Rachel Brown, Lincoln Davidson, Sungtae “Jacky” Park, Ariella Rotenberg, Ayumi Teraoka, and Gabriel Walker look at the top stories in Asia this week.
1. Afghans protest beheadings. Thousands of protesters gathered outside the presidential palace in Kabul on Wednesday following the beheading of seven Afghans in the southern state of Zabul. The individuals were taken hostage in the central city of Ghazni and relocated as many as fifty-six times before being killed with razor wire. An affiliate of the Islamic State group in Afghanistan is believed to have conducted the beheadings, although it has not yet taken responsibility. The demonstrators carried with them the coffins of the slain civilians who were all Hazaras, a predominately Shia ethnic minority that makes up approximately 15 percent of the Afghan population and had previously been persecuted by the Taliban. Now the group appears to be targeted by other Sunni fundamentalists as well. While the Islamic State group in Afghanistan is only loosely affiliated with the group of the same name in Iraq and Syria, it is estimated to have between one thousand and three thousand fighters now in Afghanistan. The largely peaceful protesters criticized Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s ability to handle the current security situation, and some called for his resignation. The president responded to the protests in a national address in which he pledged to find and punish the responsible parties.
2. Myanmar takes a step towards “democracy.” On November 8, Myanmar held the first national elections for its legislature since the country began its transition from military to civilian rule in 2011. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) has won approximately 80 percent of the contested seats, more or less handing her party a safe majority in parliament and the ability to choose the country’s next president. Both Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, and army chief, Min Aung Hlaing, have endorsed the results. The military, however, still appoints 25 percent of the seats in both the upper and lower houses of Myanmar’s parliament, effectively giving the military power to block any constitutional amendment, which requires at least 75 percent of the votes. Based on the 2008 constitution, the military also controls Myanmar’s defense, home affairs, and border affairs ministries and could seize power at any moment by declaring “a state of emergency.” Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD will be left dealing with high expectations and numerous difficult problems, which include social, economic, and ethnic issues, and the question of how Myanmar should scale back its ties with China and build more constructive relations with the West. Overall, the election was a positive development for the country, but the world may find Aung San Suu Kyi far less inspiring over time as she now has to govern and not simply inspire.
3. Nepal’s border blockade results in shortages of food and medicine. Nepal is quickly running low on medicine, fuel, and other essential goods due to a blockade caused by protestors on its border with India. Nepal, a landlocked country, relies heavily on imports from India to sustain its core functions. The leadership at Nepal’s largest public medical facility in Kathmandu predicted that the current supply of medicine will run out within a week. Nepalese leadership blames India for encouraging the protests by Nepal’s ethnic minorities, the Madhesi and Tharu, in the country’s southern plains of Terai. These groups are protesting against the new Nepalese constitution, demanding they retain significant control over the regions in which they live. India denies playing an active role in the behavior of Nepal’s southern ethnic minority groups but has expressed concern over their treatment at the hands of the Nepalese government. Meanwhile, the situation threatens to become a major humanitarian disaster and has provoked commentary by human rights activists as well as United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
4. Democratic Party of Japan begins to dissolve. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), Japan’s largest opposition party that ruled the country from 2009 to 2012, appears to be falling apart. On Wednesday, core members of the DPJ, current Policy Chief Goshi Hosono and former President Seiji Maehara held a talk with Kenji Eda, former president of the Japan Innovation Party (JIP), and agreed to work for the dissolution of the two parties by the end of 2015. The move is to form a new opposition force powerful enough to challenge the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) coalition and Komeito in next summer’s Upper House election. The DPJ has been suffering from low support ever since it lost office, and the most recent polls by Japan’s major newspapers show that while support for the LDP hovers between 34 and 40 percent, that for the DPJ only remains between 7 and 8 percent. The conservative force within DPJ has been critical of the current leadership’s pursuit to align with the Japanese Communist Party and its failure to deepen the Diet debate over security legislation bills that passed in September.
5. Congressional delegation visits Tibet. During a legislative exchange trip to China last week, seven members of the U.S. Congress, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, visited Tibet. In the past, Pelosi has been an outspoken critic of rights abuses by the Chinese government in the province, saying that ignoring the plight of Tibetans would mean losing “all moral authority” on human rights. The Congressional trip was significant because Tibet has been largely closed to journalists since anti-government protests in 2008 in which hundreds of Tibetans were imprisoned or shot dead by the government. Pelosi and friends weren’t the only U.S. officials in China this week: Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas was in Beijing meeting with Chinese Minister of Public Security Guo Shengkun to plan a December 1–2 meeting between officials from the two countries to discuss cybersecurity.
Bonus: Former Chinese taxi driver buys $170 million painting. On Monday, billionaire Liu Yiqian won a heated auction at Christie’s in New York City for an oil painting by Amedeo Modigliani for a whopping $170.4 million—the second-highest price ever paid for a work of art at auction. Growing up in Shanghai, Liu dropped out of middle school and drove a taxi before striking it rich through stock trading, real estate, and pharmaceutical sales during the 1980s and 1990s. Now worth an estimated $1.5 billion, Liu and his wife are avid art collectors and in the past few years have opened two art museums in Shanghai filled with pieces from their collection. One art-world figure gibed Liu for just buying “the most expensive things,” and last year Liu was criticized for sipping tea from a $36 million Ming dynasty cup soon after winning it at auction. Although forgeries abound in the Chinese art market, in recent years fine art has been seen as a relatively safe investment compared to real estate or stocks.