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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June-July 2012, Pages 44-45

Islam and the Near East in the Far East

Elections Reshaping Political Life in Southeast Asia

By John Gee

So far this year, elections have been held in three areas of Southeast Asia, and rival parties are preparing for polls in one more.

In Myanmar, the National League for Democracy, headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, won 43 of 45 seats in by-elections held on April 1, thus creating a small but real opposition within two parliamentary institutions. The outcome was taken as a signal in the West that the reform process was going ahead in Myanmar, and the U.S., European Union and Australia all dropped some sanctions. There were concerns that the country's military would be so alarmed by the trouncing of the main party that supports them that they might be tempted to ensure a more agreeable outcome to a general election scheduled for 2015, but the influx of foreign tourists and businesspeople is likely to weigh against that.

Timor Leste (East Timor) held presidential elections in April that resulted in victory for Taur Matan Ruak, a former commander of the guerrilla forces that resisted the Indonesian occupation. He should be able to answer some of the grievances of former fighters who feel that their interests have been somewhat neglected since independence, and inherits a growing economy and a legacy of educational development that should see full literacy by 2015.

In Indonesia's westernmost province of Aceh, Zaini Abdullah won the governorship with 55 percent of the votes, well ahead of the 29 percent of his main rival, outgoing governor Irwandi Yusuf. This election was essentially played out between former activists of GAM, the Free Aceh Movement, which waged a long guerrilla campaign for the territory's independence that only ended in 2004. The contest was acrimonious and, at times, violent, but Abdullah's victory may result in a more peaceful post-election environment, given that he was the candidate of the Aceh Party, the political reincarnation of GAM, with a wide network of members and contacts across the whole province.

After the 2004 tsunami devastated the western side of Aceh, as well as Banda Aceh, its capital, reconstruction aid and workers flowed into the province and provided a boost to the local economy. By the time of the election, most of the work had been completed and Aceh was largely left to make the best of its own sparse resources. Now the new administration will need to try to do better at attracting foreign investment as well as conciliate with a government in Jakarta that may be more distrustful of a party composed of former enemies than it was of Yusuf, who worked largely independently of the old GAM machinery.

Aceh was largely left to make the best of its own sparse resources.

No date has been named as yet for elections in Malaysia, but all parties are acting as if they will take place soon.

The ruling Barisan National Coalition, led by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), has tried to do some housecleaning while introducing reforms. This involved securing the resignation of a government minister, Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, the best known woman in UMNO. Shahrizat's husband was chairman of the National Feedlot Corporation (NFC), and three of their children sat on its board. Last year, it was discovered that NFC funds, derived from a government loan, had been used to buy luxury properties in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, at a time when farmers were complaining about the difficulty they had in borrowing money. The scandal festered for more than five months before Shahrizat's resignation on March 11.

In April, Prime Minister Najib Razak announced the lifting of a 40-year-old ban on university students joining political parties. This announcement was followed by the introduction of a bill in parliament for the repeal of the Internal Security Act, originally passed in 1960 as part of the effort to suppress the communist insurgency, but more recently seen as a convenient tool for dealing with dissent in general. The act allows detention without trial for up to two years, with the approval of the home affairs minister, and has been used to shut down opposition newspapers. A new Security Offenses Act will limit detention without trial for people suspected of security offenses to 28 days, after which they must be released or charged. It says that people may not be arrested solely for their political beliefs or activities.

The opposition has attempted to broaden its support beyond the Malay peninsula to East Malaysia—the northern part of the island of Borneo, where it had a negligible impact in the 2008 elections. While it has complained that some of its political leaders have been barred from going there to campaign in by-elections, it nevertheless seems to have picked up support. In peninsular Malaya, much depends on how well the vote of the Parti Keadilan Rekyat, headed by Anwar Ibrahim, holds up. Anwar was acquitted in January in a second trial for sodomy, and is therefore free to campaign for his party, but it is still the most fragile component of the three-party opposition alliance, having suffered a series of defections after the last elections. This was after Anwar had predicted that enough members of the ruling alliance would defect to allow the opposition to win a majority.

Labor Ministers Discuss Migrant Labor

Labor ministers from 19 Asian and Middle Eastern countries met in Manila April 17-19 as part of the second round of the Abu Dhabi Dialogue (ADD), a consultation between countries of origin and destination of migrant workers. The theme of the meeting was "Sustaining Regional Cooperation Toward Improved Management of Labor Mobility in Asia." The first round took place in 2008.

The governments discussed a draft "2012 Framework of Regional Collaboration of the Abu Dhabi Dialogue," intended to commit them to take measures at the domestic, bilateral and multilateral levels to increase the benefits of labor migration between states. The draft contained proposals on reducing the cost of recruitment, developing standard employment contracts, and making recruitment agencies responsible for the actions of those who seek out potential migrant workers at the local level, often misrepresenting the conditions that workers will face on arrival in a destination country. It called for more information to be provided to workers through pre-departure and post-arrival briefings, and for governments to see that workplaces are inspected and labor laws enforced.

Other proposed measures included provision of opportunities for workers to enhance their skills and for safe, affordable transport home.

Among the destination countries represented in the dialogue were Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE. These states use the kafala system in employing migrant workers. This means that every worker is "sponsored" by a specific employer and that their presence in the destination country is conditional on them staying with that employer. When the employer behaves in a considerate and conscientious way, workers have few complaints, but all too often the workers face bad employment conditions. Many domestic workers in particular have encountered brutal treatment from employers in some of these countries, sometimes resulting in severe injury or even death. This has resulted in strains between countries of origin and destination.

Advocacy groups such as Migrant Forum in Asia (MFA) and Human Rights Watch have called for an end to the kafala system—at least as it currently exists—as it puts strong barriers in the way of workers escaping from abusive employers. In a statement ahead of the conference, MFA and 21 NGOs, including the National Human Rights Commission-Oman, Kuwait Trade Union Federation, and Jordan National Commission for Women, said:

As the ADD process evolves, we call on the ADD governments to additionally address the following major issues confronting migrant workers within the regions: the plight of undocumented migrants, the need for enforceable standardized contracts, replacing the kafala system with a more just recruitment and employment system for migrant workers, exploring the possibility of adopting a reference wage system based on the recognition of skills and experience, and the inclusion of migrants in social security and insurance protection schemes and programs.

Furthermore, in order to ensure that migration benefits all, the Framework of Regional Cooperation must be anchored on a rights-based perspective involving the participation of all stakeholders, particularly civil society and trade unions. 

John Gee is a free-lance journalist based in Singapore, and the author of Unequal Conflict: The Palestinians and Israel.