A fortnightly snapshot of what’s making the news in Southeast Asia

Blinkin cuts short his ASEAN visit

The US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken began his inaugural tour of South East Asia earlier in the week only to head home early after a journalist in his entourage tested positive to Covid-19. The four-day visit, which began in Indonesia and included stops in Malaysia and Thailand, presented an important opportunity for the US to reaffirm and strengthen regional ties diminished under the previous administration and build wider support to counter China’s growing influence.  Unfortunately, Blinken has had to cut his Thai visit out, out of an “abundance of caution”.

Kicking off in Indonesia, Blinken was still able to make clear statements pressing on the significance of the Indo-Pacific region and the US-Indonesia Strategic Partnership. In Malaysia, talks focused on the importance of advancing the US-Malaysia partnership on addressing the common challenges, including COVID-19, building supply chains and enhancing a free and open Indo-Pacific region. In Thailand, Secretary Blinken was expected to reaffirm US commitment to the US-Thailand treaty alliance, enhancing COVID-19 economic recovery and addressing the climate crisis. Addressing concerns about the worsening crisis in Myanmar was also a key talking point for each stop.       

Blinken’s visit follows on from earlier visits to the region by Secretary of Defence Austin and by Vice President Kamala Harris. Viewed together it’s clear that the US is playing catchup to improve US engagement and influence in the region. He is expected to complete the Thai visit at another time, and has extended an invitation to Thailand’s foreign minister to visit Washington D.C. at “the earliest opportunity”.

Aung San Suu Kyi is sentenced to 4 years in prison

Myanmar’s freedom fighter, Aung San Suu Kyi, was initially sentenced to 4 years in prison for the violation of the COVID-19 while her former President, Win Myint, also received the same charges. The jail time was reduced to 2 years shortly after when the coup leader Min Aung Hliang issued a partial pardon for both Aung San and Win Myint.  

The court was conducted in a closed process while Aung San Suu Kyi’s lawyer was prevented from publicly giving any information related to the hearing. Until now, she has been detained in an unknown location.

Some suggest that the charges reflect the military ambition to remain in power and Min Aung Hlaing’s way of “flexing his muscles”. The international community has condemned the actions and called for Aung San’s release.

Myanmar’s behaviour is a significant concern within ASEAN, given the high possibility that it could lead to fracturing within the regional grouping.  It remains likely that the junta will not be invited to the ASEAN Summit next year while the country continues to attract widespread condemnation and isolation from across the international community.

Next ASEAN Chair Cambodia hopes for the Code of Conduct conclusion in 2022

During the conclusion of the 13th Asia – Europe Meeting (ASEM 13) on 26 November 2021, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen expressed optimism that the South China Sea’s Code of Conduct (CoC) would be concluded when Cambodia chairs ASEAN in 2022.

As his third time as ASEAN chair, it is Hun Sen’s desire to leave an admirable legacy that will reflect positively on Cambodia and ASEAN,  particularly given Cambodia’s chairing in 2012 was viewed as a dismal failure. Cambodia’s inability to advance the South China Sea joint communique at that time has hounded the nation and Hun Sen since. The successful conclusion of the CoC will be his clear priority this time around.   

In good news, despite the ongoing and vigorous confrontations in the South China Sea, China too has taken active steps to encourage the conclusion of the COC in the 2021 ASEAN virtual summit.  However, some suggested that it’s still a long journey. Of course, it is hard to reach a consensus on sensitive security matters like the South China Sea in the ASEAN forum. Vietnam and the Philippines may bargain hard on the CoC. However, only time will tell whether Cambodia will be able to conclude the CoC and will yield a good result.

PM Hun Sen publicly supports his eldest son to be the next Cambodian leader

Ruling Cambodia for over 36 years, Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly announced his support for his eldest son, Hun Manet on 2 December 2021 to be one of Cambodia’s Prime Ministerial candidates.

Other Cambodian potential candidates such as the Defense Minister Tea Banh and the Interior Minister Sar Kheng are expected to serve in their current posts until retirement due to their old age. Sam Rainsy – the opposition leader – believed this is the Prime Minister’s strategy to protect himself but it would not work as the country is a nation, not an individual possession.

Some suggested that the Prime Minister’s action is a path toward a “political dynasty”. Others believed that this is the Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) strategy to “handpick new blood” for the party’s continuity. However, endorsements have been made by many government and military officials supporting Hun Manet’s candidature.

Political transition in Cambodia had seen a rough history since the 1970s. In Cambodia, a coup has been a common political transition (e.g., from Sihanouk to Lon Nol, from Lon Nol to Pol Pot, from Pol Pot to the current government). It is not quite clear whether the political transition from Hun Sen to the next successor will be smooth. The second most powerful man in the CPP Sar Kheng has not supported Hun Manet yet. Thus, one should expect to see the intense power competition within the CPP.    

The COVID-19 Omicron variant is detected in South East Asia

The Omicron variant was announced by the WHO on 26 November 2021 as a new strain of the COVID-19 that was first identified in Botswana and South Africa. Within weeks, the strain has reached over 47 countries around the world from Northern America to Asia.

Countries in South East Asia such as Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand respectively have reported their first imported case of the new variant in the first week of December 2021. However, the three countries have continued their reopening process with additional testing, longer quarantine, strengthened the sample-testing, and imposed travel restrictions from certain countries for the time being.

Other countries in the same region have imposed similar measures to curb the spread of the new variant.

The silver lining of this is that there has been no casualty from the Omicron variant yet. It indicates the low chance of fatality rate and even milder symptoms compared to the previous variants. However, it is certain that countries around the world have taken extreme precautions to prevent another lockdown and wide spread of this new variant. Despite that, experts still have little knowledge of Omicron and further observation on the development of this variant will need to be conducted.

Indonesia’s new head of the army appointed

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has appointed a new head of the Indonesian Armed Forces. General Andika Perkasa’s appointment, now approved by parliament signals the potential for a refresh in Indonesia’s defence policy. Although, time is of the essence. General Andika, already faced with a full agenda, is expected to serve as the military chief for just over a year before he reaches the retirement age of 58.


Sovinda Po is a Research Assistant at the Griffith Asia Institute.