Rachel Brown, Lincoln Davidson, Ariella Rotenberg, and Gabriel Walker look at the top stories in Asia this week.
1. Human trafficking investigator flees Thailand. Maj. Gen. Paween Pongsirin, a senior Thai police officer leading an investigation on human trafficking in Thailand, has fled the country to seek asylum in Australia. After more than thirty graves, which are believed to contain the remains of trafficked Rohingyas, were discovered near the Malaysian border this summer, Paween had been tasked with investigating the site and the trafficking network responsible. His investigation resulted in more than 150 arrest warrants and other charges against individuals in Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Thailand, including a senior lieutenant general in the Thai Army. Paween reported that the inquiry had been shut down prematurely, and that he now feared retribution from traffickers and corrupt authorities implicated for the crimes. The Thai government is considering whether to bring a defamation case against Paween, as it did recently against two journalists for reporting the Thai navy’s involvement in human trafficking. In a report published earlier this year, the U.S. Department of State found that the Thai government “does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, and is not making significant efforts to do so.”
2. China merges state-owned enterprises. Multiple mergers among Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) were announced this week. On Tuesday it was revealed that the China Metallurgical Group will be incorporated into China Minmetals, although the timing to complete the merger is unknown. The State Council has also reportedly approved the merger of two shipping companies, China Shipping Group Co. and China Ocean Shipping Co., which will result in the fourth-largest shipping line in the world. Such mergers are hoped to reduce competition between firms and improve economies of scale. Metals and shipping SOEs were recently identified as among those with the worst financial-risk ratings, so it is not shocking that firms in these sectors would be targeted for early restructuring. Not all recent mergers have improved competitiveness, however. In June, two state-owned train makers, the CSR Corp. and CNR Corp., merged but thus far the year-on-year revenue for the new combined company has fallen. The mergers come in the wake of overall SOE reforms presented by the Chinese government in September that seek to promote private investment, establish investment mechanisms for state capital, and potentially restructure certain SOEs to create national champions. SOEs in the telecom and air transport sectors are now also allegedly being considered for mergers.
3. Anonymous hacks Abe’s site to retaliate for whaling. The hacking group Anonymous took credit for temporarily disabling Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s personal website yesterday, claiming the act was a retaliation for Japan’s decision to resume scientific whaling activities last week. Although an investigation as to whether Anonymous was indeed responsible for the cyberattack is still ongoing, Anonymous has hacked the government sites of other whaling countries before, like Iceland, and a Twitter account representing the group threatened to continue if Japan did not discontinue the program. Despite a 2014 International Court of Justice ruling that deemed one of Japan’s “scientific” whaling programs illegal, last week’s program, which sent a fleet to Antarctica’s Southern Ocean to kill 333 minke whales, is new. One scientist called the whaling campaign the same old story with a different name—like putting “lipstick on a pig.” In total, thirty-three countries, including the United States, have protested against Japan’s new whaling program, and Australia has considered taking legal action to put an end to it.
4. Afghan president visits Pakistan. On Wednesday, leaders from Pakistan and Afghanistan announced plans to resume peace talks between the two governments, although the Taliban has not yet agreed to the talks. The announcement was made at the annual Heart of Asia conference where Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani met. Ghani’s visit to Pakistan coincided with a two-day Taliban siege of the Kandahar airport, which left more than fifty people dead and signaled a growing Taliban resurgence. Ghani risked political criticism by engaging with Pakistan, an unpopular nation among many Afghans, to attempt to restart the peace talks. Tensions persist between the two countries over a variety of issues including whether Pakistan harbors terrorists and Pakistan’s desire to repatriate approximately two million Afghan refugees currently in the country. Rahmatullah Nabil, the head of the Afghan intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security, resigned this week amidst disagreements surrounding Ghani’s policy toward Pakistan. In July, Pakistan hosted an initial round of peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, but the second round was postponed after the announcement of Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s death.
5. Myanmar opens stock exchange. After two decades of delays, Myanmar finally launched its first stock exchange, the Yangon Stock Exchange, on Wednesday. Prior to this, Myanmar was the largest economy in Asia without a stock exchange. The move is an important step towards liberalization for a country that has languished in recent decades due to mismanagement by a military junta; officials hope the exchange will help spur investment and boost the economy. Progress will come slowly, however. Although six companies have already been approved to list on the market, they will not start trading until next spring, and foreign firms are still barred.
Bonus: The Islamic State produces a new propaganda song, this time in Chinese. This week, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, released a war chant in Mandarin calling for Chinese Muslim men to take up arms. Al-Hayat Media Center, the ISIS-run media group, released the four-minute acapella chant known in Islam as a “nasheed” that advocates death in service of Islam. By using Mandarin for the song might indicate that ISIS is aiming to attract a broader base of Chinese Muslims, whereas previous propaganda has been aimed at China’s Muslim Uighur minority in the Uyghur language. The spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry said in response to the video that “in the face of terrorism, no country can stand alone.”