The big story of the year in Southeast Asia was the global economic downturn. A rice and food price crisis hit the region last summer. It was compounded by the dramatic rise of oil and gas prices. When prices of these commodities began to stabilize, Wall Street announced the crash of several banks and major financial institutions in the United States.
The recession in the U.S. was felt in Southeast Asia. It affected the real estate, financial services, and export industries in the region. Singapore was the first Asian country to experience recession this year. Because of the negative economic indicators, many began to worry that the Great Asian Depression of 1997-1998 would plague the region again.
Some of the memorable events which captured the gloomy economic outlook of the times were the following: Thousands of Filipinos queuing for a kilo of subsidized rice across the Philippines; scores of poor Indonesians in East Java who died in a stampede while waiting for alms; and the public protests of Singapore investors whose incomes were lost in the wake of the Wall Street crash.
The economic downturn has produced a few encouraging developments: It forced consumers to save money; entrepreneurs have started to look for innovative ways of doing business; and policymakers have admitted that there is a need to rethink their economic philosophies.
The past year was also a period of escalating domestic political upheavals in the region. Malaysia’s opposition party managed to secure several more seats in the Parliament during the elections last March. Party leaders even claimed that they were ready to form a new government.
It was a chaotic year for Thailand: Two Prime Ministers were forced to step down from power; the country almost went into war with Cambodia over a border dispute; and the airport crisis a few weeks ago has weakened the dollar-earning tourism industry.
During hard and harsh times, people are more willing to express their anger in public. The year 2008 was also a year of provocative protest actions. Last June thousands of Malaysians protested in the streets against the government decision to reduce fuel subsidies and raise fuel prices. This was followed by succeeding protest activities which highlighted the opposition to the repressive laws of the government like the Internal Security Act. Fuel protests were also registered in Indonesia.
The most famous protest action of the year was organized by Thailand’s People Alliance for Democracy. The group was able to mobilize thousands of people everyday since August to December. The protesters succeeded in occupying the Government House, Parliament Building, and lastly the two major airports in Bangkok. Their determination and stubbornness were helpful in persuading the courts to rule against the interest of the ruling government. The group has vowed to return to the streets if they didn’t see reforms in government.
Protesters took over Thailand's two major airports last month. Photo from Pantip
When people are protesting in the streets, most likely governments would initiate measures to discourage these activities. In Myanmar the junta ordered the arrest of more than 60 people for participating in activities deemed subversive by the government.
The detainees were sentenced to long years of imprisonment. The prison terms were unbelievable: 2 years for reporting about the cyclone aid effort; 6 years for sending false information abroad; 20 years for keeping defaced images of national leaders in an email inbox; and 65 years for five monks and 14 members of 88 Generation Students group.
Thailand has charged several foreigners for allegedly violating a lese majeste law. Indonesia’s recently passed anti-porn law was criticized because of its possible negative impact on free speech and traditional art.
The armed conflict between Philippine government troops and Muslim separatist rebels in several areas of Mindanao Island has displaced more than half a million innocent civilians. Mindanao is located in south Philippines. The conflict escalated when the two parties failed to sign a draft peace agreement last August.
An evacuation center in south Philippines. Picture from Arkibong Bayan.
Media harassment cases have been reported in the whole region. Internet users have experienced many forms of censorship as well. Prominent bloggers and some journalists in Malaysia and Myanmar were arrested for refusing to toe the line set by the government.
Vietnam has introduced some new regulations on blogging. Thailand is blocking websites that purportedly insult the monarchy. Jakarta’s police want internet shops to record their customers’ IDs in a guest book to prevent cyber crime.
Social media websites like Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr were maximized by netizens in documenting events. In particular, they were useful in disseminating information about the cyclone aid effort in Myanmar and the airport crisis in Thailand.
Natural calamities were big news as well. A destructive cyclone hit Myanmar last May. More than 100,000 people were killed. Myanmar is still suffering as cyclone refugees continue to suffer from hunger and illnesses. The junta’s incompetence was another disaster which worsened the situation. The government relief work was too slow and inadequate. The junta even considered refusing international aid.
Myanmar was hit by a deadly cyclone last May. Picture from Salai Thang.
Floods have killed scores of people in northern and central Vietnam last November. It was the worst flooding in the country in almost 25 years. A landslide in Kuala Lumpur this month was linked to the negligence of government authorities and irresponsible hillside developers.
Who are the newsmakers of the year? Thailand’s PAD protesters for showing resoluteness. Their legacy is still under question but their bravery must be recognized. Former Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra is another newsmaker. He was ousted from power two years ago but his name continues to inspire animosity, love, cynicism, and devotion among Thai citizens.
Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim scored a landslide electoral victory despite being accused of another sodomy charge. Cambodia’s Hun Sen was reelected this year; but the opposition claimed there was massive electoral fraud. The Philippine’s Gloria Arroyo has survived another impeachment attempt.
The region’s athletes who participated in the Beijing Olympics should be commended. After 12 years Malaysia won an Olympic medal. Another important victory was the silver medal of Singapore in table tennis. This was Singapore’s first Olympic medal in 48 years. Sadly, Brunei failed to participate in the games.
The Olympic Torch Relay was sometimes disrupted by groups protesting against China's human rights record. Picture from The Dainty Knife blog.
The China milk scandal was a big issue in the region too. China is the major trading partner of Southeast Asian nations. China-made milk products, and later even other food items, were scrutinized, strictly regulated and banned.
The US presidential election was closely monitored in the region. Both candidates – John McCain and Barack Obama – are popular in the region. McCain was a former Navy pilot during the Vietnam War while Obama lived in Jakarta for five years. Obama’s victory inspired many people to reflect about the need for change in their local politics.
For Southeast Asia, 2008 was a year of terrible disasters, both natural and man-made. Rice consumption was reduced, milk products were contaminated with melamine, jobs were lost, bloggers were arrested, and homes were destroyed. But the situation is not hopeless. The people expect reforms in governance. They are ready to mobilize for change, and if needed, throw shoes at politicians during press conferences.