The Durian

Today is the last day of the 33rd ASEAN summit in Singapore. Many things, including the menu of the gala dinner and napping Presidents, have been making the news. One of the main items on the agenda, however, was Myanmar’s on-going humanitarian crisis. In a departure from the traditional position of non-interference, the ASEAN chairman called the crisis “matter for concern” in his statement. The following days had Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and U.S Vice President Pence making remarks on the lack of progress Myanmar is making towards restoring the situation.

The other high-stakes agenda item was the disputed South China Sea. It has been reported that ASEAN and China would continue to advance their strategic partnership, the joint maritime exercise held last month as evidence, and work towards a more robust Code of Conduct in the waterway. ASEAN countries, however, are hedging their bets. In his intervention during the summit, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that ASEAN countries view the US-China relationship as the most important set of bilateral relations that have profound implications for them, and want to engage with both China and the U.S.

India at the ASEAN summit

The annual ASEAN-India summit, attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was centred around the creation of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). New Delhi has been hesitant to join the RCEP citing discomfort opening its markets to China. Keen to have India join the RCEP, ASEAN has made a concessional offer –  India can open up 83% of its market against the earlier set 92%. The pact is seen as vital to securing the region’s continued prosperity, especially after a trade war broke out between its vital trading partners US and China. At a time when significant trade is being diverted out of China, India stands to gain a lot by joining the RCEP.

At the summit, Prime Minister Lee noted that India has consistently supported ASEAN centrality and he hopes the strategic partnership between the two continues to grow.

The Bunker and The Bridge

I was watching a film at Fort Canning Hill when I first came to know of The Battlebox. Currently a museum tucked away in Central Singapore, the Battlebox was originally a top-secret bunker that sheltered British troops during the Battle of Singapore (1942). It was here that the British decided to surrender Singapore to the Japanese, the largest surrender of British-led military personnel in history.

My curiosity after taking the Battlebox tour led to me numerous personal accounts of British POWs who provided labour for building the Thai-Burma Railway under the Japanese Imperial Army. Both ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ (1957) and ‘The Railway Man’ (2013) were findings from that quest. These highly recommended anti-war films delve into the lives of the POWs in Japanese camps with the futility of war as the core theme.

While the Thai-Burma Railway is a character common to both films, they deal with two different periods in the life of the POWs. ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ is a work of fiction based on French author Pierre Boulle’s 1954 novel of the same name and depicts the torture the prisoners were subjected to by the Japanese. The film is a commentary of the clash of two imperialistic powers personified by the protagonists – Colonel Nicholson and Colonel Saito, who make for a great study on military tradition, heroism and pride in war. ’The Railway Man’ makes for an appropriate subsequent watch (binge if you can). Based on the life of Eric Lomax, the film is a cinematic masterpiece about the torment of WWII soldiers with themes of guilt, isolation, revenge, confrontation and friendship are skilfully woven together.

Much has been written about the historical accuracy of these films. Claims that the Japanese have, in a way, been demonised by the West have been countered by others which argue that conditions in the camps were much worse than depicted. These are important conversations to be had about the representation of historical events. However, despite these criticisms, the two films have much to offer to cinema buffs and history geeks alike.


P.S. The Battlebox having remained unused since the War was opened for the public in 1997. The museum tour takes visitors through the history of the fall of Malaya and Singapore in WWII and explains how an underground command centre functioned during the War. Romen Bose’s ‘Secrets of the Battlebox’ is an excellent read on the role of command headquarters in the Second World War.

Choosing from the Only Option

Transparency Maldives, an NGO based on the island released its pre-Presidential election survey on Sunday. Since I couldn’t read the original report (written in Dhivehi) this piece in the Maldives Independent provided a good summary.

According to the piece, the Maldivian people interviewed in the survey are sceptical of the fairness of the upcoming Presidential elections. This after the Maldives Election Commission on 20 May announced that candidates convicted with criminal offences were barred from contesting in the primary round of the elections thereby, making it illegal for President Yameen’s rivals to participate in the election primaries.

In response to the EC’s directive, the Joint Opposition called for a press conference on the following day. MP Mohamed Ameeth told reporters that the EC has no legal authority to meddle with internal matters and dictate terms on conducting primaries. The Joint Opposition also accused the Commission of being  “little more than a mouthpiece for President Yameen.” The Maldivian Democratic Party and the Jumhooree Party have announced their candidates and begun campaigning, openly disregarding the directive.

What remains to be seen is how South Block will react to the political developments in the archipelago.