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Southeast Asia

The Parallels of Totalitarian M.O.



The outlook of totalitarianism today is vastly diverse compared to the early tomid-20th century. Be it the draconian rule of Joseph Stalin commandeering the Communist party or the notorious Nazi campaign under Adolf Hitler, the monochromatic image of an authoritarian mentality no longer exists in modern reality. 

While the shades of a typical dictatorial regime could still be gathered from instances like the recent Coup d’état launched by the Junta: decimating democracy and trampling down the very tenets of humanity under a facade of national security, the diplomatic players like the National People’s Congress (NPC) equally exhibit the horrifying nature of a domineering mentality by demolishing the rudimentary facets underpinning basic rights of the citizens. Whether it’s a half-a-century rule muddled with blood and oppression or a 24-year democratic incarceration tightening the metaphorical noose with each successive day: the modus operandi of a militaristic mindset has evolved with time and the rendition of power today is hardly distinguishable from a political assertion.

Building up with the independence of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), the event was etched as one of the most celebrated struggles of freedom from the British colonial rule post World War II. So was the supposed agreement of ‘One Country Two System’ plan forged between the British and the People’s Republic of China; an apparent liberation of Hong Kong. Both moments proved chaotic despite their golden nature, painting a bleak picture in history.

Whilst Myanmar fell under a spiral of outright militaristic brutality, changing hands for over almost 50 years forward, Hong Kong existed in a phony reality of a free government. The Junta clenched the power openly in Myanmar while China opted to tighten the screws in the background: silently pushing the communist narrative in the peripheries of Hong Kong. The Junta crushed any democratic movement that even insinuated a resistance to its blooming authority in the country. China, on the other hand, adopted a similar strategy but in the guise of reforms through legislation: disqualifying pro-democracy legislators from the parliament of Hong Kong and actively meddling in the house to underpin a pro-Beijing sentiment.

By some miracle, a voice, to the otherwise servile citizenry of Myanmar, was brought to the surface under the banner of the National League of Democracy (NLD). Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the resistance, actively impeded the military rule that coursed smoothly over the preceding decades. Rallies of defiance riddled the streets in 1989 as Suu Kyi emerged as a public figure rejuvenating the dreams of freedom in Myanmar. However, the dreams were short-lived. Despite of a win in the 1990 general elections, leaders of NLD (now parliamentarians) were brought down to their knees as Junta ruthlessly seized the mandate, simultaneously putting the leaders, including Suu Kyi, under house arrest. 

Similar was the fate of pro-democracy activists who challenged the legitimacy of Chinese encroachment in the political affairs of Hong Kong. The communist agenda peddled by president Xi Jinping drubbed the fuming opposition in a relatively subtler manner. Instead of resorting to the same violent tactics adopted by China to pass the law of extradition of the Hongkongese convicts, the NPC routed through a schematic approach by passing the ‘National Security Law’ to safeguard the soundness of the legal system and maintaining the stability in the country. The pretense of this law was majorly used to corner the pro-democracy voices in Hong Kong which increasingly surfaced after the Umbrella protests in 2014. The law proved essential in curbing the accumulated power of such fragments in Hong Kong which propagated over the years even under a prevailing threat of arrest and execution. The law managed to thump down the voices that even managed to hold demonstrations against the local governments, tensile enough to resonate the streets with tens of thousands of protestors and even pushing the NPC to back down on some occasions. Since the clearance of the National Security Law into the legislation, as many as 47 pro-democracy activists have been indicted for subversion, facing sentences verging life imprisonment. Some of the activists have either gone underground or fled to the United Kingdom, paving a clear passage for the pro-Beijing factions to decimate the remaining institutions of the city without an active opposition that once managed to pressure NPC in rescinding the extradition law.

Back to the front of Myanmar, the people’s leader, Aung Suu Kyi, eventually evaded the shackles of the military and formed the government; thus, began a tryst of the nascent democracy with the Junta in 2011. The democracy fledged for the first time since 1962 under the banner of NLD. However, the mechanism of this freedom was as superfluous as the parliament of Hong Kong hailing freedom whilst being controlled by the Peoples Republic. Myanmar’s constitution stood as a symbol of liberation. However, the charter was all but a ruse drafted by the very dictators who were once chided by the NLD. The constitution granted a quarter of the seats in both houses of the parliament to the Junta while NLD celebrated at the behest of the same dictators pulling the ropes. The innocent citizens failed to realize the power games running the paradox, failed to decipher the collusion of dominance. 

A similar gimmick was pulled by the NLC in Hong Kong. By default, only half of the parliament could be elected by the general public while the remaining representation was squelched by the NLC by flooding the Hong Kong parliament with political allies matching the pro-democracy sentiments elected by the general population. The Peoples Republic of China actively leveraged the loopholes and deficiencies in the city’s electoral system to undermine the natural tendencies of the people of Hong Kong, thus, subverting the voice of the Hongkongers that then manifested in the form of protests which were deftly portrayed as a threat to national security and put to rest through legislations. A crafted scheme to divert the blame over the victims and claim control through both nefarious yet diplomatic means.

In Myanmar, the Junta not only disparaged the rights of the civilians but actively massacred the minorities of the state. The genocide of Rohingya is one of the most sinister realities of military brutality as, over the years, thousands of innocent Muslims were butchered in the Rakhine state in the name of ‘Ethnic cleansing’. Many were forced to flee to neighboring countries where they live a dismal life, wailing for their rights. The leader who once chanted against the abject chaos wrecked by the Junta, Aung Suu Kyi instead casted the very Rohingya as terrorists whilst defending the Junta in the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

The brutality, unfortunately, is matched within the boundaries of China. The state of Xinjiang has morphed into a nightmare for a Muslim community called ‘Uyghurs’. Accusing the community of rebellion and terrorism (quite like Rohingya), the pro-communist factions in China have detained between 1 million and 2 million Uighurs in over 1400 extrajudicial internment facilities since 2014. Torture has pervaded the state to levels beyond human limits. Sterilization, forced abortions, and ingestion of birth controls have diminished the birth rate of the community drastically. Suicide rates have turned rampant as China actively engages to eradicate the community to pave way for the dominant Han Chinese community to infiltrate the lucrative regions in Xinjiang. Under the pretense of ‘Educational camps’ China has blatantly campaigned to wipe off the Uighurs: on the same lines as fabricating the books, scriptures, and even practices of Hong Kong for years to weave the communist mentality in the generations whilst gradually eroding the original sentiments to the point that submission is the only option.

In recent reality, the Junta has overthrown the dummy government in Myanmar and regained control of the institutions. China, on the other hand, still actively denies its genocidal actions in Xinjiang and plans to pass legislation in Hong Kong to further exploit the electoral system to completely eliminate any last remaining remnants of democracy in the parliament. Whilst Junta has claimed a cumulative of 60 lives over persistent protests ranging since the launch of the coup in February, China has sped up its schemes to expedite the absorption of Hong Kong, paying no caution to the wind as the pro-Beijing factions simultaneously continue to squeeze the minorities like Uyghurs to keep the communist agenda afloat. In today’s day and age, it is difficult to bifurcate between legality and intervention, democracy and dictatorship no longer differ in appearance: totalitarians do not always don uniforms and arm artillery~The dictatorial mindset is enough to wreak havoc over the fundamentals of freedom and democracy.

The author is an active current affairs writer primarily analyzing the global affairs and their political, economic and social consequences. He also holds a Bachelor’s degree from Institute of Business Administration (IBA) Karachi, Pakistan.

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Southeast Asia

Transforming Social Protection Delivery in the Philippines through PhilSys



Social protection helps the poor and vulnerable in a country, especially in times of crises and shocks that may threaten the well-being of families. When COVID-19 hit and quarantines began, the Philippines needed a massive expansion of social protection coverage to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic. Countries that already had good and inclusive digital infrastructure (including internet connectivity, digital identification, digital payments and integrated data ecosystems) were better equipped to quickly adapt their social protection programs to meet urgent needs. They also fared better in maintaining continuity of services when in-person interactions could be moved online.

For the Philippines, it presented a challenge, and strain was felt in the delivery of social assistance under the Bayanihan acts.

Fortunately, the country is moving to address digital infrastructure gaps, including through the development of the Philippine Identification System (PhilSys). PhilSys is one of the most complex – but also game-changing – projects undertaken in the country.

The Philippines is one of only 23 countries without a national ID system. As a result, Filipinos need to present multiple IDs (and often specific IDs that many do not have) when transacting, including with government, creating barriers to services for the most vulnerable among the population. Information across government databases is often inconsistent. These undermine the Philippines’ transition to a digital economy, society and government. The PhilSys will help address this by providing all Filipinos with a unique and verifiable digital ID (and not just a card), while also adopting innovative and practical data protection and privacy-by-design measures.

The new partnership agreement between the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) and the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) for DSWD’s adoption of the PhilSys is a milestone for the Philippines’ social protection and digital transformation journeys. DSWD will be the first agency to utilize the secure biometric and SMS-based identity authentication offered by the PhilSys to uniquely identify and verify its beneficiaries. Pilots with the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) and Assistance to Individuals in Crisis Situations (AICS) program will begin within the next few months, before PhilSys is used by all DSWD programs.

Adopting PhilSys will enable DSWD to further accelerate its digital transformation. By automating verification and business processes for its programs and services, DSWD will be able to improve the impact while reducing the costs of social protection programs. PhilSys will assist with identifying and removing ghost, duplicate and deceased beneficiaries to address leakages, fraud and corruption, and thus boost transparency and public trust. The unified beneficiary database that DSWD is developing with the help of PhilSys will contain up-to-date and consistent beneficiary information across all programs.

The World Bank is supporting these DSWD initiatives through the Beneficiary FIRST (standing for Fast, Innovative and Responsive Service Transformation) social protection project.

Importantly, these changes will translate to benefits for Filipinos.

Those who interact with the DSWD will face less paperwork, queues, hassle, costs and time. With their PhilSys ID, they will also have better access to a bank or e-money account where they can potentially receive payments directly in the future, promoting financial inclusion. Indeed, more than 5 million low-income Filipinos have already opened bank accounts during PhilSys registration. And the resources that DSWD saves can be redirected to addressing the needs of beneficiaries who live in remote areas without easy access to internet and social protection programs.

Beyond the advantages for social protection, the digital transformation PhilSys will catalyze in the public and private sectors can be fundamental to the Philippines’ pivot to reviving the economy and getting poverty eradication back on track. Success in utilizing PhilSys for social protection will have a significant demonstration effect in accelerating digital transformation by other government agencies as well as the private sector.

But digital transformation is not easy. It is not about simply digitizing things. It is about re-imagining how things can be done for the better, with technology as an enabler. Digitizing bad systems or processes just leads to bad systems or processes digitalized. Digital transformation therefore depends on and can only be as fast as process re-engineering and institutional and bureaucratic changes to overcome inertia.

Digital transformation must also be inclusive to avoid exacerbating digital divides or creating new ones.

The effort will be worth it. And the World Bank is firmly committed to scale up our support to the Philippines’ digital transformation agenda. A digital Philippines will not only be more resilient to future shocks – whether they are natural disasters or pandemics – but also be poised to take advantage of the opportunities brought by COVID-19 (shift of activities online) and those that lie ahead in the post COVID-19 world.
 first published in The Philippine Star, via World Bank

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Southeast Asia

Bringing “the people” back in: Forest Resources Conservation with Dr. Apichart Pattaratuma



With a lifetime dedicated to forest conservation, Dr. Apichart Pattaratuma reflected back on his career and what forest management means to Thailand. In the year 1978, he received the prestigious United Nations and Ananda Mahidol Foundation Scholarship to attain higher education at the College of Forest Resources, University of Washington, Seattle, USA. After graduating in the year 1985, he returned to Thailand with a commitment to teach and research at the Department of Forest Management, Faculty of Forestry, Kasetsart University until his retirement with full professor position. The excerpts below encapsulated a conversation between Dr. Pattaratuma and Dr. Rattana Lao on forest conservation.

Beyond the classroom: An anthropological perspective

I dedicated my life to study the anthropological aspect of forest management to His Majesty King Bhumibol Aduyadej of Thailand. I studied cultural dimensions of forest management in many areas of Thailand. I began with Huay Hin Dam with Karen hill tribe (Pra-ka-ker -yor) Suphanburi Province. I tried to review the international literature on land use and combine it with in-depth interviews with the hill tribes to understand the cultural dimensions of their livelihoods. I observed how they built their houses and how their managed their forest. There are three characteristics of the Karen tribe. Firstly, they lived on small plots of lands and their houses are very small. Secondly, they conserve their forest land with water resources. Thirdly, they refrain from using pesticides. Culturally, there is a clear division of labor amongst men and women. While men will clear the lands, women will cultivate agricultural goods such as papaya, guava and banana. There is limited drugs use.

It’s liberating to do research beyond the classrooms. To observe real live, real changes. I learnt more than I set out to do and they are all interrelated to a bigger picture.

Intersectionality between culture, migration and forest management

Karen hill tribes migrate in a cluster. There are more than 3 families migrating together to the new fertile forest land. They will migrate together when land is exhausted. This is most evident in the borderland between Thailand and Myanmar. Back then they did not have official documentation but slowly they do. There has been an influx of hill tribes from Myanmar to Thailand due to political conflicts from Myanmar. From my observation, they are very conscious about forest conservation and resources management. They said: “no forest, no water”. They are compelled to protect the forest from pesticides in order to keep the water clean and their health well. They are very logical. Although they grow rice, it’s very subsistent and only for household consumption. They don’t grow rice for commercial purpose. This is the land use for Karen hill tribe.

I also studied in Kampeangpetch, Nan, Chiang Rai, Phrae and Lumphun. Each place is diverse and the situation is really different. Some local tribes are preserving of the forests, others are more detrimental. We need an in-depth study to understand the cultural dimension of land use for each tribe.

The heart of forest management

People. It’s the people. People must particulate in the forest management. Otherwise, it is very difficult. When we go into each location, we must approach people and bring them into the conversation. I have tried to do all my life. Civil servants must approach people, not other way around. People are looking up to our action. They look into our sincerity and commitment. If they see that we are committed to study about their livelihood, they will share the right information and they will help.

Indonesia is a good example of successful forest management. The state get people involved. In every kilometer, there are four actors involved in protecting the forest: soldiers, policemen, villager and forester. They help each other protecting the wildlife and forest resources.

Can legal change help the people?

Legal relaxation can help lessen the pressure between man and forest. Before the legal requirement was very strict. Any kind of forest intrusion would be caught including small hunters gatherers. I think that is too strict. That put people against the law. People should be able to go into the forest and pick up some mushroom and bamboo and some wild products to lessen their poverty and hunger.

As long as people are still hungry, it’s very hard to manage the forest. There must be a way to balance the two: people livelihood and forest management.

Capitalists invasion

Much of the legal attention is paid to small farmers use of the forests. However, the real issue is big corporations invade the forest. This is very significant. Deforestation happens mostly from large scale corporation rather than small scale farmers. There are many loopholes in the system that lead to systemic corruption and mismanagement of land use. Many wealthy houses are built on large scale timber to exemplify wealth and status. It saddens me.

Would the next generation get to see large tree in the forest?

Less likely.

What can we do to protect the forest?

There are many organizations that responsible for the forest protection such as Royal Forest Department, Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation and Department of Marine and Coastal Resources. But the manpower are not sufficient to cover the large area of forest in Thailand. There are not enough permanent manpower to go on the ground and protect forest resources, while the intruders to National Parks are equipped with more advanced weaponry.

To protect the forest, the state must be committed and the people must participate in the process.

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Southeast Asia

Possibilities for a Multilateral Initiative between ASEAN-Bangladesh-India-Japan in the Indo-Pacific



In the Indo-Pacific context, there are multiple partners all aiming for economic fulfillment along with maritime security and safety. Countries ranging from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea seem to be more worried about the freedom of navigation and overflight as Chinese aggressiveness is rampant and expansionist is a scary idea. The region from India to Bangladesh has a huge potential of interconnectedness and if connected to the Southeast Asian countries, it would also help in India’s Act East Policy and India’s neighbourhood first policy and further help out in strengthening relations to the far East as in Japan. All these countries combined can create an interconnected chain of mutual and common interests with balanced ideas of economic, military, social, political and people to people exchanges which would in turn help develop a multilateral.

Who can lead this Multilateral Initiative and Why?

Japan can be the prime crusader for this multilateral as it has excellent relations with all the parties and is the pioneer of the free and open Indo-Pacific. Japan has excellent diplomatic, economic and infrastructural relations with all the possible partners as it provides ODA loans, aid and assistance. Japan being the pioneer of Free and Open Indo-Pacific can be guiding force for this multilateral in the maritime domain which would help create a new regional grouping consisting of South Asia and Southeast Asia primarily based on maritime. Japan is the only developed country among all the other players and with its expertise, it can surely guide, help, support and take along all the countries. Japan most importantly is a non-aggressive nation and believes in mutual respect unlike China. Japan has no dept trap issue unlike China. Japan is known for quality in infrastructural development and with their expertise in science, technology and innovation can well lead these countries. Japan’s reputation of honesty, no corruption and extreme detailed paper work is commendable.

What are the benefits from this Multilateral Initiative?

This multilateral would help connect the Indian Ocean (India) to Bay of Bengal (Bangladesh) to the South China Sea (ASEAN) and the East China Sea (Japan)- would help in the creation of water interconnected network from South Asia to Southeast Asia. This could be the first regional maritime grouping covering South Asia to Southeast Asia. This maritime grouping can create a network of ports which could also become an economic hub and intersecting points of investment and infrastructural development (already Japan is investing in a big way in all these countries). India’s Northeast would get a greater economic, infrastructural and people-to-people exchange as it would connect India to Bangladesh and Myanmar. Mekong Ganga Economic Corridor already exists and could pave the way for Bangladesh and Kolkata greater port exchange which could be developed as nodal points in Bay of Bengal and would help in easy and cheaper freight. These countries can also aim for the strengthening of defence and security relations in the domain of maritime and can also aim for a logistics support agreement and a network from Indian Ocean to Bay of Bengal to South China Sea to East China Sea and would help tackle Chinese aggressiveness and China has been mapping the waters in all these waters and so, to protect one’s territorial sovereignty and integrity, defence relations must be build.

An ecosystem based on Digitalization, Science, technology and Innovation can be formed which would help create a united cyber security law and all this could ultimately lead to the 4th Industrial Revolution. South Asia and Southeast Asia would be lucrative markets and labour distribution and generation of employment can be done through the ports, logistics network, economic and trade exchanges and interactions. This multilateral would form a resilient supply chain in the region of South Asia and Southeast Asia in the domain of Indo-Pacific. Marine economy can be a major factor of this multilateral initiative as it would be a major success in the maritime domain. This multilateral can also work on vaccine diplomacy and work on future health hazards mechanisms.

Why Bangladesh must think of adopting the Indo-Pacific Strategy?

Bangladesh must adopt the Indo-Pacific strategy and create its own objects and call it the SAMODHRO NITI. Bangladesh has the capability of being an excellent maritime power and it is a major leader in the Bay of Bengal and to be an effective part of this multilateral. The Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt (BIG-B) would be a key binder. Bangladesh must realise that China by building dams on the Brahmaputra River would actually create issues for Bangladesh’s fishery catchment areas as it would get inundated with salt water and to stop that Bangladesh must work to strengthen its position to tackle China. Also, China could also create water issues for Bangladesh and Bangladesh must look at ways to safe guard its water resources. Thereby, Bangladesh must work towards countries who face similar issues with China. The Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor is an excellent example of cooperation but this Multilateral if formed can be a stronger initiative and Bangladesh benefits from it as being a hub of textile, leather and pharmaceuticals and this Multilateral has all the efficiency of becoming an economic hub which would benefit Bangladesh too. If Bangladesh adopts an Indo-Pacific Policy, then its market in Japan, the US and Europe would become stronger due to shared interests and can also sign a Free Trade Agreement with EU like Vietnam did.

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