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Could Malaysia’s Political Feuds Let the 1MDB Scandal’s Architect Through the Cracks?

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From gifting Basquiat paintings to Leonardo di Caprio to pouring millions of dollars in champagne over himself and Paris Hilton, allegations of outrageous exploits and profligate spending surrounding fugitive Malaysian financier Jho Low are being read about across the globe—but not in the UK.

That is because Low’s lawyers have used Britain’s notoriously strict libel laws to effectively muzzle Billion Dollar Whale, a new book from investigative journalists Tom Wright and Bradley Hope that describes the playboy banker’s alleged role in siphoning off more than $4 billion from Malaysian sovereign investment fund 1MDB. Even though the book was released amid critical praise on September 18th, anyone in the UK will be hard-pressed to find a copy in their local independent bookstore— or even on the UK websites of Amazon, Waterstones, or WH Smiths. Not a single UK-based publisher agreed to take on the book due to fears over libel suits.

The Guardian published an expose this week detailing the efforts of London-based law firm Schillings to suppress the book’s sale in Britain. Low’s lawyers have tried to head off the book’s distribution by sending intimidating letters threatening to sue booksellers across the world. Outside of the UK, however, this legal campaign has failed to curb the book’s launch. The Australian owner of Boomerang Books, for example, simply rejected the threat as lawyers “blowing smoke“ and refused to take the book off shelves.

While his attorneys threaten booksellers, Low has also launched a website proclaiming his innocence and disputing allegations of his involvement in corruption, going so far as to claim his astounding wealth—at one point, Low may have had access to more liquid cash than anyone in history—comes from inheritance. A staggering inheritance is less likely than Billion Dollar Whale’s assertion that Low managed to get Goldman Sachs to transfer $3 billion of Malaysian state funds into a private Swiss bank account. Low allegedly used the stolen money to, among other things, bankroll the film Wolf of Wall Street and purchase a $250 million superyacht.

Low’s alleged role as mastermind in the 1MDB scandal may be the focus of Billion Dollar Whale, but nonagenarian prime minister Mahathir Mohamed has instead zeroed in on predecessor and onetime protégé Najib Razak. Last week, Najib’s lawyer Muhammad Shafee was detained on money laundering charges. Najib himself was then arrested on September 19th and is now awaiting trial on more than 20 counts, with anticorruption agency officials hinting at more charges still to come.

The 93-year-old Mahathir has previously stated that he has the “almost perfect case” to convict his disciple-turned-enemy. As Mahathir’s young government has moved against them, however, Najib and Shafee have pushed back. Najib has repeatedly insisted that he believes Mahathir’s focus on his role in the corruption scandal is politically motivated. He also claims the $681 million bank deposit at the heart of the money laundering accusations against him was a donation from the Saudi royal family, an assertion the Saudi government backed in 2016. Shafee revisited the details of the funds transfer this week following Najib’s arrest, pointing out that the former PM returned the vast majority of the $681 million and disputing the money laundering charges against his client as “illogical.”

While Mahathir doggedly pursues Najib, he seems to be making less of an effort to pursue or apprehend Jho Low and the billions the financier allegedly pilfered. Why the discrepancy? The answer likely lies in Mahathir’s own past as a member of the same class of strongman as the Philippine’s Ferdinand Marcos and Indonesia’s Suharto, as well as his personal history with Najib.

Mahathir may have only come to power in May, but he has already served a nearly two-decade term as Prime Minister that earned him an international reputation for ugly ethnic politics and strongarm tactics. He ushered in the “Malaysia Inc.” policy that tried to follow the Japanese model of nationalizing certain industries, but is best known for the failed nationalization of the automotive industry and the Malaysia-produced Proton car. He is also known for throwing another potential successor, Anwar Ibrahim, out of power and into prison on sodomy charges suspected to be politically motivated.

Ironically enough, Mahathir retook power this year by campaigning on the return of rule of law and an end to corruption – and is once again pointing to Anwar as his anointed successor. More than a few observers suspect Mahathir’s aspirations to return to office were born less out of any interest in saving his country, and more from a desire to wreak political vengeance on his former ally. Najib, who came to power in 2009, oversaw the reversal of many of Mahathir’s policies. Steps such as rolling back import tariffs on automobiles to the detriment of the Malaysian Proton led Mahathir to perceive Najib as undoing his political legacy.

With this personal animus playing out in the Malaysian press over the past few years, Mahathir’s current persecution of Najib risks crossing the line separating a fair judicial process from the jailing of a political rival. Asian affairs analysts have raised the specter of Mahathir using Najib as a scapegoat to avoid genuine reform. It was, after all, under Mahathir’s previous tenure that shady backroom dealings and authoritarian behavior became the norm in Malaysia.

With that track record, it certainly seems illogical to hope the man most emblematic of Malaysia’s old guard will steer the country back towards democracy after finishing with Najib. Mahathir will allegedly hand off power after two years per the terms of his agreement with Anwar Ibrahim. Two years is a long time in the context of Malaysia’s unpredictable politics and the rumblings of discontent with the arrangement within the ruling coalition.

In the interim, the new government’s single-minded focus on Najib could help Jho Low fly as low under the radar in Malaysia as he has in the UK.

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Indo-China integration meets Cambodia’s interests

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Cambodia, which is located between Thailand and Vietnam and has a 440-kilometer coastal zone which is separated from the rest of the country by a mountain ridge, is in need of a “third neighbor” in order to survive economically and politically, and for improving its export opportunities.

Pnomh Penh’s hopes for partnership with the United States fell through. After Washington passed the Cambodia  Democracy Act in 2018 in support of the Cambodian opposition, it became clear that the US was ready to use legal instruments against Pnomh Penh to pursue its interests in the region.

At present, Cambodia’s “third neighbor” is China. Cambodia is doomed to participate in the Chinese infrastructure project “One Belt, One Road” because otherwise it will not get access to South East Asia markets. The extent to which the Cambodian economy is sensitive to market changes was demonstrated by Italy, which initiated extra duties on Cambodian rice imports into the EU. Rice is the main item of Cambodian food exports. Rome thereby secured a review of the Cambodia-EU “Everything Except Weapons” trade scheme.

In the course of a visit to  Beijing in January 2019 by Prime Minister of Cambodia Hun Sen, the Chinese side promised to allocate $ 588 million as aid for Cambodia by 2021, to increase rice imports to 400 thousand tons and boost bilateral trade volume to $ 10 billion by 2023 . This is designed to ensure the economic survival of Cambodia.

In foreign policy, Cambodia avoids aggravating relations with its neighbors lest there appear conflicts detrimental to the weak Cambodian economy, and underscores the importance of maintaining peace in the Asia-Pacific Region.

Phnom Penh is fully aware that it can improve its economic performance only on condition it maintains a long period of peace and strict neutrality. Cambodia is among the world’s fastest growing economies (7.5% in 2018). If the country is to preserve and build on the current pace of development, it will have to boost exports of manufactured goods (80% in the structure of exports) and rice, and should encourage tourism and attract foreign investment.

Phnom Penh is worried about two major problems in Asia – the North Korean issue and territorial disputes in the South China Sea as part of a greater US-China conflict.

Pnomh Penh sees the essence of the North Korean issue in that Cambodia traditionally maintains close economic and political ties with both Koreas. Cambodia and North Korea form a united front at international forums on the issue of human rights, North Korean military experts have assisted Cambodia with the development of a demining service, and North Korea has invested $ 24 million in the country’s tourism industry.

South Korea is the second largest investor for Cambodia after China. By 2018, the total volume of South Korean investments in Cambodia had reached $ 4.56 billion. For Pnomh Penh, Seoul is an influential economic player and cooperation with it contributes to the diversification of the Cambodian economy.

South Korean capital helps Phnom Penh to dilute the financial presence of Chinese investors in the Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone – the country’s main economic gateway. For Cambodia, the conflict between the two Koreas is fraught with significant financial and political losses.

In the opinion of Pnomh Penh, diplomatic clashes between the United States and China over territorial disputes in the South China Sea may exacerbate Cambodian-Vietnamese relations. Although relations between Cambodia and Vietnam have  always been tarnished by conflict,  Phnom Penh, following a policy of strict neutrality, has been promoting broader cooperation with Hanoi in recent years.

As Vietnam, unlike China, is moving closer to Washington, Phnom Penh does not want to find itself in a situation where he will have to make a clear choice in favor of one of the parties to the conflict. Militarization of Vietnam, whose territory blocks Cambodia’s access to the sea, will be ruinous for the economy of Cambodia.

Vietnamese seaports are the final point of the Southern Economic Corridor, which runs from Myanmar via Thailand and Cambodia to Vietnam. Phnom Penh pins  big hopes on cooperation within the framework of the Southern Economic Corridor. An ASEAN report describes Cambodia as a perfect place for an export-oriented economy that serves as a binding link for the regional economy as a whole.

Given the situation, it can be assumed that Phnom Penh’s policy over the next few years will focus on diversifying the economy, attracting a greater number of foreign economic partners (Japan, Australia, Russia, the EU), strengthening regional integration within the Southern Economic Corridor and within the framework of the ASEAN, and minimizing US-North Korean, Sino-US, and Sino-Vietnamese differences. 

First published in our partner International Affairs

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Vietnam Fisheries Brace for EU Yellow Card Review

James Borton

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Vietnamese fishing vessels credit: VNA

The tides wait for no one and each day fisheries, particularly those closest to the shores, are over-fished and harmed by industrialization. For emerging economies like Vietnam, the issuance of a yellow card by the European Union caught the attention of fishers and government officials alike, with a clear warning that the country has not been tackling illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

Tran VanLinh, the chairman of the Danang Fisheries, like others, is worried about the industry’s export future. After all, the fisheries sector is a cornerstone of the Vietnamese economy and has contributed to an average growth rate of 7.9 percent. Nevertheless, he understands that the yellow card offers not only a roadmap for the government but also for all people to address long-standing conservation and sustainability issues.

“After receiving the commission’s carding system notice, Vietnam has tried to satisfy all the requirements imposed by the EU. We do need to protect our sea and environment,” claims Linh.

The overall picture in the South China Sea or East Sea as Vietnam refers to this body of water, is grim. Total fish stocks have been depleted by 70-95 percent since the 1950s, and catch rates have declined by 70 percent over the last 20 years. Giant clam harvesting, dredging, and artificial island building in recent years severely damaged or destroyed over 160 square kilometers, or about 40,000 acres, of coral reefs, which were already declining by 16 percent per decade.

Challenges around food security and renewable fish resources are fast becoming a hardscrabble reality for more than just fishermen. With dwindling fisheries in the region’s coastal areas, fishing state subsidies, overlapping EEZ claims, and mega-commercial fishing trawlers competing in a multi-billion-dollar industry, fish are now the backbone in this sea of troubles.

Meanwhile, Vietnam’s fisheries employ more than 4.5 million people and the nation is ranked as the world’s fourth largest exporter of fish commodities after China, Norway and Thailand. In 2016, the country’s seafood products were exported to 160 countries and territories with the three major markets of the US (20.6%), EU (17.3%), and Japan (15.7%). Vietnam is currently the largest tra fish supplier and fourth biggest shrimp exporter in the world.

There’s even greater pressure placed on fishermen to meet Vietnam’s ambitious seafood sector target of earning 10 billion USD from exports this year, up 10 percent from 2018.  According to the Vietnamese Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers (VASEP), the goal can be achieved largely from $4.2 billion from shrimp exports, $2.3 billion from tra fish exports, and some $3.5 billion from other seafood shipments.

Meanwhile, coastal fish stocks have become either fully exploited or overfished. As a consequence, the South China Sea is considered Vietnam’s vital fishing ground.

With a delegation of the EU’s Directorate of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries expected to arrive at the end of May, Vietnam is urgently adopting measures to convince inspectors that they have smartly corrected their fishery conservation course.

 “The Danang Fishery Department has implemented numerous educational programs to teach fishermen about the new laws and to train them about the EU requirements,” adds Linh, a respected industry leader.

From Hai Phong, Da Nang, LySon, Phu Quoc and Vung Tau, more fisheries are attempting to reign in bad practices and reach towards modernization, eliminating the destructive fishing practices which affects fishery resources. However, more work is still required to revise their legal framework to insure compliance with international and regional rules, to increase the traceability of its seafood products, and to strengthen the implementation of its conservation and management of fisheries resources.

Mr. Le Khuon, chairman of the fishery association in An Vinh Village located in Quang Ngai Province and a former fisherman, who has stared down an aggressive Chinese fishing vessel or two near the Paracels, knows the hardships of fishing. “Of course the yellow card does impact on our local fishermen since we export sea cucumbers to the EU.”

Along with others in the area, Ly Son fishermen recognize the importance of marine protected areas since the coastal areas are overfished. “It’s a hard life and I have lost friends to the sea,” claims 42 year-old Tran Phuc Linh, who has also been harassed by the Chinese since he often fishes near disputed historic fishing grounds in the Paracel Islands.

In fact, the fishing incidents continue in the Spratlys, where China’s mega steel hulled vessels regularly intimidate Vietnam’s colorful wooden trawlers. Just two months ago, a fishing trawler moored at Da Loiis land, in the Paracel archipelago was chased by a Chinese Maritime Surveillance vessel before it crashed upon the rocks and sunk without loss of life to crew.

According to analyst and consultant, Carlyle A. Thayer, “the Chinese government, as a matter of policy, employs it commercial fishing fleet as a third arm of its maritime forces after the regular navy and civilian maritime enforcement agencies, now grouped into a national Coast Guard.”

Linh and his wife do not want their two teenage sons to make their living as fishermen. They know the perils at sea from the seasonal typhoons and the threats associated with patrol and interdiction of ships violating mutually agreed upon fishing restrictions.

Sent by their governments to find food for their people, fishers find themselves on the front lines of this new ecological battle. These fishing sentinels and their trawlers are fighting the maritime disputes between China and its neighbors.

This fishing competition for available fish has resulted in increased number of fishing vessel conflicts. These hostile sea encounters have been witnessed in Indonesia waters whereat least 23 fishing boast from Vietnam and Malaysia have been accused of poaching in that nation’s waters.

As a result, Indonesia’s fisheries minister, Susi Pudijastuti, ordered the dynamiting of these boats and over 170 fishing vessels have been sunk in their waters over the past several years. The increasing number of fishing incidents reflects not only deeply different interpretations and application of the law of the sea, but a fundamental conflict of interest between coastal states and maritime powers.

Even with these threatening clouds on the horizon, some fisheries are going about responsibly reigning in illegal fishing. In Da Nang, its 509 fishing trawlers (all longer than 15 metres) have installed with GPS. This includes the seven steel hulled vessels subsidized by the government’s generous loan program.

The mandatory installation of the GPS offers more assurance in the identification of catch origins and it also helps that more fishermen are also completing and submitting the required fishing diary or logbook.

Meanwhile, the government insists that statistics on fishing vessels, fishing logs and fishing yields of each commercial trawler are now part of a Vietnam Fish Base, a nationwide fishery software database in accordance with the law.

Within the disputed territory, there are over 1.9 billion people, seventy-five percent of them living within one hundred kilometers of the coast. Nearly eighty-five percent of the world’s fishers are concentrated in Asia, particularly in the South China Sea, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Subsequently, fishing remains a politically sensitive and emotionally charged national security issue for all claimant nations. This ocean plundering presents the region with a looming food crisis. Any effort to balance the economic benefits with the security context within the South China Sea will require a coordinated, multi-level response from scientists, historically engaged in collaborative research and already addressing issues of sustained productivity and environmental security in the region.

It’s a prevailing view that the collapse of fisheries is the major driver of competition for marine resources. This continues to result in a lack of respect among claimants for mutually agreed-upon fishery restrictions within 12 nautical miles of outposts and in the recognition of management area within 200 nautical miles of coastline. Last year 86 Vietnamese fishing boats were destroyed by Indonesia for illegally catching fish in its waters.

However, senior Vietnamese officials are confident that these violations are now being eliminated, if not sharply reduced.

“ Because local governments and relevant agencies such as the Coastguard, and Border guard are conducting more surveillance and enacting stern measures in monitoring and investigating; fishing violations are reduced,” claims Nguyen Manh Dong, Director General of the Department of Maritime Affairs, and National Boundary Commission.

He’s quick to add that while the EU’s requirements have been fulfilled including port control, some cases still happen, particularly with Indonesia.

To offer additional counter-balance, Vietnam’s Fisheries Resources Surveillance Department has stated that it is working to raise awareness of maritime boundaries and international maritime laws among its fishermen, apart from conducting frequent patrols to prevent potential violations

The complicated nature of the Vietnam’s East Sea or the South China Sea (SCS) disputes, makes short term resolution of fishing disputes difficult. More parties, believe that proper management of these disputes to insure stability  becomes a priority.

“Vietnam will never tolerate or permit activities related to illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing,” adds Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) Vu Van Tam.

For example, Binh Dinh province is adopting necessary measures to remove the “yellow card” status. All local fishing boats are required to obtain certificates of registration, inviting local authorities to review design documents, supervise the building, improvement and repairing of fishing vessels.

Among policy shapers, and marine scientists, there’s a general consensus that the best approach for managing SCS disputes and addressing IUU issues is to set aside the sovereignty disputes and jointly develop and manage the natural resources, such as fisheries. While advancing fisheries cooperation in the SCS has been increasingly recognized as a political, ecological, socio-economic and security imperative, a crucial question remains unanswered. What objective can be achieved through fisheries cooperation in the SCS?

Marine biologists like Professor Nguyen Chu Hoi advocate the creation of ecosystem- based fishery zones covering reefs that are vital to regional fish stocks, especially in the Spratlys and Paracels. This action requires the adoption of an urgent cooperative marine management system, regardless of the location of their territorial and maritime claims.

While the growing demand for fish by global markets can fray even the strongest fisher’s net, the challenge for Vietnam is the imperative for management of its declining fisheries in order to create long-term sustainability. The protection of the “commons” requires more than a pass fail report card from the EU.

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Joining forces for sustainable development

Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana

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Lao People’s Democratic Republic’s development story is one of a nation with its sights firmly set on building a prosperous future in concert with the broader region. The country’s willingness to embrace an ambitious national development plan has seen the country transition to a market-oriented economy, increasingly integrated into regional and global markets. Substantial reforms paved the way to World Trade Organisation (WTO) membership in 2013. Today, as an active member of ASEAN’s Economic Community, Lao PDR is working to deepen economic integration: to improve market access to regional partners and to achieve the transit routes crucial for any landlocked country to engage fully in international trade.

Lao PDR’s approach has delivered impressive economic growth, above 6.5 percent per year for over a decade and forecast to be 6.8 percent in 2019. Over the past quarter of a century, extreme poverty has been significantly reduced. Income per capita has increased, and access to education and health care services has improved. Targeted development plans and industrial policies have been developed to support the transformation of the economy. Lao PDR could graduate from least developed country status by 2024 if these gains are maintained, which would be a greater achievement still.
At the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), we take a regional approach to supporting our member States achieve sustainable development. Lao PDR’s recent journey is one on which we are keen to build. We work with the whole UN family to overcome challenges which transcend borders and to achieve a sweeping set of economic, social and environmental objectives captured by the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. I am meeting the Laotian leadership this week with these objectives in mind and to join forces with national agencies and development partners to accelerate the implementation of the Eighth 5 Year National Socio-Economic Development Plan.

Our analysis demonstrates that across Asia and the Pacific, much more needs to be done to achieve all 17 Sustainable Development Goals. While Lao PDR has achieved a great deal, its economic growth has not been sufficiently inclusive or sustainable, which has led to inequality. The quality of education and lifelong learning needs to be significantly improved; to give young people opportunity, support entrepreneurship and enable companies to expand and create jobs. Transparency and predictability of policies and legal frameworks would improve the business environment. There is great scope for the Laotian economy to become more productive and diverse, and to attract investment to areas beyond resource extraction and large infrastructure projects.

To unleash this potential and achieve sustainable development, substantial investment is needed. The additional investment required across the whole of the region is $1.5 trillion a year. Our analysis shows the region has the fiscal space to afford this. Yet mobilizing these additional resources will require a concerted effort, particularly for Least Developed Countries. Reforms to increase tax revenue and private sector investment will be necessary in the face of declining overseas aid. For Lao PDR to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, significant investment of an additional $3 a day per person is needed. Investment equivalent to some 3.6 percent of GDP per year could end poverty by paying for basic social protection and financing development programmes. To achieve universal education from pre-primary to upper secondary school by 2030, additional investment equivalent to 2.2 percent of GDP a year is needed to secure the country’s future.

These additional investments must be accompanied by measures to diversify the economy. Raising productivity in rural areas will be key, along with broad based policy interventions in addressing vulnerable groups and communities. Government efforts to promote green and sustainable agro-processing can be complemented by stronger links between agriculture, manufacturing and service sectors. Supporting Lao PDR’s thriving manufacturing base through special economic zones is important for employment but also for government revenue. These can also help encourage investment in the service sector and improve the quality of Lao PDR’s growth, but they must be complemented by improved transport connectivity. ESCAP is supporting the development of dry ports in the region, to make the shipment of sea cargo to inland destinations more efficient.

As we reach for a better future, Lao PDR has a role to play in our region’s effort to achieve the 2030 Agenda. This will require more transformative change, significant investment and a structural shift to activities which improve the quality of economic growth and preserve the country’s precious natural environment; especially along the Mekong, a river on which millions of livelihoods depend. I am looking forward to working with Lao PDR to strengthen its long-term development partnership with the UN family. This is our opportunity to take multilateralism a step further and, building on national and sub regional achievements, deliver sustainable development in Asia and the Pacific.

UN ESCAP

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