State and Region Governments in Myanmar

9:30 am – 11:30 am

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Root Room, 2nd Floor

1779 Massachusetts Avenue, NW

Washington, DC 20036

Registration & coffee will begin at 9:00 am.

Remarks will begin promptly at 9:30 am.

The Asia Foundation is pleased to invite you to a presentation of the findings of a major new study on subnational governance, entitled “State and Region Governments in Myanmar.”

In the past year, Myanmar has embarked on a path of reform and openness. In an effort to better understand subnational governance in Myanmar, The Asia Foundation has completed a study on state and region governments created under the 2008 Constitution and their relationship with broader governance, peace, and decentralization processes. The study analyzes a variety of critical questions. What is the constitutional, legal, and institutional framework for state and region government, and what is the policy direction of decentralization reform? What are the outcomes of these reforms in the states and regions, and how do they vary? What challenges, opportunities, and paths forward might there be to improve subnational statebuilding, service delivery, and conflict management in Myanmar?

While these new subnational governments have begun to open up more political space, they face significant limitations. The emergence of elected representative bodies at this level is a major reform, yet these regional parliaments, or hluttaws, face major capacity constraints.

Authors of the study, Dr. Matthew Arnold, a Senior Program Officer with the Foundation’s conflict and state fragility program in Bangkok, governance specialist Dr. Hamish Nixon, and Dr. Zaw Oo, Executive Director of Myanmar Development Resource Institute’s Center for Economic and Social Development (MDRI-CESD) will discuss core challenges to decentralization and provide their perspectives on the evolution of subnational governance in Myanmar.

The study is supported by a Program Partnership Agreement with the UK Department for International Development (DFID).

RSVPs are required as seating is limited. Please RSVP by Friday, October 18th to Ms. Ellie Matthews at ematthews@asiafound-dc.org or 202-292-5002.

Deutsche Welle Interviews Nandita Baruah on South Asian Migrant Workers in Qatar

October 11, 2013 — German media Deutsche Welle interviews Nandita Baruah, Asia Foundation Chief of Party for Combating Trafficking in Persons in Nepal, on South Asian migrant workers in Qatar. Ms. Baruah’s insight is featured in a news article, “World Cup puts spotlight on Qatar’s migrant workers,” and Q&A piece, “Human Rights Qatar: ‘Systemic change’ needed to protect migrants.”

Asia Foundation Trustee and Lotus Circle Advisor Missie Rennie Partners with New York City Fashion Designer Lyn Devon to Host Trunk Show Benefiting Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program

Ann Kinney (left) joins fashion designer Lyn Devon (center) and Asia Foundation Trustee and Lotus Circle Advisor Missie Rennie (right) at a trunk show at Lyn Devon's Manhattan showroom to benefit The Asia Foundation's Women's Empowerment Program.

Ann Kinney (left) joins fashion designer Lyn Devon (center) and Asia Foundation Trustee and Lotus Circle Advisor Missie Rennie (right) at a trunk show at Lyn Devon’s Manhattan showroom to benefit The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program.

New York, New York, October 11, 2013 — On September 24, Asia Foundation Trustee and Lotus Circle Advisor Missie Rennie hosted a trunk show at fashion designer Lyn Devon’s Manhattan showroom to benefit The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program. The all-day event gathered guests including Asia Foundation Trustee and Lotus Circle Advisor Masako H. Shinn and Young Lotus Circle co-founder Lin Jamison, and Lotus Circle supporters Dailey Pattee, Barbara Georgescu, Rose-Lee Reinhard, Ann Kinney, Nathalie Comfort, Constance Spahn, Karen McDonald, Emily McLellan, and Elizabeth Paul to support the advancement of women and girls across Asia.

“We are delighted to work with Lyn Devon,” said Asia Foundation Trustee and Lotus Circle Advisor Missie Rennie on partnering with the fashion designer on the event. “As a young woman who has started her own business, Lyn has the spirit, the creativity and the focus we strive to support through the Lotus Circle.”

Asia Foundation Trustees and Lotus Circle Advisors Missie Rennie and Masako Shinn support women's empowerment at a Lyn Devon trunk show in Manhattan.

Asia Foundation Trustees and Lotus Circle Advisors Missie Rennie and Masako Shinn support women’s empowerment at a Lyn Devon trunk show in Manhattan.

Designer Lyn Devon shared her enthusiasm for working with the Lotus Circle and supporting The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program. “Female empowerment is an issue that resonates with every woman making her way in the world,” Devon says. “As a female entrepreneur working with and for women, I am thrilled to partner with the Lotus Circle to support a program that helps women achieve their goals and creates opportunities that otherwise might not have been there.”

View a slideshow of event photos. The Lotus Circle is a community of committed individuals working together to empower girls and women across Asia through the Women’s Empowerment Program. Read more about the Lotus Circle and the Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program. For media inquiries, please visit the Press Room.

Long-time Asia Foundation Photographer Geoffrey Hiller Uses Kickstarter to Produce New Book of Photography on Myanmar

San Francisco, CA, October 10, 2013 — Long-time Asia Foundation photographer Geoffrey Hiller today exceeded his Kickstarter campaign goal to collect over $19,000 to produce a new volume of photography on Myanmar by April 2014. Hiller will collaborate with editors Natasha Chandani and Lana Cavar to produce a high-quality, 192-page book of exquisite color photographs to document life in Myanmar from 1987 through its recent historic transition. Essays by prominent writers and journalists will accompany the images to provide further context to the images.

Hiller’s work has taken him around the world, but the country that has drawn him back most often is Myanmar. “I first went in 1987 on a one-week visa,” Hiller recalls. “After a frenetic trip, it wasn’t so much the monks and pagodas that haunted me, but the faces of the Burmese, painted in white, often smiling. I wanted to find out more about who they really were, plagued by an isolationist military dictatorship.”

Despite international sanctions that included a travel boycott, Hiller returned in 2000. “The military now called the country ‘Myanmar’ and was no less repressive but allowed me to stay longer and travel more freely. The result was the multimedia web site Burma: Grace Under Pressure, which won awards and was seen by millions.”

In 2011, the US Embassy hired Hiller to teach photojournalists in Yangon. “I did not know that the government was beginning to relax censorship and free political prisoners. There was still not one picture of ‘The Lady’, and no one talked about her.” But by early 2012, that had changed. Hiller witnessed one of the first rallies where Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy party were allowed to appear publicly. Hiller returned in 2013 and focused on capturing daily life, from the cramped streets of the British colonial capital of Yangon, to dusty markets in Mandalay, to Muslims in Meikhtila, and river life in Pathein.

In addition to his assignments working for The Asia Foundation, Hiller’s work has been published in Geo, Newsweek, Mother Jones, and the New York Times Magazine. He has completed dozens of photo essays in Asia, Latin America, Europe, and West Africa and was on staff at the Brazilian edition of National Geographic for two years. Hiller’s award-winning multimedia projects on Vietnam, Eastern Europe, Ghana, Burma, and Brazil have earned recognition from Apple Computer, The Christian Science Monitor and USA Today. He has received grants from the Paul Allen Foundation, the California Arts Council, Regional Arts and Culture Council in Portland, Oregon, among others. His photos have appeared on covers of The Asia Foundation’s annual reports.

Hiller was a Fulbright Scholar in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2008-2009. Most recently, he worked as an international media trainer in India, Myanmar, and Cambodia. Hiller is the creator and editor of Verve Photo: The New Breed of Documentary Photographers. His home is in Portland, Oregon. Read more about Hiller’s upcoming book at NPR and The Huffington Post, and stay updated on the latest developments at www.hillerphoto.com.

The Asia Foundation has a long history of work in Myanmar, dating back to the 1950s, and since 2007, has donated more than 80,000 books valued at $3.2 million. The Foundation is now in the process of re-opening our resident office to support the country’s democratic transition and development. Our program will aim to strengthen institutions of democratic governance; enhance the country’s foreign affairs capacities; support the management of subnational conflict; support free, fair, and credible elections; expand access to information and informed public debate; and assist with economic reforms for broad-based growth and opportunities for all.

Read more about The Asia Foundation and its work in Myanmar.

The Asia Foundation and The American Center for Mongolian Studies Launch Books for Asia Partnership

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, October 10, 2013 — The Asia Foundation and The American Centre for Mongolian Studies today launched their Books for Asia program partnership. The event is part of a series of celebrations to mark The Asia Foundation’s 20th anniversary in Mongolia.

One of The Asia Foundation’s best known and most beloved programs, Books for Asia is the leading provider of donated information resources in the region. The program distributes one million books to 18 countries throughout Asia. Books for Asia is committed to connecting Mongolian institutions with high-quality material from some of the world’s best information resources. When the Foundation first started its programming in Mongolia in 1990, Books for Asia responded to the critical need for English-language books by donating publications that were not yet available in the country. Since then, the program has provided more than half a million books, donated by leading U.S. publishers, to a wide variety of Mongolian institutions in Mongolia’s most far-flung corners.

The American Center for Mongolian Studies (ACMS) is a non-profit educational organization incorporated in 2002 that supports the development of Mongolian Studies and academic exchanges with Inner Asia. The activities of the ACMS include the development of academic resources, student and research support and the fostering of academic partnerships in all fields of study related to Mongolia. The primary areas of focus include direct logistical support to students and faculty in the form of services, fellowships, and grant opportunities; organizing and sponsoring conferences; and disseminating and making information accessible about Inner Asia and research in the region.

During the partnership launch, Minister of Culture, Sport and Tourism, Ms. Ts. Oyungerel–one of the Foundation’s earliest grantees and a distinguished author–spoke of the importance of the Books for Asia program for Mongolia, as well as ACMS’ critical work to promote Mongolian studies and academic exchanges. Ms. Suzanne E. Siskel, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of The Asia Foundation, emphasized the power that English-language books play in increasing people’s access to information and expanding their opportunities across Asia.

Under the partnership, ACMS will manage Books for Asia’s distribution program and connect the program to its newly established librarian training program. ACMS and The Foundation will also work together to further promote the use of English-language academic and non-academic books through special events and social media, and encourage the use of high-quality digital content such as open education resources.

Since 2002 the American Center for Mongolian Studies has promoted academic exchanges and scholarly activities between Mongolia and the United States. As an international non-profit organization, our aim is to develop the study of Mongolia through fellowships, academic exchanges, library and research training, lectures, conferences and field research support. The ACMS also maintains the largest public English language research library and electronic data archive in Mongolia. As a member of the Council of American Overseas Research Centers (CAORC), the ACMS receives support from the US federal government, foundations, corporations and individuals. To date the ACMS has provided over $7 million in fellowships, educational and research support programs.

Read more about The Asia Foundation and its work in Mongolia.

Beleaguered by Graft, Indonesians Shocked by High Court Corruption

Indonesia finds itself in a crisis of confidence this week after its Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) arrested the chief justice of the Constitutional Court for allegedly accepting a bribe to fix the verdict of a local election dispute.

Indonesia Constitutional Court

In the 10 years since it was established, the Constitutional Court, pictured above, has been one of Indonesia’s most credible institutions, a beacon of hope for the rule of law.

Twitter lit up last Wednesday around midnight as the news spread – KPK officials were at the residence of Akil Mochtar, a former parliamentarian who has served on the Constitutional Court since 2008. Initial disbelief was soon replaced by emotional responses from the public – ranging from profound devastation to copious glee that the KPK had made the case against yet another high-level official. “I feel betrayed, because I thought he was clean. I’m brokenhearted,” one journalist tweeted. Another popular Twitter personality quipped, “Hang him from the National Monument! Along with the other corruptors.”

Astonishment and desolation

In the 10 years since it was established, the Constitutional Court has been one of Indonesia’s most credible institutions, a beacon of hope for the rule of law. For many, Akil’s arrest demonstrated not only how far graft has permeated, but just how difficult it is to yank out the roots of corruption.In an unusual public statement, the day after the arrest, President Yudhoyono expressed shock, citing the importance of the Constitutional Court and the key role it plays in the country. Over the weekend, the president presided over emergency meetings to address the situation, just as the country put on a smile to welcome some of the world’s highest-ranking officials to Bali for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.

A sense of betrayal was evident across Indonesia’s vibrant social media, indicating Akil was clearly not considered your average crooked official prior to his arrest. He portrayed himself as an anti-graft figure working for an institution that enjoys a reputation as Indonesia’s cleanest. Well-liked by journalists for his accessibility, Akil was prone to offering colorful observations about the country’s fight against corruption. Last March, Tempo newspaper quoted Akil as saying “Rather than sentence [corruptors] to death, it’s better to combine impoverishing them and cutting off one of their fingers.” But on Thursday, when a reporter called him out on it as he left the KPK after questioning, he lashed out and slapped the journalist, sparking further outrage in the media.

Many activists were quick to point out that graft allegations have dogged Akil for years. His nomination to the Court created discontent among advocates who had heard rumors of Akil’s accepting bribes as early as 2006. Three years ago, the Court’s own ethics panel convened to investigate an allegation against Akil and another justice for receiving bribes in a local elections dispute in North Sumatra. Cleared of all charges, Akil stayed on while the other justice in the case took early retirement.

Public wrath: enough is enough

Last Thursday, the Constitutional Court’s founding chief justice, Jimly Asshidique, called for prosecutors to seek the death penalty for Akil. Others followed suit, clearly fed up with never-ending headlines about greedy, unethical behavior by so many politicians and government leaders.

Indeed, Indonesia can’t seem to go more than a few months without news stories about money, politics, sex, and greed. Just eight months ago, scandal rocked the Islam-based Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), which enjoyed significant public support around its platform of zero tolerance for corruption. When the party’s chair, Luthfi Hasan Ishnaq, was accused of accepting money to use his influence to increase the import quota of a beef importer, the revelations that followed read like a script from a soap opera.

Luthfi’s assistant, Ahmad Fathanah, was arrested in a hotel, in bed with a young woman who said she’d been paid $1,000 to meet him there, and with $100,000 in cash he couldn’t otherwise explain. In the days following, as many as 45 women reported to the KPK as having received gifts from Fathanah. As Luthfi’s luxury cars and houses were seized, it was soon discovered he’d recently taken a third wife – age 19. Indonesians were left shaking their heads and lamenting the state of a political party that achieved the country’s fourth-largest parliamentary faction by running candidates on a platform of personal morality. Luthfi’s trial is ongoing, with witnesses just this week providing testimony that bribes paid to the former party leader may have totaled in excess of several million dollars.

With such bad behavior on regular public display, many did little more than roll their eyes as Akil’s scandal grew more sensational with the KPK confirming it had found drugs, including ecstasy and marijuana, at Akil’s Constitutional Court office. Since Indonesians consistently show strong support for harsh penalties against drug offences, Akil should have an even harder time garnering any public sympathy.

What’s really at risk?

As Indonesia digests the week’s news, justice sector experts emphasized the serious implications for the country’s judiciary. Akil himself was involved in drafting the law that established the Constitutional Court 10 years ago, which strengthened rule of law by establishing the right of every citizen to request a judicial review. The Court makes final, binding decisions on regulatory reviews, disagreements between state institutions, and election disputes. The founding justices of the Court worked hard to establish a culture of transparency that has rarely been seen elsewhere in Indonesia’s justice system.

Akil is accused of accepting cash related to a review of a recently concluded local election in Gunung Mas, Central Kalimantan. Cynics are disappointed to find that it took less than a decade for politically appointed judges to sully the Court’s ethics. The Court has been credited with playing a leading role in preventing post-election violence by giving hundreds of regional disputants their “day in court” after votes are tallied. This week’s arrest therefore confirms longstanding fears that the final word on such elections is vulnerable to bribery. As Indonesians head to the polls in less than six months to elect a new president, money politics are already on everyone’s minds. Will citizens have any confidence that the court can’t be bribed should results of the national election end up being disputed?

A reason to celebrate?

Optimists say that this arrest is just more evidence the Indonesia’s anti-corruption body is a formidable force.

In a separate case revealed on the heels of his arrest, Akil was also named a suspect for allegedly accepting an $885,000 bribe from Tubagus Chaeri Wardana, a member of a political dynasty that runs the province of Banten. Despite being a few hours drive from Jakarta, Banten remains one of Indonesia’s worst-off regions, whose endemic socio-economic problems are often seen as a result of poor governance. The province is presided over by Governor Ratu Atut Chosiyah, whose family members hold eight senior positions in district governments across Banten – including Ratu’s husband, son, brother, sister, step-mother, sister-in-law, and daughter-in-law. The arrest of Tubagus and Akil has delighted some anti-graft activists, who have long accused the family of rigging elections to hold on to power.

Akil’s case also follows the KPK flexing its muscles earlier this year when it arrested Police Insp. Gen. Djoko Susilo. The counter-corruption movement got a morale boost when Djoko was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment and the state seized an estimated $2 million of ill-gotten funds and assets. It was the first time a serving police general was successfully caught in the KPK’s net, and signified a victory in the long rivalry over who has the authority to handle graft cases involving police personnel.

Whether we are fearful for the future, disgusted by the greed of our leaders, or finding reassurance knowing that Indonesia’s counter-corruption system is working, the whole country eagerly awaits what tomorrow’s headlines will bring.

Laurel MacLaren is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in Indonesia. She can be reached at laurel.maclaren@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Zamboanga Tragedy: A Pivot Point in the Mindanao Peace Process

Zamboanga City’s hard road to recovery from weeks of urban fighting between Muslim rebels and government troops has been delayed by heavy rains that shut down the city yesterday, cancelling flights and closing schools. However long the recovery takes, and whatever shape it assumes, the assault by some elements of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) that began September 9, forcing more than 100,000 people from their homes, has clearly shifted the landscape for peace in Mindanao. To understand how requires historical context.

Zamboangafloods

Rain clouds loom over Joaquin Enriquez Memorial Stadium, home to thousands of families who are taking temporary shelter there after fighting broke out in Zamboanga City. Photo/Eric Aseo

The strength of Spanish influence on “Asia’s Latin City” is demonstrated by the language spoken: Chavacano is a creole language based on Spanish, a result of the Spaniards’ long presence sheltered by Fort Pilar, confronting the power of the Sulu Sultanate in the Sulu Archipelago stretching out toward Malaysia from the Zamboanga peninsula. On the other hand, the city did for a time early in the American colonial era (1903-1913) serve as the capital of the “Moro Province,” administered separately from the rest of the Philippines.

Thus, the city is of great emotional significance both for Moros (and the armed Muslim separatist movements that have their roots in the late 1960s) and Christians (often called “settlers” despite having been present for centuries). Predominantly Christian, some 22 percent of the city’s population is Muslim, with an increase in the past four decades as inhabitants of the Sulu archipelago migrated to the city to escape war and take advantage of the urban economy. For MNLF forces to declare their intent to raise their flag over city hall was deeply provocative; the fact that Habier Malik led the force meant that at least the leadership was ready to fight. A charismatic follower of MNLF founding chairman, Nur Misuari, Malik is known as a warrior and has outstanding arrest warrants, including for the death of two American servicemen in a roadside bombing in 2009.

Zamboanga City officials (and the national government) wanted to avoid a reprise of the 2001 Cabatangan incident, when armed MNLF hostage takers were allowed to go free and retain their arms in return for the safe release of hostages. In 1996, tens of thousands protested the Final Peace Agreement with the MNLF because the city had been included in the coverage of the Southern Philippine Council for Peace and Development, headed by Misuari. Zamboanga City had again been a center of resistance to the 2008 MOA-AD since eight barangays were included in a list to be added to the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (albeit after a plebiscite). The argument of officials was simple:  the city voted overwhelmingly “no” in 1989 to inclusion in the first version of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Again in 2001, a 95.1 percent “no vote” declined inclusion in a revised ARMM (supposedly pursuant to the 1996 Agreement).

It is in this light that we must view Nur Misuari’s demand that the Tripartite (MNLF, the government, and Organization of Islamic Cooperation [OIC]) Review of the implementation of the 1996 final peace agreement include yet another plebiscite throughout the entire territorial coverage of the original 1976 Tripoli Agreement. While from Misuari’s point of view this is a reasonable demand, since the previous plebiscites had gone ahead over the objections of the MNLF, such a move would cause unrest in widespread areas of Mindanao such as Zamboanga City, raising the simple question:  What part of “no” in two plebiscites is not understood?

As the 41st round of exploratory talks between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) get underway in Kuala Lumpur, the obvious question is what effects will the Zamboanga incident have on the long-term peace process?  In the short term, there is none:  the 40th round was completed while fighting raged in Zamboanga, and both negotiating parties are determined to continue down this path. Yet even Celso Lobregat, the former mayor of (now Congressman from) Zamboanga, has raised the issue of how talks with the MILF relate to previous agreements with the MNLF. In July, he presciently warned in a speech: “To have an honorable, just, and lasting peace in Mindanao, we cannot simply have another peace agreement this time with the MILF without the inclusion and conformity of other stakeholders of Mindanao including Misuari’s MNLF.”

For its part, the government’s peace department, the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, has produced an elaborate account of attempts to reach out to Misuari through both the Tripartite Review Process (which has agreement on almost everything, with the plebiscite being a deal-breaking exception), and in the MILF process (Misuari was asked to nominate for the Transition Commission, but since he views the MILF peace process as illegal in the face of the 1996 FPA he declined). So, it is obvious that Nur Misuari personally will never conform to a peace agreement with the MILF.

But there are other elements to the MNLF with varied relations with Nur Misuari:  some MNLF elements are formally set up to represent the MNLF as a whole, others are still within Misuari’s ambit but disagree both with his call for independence and with the assault on Zamboanga City, and other elements simply represent long-standing MNLF communities. There may be many disputes over how the Zamboanga incident unfolded, but one thing is clear:  reinforcements and support from other MNLF did not arrive.

So, one element of inclusiveness in the peace process will be to involve the MNLF (taken broadly) in the political aspects of the peace process. Given their focus on the separate Tripartite Review Process, this will be difficult but must be accomplished. Somewhat easier is inclusiveness with respect to both Muslim and non-Muslim civil society organizations, which are entering into agreement on coordinating input into the Transition Commission as it drafts a proposed Basic Law for the Bangsamoro.

Another element of inclusiveness will be ordinary Mindanao stakeholders outside of the proposed Core Territory of the Bangsamoro, such as citizens of Zamboanga City. This violent incident will remind them of the possibility that a signed agreement will not lead to the cessation of violence and disarmament (as the 1996 FPA did not). The MILF negotiation process is still working on the Annex on Normalization, which will cover policing and decommissioning of the MILF. This Annex must carefully address several audiences, including MILF combatants being asked to transition into normal peaceful lives, and other Mindanao stakeholders being asked to believe this will indeed happen.

The Zamboanga City tragedy illustrates in miniature the challenges facing those constructing peace and development in Mindanao. How the government, the MILF, the MNLF, and the wider community respond to those challenges will be crucial in determining the trajectory of the next several years.

Steven Rood, The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines, has been directly involved in the formal peace process between the GPH and the MILF since 1999.  He is now the Third Party Monitoring Team representative from the Foundation. He can be reached at srood@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Obama’s Asia Pivot on Shaky Ground

Asia-Pacific leaders gather in Brunei this week for the 8th East Asia Summit (EAS) and the 23rd ASEAN Summit, on the heels of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bali on Monday. While a number of critical issues were set to be discussed, President Obama’s last minute cancellation of his entire Asia trip, skipping these meetings as well as two bilateral visits to Malaysia and the Philippines, has placed in doubt the U.S.’s ability to “rebalance” its Asia policy. The failure by the Congress and the president to come to a budget agreement to effectively address the nation’s debt ceiling has caused people all over the world, including Americans, to question the state of American governance. This comes at a time when China’s power and influence, for better or for worse, is rising.

President Obama had no choice but to remain in Washington until the budget crisis is resolved. While his trip to Asia would be in the U.S.’s longer-term interest and would reassure the Asia-Pacific community that the United States is still a viable world leader, such an act would have invited blistering criticism from the media and also from Republicans and a sizable number of Democrats.

Nonetheless, the inability of President Obama to attend the APEC and the EAS is a lost opportunity for his administration to solidify its commitment to Asia and leaves doubt in many Asians’ minds on whether the U.S. is able to serve as an effective counterbalance to China. President Obama was hoping to make progress in wrapping up the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) by the end of the year. The TPP is a free trade agreement among 12 nations, and if ratified by the U.S. Congress would be the largest trade deal in history, valued at $28 trillion. President Obama has said that every extra $1 billion in exports would create 5,000 new American jobs. The President’s absence at APEC and the EAS does not promise the likelihood that an agreement by year’s end will be achieved.

China is wary that the TPP could be used to contain its burgeoning economic influence and is pursuing a rival trade deal, the Regional Cooperation Economic Partnership (RCEP), which includes all 10 ASEAN states and its FTA partners, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea. Some ASEAN nations are concerned is that the TPP could be used to drive a wedge in ASEAN. The U.S. has countered with a program called the Enhanced Economic Engagement Initiative (or E3 Initiative), which is meant to lay the groundwork for ASEAN countries to adhere to the high standards found in the TPP. This begs the question whether the TPP and RCEP will compete or converge with one another?

China’s President Xi Jinping has pledged to increase China-ASEAN trade by two and a half-fold to $1 trillion within the next five years. China’s trade with ASEAN has grown from $8 billion in 1991 to $400 billion in 2012. U.S. trade has grown, but at a much slower rate, and consequently its share of East Asia trade has declined over the past decade from 19.5 percent to 9.5 percent, while China’s share has grown from 10 to 20 percent. Nonetheless, U.S. trade remains substantial at $200 billion, making ASEAN the U.S.’s 4th largest market for exports and 5th largest trading partner. U.S. ASEAN trade creates or supports 472,000 American jobs. In addition, U.S. foreign direct investment (FDI) in ASEAN represents by far the largest amount of FDI in Asia, amounting to $157 billion. Indeed, U.S. FDI in ASEAN is nearly three times larger than its FDI to China and 10 times more than to India.

President Xi’s call for an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank will no doubt play a big part in discussions this week. There is good reason for this. Between now and 2030, The Asian Development Bank estimates that $8 trillion is needed for infrastructure development in Asia. This ties in closely with ASEAN’s desire to achieve connectivity ahead of the deadline for ASEAN economic integration by 2015. If successful, ASEAN will be much more attractive to large-scale investment than it would be as a collection of 10 small, segmented markets. It is in the United States’ interest to help foster ASEAN’s regional economic integration efforts.

Discussions at the East Asia Summit over maritime disputes in the South China Sea will also be important. China has disputes with four ASEAN nations – the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei. The U.S. has always been clear in its stance that it will not get involved nor take sides in territorial conflicts, but wants to see stability and freedom of navigation secured in the South China Sea. But the United States is urging all Southeast Asian nations, through ASEAN, to speak with one voice on maritime territorial conflicts and to work to the conclusion of a China-ASEAN Code of Conduct that would be legally binding. Leading up to the East Asia Summit, China has said discussion on maritime disputes in the South China Sea should be held “gradually.” This suggests that any agreement to these maritime disputes is still very far off in the making.

It is indeed unfortunate that President Obama cannot be in Southeast Asia this week to reassure leaders that the region remains integral to the U.S’s geo-political calculus and economic interests. Around the East Asia Summit in Brunei, President Obama was supposed to meet with all 10 ASEAN leaders for the first U.S.-ASEAN Summit. For the past four years, the president held a “meeting” with all 10 ASEAN officials. As part of the U.S. rebalancing strategy the U.S. decided last year to upgrade the leaders meeting to that of a “summit” in order to show the importance his administration is giving Southeast Asia. Perhaps one way President Obama could make up for his absence is to hold the U.S.-ASEAN Summit at a later date in the not-too-distant future, and invite all 10 ASEAN leaders to come to Washington (or elsewhere in the United States) to discuss how to strengthen mutual political, economic, and security interests. Such an overture by the president could help to persuade ASEAN leaders that the U.S. will continue to play an important, positive role in regional affairs as China rises and the broader Asia-Pacific region works to accommodate this rise and ensure peace, stability, and economic prosperity. This may at least dissipate, though probably not dispel, the notion in Southeast Asia that U.S. policy continues to remain episodic rather than consistent.

John J. Brandon is director of Regional Cooperation Programs for The Asia Foundation in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jbrandon@asiafound-dc.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.

Marking 20 Years in Mongolia

This week in Ulaanbaatar, celebrations are in full swing to mark The Asia Foundation’s 20th anniversary in Mongolia. In 1993, we opened our resident office in the building that is fondly remembered as the “Log Cabin,” becoming one of the first international nongovernmental organizations to enter the country at the dawn of Mongolia’s democratic transformation.

Ulaanbaatar

This year, The Asia Foundation celebrates its 20th anniversary in Mongolia. It works with the Mongolian government, parliament, judiciary, civil society, and the private sector to forge partnerships to combat corruption and improve transparency. Photo/Tenzing Paljor

“We had two chairs and a desk which we shared until we could find enough furniture for a full office, which wasn’t easy in those days of scarce everything,” said Sheldon Severinghaus the Foundation’s first country representative and recipient of Order of the Polar Star in 2009, the highest state honor bestowed by the Mongolian president on foreign nationals.

In a note to Asia Foundation President David Arnold, Mongolian President Elbegdorj, who was himself an early Foundation grantee, wrote: “The Asia Foundation has played a tangible role in the success of Mongolia’s peaceful transition. It has helped Mongolia to design and conduct reforms in many sectors of our society.”

The Foundation’s initial programming focused on forging strong relationships with individuals and nascent organizations, and supporting them in establishing the building blocks of a democratic Mongolia, including in drafting the 1992 Constitution. Our early programming sought to create opportunities and provide exposure for Mongolians to different approaches, models, and institutional arrangements in the U.S. and throughout Asia on topics such as the rule of law, judicial and parliamentary reform, independent media, civil society, and human rights.

Log Cabin

In 1993, The Asia Foundation opened its first resident office in Mongolia in this building, which is fondly remembered as the “Log Cabin.”

Over the years, we have worked with many innovative leaders in different fields, and as part of our preparations for the 20th anniversary we conducted a series of interviews with 20 Mongolian leaders, which we’ve published in a new book, available on The Asia Foundation’s website. Many of the leaders are former grantees of the Foundation who now occupy influential positions in Mongolian society. The support they received from the Foundation in the formative stages of Mongolia’s transition to a democracy and market economy was for many a life-changing experience. As one leader, who was selected by The Asia Foundation to go to the U.S to study the American legal system, recalls: “I learned many things, and the knowledge, the information, the contacts have been useful throughout my lifetime. It was a very crucial moment in my life.”

We also just released a second anniversary publication and slideshow that document our current work with government and non-government partners on programs promoting and bolstering transparent, accountable, and participatory governance at the national and sub-national level; urban services improvement; environmental protection and responsible resource use; civic engagement; women’s empowerment; regional cooperation; and educational through programs such as Books for Asia and the Merali Scholarship program.

We kicked off our 20th anniversary celebrations on Monday with a roundtable discussion organized by the National Committee on Gender Equality with more than 20 women’s organizations to share recollections on the start and development of the women’s movement in Mongolia with the support of The Asia Foundation and how the Foundation can continue to partner with women’s organizations going forward. The event was followed on Tuesday by a Citizen’s Hall, co-hosted with the Office of the President, which brought together national and local government actors, civil society stakeholders, and local citizens from the pilot areas where we are working to promote civic engagement. The participants discussed the first year of implementation of the Integrated Budget Law and shared their experiences to increase citizen participation at the local level. On Wednesday, together with the Ministry of Environment and Green Development, we hosted a discussion on smart consumption, one of the most critical issues facing Mongolia today, involving  ways consumers can foster green and sustainable development in Mongolia by the choices they make in what to buy, or not. Also on Wednesday, the American Center for Mongolian Studies (ACMS) launched a new partnership with the Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia program under which ACMS will manage book distribution and connect to its librarian training program.

On Thursday, the Foundation will unveil an exhibition entitled, “What do good governance and transparency look like?” Organized by the local non-profit, Young Women for Change, and funded by USAID, the exhibition showcases works from of young amateur photographers that capture the efforts being undertaken to promote good governance in Mongolia.

On Friday, our Mongolia office will be joined by the Foundation’s executive vice president, Suzanne Siskel, to host a reception at the Ulaanbaatar hotel to thank our many partners with whom we have worked closely over the last 20 years, and without whom Mongolia would not be the democracy success story that it is today.

Meloney C. Lindberg and Tirza Theunissen are The Asia Foundation’s country representative and deputy country representative in Mongolia. They can be contacted at meloney.lindberg@asiafoundation.org and tirza.theunissen@asiafoundation.org respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.

Asia Foundation President David Arnold at APEC CEO Summit

This week, Asia Foundation President David Arnold joined over 1,200 CEOs and 10 heads of member economies in Bali at the APEC CEO Summit, which focused on inclusive and sustainable development and women as powerful change agents in Asia’s growth trajectory. Mr. Arnold presented the Foundation’s research on women’s entrepreneurship in four APEC economies at a sideline event hosted by the National Center for APEC and APEC Business Advisory Council. Read more.