The latest in Southeast Asia

The Latest on Southeast Asia

Thursday, May 27, 2021 CSIS

 The International Institute for Strategic Studies reluctantly announced on May 20 that its marquee event in Singapore, the Shangri-La Dialogue, would be cancelled for the second year in a row due to the worsening Covid-19 situation in the region. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was one of several high profile defense officials set to attend the annual event, which was to take place the first week of June. This followed the recent cancellations of the World Economic Forum, also set to take place in the city-state, and the Singapore Open, a world renowned badminton tournament. These decisions reflect a grim reality in Southeast Asia: the pandemic is worsening just as nascent vaccine rollouts had many citizens hoping the worst was over. This spells trouble even for countries like Singapore and Vietnam which have handled the pandemic relatively well.

Singapore remains far and away the most vaccinated country in Southeast Asia, with nearly 30 percent of residents having received both doses. But the city-state has also seen an aggressive rise in local cases in recent weeks. The new Covid-19 variant first detected in India made its way to the country despite its stringent control measures. In response to the rise in cases, Singapore has announced stricter border screenings and quarantine requirements, as well as restricting social gatherings to no more than two people and closing indoor dining at restaurants. It has also been forced to postpone yet again a planned travel bubble with Hong Kong. As a regional business and travel hub, Singapore’s individual progress against the virus will continue to be tested by the wider region’s struggle to contain it.

Vietnam, another country that has won praise for its handling of the virus, is experiencing its worst wave of new cases since the start of the pandemic. These outbreaks are centered around industrial parks in both the north and south of the country. Foxconn, the Taiwanese electronics giant, has been forced to shut down several factories, while infection clusters have been identified in Samsung and Canon facilities as well. Vietnam has been a rare economic bright spot in Southeast Asia during the pandemic, being one of the few countries in the region to post positive growth in 2020. But as a net exporter, Vietnam faces the grim prospect of having to temporarily shut down factories, risking its economic recovery and disrupting global supply chains.

Vietnam is not the only country in Southeast Asia where dense populations of workers make control and mitigation efforts more difficult. Thailand, which is also experiencing its worst bout of Covid-19, recently discovered a new epicenter at a construction camp in Laksi, a district of Bangkok. These camps are largely comprised of poorer Thais and migrant workers from Cambodia and Myanmar who live in crowded onsite dormitories to save money. The government has sealed off entry and exit to these camps, but the virus continues to spread.

Overcrowded prisons in Thailand have become another hotspot contributing to the current wave of Covid-19. The crackdown and mass arrests of pro-democracy protestors has contributed to detention facilities nationwide taking in many more inmates than they were designed to accommodate. Between 10 and 20 percent of all confirmed Covid-19 cases in Thailand have been prisoners. This has led some detention centers to prepare for the provisional release of some inmates. But because of the arduous legal processes involved, this may not be enough to slow the spread.

Even in Southeast Asian countries with the most success containing the pandemic, there are going to be hotspots and cracks in the system until vaccination efforts build momentum across the entire region. Singapore may be leading the pack, but its long-term success emerging from the pandemic depends on the success of its neighbors and, ultimately, the world. The same is true for all of us.

For more updates on the region’s ongoing struggle with the pandemic, visit our online Tracker.

East Asia Forum: Events in Myanmar leave ASEAN behind

On 24 April, ASEAN leaders convened in Jakarta for a special summit on the situation in Myanmar. Outside parties including the United States were happy to give the bloc the chance to lead, recognising that ASEAN centrality — for all its faults — is an important plank of regional stability. Still, expectations heading into the summit were low; the grouping has long avoided sensitive political or security issues and left mediation to others.

Read the latest from Gregory B. Poling in East Asia Forum here.

 Conversation Six: Gregory B. Poling and Collin Koh
CSIS Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia Gregory B. Poling sat down with Collin Koh (S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies) for a conversation on recent developments in the Philippines–United States Visiting Forces Agreement.

Listen to their conversation at Conversation Six here.

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