Asian Insider April 17: The church is burning, and the world is crying

Asian Insider brings you insights into a fast-changing region from our network of correspondents.


Firefighters were able to save the main bell towers and the outer walls, but a devastating fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris today destroyed the roof and gutted the central spire of the iconic church. Thousands of Parisians stood in shock silence on the banks of the River Seine, watching as a national treasure was engulfed in flames. This was not just a disaster for France, however. Notre Dame is part of the world’s shared heritage.

How did the fire start? The cause of the fire is not yet known but the Paris fire brigade had ruled out terrorism and arson. It said the fire could be linked to a project to renovate the church’s spire.

The French reaction:  As dismay turned to relief that a large chunk of Notre dame would survive the blaze, the French quickly turned to talk of rebuilding. French President Emmanuel Macron, who cancelled a plan national address responding to the Yellow Vest protests to head to the scene of the fire, pledged that France will rebuild the cathedral, and would draw on the world’s best talents for the task. Two wealthy French families, linked to the country's top luxury brands, have pledged a total of 300 million euros to the rebuilding.

The world reaction:World leaders expressed shock at the fire and sent condolences to the French people. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he shared the “sense of loss of the French people”; US President Donald Trump described the cathedral as “one of the great treasures in the world”, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman tweeted “Fluctuat nec mergitur”, a Latin phrase that has been the mott of Paris since the 14th century. It means “she is tossed by the waves but does not sink”.

The full story: Fire guts Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, Macron vows to rebuild centuries-old landmark

Look inside: In Pictures: Notre Dame Cathedral on fire

More background: 7 things about the mediaeval cathedral in heart of Paris


Tomorrow, Indonesia heads to the polls in what is one of the world’s largest and most complex voting logistics exercises. By the end of the day tomorrow, the country of 192 million voters will likely be able to declare a result.

How  does such a large country, spread out over an archipelago of thousands of islands, count so quickly?

To be fair, final results will take awhile, but highly predictive quick counts of a representative sample of polls will be released within hours of voting booths closing. Still, speed is possible because of how decentralised the task is. There are over 810,000 polling stations with each one catering to no more than a few hundred voters. Voting closes just after lunch and it is entirely possible a winner can be declared just after dinner.

What’s happening today?  The quiet period, where no campaigning takes place, started on Sunday. Today election workers and police are making final preparations. A Police spokesman told Indonesia Correspondent Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja that the police have mapped out areas most prone to social conflicts and disputes. Nearly 350,000 police and military personnel will deployed alongside some 1 million civilian security guards.

A quick guide on what to expect tomorrow

Keep up to date with all the latest on our Indonesia election liveblog at which kicks off at 8am tomorrow.

Also read stories on all the biggest developments so far at special election website

If you are new to Indonesia elections, here’s everything you need to know at a glance.


Even as positive noises have continued to emerge from trade talks, it’s been a rough month in US-China relations. The New York Times reported this week that as many as 30 Chinese academics and experts had their visas to the US cancelled or placed on review in the past year. Earlier this month, MIT said it would end all collaboration with Chinese tech companies Huawei and ZTE while Indiana University became the latest US university to end collaborations with the Confucius Institute.

Why it matters: All of this adds up to what US Bureau Chief Nirmal Ghosh reports is a growing, bipartisan view of China as a competitive threat, rather than a partner. It no longer requires saying that this is the most consequential bilateral relationship of our times and every country will be watching this souring - that now seems to have extended well past the government level to the people - with concern. The one saving grace is the fact that the two countries are deeply interconnected.

Analysis: Sinophobia emerging in US, but may be limited by pragmatism


Rumours had begun to swirl weeks back about a potential summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un. Today, South Korean media is reporting that Russian officials told a South Korean diplomatic delegation visiting Moscow that plans were in fact taking place. There was no time of place given but it does seem that this summit is in the works.

The big picture:  North Korea and Russia are long-time allies - Moscow has repeatedly expressed support for easing sanctions on the regime - so such a summit would make sense. It will be Mr Kim’s first visit to Russia since he came to power in 2011. If the US embrace of North Korea was meant as a hedge in Asia against the influence of Russia and China, then there may be pressure in Washington to set up a third summit after the failed one in Hanoi.

Full story: Russia getting ready for first summit with Kim Jong Un


Winter is here, and the jury is in. The final season of the Game of Thrones is set to be a record-breaker. Some 17.4 million Americans tuned in to the first episode of season 8, a record for the show. And though it did not release global figures, the episode was also the most tweeted episode of the show ever with five million tweets and 11 million mentions.


Here’s our recap of episode 1

And our podcast discussing what the show delivered and didn’t


A concert by Singapore-based black metal band Devouror in Malaysia has been cancelled after the Council of Churches of Malaysia (CCM) raised concerns over the gig that was to take place on Easter Sunday.

One week after an F-35A stealth fighter jet crashed off the north-eastern coast of Japan, US and Japanese military vessels are struggling to find the wreckage and protect its valuable "secrets".

Taiwan is not intimidated by China's military drills this week, President Tsai Ing-wen said today, after the latest Chinese military manoeuvres were denounced by a senior US official as "coercion" and a threat to stability in the region.

That’s it for today, see you again tomorrow.