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Editor’s Picks—The Best of InAsia 2019

December 18, 2019

By InAsia

Season’s greetings from InAsia. As the year comes to an end, we’re grateful to our readers, and to our dedicated writers who found the time to share their insights on developments in Asia. Here’s a “top ten” of the year’s most engaging essays, chosen by your humble editor. Enjoy! And please join us when InAsia returns on January 8 with predictions for the year ahead from our colleagues across Asia.

John Rieger
Editor, InAsia

  • Insecurity and displacement were much in the news in 2019. In Afghanistan, millions of migrants have fled their homeland since 2001. Now, millions are returning, often involuntarily, to face an uncertain future in a country where they have few resources. The Asia Foundation’s Tabasum Akseer writes about a new Foundation study that highlights the harsh challenges of this unprecedented migration.
  • In Myanmar, hopes to end decades of ethnic armed conflict have focused on negotiating a path to federalism and greater local control. But governing is different from fighting, and after 70 years of insurgency, many armed groups lack the knowledge of state structures and institutions to negotiate effectively as equals. Nicola Williams discusses a program that trains ethnic armed groups to identify and pursue effective political reforms that can serve as the foundation for a lasting peace.
  • “The two main themes of Filipino overseas worker life are homesickness and money,” writes New York Times reporter Jason DeParle in his new book, A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves. As a Luce Scholar in the mid-1980s, placed for a year in the Philippines by The Asia Foundation, DeParle intended to write about poverty. Instead, he spent three decades reporting on one family as they came to embody the stunning rise of global labor migration. In this interview, DeParle offers a very human portrait of what he calls “the world’s largest antipoverty program.”
  • Meanwhile, in a nation where 97 percent of the population is on Facebook, the first news that militants had seized the Philippine city of Marawi came when pictures of masked fighters waving the black flag of the Islamic State began swirling across social media. In “The Black Flag Flies on Facebook,” Nathan Shea writes that the five-month battle to retake the city laid bare a darker side of social media: its power as a tool of violent extremism.

    Screengrabs from public Facebook profiles reveal the relatively simple and authentic method by which some users promote their violent extremist actions.

  • From Indonesia, Ade Siti Barokah brings us the surprising story of disabled activist Bahrul Fuad, who created a quiet revolution in his nation’s mosques by persuading Islamic authorities to reconsider the rules of “purity” that once barred wheelchairs from houses of worship. Fuad’s victory for accessibility was also a small but sweet success for his many supporters, including The Asia Foundation.

    Bahrul Faud attends prayers at the Jami’ Al Akbar Mosque, Yogyakarta International Airport, Indonesia. His activism led to a new fiqh permitting wheelchairs in mosques.

    And on a richly described visit to the Isan region of northeastern Thailand, Nicola Nixon meets Theerada Namhai, a woman whose Thai Baan Association has helped her community overcome many of the development problems so prevalent in Isan. “Fried Frogs in Plaboo” is a thought-provoking portrait for development professionals. And, yes, there are fried frogs.

    Fried frogs on a stick (Photo: Nicola Nixon)

  • Turning to economic issues, when Imran Khan became the twenty-second prime minister of Pakistan at the end of 2018, he inherited an economy in serious trouble. The Asia Foundation’s Haris Qayyum suggests that Pakistan’s tax laws are currently the single largest hindrance to the health of the economy. And in Timor-Leste, the oil-dependent economy urgently needs to diversify. There’s tremendous potential in tourism and agriculture, writes Laura McDowell, but transforming the economy without creating winners and losers will be a complex process that affects every citizen of this young nation. With help from The Asia Foundation, they brought the debate to TV.

    Host Guteriano Neves with panelists Carmeneza Monteiro, Acacio Guteres, and Gil Mauberismo in a televized debate on the economic potential of agriculture in Timor-Leste

  • On the energy front, India, already fifth in the world in installed capacity, is racing ahead with large renewable energy commitments. But India’s neglect of storage technology has left its lofty commitments to wind and solar incomplete. Now, writes Anindya Upadhyay, a technology little used in India is getting a second looks for its efficiency and feasibility: pumped hydro energy storage, or PHES—the “water battery.”
  • Nepal is relatively progressive among South Asian nations in its guarantees to women in politics and public life, writes author Srijana Nepal, yet meaningful, widespread participation by women in major decision-making remains elusive. The second annual Survey of the Nepali People suggests that a seat at the table doesn’t guarantee gender equality, and that deep-seated preconceptions about gender roles are still standing in the way of women’s progress.

    In Nepal, a seat at the table doesn’t guarantee gender equality.

  • Globally, more than 40 million people are victims of modern-day slavery. Two-thirds of them are in Asia, and most of them toil in industries deeply embedded in global supply chains. Melissa Chong, a former Asia Foundation Development Fellow, argues that a tipping point is coming that will see the nations of Asia finally confront the problem of supply-chain slavery.

    Globally, more than 40 million people are victims of modern-day slavery. Two-thirds of them are in Asia, and most toil in industries deeply embedded in global supply chains.

  • Finally, 40 years ago a young American teaching English in Thailand was gloomily spending his first Christmas apart from his family when a chance encounter taught him a lesson about the season that he has never forgotten. John Brandon’s personal memoir, which we first posted here last holiday season, deserves to become a Christmas classic.

I hope you enjoy these stories from 2019. Be sure to join us in the new year as we bring you our predictions for 2020.

John Rieger is the editor of InAsia. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.


About our blog, InAsia

InAsia is a bi-weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia’s development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of renowned experts, InAsia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.

InAsia is posted and distributed every other Wednesday evening, Pacific Time. If you have any questions, please send an email to [email protected].


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