Rachel Brown, Lincoln Davidson, Theresa Lou, Gabriella Meltzer, and Gabriel Walker look at five stories from Asia this week.
1. China releases ambitious plan to clean up polluted soil. In 2014, the Chinese government disclosed that approximately 20 percent of its arable land was contaminated, primarily with heavy metals and agricultural chemicals from industry and farming. This Tuesday, the central government released a long-awaited action plan as a first major step to control and remedy the widespread problem, known as the last of the “three big campaigns” in Chinese environmental protection along with air and water pollution. The plan aims to stabilize and improve soil quality so that 90 percent of contaminated sites are safe for use by 2020, and 95 percent by 2030. It also includes provisions for improving the transparency of soil quality data and emphasizes more severe penalties for polluters. One Greenpeace expert praised the proposal as “pragmatic,” in that it would take steps to ensure that soil pollution would not “lead to major problems” for the millions affected. Since the cost of cleaning up all of China’s polluted soil will top $1 trillion, the plan may prove to be a lucrative opportunity for companies offering soil remediation services in the coming years.
2. Malaysia’s hudud law sparks controversy. Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak backed a bill originally put forth by the Parti Islam se-Malaysia to strengthen Islamic courts and introduce hudud, a system of punishment under Islamic law. The punishments included under hudud can be severe including stoning and amputation, although the prime minster said that Malaysia will not permit anything that will draw blood or cause injury. While the new punishments would apply just in the nation’s syariah courts, which are only for Muslims, the proposal has nonetheless launched considerable debate. Members of parties such as the Malaysian Indian Congress have said the bill violates Malaysia’s constitution and notions of a secular government. Additionally, two non-Muslim ministers in the cabinet, Liow Tiong Lai and Mah Siew Keong, announced they will resign if the bill passes after debate in October. Two east Malaysian states, Sarawak and Sabah, have also threatened to split with the rest of the country over the bill. Some speculate that the prime minister, who is tainted by the 1MDB corruption scandal, views the bill as a way to firm up support among Muslim voters before upcoming by-elections. A proposal that is already sowing discord among members of the ruling coalition and that threatens to inflame ethnic tension hardly seems like the path to success though.
3. Death of environmentalist sparks reflection on police brutality in China. Beijing city authorities are investigating the death of a young environmental official in police custody last month. The man, Lei Yang, was arrested by plainclothes police outside of a Beijing massage parlor on the evening of May 7 on suspicion of soliciting prostitutes. Less than an hour later, police took him to a hospital, claiming he had suffered a heart attack and died. The story is disputed by Lei’s family and friends, who say there is no history of heart disease in his family, claim he was on his way to the airport to receive relatives, and question why police took several hours to notify his family of his death and deleted messages from his phone. In response to these claims, police took to the press, trying to clarify their story, only to have public opinion flare up in anger against them after netizens began questioning inconsistencies in the official report of the incident. The debate over Lei’s death has raised questions about how commonly individuals die in police custody in China and if this incident would have gotten a full investigation if Lei had not been young, a new father, and a graduate of one of China’s best universities.
4. Number of internally displaced Afghans on the rise. Amnesty International reported on Tuesday at a press conference in Kabul that the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) in Afghanistan has doubled since 2013 to roughly 1.2 million. Despite the fact that these are people living in camps lacking sufficient health, food, or water facilities, the financial resources allocated to the fifteen-year crisis are at their lowest point since 2009. The United Nations requested $393 million in humanitarian funding for 2016, but, as of May, has only been able to raise a quarter of this request. The majority of civilians have fled their communities in recent years due to a flagging economy with only 1.9 percent growth and continuing violence carried out by the Taliban. In fact, the UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan has said that 2015 “was the most dangerous year on record for civilians since 2009” with at least eleven thousand casualties, one-fourth of whom were children. Although the Afghan government endorsed the "National Policy on Internally Displaced Persons" in 2014, corruption-ridden institutions and a state lacking capacity and expertise have been unable to deliver on promises made to IDPs and forced evictions are a daily threat.
5. Bangladesh conducts first census of Rohingya. The census, which began this week, will not only allow the Bangladeshi government to gain a more accurate count of how many Rohingya live both inside and outside of refugee camps, but will also give greater insight into the group’s economic circumstances. Estimates of the number of Rohingya in the country range from three hundred thousand to five hundred thousand. A significant number of Rohingya began fleeing from Myanmar to Bangladesh beginning in 2012, and have continued with renewed cycles of violence. While Myanmar agreed to repatriate 2,415 people from Bangladesh in 2014, this has not yet occurred. Some expressed concern that the current census, conducted with assistance from the International Organization for Migration, would serve as preparation to deport Rohingya from Bangladesh. Censuses have proved difficult for the Rohingya in the past; during the 2014 census in Myanmar, the government did not allow individuals to identify as Rohingya and said they should register as Bengali instead.
Bonus: North Korea says “Vote Trump, not that dull Hilary.” Presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump’s latest endorsement came from a surprising source: North Korea. Two weeks after Trump’s speech, during which he declared he would have “no problem speaking to [Kim Jong-un],” a North Korean state media published an op-ed praising Trump as a wise and far-sighted presidential candidate. This is not the first time Trump has expressed unconventional ideas related to U.S. foreign policy on the Korean Peninsula. In a previous interview, Trump stated that he would be willing to withdraw U.S. forces from Japan and South Korea unless they pay more for U.S. military presence. He also suggested that it might not “be a bad thing for [the United States]” for Japan to develop its own nuclear deterrent. Though a senior North Korean official has called Trump’s willingness to engage with Kim merely an insincere gesture for the presidential election, U.S. allies are increasingly worried about Trump’s “America first” agenda.