Southeast Asia

Dateline Southeast Asia – January 12 to 18, 2021

DEVELOPING / UPDATED
Dateline Southeast Asia – January 12 to 18, 2021

REUTERS/Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

The crash of Sriwijaya Air Flight SJ 182 on Saturday, January 9, with 62 people on board, compounds the list of mishaps Indonesia is facing in a period of pandemic. The archipelago, the most populous in Southeast Asia, also owns the ignominy of being the country with most COVID-19 fatalities

In other countries in the region, the race is on to acquire coronavirus vaccines and fast-track vaccination programs.

Bookmark and refresh this page for updates and analyses of the latest news in Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

LATEST UPDATES

Quake in Indonesia’s Sulawesi kills at least 10, injures hundreds

INDONESIA: “Strong” aftershocks possible after quake in Sulawesi

Strong aftershocks could follow a magnitude 6.2 earthquake that struck Indonesia’s Sulawesi island early on Friday, January 15, the chief of Indonesia’s Meteorology and Geophysics agency (BMKG) said.

Dwikorita Karnawati told a news conference there had been at least 26 aftershocks after two strong quakes had rocked the area since Thursday afternoon.

At last 7 people have been killed, more than 600 injured and thousands displaced from the series of earthquakes in the past 24 hours.

INDONESIA: Authorities spot Chinese research vessel in its waters, tracker off

A Chinese research vessel has been identified in the waters of Indonesia with its tracking system turned off, authorities said on Thursday, January 14, amid concerns in the region about Beijing’s maritime conduct.

Colonel Wisnu Pramandita, spokesman of Indonesia’s maritime security agency, known as Bakamla, in a statement said authorities suspected the vessel was conducting unauthorized activities in the Sunda Strait after its automatic identification system (AIS) had been switched off 3 times.

The Xiang Yang Hong 03 exited Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone late on Wednesday, January 13.

Indonesian security officials have closely watched activities of Chinese vessels around the archipelago, amid wider tensions in the region and concern about Beijing’s militarization and the conduct of its coastguard and fishing fleet.

The incident follows the recent discovery of an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) by a local fisherman off Indonesia’s Sulawesi island last month, sparking concern about a potential security breach.

Analysts said the AUV may have been made in China. The navy is still investigating its origins.

It was not immediately clear if there was a connection between the research vessel and the AUV, Bakamla’s spokesman told Reuters.

The Xiang Yang Hong 03 during radio communication told Indonesia authorities its AIS had malfunctioned, Bakamla said.

The vessel was spotted during operations to recover the Sriwijaya Air jet that crashed into the Java Sea on Saturday, January 9, with 62 people on board.

The Chinese embassy in Jakarta was not immediately available for comment on the vessel, while a spokesman for Indonesia’s foreign ministry said he was not aware of permission being granted for any maritime research activities.

The Indonesian archipelago straddles strategically important sea lanes used for trade, with its waters also home to rich fishing grounds and important energy reserves.

Reuters

INDONESIA: Gov’t may allow private sector to buy and distribute vaccines

Indonesia may allow companies to procure their own COVID-19 vaccines, the country’s health minister said on Thursday, January 14, as an influential business chamber called for members to be able to inoculate staff or sell vaccines to the public.

The Southeast Asian country launched a mass immunization campaign targeting more than 180 million people this week to help tackle one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in Asia.

Medical and security personnel are first in line for the vaccine, but Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin told parliament companies may be allowed to procure and vaccinate their staff and thereby reduce the burden on the state.

“It shouldn’t start now, but later after the government has provided mandatory vaccines for health and public workers,” he said, noting no final decision had been made and that authorities wanted to avoid being seen as prioritizing the rich.

Indonesia currently buys and distributes vaccines for free at an estimated cost of about $5.3 billion.

The head of Indonesia’s business chamber told Reuters it had requested that some companies be allowed to import approved vaccines or buy government supplies to immunize staff or for sale.

“It’s like going to the Disneyland…if you want to go faster, there’s a priority pass, but you must pay more,” Rosan Roeslani said, adding businesses had already established links with vaccine producers such as Russia’s Sputnik V as well as others approved by the World Health Organization.

He denied it was a privilege for the rich since the cost per injection could be below the current price for a private COVID-19 swab test.

Jahja Setiaatmadja, chief executive of one of Indonesia’s biggest lenders, Bank Central Asia, said if the plan was approved the bank would like to procure vaccines for staff.

Marsha Dyas, a 30-year-old Jakarta resident, also welcomed the idea being able to buy a specific vaccine from a provider.

But Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch, warned a “private vaccination program will create the risk that the poorest and most vulnerable in the outer islands will be trampled in the stampede for vaccines.” ($1 = 14,050.0000 rupiah)

Reuters

THAILAND: Big brands, small firms offer pandemic aid to migrant workers

Global brands and small firms are providing aid to migrant workers in Thailand after a jump in coronavirus cases, a move backed by activist groups on Thursday, January 14, who urged businesses to help pay for testing and access healthcare.

In Samut Sakhon, a province south of Bangkok where an outbreak began at a shrimp market late last year, seafood companies are providing assistance to migrant workers – mostly from Myanmar – who are a major source of labor for the industry in the area.

Companies that have donated food and drinks in Samut Sakhon included Charoen Pokphand Foods (CPF), Thailand’s largest agriculture business, Thai Union Group, the world’s biggest producer of tuna, and drinks giant Osotspa.

Kimberly Rogovin, a coordinator for Global Labor Justice – International Labor Rights Forum, a workers’ rights organization, welcomed the aid but said more needed to be done to address the current crisis and prevent future disasters.

“While it is positive to see big brands giving aid and food to migrant workers, the private sector must also ensure workers are paid decent wages, have access to healthcare, and do not bear the burden of paying for COVID-19 tests or new registration requirements,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Thailand is dealing with its worst coronavirus outbreak, with more than 200 new infections each day, raising the total so far to more than 11,000 cases, including 69 deaths.

The current crisis has left many migrant workers unable to find jobs and struggling to survive in Samut Sakhon, which has an estimated 400,000 migrant workers according to activists, and has been under lockdown since last month.

Migrant worker charities say they have received complaints from workers who had been asked by employers to obtain medical certificates showing negative COVID-19 test results – which can be expensive – in order to return to their jobs.

“We are well aware of the hardships that Thai and migrant people are facing…and have offered a helping hand to Myanmar people (by providing them with food),” CPF chief executive Prasit Boondoungprasert said in a statement.

Thailand’s second-largest mobile operator True Corporation has donated mobile phone SIM cards to provide internet access, while rival operator Total Access Communication has bolstered its network near migrant worker housing in Samut Sakhon.

The Raks Thai Foundation, a legal aid charity that has an office in Samut Sakhon, said it had received donations from 3 local companies since December.

Global brands such as food and drink giant PepsiCo, chocolate maker Mars and consumer goods company Colgate-Palmolive also provided support last year, it added.

“At the end of the day, migrant workers help support the Thai economy and they should be given equal rights,” said Phumjai Krisintu, director of resources development at the foundation. – Thomson Reuters Foundation

Reuters

INDONESIA: Health workers urge public to get vaccinated at campaign launch

Health workers at a clinic in Jakarta on Thursday, January 14, urged Indonesians to get vaccinated as a nationwide rollout of a COVID-19 inoculation program started in the world’s fourth most populous country.

Indonesia faces one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in Asia and in recent days has reported a record case load, with total infections now at 869,000 and deaths topping 25,000.

President Joko Widodo on Wednesday, January 13, received a first vaccine shot supplied by China’s Sinovac Bitoech to kick off a drive to inoculate two-thirds of the country’s 270 million population.

“It’s better to be vaccinated because it can help us, the health workers,” said Tri Ardhyanti, a pharmacist at the Cilandak Public Health Centre in Jakarta, where more than 60 health workers were inoculated on day one.

Scepticism over vaccines is an additional challenge for Indonesia in its plan to inoculate more than 180 million people over the next 15 months.

A December poll showed just 37% of Indonesians were willing to be vaccinated while 40% would consider it and 17% refuse.

Luky Satria, a 49-year-old obstetrician, said vaccines would only be effective if the public accepted them.

“We are exhausted and tired of COVID-19 which doesn’t seem to be ending. The vaccination program has to be widened – it cannot be some people accept it, some reject it,” said Luky.

Indonesia’s nearly 1.5 million medical workers will be among the first to be immunized after it became the first country outside China to start mass vaccinations with Sinovac’s CoronaVac vaccine.

Unlike many countries, Indonesia intends to inoculate its working population first, rather than the elderly, partly because it does not have enough data from clinical trials on CoronaVac’s efficacy on older people.

Indonesia has said its trials showed CoronaVac has an efficacy rate of 65.3%, but researchers in Brazil said it was only 50.4% effective.

Brazil has run the biggest trials so far with around 13,000 participants, but it faces more rampant infections than in other trial sites and a focus on medical workers could have led to more mild infections in trials, thus lowering efficacy data, a person familiar with the matter said.

Sinovac said its trial designs are not identical between countries, but the results are sufficient to prove CoronaVac is safe and effective.

Reuters

CAMBODIA: Court convenes for mass treason trial of opposition

A court in Cambodia convened on Thursday, January 14, for the treason trial of scores of opposition figures, one of a series of cases seen by activists as moves by the ruling party to sideline threats to its political monopoly.

The defendants are among 121 people affiliated with the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) who are charged with treason and incitement.

Of more than 60 defendants summoned to appear on Thursday, 11 showed up, according to Sam Sokong, a defense lawyer who represents dozens of the defendants. The CNRP has said many of the accused are in exile, concerned they would not get a fair hearing.

Sam Sokong said the trial had been adjourned to Jan. 28 and the court had completed the questioning of only one of the accused.

The CNRP was banned and its leader Kem Sokha arrested before the 2018 election, allowing Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party to win every parliamentary seat, prompting international concern.

The charges against party leader Kem Sokha stem from accusations he conspired with the United States to overthrow Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for 36 years. Kem Sokha and Washington reject the accusations.

Cambodia’s ties with the United States have deteriorated in recent years and critics say international pressure on Cambodia over the CPP’s crackdown has moved it deeper into China’s orbit.

Theary Seng, an American-Cambodian lawyer who was among the defendants, told reporters the charges aimed to silence her and described them as “laughable” and the trial as “a show.”

Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director Yamini Mishra in a statement called the mass trials “an affront to international fair trial standards” and Cambodia’s human rights commitments.

U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, Patrick Murphy, on Twitter posted a picture of Theary Seng and said embassy observers were monitoring the trial.

“We have serious concerns about lack of due process and urge Cambodian authorities to preserve the constitutional right to peaceful expression,” Murphy said.

Mu Sochua, CNRP’s deputy president, who is in the United States said in an email she would lead exiled party members and activists to Cambodia on Sunday, January 17, to defend themselves in court, which she said was duty-bound to enable their return.

Mu Sochua said authorities were spreading fear to discourage opposition supporters from rallying behind their leaders.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said defendants would be allowed to return to Cambodia but must abide by the court’s decision.

“We don’t cause any trouble for them…they can come freely,” he said.

Reuters

INDONESIA: Instagram influencers are a vaccine priority in wary Indonesia

Among the first in the queue for coronavirus vaccines in Indonesia has been one conspicuous group – social media influencers.

Alongside President Joko Widodo as the world’s fourth most populous country kicked off its vaccination drive on Wednesday, January 13, was Indonesian television personality, Raffi Ahmad, who boasts almost 50 million followers on Instagram.

“Alhamdulillah [Praise be to God] a vaccine…. Don’t be afraid of vaccines,” the 33-year-old celebrity wrote under a video of him receiving the shot, next to a heart emoji and another of Indonesia’s red and white flag.

Deciding who should be first in line for limited vaccine doses has been a challenge around the world, with many countries prioritizing vulnerable medics and the elderly.

Senior health ministry official, Siti Nadia Tarmizi, said the decision to include influencers alongside almost 1.5 million healthcare workers in the first round of inoculations was a deliberate government communications strategy.

Although Indonesia faces the most severe coronavirus outbreak in Southeast Asia – with more than 869,000 cases and 25,000 deaths – there has been skepticism around the safety and efficacy of any vaccine, and in the world’s biggest Muslim-majority nation, whether it is halal, or allowed under Islam.

Indonesians are among the top global users of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

The health ministry did not say how many influencers would be first in the vaccine line, but others due to receive a shot on Thursday included musicians Ariel, of the band Noah, and Risa Saraswati.

Ahyani Raksanagara, head of Bandung’s health agency, told Reuters the artists would “hopefully convey positive influence and messages” about the vaccines, and especially to young people.

A poll last month showed just 37% of Indonesians were willing to be vaccinated while 40% would consider it, and 17% refused.

Some doctors have raised doubts over Indonesia’s initial use of Chinese company Sinovac Biotech’s CoronaVac vaccine – with studies from Brazil, Indonesia and Turkey showing efficacies ranging from 50-91%.

But in another possible boost for chances of acceptance, the country’s top Islamic council has deemed the vaccine halal.

However the decision to include social media influencers on the priority list backfired somewhat when photos of Raffi showed him partying hours after he was given the injection – which does not confer immediate immunity.

The images of him unmasked and flouting social distancing protocols with a group of friends drew criticism on social media, with calls for him to set a better example.

“It also shows the government is inconsistent in prioritizing who gets the vaccine first,” said Irma Hidayana, cofounder of pandemic data initiative LaporCOVID-19, “They should’ve done it with another health worker, maybe, not an influencer.”

Health ministry official Nadia noted that “when you’re vaccinated, you still have to abide by health protocols and not be careless in enforcing them.”

Zubairi Djoerban of the Indonesian Medical Association said the strategy to hire influencers could only work if “influencers are briefed about vaccine and COVID-19 so they can be agents of change.”

Police said they are investigating whether Raffi broke the law, while he has offered a public apology.

Reuters

THAILAND: Police arrest student after king’s portraits defaced

A student activist has been arrested and charged under Thailand’s strict laws against insulting the monarchy after he was accused of defacing portraits of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, his lawyer and police said on Thursday, January 14.

Sirichai Nathuang, 21, a student at Bangkok’s Thammasat University, is one of at least 40 activists charged with “lese majeste” since November amid protests demanding the resignation of former junta leader Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.

The youth-led movement has also broken longstanding taboos by demanding reforms to the monarchy, which led to resumption of use of the lese majeste law, which had not been invoked since 2018. Breaches of the law, or section 112 of the criminal code, carry penalties of up to 15 years in prison.

Portraits of the king are ubiquitous in city streets in Thailand, as well as most schools and businesses.

Sirichai was accused of spray-painting messages on some of those portraits earlier this week and was arrested on Wednesday night, January 13, said Noraset Nanongtoom of the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights group.

“Sirichai denied all accusations and will fight the case,” Noraset told Reuters, adding his client was released on bail.

Defacing a royal portrait was almost unheard of during the reign of the king’s father, who died in 2016 after 70 years on the throne.

Noraset said Sirichai is accused by police of spraying messages calling for the abolition of the lese majeste law.

He said his client was the first of the protesters to be arrested under the law, while about 40 others were charged but not arrested.

Police deputy spokesman Kissana Phathanacharoen said police acted in accordance with the law. “There are no double standards,” he said.

A government spokesman last week said use of the law against some of the protesters was justified.

The opposition Move Forward Party said on Thursday it would seek to amend the lese majeste law when parliament reconvenes.

“The use of Section 112 in the current situation will only worsen the relationship between the king and the people in a democratic society,” party secretary-general Chaithawat Tulathon said in a statement.

Reuters

Indonesia resumes search for victims, black box of crashed Sriwijaya jet