liberalization. China hasn’t become more open. What is happening is the opposite: the country’s growing economic power has enabled it to continue exploiting the Tibetan people and pursue its other geopolitical ambitions (South China Sea, anyone?).

While the economists and academics were waiting for China’s booming economy to result in more political freedoms, those paying attention to Tibet, East Turkistan or Inner Mongolia saw an increased migration of Han Chinese into those areas, where they have quickly become the majority; growing restrictions on local language and culture; more surveillance in monasteries and local institutions; and less willingness by the Communist government to engage with activists or leaders (including the increasingly shunned Dalai Lama, who is finding fewer and fewer allies willing to offer the Nobel Peace Laureate a visa, for fear of upsetting China).

Then came the 2008 Olympic Games. Before them, ignorance may have been an acceptable excuse – but afterwards, certainly not.

In early 2008, months before the Games were to begin, Tibetans, knowing that the world was watching, began protesting against the Chinese occupation in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, protests which then spread across the country. These made headlines around the world, followed by thousands gathering to protest against the Olympic Torch rallies in Argentina, Britain, France, the US, India and South Korea.

What came next was the clearest example of the reality in China, and the failure of global institutions to address it: Tibet saw a massive state crackdown, followed by the region being closed off to the outside world.

Here it was. The proof that China wouldn’t respect human rights, even with the Olympics around the corner. That summer, despite the protests, the world turned a blind eye to Tibet, as not a single country boycotted the games.

This only made things worse, as China took global inaction as a green light that it wouldn’t be held responsible for its actions. Today, 7 years after the Games, Tibet remains closed to foreigners. According to research undertaken at the University of Colorado, there are now fewer foreign journalists in Tibet than there are in North Korea.

Surveillance at monasteries has increased, roadblocks make travel for Tibetans nearly impossible and many of those jailed in 2008 have remained in prison, ignored, like Tenzin Delek Rinpoche.

Tibetans have now taken to self-immolations as a form of resistance, with an estimated 165 having burned themselves in protest since 2008.

China’s response, according to Free Tibet, is a deeper level of surveillance and control, including the use of collective punishment, in which an entire village or family is punished for the actions of a single individual, including self-immolators.

Do we really need any more evidence that economic liberalization is not working in China? Just imagine what awarding Beijing the 2022 Olympic Games to the country will mean.

It is not only Tibetans who are suffering under Chinese control. Last year, Uighur academic Ilham Tohti was arrested and remains in custody. Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner, has not been seen in public since receiving his award.

Just this past week, a round-up of human rights lawyers and activists left over 80 imprisoned. The trend is clear – Premier Xi Jingping is reigning over what many see as the most repressive period in China since Mae Zedong’s death in 1976.

It is time for another method. One where it is not trade that comes first, but the rights of people like Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, Ilham Tohti, Lui Xiabo and countless others, human beings suffering under a regime that cares more about money than its own citizens’ rights.

Let’s be willing to revoke favoured trade status and WTO membership, and implement visa restrictions based on how a country treats its minorities. And finally, let’s not award the Olympics to a country that has shown itself incapable of keepings its promises.

Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was in jail for 13 years. Was his suffering, and that of his people, a necessary cost towards global development? I refuse to believe so, especially as the situation in many parts of China is getting worse and worse.

The first step will be the IOC showing at the end of this month that it has learned its lesson, by denying China the 2022 Games, for the explicit reason of its inadequate human rights record. Let’s put people before money. That would be the best way for us to honour Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, because, sadly, the world has failed him and his people for long enough.

Indonesia at a crossroads

KPK supporters protest

ivanatman under a Creative Commons Licence

‘KPK, as an institution, is the only one which still holds the public’s trust’

It is, quite possibly, the biggest political battle in Indonesia’s young democratic history.

On one side, the Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi (KPK), or Anti-Corruption Commission, which enjoys the backing of the Indonesian people; on the other, the National Police, cited as one of the most corrupt institutions in surveys carried out by Transparency International, seemingly bent on undermining the KPK’s autonomy.

The first punch was thrown earlier this year when the KPK named police chief nominee Budi Gunawan as a bribery suspect, leading the police to retaliate by arresting and charging two KPK commissioners with what many see as trumped-up, falsified charges.

What happens next could determine the future of Indonesia’s critically important fight against corruption, as well as seriously impact the democratic and economic future of all of Southeast Asia.

The rise (and fall?) of the KPK

In 2000, Indonesia was facing a crisis. With an economy in shambles and a new democracy, there were many fears that the political legacy of the three-decade-long Suharto dictatorship – namely, cronyism and corruption – could damage the country’s future.

Back then, Transparency International ranked Indonesia near the bottom of its annual corruption report, with a score of 1.9 (100 pointing to very low corruption in public institutions). Indonesia’s score showed that there was rampant corruption at nearly every level of government.

Donors, including the World Bank, and civil society pushed the Indonesian government to create a strong entity to fight corruption. That’s how the KPK was born in 2002, embarking on its mission with a zeal unseen in Indonesian politics for decades.

Its record has been outstanding so far – 86 cases tried, 86 convictions, a 100-per-cent rate that acts as the gold standard for anti-corruption agencies.

‘The KPK is clearly seen as one of the strongest anti-corruption institutions in the world, and shows recognition that this is a serious problem worth tackling,’ said Samantha Grant, Regional Co-ordinator for Southeast Asia at Transparency International.

‘If the police win, we will find the corrupt acting with impunity’

One of the watershed moments took place in 2009, when the KPK named Aulia Pohan as a suspect and proceeded to try him. Pohan was a relative of then-President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for embezzling 100 billion IDR ($7.7 million) from the Indonesian Banking Development Foundation.

The mere fact that the KPK would try a family member of the president, something unheard of in the Suharto era, went a long way in winning the hearts of many Indonesians.

‘KPK, as an institution, is the only one which still holds the public’s trust,’ said Natalia Soebagjo, Executive Director of the University of Indonesia’s Centre for the Study of Governance, adding that ‘the police and the judiciary are acknowledged as the most corrupt institutions in the country.’

The police have emerged as the old guard’s strongest ally and thus the KPK’s chief enemy. This should come as no surprise – fighting a government rife with corruption is no way to make friends. This is the third time the police have tried directly to attack and weaken the KPK. In the past, presidential intervention has saved it. This time, however, the police might finally succeed.

As of now, the KPK’s case against Gunawan has been withdrawn, but the two arrested commissioners are still facing charges, and have been replaced with ‘interim’ members that many in Indonesia’s civil society fear are Trojan horses who will destroy the KPK from within. There is no signal that the country’s new president, Joko Widodo, will intervene.

Regional impacts

This is a big year for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the EU-like apparatus that brings together the diverse countries of Southeast Asia. Indonesia is its largest member, and it is seen as a model for the region, having shifted from a dictatorship to a multiparty democracy in less than two decades.

The KPK is a big part of that success, and many cite it as a reason that Indonesia’s democracy has proven so resilient. The implications of a weakened KPK and the abandonment of the country’s fight against corruption are huge.

The reverberations will affect not only public trust, but Indonesia’s global image and ability to attract international investment. In fact, international investors are increasingly concerned about corruption, closely monitoring the situation in Indonesia.

‘KPK, as an institution, is the only one which still holds the public’s trust’

‘Corruption is becoming more and more of an issue for companies, which are always looking to reduce their risk,’ said Grant, adding that if the KPK is weakened, she expects that Indonesia’s incoming foreign direct investment will suffer as a consequence. Moreover, with the coming of ASEAN integration, it may be not just Indonesia, but the whole region that will be impacted.

‘More and more companies are looking at ASEAN as one economic block... What one country does with regards to corruption will affect the entire region more,’ explained Grant.

There are wider concerns for governance, too. Southeast Asia is a region with few democracies and little free press and, apart from Singapore, it has widespread, high levels of entrenched corruption. Countries like the Philippines, with its floundering, weak anti-corruption ombudsman, have looked at Indonesia as a model for improving their own anti-corruption fights, but may now find that this model is broken.

Another country affected by Indonesia’s internal strifes may be Burma, which enjoys close ties with Indonesia, whom it sees as a guide for a possible transition from military dictatorship to an open, multi-ethnic democracy. At the moment, Burma is in the process of drafting its own anti-corruption legislation, and there were hopes that it could replicate its own version of the KPK ahead of critical elections later this year. That is now in jeopardy.

Recommitting to the fight

During the reign of General Suharto from 1967 to 1998, corruption was a way of life for many government officials. Even today, corruption remains a daily concern for many Indonesians, who report regularly paying bribes to police and local officials. The KPK is just one institution, with a relatively narrow focus on high-level government officials. Though it has made an impact and brought the anti-corruption fight to the mainstream, the fight is only just beginning.

‘There is still a high level of entrenched corruption in Indonesia’s key institutions,’ said Grant. The blame for the continued menace lies not with the KPK, which only has a limited mandate, but in the fact that the country has not implemented effective KPK-style institutions at regional and local levels.

Thus, what Indonesia needs is not a weaker KPK, but a strong, national recommitment to the anti-corruption fight which began in 2002, but remains crucial to the country’s future today. Only then can the its democratic potential be reached.

The alternative is dire, according to Natalia. ‘If the police win, we will find the corrupt acting with impunity, our natural resources plundered and our economy weakened due to the lack of trust in the law enforcement agencies,’ she said.

Indonesia’s death penalty crisis

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Indonesia's president, Joko Widodo, was expected to take a stand for human rights, not act against them. NHD-INFO under a Creative Commons Licence

What a difference a few months make. Last year, during the election season, Indonesian politicians from several parties went to Kota Baru, Malaysia, to intervene in the case of a trafficked, underage, mentally ill Indonesian, Wilfreda, who was facing the death penalty in a Malaysian court.

Today, it is the world that is campaigning against Indonesia’s new administration, led by President Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, and the use of the death penalty against foreign citizens in the fight against drug trafficking.

The crisis, which has been dominating media coverage in Southeast Asia and Australia, clearly demonstrates the world’s double standards when it comes to the death penalty, proving how certain victims are more worthy of saving than others. The only solution: a global push to end the use of this prejudiced, ineffective state tool.

Injustice wins

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and a whole host of civil-society organizations believe that the death penalty is discriminatory, prone to misuse by skewed justice systems and does nothing to deter crime.

According to Amnesty, you are more likely to be sentenced to death if you are poor or belong to a racial, ethnic or religious minority, because of discrimination in the justice system. Moreover, poor and marginalized groups have less access to the legal resources needed to defend themselves.

‘We oppose the death penalty as a matter of principle,’ said Andreas Harsono, Indonesia Researcher with HRW. ‘The right to live is a human right, and no-one has the right to take a life from anyone else, including the state.’ HRW also strongly believes the death penalty will do nothing to prevent or stop drugs from entering countries like Indonesia.

The use of the death penalty against foreign citizens – who often face even greater boundaries to justice than locals – is a little-discussed, important subset of the problem. Imagine being abroad in a country with a completely foreign legal system and language, and having to defend yourself, often without any support. You are suddenly in the minority and the vulnerabilities you’re already faced with are multiplied by the existence of the death penalty.

That being said, this does not necessarily apply to Australians like Myuran Sukumaran or Andrew Chan, or other citizens of Western countries who, thankfully, receive ample support from their home country’s government.

It does, however, apply to Indonesians abroad, and there are many of them. Migrant Care, an Indonesian NGO that fights for the rights of Indonesian migrant workers, estimates that an astounding 360 Indonesian citizens are facing the death penalty in countries around the world right now.

‘In Saudi Arabia there are 48 [on death row], in Qatar 1, in China 22 and in Malaysia 288,’ said Anis Hidayah, Migrant Care’s Executive Director.

This is a major problem. Let’s look at Malaysia – a country that, despite its middle-income status, is ranked near the bottom in indexes on human trafficking and freedom of press, and which recently jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on trumped-up charges of sodomy, in what was a politically motivated trial.

Widodo's insistence on using the death penalty seems more of an effort to exert national power in the face of foreign countries

There are six Malaysians on Death Row in Indonesia, and Malaysia – which also heavily punishes drug traffickers – supports Indonesia’s use of the death penalty. I imagine that one reason for this is that this will give them more leeway to use the death penalty freely against those 288 imprisoned Indonesians.

You have probably not heard about the efforts the Indonesian government made to save Wilfrida, or Satinah. The latter is an Indonesian worker who killed her Saudi Arabian employer for allegedly abusing her, and who was sentenced to death in the Middle Eastern country.

They were cases just as dramatic of those of the Bali Nine, but, as they featured Indonesian citizens, they did not get much coverage in the global press. In fact, this was part of a multiyear effort by civil society to force the government to better care for its 6.5-million-plus migrant-worker population.

‘After the beheading of maid Ruyati binti Sapubi [in Saudi Arabia] in June 2011, the Indonesian government formed task forces to protect Indonesian migrant workers facing the death penalty. Before 2011, the Indonesian government did not provide comprehensive legal aid,’ said Hidayah.

The fear is that the recent and pending executions may damage the years of work organizations have put in to protect migrants from Death Row.

‘The executions would seriously undermine Indonesia’s credibility to speak out about human rights at the regional and global level, including saving the lives of Indonesians on Death Row elsewhere,’ said Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s Southeast Asia Research Director.

An outdated tool

Something missing in the mainstream media is that Indonesia is no China, nor is it even a United States. It rarely uses the death penalty. After the fall of President Suharto in 1998, the end of a three-decade-era that saw government-sponsored killings, purges and even genocidal rampages, the country took a big step away from state-led executions, with none taking place between 2008 and 2012.

It was a positive step in the right direction for a country that was surprising many with its vibrant democracy, and a way to restore civil peace throughout most (but not all) of the country.

Moreover, Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s current president, was expected to be different. He is the first president in Indonesia’s history not connected to the old power order. A former furniture salesman, he had risen to power by fighting corruption and ‘getting things done’.

At the same time, in his former position as governor of Jakarta, he had never had to face issues of human rights, justice or national security.

Civic society was hopeful that his human rights record would be strong (or, at least, better than his opponent’s, Prabowo Subianto, a Suharto crony who allegedly took part in the army massacres in Timor Leste). Thus, to nearly everyone, his strong, pro-death penalty position has come out of nowhere.

To understand why Indonesia is insisting on using the death penalty, we need to examine another factor that is often prevalent in emerging democracies: nationalism. President Jokowi wants to build a stronger, more prosperous and globally more important Indonesia, and is following the path of his political party’s founder, President Sukarno, a leader of the non-aligned movement.

Thus, his insistence on using the death penalty seems more of an effort to exert national power in the face of foreign countries, than a genuine belief that it will help the country’s fight against drug trafficking.

According to Amnesty, you are more likely to be sentenced to death if you are poor or belong to a racial, ethnic or religious minority

The international pressure is just pushing him further into a corner. Now his choices are – grant clemency and make Indonesia look weak, or execute and make Indonesia look strong. No wonder he is pushing forward.

Remember Wilfrida? Her case was not in vain – pressure from Indonesia, along with legal assistance, forced a Malaysian court to throw out her case. It was a victory for human rights advocated everywhere.

Unfortunately, she was just one of hundreds of Indonesians on Death Row abroad. You can bet that there will be another situation like Wilfrida’s soon, when Indonesia, perhaps led by President Jokowi, will want to pressure a foreign country to save an Indonesian from execution.

But after Jokowi’s use of executions against drug traffickers, will anyone listen? The more people Indonesia executes, the more difficult it will be to take action to protect workers abroad from Death Row.

Let’s give Indonesia another option. Ask them to not execute Sukumaran, Chan and any other drug traffickers, and, in return, the global community will pledge to fight for the 360 Indonesians on Death Row abroad.

This would be an out for President Jokowi. He can preserve his country’s integrity and show its strength, all the while being able to save its citizens abroad. And, for the world, it would point to a big step in the right direction, towards a world free of the injustice of the death penalty.

Nithin Coca is a freelance writer focusing on human rights and environmental issues in Asia. Find him on Twitter @excinit.

2014: A historic year for social movements in Asia

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Hong Kong during the Umbrella Revolution, October 2014. Pasu Au Yeung under a Creative Commons Licence

You probably heard about what happened in Hong Kong in September, where Occupy protesters took over some of the city-state’s busiest streets, calling for the right to vote freely and fairly.

But do you know about the Sunflower Protests, which took place in Taiwan in March, when protesters, most of whom were young, stormed past police barricades and occupied the Taiwanese Parliament, opposing a trade deal with China that they believed would erode the island-state’s independent political identity?

Or about the hunger strikes of family members of the victims of the Sewol Ferry disaster in Seoul, South Korea?

Add in the pro-election movement in Indonesia, and the red-shirt/yellow-shirt protests in Thailand, and you have a region showing signs of impending massive social change.

It makes sense – in a region where economic growth hasn’t meant an increase in democracy, where free press is incredibly limited and corruption remains high, frustration has turned 2014 into a historic year for social movements.

Does this foreshadow the long-awaited political maturation of East and Southeast Asia’s citizens, who are finally calling for a greater say in their political and social future?

On the surface, each movement looks focused on specific challenges in the region; but dig a little deeper and commonalities are everywhere. Occupy’s goal is for Hong Kong to gain its long-promised democracy, but the triggers for the resentment can be found in living costs, limited infrastructure and rising inequality, the same challenges facing Indonesia and Thailand.

In Seoul, at first glance, it seems that protesters in the city centre want justice for the hundreds of victims of Sewol. But read the pamphlets and the main demand – an independent investigation into what they see as deeply ingrained corruption and collusion connecting the ferry company, the police and politicians, perhaps even the president – has implications far broader than a simple judicial case.

‘In all cases, protesters are calling for accountability and greater transparency in the political and economic realms,’ says Asia expert Matteo Fumagalli, Head of the Department of International Relations at Central European University.

Even Asia’s darkest corners are showing sparks of discontent. In Chinese-occupied Tibet, which has been under de facto martial law for years, and which remains a no-man’s land for foreign journalists and NGOs, there has a been a spurt of horrific self-immolations, cited by experts as a reaction to massive public anger at Chinese oppression, combined with the absence of public space for a safe civic discourse.

Nearby, in occupied East Turkestan (in Chinese, Xinjiang) the shift has sadly turned violent, with the deadly knife attack by Uighur militants in Kunming, Yunnan the most noteworthy example. The attack was followed by mass public convictions in Urumqi. in the latest of what is becoming an even more vicious cycle of violence and repression.

China’s shadow looms large not just within its borders, but abroad as well. The authoritarian superpower, accused of propping up dictatorial regimes across the world, has been a focal point for protests not only in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but also in South Korea.

There, protesters have cited the recently announced free-trade deal with China as an example of President Park Geun-hye’s incessant, possibly corrupt, collusion with business, as well as her disregard for regular Koreans’ interests, especially those of farmers.

In Thailand, where the coup in May created a new, military-led, unconstitutional government which subsequently took steps to curb public debate, media freedom and citizen power, the new military leaders met with officials from China, one of the few countries not to denounce the blatantly anti-democratic steps taken by the Thai élite.

What does this all mean? Asia is the world’s most populous continent, and the vast geographic, cultural and economic differences between countries such as OECD-members South Korea and Japan, still-developing Indonesia and Thailand and occupied Tibet and East Turkestan, make comparisons challenging and co-ordination nearly impossible.

'The window of political opportunity, already narrow, is closing down' - Matteo Fumagalli

And therein lies the problem. Protests can take place in Hong Kong partly due to the city-state’s special status, which allows for an enlarged civic space that fellow ‘Chinese’ citizens in Tibet and East Turkestan, not to mention Beijing, can only dream of.

Remember, it was only 25 years ago that China had its own youth uprising, when students took to the streets across the country and, most famously, gathered in Tiananmen Square. But ask students at Occupy Central if they believe their movement will spread to the mainland and the answer is: ‘China will never allow it.’ On a recent trip to Chengdu, also a hotspot in 1989, I noticed police buses at all of the city’s main gathering spots, a recent phenomenon related both to Occupy and to the turmoil in East Turkestan.

‘Politics is local in China,’ says Fumagalli. ‘This, incidentally, plays to the advantage of the Chinese Communist Party, which can feel confidently in power as long as horizontal mobilization – many protests scattered across the country – do not morph into a vertical one, connecting the spots into one large movement against the party.’

This is because the movements have a strange relationship with each other. Taiwan fears it will become like Hong Kong, while Hong Kong fears it will become like occupied Tibet. But the movements in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and those facing repression in Tibet, are not co-ordinating against the common culprit, China, which is responsible for the tension in each particular region. Hong Kong cannot win unless China changes, which means it cannot win until Tibet is free.

As for the other social uprising movements in Southeast Asia? Few Occupy protesters knew what was happening in South Korea, Thailand, or Indonesia, so co-ordination seems out of the question.

In the end, this may be the movement’s downfall – the lack of international solidarity throughout the region. ‘I do not think that the outcome [of Occupy] will have a larger impact, mostly because I fear that the outcome is there already: China will not budge. The window of political opportunity, already narrow, is closing down,’ continues Fumagalli.

Nevertheless, this is only the start. Asia’s 2014 Spring was focused not on building revolutions to sweep aside old powers, but to bring concrete changes to a society and increase citizens’ ability to have a say in their society. Change rarely happens in a year, and a greater role of youth and technology could bridge the gaps between the movement’s goals and its current capacity.

‘Young people throughout Asia have access to new ideas through the internet and more readily share information on a global scale through social media,’ says Peter Manikas, senior associate and director of Asia programmes for the Washington DC-based New Democratic Institute.

‘Changing demographics, such as the “youth bulge”, will have a large impact on Asia and programmes that engage young people in the political process will be essential in the years ahead.’

An Asia that is more responsive to its citizens is undoubtedly good for the world, which will be watching closely to see if an enlarged, active, civic sphere emerges, or if Thai-style repression becomes the norm.

Whatever happens, the impact will be felt around the world. If this is Asia’s century, then watch the protests closely, because whether they succeed or fail will show what type of Asia will lead the world in the decades to come.

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