Kamala Harris visits Vietnam, Singapore, seeking regional allies

This week, we also took a look at why Malaysia’s contract doctors are on strike amidst a surging pandemic, what a sinister enemies list reveals about Thai government paranoia, and how Cambodia could become the centre of the Mekong’s drug trafficking

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August 28, 2021
Kamala Harris visits Vietnam, Singapore, seeking regional allies

Hello, and welcome to another edition of the editorial! In Siem Reap, where I’m based, things are slow except for the sounds of the ongoing, city-wide road renovations that have turned even the simplest outdoor excursion into an adventure. I’ve had to leap across ditches, tread carefully across planks with my bike tucked under one arm, and find creative alternatives to get down the block. 

However, there have been more consequential goings-on over in Singapore and Hanoi, which this week welcomed an important guest, US Vice President Kamala Harris. A flurry of coverage followed the visit, noting everything from a possible outbreak of the mysterious Havana syndrome, to a customised species of purple flowers named after Harris

But more important than the introduction of a bouquet of Papilionanda Kamala Harris, the visit to many represented the rebirth of Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” policy after a brief spell of withdrawal under Trump. Greater economic cooperation and geostrategy were on the agenda, as the Biden administration is attempting to regain ground lost in Southeast Asia to China during the Trump years. The South China Sea was one area in which Harris expressed allegiance.

“We welcome stiff competition, we do not seek conflict but on issues such as the South China Sea, we are going to speak up,” Harris said at a news conference in Hanoi on August 26. “We are going to speak up when there are actions that Beijing takes that threaten the rules-based international order.”

Chinese state-affiliated media, in turn, dubbed Harris’ visit  “lip service diplomacy”, while Beijing pushed back at Harris’ presence with some calculated political theatre. With Harris’ flight delayed for several hours before she could arrive in Vietnam to announce the donation of one million vaccines, Chinese diplomats swooped in to pledge two million doses to Hanoi. We’ll see how an intensifying China-US rivalry and a more engaged Biden administration affects Southeast Asia over the next three years or so, but for now if political pettiness means more vaccine donations to a country in desperate need of them then there is a silver lining to rising diplomatic tensions. 

This week, the Globe had its own take on Kamala Harris’ visit, with an analysis from Amnesty International USA’s Asia Advocacy Director Carolyn Nash urging the VP to not allow geopolitical concerns to overshadow conversations over human rights abuses in Southeast Asia. 

We’ve got a selection of other fine features, including the mounting toll of Covid-19 on doctors in Malaysia and the pandemic’s severe impact on children’s education in Cambodia. They may not be light-hearted readings, but they’re worth your time.

Difficult and dangerous conditions, repeated 12 hour shifts, and flimsy contracts are leading to high rates of burnout among contract Malaysian doctors, with the situation only worsening as Malaysia’s health facilities have become overwhelmed by Covid-19. But last month, thousands of doctors began a grassroots Contract Doctor Strike, demanding better conditions for contractors amidst the ongoing pandemic. Contributor Kymberley Chu explores the origins and potential impact of the strike, and how it could lead to meaningful policy changes for contract doctors. 

Meanwhile, the notorious Golden Triangle – the border of Laos, Thailand and Myanmar – is becoming a less reliable option for illegal drug trafficking. Cambodia and its casino sector are now looking like an increasingly good bet for the Mekong drug trade, explains John Wojcik, of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime for Southeast Asia and the Pacific. While the ruling Cambodian People’s Party has cracked down when it suits their political interests, Wojcik argues more stringent cross-border law enforcement cooperation is needed.

In Thailand, a sinister watch list detailing 183 enemies of the paranoid military-backed government — including two 15-year-old girls — was leaked earlier this month. The list also included activists, journalists and monks, all branded as “unThai”. But, as contributor Mark Cogan explains, they do reveal the government’s increasing anxiety over a new generation of protestors.

Cambodian schools have remained closed for more than 200 days due to Covid-19. Those who can study remotely are struggling to attain meaningful learning due to a lack of resources for online education, reports Christine Redmond of Aide et Action. “Covid-19 will have successfully undone generations of hard-earned development progress,” says the executive director of the NGO Educate a Child.

And in building closer ties to Southeast Asia, Kamala Harris and the US should place respect for human rights at the cornerstone of the relationship, writes Carolyn Nash, Asia Advocacy Director for Amnesty International USA.

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