A+ A-

Articles & Commentaries

2023/75 “What Can We Expect of Indonesia’s PDP Law?” by Yanuar Nugroho and Sofie Syarief


This picture taken on 4 April 2023 shows a woman watching a livestream on social media offering merchandise for sale in Jakarta. Photo: Bay Ismodo/AFP).


  • The Personal Data Protection (PDP) Law was ratified by the Indonesian House of Representatives at the end of 2022. Although seen as a move in reaction to some data leakage incidents, this marks an important step in the country’s journey towards digital transformation.
  • However, the enactment of this law near the end of Jokowi’s terms makes it look like mere lip service since it can be implemented only after all derivative regulations are in place. Till today, none of them is ready, which means that implementation of the law will be delayed.
  • There are some serious challenges in the law. First, the accountability of the government in handling and managing citizens’ personal data is not clearly defined. Second, the mandate to establish the Personal Data Protection Authority is difficult to operationalise because the chain of command involving various government entities is unclear. Third, there is a risk of journalistic work being stifled by indiscriminate use of the law by those in power.
  • Policymakers must carefully identify, anticipate and mitigate potential unintended consequences of the law.

* Yanuar Nugroho is Visiting Senior Fellow at the Indonesia Studies Programme (ISP) and Regional Economic Studies (RES) at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute Singapore and Senior Lecturer at Driyarkara School of Philosophy Jakarta. Sofie Syarief is former Visiting Fellow at the Media, Technology and Society at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute Singapore and a PhD student at Goldsmiths, University of London, UK.

ISEAS Perspective 2023/75, 22 September 2023

Download PDF Version


On 20 September 2022, Indonesia’s House of Representatives (DPR) ratified the PDP Law (Personal Data Protection, or UU Perlindungan Data Pribadi),[1] which was first initiated in 2016. The ratification happened during the ‘Bjorka havoc’ when a hacker penetrated and stole data from national online applications such as the Covid-19 tracing app, PeduliLindungi, operated by the Ministry of Health (MOH) and the MyPertamina app belonging to the state-run oil and gas company Pertamina.[2] Not long after the incident, 1.3 billion SIM card registration data were stolen, exposing personal ID details.[3] In the latest case, in early July 2023, 34 million passport numbers and immigration IDs were leaked.[4] All these data leaks involving governmental bodies were usually met with denial or excuses, the most popular being that the leaked data are obsolete[5] although ID numbers are valid for life.[6]

The PDP Law’s ratification is seen as a reactive move to the cases of data leakage. It marked an important point in the country’s journey towards digital transformation.[7] The government has been slow in developing its digital capacity, especially in protecting citizens’ personal data. Indonesia has passed the Law on Information and Electronic Transactions (UU ITE, or ITE Law). This law is seen as an ‘elastic’ regulation which, instead of providing convenience and ease of service to the public, suppresses democratic and civic space in Indonesia by introducing an extended range of vague and imprecise offences, and with draconian penalties that can be abused.[8]

The calls for more serious policies concerning data governance resurfaced when Bjorka publicly leaked several supposedly confidential datasets.[9]

Politically, the enactment of the PDP Law coming near the end of Jokowi’s term makes it look like mere lip service because it cannot be implemented until the derivative regulations are ready. These regulations are impossible to complete within less than a year. The issue of personal data and data protection is understood differently by the government – even among government bodies— and by the citizens. The logical implication is the occurrence of bias and multiple interpretations when the policy is implemented. This essay highlights some key issues related to data governance and the PDP Law. It will also discuss implementation challenges.


At the heart of the PDP Law is the crucial ‘accountability principle’ requiring all organisations operating in Indonesia to be responsible for managing data.[10] Yet, there is still very little assurance of accountability when government bodies mishandle data.[11]

Government accountability on data mishandling was shown to be even more crucial a mere two months after the PDP Law was passed when another data leak occurred, in November 2022.[12] The breach was met with a firm denial from the Minister of Health[13] after the ministry (as the data controller) failed to inform the public (as the data owner) that data protection failure had occurred, as required in the PDP Law. The minister’s denial stopped further investigations within the ministry.

The response to the data leak incident illustrates the government’s ineptitude and reluctance in taking data breaches seriously. Arguably, it shows how the government has yet to understand that personal data protection is part of citizens’ rights to privacy as stipulated in the Constitution. During the abovementioned massive data breach, the president and several ministers were targeted for doxxing—an act to intentionally reveal a person’s private information online without their consent, often with malicious intent. Rather than seeing it as cause for alarm, Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs Mahfud MD — who himself was doxxed[14] — responded with a statement that showed a lack of sensibility in personal data protection. He tweeted, “I’m not bothered, and I don’t want to know. Because my personal data is not confidential. It can be taken from and seen on Wikipedia (Google), on the back covers of my books, at the LHKPN KPK (State Officials’ Asset Report of Corruption Eradication Commission). My personal data is open, no need to leak it.”[15]

In a show of privilege, the former Minister of Communications and Informatics (Menkominfo) Johnny G Plate, opted to use an American phone number after his private data was doxxed.[16] Rather than acknowledging how harmful private data breaches can be or showing care in securing the public’s data which his own ministry had harvested, he asked journalists not to make a fuss about his decision.[17]

Unfortunately, the responses from both ministers largely represent the government’s lax stance in regard to data protection.[18] The inadequate responses are compounded by half-heartedness in acknowledging the root cause, which is poor data protection governance. In handling the Bjorka hacking incident, rather than take measures to improve the nation’s cyber security system, the government opted to block sites or accounts used to hack the system. At the same time, several relevant agencies, including Kemenkominfo and the National Cyber and Crypto Agency (BSSN), shifted the blame onto the other.[19] These responses ignited public scepticism: How can the government protect citizens’ data if the authorities keep buck-passing and no one takes responsibility?


The PDP Law stipulates two types of personal data: specific and general.[20] In public services, data are further classified into personal or individual data, aggregate or group data, and demographic data. Based on the Civil Registry (Administrasi Kependudukan/Adminduk) Law No. 24/2013 revising Law No. 23/2006, personal data are stored, managed, and protected confidentially, whereas aggregate data refer to a group of data on characteristics or events, or groupings of individual populations such as demographic events, age groups and occupations. Demographic data are used by citizens to access public services, while the government uses them as a basis to carry out development planning, budget allocation, and law enforcement.[21] These data are sourced by and are under the responsibility of government agencies.

Such a complex classification of data, especially if protection is not well managed, is prone to leakages and breaches. Poor data security or user negligence can lead to data leakage. Data breach occurs when the system is broken into.[22] Between 2019 to 2021, there were many cases of data breaches in Indonesia. Based on BSSN (2021), there were 290.3 million cyberattacks in 2019. This would increase by 41%, reaching 495.3 million cases in 2020. Understandably, as data flows exponentially increase, so does the risk of cyberattacks. From 2019 to 2020, ransomware attacks alone increased 105%.[23] 

Official responses to data security problems may have shown a lack of goodwill and evasion, judging from excuses given by some individuals. One example is the statement that a particular hack involved old, outdated data[24] – implying the hacked data were not important. Another example is the claim that the system was still safe despite a hack.[25] Nevertheless, these cases have multi-dimensional impacts, not only for the individual data owners but also for data management institutions, especially when the data are managed by government agencies. For individuals, hacking of their personal data may cause material and non-material losses, for instance, when the hacked data are used for doxing, fraud, or breaking into digital assets in the form of currency and other digital products. For data management institutions, such cases reduce public confidence in their performance and may decrease service quality or cause a decline in their reputation, and potentially lead to lawsuits.

The government is hence obliged to secure data as a strategic resource. There is an urgent need for better personal data governance, both for Indonesia’s public and private sectors. The government must take full responsibility for protection of existing personal data. Indeed, it is for this reason that the PDP Law was proposed and passed.


Consisting of 16 chapters and 76 articles, this law substantially covers at least four aspects, that is, data categorisation, the rights of data subjects,[26] the obligations of data controllers,[27] and the establishment of Personal Data Protection Authority (PDPA).[28]

The table below describes a juridical review of the substance of the PDP Law and the technocratic implications in its implementation, both concerning derivative regulations and the duties and responsibility of relevant institutions.

Source: Compiled by authors

Several articles in the PDP Law have legal implications and loopholes that need to be investigated. For instance, there are around 15 authorities that have not been listed — PDPA included — in resolving disputes through non-litigation adjudication mechanisms and issuing mediation decisions regarding compensation. There is a legitimate concern that the law can threaten the work of Indonesia’s press,[29] including criminalisation of it.[30] The law also regulates criminal sanctions without providing definite limits on the meaning of each element,[31] and is therefore somewhat more inclined towards imposing sanctions than raising awareness.

In particular, the establishment of the PDPA under the President begs the question of its independence since its role is to oversee the implementation of the law by all stakeholders. Another loophole are the provisions that require companies or providers to comply with requests for deletion without delay within 3 x 24 hours from the date the request was submitted.[32] These are technically problematic because in practice, companies would need a longer time to delete data, perhaps even weeks. Further, the obligation for data controllers to have a Data Protection Officer (DPO) and parameters related to the terms of the fulfilment of the rights of Personal Data Owners[33] is difficult for medium to smaller businesses to fulfil.


There are two fundamental challenges to overcome for the PDP Law to be fully implemented: (i) Preparing derivative regulations and (ii) Establishing the PDPA Board.

The formulation of derivative regulations requires a fairly long time and is a complicated process. The PDP Law mandates that nine Government Regulations (Peraturan Pemerintah, or PP) and one Presidential Regulation (Peraturan Presiden, or Perpres), and subsequent Ministerial Regulations, be produced. So far, the passage of various PP and Perpres has taken significant amounts of time, mostly around six months or even a year from draft to law. If these regulations are the priority of the President – like the Omnibus Law on Job Creation (UU Ciptaker, Law No. 11 of 2020) and State Capital Law (UU IKN, Law No. 3 of 2022), they could be formulated quickly. Arguably, the completion of derivative regulations of PDP Law has so far not been the government’s priority.[34]

The government organised a public consultation in February 2023 involving some 200 participants from the banking, health, education, IT, e-commerce, hospitality, transport, and public sectors.[35] So far, there is still no clear time horizon as to when the implementing regulations will be completed. Again, this signals that the issue of PDP is not seen as a priority.

Chapter 9 of the PDP Law mandates the need for a Perpres to establish a ministerial level non-structural body (PDPA) that reports to the President[36] and a PP on the authority of this institution as a data protector.[37] However, the institutional form of the PDPA is also unclear, even though the law explicitly stated it as being fully and directly responsible to the President (Article 58 para 4). There is a question of its independence. Although the law applies to both corporations and the government, the regulation delegates the establishment of the PDPA to the President, virtually rendering it no different from other executive institutions. Conflicts of interest may arise when there is no clear division of responsibility or authority regarding supervision and enforcement. Unclear regulations regarding the position and institutional structure of the PDPA will also leave its formation—including how vast its authoritative reach will be—heavily dependent on the President’s “good will”.[38]   

The ways in which the PDPA will be established entails at least two significant problems. First, inequality of sanctions may occur in response to a failure in data protection. Any violations of data protection may be subjected to varying sanctions, from mere administrative sanctions to fines.[39] However, criminal penalties[40] are also looming, with specific penalties towards corporations.[41] Not only are governmental bodies not regarded as economic institutions that amass annual income and cannot therefore be subjected to sanctions more profound than the administrative ones, the nature of the PDPA—not being independent from the executive bodies they are supposed to regulate— opens the possibility for unfair judgments and ineffective supervision.

Second, the PDPA being an institution on par with the governmental bodies it is meant to regulate poses a serious challenge. For example, it might do very little to determine which ministry or agency is responsible for any breach of a civil registry, especially for ID numbers, and put in place measures to secure the data created and harvested under government policies. The supervision of the PDPA should hence rest with an independent commission rather than with a government ministry.

The process for establishing the PDPA will likely take a long time, and there is no guarantee that it will start work immediately after it is formed. One is reminded of the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN), whose full organisational structure and governance remain unfinalised more than two years after its formation.[42] These lessons indicate that the institutional aspect is more urgent than the implementation of the PDP Law or the establishment of PDPA, and should be prioritised accordingly.

With such challenges, what may the implications of the enactment of the PDP Law be?


The long list of sanctions against private data protection violations might force public entities and private corporations to channel their resources towards obeying the PDP Law. However, as much as sanctions are necessary, punitive actions towards citizens might be problematic if imposed before any meaningful measures to raise public awareness on protecting private data are taken.

According to a 2021 survey conducted by the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, Indonesia’s overall digital safety index—including the safety to not share any private data via social media—is quite low, i.e., 3.1 on a scale of 1-5.[43] This reflects general ignorance towards personal data protection or that of other people; this opens possibilities for unintentional breaches, which stem not from malicious intent but from the lack of adequate awareness of private data and the importance of protecting them—evidenced by how Minister Mahfud reacted to the personal data breach against him.

With this background in mind, the law might lead to misuse and overcriminalisation,[44] like the ITE Law. In essence, it threatens criminal action against anyone unlawfully disclosing other people’s personal data. However, there is neither sufficient definition nor legal limitation on what constitutes ‘unlawful’ (Article 65 para 2) hence opening possibility for abuse. Equally, without adequate knowledge and conceptual awareness of data protection, the public is prone to unintended offence. For instance, teachers sharing students’ daily activities could potentially be a violation[45] especially because the Law categorises children’s data as ‘specific’ data,[46] implying different and more stringent legal repercussions.[47] It is therefore crucial to ensure overall awareness of personal data protection if the fundamental aim is to protect the public.


In a continuation of the trend in curbing press freedom,[48] the PDP Law also has its own articles which may stifle journalism. Among the varieties of specific data that should not be disseminated, “criminal record” is included (Article 4 para 2). Within the bill, “criminal record” is elaborated as a written account of past unlawful acts and present judicial proceedings, police records and immigration records for travel ban issuance. The fact that all kinds of criminal records—including ongoing judicial proceedings—are regarded as specific data, implying offence for anyone publishing them, will potentially threaten journalistic work in reporting.[49]

Exclusions for the disclosure of specific data are also found in the Law (Article 15 para 1). However, these are limited to governmental undertaking and academic research. Journalistic works and the public’s legitimate interests are disregarded. As mentioned, the term ‘unlawful’ can also be problematic for journalistic works. There is no legal definition and limitation regarding unlawful dissemination of personal data — or even specific data — rendering the term obscure yet broad.

As such, some articles of the PDP Law can be used in an unchecked manner by certain groups, especially those in power, to restrict and criminalise journalistic works. The possible outcome is journalist reports such as exposing public officials’ history of corruption or other crimes—which are of legitimate public interest, and paramount since Indonesia is anticipating a national executive and parliamentary election in 2024— can be subjected to punishment. Not only do these articles contradict Indonesia’s Press Law (Law No. 40 of 1999)[50] which mandates the press to professionally fulfil the public’s rights to know without coercion and interference, they further question the country’s commitment to democracy.


There are several aspects within the PDP Law that must be revisited and attended to when it comes implementation. These aspects, including unclear institutional set-up and articles that have ambiguous or conflicting ideas, foreshadow unintended consequences affecting the actual protection of Indonesians’ data. Such consequences must be identified, anticipated and mitigated when they happen. Reflecting on the consequences and putting them in the bigger picture takes us to another reflection: Beyond the PDP Law lies a more fundamental need for a digital strategy at the country level. Without a strategy to provide firm ground for digital transformation, Jokowi’s vision of Pemerintahan Dilan, a digital government that serves the people, will never be realised.


For endnotes, please refer to the original pdf document.

ISEAS Perspective is published electronically by: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute   30 Heng Mui Keng Terrace Singapore 119614 Main Tel: (65) 6778 0955 Main Fax: (65) 6778 1735   Get Involved with ISEAS. Please click here: /support/get-involved-with-iseas/ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute accepts no responsibility for facts presented and views expressed.   Responsibility rests exclusively with the individual author or authors. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.  
© Copyright is held by the author or authors of each article.
Editorial Chairman: Choi Shing Kwok  
Editorial Advisor: Tan Chin Tiong  
Editorial Committee: Terence Chong, Cassey Lee, Norshahril Saat, and Hoang Thi Ha  
Managing Editor: Ooi Kee Beng  
Editors: William Choong, Lee Poh Onn, Lee Sue-Ann, and Ng Kah Meng  
Comments are welcome and may be sent to the author(s).


Temasek Working Paper No. 6: 2023 – “The So-Called ‘Kāla Head’ Armband of Temasek: A Preliminary Report” by Natalie S.Y. Ong



ASEANFocus Issue 2/2023



  • Changing Political Landscapes in SEA
  • Towards a Regional QR Code
  • Rise of Unicorns in SEA
  • A New Chapter in ASEAN-Japan Relations
  • Live Music Industry in SEA


Southeast Asia Climate Outlook: 2023 Survey Report


The Southeast Asia Climate Outlook Survey 2023, the fourth iteration of ISEAS’ annual regional climate survey, was conducted between 11 July and 6 August 2023 drawing a total of 2,225 responses from citizens of all ten ASEAN states, exceeding last year’s 1,386 responses. Besides English, the survey was offered in six different Southeast Asian languages (Bahasa Indonesia, Burmese, Lao, Khmer, Thai and Vietnamese), both online and in-person.


2023/74 “Are the National Unity Government’s Responsible Investment Policies Fit for Purpose?” by Sam Baron and Ye Khaung Oo


Facebook Page of the National Unity Government at https://www.facebook.com/NUGmyanmar accessed on 15 September 2023.


  • After the February 2021 coup, Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG) issued new responsible investment policies that call for companies to end tax payments to the military and divest from all military-backed companies.
  • The NUG’s policies require that if companies are unable to end tax payments to the military, then they should consider initiating a ‘responsible exit’ in consultation with the parallel government and leave the Myanmar economy until democracy is restored. 
  • While the NUG claims that its policies on responsible investment are aligned with international standards such as the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), the UNGPs and other standards do not specifically prescribe against paying taxes to authorities, nor do they state that doing so constitutes a human rights violation under international law. 
  • By advising that all companies making tax payments to the junta exit the economy, rather than just targeting those that actively support or collude with the military, the NUG’s responsible investment policies may generate a counterproductive effect of foreign investors exiting the Myanmar economy, and thereby decrease the number of economic opportunities available to many ‘ordinary citizens’ in Myanmar. 

* Sam Baron is the inaugural Policy Research Fellow at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served as a Myanmar analyst with the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, based in Bangkok. Ye Khaung Oo was a Research Officer at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and is pursuing Master of International Development at Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy.

ISEAS Perspective 2023/74, 19 September 2023

Download PDF Version


More than two years after the Myanmar military orchestrated a coup d’état that usurped state power from the National League for Democracy (NLD) government that had just won its second landslide election, the country’s economy remains in dire straits. According to a 2021 World Bank report, Myanmar’s GDP shrunk by more than 18% in the immediate aftermath of the coup.[1] This past fiscal year (2021-22), the country’s GDP rose only by a modest 3%, meaning that, cumulatively, the country’s economy will remain substantially smaller than before the coup took place, for the foreseeable future.[2]

Due in large part to the February 2021 coup, poverty across Myanmar has grown at an alarming rate, with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) recently estimating that 14 out of country’s 15 states and regions had recently entered the critical threshold for malnutrition.[3] Even relatively prosperous urban areas such as Yangon have not been spared, with new statistics from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) showing that roughly a quarter (24.1 percent) of those living in eight of the city’s poorest townships have gone without any income from February 2022 to 2023, a period of more than 12 months.[4] Rising poverty levels, and other devastating economic impacts of the February 2021 coup on ordinary people across Myanmar have raised a number of critical questions among foreign companies still operating in the country.

Principally, many companies have faced the dilemma of whether to remain in Myanmar or to initiate an exit from the economy. The National Unity Government of Myanmar (NUG), a parallel government established by NLD lawmakers deposed by the junta following the February 2021 coup, prescribes that if a company cannot avoid paying taxes or making other types of payments to the junta, it should strongly consider initiating a ‘responsible exit’ from the Myanmar economy.[5] Specifically, the NUG’s policies state that all foreign companies operating in the economy should withhold payment “of all taxes and other fiscal obligations to military-controlled authorities…until the lawful and legitimate government is restored.”[6]

Pragmatically, however, several long-standing investors who operated in the Myanmar economy prior to the military takeover have been forced to pay taxes to the junta since the coup. Due to a variety of reasons such as the growing risk of retaliation against its workers and employees, many companies have made tax payments even if they are not otherwise supportive of the military government. In fact, the number of firms being forced to make tax payments to the junta recently reached a post-coup high after the junta imposed more stringent tax enforcement measures that make it substantially more difficult for firms to avoid and/or delay making payments.[7]

Thus, by advocating for all companies that cannot reasonably suspend their tax payments to the junta to exit the Myanmar economy, the NUG’s current approach to responsible investment is counterproductive, as the withdrawal of otherwise responsible companies from the Myanmar economy is likely to exacerbate poverty and negatively impact normal people. 


Since the February 2021 coup, as many as 30 multinational companies have either chosen to exit Myanmar or temporarily suspend their operations in the country — dealing a blow to normal Myanmar people whose livelihoods depend on the employment opportunities provided by the private sector.[8] While the exact reasons why companies are leaving Myanmar are varied and largely sector-specific, their decision-making is being underpinned by the opinions of investors and civil society groups – some of which are advising companies either to temporarily cease their operations or initiate a ‘responsible exit’ from the Myanmar economy to avoid financially supporting the military junta or becoming complicit in human rights abuses committed against the country’s civilian population.[9] This is the position adopted by the NUG, whose official guidance on responsible investment instructs companies to consider initiating a ‘responsible exit’ in consultation with the parallel government if a company finds that it cannot reasonably suspend financial support, including the payment of taxes, to the military after conducting a self-assessment of its business activities.[10]

The NUG’s Three-Pillar Framework Guiding Responsible Investment and Continued Operations, the parallel government’s primary policy framework first articulated in July 2021, states that its policies on responsible investment are aligned with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights (UNGPs) and the OECD’s Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises (OECD Guidelines), two of the most authoritative international standards governing responsible business conduct.[11] Yet, beyond stating that companies should aim to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for the adverse human rights impacts throughout their operations, neither the UNGPs or OECD Guidelines explicitly provide companies with guidance on responsible disengagement, nor do they suggest that the payment of taxes constitutes an adverse human rights impact under international law.[12]

Officially, the NUG’s policies on responsible investment state that their primary aim is to “cripple the military council by limiting its access to all financial flows, including tax revenues, contractual payments, debt, and any type of financial aid, so as to degrade and destroy their machinery of oppression and control.”[13] By calling on foreign companies that pay taxes to the military to cease their operations and exit the economy, the NUG’s policies seem to be more aimed at waging an economic war against the junta – one that squeezes the Myanmar military of revenues and legitimacy. 


In April 2023, the activist group Justice for Myanmar (JFM) criticized ThaiBev, Carlsberg, and Heineken, three of the largest beer conglomerates operating in Myanmar, for paying tens of millions of dollars in tax revenues to the junta, known formally as the State Administration Council (SAC).[14] JFM and other civil society groups echoed the arguments of the NUG by stating that these companies continue to provide the SAC with a financial lifeline that aids and abets the human rights violations they commit against civilians across Myanmar. The decision of JFM to target the three beer companies over their tax payments reignited vigorous debate among policymakers and academics about whether the payment of taxes or other revenues to the junta actually constitutes a human rights violation under international law. It also raised questions about what extent companies should ultimately be responsible for reducing their tax payments to the junta.[15]

Most literature on the subject is focused on the fact that many forms of tax avoidance—and not tax payments—are a violation of international human rights law. Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona, the former UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, for example, argued in a 2014 report that businesses which purposefully avoided paying taxes to authorities may be in violation of their responsibility to respect human rights under Principle 13 of the UNGPs.[16] Although it must be noted that the situation in Myanmar is significantly complicated by the fact that the military’s takeover is likely illegal under the country’s 2008 Constitution, and the SAC is therefore an illegitimate government, there is simply no legal precedent by which tax payments to a de facto legal authority have constituted a human rights violation in the past.[17]

John Ruggie, the Harvard professor who was appointed by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to formulate the UNGPs, also did not believe that a company’s presence in a country paying taxes made them complicit or legally liable for the human rights violations committed by the government who received the revenues.[18] In a 2008 report to the UN Human Rights Council, Ruggie noted that a company’s “mere presence in a country, paying taxes, or silence in the face of abuse is unlikely to amount to the practical assistance required for legal liability.”

Legality aside, however, the payment of at least some taxes to the military junta is currently the only viable means by which a company can safely operate within the Myanmar economy.  Particularly, the threat of retaliation against a company and its workers for the non-payment of taxes to the junta remains a principal concern. In March 2021, after the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) initiated a campaign to suspend the payment of all taxes across the country following the coup, the senior-most junta tax official said that Myanmar’s tax office would “go after businesses and employers who don’t levy taxes correctly on their customers or staff,” clearly demonstrating the risk to foreign companies.[19] Even the NUG’s own Three Pillar Framework on responsible investment states that companies must take the safety of its own employees into account when making investment decisions – recognizing the increasingly fraught tightrope companies must walk to both appease civil society and continue to safely operate.[20] 


The primary purpose of the divestment campaigns waged against foreign companies by the NUG and others within civil society has been to express disapproval of organizations with financial ties to the military and to apply social pressure on those that openly support the military regime. This approach, however, should not be replicated and broadly applied to companies and other commercial entities that merely pay taxes to the junta in accordance with local laws, and otherwise positively contribute to Myanmar society. If it can better emphasize the distinction between so-called ‘good faith’ actors attempting to operate responsibly with those that are complicit in or supportive of the military’s activities, civil society can more effectively target and stigmatize organizations that maintain ties with the military, and actively work with those that make positive contributions to Myanmar society and its economy. 

Making this distinction is becoming increasingly important, because when a socially responsible investor withdraws, there is a possibility that another investor, unconcerned with ethical considerations, will seize the opportunity. When Telenor, a leading responsible business in Myanmar left the country in 2022, for example, a joint venture between M1, a Lebanese investment company with ties to military generals, and a Myanmar company acquired the company’s assets. Another telecommunications firm, Ooredoo Myanmar, may have also been acquired by a subsidiary that maintains ties to former military generals with links to junta leaders.[21] Thus, as the above examples demonstrate, as long as economic incentives remain in place, companies that are not bound by social responsibility will be eager to capitalize on the departure of those that are.[22]

Creating a scarcity of foreign investment via social pressure will ultimately result in a weakened private sector, which in turn, will give way to the military’s increasing share of control over the distribution of goods and services across Myanmar communities. Ordinary citizens, who rely on essential products and services, may eventually have no choice but to consume products produced directly by the military or its business affiliates due to the lack of viable alternatives circulating in the economy. Meanwhile, the lack of a robust private sector will also likely lead to the erosion of the middle class and a responsible civil society, both of which are critical for Myanmar’s future development.


While it is by no means ideal for companies to be making tax payments to the military junta, the NUG’s current approach of tagging all such payments as an ‘irresponsible’ business activity lacks nuance, and ultimately, is counterproductive. While one could argue that tax payments continue to finance the junta’s reign of terror, it is clear that such payments pale in comparison to the level of harm that would be inflicted on ordinary people were companies be forced to exit the economy instead. Moreover, the SAC’s increasingly aggressive crackdowns on companies that attempt to delay or otherwise refuse to make tax payments make it increasingly untenable for any company to abide by the NUG’s policies in the future. Such considerations should compel the NUG to modify its current approach.

Going forward, the NUG may need to view tax payments made by companies to the military junta as a necessary evil, while at the same time actively work with these companies to set guardrails and reduce their effective tax burden. Rather than advocate for companies to completely withdraw, for example, the NUG could request companies to inform them of whether certain tax payments made to the military were done ‘under protest’, and to provide evidence that demonstrates other ways in which the company may be actively working to reduce their financial flows to the SAC. This approach would be consistent with international standards such as the UNGPs, which state that in cases where laws may require companies to take actions contrary to their responsibility to respect human rights, they should aim to “respect the principles of the greatest extent possible in the circumstances … and be able to demonstrate their efforts (Principle 23).”[23]

By removing tax payments as an ‘irresponsible’ business activity and providing a pathway by which companies can actively engage with the NUG without fear of reputational or operational damage to their business, the NUG can more effectively promote responsible investment, bring their policies in line with international standards, and help to ensure that companies still invested in Myanmar’s economy continue to remain there.


While the NUG’s policies on responsible investment may have made sense immediately following the coup as it sought to quickly cripple the ability of the junta to raise revenues, a new approach is now needed as the NUG’s “defensive war” against the military enters its third year and Myanmar’s economy continues to suffer. Standing strong after shattering the expectations of Western analysts who doomed the revolution to fail, the NUG has much to be proud of.[24] Yet, its leaders must also recognize that in order to sustain its revolution, the NUG must make a conscious effort to retain the companies already invested in Myanmar’s economy. 

Currently, the NUG’s Three Pillar Framework on responsible investment rightfully highlights that its Ministry of Planning, Finance, and Investment will not recognize new investments made by companies with the SAC following the February 2021 coup.[25] It does, however, acknowledge the legitimacy of pre-existing investments inked between companies and the previous civilian government. The very fact that the NUG’s policies aim to restrict new inbound investment should prompt it to retain and actively engage with the companies still operating there, rather than attempt to force them out. Thus, as businesses inch toward a resumption of their operations, and ramp up their post-coup economic activity in Myanmar, the NUG might be wise to recognize that their presence in the economy is a net positive – even if they are occasionally forced to make tax payments to the military junta.


For endnotes, please refer to the original pdf document.

ISEAS Perspective is published electronically by: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute   30 Heng Mui Keng Terrace Singapore 119614 Main Tel: (65) 6778 0955 Main Fax: (65) 6778 1735   Get Involved with ISEAS. Please click here: /support/get-involved-with-iseas/ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute accepts no responsibility for facts presented and views expressed.   Responsibility rests exclusively with the individual author or authors. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.  
© Copyright is held by the author or authors of each article.
Editorial Chairman: Choi Shing Kwok  
Editorial Advisor: Tan Chin Tiong  
Editorial Committee: Terence Chong, Cassey Lee, Norshahril Saat, and Hoang Thi Ha  
Managing Editor: Ooi Kee Beng   Editors: William Choong, Lee Poh Onn, Lee Sue-Ann, and Ng Kah Meng  
Comments are welcome and may be sent to the author(s).


2023/73 “Vote-buying and Islamic Politics in Thailand’s Deep South” by Daungyewa (Hong) Utarasint


Picture captured (by the author) of a lorry bearing the “Move Forward Party” logo (bottom, middle) at Sabarang, Pattani province, on 13 July 2023 during the recent Thai election. The Move Forward Party, which rejects vote-buying practices, emerged second in the party-list votes in the Deep South. Most of its voters are younger Malay Muslims who envision that old-school politics like vote-buying, patron-clientalism, and identity politics must be eradicated.


  • Vote-buying began to gain prominence in the region around 1992 when the New Aspiration Party took the lead in Thailand’s Deep South.
  • Voters may distort or rationalize their views on vote-buying by framing it as conforming to Islamic principles, despite contradictory opinions on the matter. When accepting gifts and money in exchange for votes, villagers justify it as adherence to Islam.
  • The more the political parties compete for seats, the higher is the magnitude of money spent in exchange for votes. In the past, voters typically received money from three to five sources. However, for the 2023 general election, with seven political parties competing, resources for vote-buying have expanded.
  • While vote-buying might have reached unprecedented levels, there is a silver lining: the Move Forward Party, which rejects vote-buying practices, emerged second in the party-list votes. Most Move Forward Party supporters are younger Malay Muslims who feel that old-school politics—vote-buying, patron-clientelism, and identity politics—must be eradicated.

* Daungyewa (Hong) Utarasint is Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. She is Visiting Assistant Professor, Arts and Humanities at NYU Abu Dhabi (NYUAD). Her current research investigates women and voting behaviour amid conflict in the southernmost provinces of Thailand, examining obstacles to women’s political participation, and how religion and cultural norms affect women’s political mobility.

ISEAS Perspective 2023/73, 18 September 2023

Download PDF Version


In 2010, I facilitated a focus group discussion on peace and conflict in Pattani.[1] During the discussion, a participant inquired about my religious belief, and asked, “Are you a Muslim? And if so, why don’t you wear a hijab?” In response, I shared with her my reasons and mentioned that many Arab women I had encountered did not wear the hijab. The woman replied, “Well, they aren’t as strict as we are. We are the true Muslims. We are at the Corridor of Mecca.” That was the first time I ever heard someone claim they were more Muslim than others.[2] The phrase Patani is the Corridor of Mecca is commonly heard in the area. Many Malay Muslims in the region believe that Patani Darussalam is the hub of Islam in Southeast Asia, and they take great pride in this.

Ironically, while bribery and money politics are against Islamic teaching, vote-buying during election campaigns is rampant in South Thailand, and was remarkably so in the 2011 election. While conducting my research on voting behaviour in 2012, I discovered that the so-called Corridor of Mecca region was rife with this practice. Once, while interviewing a household in Pattani, a man approached and asked the homeowner how many residents were over the age of eighteen. He drew out a stack of money, counted it, and handed it to the household owner. He even gestured towards me asking, “Does she count?” The owner glanced at me then shook her head at the “vote buyer”. On another occasion, during a visit to a subdistrict chief in Pattani, I personally witnessed a local politician running for a provincial administrative office hand over a stack of money to the subdistrict chief. The local politician also gave another stack to a religious leader seated beside him. The whole incident happened right in front of the chief’s house.[3]  Much like local politicians and government officials, many religious leaders and preachers, including Imams and Khatibs, act as vote-canvassers or brokers.

Over the past two decades, vote-buying in Thailand’s Deep South has been on a steady rise. The trend has become more pronounced in the last ten years. In 2017, a retired village headman shared information that during his 27-year tenure (1984-2011), the amount offered for a vote escalated from 100 baht per person in 1984 to 500 baht in 2011. Alarmingly, the money offered per individual crept up to 1,000 to 3,000 baht in the 2019 and 2023 general election. For the 2023 general election,[4] in the final stretch before election day, substantial amounts of money were believed to have been spent in various provinces. In Pattani alone, estimates suggest that close to a billion baht (30 million USD) was spent,[5] while Yala saw expenditures of approximately 600 million baht (23 million USD). Narathiwat reportedly had spending similar to Pattani’s. Based on the interviews conducted, of all the intense election battles in Thailand’s Deep South, Narathiwat was the fiercest battleground, and was significantly infiltrated by dark money and mafias. The practice of vote-buying was so entrenched it seemed normal. This discrepancy led me to wonder: If the area is perceived to be profoundly religious, why has vote-buying become normalized?”

This article explores voters grappling with Islamic principles and their perception on vote-buying. Additionally, it seeks to understand the extent to which vote-buying is accepted among the Muslim populace in Thailand’s Deep South. I propose two hypotheses: to mitigate their guilt when accepting money or gifts for votes, voters may distort or rationalize their views on vote-buying and seek justification in Islamic principles; and the higher the number of political parties vying for the seats in Thailand’s Deep South, the more money they spend on vote-buying.

The first section of this article delves into the evolution of vote-buying in Thailand’s Deep South over the years. The subsequent section explores how voters justify accepting money or gifts in exchange for votes. The third section presents various debates surrounding the practice of vote-buying in Muslim communities. Finally, the article summarizes the main ideas and arguments and offers suggestions to address vote-buying.


Both Wiroj Pipitpakdee and Den Tohmeena, former MPs from Pattani, attribute the escalation of vote-buying to the intense competition between General Kriangsak Chamanan, a former prime minister, and Bunlert Lertpreecha in Roi-et province (in Northeastern Thailand) in 1981. This contest, infamously known as the “Roi-et disease,” supposedly ushered in the era of extravagant spending to gain votes. This phenomenon eventually spread to provinces across Thailand, including the Deep South. Wiroj recalled that when he first contested in the national elections in the late 1980s, vote-buying was not as rampant.

In 1986, a group of lawyers and teachers established a political group, and they were supported by Islamic religious and spiritual leaders in the southernmost provinces of Thailand. This group eventually evolved into the well-known Wadah political faction. Distinctly rooted in ethno-religious political identity, Wadah maintained its presence in Thai politics for almost three decades. Over the years, there were numerous transitions and transformations within the faction. In 2018, some of its members reorganized themselves to establish the Prachachart party. Back in 2012, I learned through my interviews with several Wadah members that the concept of vote-buying was not widespread at the beginning of their political career.

However, vote-buying began to gain prominence in the region around 1992 when the New Aspiration Party took the lead. At that time, the Wadah faction, under the leadership of Wan Muhammad Noor Matha and Den Tohmeena, was an integral part of the New Aspiration Party. Its leader, General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, who served as the Prime Minister from 1996 to 1997, had a stronghold in the Northeastern part of Thailand. Arguably, the practice of vote-buying in Northeast Thailand spilled over into Thailand’s Deep South via the New Aspiration Party. This article contends that this era marked the beginning of vote-buying in Thailand’s Deep South.


While pouring funds into vote-buying does influence elections in the Deep South, it is not the sole determinant for victory. The efficiency of the vote-buying approach matters just as much, if not more. How vote-canvassers and their patrons efficiently utilize their funds and strategize their gift-giving play a crucial role. Effective time management and strategic scheduling are also vital in capturing more votes.[6]

How do Islamic institutions in Thailand’s Deep South steer vote-buying? In such scenarios, religion could and should act as a potent deterrent. However, some individuals navigate its teachings and find loopholes in how the religion interprets materialistic pursuits. This is not unique to Thailand and Islam. In Nigeria, a poll concluded that vote-buying and guidance from religious leaders were pivotal factors in Nigerian voters’ decisions.[7] In the Philippines, Imam Dr. Jamel Cayamodin, said in his Eid’l Fitr sermon stated that “Muslim communities have the highest instances of vote-buying.”[8] As for Thailand’s Deep South, I interviewed a former member of Wadah, who expressed scepticism about the ability of the Islamic Council Committee of each province to monitor vote-buying. He stated that corruption was pervasive even within these committees. Furthermore, money was often used to influence votes for the position of the head of the Islamic Council in various provinces.

Besides, there is a debate whether the term al-risywah, an Arabic word which means bribe, can really capture the whole meaning of vote-buying in Thailand’s Deep South. Imron, Yasmin, and Abdulawwal (2002) had mentioned in their article that even among religious leaders in Thailand’s Deep South, there was no unanimous agreement whether the term risywah encompasses the practice of vote-buying.[9] Younger Malay Muslims, however, are critical in these views, and believe that receiving or giving money in exchange for votes is al-risywah. The debate surfaced across social media platforms such as Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram, predominantly among the younger generation of Malay Muslims. Besides the discussion of al-risywah, a verse from Quran 2:188 says, “Do not consume one another’s wealth unjustly, nor deliberately bribe authorities in order to devour a portion of others’ property, knowing that it is a sin.” (Surah al-Baqarah, 2:188)[10] The verse has been interpreted differently by various Islamic scholars.[11] There remains a debate on whether the verse encompasses the act of vote-buying.

In many cases, it is difficult to discern whether a gift is given in hopes of securing votes or simply done out of genuine generosity. In 2023, the election campaign coincided with the month of Ramadan. An incumbent politician from Narathiwat provided free petrol to residents, allowing them to fill up at any gas station in Sungai Kolok during Eid’l Fitr, which was celebrated on 21 April, 2023. This gesture was ostensibly to facilitate people visiting their relatives across different villages. However, with election day then looming on 14 May, less than a month after the festival, one cannot help but be sceptical of the politician’s true motives. It is puzzling that the Election Committee of Thailand (ECT) did not view this as suspicious. While we were not dealing with direct cash handouts, it was undeniably a form of gift-giving.

Perceptions of what contradicts Islamic principles can differ. Several instances that may seem irrational to a literate person or urbanite are ways in which villagers justify their adherence to Islamic righteousness when accepting gifts and money in exchange for votes. They tend to adapt their voting behaviour so as not to be in violation of Islamic principles. In 2012, during an interview in Narathiwat, a woman in her 70s recounted that several vote-buyers from various political parties approached her, offering different sums for her vote: some proposed 200 baht, others 300 baht, and a few 500 baht.

One might assume that she would have accepted the highest offer of 500 baht, but she denied it, saying it would be against Islam. She explained that the individual who offered her 200 baht approached her first and she accepted that offer. According to her, accepting a later, higher offer after already committing to the first would be breaking a promise, which is against Islamic principles. She then burst into tears, pleading with us not to inform the police. We were taken aback, unsure of the situation. It was not until she confessed that the true dilemma became clear. At the polling booth, she had inadvertently voted for a candidate other than the one she had promised to support. She insisted it was an honest mistake; she had simply forgotten the number of the candidate she had intended to vote for.

During the 2023 general election, another interesting case emerged: an individual returned 500 baht (about 15 USD) to a vote-canvasser of one party after he had received 1,000 baht (roughly 30 USD) from another party. He believed it would be sinful to accept money from both sides. These cases clearly illustrate how Malay Muslim voters in the region develop ways to rationalize actions they recognize as transgressions against Islam.


In Thailand’s Deep South, while many are cognizant of and discuss the vote-buying practice, the exact sum of money used remains elusive to most. The 2023 election saw the highest number of competing political parties in Thailand’s Deep South, with seven major parties vying for dominance. As mentioned earlier, the more political parties there are competing for seats, the more the magnitude of money spent to buy votes. In the past, voters typically received money from 3-5 sources. However, for the 2023 general election, with seven political parties competing in the region, resources for vote-buying funds have now expanded for voters.

Various social media platforms highlighted the issue of vote-buying in Thailand’s Deep South during the 2019 general election. For many urban voters, this was the first glimpse into the magnitude of vote-buying taking place. Projek Sama-Sama, an impromptu election monitoring collective established by local journalists and volunteers, disclosed that in the 2019 elections, individual voters received amounts ranging from 200 to 3,000 baht (US$6.2–US$94) — marking the highest recorded figures in the region’s history.[12] There are also non-government organizations such as the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) that actively monitor vote-buying and other suspicious activities during elections, and ‘We Watch’ (wewatchthailand.org), an organization that recruits volunteers to oversee polling stations across the country. Furthermore, new political entities like the Future Forward Party have set fresh standards for campaign strategies in Thailand’s Deep South. The party’s approach, which contrasts sharply with traditional election campaigns in the region, firmly rejects the use of money politics to secure votes. This has laid a new groundwork for the constituencies. Although the Future Forward Party was dissolved by the Constitutional Court in 2020, its successor, the progressive Move Forward Party, continues to refuse employing vote-buying. Like the Future Forward Party in 2019, Move Forward Party failed to secure any seats. But Move Forward Party were the runners-up for party-list votes in every constituency in Thailand’s Deep South. This marks a notable progression from four years prior.

Unlike Thailand’s Deep South, where Islamic institutions and the Islamic provincial council remain silent on vote-buying, mosques and Islamic preachers in the upper southern Thai provinces of Satun, Krabi, and Songkhla unequivocally condemn the practice. For instance, a mosque in Satun made national headlines when a large vinyl sign was displayed prominently at its entrance. The sign at Ban Kuan-Sanai mosque declared: “The Imams, Khatibs, Bilals, and the mosque committee have unanimously agreed that vote-buying/selling is strictly prohibited in our village. This is because it is not only haram (sinful) but also against the law. Action will be taken against: 1) Those bringing money into the village for vote-buying purposes, and 2) Those distributing money to voters within the village. The Imams, Khatibs, Bilals, and the Mosque Committee will abstain from any Islamic activity involving those partaking in these condemnable practices, as well as their relatives.”[13] In essence, the situation in Satun province indicates that the residents of Ban Kuan-Sanai believe vote-buying affects the reputation and daily lives of Muslims.

Another controversial incident unfolded just before election day. A letter from the Islamic Committee Council, intended for every mosque in the lower Southern Thailand region, found its way to social media. This letter, specifically addressed to all Imams in the Krabi province by the Islamic Committee of Krabi, firmly encouraged eligible voters to participate, and highlighted that vote-buying was prohibited. However, the letter’s conclusion was provocative; it explicitly directed everyone to vote for the Prachachart Party, number 11, urging support for the Islamic party, Prachachart. The letter spread like wildfire. Many, particularly the well-educated Muslims, condemned it. The Head of the Islamic Committee Council defended his position, stating that the letter had not been authorized by him but was instead issued by a secretary without his knowledge.[14]

As of March 2018, out of 3,943 mosques around Thailand, there were 707 mosques in Pattani; 666 mosques in Narathiwat; and 509 mosques in Yala.[15]  I was also told that the Prachachart Party approached Imams and the Islamic councils in Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat using the same strategy they employed with the Islamic Council Committee in Krabi. The correspondence requested that Imams and ulama in each mosque encourage preachers and their congregations to support the Prachachart Party at the polls. While this may seem innocuous, the close ties between the Prachachart Party and the Islamic Council in each province effectively hinder other parties from campaigning in mosques. Restricting other political parties from seeking electoral support is considered undemocratic.


In the modern world, commercial transactions follow a legal norm wherein the exchange of goods and services between buyers and sellers is typically assured through regular market operations. Contrastingly, the relationship between vote-buyers and voters lacks this certainty. There is no guarantee that those who receive money will reciprocate as intended by the donors.[16] Vote-buying has not only become the norm among those offering bribes, but voters have also started expecting monetary payments from candidates. Distributing money or gifts helps candidates remain competitive, but there is no guarantee that those who spend the most will fare better. Religion can be utilized to counteract vote-buying, but some individuals might navigate its teachings, finding loopholes in their religious principles to further their materialistic pursuits.

Nonetheless, the 2023 general election signalled a shift in the region, with contrasting developments emerging. While vote-buying might have reached unprecedented levels, there is a silver lining: the Move Forward Party, which rejects vote-buying practices, emerged as a second in the party-list votes. Most Move Forward Party supporters are younger Malay Muslims who envision that old-school politics — vote-buying, patron-clientelism, and identity politics—need to be eradicated. To effectively mitigate vote-buying, a promising solution involves enlisting a greater number of local volunteers and NGOs. Their roles should not be limited to just election monitoring; they should also disperse throughout the region to educate villagers about the significance of free and fair elections for community development and growth. Engaging these volunteers with community and religious leaders could heighten awareness and potentially deter the practice of vote-buying.


For endnotes, please refer to the original pdf document.

ISEAS Perspective is published electronically by: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute   30 Heng Mui Keng Terrace Singapore 119614 Main Tel: (65) 6778 0955 Main Fax: (65) 6778 1735   Get Involved with ISEAS. Please click here: /support/get-involved-with-iseas/ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute accepts no responsibility for facts presented and views expressed.   Responsibility rests exclusively with the individual author or authors. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.  
© Copyright is held by the author or authors of each article.
Editorial Chairman: Choi Shing Kwok  
Editorial Advisor: Tan Chin Tiong  
Editorial Committee: Terence Chong, Cassey Lee, Norshahril Saat, and Hoang Thi Ha  
Managing Editor: Ooi Kee Beng   Editors: William Choong, Lee Poh Onn, Lee Sue-Ann, and Ng Kah Meng  
Comments are welcome and may be sent to the author(s).


2023/72 “Responses to Humanitarian Needs in Western Myanmar after Cyclone Mocha” by Kyaw Hsan Hlaing


A woman sits in her destroyed house at Basara refugee camp in Sittwe on 16 May 2023, after cyclone Mocha made landfall. (Photo by SAI Aung MAIN/AFP).


  • Category 5-level Cyclone Mocha made landfall on 14 May 2023 in western Myanmar, killing more than 100 lives, causing significant damage and loss in many townships across Rakhine State, and leaving approximately 1.5 million people in urgent need of humanitarian aid.
  • The State Administration Council (SAC) military regime restricted United Nations agencies in Myanmar and other aid organisations access to the cyclone-affected communities in Rakhine State. The United League of Arakan (ULA), the political wing of the Arakan Army (AA), had called on the UN agencies and its partners, and international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) to work with the ULA for cyclone response even before Mocha hit Rakhine.
  • The SAC requires UN agencies and INGOs to deliver assistance and supplies through the SAC’s cyclone relief centre in Yangon for further distribution by the SAC. The ULA/AA, on the other hand, has opened several cyclone relief centres in at least six townships in Rakhine State, including northern Rakhine, bordering Bangladesh. The ULA/AA proactively evacuated communities in several townships before the cyclone hit, and provided early post-cyclone assistance to communities.
  • The ULA has also leveraged its links with the Rakhine diaspora, civil society organisations (CSOs), and its political and military allies to receive aid for cyclone victims.
  • The SAC’s restrictions on humanitarian aid agencies and actors to access western Myanmar have escalated the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State, even as the SAC publicises its collaboration with neighbours and external partners, and state/region-level authorities in Myanmar for the Cyclone Mocha response. In such a situation, the most practical and direct ways to reach cyclone-affected communities may exist in theory, but not in practice.

* Kyaw Hsan Hlaing is an independent analyst from Myanmar’s Rakhine State, and has authored several articles on human rights, political transitions, and issues related to the 2021 military coup in Myanmar.

ISEAS Perspective 2023/72, 15 September 2023

Download PDF Version


The humanitarian impact of Cyclone Mocha, a Category 5 storm that hit Myanmar on 14 May 2023, has added to Myanmar’s ongoing humanitarian needs and challenges, including those that arose after the 2021 coup.

In March 2023, the United Nations estimated that 17.6 million people in Myanmar required humanitarian assistance, 1.6 million were internally displaced, and 55,000 civilian buildings had been destroyed since the February 2021 coup.[1] More than two years after the coup, communities are left coping with numerous socio-economic setbacks and concerns for safety. Violence has escalated but neither the regime forces nor resistance groups seem to be fully in control.[2]

Rakhine State in western Myanmar, however, had seemed relatively stable. The SAC and the Arakan Army (AA) agreed on a humanitarian ceasefire in November 2022.[3] This was the second truce, as the AA and the Myanmar military had agreed to an informal truce in November 2020 after being at war since late 2018.[4] After the 2021 coup, the Myanmar military removed the AA from the list of terrorist organisations, and the AA began expanding its administration and judiciary role in Rakhine.[5]

Established in 2009, the AA is a relative latecomer to the ethnic armed organisations or EAOs in Myanmar but is considered one of the country’s most powerful ethnic armed groups.[6] The AA has established nine military bases across Rakhine State, and its political/administrative wing, the United Arakan League (ULA), exercises the AA’s judiciary and administrative reach.

The AA’s role and reach were tested with Cyclone Mocha. Approximately 1.5 million people in Rakhine are believed to have been affected by the storm and more than 400,000 buildings, including hospitals, schools and IDP camps were partially or completely damaged, and 65 to 90 per cent of townships in northern Rakhine State, such as Sittwe, Buthidaung, Rathedaung, Ponnagyun, Kyauktaw, Mrauk-U and Pauktaw townships were destroyed by Mocha.[7]

Before Mocha made landfall, however, the ULA had been taking the lead role in evacuating communities from areas in the cyclone path, and putting into place emergency rescue and rehabilitation activities in many townships.[8] In contrast, the SAC controlled the final agreement or approval of travel authorisations for UN agencies and partner organisations, and international NGOs to access cyclone-affected areas.[9] This paper compares the different responses of the SAC and the AA/ULA to the devastation wreaked by Cyclone Mocha, to describe how the SAC’s restrictive measures had escalated humanitarian needs.


Cyclone Mocha made landfall at lunch time between western Myanmar’s Sittwe and Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar on 14 May 2023 (Fig.1). Hours before its predicted landfall, it intensified into a category 5 storm.[10] The winds were estimated to be as high as 250 km/h, carrying it up to 195 miles per hour. Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, suffered extensive damage to houses and infrastructure, including telecommunications towers and power lines.[11]

The last memory of a devastating cyclone was of Cyclone Nargis in May 2008, which took almost 140,000 lives and affected millions in the Ayeyawady delta.[12] Even so, people in western Myanmar did not heed early warnings of Cyclone Mocha’s impending landfall. Communities in Rakhine State had not been affected as much by the Nargis aftermath. They were complacent, as coastal communities usually experience storms and floods when monsoon rains start in Myanmar around end-April/early-May each year. There was also an element of distrust in the SAC regime announcements. However, people started paying attention when, on 7 May 2023, the ULA/AA’s Humanitarian and Development Coordination Office (HDCO) issued public early warning announcements.[13] The HDCO also released a series of “dos and don’ts” regarding cyclone preparedness and a slogan “listen, be alert and prepare” in both Rakhine and Myanmar languages in its Telegram channel.[14]

Figure 1. Cyclone Mocha Observation Points

Source: Myanmar Information Management Unit (MIMU), Dedicated page and resources for Cyclone Mocah, 14 May 2023. (https://themimu.info/news/dedicated-page-and-resources-cyclone-mocha?fbclid=IwAR1fVHaqia24hltvP1DVD6OY3510oqplTcqY4FJ3yukkur8m3lKNpVo5ZSY

On 9 May, the ULA/AA evacuated people from Myebon, Pauktaw and Ponnagyun townships, areas under its control and in the cyclone’s potential path.[15] On the same day, the ULA/AA began distributing cyclone awareness posters, and “dos and don’ts” pamphlets. From 9 to 13 May, the ULA/AA reportedly evacuated more than 102,000 people including Rohingya and other minorities from Myebon, Pauktaw, Minbya, Taungok, Buthidaung, Maungdaw, Rathedaung, and Mrauk-U townships.[16]

The SAC’s cyclone-preparedness moves in Rakhine State took a different approach. On 9 May, SAC troops reportedly destroyed the ULA/AA’s cyclone awareness posters in Kyauk-phyu township.[17] On 12 May, the SAC designated seven townships – Sittwe, Pauktaw, Maungdaw, Rathedaung, Myebon, Kyaukphyu and Manaung – as “red-level” areas at high risk of disaster from the cyclone, and reminded communities that people who remained in the red alert areas would face prosecution under the Natural Disaster Management Law.[18]

Local SAC officials in Rakhine State performed a series of preventative rituals to divert the cyclone from the Rakhine coastline. Three Buddhist monks, including the Shwezaydi Sayadaw (head of the famous Shwezaydi Monastery in Sittwe), and Rakhine State SAC officials, performed a ceremony on Sittwe Beach to change the storm route.[19] In Ayeyarwady region, chief minister U Tin Maung Win and the head of the Southwestern Command Brigadier-General Kyi Khaing led a dragon-feeding rite to divert the cyclone.[20]

Human rights activists and Rakhine netizens have criticised the SAC’s lack of pre-cyclone preparations for many communities in Rakhine, including displaced Rohingya in SAC-controlled areas such as Basara, Dar Pai, Thè Chaung, and Thet Kae Pyin in western Sittwe township. UN agencies and INGOs did not escape public criticism either. Despite these criticisms, there were some efforts made to prepare for Mocha’s impact on communities in Myanmar. The ASEAN Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre) issued a briefing on 12 May that it was coordinating with SAC officials to deliver essential supplies from ASEAN.[21] Likewise, the World Food Programme (WFP) stated on 13 May that they had prepared food for over 400,000 people in cyclone response.[22]


The SAC, the ULA/AA and the NUG have separately released differing tallies of casualties and damages. On 17 May, the NUG stated that Cyclone Mocha killed 455 individuals in Myanmar, with 431 fatalities being in Rakhine State alone.[23] On 20 May, the SAC released a much lower death toll, stating that at least 145 people lost their lives in the cyclone,[24] while the ULA’s HDCO claimed 164 dead[25] on 14 June (Table 1). On 14 May, a day after Cyclone Mocha made landfall, local news agencies had reported 400 deaths and hundreds missing in the Rohingya IDP camps in Sittwe.[26]

Table 1. Different data on of fatalities and damages caused by Cyclone Mocha

No.Categories SAC Number NUG NumberULA Number
1.Death of People145413164
3.Religious building1,7111906
5.Hospital and Clinics227194

The ULA’s HDCO reported on 14 June that there were at least 2,068 villages damaged, and 288,320 houses destroyed by Mocha. Seven townships in northern Rakhine bore the brunt of the cyclone (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Extent and Percentage of Damage in Cyclone-affected Townships in Rakhine

Source: ULA-HDCO report, 14 June 2023.[27]

The ULA/AA troops were the first responders on the ground in western Myanmar after Mocha hit Rakhine on 14 May. Starting on the morning of 15 May, ULA/AA soldiers were seen in many townships of northern Rakhine, cleaning roads, helping residents, and removing fallen trees and debris. On the same day, the ULA/AA appealed to the international community, ASEAN countries, and other international actors to urgently assist with shelter, food, medicine, and other basic needs for the affected communities.[28] The ULA’s HDCO also urged civil society organisations, UN agencies, and INGOs to work with the ULA/AA in responding to the humanitarian needs arising from Cyclone Mocha. [29] 

Several local CSOs also pitched in. The All-Arakan Youth Organization Network (AAYON), Arakan Humanitarian Coordination Tam (AHCD), and Arakan CSOs Network and Arakan Responders for Emergency launched fundraising campaigns for emergency assistance. Local CSOs were also among first responders, travelling to affected areas and assisting survivors there, in the immediate aftermath of the cyclone.

On 16 May, AA leader Major-General Twan Mrat Naing appealed to civil society organisations and INGOs for shelter, drinking water, food, and medicine assistance for storm-hit communities.[30] On 17 May, the ULA announced the formation of a seven-member ‘CycloneMocha Emergency Response and Rescue Committee for Arakan’ (ERRCA), chaired by AA deputy commander Dr Nyo Twan Awng.[31] The ERRCA has opened a series of relief and rehabilitation centers in Buthidaung, Rathedaung, Pannagyun, Kyauktaw, and Mrauk-U townships, and is also working with the Rakhine diaspora and local civil society organisations.[32]

The ULA/AA also received support from its political and military alliances. On 17 May, the ULA-ERRCA announced receiving donations from the National Unity Government (NUG), the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA). The KIO donated MMK300 million, while the NUG and the MNDAA donated MMK100 million each.[33] Likewise, the FPNCC and UWSA contributed MMK500 million each for storm victims in Rakhine[34] while PSC/NDAA, PSLF/TNLA, SSPP/SSA donated MMK200 million, MMK100 million, and MMK50 million respectively. In total, the ULA has received MMK1.85 billion in donation from its military and political allies. However, there are no reports of UN agencies and international organisations openly working with the ULA/AA in Rakhine.

The SAC has sited its aid-coordinating centre for Rakhine’s cyclone victims in Yangon. Since 14 May, the SAC has restricted access to the cyclone-affected areas.[35] On 15 May, the SAC declared all townships in Rakhine State as Disaster Affected Areas[36] but did not grant authorisation for UN agencies and INGOs to travel to cyclone-affected areas.[37] Also on 15 May, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing visited Sittwe and presented MMK7 billion as assistance for Rakhine State.[38] Two days after his visit, the SAC announced the assignment of 18 higher ranking-military officers to townships in Rakhine State to carry out relief and rehabilitation activities.[39] 

Through May and up to mid-June, however, the UN and partner agencies were still waiting for the SAC’s approval for delivering humanitarian aid to Rakhine, despite “high-level engagements” with authorities at both Naypyitaw and regional levels.[40] On 8 June, the SAC suspended transportation for aid groups operating in Rakhine State, effectively reversing the authorisation order given by local SAC authorities.[41] The SAC’s letter to aid organisations required the UN agencies and INGOs to channel relief supplies through Yangon, which the SAC would further distribute to the “concerned state” and then inform the organisations after delivery.[42] On 11 June, however, the Rakhine State Minister for Security Affairs reportedly issued a notification allowing “some selected NGOs” to resume operations in Rakhine State.[43]

Table 2 summarises and compares the different responses by the SAC, the ULA/AA and members of the international community including the UN and ASEAN.

Table 2. SAC, ULA and the international community’s responses

DateSACULA/AAInternational Community (including ASEAN, UN, INGOs)
May 15SAC declared Disaster Affected Areas of all Rakhine State’s townships.  SAC denied the INGO and UN agencies access to cyclone affected areas. ULA issued a statement asking for international aid for cyclone-hit people in Rakhine State. 

ULA/AA uniformed soldiers are seen helping people, removing the destruction of trees, and cleaning the roads. 
16 MaySAC leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, along with some of his ministers, visited Sittwe carrying some humanitarian assistance on his flight.Maj. Gen Twan Mrat Naing, commander in chief of Arakan Army, spoke via a short-video seeking support from civil society organisations and international NGOs to provide shelter, drinking water, food, and medicine to storm-hit communities, in cooperation with the ULA-Arakan People Government (APG).ASEAN AHA Center reported aid would be delivered once approved by SAC.[44] 

The UN refugee agency country director for Myanmar, Noriko Takagi presented her credentials to SAC foreign minister Than Swe in Naypyidaw and then met with Ko Ko Hlaing, the international cooperation minister.[45]
17 May The ULA formed a new committee called ‘Cyclone Mocha Emergency Response and Rescue Committee for Arakan’ (ERRC).  
18 MaySAC released a statement mentioning the assignment of 18 military officers to respective townships to carry out rehabilitation activities.The AA thanked the opposition National Unity Government (NUG), the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) for their donations. The KIO donated 300 million kyats, while the NUG and MNDAA donated MMK100 million each.The country director of the UN’s World Food Programme met with SAC foreign ministry in Naypyitaw on 18 May, to discuss cooperation in the delivery of aid to those impacted by the cyclone,[46] but the WFP is still not allowed to go into the cyclone-affected areas.
19 May PSLP/TNLA donates k500 million to ULA-ERRCA.

ULA-ERRCA opens two Cyclone aid-Center in Minbya township.
The Indian government announces the donation of 25 tons of food with medicines to cyclone-affected Myanmar. three navy ships brought the assistance to Yangon port.[47]

The UK Embassy in Myanmar announces that the UK would provide around £2 million for the cyclone-affected communities, especially clean water and shelter up to around 175,000 people.[48]
May 21 ULA-ERRCA opens two cyclone aid centres in Buthidaung township, and four cyclone aid centres in Mrauk-U township.   
May 22 SSPP/SSA donates K1000 million to ULA-ERRCA.

ULA-ERRCA opens two cyclone aid centres in Pannagyun township.
The AHA Center announced ASEAN’s donation of about USD 60,000 worth of humanitarian aid.[49]
23 MaySAC forces arrest Rakhine writer and social worker Wai Hin Aung, his daughter, and some youths, in Sittwe township, who were attempting to deliver relief supplies to cyclone-affected families.[50]ULA-ERRCA opens five cyclone aid centres in Rathedaung Townships.The head of UNOCHA requests USD333 million to assist 1.6 million of the most vulnerable people, many of whom lost their homes as the cyclone hit Rakhine State.
24 May PSC/NDAA donates MMK2,000 million to ULA-ERRCA.UN Human Rights Commissioner Volker Turk calls for the SAC to allow assessments, and life-saving aid to cyclone-affected areas.

The US announces it will provide an additional $17 million to restore damages caused by the cyclone.[51]
8 JuneNaypyitaw reportedly bans local and international NGOs’ access to Rakhine, reversing an earlier approval granted by Rakhine State officials.[52]ULA- ERRCA announces that the FPNCC and UWSA contributed K500 million each for storm victims in Rakhine State. 
15 June  OCHA updates that “The approval of the distribution and transportation plans for the Cyclone Mocha response in Rakhine and Chin remains pending.”[53]


The SAC’s reluctance to allow humanitarian agencies and actors access to Rakhine State amidst its uneasy truce with AA has only added to the acute needs of cyclone-hit communities. Following the SAC’s ban on aid agencies’ travel plans to Rakhine, AA leader Twan Mrat Naing tweeted that the ULA/AA would use diplomatic means rather than force to solve the problem.[54] The ULA/AA seems to be focusing now on cyclone relief and recovery rather than opening a new war front in Rakhine.

The SAC’s travel ban on the UN and international aid organizations suggests reluctance to allow any opportunity for these entities to work with the ULA/AA on cyclone response. The SAC’s reach in Rakhine State cannot match that of the ULA/AA. SAC troop presence was visible mostly in Rakhine State’s capital Sittwe, in cleaning debris after the cyclone, while ULA/AA troops could reach many other parts of Rakhine. The ULA/AA has also opened humanitarian centres in five townships in the state.

The SAC has also sought to use the humanitarian response for Cyclone Mocha as a political tool of sorts in its engagement with UN agencies, INGOs and ASEAN, as well as with neighbours such as China, Thailand, and India. For example, the SAC allowed the AHA Center to conduct emergency response and assessments in Rakhine State prior to Mocha’s landfall, and the AHA Center has also coordinated with various officials in Myanmar and ASEAN member states to transport essential supplies to Myanmar from ASEAN and to work with relevant departmental officials in Myanmar on cyclone information.[55] India’s External Affairs Minister Dr S. Jaishankar tweeted the donation of emergency food items, tents, essential medicines, water pumps, portable generators, and clothes to cyclone-affected Myanmar on May 18.[56]Three ships from the Indian Navy transferred these supplies to Yangon port though Sittwe was geographically closer.[57] Thailand has delivered humanitarian assistance to Myanmar through SAC-facilitated channels, on 23 May, 1 June and 12 July.[58]

The post-Mocha situation in Rakhine State requires aid agencies to consider alternative means and arrangements to reach the cyclone-affected communities in remote or conflict-prone areas. A constructive and pragmatic approach would necessitate balancing between adherence to the current requirements of sending assistance through the SAC, and identifying local partners and networks who can provide a more effective and timely response to communities in need. The ULA/AA response has shown its capacity and the trust that it enjoys on the ground in Rakhine State, while the SAC’s response has shown up the gaps in trust and the Myanmar military’s overwhelming need to maintain control. This has further compounded the needs arising from the natural disaster, adding to the other consequences the 2021 military coup.


For endnotes, please refer to the original pdf document.

ISEAS Perspective is published electronically by: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute   30 Heng Mui Keng Terrace Singapore 119614 Main Tel: (65) 6778 0955 Main Fax: (65) 6778 1735   Get Involved with ISEAS. Please click here: /support/get-involved-with-iseas/ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute accepts no responsibility for facts presented and views expressed.   Responsibility rests exclusively with the individual author or authors. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.  
© Copyright is held by the author or authors of each article.
Editorial Chairman: Choi Shing Kwok  
Editorial Advisor: Tan Chin Tiong  
Editorial Committee: Terence Chong, Cassey Lee, Norshahril Saat, and Hoang Thi Ha  
Managing Editor: Ooi Kee Beng  
Editors: William Choong, Lee Poh Onn, Lee Sue-Ann, and Ng Kah Meng  
Comments are welcome and may be sent to the author(s).


“Indonesia’s COVID-19 Infodemic: A Battle for Truth or Trust?” by Yatun Sastramidjaja



“New Chinese Migrants in Thailand and the Perceived Impact on Thai People” by Sivarin Lertpusit



2023/71 “Review of Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s Visit to Southeast Asia in August 2023” by Lye Liang Fook


Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (R) meeting with visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Singapore on 11 August 2023. (Photo by Then Chih Wey/Xinhua) (Photo by Then Chih Wey / XINHUA / Xinhua via AFP).


  • Wang Yi travelled to Singapore, Malaysia and Cambodia in his first foreign visit after his re-appointment as foreign minister, underscoring Beijing’s strong commitment to Southeast Asia by sustaining the tempo of high-level engagements.
  • The visit was also possibly meant to highlight continuity—and absence of disruption—to China’s foreign relations and its Southeast Asia policy following Qin Gang’s removal as foreign minister.
  • During his visit, Wang Yi sought to cultivate good relationships with new and next-generation Southeast Asian leaders, especially in Cambodia and Singapore, with a view to ensuring that the positive momentum in ties continues.
  • Apart from strengthening China’s ties with the respective Southeast Asian countries, Wang Yi took the occasion to criticise the US’ policy on Taiwan and the South China Sea, as well as Washington’s export restrictions against China.
  • Since Southeast Asia’s importance to Beijing has increased in light of US-China tensions, China may be trying to condition how Southeast Asia ought to behave. However, its efforts are undercut by Beijing’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea, its own long-arm jurisdiction through the set-up of overseas police stations, and its economic coercion against certain countries.
  • For a longer-term sustainable relationship, China should appreciate that Southeast Asia has the “capability and wisdom” to do what is right, and this includes their strategic choice to be friends with all its key partners.

* Lye Liang Fook is Senior Fellow at the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

ISEAS Perspective 2023/71, 11 September 2023

Download PDF Version


Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Singapore, Malaysia and Cambodia on 10-13 August 2023. His visit coincided with the 65th anniversary of China-Cambodia relations as well as the 10th anniversary of the China-Malaysia Strategic Comprehensive Partnership, and came on the heels of the upgrading of Singapore-China ties to an “All-Round High-Quality Future-Oriented Partnership” in March 2023.[1] This was also Wang Yi’s first foreign trip after his re-appointment as foreign minister, which went to demonstrate the high priority China gives to the region and the commitment it has to strengthen ties with Southeast Asian countries. The visit was also possibly meant to highlight continuity—and absence of disruption—to China’s foreign relations and its Southeast Asia policy following the removal of Qin Gang as foreign minister. Wang Yi is concurrently a politburo bureau member and Director of the Party’s Foreign Affairs Commission, which added further significance to his visit.

This Perspective examines China’s key objectives and messages during Wang Yi’s trip to the three Southeast Asian countries, and situates his visit in the broader context of China’s approach to Southeast Asia and the intensifying US-China strategic rivalry.


Chinese leaders often refer to the Southeast Asian region or ASEAN as a “good neighbour, good partner and good friend”,[2] highlighting the region’s geographical proximity to China and Beijing’s willingness to strengthen ties with these countries. Southeast Asia is important to China for several reasons. The region comprises a diverse number of smaller states, with some of them, such as Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar, sharing a land border with China. All of them want to grow their ties with China and Beijing is likewise keen to engage with a dynamic region of 680 million people. The ten ASEAN member countries collectively have become the largest trading partner for China since 2020 and a major recipient of Chinese foreign investment and development financing. Strategically, the region sits astride critical sea lanes of communication, namely, the Straits of Malacca and South China Sea (SCS), where a large proportion of China’s oil and gas, and other goods traverses. Furthermore, Southeast Asia is at the confluence of big power competition and its strategic importance to China has grown as US-China tensions continue to rise. Beijing has been continually strengthening ties with Southeast Asian countries to draw them closer and to prevent them from siding with the US against China.

The importance of Southeast Asia in China’s foreign policy is manifest in Beijing’s efforts to maintain annual high-level visits and diplomatic engagements with countries in the region. Wang Yi’s visit to Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore in August 2023 was therefore part of an increasingly regularised mechanism of China’s engagement with Southeast Asia. Despite all the travel restrictions and disruptions due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Wang Yi had consistently prioritised Southeast Asia and paid official visits to all ASEAN countries in 2021 and 2022.

During his short stint as foreign minister, Qin Gang also focused on Southeast Asia in his travel calendar. He made Indonesia his first stop in his tour of the region in February 2023.[3] Apart from meeting his Indonesian counterpart Retno Marsudi, Qin Gang visited the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta where he urged ASEAN to maintain its “strategic independence”,[4] similar to Beijing’s call on other countries to uphold “strategic autonomy”.[5] Beijing views Indonesia as the most influential country in Southeast Asia and ASEAN, and therefore seeks good and stable ties with Jakarta. Moreover, as the current chair of ASEAN, Indonesia can help shape ASEAN’s relations with its dialogue partners, which include China.

At the leader’s level, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a state visit to Myanmar in January 2020, against the backdrop of the Trump administration taking tougher measures against China. It was the first time Xi toured a Southeast Asian country in his first overseas trip of the year as president.[6] When Xi resumed his overseas travel post-Covid, Southeast Asia continued to be a key area of focus, and the region constituted one of the three foreign destinations Xi made in 2022. In November 2022, Xi attended the G20 Summit in Bali, then flew to Bangkok for the 29th APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting.[7] This was Xi’s first visit to Thailand as president.[8] Xi also invited the general secretary of the Vietnam Communist Party as the first foreign leader to visit China after the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th National Congress in October 2022.

Since the start of 2023, China has continued to build on its ties with Southeast Asia through high-level visit exchanges. When Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. travelled to China in January 2023, Chinese state media highlighted that this was his first bilateral visit to a non-ASEAN country.[9] In February 2023, Cambodian Prime Minister (PM) Hun Sen was reportedly the first foreign leader to visit China after the Lunar New Year.[10] Three years ago, Hun Sen was the first foreign leader to visit China when Beijing was scrambling to contain the Covid-19 outbreak. His visit was then perceived as a lending of support to Beijing’s effort to curb the pandemic spread and a demonstration of the “unbreakable friendship” and “mutual trust” between the two countries.[11] In March 2023, Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong and Malaysian PM Anwar Ibrahim also visited China and spoke at the Bo’ao Forum for Asia in Hainan.

It is worthwhile to mention that Southeast Asia was among the largest recipients of Chinese Covid-19 vaccines in both donation and purchase.[12] They were also the early beneficiaries of Beijing’s relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions for outbound travel. In February 2023, China approved outbound group travel to seven Southeast Asian countries; namely, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, from a list of 20 countries.[13] Brunei and Vietnam were added to this list in March 2023.[14] Countries whom China had differences with or which had imposed travel restrictions on Chinese travellers such as the US, Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom, India, Japan and South Korea were only added to the list several months later in August 2023.[15]


Cultivating relationships with new and next-generation Southeast Asian leaders

A key objective of Wang Yi’s trip was to strengthen political ties with existing and incoming leaders in Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore; these countries have recently been or are currently in the midst of leader transition. China has been consistently pragmatic and ideologically agnostic in building good relationships with the ruling elites in other countries. In Cambodia, apart from calling on King Norodom Sihamoni, Prime Minister (PM) Hun Sen, and Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) and Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, Wang Yi met with Hun Sen’s son, Hun Manet, then prime minister-in-waiting, on 13 August 2023.[16] Wang Yi was the first foreign leader that Hun Manet has met since his father announced that he was stepping down as prime minister. Earlier, in February 2023, Hun Manet had accompanied his father to call on Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing. China wants to ensure that the strong ties between China and Cambodia under Hun Sen would continue under Hun Manet as prime minister. The Chinese foreign ministry’s readout of the visit hailed the “overwhelming victory of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in the general election”, which it said “has shown the right choice made by the Cambodian people and their trust in and support for CPP”.[17]

In Malaysia, Wang Yi met Malaysian PM Anwar Ibrahim and his Malaysian counterpart Zambry Abdul Kadir. In a break from the diplomatic norm of meeting Malaysian leaders in Putrajaya, Wang Yi made the effort to travel to Penang to meet Anwar, who was campaigning in the state elections.[18] During the meeting, Wang Yi highlighted that Anwar is “an old friend of the Chinese people”, China is a “reliable and good friend of Malaysia”, and that the two countries enjoy a “special and friendly relationship with robust bilateral cooperation”.[19]

In Singapore, Wang Yi called on PM Lee Hsien Loong, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and DPM Lawrence Wong who was referred to as the “leader of Singapore’s fourth-generation leadership team”.[20] Affirming the positive momentum in bilateral relations, Wang Yi expressed hope that China-Singapore relations will continue to be at the “forefront of China’s relations with neighbouring countries”.[21] This remark casts the China-Singapore relationship positively, adopting an entirely different tone compared to 2016 when bilateral ties were at their lowest point. In a relevant development, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson in May 2023 commented that the remarks by DPM Wong on democracy at the Nikkei Forum was based on “Singapore’s own successful practice” and “speaks to the aspirations of many countries”. The same spokesperson added that China and Singapore have both found “democratic paths that suit them and have their own characteristics”.[22] By giving credit to Singapore’s democratic path, Beijing is also simultaneously boosting its own political system’s legitimacy and rejecting the monopoly of the Western liberal democratic model. It repudiates US attempts to forge closer partnerships with democratic countries through the Summit for Democracy of which two have been held so far.

Promoting China’s regional cooperation agenda

Another thrust of Wang Yi’s visit was to strengthen its regional cooperation agenda through various multilateral platforms. His visit can be viewed as part of diplomatic activities to commemorate the 20th anniversary of China’s accession to ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and the 10th anniversary of China’s Belt and Road (BRI) Initiative, even though the BRI has had a mixed record since its launch, and official support for the initiative seems to have waned over time.[23] A key message arising from Wang Yi’s visit was that countries in the region should cooperate even closer with China in the interest of peace, stability and development.

In the three Southeast Asian countries he visited, Wang Yi expressed China’s commitment to engage ASEAN and maintain ASEAN centrality, which is a refrain in Chinese messaging towards the region.[24] There is a view that Wang Yi’s visit was meant to shore up ASEAN ties ahead of the resumption of negotiations on a Code of Conduct in the SCS hosted by Manila in August 2023.[25] While this may be true, one should not overestimate this point as the three Southeast Asian countries hold different positions on the SCS. As non-claimant states, Singapore takes a principled position that upholds international law in peaceful resolution of disputes while Cambodia is a loyal friend of China within ASEAN on the SCS issue. Malaysia, although a claimant state, prefers not to play up its differences with China over the SCS. Earlier in April 2023, PM Anwar Ibrahim invited domestic backlash when he told Chinese President Xi Jinping that Malaysia was prepared to negotiate with Beijing on its state energy company Petronas’ exploration in the South China Sea,[26] thereby inadvertently acknowledging Beijing’s claim over Malaysia’s exclusive economic zones.

Apart from ASEAN, China is keen to be part of other regional arrangements where it can play a role and remain influential. In particular, Beijing wants to be a member of the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement (DEPA) first signed by Singapore, Chile and New Zealand in June 2020 to promote secure digital trade. This topic was raised in Wang Yi’s discussion with DPM Wong in Singapore. DPM Wong reportedly informed Wang Yi that Singapore welcomed China’s application in accordance with the rules and procedures of the agreement.[27] DPM Wong further expressed Singapore’s in-principle support for China joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). However, whether China can eventually become a member of DEPA or CPTPP will depend on whether it can meet the criteria of membership as well as obtain the necessary support of current members of these two organisations.[28]

The BRI was mentioned in Wang Yi’s visits to Malaysia and Cambodia as these two countries host several BRI projects. These include the Sihanoukville port and Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone in Cambodia and the East Coast Railway Line as well as the twin parks, namely, the Kuantan Industrial Park and Qinzhou Industrial Park, in Malaysia which are often touted as examples of successful collaboration under China’s BRI. However, it is important to note that these projects have experienced delays, were affected by Covid-19 lockdowns, and are still works in progress. Nevertheless, as a global-wide initiative launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping with great fanfare in 2013, Beijing is likely to press ahead with BRI. In fact, China is preparing to host the 3rd Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in October 2023.

Criticising the United States

In a departure from its usual diplomatic practice, Wang Yi specifically criticised the US while in Singapore. Usually, in a bilateral visit, China would focus on issues of common interest, and not bring in third parties. And even if third parties are mentioned, they are normally implicitly, not explicitly, referred to. However, in his meeting with PM Lee Hsien Loong, Wang Yi reportedly lashed out at the US for “conniving and supporting the Taiwan independence forces” and “violating China’s red line”.[29] He further criticised Washington for “coercing other countries to engage in unilateral protectionism against China”, a reference to how other countries had imposed export restrictions on sensitive technologies to China. In his view, these actions demonstrated that the US had become the “biggest unstable factor in the world today”.[30]

China appears to be responding in kind as US leaders have also criticised Beijing on numerous occasions in public during their visits to other countries.

The US was not mentioned in Chinese foreign ministry’s readouts on Wang Yi’s discussions with PM Anwar Ibrahim and PM Hun Sen.[31] It would appear that the readout’s highlight of Wang Yi’s criticism of the US while he was in Singapore was not only aimed at Washington but could also be meant as a warning to Singapore, given that the latter is often seen as a reliable partner of the US in Southeast Asia. In the past, Singapore has borne the brunt of Beijing’s criticism when it was seen as standing with the US against China.[32] This happened when Singapore reiterated the importance of freedom of navigation and a rules-based international order in 2016. That was the year when the arbitral tribunal ruled in Manila’s favour in the arbitration case on the SCS, which China then dismissed as “a piece of waste paper”.

US behaviour in the SCS was also a subject of Wang Yi’s criticism during his visit. In a statement issued by China’s foreign ministry, Wang Yi held Washington responsible for continuing to “stir up trouble” in the SCS by using the Second Thomas Shoal issue to pit China against the Philippines. He reiterated China’s willingness to resolve existing disputes with the Philippines through bilateral dialogue and added that the region has the “capability and wisdom” to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea.[33] In other words, from China’s perspective, extra-regional powers like the US has no role to play on this issue.


Wang Yi’s Southeast Asian tour took place against the backdrop of intensified great power rivalry. China is closely monitoring where the countries in Southeast Asia stand with regard to this competition and is actively cajoling them not to side with the US. Beijing is expected to do more on this front as Washington is stepping up efforts to rally more Asian allies and partners over to its side.[34]

However, Beijing’s efforts to condition Southeast Asian countries or ASEAN into a certain type of behaviour that it finds acceptable is easier said than done. This is because China’s actions in areas of direct concern to Southeast Asia undermine what it seeks to achieve. Foremost among them is Beijing’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea such as its resort to lasers,[35] water cannons[36] and dangerous manoeuvres to prevent the Philippines from resupplying its personnel on the Sierra Madre on Second Thomas Shoal. These actions have emboldened the Philippines to strengthen its military and defence ties with the US, an outcome Beijing is strongly opposed to. China’s recent unveiling of a new 10-dash line map has further raised concerns in Southeast Asia and beyond. Taken together, these actions further weaken China’s call on relevant countries to resolve matters bilaterally and to expedite discussions on the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea.

China’s actions in other areas have also added to these countries’ wariness of Beijing. While China has accused the US of long-arm jurisdiction,[37] it is not entirely blame-free on this front either as it has reportedly established over 100 quasi-official overseas police stations including in Cambodia and Brunei, which undermines the sovereignty of the host countries.[38] In addition, recent examples of Beijing’s use of economic coercion against countries like South Korea, Australia and Lithuania serve as timely reminders that the Southeast Asian countries of the Philippines and Singapore too were victims of such coercive tactics in the past.[39]

Southeast Asian countries will need to be adept at navigating the increasingly complex US-China relationship. As these countries act on their respective national interests, their foreign policy decisions could at times appear to be aligned or non-aligned with either power, depending on the issue. China and the US therefore should regard Southeast Asia and the countries in the region on their merits and not merely through the lens of great power competition. Instead of the refrain that China and Southeast Asia have the “capability and wisdom” to address their own problems, a better starting point for Beijing would be to appreciate that Southeast Asian countries have the “capability and wisdom” to do what is right for their own interests and for regional peace and stability. This includes their strategic choice to be friends with not only China but other key partners like the US, Australia, the EU, India, Japan and South Korea.


For endnotes, please refer to the original pdf document.

ISEAS Perspective is published electronically by: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute   30 Heng Mui Keng Terrace Singapore 119614 Main Tel: (65) 6778 0955 Main Fax: (65) 6778 1735   Get Involved with ISEAS. Please click here: /support/get-involved-with-iseas/ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute accepts no responsibility for facts presented and views expressed.   Responsibility rests exclusively with the individual author or authors. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.   © Copyright is held by the author or authors of each article.Editorial Chairman: Choi Shing Kwok   Editorial Advisor: Tan Chin Tiong   Editorial Committee: Terence Chong, Cassey Lee, Norshahril Saat, and Hoang Thi Ha   Managing Editor: Ooi Kee Beng   Editors: William Choong, Lee Poh Onn, Lee Sue-Ann, and Ng Kah Meng   Comments are welcome and may be sent to the author(s).