Archive for ‘Thailand’


Southeast Asian leaders emphasise economic strength in face of U.S.-China tensions

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Southeast Asian leaders agreed on Sunday to work together on regional economy and security to strengthen their positions amid growing U.S.-China tensions, as they wrapped up this year’s first summit in Bangkok.

The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will need its collective economic strength for bargaining power globally, especially amid the trade tensions between the world’s top two economies, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha told a news conference, as chairman of the 34th ASEAN Summit.
Prayuth urged ASEAN nations to complete negotiations this year for the China-initiated Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) pact that includes 16 countries.
“This will help ASEAN handle the changes and uncertainty that will happen in the region going forward, particularly the impacts of trade tension between ASEAN’s important trade partners.”
Negotiations began in 2012 on RCEP, which envisions the creation of a free trade zone encompassing 45% of the world’s population and more than a third of its GDP, but does not involve the United States.
First proposed by China, RCEP’s 16 signatories include the 10 ASEAN member states and six Asia-Pacific countries, including major economies China, India, Japan and South Korea. ASEAN has existing free-trade agreements with all six countries.
“If we can do this, we will have the bargaining power and base for negotiation. Because when combined, we are 650 million people, the largest regional bloc in the world,” the Thai prime minister said.
Four ASEAN countries – Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam – will discuss the trade war in next week’s G20 summit, which assembles 20 major economies, in Tokyo, Prayuth said.
ASEAN countries also agreed on a common approach on a U.S.-led Indo-Pacific initiative, at a time when U.S.-China tensions were rising and forcing ASEAN countries to take sides.
Prayuth hailed the bloc’s agreement on the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific as a “significant step” for the region.
The endorsed outlook document, seen by Reuters, acknowledges “maritime issues such as unresolved maritime disputes that have the potential for open conflict” as existing and emerging geopolitical challenges.
It outlines maritime cooperation “for peaceful settlement of disputes”. It also aims for connectivity in the Indo-Pacific region.
Source: Reuters

Southeast Asian leaders open summit in Bangkok

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Southeast Asian leaders opened a two-day summit in Bangkok on Saturday, though it was unclear what progress their 10-country group could make on disputes in the South China Sea and the plight of ethnic Rohingya fleeing Myanmar.

Formed more than half a century ago, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has historically struggled with challenges facing the region because it works only by consensus and is reluctant to become involved in any matter regarded as internal to a member state.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha was making his debut as a civilian leader representing current chair Thailand, after a general election in March that opposition parties say was designed to ensure his victory five years after the former army chief seized power in a 2014 coup.

Officials are expected to discuss a Code of Conduct (COC) for negotiations over the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest waterways and a potential flashpoint, as it is claimed by several ASEAN members as well as China.

However, it was unlikely much progress would be made, though member nations might discuss the June 9 collision of a Philippine boat and a Chinese fishing vessel.

“It is encouraging to see that the ASEAN-China talks on the COC have continued,” said Marty Natalegawa, former foreign minister of Indonesia.

“However, there is real risk that developments on the ground – or more precisely at sea – are far outpacing the COC’s progress thereby possibly rendering it irrelevant.”

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has accepted China’s proposal to jointly investigate allegations that a Chinese fishing vessel abandoned 22 Filipinos after it sank their boat in the South China Sea, his spokesman said on Saturday.

Rights groups have also called on ASEAN leaders to rethink support for plans to repatriate Rohingya Muslims who have fled member state Myanmar, where activists say returnees could face discrimination and persecution.

More than 700,000 Rohingya crossed into Bangladesh in 2017, according to U.N. agencies, after a crackdown by Myanmar’s military sparked by Rohingya insurgent attacks on the security forces.

However, it is unlikely that there will be any criticism of Myanmar at the summit over the Rohingya, said Prapat Thepchatree, a political science professor at Thailand’s Thammasat University said.

“This issue has been a very sensitive one for ASEAN,” he said.

Host country Thailand deployed about 10,000 security forces around Bangkok for the summit, mindful of a decade ago when Thailand last hosted an ASEAN summit and dozens of protesters loyal to military-ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra forced their way into the meeting venue.

But on Saturday morning, only a small group of people had planned to stage a protest to call Prayuth’s election the product of a rigged system.

The group, called Citizens Wanting Elections, was stopped by police before it could reach a meeting point near the summit venue. The group later released a statement welcoming visiting leaders but criticising Prayuth.

“The individual who serves as President of ASEAN, who welcomes everyone today, did not come from a clean and fair election,” the letter said.

Source: Reuters


China’s massive military spending is creating a ripple effect across the Asia-Pacific region

  • With a defence budget second only to the US, China is amassing a navy that can circle the globe and developing state-of-the-art autonomous drones
  • The build-up is motivating surrounding countries to bolster their own armed forces, even if some big-ticket military equipment is of dubious necessity
Chinese President Xi Jinping reviews an honour guards before a naval parade in Qingdao. Photo: Xinhua
Chinese President Xi Jinping reviews an honour guards before a naval parade in Qingdao. Photo: Xinhua
The Asia-Pacific region is one of the fastest-growing markets for arms dealers, with economic growth, territorial disputes and long-sought military modernisation propelling a 52 per cent increase in defence spending over the last decade to US$392 billion in 2018, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
The region accounts for more than one-fifth of the global defence budget and is expected to grow. That was underscored last week by news of 

’s bid to strike a

US$2 billion deal

to purchase US tanks and missiles.

Taiwanese Soldiers on a CM11 battle tank, jointly developed with US arms manufacturer General Dynamics. Photo: EPA
Taiwanese Soldiers on a CM11 battle tank, jointly developed with US arms manufacturer General Dynamics. Photo: EPA
The biggest driver in arms purchases, however, is 

– responsible for 64 per cent of military

spending in the region. With a defence budget that is second only to the


, China is amassing a navy that can circle the globe and developing state-of-the-art autonomous drones. The build-up is motivating surrounding countries to bolster their armed forces too – good news for purveyors of submarines, unmanned vehicles and warplanes.

It is no coincidence that the recent 
Shangri-La Dialogue



, a security conference attended by


chiefs, was sponsored by military contractors including Raytheon,

Lockheed Martin


BAE Systems


Opinion: How the Shangri-La Dialogue turned into a diplomatic coup for China

Kelvin Wong, a Singapore-based analyst for Jane’s, a trade publication that has been covering the defence industry for 121 years, has developed a niche in infiltrating China’s opaque defence industry by attending obscure trade shows that are rarely advertised outside the country.

He said the US is eager to train allies in Asia and sell them arms, while also stepping up its “freedom of navigation” naval operations in contested waters in the

South China Sea

and Taiwan Strait. It has lifted a ban on working with


’s special forces over atrocities committed in

East Timor

. And it is considering restarting arms sales to the



In his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue, acting US Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan touted American advancements in technology “critical to deterring and defeating the threats of the future” and said any partner could choose to win access to that technology by joining the US defence network.
Wong said the message was clear: “Buy American.”
Analysts say Chinese soldiers have less training, motivation and lower morale than their Western counterparts. Photo: Reuters
Analysts say Chinese soldiers have less training, motivation and lower morale than their Western counterparts. Photo: Reuters
The analyst said there is a growing admission among the Chinese leadership that the

People’s Liberation Army

has an Achilles’ heel: its own personnel.

He said one executive at a Chinese defence firm told him: “The individual Chinese soldier, in terms of morale, training, education and motivation, (cannot match) Western counterparts. So the only way to level up is through the use of unmanned platforms and 
artificial intelligence


To that end, China has developed one of the world’s most sophisticated drone programmes, complete with custom-built weapon systems. By comparison, Wong said,
US drones rely on weapons originally developed for helicopters.
Wong got to see one of the Chinese drones in action two years ago after cultivating a relationship with its builder, the state-owned China Aerospace Science & Technology Corporation. He viewed a demonstration of a 28-foot-long CH-4 drone launching missiles at a target with uncanny ease and precision.
“Everyone knew they had this,” Wong said. “But how effective it was, nobody knew. I could personally vouch they got it down pat.”
China unveils its answer to US Reaper drone – how does it compare?

That is what Bernard Loo Fook Weng, a military expert at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told the author Robert Kaplan for his 2014 book, Asia’s Cauldron, about simmering tensions in the South China Sea.

He was describing the competition for big-ticket military equipment of dubious necessity.

Southeast Asia

is littered with examples of such purchases.


owns an aircraft carrier without any aircraft. Indonesia dedicated about one-sixth of its military budget to the purchase of 11


Su-35 fighter jets. And


splurged on two


submarines it could not figure out how to submerge.

“It’s keeping up with the Joneses,” Wong said. “There’s an element of prestige to having these systems.”

Submarines remain one of the more debatable purchases, Wong said. The vessels aren’t ideal for the South China Sea, with its narrow shipping lanes hemmed in by shallow waters and coral reefs. Yet they provide smaller countries with a powerful deterrence by enabling sneak attacks on large ships.

Nuclear-powered PLA Navy ballistic missile submarines in the South China Sea. Photo: Reuters
Nuclear-powered PLA Navy ballistic missile submarines in the South China Sea. Photo: Reuters
Asia and


are home to 245 submarines, or 45 per cent of the global fleet, according to the US-based naval market intelligence firm AMI International.

The Philippines remains one of the last coastal nations in the region without a sub – though it is in talks with Russian builders to acquire some.
Singapore recently received the first of four advanced


Type 218 submarines with propulsion systems that negate the need to surface more frequently. If the crew did not need to eat, the submarine could stay under water for prolonged periods. Wong said the craft were specially built for Asian crews.

“The older subs were designed for larger Europeans so the ergonomics were totally off,” he said.
Singapore, China deepen defence ties, plan larger military exercises
Tiny Singapore plays a crucial role securing the vital sea lanes linking the Strait of Malacca with the South China Sea. According to the

World Bank,

the country dedicates 3.3 per cent of its gross domestic product to defence, a rate higher than that of the United States.

State-of-the-art equipment defines the Singapore Armed Forces. Automation is now at the centre of the country’s military strategy, as available manpower is shrinking because of a rapidly ageing population.
Wong said Singapore is investing in autonomous systems and can operate frigates with 100 crew members – 50 fewer than they were originally designed for.

“We always have to punch above our weight,” he said.

Source: SCMP


African swine fever virus is now ‘endemic’ in China’s Tibet and Xinjiang regions, making its eradication harder, UN says

  • The virus that causes the African swine fever is now endemic in Tibet and Xinjiang, the United Nations’ Food & Agriculture Organisation said
  • Diseases that are endemic, or generally present, are harder to stamp out
Piglets are kept in pens at a pig farm in Langfang in Hebei province on Monday, April 1, 2019. Photo: Bloomberg
Piglets are kept in pens at a pig farm in Langfang in Hebei province on Monday, April 1, 2019. Photo: Bloomberg
China’s attempts to control African swine fever have been insufficient to stem further spread of the disease, with the deadly pig contagion now endemic in two regions, a United Nations group said.
The virus that causes the disease is entrenched among pig populations in the autonomous regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, the Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Rome said in a report Thursday.
Diseases that are endemic, or generally present, are more difficult to stamp out by quarantining and culling diseased and vulnerable livestock.

About 20 per cent of China’s pig inventories may have been culled in the first few months of 2019 amid fears of African swine fever spreading more rapidly, according to the FAO, which is monitoring the disease in cooperation with local authorities and China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs.

China’s pig production will drop by 134 million heads, or 20 per cent, in 2019, the US Department of Agriculture said last month.

“While official sources confirm a rapid spread of the disease, both the speed and severity of the spread could prove more pronounced than currently assumed,” the FAO said in its report. A government investigation in seven provinces found “irrational culling of sows on breeding farms in February, reducing the sector’s core production capacity.”

Thailand launches crackdown to keep out African swine fever

Since the first cases were reported last August, 130 outbreaks have been detected in 32 provinces, autonomous regions, municipalities and special administrative regions across the nation, which raises half the world’s pigs.

SCMP Graphics
SCMP Graphics

The FAO report found:

  • In Jilin province, swine inventory fell 28 per cent from the previous year, with some reports pointing to a larger drop In Shandong province, sow numbers fell 41 per cent from July 2018 to February 2019
  • In Guangdong province, hog inventories slumped 20 per cent from a year earlier and pig-feed sales fell 10 per cent to 50 per cent
  • Production of fresh and frozen meat by meatpackers plunged 17 per cent in January and February, compared with the same months in 2018
  • Source: SCMP

Short of war, US can’t help but lose to China’s rise in Asia, says think tank Lowy Institute

  • Lowy Institute’s 2019 Asia Power Index puts Washington behind both Beijing and Tokyo for diplomatic influence
  • Trump’s assault on trade has done little to stop Washington’s decline in regional influence, compared to Beijing, say experts
Chinese and US flags at an international school in Beijing. Photo: AFP
Chinese and US flags at an international school in Beijing. Photo: AFP
United States

may be a dominant military force in Asia for now but short of going to war, it will be unable to stop its economic and diplomatic clout from declining relative to China’s power.

That’s the view of Australian think tank the Lowy Institute, which on Tuesday evening released its 2019 index on the distribution of power in Asia.

However, the institute also said China faced its own obstacles in the region, and that its ambitions would be constrained by a lack of trust from its neighbours.

The index scored China 75.9 out of 100, just behind the US, on 84.5. The gap was less than America’s 10 point lead last year, when the index was released for the first time.
“Current US foreign policy may be accelerating this trend,” said the institute, which contended that “under most scenarios, short of war, the United States is unlikely to halt the narrowing power differential between itself and China”.
The Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index. Click to enlarge.
The Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index. Click to enlarge.
Since July, US President

Donald Trump

has slapped tariffs on Chinese imports to reduce his country’s

trade deficit with China

. He most recently hiked a 10 per cent levy on US$200 billion worth of Chinese goods to 25 per cent and has also threatened to impose tariffs on other trading partners such as the European Union and Japan.

Herve Lemahieu, the director of the Lowy Institute’s Asian Power and Diplomacy programme, said: “The Trump administration’s focus on trade wars and balancing trade flows one country at a time has done little to reverse the relative decline of the United States, and carries significant collateral risk for third countries, including key allies of the United States.”

The index rates a nation’s power – which it defines as the ability to direct or influence choices of both state and non-state actors – using eight criteria. These include a country’s defence networks, economic relationships, future resources and military capability.

It ranked Washington behind both Beijing and Tokyo in terms of diplomatic influence in Asia, due in part to “contradictions” between its recent economic agenda and its traditional role of offering consensus-based leadership.

The spoils of trade war: Asia’s winners and losers in US-China clash

Toshihiro Nakayama, a fellow at the Wilson Centre in Washington, said the US had become its own enemy in terms of influence.

“I don’t see the US being overwhelmed by China in terms of sheer power,” said Nakayama. “It’s whether America is willing to maintain its internationalist outlook.”

But John Lee, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said the Trump administration’s willingness to challenge the status quo on issues like trade could ultimately boost US standing in Asia.

“The current administration is disruptive but has earned respect for taking on difficult challenges which are of high regional concern but were largely ignored by the Obama administration – 

North Korea’s

illegal weapons and China’s predatory economic policies to name two,” said Lee.

“One’s diplomatic standing is not just about being ‘liked’ or ‘uncontroversial’ but being seen as a constructive presence.”
China’s move up the index overall – from 74.5 last year to 75.9 this year – was partly due to it overtaking the US on the criteria of “economic resources”, which encompasses GDP size, international leverage and technology.
China’s economy grew by more than the size of Australia’s GDP in 2018, the report noted, arguing that its growing base of upper-middle class consumers would blunt the impact of US efforts to restrict Chinese tech firms in Western markets.
US President Donald Trump with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. Photo: Reuters
US President Donald Trump with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. Photo: Reuters

“In midstream products such as smartphones and with regard to developing country markets, Chinese tech companies can still be competitive and profitable due to their economies of scale and price competitiveness,” said Jingdong Yuan, an associate professor at the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

“However, to become a true superpower in the tech sector and dominate the global market remains a steep climb for China, and the Trump administration is making it all the more difficult.”

The future competitiveness of Beijing’s military, currently a distant second to Washington’s, will depend on long-term political will, according to the report, which noted that China already spends over 50 per cent more on defence than the 10 







distrust of China

stands in the way of its primacy in Asia, according to the index, which noted Beijing’s unresolved territorial and historical disputes with 11 neighbouring countries and “growing degrees of opposition” to its signature

Belt and Road Initiative


Beijing is locked in disputes in the

South China Sea

with a raft of countries including Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei, and has been forced to renegotiate infrastructure projects in


and Myanmar due to concerns over feasibility and cost.

If Trump kills off Huawei, do Asia’s 5G dreams die?
Xin Qiang, a professor at the Centre for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, said Beijing still needed to persuade its neighbours it could be a “constructive, instead of a detrimental, force for the region”.
“There are still many challenges for [China to increase its] power and influence in the Asia-Pacific,” Xin said.
Wu Xinbo, also at Fudan University’s Centre for American Studies, said Beijing was having mixed success in terms of winning regional friends and allies.
“For China, the key challenge is how to manage the maritime disputes with its neighbours,” said Wu. “I don’t think there is growing opposition to the Belt and Road Initiative from the region, actually more and more countries are jumping aboard. It is the US that is intensifying its opposition to the project as Washington worries it may promote China’s geopolitical influence.”
Yuan said the rivalry between the

US and China

would persist and shape the global order into the distant future.

“They can still and do wish to cooperate where both find it mutually beneficial, but I think the more important task for now and for some time to come, is to manage their disputes in ways that do not escalate to a dangerous level,” Yuan said. “These differences probably cannot be resolved given their divergent interests, perspectives, etc, but they can and should be managed, simply because their issues are not confined to the bilateral [relationship] but have enormous regional and global implications.”
Elsewhere in Asia, the report spotlighted Japan, ranked third in the index, as the leader of the liberal order in Asia, and fourth-placed India as an “underachiever relative to both its size and potential”.
China’s wrong, the US can kill off Huawei. But here’s why it won’t
Lee said the index supported a growing perception that Tokyo had emerged as a “political and strategic leader among democracies in Asia” under

Shinzo Abe


“This is important because Prime Minister Abe wants Japan to emerge as a constructive strategic player in the Indo-Pacific and high diplomatic standing is important to that end,” Lee said.


, South Korea, Australia,


, Malaysia and Thailand rounded out the top-10 most powerful countries, in that order. Among the pack, Russia, Malaysia and Thailand stood out as nations that improved their standing from the previous year.


, ranked 14th, was the only place to record an overall decline in score, reflecting its waning diplomatic influence

after losing three of its few remaining diplomatic allies

during the past year.

Source: SCMP

China embraced gay ‘marriage’ long before Taiwan’s law. The West perverted history

  • Asia has a rich but largely forgotten history of acceptance of queer relationships
  • It was not until the colonial era that sexual and gender diversity came to be seen as a sin
An LGBT pride parade in support of Taiwan’s same-sex marriage law. Photo: Reuters
An LGBT pride parade in support of Taiwan’s same-sex marriage law. Photo: Reuters
Anyone reading the headlines about


legalisation of same-sex marriage
would get the impression this was Asia’s first taste of marriage equality. They would be quite wrong.

While Taiwan may be the first jurisdiction in Asia to legalise the modern form of same-sex marriage, such unions have been recognised across the region in various guises for centuries.
It may be true that Asia does not have a great reputation among the 

community, but it does have a rich history of acceptance of sexual and gender diversity – one that has largely been forgotten.

When Europeans first encountered Chinese society, they praised many aspects of it, from its efficient government to the sophisticated lifestyles of the upper-class. But they were shocked and repulsed about one aspect of Chinese society: the “abominable vice of sodomy”.
Opinion: Three lessons for Hong Kong from Taiwan’s LGBT journey
One Portuguese Dominican friar, Gaspar da Cruz, even wrote an apocalyptic tract which portrayed China as the new Sodom – beset by earthquakes, floods, and other natural disasters due to their acceptance of that “filthy abomination, which is that they are so given to the accursed sin of unnatural vice”, that is, sodomy.
Southern China, in particular, was known for a widespread acceptance of homosexual relationships. Shen Defu, a Chinese writer during the Ming dynasty, wrote that it was common for men of all social classes in Fujian province to take male lovers. While men generally took on these lovers while maintaining respectable marriages to women, there were some men who took their lover-relationships to a quasi-marriage level. The older man would be considered qixiong (adoptive older brother) and the younger qidi(adoptive younger brother).
South Korean men take part in Taiwan’s annual LGBT pride parade in Taipei. Photo: AFP
South Korean men take part in Taiwan’s annual LGBT pride parade in Taipei. Photo: AFP

Bret Hinsch, a professor of history in Taiwan, describes the ceremony based on the narration of a Chinese playwright, Li Yu (1610-1680): “Two men sacrifice a carp, a rooster, and a duck. They then exchange their exact times of birth, smear each other’s mothers with the blood of their sacrifices, and then swear eternal loyalty to one another.

The ceremony concludes with feasting on the sacrificial victims …. The younger qidi would move into the qixiong’s household. There he would be treated as a son-in-law by his husband’s parents. Throughout the marriage, many of which lasted for 20 years, the qixiong would be completely responsible for his younger husband’s upkeep.

The marriage would typically dissolve after a number of years so that the younger man could find a bride to marry to procreate and further the family lineage. The elder man was expected to pay the bride a price for the younger man.

These forms of gay “marriage” were prevalent enough in Fujian that there was even a patron deity of homosexuality, the rabbit. Many Han people from Fujian migrated to Taiwan starting in the 17th century; they now make up 80 per cent of the population.

Explained: gay rights, LGBTQ and same-sex marriage in Asia
Most literary accounts of homosexual relationships in China involve men, and there is a lively debate among scholars as to whether women enjoyed the same freedom.
Nevertheless, the most documented of female “quasi-marriages” are the “Golden Orchid Associations” in Guangdong. (Around 15 per cent of Taiwan’s population is Hakka, which historians trace specifically to Han migrants from Guangdong and surrounding areas.) The Golden Orchid Society was a movement based in Guangdong that lasted from the late Qing dynasty until the early 1900s. It provided a “sisterhood” alternative to women who did not want to get married for various reasons.
To announce her intentions, one woman would offer another gifts of peanut candy, dates and other goods. If the recipient accepted the gift, it was a signal she had accepted the proposal. They would swear an oath to one another, where sometimes one woman was designated “husband” and the other “wife”.
A couple kiss as they celebrate Taiwan’s legalisation of same-sex marriage. Photo: Reuters
A couple kiss as they celebrate Taiwan’s legalisation of same-sex marriage. Photo: Reuters

Hinsch describes the ceremony in this way: “After an exchange of ritual gifts, the foundation of the Chinese marriage ceremony, a feast attended by female companions served to witness the marriage. These married lesbian couples could even adopt female children, who in turn could inherit family property from the couple’s parents.”

While these “marriages” are not equivalent to the same-sex marriages of today, they nevertheless are historical precedents for what is now happening in Taiwan.

And China is far from being the only country in Asia with a queer history – Southeast Asia’s LGBTQ history is even richer.

Why some members of Singapore’s LGBT community prefer life in the shadows

In the early modern period, marriages between two people of the same assigned sex but who identified as different genders, were fairly normal in many parts of Southeast Asia. We know this primarily from the records Europeans kept when they landed on Asian shores.

For instance, here is a letter by a Portuguese missionary, Antonio de Paiva, to his Catholic bishop in 1544 about his observations of the Bugis people in what is now 


: “Your lordship will know that the priests of these kings are generally called bissus. They grow no hair on their beards, dress in a womanly fashion, and grow their hair long and braided; they imitate [women’s] speech because they adopt all of the female gestures and inclinations. They marry and are received, according to the custom of the land, with other common men, and they live indoors, uniting carnally in their secret places with the men whom they have for husbands …”

After this scandalised description, the author concludes with amazement that the Christian god, who had destroyed “three cities of Sodom for the same sin”, had not yet destroyed such “wanton people” who were “encircled by evil”.
Drag queens at a gay nightclub in Beijing. Despite its reputation, Asia has a long history of accepting diversity. Photo: EPA
Drag queens at a gay nightclub in Beijing. Despite its reputation, Asia has a long history of accepting diversity. Photo: EPA

Dating as far back as the 13th century, bissu have traditionally served as council to kings and guarded sacred manuscripts. They are considered a fifth gender within the Bugis’ gender-system: oroané (male men), makkunrai (female women), calabai (male women), calalai (female men), and bissu, who were neither male nor female (or both).

Brunei’s LGBT residents face up to new death by stoning law against gay sex
Today, their ranks have thinned – in one area, the population has dwindled to just six people – but the tradition remains, and they still perform important blessings. Contemporary bissu are typically male-bodied individuals who adopt feminine and masculine elements in their appearance. Although in the past bissu were married men, today they are required to be celibate.
In pre-Islamic Bugis culture, bissu were accorded priestly honours and tasked with mediating between the gods and people precisely because of, not in spite of, their gender. According to professor Halilintar Lathier, an Indonesian anthropologist, Bugis culture “perceived the upper world as male and this world as female, and therefore only a meta-gender would be able to become an intermediary”.
This pattern of a “gender-expansive” priest able to marry others of the same sex recurs throughout Southeast Asia.
A transgender beauty contest in Pattaya, Thailand. Despite its reputation, Asia has a long history of accepting diversity. Photo: Handout
A transgender beauty contest in Pattaya, Thailand. Despite its reputation, Asia has a long history of accepting diversity. Photo: Handout
To the west of South Sulawesi is Borneo, a large island that contains all of Brunei and parts of Indonesia and


. Borneo is home to many indigenous communities, including the Iban. The Iban historically respected manang bali, who were typically male-bodied shamans who adopted feminine dress and demeanour, and who took men as their husbands. Manang bali were mediators and held roles of great ritual importance; they were typically wealthy village chiefs known for their healing arts.

West of Borneo is the Malay Peninsula, where there are records from the Malay Annals and Misa Melayu dating as far back as the 15th century about priests, called sida-sida, who served in the palaces of the Malay sultans. They were responsible for safeguarding women in the palace as well as the food and clothing of royalty, and overseeing ritual protocol. The sida-sida undertook “androgynous behaviour” such as wearing women’s clothing and doing women’s tasks. A Malay anthropologist in the 1950s, Shamsul A.B., recalls seeing male-bodied sida-sida in the royal palace in his childhood, who were believed by the population to either be celibate and asexual, or attracted to men. Michael Peletz, an anthropologist and author of Gender Pluralism in Southeast Asia, notes that based on the evidence, it is “highly likely” that sida-sida involved both male- and female-bodied people who were involved in transgender practices, and who engaged in sexual relationships with people of the same and opposite sex.
How a gay student’s suicide is helping Japan’s LGBT community speak up
Northeast of Malaysia is the


, where pre-colonial communities were religiously led by babylan: women healers and shamans who were responsible for mediating between the gods and people. Male-bodied people (asog, bayog), sometimes considered a third sex, could also hold these roles so long as they comported themselves like women. A 16th century Spanish Catholic manuscript records asog in the following manner:

“Ordinarily they dress as women, act like prudes and are so effeminate that one who does not know them would believe they are women … they marry other males and sleep with them as man and wife and have carnal knowledge.”
Dancers perform at the ShanghaiPRIDE opening party. Despite its reputation, Asia has a long history of accepting diversity. Photo: AFP
Dancers perform at the Shanghai PRIDE opening party. Despite its reputation, Asia has a long history of accepting diversity. Photo: AFP

The Spanish priests saw these asog as “devil-possessed”, particularly because they habitually practised “sodomy” among one another. Due to the Chinese reputation for homosexuality and various Sinophobic attitudes, some even attributed the prevalence of sodomy to the Chinese, whom they said had “infected the natives” and introduced the curse to the “Indians”, although there is no evidence of this.


Although these examples relate to the religious arena, anthropologists believe the respect accorded to these ritual specialists were an indicator of a wider societal acceptance of gender and sexual diversity in Southeast Asia – an acceptance that began to be eroded through the introduction of world religions (particularly Christianity), modernity, and colonialism. For example, in Malaysia, Brunei, 


, Myanmar and throughout the commonwealth, the British enforced a penal code that legislated against sodomy. More than half of the countries that currently legally prohibit sodomy do so based on laws created by the British.

On gay sex, India has assumed an ancient position. Read the kama sutra
Similarly, after the Chinese were defeated by Western and Japanese imperialists, many Chinese progressives in the early 20th century sought to modernise China, which meant adopting “modern” Western ideas of dress, relationships, science and sexuality.
Concubinage was outlawed, prostitution was frowned upon, and women’s feet were unbound. It also meant importing European scientific understandings of homosexuality as an inverted or perverted pathology. These “scientific ideas” were debunked in the 1960s in the West, but lived on in China, frozen in time, and have only recently begun to thaw with the rise of LGBTQ activists in Asia.
A recent headline on the news from Taiwan read: “First in Asia: marriage equality comes to Taiwan”, as if the recent bill was an unprecedented “first” for Asia and that marriage equality – which, presumably, the headline writer associates with the West – has finally reached Asian shores.
But when we zoom out historically, it is evident that what happened in Taiwan is not so much a novel “breakthrough” for Asia. It is more a reconnection to its queer Chinese and Asian heritage, as well as a rejection of outdated Western ideas that it once adopted.
There is still much more work to be done to advance LGBT rights in Taiwan and the rest of Asia, but perhaps looking backwards in time can help us move forward.
Source: SCMP

India election 2019: How sugar influences the world’s biggest vote

An Indian vendor sits among sugarcane kept at the main wholesale market ahead of celebrations surrounding the festival of Pongal in Bangalore,Image copyright AFP
Image caption Some 30 million farmers are engaged in cane farming in India

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a recent election meeting in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, he was c