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

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen visited Myanmar and the junta chief

Prime Minister Hun Sen paid a bilateral visit to Myanmar on 7 and 8 January 2022. He met with the military junta chief Min Aung Hlaing in hopes of assisting in the resolution of the country’s complicated political and humanitarian issues that have continued since the coup.   

It was the first diplomatic visit that Cambodia has undertaken since assuming its 2022 ASEAN Chairmanship while Hun Sen became the first country leader to visit Myanmar since the military coup on 1February. While the Prime Minister received a warm welcome from the junta chief, he was also met by protests from the Burmese who believed that the visit was a sign of recognition and legitimization for the junta’s leadership.

PM Hun Sen defended his position that the purpose of the trip was to work toward a solution for the tangled issue in Myanmar, while the Burmese saw it differently. In the weeks leading up to the visit, two explosions were detonated near the Cambodian Embassy to deter the Prime Minister’s visit, and the day before the visit local students in Myanmar protested by chanting and burning portraits of the two leaders as a sign of disapproval. Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director labeled Hun Sen’s trip as “Rouge Diplomacy” and called for its cancellation arguing that Cambodia should work with the other ASEAN members and revive the five-point consensus, instead of choosing this bilateral approach.

The National Unity Government’s Ambassador to ASEAN expressed his strong disapproval of the trip as it showed that PM Hun Sen was neglecting ASEAN and acting without any consultation with the other eight ASEAN members. The former Thai foreign minister stressed the impact that it could undermine the effort for democracy made by the Burmese and harm ASEAN’s collective action.

The trip came about quickly and without consultation, but it is important to acknowledge that PM Hun Sen brings experience in dispute settlement given his past efforts negotiating with the Khmer factions between the 1980s and 1990s. Some argue he should be given a chance. His engagement with Myanmar’s military leadership, though unpalatable to many commentators may be a necessary step in breaking through this complicated quagmire. Despite this potential, the postponement of the ASEAN Foreign Minister Retreat could also signal disagreement and disunity among the ASEAN member states who are displeased with the visit. Yet, vitally, they will have to find common ground to work together to prevent any lasting damage to ASEAN as a result of the visit and persistent challenges in Myanmar.

Indonesia allowed a Rohingya boat to dock on its shores

After its rejection to accept a stranded boat with at least 120 Rohingya refugees at the coast of the Aceh province, Indonesia agreed to allow the adrift vessel to dock on its shore and provide essential supplies to its passengers on 29 December 2021.

This decision was made after Indonesia experienced international outcry and pressure following media reports on the emergency conditions of the boat including boat leakages with a high sinking risk, and the vulnerability of women and children on board. However, the passengers were prohibited from seeking refuge in the country despite urges from the international community.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees expressed its gratefulness toward such a decision, calling it “a victory for human rights and international law” while Amnesty International appreciated the Indonesian government’s response despite the tardiness. Although the government announced that the decision was based on humanitarian urgency, some suggest that it was the international pressure that made the difference.    It is important to note that this situation was the result of Myanmar’s clearance operation, military coup, and political upheaval that have forced thousands to flee to Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. The prolonged clashes between the rebel group and the military will result in even more asylum seekers. If this continues, ASEAN will not only be managing a military coup in Myanmar but will be faced with an intensified refugee crisis in the region.

Philippines purchased two warships and missiles to counter China in the South China Sea

On 15 December 2022, The Philippines government purchased the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile from the BrahMos Aerospace Private Ltd, in a joint venture with India and Russia.

The BrahMos missile is a supersonic cruise missile that can be launched from various platforms – aircraft, submarine, ship, or land – at almost 3 times the speed of sound and can run up to 290 kilometers. This example of modern weapons technology is an effective way to neutralize potential targets.

At a cost of over $375 million, the purchase represents a breakthrough for India as “the beginning of its arms sales to the Southeast Asian nations” with the Philippines becoming the first foreign buyer of the BrahMos missiles. Interestingly, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Thailand have also shown interest in acquiring the missiles which would enhance the naval capability of the ASEAN member states in the South China Sea.

The Philippines also recently bought two corvette warships from Hyundai Heavy Industries of South Korea. Both purchases appear to be part of a continued effort of the Philippines to modernize their military and to enhance naval capability in the South China Sea as tensions with China continue to intensify.

The two warships, valued at $556 million and scheduled for delivery in 2026, are capable of conducting “anti-ship, anti-submarine, and air warfare missions”. Undoubtedly, these warships will enhance the naval capability of the Philippines in the South China Sea, but it is interesting to note the shift in procurement patterns. In the past, the Philippines had received Coast Guard vessels, landing crafts, and coast guard patrol boats from the US, Australia, and Japan respectively. With China continuing its claims and assertive behavior in the South China Sea, it is not surprising to see claimant states enhancing their naval capability in the region including with the support of other regional powers. These developments are worth watching, particularly given their potential to make negotiating the Code of Conduct (CoC) on the South China Sea in ASEAN even more difficult, and its conclusion in 2022 even more unlikely.

Indonesia banned coal export for January 2022

The Indonesian government placed a temporary ban on coal exports from 1 January 2022 to address domestic fuel shortages in local power stations. The increase in electricity demand in the country has pushed Indonesia to prioritize local consumption and avoid widespread blackouts.

The ban has extensively impacted Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, while China and Australia have seen little effects.

The Philippines, South Korea and Japan expressed concerns, calling for the drop of the thermal coal export suspension given implications for their own countries’ electrical supply. China, however—having recently boosted its own domestic supply—remains relatively unaffected by the ban, while Australia is likely to make some gains as an alternative supplier to Japan, South Korea, the Philippines while the ban is in place

Indonesia’s decision on its fuel export has revealed the importance of nonrenewable energy and how each state is still heavily depending on it despite the pledge for its emission cut. Although the export ban is in place only for the month, the damage to Indonesia’s reputation is likely to last longer.  


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