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Ms. Halimah Yacob – First female president of Singapore

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Ms. Halimah Yacob, 63, former Speaker of Parliament, became the first woman and first Malay in 47 years to ascend to the Presidency of Singapore- highest office, after successfully filing her nomination papers on Sept 13 as the sole eligible candidate for this year’s reserved Presidential Election.

She will be officially sworn in as Singapore’s eighth President on September 14 at 6pm, at the Istana, the Prime Minister’s Office announced.

Returning Officer Ng Wai Choong declared Ms. Halimah as the President-elect at the People’s Association headquarters along King George’s Avenue to loud cheers by hundreds of Halimah’s supporters. The last Malay to hold the presidency ill he died in 1970 was Yusof Ishak, whose image adorns the country’s banknotes. Yusof Ishak was President between 1965 and 1970, the first years of Singapore’s independence following a short-lived union with neighbouring Malaysia, but executive power rests with Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s Prime Minister.

Aiming to strengthen a sense of inclusivity in the multicultural country, Singapore had decreed the presidency would be reserved for candidates from the Malay community this time. Ms. Yacob’s experience as house speaker automatically qualified her under the nomination rules. Of the four other applicants, two were not Malays and two were not given certificates of eligibility, the elections department said.

 First Malay President

This year’s Presidential Election was reserved for the Malays in a bid to ensure multiracial representation after Parliament passed into law changes to the Elected Presidency scheme last November. Apart from Halimah, two other hopefuls – chief executive of Second Chance Properties Mohamed Salleh Marican, 67, and chairman of marine services provider Bourbon Offshore Asia Pacific Farid Khan, 62 – had also filed application forms to contest as candidates. However, both men were determined ineligible by the Presidential Elections Committee as they did not meet one of the qualifying criteria, which requires that private-sector candidates must have served as the chief executive of a company for at least three years, with the company having at least S$500 million in shareholders’ equity, on average, in the most recent three years.

While some members of the public have expressed happiness at Halimah’s ascension to the Presidency, others expressed disappointment that this was only made possible courtesy of a walkover. They want an election for full legitimacy.  However, others noted that Madam Halimah is fully qualified to become the President and will be able to perform her duties well, citing her track record of over 40 years in public service.

Malays make up about 13 percent of the population, and the government is dominated by ethnic Chinese, who make up about three-quarters. There are no Muslim Malays in the top echelons of Singapore’s army, and few among the senior ranks of its judiciary, but a member of its poorest ethnic minority is set to become the first woman President of the Southeast Asian city state this week.

The government initially narrowed the criteria last year to permit only a Malay to serve as the next president, on the ground that no Malay had held the post in the five preceding terms.

The Presidential Election Committee later tightened the criteria, including a requirement that any candidate from the private sector must have been a senior executive of a company with at least 500 million Singapore dollars in equity, or about $371 million.

Two other Malays were considered by the commission, including Mohamed Salleh Marican, chief executive of Second Chance Properties. He had said that if he was elected, he would begin an investigation into the allegations that Mr. Lee abused his power in his dispute with his siblings. Both potential candidates were rejected on the grounds that the companies they headed were not large enough.

 President Halimah

Ms. Halimah Yacob is Singapore’s eighth president and its first woman head of state, in the country’s first presidential election reserved for candidates from the Malay community.

The 63-year-old former Speaker of Parliament was the only presidential hopeful declared eligible to contest by the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC) “Whether there is an election or not, my passion and commitment to serve the people of Singapore remain the same,” she told reporters.

Halimah Yacob, who was born to an Indian Muslim father and Malay mother, puts minority representation on agenda.

The youngest of five children, Ms. Halimah had described her childhood as a “terrible struggle” following the death of her Indian-Muslim father and family sole breadwinner. Her mother, who died in 2015, had to single-handedly raise the family by selling food on a pushcart. Halimah had studied at the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School and Tanjong Katong Girls’ School, before applying successfully to read law at the then University of Singapore.

Starting out as a lawyer, Halimah, 62, had spent over three decades in the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC). Before she became Speaker of Parliament in 2013, she had served as Minister of State at the then-Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports.

She collected her certificate of eligibility at the Elections Department in the afternoon, shortly after witnessing the election of her successor as Speaker in Parliament.

Ms. Halimah was a Member of Parliament and a leader of the People’s Action Party before giving up her seat last month to run for president. “I can only say that I promise to do the best that I can to serve the people of Singapore, and that doesn’t change whether there is an election or no election,” she told reporters Monday after she was certified as the only eligible candidate. Her campaign slogan — “Do Good, Do Together” — was widely panned as ungrammatical.

World’s attention is focused on Ms. Halimah as she will take her oath of office on Thursday, which will mark the start of her six-year term.

Despite being the establishment candidate, Ms. Yacob wears a hijab, which is banned in state schools and public sector jobs that require uniforms. But she has seldom spoken publicly on the issue and there is little sign of change in official attitudes.

 Mixed reactions

 There were three candidates for the presidency poll and they were issued certificates by the Community Committee confirming that they belong to the Malay community. After scrutiny, the PEC found only Ms. Ms. Halimah was eleigible candidate and  informed the other two – marine services firm chairman Farid Khan, 61, and property company chief executive Salleh Marican, 67 – that they did not qualify to contest. Neither had helmed a company with $500 million in shareholder equity for the most recent three years, a key threshold required for candidates relying on their private-sector experience. In rejecting his application, the six-member panel said it was unable to satisfy itself that he had “the experience and ability” comparable to a chief executive of a company of that size and complexity.

The PEC noted the shareholders’ equity of Salleh’s company, Second Chance, averaged about $258 million, a sum “considerably below the minimum” required under the Constitution.  Farid declined to disclose his company’s financials, but its value is believed to be much lower. He declined to show his letter from the PEC to the media. Both said they were disappointed not to be given the go-ahead – but thanked their families and supporters for their support over the past few months, and said they would continue to serve Singaporeans.

 Under the law, the decision of the PEC – chaired by Public Service Commission chairman Eddie Teo – is final and not subject to appeal or review in any court. The uncontested election drew mixed reactions from observers, who welcomed Madam Halimah making history as the country’s first woman president and the first Malay head of state in 47 years.

Institute of Policy Studies deputy director Gillian Koh said: “Madam Halimah is a double minority – not only is she a Malay-Muslim individual, but a female.” But Dr Koh felt “the statement of our acceptance of diversity would have been all the more powerful if there had been an open contest”.

However, political science professor Bilveer Singh of the National University of Singapore questioned the value of having a contest for a contest’s sake: “Being elected through a walkover does not undermine or delegitimize the winner.”

 For Lee, whose son, Lee Hsien Loong, is now Prime Minister, the answer to social cohesion lay in creating a culture of meritocracy, rather than adopting policies of positive discrimination to boost the chances of advancement for Singapore’s Malay and Indian minorities.

 Singapore

 Singapore officially the Republic of Singapore, is also referred to as the “Lion City”, the “Garden City” or the “Little Red Dot”, is a sovereign city-state in Southeast Asia. Singapore, an island city-state off southern Malaysia, is a global financial center with a tropical climate and multicultural population. Its colonial core centers on the Padang, a cricket field since the 1830s and now flanked by grand buildings such as City Hall, with its 18 Corinthian columns. In Singapore’s circa-1820 Chinatown stands the red-and-gold Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, said to house one of Buddha’s teeth.

 It lies one degree (137 km) north of the equator, just south of the Malay Peninsula across the Straits of Johor, with Indonesia’s Riau Islands to the south. Singapore’s territory consists of one main island along with 62 other islets. Since independence, extensive land reclamation has increased its total size by 23% (130 km2) and its greening policy has covered the densely populated island with tropical flora, parks and gardens.

 Singapore is a global commerce, finance and transport hub. Its standings include: the most “technology-ready” nation (WEF), top International-meetings city (UIA), city with “best investment potential” (BERI), second-most competitive country, third-largest foreign exchange market, third-largest financial centre, third-largest oil refining and trading centre and the second-busiest container port. The country has also been identified as a tax haven.

Singapore ranks 5th on the UN Human Development Index and the 3rd highest GDP per capita. It is ranked highly in education, healthcare, life expectancy, quality of life, personal safety and housing. Although income inequality is high, 90% of homes are owner-occupied. 38% of Singapore’s 5.6 million residents are permanent residents and other foreign nationals. There are four official languages: English (common and first language), Malay, Mandarin and Tamil, though almost all Singaporeans are bilingual.

Singapore is a unitary multiparty parliamentary republic, with a Westminster system of unicameral parliamentary government. The People’s Action Party has won every election since self-government in 1959. The dominance of the PAP, coupled with a low level of press freedom and restrictions on civil liberties and political rights, has led to Singapore being classified by some as a semi-authoritarian regime. One of the five founding members of ASEAN, Singapore is also the host of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Secretariat and a member of the East Asia Summit, Non-Aligned Movement and the Commonwealth of Nations.

Singapore is a parliamentary republic with a Westminster system of unicameral parliamentary government representing constituencies. The country’s constitution establishes a representative democracy as the political system Executive power rests with the Cabinet of Singapore, led by the Prime Minister and, to a much lesser extent, the President.[54]The President is elected through a popular vote, and has veto powers over a specific set of executive decisions, such as the use of the national reserves and the appointment of judges, but otherwise occupies a largely ceremonial post

The Parliament serves as the legislative branch of the government

Singapore’s foreign policy is aimed at maintaining security in Southeast Asia and surrounding territories. An underlying principle is political and economic stability in the region.[97] It has diplomatic relations with more than 180 sovereign states. As one of the five founding members of ASEAN,[99] it is a strong supporter of the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) and the ASEAN Investment Area, because Singapore’s economy is closely linked to that of the region as a whole.

 The separation of Singapore from Malaysia gave ethnic Malays a clear majority in Malaysia, while ethnic Chinese formed the majority in independent Singapore. Leaders of both countries, however, recognised that peace and prosperity depended on preserving harmony between the two groups. But living in a Muslim-dominated neighborhood, with Malaysia and Indonesia next door, Singapore’s leaders have long worried about the risk of conflicted loyalties among Malays.

President

The President of the Republic of Singapore is Singapore’s head of state. In a Westminster parliamentary system, as which Singapore governs itself, the prime minister is the head of the government while the president is largely ceremonial, broadly analogous to the Sovereign of the United Kingdom. A Constitutional Commission recommended changes to guarantee minority representation in the highest office in the land as well as to tighten eligibility criteria in keeping with the economy’s growth.

The President is the head of state of Singapore. The executive authority of the nation is vested in the President and exercisable by him or her or by the Cabinet or any minister authorised by the Cabinet. However, it is the Cabinet that has the general direction and control of the Government, and in most cases the President exercises powers in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet or a minister acting under the Cabinet’s general authority. The President only exercises limited powers in his or her personal discretion to block attempts by the government of the day to draw down past reserves it did not accumulate, to approve changes to key appointments, and to exercise oversight over the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau and decisions of the Executive under the Internal Security Act and the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act.. As a component of the legislature together with Parliament, the President is also jointly vested with the legislative power of Singapore.  The President usually opens each Parliamentary session with an address drafted by the Cabinet setting out the Government’s agenda for the session, and may address Parliament and send messages to it

The Constitution confers on the President certain executive functions to block attempts by the government of the day to draw down past reserves that it did not accumulate. Thus, a guarantee may only be given or a loan raised by the Government if the President concurs, and his or her approval is also needed for budgets of specified statutory boards and Government companies that draw on their past reserves.

 Before 1993, the President of Singapore was chosen by Parliament. Following constitutional amendments in 1991, the Presidency became a popularly elected office with certain custodial powers, particularly over government expenditure of the nation’s past financial reserves and key appointments to public offices. In November 2016, further amendments provide for “reserved elections” for a particular racial group (Chinese, Malay and Indian/other minority) – if that community has not been represented for five presidential terms.

 The President has been called “Singapore’s No. 1 diplomat” Ambassadors and high commissioners accredited to Singapore present their credentials to him, and he is called upon by visiting foreign leaders. In addition, he or she contributes to the nation’s external relations by undertaking overseas trips on Cabinet’s advice. Presidents have also used the office to champion charitable causes.

The first President elected by the majority of the people was Ong Teng Cheong, who served from 1 September 1993 to 31 August 1999. The office of President was created in 1965 after Singapore became a republic upon its secession from the Federation of Malaysia that year. It replaced the office of Yang di-Pertuan Negara, which had been created when Singapore attained self-government in 1959. The last Yang di-Pertuan Negara, Yusof Ishak, became the first President. After his death he was replaced by Benjamin Sheares, who served until his death in 1981, when he was succeeded by Chengara Veetil Devan Nair. Owing to personal problems, Nair stepped down in 1985 and was replaced by Wee Kim Wee, who served as President until 1993.

In January 1991, the Constitution   was amended to provide for the popular election of the President, a major constitutional and political change in Singapore’s history. Under the revision, the President is empowered to veto the use of the country’s past reserves and key civil service appointments. He or she can also examine the administration’s enforcement of the Internal Security Act and Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, and authorize corruption investigations The first popularly elected President was Ong Teng Cheong, a former cabinet minister. He served as President from 1 September 1993 to 31 August 1999.

Discrimination

There are serious elements of discrimination in Singapore against minorities in all walks of life. A government report published in 2013 found Malays felt they were sometimes discriminated against and had limited prospects in some institutions, such as the armed forces.

Malays, who form just over 13 per cent of Singapore’s 3.9 million citizens and permanent residents, also underperform on measures such as university and secondary school education.

The election of a Malay President is by itself unlikely to resolve concerns over under-representation, but analysts and advocates say it could help foster trust among communities.

Singapore’s economic success and education policies have helped swell the ranks of middle-class Malays, but the last census in 2010 showed they lagged other ethnic groups on socio-economic measures such as household incomes and home ownership.

Farid Khan, one of the unsuccessful candidates and the chairman of marine services firm Bourbon Offshore Asia, told Reuters more Malays now hold political office, and some are making their way in the corporate world, but “there is still room for improvement.”

Yet the reserved election has also injured some pride. “It cheapens the credibility of a Malay person that it requires a token election for us to be President,” said Malay comedian and television personality Hirzi Zulkiflie. “Some people intending to run are very capable.” 

Observation

A popular public figure, Ms. Halimah was widely expected to win the presidential election but rejection of other two candidates made the poll fairly easier. West like many anti-Islamic insiders might not like the Muslim woman is elected to presidency in Asia.

Singaporeans are used to predictable elections, with the same party winning every parliamentary poll in the carefully managed country’s 52-year history, last time with a landslide. It’s partly due to loyalty to the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), but also because the government tightly controls the media and political freedoms. As the head of state, the president plays a largely ceremonial role and doesn’t hold much power, apart from having say in the use of Singapore’s hefty financial reserves.

Ms Halimah, who is Muslim, is only the second president to come from the Malay ethnic minority. It’s a move that should be celebrated by Singapore, which prides itself on its multiculturalism and diversity. That’s because this election was only open to Malay candidates – the first time the government has reserved an election for a particular race. Otherwise a Muslim cannot t hope to be the elected president, especially in the present era of Islamophobia.

The government, which lauds its careful maintenance of national racial harmony, argued it was necessary to ensure minorities could have a chance at becoming president in Chinese-majority Singapore, which has always had an ethnically Chinese prime minister. But some Malays saw the move as positive discrimination that went against Singapore’s golden rule of meritocracy, which is that the best person gets the job, regardless of background. It also stirred up questions about Malay racial purity, after people realized Ms Halimah was half-Indian, and many have mocked her ethnicity. Singapore’s government has often clamped down on such unhealthy discussions, fearing it would hurt racial harmony.

After getting elected as the first ever female President Ms. Halimah said she is the president of entire Singapore as she is committed to Singapore and Singaporeans. She asked people to forget the differences and instead work on the similarities among them to make the nation achieve greater goals.

Ms. Halimah with a genuinely positive mindset has a long way to go forward to strengthen secular democracy, Singapore too!

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Seven Years of UNITE Thailand: Freedom to be Free

Rattana Lao

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An art camp in Loei Province with the painting of UNITE Thailand on the theme of “our home” done by Archee. photo: Rattana Lao

BANGKOK – During the peak of Thailand’s political warfare between the Red and Yellow shirts, I was a graduate student at Teachers College, Columbia University pursuing a Doctorate in Political Science with a specialization in Comparative and International Education.

As Bangkok’s buildings were burnt down, I sat in tears in front of my computer could not comprehend nor tolerate the sights and senses of such catastrophe.

What’s happening to Thailand? A place we once called the land of smile.

I put myself together and defended my proposal. I came home for my dissertation research. But once I landed, I began something entirely different.

I called my friends from all walks of lives: academics, businesses, politics and civil society and we started talking about the future of Thailand what to do, what can we do?

Inspired by the KEEPS project at the London School of Economics, where I did my Master of Sciences in Development Studies, we initiated an art project for political liberation.

Something Freire would be proud of.

We took paint colors, brushes and canvases to rural areas and began using art as mean to break political deadlocks – to initiate a conversation. We asked our students to paint the future of Thailand in their visions.

From a humble beginning in 2011, we grew in size and scope. UNITE Thailand is now a global youth networks of like-minded individuals who want to make a difference for Thailand. We are an educational project with 3,000 members.

We have collaborated with the Open Society Foundation in 2012 to create the 1st IDEA Asia Youth Forum where we brought together 200 Asia youth from 22 countries to work with Thai university students in Thailand for 2 weeks.

We have worked with the International Labour Organizations in 2013 – 2014VDO to promote the Sapansiang Campaign that addresses the positive images of migrant workers in Thailand.

Anna Olsen, the Technical Specialist TRIANGLE in ASEAN program of the ILO said, “working with UNITE Thailand allowed us to reach young Thai people with our messages of protection and promotion of the rights of migrant workers who contribute so much to Thai society and development.”

Since its inception, MCOT Thailand and the Anandamahidol Foundation have helped to scale up our 20 art camps for our students nation-wide by creating ongoing documentaries that capture the essences of what we try to do on the ground.

Sitting here on the eve of International Youth Day of 2018, I am writing to my students globally that never let anyone tell us what we are and are not capable of. The power of the young is momentous and paramount. Never let your inspiration, motivation and determination die down just because what we think seem impossible or someone else tell us so.

Thailand is far from where we want it to be. It’s still rotten with corruption, rampant inequality and lack democracy. But each brush we stroke, each project we strike, we do it with hope and dignity, we do it to empower and we aspire to make a difference.

Mayaclear Aphornsuvan, UNITE Thailand Youth Representative, encapsulates her seven years experiences with the movement.

“Opportunities, dreams, and chances seem so far away when no one is by your side. That’s how it felt to me when I was in high school, at least. But I crossed paths with UNITE Thailand by chance, and it was the first time a group of people believed in me. And in turn, this gave me all the strength I needed to believe in myself and others. UNITE Thailand gives opportunities to those who often get ignored. But the first opportunity in one’s life is oftentimes the most important.  UNITE Thailand means the world to me, because they gave me a whole new world of opportunity and dreams.”

On behalf of UNITE Thailand, we thank our friends from all over the world for showering us with your trust and enabling us to keep dreaming.

We, 3,000 of UNITE Thailand, dedicate this project to His Majesty the King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama the ninth to the Chakri Dynasty, our King of Education, for not only sponsoring my transatlantic education through the Anandamahidol Foundation, but for providing Thailand with a necessary guiding light. We wish his soul rest in peace. We wish him well.

We promise to be kind and find peace from within outward.

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What are the causes of the current calamity in Laos? An Interview with Dr. Lia Genovese

Rattana Lao

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The Xe Pian-Xe Nam Noy hydropower project is financed by companies from South Korea (SK Engineering and Korea Western Power), Thailand’s Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding and the Lao government. A statement issued by Mekong Eye on 31 July 2018 stated that Japan is also involved in its financing.

A devastating incident occurred in the Sanamxay district of Attapeu province in southern Laos. On the evening of 22 July 2018, engineers at SK Engineering discovered that one of the project’s supporting dams had been partially washed out and notified the Lao authorities. Apparently, efforts to repair the damaged structure were hampered by the state of the roads, which delayed the necessary heavy equipment reaching the area before disaster struck the very next day. On 23 July, the top of a saddle dam at one of the Xe Pian-Xe Nam Noy reservoirs collapsed, releasing billions of cubic feet of water. Over 6,000 people have already been evacuated to emergency shelters. The flood has caused severe damage to private property and infrastructure. The dam collapse has also affected villages downstream in Cambodia.

The precise death toll is still unknown and has oscillated between 31 and 35 victims. On 5 August, the Chinese agency Xinhua stated that 34 people were confirmed dead and scores more are still unaccounted for.

Early official statements calling the catastrophe a natural disaster caused by seasonal rains, are being disputed by experts. During an interview with the BBC World Service on 25 July, Dr. Ian Baird, Associate professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA, unequivocally attributed the disaster to poor management. Furthermore, the South Korean building company, SK Engineering & Construction, asserts that “it warned the [Lao] government”.

The disaster could have been prevented with better management, greater risk assessment and better building standards, according to the Lao government. On 27 July, four days after the dam collapse, the Lao Energy Minister, Mr. Khammany Inthirath, told a press conference in Vientiane that the disaster was caused by substandard construction.

Attapeu province is highly contaminated by unexploded ordnances (UXO, remnants of the Vietnam conflict), and although parts of the province have been cleared of UXO, the UN recommends caution when digging, since cluster bombs are more likely to be buried (‘Lao PDR: Flash Flooding in Sanamxay’, District Office of the UN Resident Coordinator Situation Report No. 05 (as of 1 August 2018).

Livestock, buffaloes and domestic animals have perished. On 3 August, the Vientiane Times reported the loss at more than 12,000 animals, as well as more than 19,000 chickens and other fowl, while 280 fishponds were damaged.

What are the immediate needs to help rebuild Laos?

Numerous governments have sent funds and humanitarian aid, including Thailand, Vietnam, China, Singapore, Cambodia, the European Union (EU), the US and North Korea. It seems that supplies have reached the affected areas with some difficulty, due to the state of the roads, damaged by the flood and covered in rivers of mud. According to a Voice of America report published on 6 August: “Satellite images show Attapeu lying on a bend of the river with a pre-crisis network of roads, but a later image shows the flooded area as a brown mass of mud with few structures left recognizable”.

Cash donations have also been collected. The Lao bank BCEL set up the One Heart fund-raising initiative for people to donate by debit or credit cards. In Thailand, donations collected by Krungthai Bank for the flood victims had reached 25 million baht by the end of July (account number 067-12886-4 of Krungthai Bank, Government House branch, Cash donations are proving effective in helping victims of this disaster, while the delivery of relief aid (blankets, medicines, safe drinking water, food, etc.) is hampered by practical difficulties in accessing the affected areas.

Do you think the country is resilient enough to weather this chaos?

As a concerned citizen of the world, rather than an expert on development strategies, in my view there are good chances that Laos, and particularly the affected areas in Attapeu province, will weather this catastrophe. Laos has much at stake in its chosen development strategy aimed at energy generation. This is a setback in the country’s ambitious plan to have a total of 100 dams by 2040. Approximately, 85 percent of the energy generated by these dams is exported.

What needs to be done differently for Laos to recover and sustain?

Since 1971, the UN has classed Laos as a Least Developed Country (LDC), a label the country is trying to shed. Laos is traversed by the Mekong for hundreds of miles, from north to south, before this great river flows into Cambodia and the delta in Vietnam. Laos has said in the past that it is making the best of a punishing geography, due to the country being landlocked.

Yearly, the sale of energy contributes around $650 million to the country’s GDP, but still only half of the revenue generated by ore production from mining investment projects approved by the central government, which in 2017 reached around $1.2 billion.

Unlike some of her neighbours (Thailand and the Philippines, chiefly), Laos has shown negligible interest in the potential of renewable energy, despite enjoying an average of 1,800-2,000 hours of sunlight per year, or 200-300 sunlight days per year, particularly in the south of the country. Consequently, progress in sources of renewable energy has been slow and foreign investment has lagged behind, in contrast to the aggressive push for hydropower projects.

What Laos wishes to do is secondary to other countries’ vision for Laos. A number of countries, as well as NGOs, environmental and human rights organisations, have expressed their reservations about Laos’ stated hydropower goals, because of the cost to the country’s ecology, and the human cost caused by the displacement of thousands of families. Laos’ potential in generating energy for sale was known to the French colonisers a century ago but, despite a number of surveys shortly after the 1893 annexation of Laos as the fifth province of French Indochina, the French colonial government elected not to exploit the potential of the Nam Theun river, due to the massive investment required in building an often non-existent infrastructure. Only in recent years, was this massive hydropower project built, with funding from the World Bank, among others.

Laos can recover from this tragedy, through its own resources and with help from the international community.

What can the public immediately do to save Laos?

In the immediate aftermath of this man-made disaster, the public should follow events and contribute with cash donations and goods in kind, and pay attention to messages from the Lao government and aid agencies as to the most effective ways to assist the affected communities.

For the longer term, a rethink of Laos’ development goals is essential. Much of Laos’ energy for sale is exported to its neighbours, where it is squandered on excessive air-conditioning for shopping malls, supermarkets, offices and homes, entertainment places, etc. Laos’ energy-hungry neighbours need to understand the hidden “costs” to a poor country like Laos, where the race to become the “Battery of Southeast Asia” is being achieved at the expense of natural resources, human capital and tragedies.

Concerned members of the public can lobby their respective governments for civil society to be respected in Laos, as a forum for free expression. It is essential that Lao citizens are involved in the consultation process for new hydropower projects or other large-scale projects which involve environmental degradation, a high level of risk and loss of a traditional way of life for communities along the Mekong.

Building dams along the Mekong must be discussed as a transnational issue, rather than pertaining to Laos alone, as was made clear in the Xe Pian-Xe Nam Noy disaster affecting downstream villages in Cambodia.

Pressure should be applied on the Lao government to ensure transparency in its investigations of Lao communities affected by the massive flooding in Attapeu province.

The 31 July statement issued by Mekong Watch, mentioned earlier, urges donor countries and development agencies to support the Lao government “in seeking compensation from the dam companies, and re-direct their aid policies that rely on hydropower development”.

About Lia Genovese

Lia Genovese holds a PhD from SOAS-University of London for a Dissertation titled ‘The Plain of Jars of North Laos – Beyond Madeleine Colani’. Her current research interests include: the Plain of Jars of Laos; French colonial archaeology; the megaliths of South and Southeast Asia; Iron Age mortuary practices; cultural heritage and conservation. She is currently working on a critical biography of the life and work of the French archaeologist Madeleine Colani.

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Explaining Gendered Wartime Violence: Rohingya Ethnic Cleansing

Devika Khandelwal

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Image source: Al-Jazeera

The United Nations described Rohingyas as ‘amongst the most persecuted minority groups in the world.’ News reports and refugee testimonies have confirmed that the plight of Muslims in Rakhine State of Myanmar is atrocious. The humanitarian crisis taking place in the Rakhine state has led to the death of an appalling number of Rohingya’s Muslims. It has been reported, that nearly 500,000 people have fled destruction of their livelihood and, are currently living in refugee camps in Bangladesh. The UN reports suggest that Rohingyas have faced “killings, torture, rape and arson”, by Burmese troops. It has been categorised as a ‘textbook case of ethnic cleansing’ of Muslims in Myanmar.

Rohingya Muslims represent the largest percentage of Muslims in Myanmar, and the majority lived in Rakhine state before the violence broke out. Myanmar is predominantly a Buddhist country which has for decades denied Muslims citizenship, they have been subjected to brutal government and police violence, and their identity has been decreased to that of an ‘illegal immigrant.’ On the 25th of August, 2017 the Rohingya militant army launched a deadly attack on the Muslims which has culminated into a systematic case of ethnic violence, turning into ethnic cleansing. They have slowly, but successfully forced majority of the Muslims to flee the country, resulting in one of the deadliest case of violence in the 21st century.

Within this Muslim minority exists another kind of minority, ‘Rohingya Women’ who have been subjected to sexual violence and rape by the army militants. It has been reported that tens of thousands of young girls and women of the Muslim community have been sexually violated and raped by the army militants In the report prepared for the UN Commission on Human Rights, Gay J. McDougall defined wartime rape as “a deliberate and strategic decision on the part of combatants to intimidate and destroy ‘the enemy’ as a whole by raping and enslaving women who are identified as members of the opposition group.” However, wartime rape is not a new phenomenon. Many historical and anthropological researchers have provided us with evidence that rape during war can be traced back to earlier wars. It was reported that during the Second World War, the city of Berlin witnessed extremely high levels of rape and sexual violence against women by the Soviet forces. It has been estimated that around 900,000 women were raped and violated during the war.The infamous ‘Rape of Nanking’ is another case where Japanese soldiers reportedly raped an estimated 20,000 to 80,000 women in the city of Nanjing, China in 1937.

According to the Human Rights Watch report titled ‘All of My Body was in Pain: Sexual Violence against Rohingya Women and Girls in Burma’, women and girls are brutally being raped and sexually violated, humiliated, beaten up and even killed by the Burmese militants. They also suffer from the ordeal of seeing their children, parents or partners being murdered in front of them. The Burmese militant army is using systematic rape as a weapon of war in the massacre of the Rohingyas – using women to be the easy target, and thereby making the Rohingya crisis a grave gender concern. Priyanka Motaparthy, a senior researcher in the Emergencies division of the Human Rights Watch, mentions in a Human Rights Watch report, “These horrific attacks on Rohingya women and girls by security forces add a new and brutal chapter to the Burmese military’s long and sickening history of sexual violence against women.”

It is believed that sexual violence and rape is systematically used against women during wartime due multiple reasons. In addition to women being ‘easy targets’, they are subjected to this ordeal in order to break down the reproductive cycle of an ethnicity, which thereby can result in eliminating that ethnic population altogether. It is also used to decrease or break down the morale of their enemy population, who are responsible for securing their women and girls, thus weakening their opponents. Therefore, the connecting factor between ‘gender based violence’ and ‘wartime’ are the underlying patriarchal values that persists in societies and dictates their culture. Within this structure, it is often assumed that a woman’s honor resides in her reproductive system, violating her reproductive system is seen as a way of stripping her honor, subjecting her to humiliation and furthermore gaining ‘power.’ It is a way of systematically destroying a community as a whole.

This is not the first time the world is witnessing gender based violence. However, the silence on the issue and lack of action by international authorities such as the United Nations is alarming. Urgent and crucial steps need to be taken by the Burmese government along with other International Organizations to bring relief to these women and girls. There is also an urgent need to implement stringent policies and necessary actions must be taken against people who use of sexual violence during wartime. However, the most urgent need of the hour is to overthrow patriarchal values from societies all across the world. Even though this is optimistic, it is important to instill a sense of equality between men and women, which in turn could help in eliminating the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.

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