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The Deep Forces Preventing Reform in Malaysia

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The Pakatan Harapan coalition general election victory almost a year ago was supposed to herald a new reform era in a country spavined by corruption, cronyism and racism.

Very soon after Mahathir Mohamed was returned as prime minister after a 15 year absence and in a new role, he quickly made good on Pakatan’s promises to eliminate the GST, re-introd15-year absence fuel subsidies, seek the immediate release of Anwar Ibrahim from jail and charge former Prime Minister Najib Razak over the 1MDB scandal.

However, public disenchantment of the new Pakatan government very quickly developed as the pace of reform appeared to slow. The government flip-flopped over child marriage, then backflipped over its intention to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination due to protests organized by the ousted United Malays National Organization and ultra-nationalist Malay groups.

Shortly afterwards, it backed down from ratifying the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court due to criticism from the Johor Royal Family. The report completed by the Council of Eminent Persons (CEP) on reform was put under the Official Secrets Act, and has not been made public. More recently, Mahathir’s quick dismissal of the Suhakam Report finding that “state agents” where most probably responsible for the abduction and disappearance of religious leaders Amri Che mat and Pastor Anthony Koh disappointed many.

There is now a perception that the Pakatan government won’t deliver what it promised. The by-election result in the Semenyih constituency was an indication of this, confirming Medeka Centre polling that both the prime minister and Pakatan were rapidly losing popularity.

However those expecting the government to create a new Malaysia forgot about the complex nature of the Pakatan coalition itself, the electoral landscape and the institutional and attitudinal impediments to reform. 

The Nature of the Coalition

The leading party, in terms of influence but not numbers is Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, formed by Mahathir in the run up to the general election to give himself a political vehicle. Although the party manifesto talks in terms of maintaining fundamental rights and fighting corruption, Bersatu is really a nationalist-Malay organization, believing in Islam as the state religion, upholding the Malay monarchy, maintaining Malay privilege and that of natives of Sabah and Sarawak, and keeping Malay as the national language. 

Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) has twice Bersatu’s representation in the Federal Parliament and supports the abolishment of the New Economic Policy, the instrument that provides special privileges for Malays and other indigenous groups. In practice however, the party most often reflects its leader Anwar Ibrahim’s views. PKR’s structure is very similar to UMNO’s, and is currently strongly factionalized between the Rafizi Ramli and Azmin Ali groups. Recent party elections brought accusations of vote buying.

Under the Pakatan agreement Anwar is due to take the reins of Power from Mahathir sometime in 2020.

The third member is a breakaway group from PAS called Parti Amanah Negara, primarily a Malay based party standing for progressive Islam. It has 11 members of Parliament, where its leader Mohamed Sabu is Minister of Defense.

Next, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) is primarily a Chinese based party, although it has sort to be multi-ethnic over the years. The DAP is based on social justice, democracy, and secularism. Its support comes from working class and professional urban voters, where the party played a major role in assisting Pakatan win the last general election.

The above coalition mix suggests that its orientation is going to be towards maintaining the current status quo, according to the various party manifestos and actions. Other than the fight against corruption and support of popular policies like the abolition of GST, the pressure for reform comes only comes from the DAP and some members of PKR.

Thus Pakatan is a paradoxical coalition where the push for reform comes from a minority. What’s more, Mahathir has dominated coalition, calling the major shots in terms of policy and administration.

If and when Anwar Ibrahim actually becomes the Prime Minister, it’s still very unclear as to whether he will follow the reform path or pursue his wishes to implement a more Islamic path in government administration and education.

Anwar’s Position a big unknown.

Analysts close to government say it is attempting to buy time on reform by blaming the previous government and economic situation. However, talking reform is one thing, achieving it another. If the Pakatan government is going to firmly commit to reform, it has to overcome many impediments, some rarely discussed.

The Electoral Landscape

Although 65 percent of Malaysia’s population could be considered urban, cities’ parliamentary representation is well under that. About 70percentofy seats are rural based, thus heavily over-representing rural voters. Thus DAP and to some extent PKR representation are below what they should be, while UMNO, PAS, Bersatu, and Amanah are overrepresented, a legacy of decades of gerrymandering by the previous ruling coalition.

Thus any party or coalition group that wants to win a general election must win over a rural Malay electorate, making the politics of race and Islam of paramount importance. Until there is real electoral reform, race-based politics are crucial. Any reforms perceived as threatening Malay privilege would cost at the next election.

Does Pakatan really want reform?

The current anomaly benefits Bersatu over PKR and the DAP. This is especially the case if more UMNO defections come and the party expands into Sabah, as Mahathir has vowed. It is vital electoral reform takes place to place to bring in the concept of “one vote one value” through rearranging constituency boundaries and/or implementing some form of proportional representation before Pakatan can undertake any serious reform in the area of ethnic-equality of opportunity.

This is a major barrier to reform and will allow Malay-nationalist groups to dominate the national narrative, and sabotage any new initiatives.

The Civil Service

The Malaysian civil service is probably the most difficult barrier to overcome. There is an unspoken mission among offices and staff to protect the Malay agenda. Any policy or program is likely to be sabotaged if it is perceived to threaten Malay interests. The system has been built over the past 20 years on political nepotism, with civil servants clearly and openly aligned with the last government.

It is also a bloated service, employing nearly 1.8 million people, with duplicative ministries and agencies, wasting massive resources, built on job generation to keep ethnic Malays happy.

Although these problems have to be dealt with, retrenching staff would be politically costly. Thus it could take more than a decade to eliminate excessive numbers of employees, nepotism, and the culture of the Malay agenda.

Steep Learning Curve for New Ministers

Senior civil servants have been used to dealing with ministers who didn’t know their portfolios and were only interested in issues of personal benefit, swinging the balance of power from elected government to the bureaucracy. It is a daunting task for inexperienced ministers who don’t understand procedures and have little in-depth knowledge of their portfolios to manage their ministries.

The Royal Families

There are nine quite diverse royal families in Malaysia, and an Agong (king) who is selected by the Conference of Rulers every five years as head of state. The respective sultans and raja primarily act as constitutional monarchs, and traditionally had a close relationship with the former government. A few members of UMNO and a former Prime Minister had royal blood, and it has long been rumored that backroom deals and concessions were given for favors done for the government of the day.

Governments traditionally kept the royalty happy through bargaining. There were only a few ripples during the 22 years of Mahathir’s previous reign, in which he passed constitutional amendments to cut royal immunity from the law and eliminate veto powers over parliamentary bills.

Royalty have on a few occasions asserted their power independently, as when the Raja of Perlis refused to accept the Barisan Nasional nomination for Chief Minister of Perlis Shahidan Kassim and appointed Md Isa Sabu after the 2008 election. Sultans have sometimes been partisan as was seen in the Perak Constitutional crisis in 2009.

Mahathir’s current spat with Johor’s crown prince over appointment of a new chief minister for the state, Malaysia’s second most populous, shows that royalty remains a potential barrier to reform, especially on matters of Malay position, religion and their own survival. Continuing to placate the royalty will be at the cost of reform.

Deep State?

Just recently Foreign Affairs Minister Daifuddin Abdullah and Federal Territories Minister Khalid Samad talked about a “deep state” within Malaysia. They are referring to a network of royal family members, senior military personnel, senior police officers, GLC office holders, high ranking civil servants, politicians, intellectuals and business people who have a common interest and deep commitment in protecting the Malay position.

They are said to hold regular informal meetings around the country to deal with threats to the perceived order. This could be a discussion with someone who ‘needs to be pulled into line, ”taking action within the law, or even through extrajudicial action through ex-police or ex-military people loyal to the cause.

To recapture the confidence of the electorate who voted Pakatan into power in the last general election, reform is needed on the New Economic Policy which grants financial advantages to bumiputeras. The government must again attempt to put through constitutional amendments to restore the original position of Sabah and Sarawak in the Federation if it is to count on the support of Sabah and Sarawak voters. The electoral system must be overhauled so a future government will not be shackled by the Malay heartland on reform.

It’s very difficult to see the Pakatan Government dominated by Bersatu being too interested in reforming the NEP, or even seriously tackling the inequality of the electoral system.

The state of the civil service is dismissal and the problems haven’t even been defined yet, let alone solutions found. Ministerial experience takes time, some patience is needed here. However criticisms are increasing when Pakatan ministers are seen to behave just like their predecessors. When the sedition Act is now been used like Lese Majeste in Thailand, debate on the role of Royalty in Malaysia will be supressed. Expect a period of testing between the government and Royal Houses to continue until new boundaries are renegotiated. Finally the real secrets of government are still being kept secret. Reform begins with transparency and Mahathir himself doesn’t appear ready to step into that environment.

Author’s note: first published in the Asia Sentinel

Innovator and entrepreneur. Notable author, thinker and prof. Hat Yai University, Thailand Contact: murrayhunter58(at)gmail.com

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Southeast Asia

Ready for the Dry Years: Building Resilience to Drought in Southeast Asia

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Authors: Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana and Lim Jock Hoi*

South-East Asia has long endured severe droughts, which occur on average every five years. The prolonged 2015 and 2018 droughts were the worst on record for two decades. They simultaneously affected more than 70 per cent of the land area, with over 325 million people exposed. No ASEAN member States was spared from the devastating impacts including the disruption to livelihoods and food security, as well as forest fires and haze.

The drivers of drought risk in South-East Asia are inherently complex, resulting in considerable year-to-year variations. Drought is heavily influenced by various climatic drivers, mainly the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD). Yet, despite this complexity, clear trends point to an intensifying drought risk across the region.

New analysis of observed data and climate projections in the second edition of Ready for the Dry Years: Building Resilience to Drought in Southeast Asia, a joint report by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) reveals a statistically significant increase in temperature from 1981-2020, that is expected to continue. This means that drought severity will increase as the climate gets warmer.

This urgency has been enhanced by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has converged with the climate crisis. Both disasters have simultaneously disrupted people’s health, livelihoods and supply chains across the region. These compounding impacts have led to severe economic stress and undermined the ability of the region to deal with current and future disaster risks. It is crucial that we understand how recurrent droughts and the current pandemic are interacting, to identify appropriate policies that can address these crises simultaneously.

ASEAN and ESCAP are working together to prevent the destructive impacts of droughts by promoting a paradigm shift towards more adaptive drought risk management and governance. This cooperation is anchored in a forward-looking, science-based approach to drought risks. The adaptive policy interventions must support the most vulnerable and those furthest behind in the region.

The latest evidence shows that 15 to 25 per cent of the region’s population lives in drought hotspots, with low levels of socio-economic development and high exposure to recurring droughts. Targeted policy interventions in these areas will be essential to prevent the cumulative impacts of recurring droughts, which over time, pose a serious threat to hard-won development gains, particularly the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. These interventions must follow three clear policy tracks to reduce and prevent droughts from occurring; prepare and respond to droughts when they happen; and restore and recover after a drought has passed. Accordingly, they should cover a wide range of policy areas, from the management of food, water and energy systems, to the implementation of early warning systems and drought risk financing.

Governments should capitalize on several opportunities to meet this challenge. Firstly, the cyclical and slow-onset nature of drought provides time for us to take risk-informed actions now, to prevent a drought hazard from becoming a crisis. Secondly, governments can benefit from ASEAN’s extensive experience and expertise through greater regional cooperation, driven by ASEAN’s agenda on drought and the newly adopted ASEAN Declaration on the Strengthening of the Adaptation to Drought. Thirdly, the COVID-19 pandemic offers an opportunity to act now to reduce the impacts of future droughts, by incorporating measures to build resilience into COVID-19 recovery stimulus packages.

The latest developments in science and technology will underpin the successful scale up of drought management interventions. ASEAN member States must take concrete steps now to strengthen national and regional drought monitoring and improve our understanding of the causes of drought. It is now more vital than ever for the region to build resilience to drought. By working together, we can mitigate the impact of future droughts and ensure that the entire ASEAN Community will be ready for the dry years ahead.

On this note, strong partnerships between the United Nations, ASEAN and national governments and other stakeholders are essential to deal with the increasingly complex and uncertain extreme weather and climate situations along with the impacts of transnational slow-onset disaster risks. ASEAN and the United Nations has enjoyed fruitful cooperation through implementation of the Comprehensive Partnership and the Plan of Action. This joint ASEAN-ESCAP work has reflected our cooperation and partnership for the benefit of our peoples.

*Lim Jock Hoi, Secretary-General of ASEAN

UN ESCAP

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Cambodia’s Hun Sen, Asia’s longest-serving PM, continues to quell the Opposition

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Image source: Wikipedia

For the past 35 years, the former French colony of Cambodia is ruled by the 68-year-old Prime Minister Hun Sen, Asia’s longest serving head of the government. His policies are regarded as autocratic, aimed at forcibly limiting the scope for the Opposition to rise politically and come to the forefront of democratic activism.

The latest in line of such policies is the politically-motivated mass trials of more than a hundred members and supporters of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

The 2012-founded CNRP’s unexpected success in the polls of 2013 and 2017 was seen by Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party with trepidation. The democratic opposition party’s performance came amid sustained pressures of intimidation and electoral malpractice.

The CNRP was the only opposition represented in the country’s National Assembly or lower house of the parliament, with 55 out of 123 seats, until November 2017 when the pro-Sen Supreme Court ruled to dissolve the party, ending its five years of existence.

ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights referred to this arbitrary move as the final nail in the coffin for Cambodian democracy. Also, CNRP’s leader Kem Sokha was arrested on fake charges of treason, accusing him of conspiring with the US to overthrow the prime minister and his government, a claim which Washington has categorically rejected.

Strikingly, these moves came ahead of the 2018 election. In the absence of an effective Opposition, Hun Sen’s CPP unsurprisingly won 100% of parliamentary seats in the last elections held in July 2018.

Meanwhile, Sen’s biggest political rival during his three-and-a-half decade rule, Sam Rainsy, has been living in exile in Paris for the past fifteen years. Last year, he was planning to return to Cambodia along with other senior opposition figures via Thailand, but was denied boarding on the Thai flight due to Cambodian threats to the airlines.

However, to Sen and the CPP’s dismay, in January 2020, some former members of the CNRP and other democratic activists announced the formation of a new party named the Cambodian Nation Love Party (CNLP) to continue the CNRP’s legacy and participate in future elections.

The Cambodian people’s undying quest for democratic reforms was exemplified with the formation of a new democratic party. Sen’s previous attempt to prevent the erstwhile CNRP from reconstituting itself under another name, by banning more than 100 of its leading members from politics for a period of five years thus failed to reap sustainable gains.

As the suppression of democratic expression continues for a long time now, relations with the West have deteriorated in the past few years, pushing the ASEAN country further into Beijing’s orbit. The US is also watching the trial closely. Meanwhile, the European Union, a key export destination for Cambodia, has withdrawn special trade privileges given earlier.

Now, the recent summoning of 140 ex-CNRP members and supporters, for charges of conspiracy and attempting to overthrow the government, is the latest political drama in the long set of desperate moves from Hun Sen to cling on to power.

Among those who showed up in court include former opposition senator Thach Setha and Cambodian-American human rights lawyer, Theary Seng. But, there are many who fled into exile believing that they would not be given a fair trial.

Cambodia, bearing the painful memory of a genocide that happened under Pol Pot’s notorious Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s killing 2 million people, saw the country slipping into the hands of another would-be autocratic leader, Hun Sen, in 1985.

The interventions by the United Nations and other human rights-oriented organisations appear to be failing in the Southeast Asian nation as long-established democratic processes drift away and elections are held for namesake, adding up to the political drama. With Sen unwilling to forfeit power, the future prospects for Cambodia seem to be a dreary continuation of the past.

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The 2020 Myanmar Election and China: Push and Pull factor in ‘Paukphaw’ friendship

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National Democratic League (NLD), the ruling party of Myanmar under Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had a landslide victory in the election, which led the party to continue in power for another five years. While Myanmar still struggling with the civil war crisis and without any solution-oriented approach the crisis in Rohingya is nowhere near to end since the breakout of the severe crisis in 2017.

The pre-election and post-election international media coverage and scholarly discussion on Myanmar bring back the China factor in the Myanmar election and general China’s undeniable ties with Myanmar. It’s been argued that a vote for Aung San Suu Kyi would mean the continuation of the unprecedented expansion of China in the country and a vote for multi-ethnic parties would mean resistance to China-backed infrastructure and other projects.

While the backlashes against China among multi-ethnic parties and towards China-led infrastructure projects are omnipresent in Myanmar, however, China has not loosed its heart to engage in the Myanmar peace process. It is also to be noted that China does not only have good relation with NLD but it also keeps its relationship with the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). It also frequently engages itself in discussion with ethnic groups. What China likes to call itself is a “neutral player”. Thus, the election results would not have a significant impact on the China-Myanmar relationship.  

The irk of Western countries towards Myanmar, who initially supported Myanmar’s democratic transition only intensified with the 2020 election as the Myanmar election commission only allowed election in 8 townships in Rohingya state, and denied election in 9 other townships. A joint statement was issued under the leadership of the UK and the US regarding the inclusion of left out Rohingyas into the election along with urging Myanmar to be more serious regarding the global ceasefire and confidence-building steps that include lifting restrictions on access to health, education, and basic services, lifting restrictions on freedom of movement. China’s as under the principle of non-interference abstained from commenting on the exclusion of nine districts in Rohingya state from the election. Chinese government since 2017 has blocked draft resolutions at UNSC regarding international intervention in the crisis in Myanmar. China, however bilaterally posited itself as a mediator between Myanmar and Bangladesh on the repatriation of Rohingyas. A role, China now often seems to play in conflict-ridden countries, for example in the Afghan peace process China plays a similar mediator role.  

Myanmar’s foreign policy after 2015 and China

After the first democratic election in Myanmar in 2015, and NLD’s new manifesto was focused on upholding ‘an active and independent foreign policy’. Under the AngSyu Ki leadership, the foreign policy of Myanmar was considered to be hedging towards a neutralist foreign policy to work together for the benefit of the region on issues relating to regional organizations and programs. Another important pledge in Myanmar’s 2015 foreign policy manifesto was to “to identify and cooperate with other countries on joint economic enterprises of mutual benefit. In particular, to work together for the benefit of the region on issues relating to regional organizations and programs.” Which, as mentioned by Moe Thuzar of Singapore’s ISEAS-YusofIshak Institute is missing in the 2020 Manifesto. The reason for missing the important article from the 2020 manifesto could be Myanmar’s subtle attempt to balance China’s unprecedented presence in the region. As, it also aligns with some of the recent activities of other international actors in Myanmar. Such as high-level delegation visits by India, in October 2020, Myanmar’s growing interest in business engagement with Hong Kong, and eagerness to expand its economic co-operation with other Asian countries such as South Korea and Singapore. All this renewed interest within a span of two months from September to October 2020, before the election in Myanmar also could be an attempt to recover the focus in Myanmar’s democratic transition as opposed to growing clout over claiming Myanmar as an authoritarian regime, especially after 2017.

In terms of Myanmar’s policy towards China, Myanmar could not be seen as prey to China’s economic interest. As, even though the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor is kicking off, Myanmar is still apprehensive regarding embracing all of the Chinese lead projects. According to Irrawaddy times, from China’s originally proposed 40 projects, only nine projects were tentatively agreed to implement from both sides under China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC).

AyungSyu Ki’s diplomatic shrewdness is evident in Myanmar’s China policy. The country despite using China as a shield to defend itself from international intervention, China has not completely able to unlock all economic leverages. China’s patience with Myanmar also relates to the fact of ensuring security in its border province. 

Yang Jiechi, the head of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Chinese Communist Party’s short September visit to Myanmar was an indication that China does not take Myanmar for granted to materialize the economic projects, it has started in the country under the banner of BRI, Especially after the 2017 launch of China Myanmar Economic Corridor. Before NLD came into power in 2015, the anti-Chinese sentiments in Myanmar were more prominent, as it has led to President Thein Sein to halt the Myitsone Dam in 2011. Scholars have argued that Myanmar’s skepticism over Chinese led projects between 2011-2012 could be seen as a reaction to its proximity with the West, as Western sanctions were slowly lifted for a brief period (Ganesan, 2017). Thus, as the Western sanctions grew after 2017, Myanmar hedged towards China. Even though, Myanmar is always dubious about China’s economic diplomacy in Myanmar.

However, Myanmar does return the favor to China diplomatically by recognizing the ‘one-China principle’. Myanmar’s President U Win Myint during the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping in January 2020, states Myanmar’s firm adherence to the One China principle, respects the “one country, two systems” policy China has implemented in Hong Kong and Macao and has always recognized Taiwan as an inalienable part of China’s territory. 

Myanmar is also one of the 53 countries that supported the Hong Kong National Security Law.

China’s multifaceted engagement in Myanmar

The question arises can Myanmar altogether keep China aside, especially from its peace process? As China’s border is at the stake, China is pretty much invested in Myanmar’s peace process. In the third Union Peace Conference, China played important role in pressurizing ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) to attend the peace conference. For China’s interest, the member of the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FNPCC) includes the Northern Alliance EAOs, which are known for attacking commercial interests in northern Shan State and Kachin state that shares a border with China. China-funded the EAOs to attend the conference, which was the first time all the ethnic groups attended it with Chinese aid and diplomacy. Thus, Myanmar can’t shun Chinese help when it comes to the peace process. As of August 2020, the fourth Union peace conference marked the absence of many of the ethnic groups as due to COVID and other factors China was not seen pushing much for their inclusion. Yun Sun noted that the reason could be the absence of any specific request of the Myanmar government to China regarding the same. 

Apart from, engagement with the peace process and supporting Myanmar at the international front regarding the Rohingya crisis, and mediating between Bangladesh and Myanmar, China seem to have a resilient network approach towards Myanmar. This has led China to engage different actors in its diplomacy towards Myanmar. Chinese government NGOs (GONGO)’s such as the China International Poverty Alleviation Foundation (CIPAF), Blue Sky are becoming more present in Myanmar. These GONGO’s are not only providing humanitarian aid but also organizing skill development programs for locals. The Chinese government also sometimes organizes training programs for Myanmar’s diplomats and officials and businessman. Hence, China is more engaging at the grassroots level, a diplomatic style China has adopted from its experience of engagement in unstable states in Africa. 

Thus, as for now, it is both a win-win game for China and Myanmar, as both seem to seek leverages from each other. However, it would interesting to see if more international actors, especially the US lifts the ban on Myanmar and get engage with the country how Myanmar would design its policies towards China. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author.

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