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Southeast Asia

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

Ms. Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana is United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).

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Southeast Asia

A Story about a World Heritage in Bali

Alek Karci Kurniwan

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Monday, June 29, 2020, when you open the Google search engine, you will see a picture of a farmer sitting in a hut. His eyes lead to green fields. Google Doodle displays an image with the tagline “Celebrating Cultural Heritage, Subak”.

Subak is a tradition of the Balinese, Indonesia. When you visit the countryside in Bali, you will see a fields at the foot of the mountain with neat watering. The Subak irrigation system is able to accommodate the socio-technical dynamics of the local community.

The contours of the mountainous land in Bali make irrigation very difficult, along with the dense population. So water resources must be managed with the principles of justice, openness, harmony and togetherness, distributed in accordance with the benefits for the people. By combining all of these elements, Balinese farmers succeeded in managing the most efficient agriculture in the archipelago.

Reporting from Historia, written information about the practice of farming the Balinese people was first found in the Sukawarna Epigraphlisted to 882 Çaka (Çaka Era began in 78 AD). In that epigraph there is the word ‘huma’, which at that time was commonly used to refer for moving fields. Then in the Trunyan Epigraph dated 891 Çaka, the word “serdanu” was written, which means the head of lake water affairs.

The history of Bali Subak is also recorded in the Bebetin Epigraph (896 Çaka) and the Batuan Epigraph (1022 Çaka). In the two epigraphs, it explained that there was a special group of fields workers in Bali, their expertise is to make a water tunnel. Archaeological evidence shows that the Balinese people have known how to manage irrigation around the 10th century.

In administering the Subak System, the Subak Administrators are guided by customary law which is inherited by their ancestors. Subak Customary Law is based on the teachings of Tri Hita Karana, interpreted as “Three things that cause the prosperity”. The three causes of well-being are the harmonious relationship between human and God, the harmonious relationship with fellow human beings, and the harmonious relationship between human and nature and the environment.

How does the Subak System work?

The Bali Subak system works by using a continuous and rotating irrigation method. In the Subak System, farmers are organized and divided into two or three groups of fields. Each field group receives a fair distribution of irrigation water.

If subak areas are divided into two groups of fields (Group I and Group II for example), then in the rain season (First Planting Season/MT I) both groups receive irrigation water. Whereas in the dry season (MT II), group I planted rice and group II planted crops. Then in MT III, group I planted crops and group II planted rice. That is an example of the practice of the rotating method (in the local language called “nugel bumbung”).

If the fields are divided into three groups, in the rainy season all groups receive irrigation water, but in the dry season the upstream group ( fields in the upstream) receives the first water, then in the next growing season it gives to the group in the middle, and finally the downstream group.

In total Bali has around 1,200 water reservoirs and between 50 and 400 farmers manage water supplies from one water source. This property consists of five sites that exemplify the interconnected natural, religious and cultural components of a traditional system, where the Subak system is still fully functional, where farmers still plant rice in a traditional Balinese way, without the aid of fertilizers or pesticides, and where all landscapes are considered to have sacred connotations.

These sites are the Highest Water Temple of Ulun Danu Batur Temple on the shores of Lake Batur whose crater lake is considered the origin of every spring and river. Then the Subak Landscape in the Pakerisan River, the oldest known irrigation system in Bali. There is also the Angga Batukaru Chess Landscape with a terrace mentioned in the 10th century epigraph as the one of the oldest in Bali and the first example of classical Balinese temple architecture. Next, Taman Ayun Water Temple, is the largest and has a unique architectural shape.

This property fully covers the main attributes of the Subak system and the significant impact that own by Balinese landscape. The processes that shape the landscape, in the form of multilevel irrigation agriculture managed by the Subak system, still last for thousands of years. Agricultural areas are planted sustainably by local people and their water supply is managed democratically. therefore, UNESCO has declared Subak as one of the world’s cultural heritages.

As a World Cultural Heritage, we must protect and preserve Subak. The government has a mission to succeed food sovereignty, must be seized in policies pro to farmers, especially for those that produce our food. Farmers must prosper, so the young generation does not embarrasses to be a farmer.

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Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Australia amid the rising tide of secessionism in the region

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Secessionist tendencies in Indonesia’s province of West Papua have recently been attracting a great deal of attention from experts and human rights activists.

The main reason for the international criticism of the Indonesian authorities is human rights violations and the suppression of the fundamental freedoms of the indigenous people of West Papua. In 2018, the United Nations even sent to Jakarta a report on this subject filed by its Special Rapporteurs.  In 2019, the UN once again voiced its concern about the Indonesian authorities’ violent crackdown on the Papuans . Jakarta, however, insists that security forces act strictly in line with the law.

The province of West Papua is rich in mineral resources and precious metals. Extensive mining activity, coupled with the implementation of the government’s transmigration program of relocating landless people from densely populated areas of the country to less populous ones, and the infrastructure modernization program, has socially marginalized the rural Papuan population. Roads built in the virgin forests to serve industrial projects and the influx of migrants from the overpopulated Java Island are destroying the Papuans’ way of life and changing the traditional ethnic balance. In large cities, Papuans are a minority and their numbers are declining.

The internationalization of the problem of Indonesia’s Papuan population has much to do with the geopolitical considerations of various stakeholders in view of the important strategic position of both West Papua and Indonesia as a whole.

As one of the founding members of ASEAN, Indonesia is shaping the agenda of the organization’s strategy in the Pacific, is influential in the Muslim world and is the largest market in Southeast Asia. Moreover, Indonesia factors in very heavily in the foreign policy strategy of the United States, Australia and China.

The province of West Papua borders on Papua New Guinea, which is separated from Australia by the Torres Strait, which is a mere 152 kilometers wide at its narrowest extent. Papua New Guinea and Australia both recognize Indonesia’s sovereignty over West Papua. In some cases the former even provides military assistance to Jakarta.

Papua New Guinea’s position is dictated by its reluctance to destabilize the region and, therefore, to spoil relations with the economically developed Australia (in 2018-2020, the volume of Australian humanitarian aid to and investments in PNG exceeded $1 billion) , alienate Indonesia, which will inevitably impact the country’s economy, as well as by various problems associated with a high degree of ethnic disunity of the Papuan population, which consists of numerous tribes. Another important factor is the pro-independence sentiment in Bougainville – the main island of Papua New Guinea’s autonomous region of Bougainville. In December 2019, 97.7 percent of the local population voted for the independence of their island. Therefore, Port Moresby is just as wary of Bougainville’s separatism as Jakarta is of West Papuan separatism.

However, Papua New Guinean politicians have in recent years been talking more about West Papua than they did before. While the country is trying to come forward as a regional leader with the right to vote on a number of key issues, and is even providing assistance to refugees from West Papua, it simultaneously maintains close working contacts with Jakarta in an effort to keep this problem within the regional confines.) Fully aware of the potential problems that the growing separatist sentiment in the region is fraught with, Port Moresby is generally content with the current status quo.

Australia’s position on these issues reflects Canberra’s realization of the predictability of Jakarta’s actions towards West Papua and of threats to regional stability if this Indonesian province declares its independence from the rest of the country. The fact is that West Papua simply lacks the socio-political strength to ensure its sovereignty.

The problem of West Papua is negatively impacting Indonesia’s image in relations with the Melanesian states. West Papuans, just like the people of Papua New Guinea, see themselves as part of Melanesia with shared history, racial origin and way of life. For them Melanesian identity is supra-ethnic and supra-national, helping people to overcome tribal disunity and feel as part of a larger (6.5 million people living in an area of 940,000 sq. km.) ethno-cultural community with the right to vote in the international arena.

The Melanesian states’ increasingly active role in international politics has not been lost on the United States, France, Australia, New Zealand, China, and, to a certain extent, India. By internationalizing the problems of West Papua, some Melanesian leaders are trying to attract additional interest to the region from the leading powers by gaining more room for diplomatic maneuver on issues of regional security. The Melanesian governments’ position on this problem may vary, however, ranging from support for the aspirations of the people of West Papua (Vanuatu) to backing Indonesia in the hope of getting additional financial preferences from Jakarta (Fiji).

The problem of West Papua may someday be taken up by the opposition in neighboring Papua New Guinea in a bid to bring into play the international “heavyweights,” who would support the opposition in exchange for its demands for sovereignty/broad autonomy of this western Indonesian province.

As for the Melanesian countries, their positon will depend on the current political situation as the degree of their diplomatic support for or rejection of West Papua is directly proportional to the level of their relationship with Indonesia and Australia. The less amiable their relationship with Jakarta and Canberra is, the higher the likelihood of their support for secessionist aspirations in that province.

From a pragmatic standpoint, experts point out that the problem of West Papua can’t be solved any time soon, since it is too big and necessitates a radical review of both the political and economic agenda, which is something no one is now ready for. The only ones that the West Papuans’ desire for independence can possibly resonate with are those who want to change the current balance of power in the Pacific region.

From our partner International Affairs

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Malaysia in the geopolitical picture of Southeast Asia

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The geopolitical changes currently unfolding in Southeast Asia underscore Malaysia’s strategic importance for the leading world powers.

Until recently, the foreign policy pursued by Kuala Lumpur was a relatively restrained one, dictated by the priority of the domestic political agenda, above all the need to politically and economically “cement” the western and eastern parts of the country and the maze of island territories in between, in a bid to stave off the possible rise of secessionist and autonomist sentiment.

Malaysia managed to avoid straining relations with foreign partners thus saving resources for domestic politics. Nowadays, however, Kuala Lumpur is pursuing a more active foreign policy in search for a favorable balance of interests in view of US displeasure with the actions of China and Russia (including Moscow’s military-technical cooperation, and the arms market in Southeast Asia).

To better understand the nuances of Malaysia’s position in the world, one should take into account the regional interests of Singapore and the Philippines. Last year, Singapore and the United States renewed a pact granting US forces access to naval and air bases in the city state until 2035.

Washington and Singapore claim that what they have is a security partnership, not a military alliance. Singapore deliberately calls the base used by the Americans a Singaporean, not an American one. This means that despite Singapore’s strategic importance for the US presence in the South China Sea, the country is still trying to avoid Washington’s strong embrace and have room for a geopolitical maneuver.

Meanwhile, to some extent the pace of US-Singaporean defense contacts depends on the state of Washington’s cooperation with the Philippines. Because the Philippines blocks China’s passage from the South China Sea into the Pacific Ocean, losing Manila as an ally would weaken Washington’s strategic grip on the region. Therefore, the growing cooperation between Washington and Singapore is directly proportional to the slowdown in the US’ cooperation with Manila. This means that the United States wants to expand cooperation with Singapore to make up for an emerging stagnation in relations with the Philippines.

However, Singapore sticks to a multi-pronged policy of building up ties,   including with Beijing. As soon as this policy becomes too multi-vector for Washington’s choice, Malaysia will acquire a new key importance for the latter, which is exactly what the US is now preparing for.  

Russia is viewed by Malaysia as the third link in its foreign policy strategy (after the US and China). The Southeast Asian countries’ overdependence on US military supplies is undermining their defense capability, since a refusal to kowtow to Washington is fraught with unilateral sanctions, including a suspension of arms deliveries (as has already been the case with Thailand and Indonesia).

Modernization of the armed forces and making the domestic defense industry increasingly self-sufficient, with only minimal reliance on external assistance, are the key points of Malaysia’s national defense policy. What is important, however, is that Moscow and Kuala Lumpur see eye to eye on the future of Southeast Asia, which they view as a territory of peaceful cooperation and the supremacy of international law. Therefore, Russia and Malaysia are expanding their cooperation and are all set to keep it going in the years to come.

From a strategic standpoint, Malaysia needs to control the situation in the seas of Sulu and Sulawesi, given the scale of pirate activity in the region. To do this it needs to have pertinent accords with its Philippine and Indonesian neighbors. However, the Philippines’ claim to the Malaysian state of Sabah is complicating the bilateral dialogue.  Looking for outside support, Kuala Lumpur would like to see other countries, including Russia, playing a bigger role in the activities of ASEAN, of which both Malaysia and the Philippines are members. This does not mean a desire to bring a third party into the debate about the status of Sabah. Rather, it is a wish to establish a multi-stakeholder national security structure to strengthen the country’s political and diplomatic hand in dealing with neighbors. Moreover, the fact that the United States, Australia and Indonesia want to participate in patrolling the Sulu and Sulawesi Seas does not seem to clash with Kuala Lumpur’s vision of the format of such a mission.

Malaysia is among the three most developed ASEAN nations, along with Indonesia and Singapore. Russia’s trade volume with each of them is in the ballpark of $3 billion. Presently, Kuala Lumpur is Moscow’s important economic and political partner in ASEAN and its regional structures.

From our partner International Affairs

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