Asia Undercovered #56

This week: A little known central Asian “republic” see’s protests, how the world’s longest serving leader stays in power, and restoring the Jewish heritage of Afghanistan.

Undercovered this week

First, a story from unknown Asia – The Republic of Kalmykia is part of Asian Russia, but predominantly Buddhist. Over the past few weeks, the region has seen widespread protests due to the appointment of an unpopular politician as mayor of the capital Elista (Badma Biurchiev, Open Democracy).

He’s the longest serving leader in Southeast Asia, and now, the world. Cambodia’s Hun Sen has been in power for 35 years, since the fall of the Khmer Rouge. This piece by David Hutt for SEA Globe explores how he has been able to maintain power for so long, using the power of the state to promote his family brand.

Little Timor-Leste is facing a political crisis due to the failure to pass a budget. Michael Leach reports on what this means for Asia’s youngest country and democracy (Lowy Intepreter).

Worth spending some time going through this in-depth longread from TNI on how the rapid growth of Chinese businesses has transformed trade and diplomacy.

Rape has long been a tool of oppression. In China, authorities have used it in Tibet, and now, growing evidence that its a tool against minority Muslims in Xinjiang concentration camps too, reports Massino Introvinge for Bitter Winter.

New to Asia Undercovered? Sign up for free weekly updates here.


State elections were held in Delhi, India’s capital. For the third straight regional election, the ruling BJP lost. Another sign that the country is tiring of Modi’s authoritarianism? Here’s one good take from Deepanshu Mohan at The Wire.


Earlier this month, I shared a piece on low water levels in Tonle Sap in Cambodia. In fact, that is just one many rivers in South and Southeast Asia facing challenges due to development in China and Chinese-occupied Tibet.With news that the controversial western route of the South-to-North Water Diversion project could go forward, it might only get worse. Gao Baiyu reports on this, and more, for The Third Pole.

NEW: Solutions Stories

From now on, I’ll highlight, ever week, a few solutions stories that explain how and why responses are working, or not working, every week. Not necessarily positive news, but stories focused on the responses to social issues as well as the problems themselves.

Firstly, I really loved this visual narrative story by Ruchi Kumar about the restoration of the Jewish heritage in Herat, a historical city in Afghanistan. Perhaps, someday, the community can return home to a peaceful, multicultural country again (Al Jazeera).

Laos get far less attention than its larger SE Asian neighbors. This piece in New Bloomexplores some of the contradictions in the narratives of this small, communist, Buddhist country, and “Muay” Houayheuang Xayabouly, who was charged with defamation for criticizing the government.

Asia Undercovered: Journalist Nithin Coca's weekly roundup of the news, events, trends and people changing Asia, but not getting enough attention in the US media.

Asia Undercovered #55

This week: stories from across the continent on trade, elections, air pollution, corruption, and more.

Undercovered this week

India’s chief of defense staff wants to put Kashmiri children in de-radicalization camps. If that sounds like what’s happening across the border in Xinjiang, that’s because, well, it is (The Wire).

Teak plantations, planted to produce high-value timber, are threatening the lands of the Kutia Kondh, a tribal community in Odisha, India. Excellent reporting on their fight for survival by Basudev Mahapatra in Mongabay.

The initial cover-up of the coronavirus crisis by Chinese authorities is reminiscent of when Typhoon Lekima hit Shandong province in 2019, writes Xioa Baiming for Bitter Winter.

It gets far less attention, but air pollution is a major killer across Asia. South Korea often suffers from transboundary pollution out of its direct control – but there is evidence that cooperation and better management is starting to have a beneficial impact for residents (Tae Yong Jung, Global Asia).

Another crisis that has fallen off the global radar is the Rohingya refugee crisis. Some are trying to build solidarity through art and poetry, even in Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon (Global Voices).

Under General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, Vietnam has been on a broad anti-corruption drive, with 10 new grand corruption cases announced last month. But as Trong nears the end of his term, will the drive continue? (Le Hong Hiep, East Asia Forum).

Indonesia is seeing growing protests around a proposed labor reform law that workers feel will reduce their rights and benefits. How President Jokowi responds could be his “Macron” moment, argues Jefferson Ng in New Mandala.

Car ownership is rising dramatically in Bhutan, impacting the environment and putting the country at the whim of foreign petroleum imports. Some hope that electric cars be a solution in the hydropower rich country (The Third Pole).


It was just a month ago, but Taiwan’s election has already faded from global attention. But now is the time to analyze the results, as Brian Hioe does for New Bloom, including thoughts on the future of the losing KMT.

In Thailand, the lead opposition Future Forward party has escaped dissolution. But many expert that this won’t be the last attempt, as another dissolution case is already being prepared (Prachatai).


Japan was once considered a climate leader, even hosting the conference that created the Kyoto protocol. Lately, though, the country has been backsliding as it builds coal plants both domestically and overseas. Andrew DeWit explores Japan’s climate future through its 2030 agenda, and sees if there is hope for change and regional leadership (Asia Pacific Journal).

As we enter a new decade, Zhang Jingjing explores the future of one of the most influential projects of the 2010’s – the Belt and Road Initiative, which many hope can be reformed to be more fair and mutually beneficial (Panda Paw Dragon Claw)

The ongoing Coronavirus epidemic has led to the closure of Pakistan’s remote border with China. One victim – traders, who likely are facing huge losses as products get stuck on both sides of the remote mountain pass (The Third Pole).

Asia Undercovered: Journalist Nithin Coca's weekly roundup of the news, events, trends and people changing Asia, but not getting enough attention in the US media.

Asia Undercovered #54

More stories #Undercovered due to the Coronavirus outbreak: hundreds dead in Himalayan avalanches, journalist sentenced in Thailand, and India acquiring land in Kashmir.

Undercovered this week

First, an undercovered disaster. A cold wave in the Himalayas has caused avalanches which have killed hundreds in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Nepal.

Some positive news: a victory for justice in the Philippines, as the Amputuan family was sentenced to jail for their role in a 2009 that killed 58, including 32 journalists (Global Voices).

Meanwhile, in Thailand, journalist Suchanee Rungmueanpon has been convicted for the crime of...posting a tweet about a labor conflict.

Worth watching: India’s economic slowdown seems to be worsening, with many pointing blame at the BJP for its mismanaged demonetization program and a badly implemented GST tax. Is this why Modi has been focusing on distractions and nationalist battles? (Gurpal Singh, Madras Courier).

One that front: the Indian government is now seeking to acquire land in Kashmir to give to investors. Athar Parvaiz explores the environmental implications of handing over meadows and wetlands to private interests for The Third Pole.

Experts have been warning about this for years, and it’s finally happening. Tonle Sap, the most productive freshwater lake in world, is seeing record low catches as damn construction and climate change tranforms its hydrology – possibly forever. Credit given to this wonderful piece by Shashank Bengali in the Los Angeles Times.


The same laws that led to massive concentration camps and cultural genocide in Xinjiang have now been implemented in Tibet, leading some to worry a similar crackdown could take place there (Echo Xie, SCMP).

If you’re curious to understand how the Belt & Road project is playing out in Myanmar, where it intersects with numerous ongoing conflicts, then read this excellent piece by Khin Zaw Win in New Mandala.


In Malaysia another by-election, and another loss for the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition, in a landslide. One key reason – continued failure to implement promises policies after its May 2018 surprise victory (East Asia Forum).

Lighter note

In 1977, the Tashkent Metro opened in Uzbekistan. Until 2018, it was prohibited to take photos of the ornate Soviet project. Now, the stories the country’s tubulent history through this lovely photo essay of the metro by Flip Noubel.

Asia Undercovered: Journalist Nithin Coca's weekly roundup of the news, events, trends and people changing Asia, but not getting enough attention in the US media.

Asia Undercovered #53

Welcome to the first regular issue of 2020! Already the media obsession horserace politics in the 2020 election, along with the legitimately worrying #WuhanCoronavirus means most of Asia is already being ignored.

Undercovered this week

As chaos grows alongside Narendra Modi’s increasingly authoritarian dictates, KP Fabian asks if India’s democracy is messed up (Madras Courier).

Myanmar’s only Mon language newspaper is down to just 1200 subscriptions, facing challenges from a shrinking press, the dominance of Burmese, and social media platforms as it struggles to survive (Lawi Weng, Global Voices)

In Indonesia, Bambang Hero Saharjo, a fire expert, has been given an award for testifying in an astounding 500 cases against companies accused of allowing fires to burn on their concessions. He’s done this despite threats and even a retaliatory lawsuit (Mongabay).

Protesting in Thailand comes with risks. One participant in a flashmob was photographed, doxxed, and then fired from her job (Prachatai).

Sadly, speaking truth is also risky, even from abroad. Olzi Jazexhi participated in a Chinese propaganda tour to Xinjiang, but saw through the facade and concluded the camps are depriving Uyghurs of their human rights. Upon returning home and speaking out, he was fired due to Chinese influence in Albania.

Meanwhile, more and more Uyghurs are speaking out about the unjust detentions of their loves ones. Here’s one particularly poignant story.

In the Philippines, one town has used its historical art legacy to stand up against proposed mining operations, which it also fears could lead to disaster in the case of an earthquake (Kodao).


ASEAN is trying to stay neutral as the US-China trade war grows – but can it? And could neutrality end up benefiting one party (China?)? (East Asia Forum)

Worth watching. China now has more diplomatic posts in the world than the United States. How will it use them? (China Digital Times)

I don’t include Mongolia much in Asia Undercovered but its a fascinating country – in between two authoritarian regimes (China and Russia), a young democracy, and facing massive developmental challenges as it grows increasingly dependent on trade with its neighbor. An excellent piece on East Asia’s other country by Ellen Born in The American Interest.


Sri Lanka just had a Presidential election, and has an upcoming Parliamentary one which could cement authoritarian populism. Kanishka Jayasuriya explores the reasons behind the rise of ethno-religious nationalism in the island nation (East Asia Forum)

And Taiwan voted to re-election Tsai Ing-wen as President in a landslide. Here’s a great visual of the results from Bloomberg.

A Lighter note

40 years of fighting, and an indigenous tribe in Indonesia has finally won the right to control their land – a victory for them, and the environment. This wonderful visually-driven deep dive tells the story of the Dayan Iban community of Sungai Utik in Borneo and their long fight for land rights (Eco Business).

Asia Undercovered: Journalist Nithin Coca's weekly roundup of the news, events, trends and people changing Asia, but not getting enough attention in the US media.

Asia Undercovered: What to Watch in 2020

This special issue is a preview of What to Watch in Asia in 2020, highlighting the key events, elections, and trends to watch in the region – all of which I’ll follow-up on in future issues. With media attention focused on the upcoming United States Presidential primaries and election, it is likely that Asia will get even less attention this year than 2019.

Stay informed about Asia - Sign up to get Asia Undercovered delivered to your inbox every week.


You wouldn’t know it from the sparse US media attention, but 2019 was a big year for elections in Asia. Perhaps a billion people voted across the continent. The results were varied – authoritarian regimes cemented or gained power in India, the Philippines and Sri Lanka while incumbents held sway in Indonesia and Japan.

2020 won’t see as many citizens vote, but there are still several important elections approaching. Taiwan is first, with one of the few Presidential races in 2020, scheduled for 11 January. Currently, polls show incumbent Tsai Ing-Wen with a healthy lead. Chinese inference remains a concern.

Singapore, Sri Lanka and Mongolia will also all have parliamentary elections next year. Of those, Sri Lanka, where recently elected President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa seeks to cement control, will be worth watching.

Another important one to watch is Myanmar. Will Aung San Suu Kyi’s anti-media, Muslim, and increasingly authoritarian moves lead to losses for her National League for Democracy?

Also important are two state legislative elections in India, which will be closely watched to see if the ruling BJP faces backlash for its attempts to ram through controversial legislation such as the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which has caused widespread protests throughout the country.


One huge questionwhat will happen in Hong Kong? The protests show no sign of slowing down, even as police pressure increases. Will there be any regional spillover effects?

Will Chinese influence in the region continue to grow in countries like Thailand and Cambodia? Will there be any reaction to overreach in the South China Sea or with the Belt and Road Initiative?

Meanwhile, the Uyghur human rights crisis is starting to get more attention regionally, particularly in Muslim-majority nations in Southeast and Central Asia. In Indonesia, the powerful Majelis Ulama has called for action after months of silence, while in Malaysia has appointed a university to prepare a study on the abuses. Will this groundswell turn into a movement? My prediction – no country in Asia will stand up to China alone, but there’s a chance that several, if public pressure grows, stand up together.

Trade: Will RCEP negotiations finish? And what about the Japan-South Korea trade war? It could get messier.

Also worth watching

Asian Sports: The Tokyo 2020 Olympics in Japan will be he second of three consecutive Olympics Games in Asia, following the 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea and the 2022 Games to be held, bizarrely, in Beijing.

Kashmir and West Papua will likely remains in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. When will the internet shutdown in Kashmir end? Will West Papua see more protests and militarization?

Asia Undercovered: Journalist Nithin Coca's weekly roundup of the news, events, trends and people changing Asia, but not getting enough attention in the US media.

Loading more posts…