Cambodia’s Hun Sen, China and the United States–Unity at Home and Security beyond

December 1, 2015

Cambodia’s Hun Sen, China and the United States–Unity at Home and Security beyond

The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is facing two major strategic challenges: its collective unity and balancing between China and the United States as they compete for influence in the region. As an ASEAN member state, one of the major challenges for Cambodia’s current and future strategic situation is and will be the competition for influence between the United States and China. This strategic challenge will shape Cambodia’s current and future agenda for political reform, economic development, foreign policy, and national defense.


Both China and the United States have been competing for interest and influence in Southeast Asia in general and in Cambodia in particular. As a result, Cambodia faces tough decisions in choosing between the two superpowers and in balancing its relationships with China and the United States so that Cambodia’s interests are not compromised. Cambodia is also striving to gain the most possible benefit out of this superpower rivalry.  In particular, Cambodia will need to carefully balance its relationship with China to ensure that effective Cambodia-U.S. relations are not compromised. Both China and the United States are considered to be vital to Cambodia’s economic and security development, and a collaborative approach will deliver an optimal outcome for Cambodia.

It is clear that Chinese and U.S. strategic interests in Cambodia are conflicting. The national elections in July 2013, while a major breakthrough in Cambodian politics, have clearly shown that both ruling and opposition parties have used China and the United States for their political objectives. During the election campaign, the opposition party called on the United States and the West for political support accusing the ruling government of not respecting democratic principles, violating human rights, injustice, and corruption. In response, U.S. lawmakers from both the House and Senate threatened to cut aid to Cambodia if the election was not ‘credible and competitive.’ In the political deadlock following the election, while both the United States and the European Union refused to recognized the result and called for Cambodia to independently investigate alleged election irregularities. China promptly endorsed the result and congratulated Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) for their victory. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi also visited Cambodia to further strengthen and expand relations and cooperation adding that its success would ensure continuation of a healthy relationship with China.

Hun Sen and Obama

Another example of conflicting interests between the two super powers was seen through the Cambodian government decision to expel twenty anti-Chinese Muslim Uyghur asylum seekers in 2009 at the request of Beijing.  This resulted in condemnation from the United States, which accused Cambodia of failing to take into account the individuals’ welfare under international law and of violating its international obligations. The United States also warned Cambodia’s move would impact bilateral relations. It then decided to halt shipment of 200 military trucks and trailers to the Cambodian military. China made a quick and opportunistic response in an attempt to counter the United States by providing additional aid to the Cambodian military worth hundreds of million of dollars. China’s move also clearly aimed to send the message to Washington that while the United States sends used surplus vehicles to Cambodia, China is willing to send a great number of new vehicles and uniforms as well. China clearly sees itself competing with the United States for favor in Cambodia.

During the visit to Cambodia by the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2010, a message was delivered to Cambodia that it should not depend too much on China and should seek to diversify its sources of aid, and build an independent foreign policy.

U.S. efforts to gain influence in the region was also demonstrated by the 2010 launch of the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), in which the United States pledged $187 million during ministerial level meetings between Clinton and the foreign ministers of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

Cambodia’s excessive dependence on China has placed Cambodia’s foreign policy under China’s influence. U.S. suspicions were confirmed, for example, during Cambodia’s ASEAN Chairmanship in 2012 when Cambodia backed China’ core interest regarding its South China Sea disputes with several ASEAN member states. This resulted in ASEAN being unable to achieve consensus – ‘the ASEAN way’ – and failing to issue a joint communiqué for the first time in its 45 year-history. This has caused problems for Cambodia within ASEAN and it is now viewed with suspicion by its neighbors. Likewise, in relation to China’s environmental issues, Cambodia is reluctant to criticize or protest either individually or with other nations, Chinese dam buildings on the Mekong, despite their potential effect on millions of Cambodians who depend heavily on river water for drinking, irrigation and fishing.

In their efforts to influence Cambodia’s political allegiance, the United States and China have adopted different aid and development strategies. The United States has been the strongest supporter of social, economic, and political development, democratization, trade, investment, regional security, civil society, and most importantly, human rights. China, though, has been the strongest supporter for developing infrastructure such as roads, bridges and public buildings, and without attaching conditions. The key strategic interests of the two nations in Cambodia are that the United States seeks to strengthen democracy and the rule of law, whereas China places greater emphasis on natural resources, business and political advantage. Moreover, U.S. aid is subject to strict conditions, while Chinese aid has ‘no strings attached’.

Cambodia’s strategic environment is complex.  Not only are the United States and China competing for influence in Cambodia, but also in the ASEAN region generally and with Cambodia’s immediate neighbors. While China has strong relations with Thailand and the United States, Vietnam has stepped up its relationship with the United States aiming to strike a balance against Chinese influence in the region. China has recently undertaken activity to reclaim land in the South China Sea such as construction of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands. This has become a source of tension between China and a number of the ASEAN nations, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam. Maintaining good relations with each of these countries is considered important for Cambodia. As such, it will be important to be mindful of the challenges imposed by these tensions and to find a way to work effectively with each of the nations involved.

The current conflict is likely to be increasingly tense as Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung had warned his ASEAN colleagues in May 2014 that China’s land reclamation in the South China Sea is an “extremely dangerous action” directly endangering peace, stability, security, and marine safety. Both Vietnam and the Philippines undoubtedly expected stronger support from their ASEAN member’s states.

During ASEAN’s 26th Summit held in Malaysia, the grouping issued a strong statement expressing “serious concerns” about China’s aggressive action in the sea and calling for quicker action in negotiating a code of conduct between China and regional grouping. However, given that all ASEAN members have tremendous economic benefit from China, the statement is unlikely to change China’s calculus. As a consequence, Chinese dominance in the South China Sea is highly probable to be eventually accepted. Thus, Cambodia will need to keep an eye on its neighbors at the same time as it strikes a balance between them as well as between the United States and China. It must also balance relations with other U.S. allies such as Japan, South Korea and Australia which are major donors for Cambodia’s economic and social development.

It is possible for Cambodia to benefit from the two superpowers to create a better future for itself and the Cambodian people. Cambodia is still one of the poorest countries in the region and its primary national interests are economic development, poverty reduction, good governance, democratization, human rights and the rule of law. Cambodia is dependent on aid for national development. Both China and the United States have fitted in with Cambodia’s national development needs. The United States wants Cambodia to be democratic, have a free market economy, be committed to rule of law and to support so-called international norms of human rights, good governance and the like. On the other hand, China offers Cambodia massive investment in infrastructure and industry: roads, bridges, railways, dams and other public works of this nature. It also offers aid and grants without conditions attached.

If Cambodia aligns more with China, this could undercut respect for the principle of human rights, the practice of good governance, and could set back democratisation in Cambodia. It could threaten trade and investment with the United States (particularly in the garments sector that exports around 70 percent of its goods to the U.S. market) and with other western countries. In contrast, if Cambodia aligns with the United States, it risks annoying China which could withdraw or delay major projects and aid.  At the same time, Cambodia under pressure from the United States for political reforms may do more to end corruption, and improve respect for human rights and freedom of expression.

In sum, there is not much apparent benefit derived by aligning with China or the United States only. Taking sides with either of these two superpowers presents risks for Cambodia. Maintaining the ‘ASEAN Way’ and ASEAN centrality would best serve Cambodia’s national interests and foreign policy. Therefore, what Cambodia must do is to balance China and the U.S. simultaneously. Both China and the United States have a role to play. It is up to Cambodia to balance the needs of both superpowers and try to act in a way that satisfies both. Cambodia must sort out its domestic priorities such as eliminating corruption and cronyism, reducing land evictions, preserving human rights, holding open elections, giving land concessions and so on. At the same time it needs new infrastructure and resource development which, if properly shared and managed, can also contribute to economic opportunity, poverty reduction and human rights.

U.S. and Chinese interests can be supplementary, but they are definitely not confrontational. It is great power competition, but not confrontation. The two great powers should understand Cambodia’s position and find common ground. That way, all can gain.

Veasna Var is a PhD student in the Program in Political and International Studies at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defense Force Academy (ADFA). The author would like to express his sincere gratitude to Emeritus Professor Carlyle A. Thayer at the University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra; and Dr. Peter T. Quinn, currently a Fellow Researcher at Australian National University, Canberra for their valuable advice and comments on the article.

From Timor Leste into Murky UMNO Waters of Malaysia

December 1, 2015 (30 days to 2016)

From Timor Leste into Murky UMNO Waters of Malaysia

by Cmdr (rtd) S. Thayaparan

“In history, truth should be held sacred, at whatever cost … especially against the narrow and futile patriotism, which, instead of pressing forward in pursuit of truth, takes pride in walking backwards to cover the slightest nakedness of our forefathers.”

– Col Thomas Aspinwall


Henceforth my commentary on our failing state will be sparse. Others are doing a fine job of wading into the murky UMNO waters of Malaysia.

Since returning from my academic hiatus in Timor Leste or as my Indonesian friends refer to it as Tim Tim, I will be looking back on a life and professional career spent in the service of a country fast becoming foreign to me.

Everything old is new again. In diplomatic circles and among academics, the South China Sea, the efficacy of regional cooperation but especially the influence of China, dominates the discourse.

Depending on who you talk to, generally cynicism replaces what popular spin du jour the power brokers far more interested in political survival than regional stability are serving up. As one ambassador told me, “there is no country without a ruler”.

All this talk of an ASEAN community is merely propaganda for a neo-Cold War between hegemonic interests that small troubled countries find themselves caught between.

As the late S Rajaratnam (who was then serving as Singapore’s Foreign Minister) said at the formation of ASEAN – “a stable Southeast Asia, not a balkanised Southeast Asia. And those countries who are interested, genuinely interested, in the stability of Southeast Asia, the prosperity of Southeast Asia, and better economic and social conditions, will welcome small countries getting together to pool their collective resources and their collective wisdom to contribute to the peace of the world” – alluding to the powerful vested foreign interest that signified the Cold War.

The neo-Cold War dominated by American and Chinese interests, will eventually change the political and social landscape of Southeast Asia. Behind the political rhetoric and yes, the economic advantages brought upon by so-called regional cooperation, lays the dark truth that the constant struggle for individual autonomy and self-interest is in conflict with broader hegemonic stratagems.

ASEAN Community

ASEAN, or the ASEAN community, has to deal with a whole range of issues ranging from a black economy, human trafficking, political corruption and the very real threat of Islamic extremism. The feel-good economic numbers are not one part of the story; it is the least important part when it comes to maintaining regional stability and individual integrity.

Next area of global conflict

In the early 80s, I attended the Indonesian Naval Staff and Command College course (Seskol at Cipulir, Jakarta).

During a seminar about potential areas of conflict, I presented a seminar paper to the commandant of the Staff College and four senior officers from the Indonesian Navy. I posited that the next area of conflict would the South China Sea and gave detailed socio and political commentary about the realities of regional interests and conflicts.

The commandant, Vice Admiral Adang Safaat and two admirals chewed me up. They berated me on the fact that I did not acknowledge the efficacy of Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (Zopfan), another Cold War relic signed in Kuala Lumpur in 1971. Furthermore, they were horrified that I did not place emphasis on the bilateral joint military exercises amongst ASEAN countries.

The two colonels were strangely silent. After the presentation or humiliation as I saw it, the two colonels, Lt Col (Navy) Krisna Rubowo and a retired colonel of Chinese ethnicity who was an active participant of Indonesia’s war of independence (he facilitated the smuggling of arms from Singapore to the Freedom Movement in Indonesia), met me in private.

They told me in confidence that although they did not want to contradict their senior officers, they agreed with my summation. The South China Sea would be the next area of global conflict.

Before I go any further, I wish to speak of the enigma who is General Abdul Haris Nasution. The former Defence Minister and Security Minister of Indonesia is a Batak from Sumatra and a member of Generasi 45, who fought and played a key role in the Indonesian War of Independence.

General Nasution was also a key player and confidant of Sukarno who was one of the founding fathers of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and a close friend of Yugoslavia’s Josip Broz Tito.  He had written books on guerilla warfare informed by actual experience and was on a personal level subjected to the worse of political infighting with the murder of his five-year daughter as collateral damage.

I will expand more on the nature of my friendship with the good General in subsequent pieces, but here was a man who was figuratively and literally scared by military and political life.

I needed a reality check. Was my paper the result of youthful anti-imperialism and seeing shadows where they were none? We were living in the nuclear age and those of us who served in the military felt the resulting anxiety most keenly. I needed the clear-sighted opinion of someone who was close to power but not enthused by it.

Systemic dysfunctions

General Nasution had the reputation of wanting to clean up corruption in the military and someone so inclined had very little use for pandering to conventional wisdom.

I took my seminar paper to General Nasution, who took them and told me he would review them. I got word to meet him a week later in his house. His house was not the palatial structures of most senior retired military personnel. It was small modest house; behind it, was General now President Suharto’s house when he was in the army.

Nasution (photo, in white shirt with author) agreed with my paper but with some caveats. Concerning Zofpan, he was skeptical as to how small nations, with small navies could “persuade” larger hegemons to maintain the integrity of Zofpan.

He was also skeptical on continued allegiances to so-called regional pledges of community building and neutrality when individual successive governments found it profitable to align their interests, with specific hegemons in lieu of maintaining regional solidarity.

The former Defence Minister was well aware of the political vagaries that were part of the reality of Southeast Asian countries. Indonesia’s own experience as (some would refer to as American proxyism) a pawn in American hegemonic interest in this part of the world, demonstrated the disconnect between regional harmony and state self-interest, that fueled the Cold War and now the neo-Cold War.

What I took away from my discussions with people from various military and civilian disciplines at that time was a deep pessimism of speaking with “one voice”. This problem arises not because of diversity or even self-interest. This problem arises because of the systemic dysfunctions that plague individual Southeast Asian countries.

If you listen carefully, we can hear the same sentiment in what Rajaratnam cautioned, “we must also accept the fact, if we are really serious about it, that regional existence means painful adjustments to those practices and thinking in our respective countries.“We must make these painful and difficult adjustments. If we are not going to do that, then regionalism remains a utopia.”

S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy. Having spent some time in Dili, Timor Leste, the former Naval Commander is back home for good in the murky UMNO waters of BolehLand. I hope he will find to time to write about his experiences of living and working in a newly emerging country, which is seeking to be a member of ASEAN.

I  was in Dili when Tim, Tim was emerging from Indonesian colonialism– thanks to the farsighted President B. J. Habibie– for a MIER-Sosokawa Foundation forum on Preparing TL for entry into ASEAN some years ago (2007). I am today a supporter of Timor Leste’s entry into ASEAN. At that forum I presented a Paper titled Lessons from Cambodia in ASEAN, which was later issued by The Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace– [PDF]Cambodia’s Engagement with ASEAN: Lessons for Timor ……/Working%20Paper/CICP%20working%20paper%20…by D Merican – ‎2007. –Din Merican

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ASEAN needs the support of its Leaders and the private sector

November 29, 2015

COMMENT: It is true that ASEAN has come a long way, makingDin Merican@Rosler considerable inroads in its effort to bring together all peoples in Southeast Asia. Since its founding in Bangkok in 1967, it has grown into an organisation that is taken seriously by Australia, China, the European Community, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, the United States and other nations.

All ASEAN leaders and officials too are working hard on the basis of mutual trust and renewed self belief in the pursuit of peace, sustainable socio-economic development, and cooperation.

Success poses a challenge, one of managing high expectations from the business sector, civil society and the people. Right now, the ASEAN Secretariat is working on a shoe string budget and with limited professional staff. It is time for the secretariat to be strengthened. While we should avoid being another Brussels, we should at least ensure that the secretariat is given the resources needed to carry out its awesome tasks more effectively.

One of its biggest challenge is how to bridge the development gap between the original ASEAN-5, Brunei, and the CLMV countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam). It is time for ASEAN Leaders to consider the creation of an ASEAN Development Fund for the development of the CLMV region. Enough with the rhetoric and let us put money where it counts since high-sounding words and slogans are meaningless.

Laos as the next chair can take the initiative to propose this idea as part of its agenda in 2016-2017. Make the ASEAN 2025: Forging Ahead Together document a living reality.

It is necessary for the private sector to take a very proactive role in promoting cross borders investments and intra-regional  trade since ASEAN is a huge market of some 300 million people with rising incomes due to strong economic growth. So, I expect dynamism, entrepreneurship, and risk taking from the private sector since the ASEAN Free Trade Area is in existence.

An effective partnership between ASEAN governments and the private sector is vital if we are to promote economic integration and give meaning to the big ideas  as contained in the aforementioned ASEAN 2025 documents.


I welcome Dr. Munir’s idea that we should ” [T]each ASEAN history. Organiseinternship programmes for university students and for vocational and technical trainees”. More than that is required.  For example, at the University of Cambodia’s Techo Sen School of Government and International Relations with which I am actively involved as Associate Dean and Professor of Political Philosophy and International Relations, on the initiative of our President, Dr. Kao Kim Hourn we are offering ASEAN studies at the Doctoral and Masters levels.

Dr Kao Kim Hourn
The University also organises courses leading to degrees in English Literature and Humanities, and conducts English-speaking courses for young Cambodians. All our degree courses are conducted in Khmer and English.

The University has established an ASEAN Leadership Center which has received books, research papers, reports, and publications from the ASEAN Secretariat, some ASEAN countries, Asian Development Bank, World Bank, IMF, UNDP, and friends and associates.We need contributions and support for our resource center, and grants for research in ASEAN studies.

We hope to form collaborations with reputable universities  and public policy schools in our region  and beyond for capacity building and faculty exchange. It is our intention to welcome researchers and scholars to our campus in Phnom Penh.

There is  a lot of work to advance the ASEAN Economic Community project. From here on,  ASEAN will be judged by results. Will we take the challenge or are content with business as usual with countless meetings, golf,  and durian eating sessions and expensive dinners funded by taxpayers; money? –Din Merican

ASEAN needs the support of its Leaders  and the private sector to move purposefully FORWARD

by Dr. Munir Majid*

Najib and ASEAN Leaders

Simple things must be done. These have been outstanding for such a long time that people wonder if ASEAN leaders are bothered about them. Make it easier for them to travel. Make them recognise things they have in common such as with food. Teach ASEAN history. Organise internship programmes for university students and for vocational and technical trainees.–Dr. Munir Majid

The region has come a long way and can point to many achievements, says Dr. Munir Majid of the London School of Economics.

ASEAN is an association of states seeking to become a community of nations. There is no surrender of authority or sovereignty to any ASEAN supranational body. ASEAN works by consensus. Every member state in the association has to agree before any agreement can be said to have been concluded.

Yet ASEAN has come a long way and can point to many achievements. Many agreements on greater integration have been concluded. And there have been no major conflicts between or among ASEAN states since the association’s establishment in 1967 precisely to achieve peace and stability so that there can be economic and social progress.

The absence of war is a good sign of the ethic of cooperation which points to potential formation of community. While there can be debate over how much the existence of ASEAN contributed to the avoidance of conflict, it cannot be denied meeting regularly and working together towards regional cooperation provide strong incentives towards peaceable rather than conflictual relations.

In the economic sphere there is the ASEAN Free Trade Area whatever the non-tariff barriers that may be said to exist as indeed, they exist everywhere in the world. While much has been made of the unsatisfactory level of ASEAN trade, since the AEC 2007 Blueprint it has increased by US$1 trillion, and at US$2.5 trillion the 24% share is well above that of second placed China at 14%.

The single market and production base is well on its way. With size and growth of ASEAN economies expected to achieve 7% above baseline by 2025 through greater integration, and the reshuffling of manufacturing and services base from economic development, a greater complementarity that is currently not the case will definitely boost intra-ASEAN trade further.

ASEAN's Time

Just imagine if there was better progress in the flow of investment and capital and of skilled labour as well, ASEAN would surely be on the way towards becoming that fourth-sized global economy which even now attracts more FDI (foreign direct investment) than China, an 11% share of total global flows, when not too long ago it was the fear that ASEAN would fall between the two stools of China and India.

Another positive development not often credited, on the socio-cultural side, is the participation of social activists and NGOs in the ASEAN decision-making process who would otherwise not get the time of day in a number of national jurisdictions.

These groups and activists interact with leaders, ministers and officials at ASEAN summits – like the one a week ago – and also organise their own events and activities. As the ASEAN Business Advisory Council chair this past year, I have also been trying to accommodate them at private sector meetings, as there are many issues, such as treatment of migrant labour and responsible business practice, which have a bearing on the economy that need to be thrashed out. They are not political or purely social issues alone.

Of course no one is satisfied. Not the geopolitical strategist, the businessman or the social activist. When you call yourself a community, you raise expectations. You cannot expect to go round telling everyone to be grateful for small mercies. You have promised them big.

Dr Munir Majid

Whenever I am asked about the ASEAN community or the AEC, by local or foreign media representatives, the question is always framed in a skeptical manner. There is a lot of cynicism whatever the leaders and officials say.

Even when the numbers are thrown out, there is suggestion that they would have been attained without ASEAN integration which is characterised more by what has not than what has been achieved.

Even businessmen who have benefited by what has been achieved complain about all those barriers that remain. So do social activists who are dissatisfied particularly by human rights violations in the region which do not obtain ASEAN reprimand and by evident inability to work together to address transnational problems such as the smog (euphemistically called the haze).

There is no sense of being ASEAN, especially among the people the governments are supposed to serve. Simple things that can make them feel ASEAN have been outstanding for years. As usual, it is felt, it is big business that is getting the lion’s share of the integration attention.

If this distance between what the people feel – or not feel – and the high level integration process continues the ASEAN community will be nothing but hyperbole.

Simple things must be done. These have been outstanding for such a long time that people wonder if ASEAN leaders are bothered about them. Make it easier for them to travel. Make them recognise things they have in common such as with food. Teach ASEAN history. Organise internship programmes for university students and for vocational and technical trainees.

So many have been suggested so many times in so many reports. If by the end of its first year the ASEAN community does not see these simple things materialising, its future development will be bleak. No point talking about a milestone in a process if the process at the people level does not move.

The 27th ASEAN summit ended last Sunday with a lofty declaration full of many promises. The ASEAN 2025 document pushes out much of the unfinished business while being loaded with some highly qualitative objectives for the next 10 years.

If with the quantitative ASEAN falls short, how will it do with the qualitative? There was a great sense of urgency running into the end of 2015. Now that’s over, however what has been achieved is felt and perceived, is there going to be a similar drive now that there are 10 years to play with?

Every ASEAN summit promises something. This last one of course the most. About community. After the song and dance, and the lofty declarations and linking of arms, ASEAN decamps. Everyone goes home. It feels like the morning after the night before.

But there is so much work to be done. There must be continued drive. Not just Laos, the next chair of ASEAN.

All member states. Association and community. High level and people-centric. Official and private. Relaxed and delirious. Developed and much less developed. Politically stable and not so stable. Closer to China and closer to the US.

There are always two parts to ASEAN. Diversity is a challenge. Convergence does not come of itself. The community must not have a split personality.

Where the differences have been most pointed is with regard to China’s claim to almost all of the South China Sea. ASEAN Foreign Ministers failed to issue a joint communique for the first time in July 2012, exposing the fissures in the association on the matter. What will happen in 2016 when Laos takes the chair?

The most work has to be done where the greatest differences exist. The South China Sea is one such area. The foreign ministries have to work to fashion what can be a common position, and not just rush in and out of negotiations. Who is taking the lead, many people wonder.

So much work remains to be done. So many differences remain among member states. Without drive and leadership ASEAN will not get anywhere just because the ASEAN community has been inaugurated. ASEAN can have no morning after the night before.

Tan Sri Munir Majid, chairman of Bank Muamalat and visiting senior fellow at LSE Ideas (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy), is also chairman of CIMB ASEAN Research Institute.

Congratulations Zunar

November 25, 2015

Congratulations Zunar

by Kean Wong

Sapuman -Zunar


For a well-travelled Malaysian zipping between London, Cambridge, Kuala Lumpur, Sydney, Washington DC and New York, cartoonist Zunar belies his reputation as a hell-raiser activist, always sketching our homeland in black and white, the splashes of colour only to accentuate the differences he has with the ruling Barisan Nasional.

Instead of his apparently fearsome reputation which has earned him a record nine charges for sedition and a possible 43 years in prison, Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque is mild-mannered, a little droll, and funny in the way Malaysian ministers are not.

Like his satirical cartoons that often harshly portray a nation on the skids, the symmetry of culprits making off with glittering loot as the rakyat go under, the past week had a similar balance of scenes as US President Barack Obama thrilled his Malaysian hosts in Kuala Lumpur while Zunar made his case for urgent Malaysian reforms to the US Senate’s Human Rights Caucus in Washington DC and the US Mission to the United Nations in New York.

As Zunar claimed again last night in his speech in New York when receiving this year’s top media freedom prize from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), “the government of Malaysia is a cartoon government – a government of the cartoon, by the cartoon, for the cartoon.”

“For asking people to laugh at the government, I was handcuffed, detained, thrown into the lock up,” he told a slice of Manhattan’s moneyed elite at the glittering black-tie gala in the storied Waldorf Astoria, which raised US$2 million (RM8.43 million) for the CPJ’s work.

Congrats Zunar

“But I kept laughing and encouraging people to laugh with me. Why? Because laughter is the best form of protest. My mission is to fight through cartoon.”

“Why pinch when you can punch? People need to know the truth and I will continue to fight through my cartoons. I want to give a clear message to the aggressors – they can ban my cartoons, they can ban my books, but they cannot ban my mind,” the political cartoonist said, echoing the points he’s been making in the past few weeks in London, Sydney and Washington DC.

In Sydney the previous week, Zunar had regaled the big crowd of Malaysians and Australians at the state Parliament how the corruption scandals that have rocked Malaysia inform his arresting caricatures, his trials of satire, and his outrageously popular female protagonist’s helmet-haired symmetry, consumed in flights of fantasy money and jewels.

Obama at Taylors University

Although he insists that Malaysia has become a “kartunation”, “run by kartuns for kartuns,” many Malaysians demurred with that last part, preferring they were left out of an increasingly melancholy joke’s punchline.

For his hosts the Sydney MPs Jamie Parker and Jenny Leong, they were bemused and perhaps a little incredulous that a colonial-era law like the Sedition Act was still widely used to silence critics of a government in a proudly independent Southeast Asian nation.

Leong, who explained her father was originally from Sibu but never returned after his studies in Adelaide, welcomed Zunar to “a nation, a Parliament that celebrates the freedom of expression”.

The Australia Director of New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), Elaine Pearson, also took the lectern to congratulate Zunar for his “courage in cartooning” and for being awarded HRW’s Hellman/Hammett grant this year, which helps him work and publish at a time when his books are banned and whole print runs are confiscated in the thousands of copies in Malaysia.

In Washington DC in the past several days, Zunar caught up with his growing legion of friends and fans in the epicentre of America’s political cartooning community like Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Matt Wuerker of Politico.

For a town obsessed with China and its impact on the Asian neighbourhood now unsettled by apparently waning American power, Zunar’s interventions were effectively rendered in forums on Capitol Hill and media like The Washington Post.

While President Obama made plain the key role Malaysia (and Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Najib Razak) plays in America’s plans coping with a rising China asserting itself across the region – in what some in Washington agreed was a “blingtastic success” among young people in Manila and Kuala Lumpur, thanks partly to Obama’s fable-like story of an Indonesian childhood – Zunar on the other side of the world stubbornly kept the stage curtains a little askew, to highlight what the cartoonist alleges was the misleading golf game indulged in at top levels.

Like many Americans following the clampdown on human rights in Malaysia, detailed in last month’s HRW report ‘Creating a Culture of Fear: the Criminalisation of Peaceful Expression in Malaysia’, Matt Wuerker is not amused.

“Sadly, Zunar’s case doesn’t surprise me,” said the softly spoken Wuerker, ahead of Zunar’s arrival in Washington.“It’s entirely too common the response to cartoons and satire in so many parts of the world today. In some sense, it’s a compliment to irascible cartoonists like Zunar. It just demonstrates the power and effectiveness their work.

“At the same time the response by a government that uses threats, lawsuits and other forms of intimidation to try silence dissent just demonstrates a weakness and fragility of their hold on power. Governments that are strong, popular and enjoy the support of their people have nothing to fear from a little ridicule and a few cartoons. Yes, I’m blessed to live in a part of the world where people can take a joke.”

For a Malaysian like Zunar facing jail time – and who has arguably cut through the fog of indifference about Malaysia in noisy power centres like Washington with little more than his starkly drawn portraits of a troubled nation and a rude sense of humour – it’s no joke.

Obama’s Visit–The Sheer Hypocrisy of it all

November 25, 2015

Obama’s Visit–The Sheer Hypocrisy of it all

by Azmi Sharom

Agong and Obama

Issues of good governance, democracy and human rights will always be low on the agenda of any country when dealing in foreign affairs.

THE first American president to visit us was Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) in the 1960s. His reasons for visiting were probably the same as President Barack Obama’s: security (although in those days it was about the “threat” of Vietnam and the feared domino effect of nations falling under the thrall of Communism, whereas now it’s Islamic State) and economy (although then it was probably more about ensuring we keep on supplying tin and rubber whereas now it’s about keeping us from being too influenced by China).

Whenever the President of the United States visits another country, he is bound to make waves of some sort. According to oral history (i.e. my mum and dad), when LBJ came here all sorts of craziness ensued, like the inexplicable chopping-down of strategic trees; as though some renegade monkey was going to throw himself at the presidential convoy.

Our Prime Minister at the time, Tunku Abdul Rahman, wasn’t too fussed about the visit, saying that Johnson needn’t have come at all.

 Obama’s visit wasn’t quite as colourful, with security measures being limited to thousands of guns and the closing of the Federal Highway (no more monkeys in KL) and all our leaders expectedly excited and giddy.

What I found interesting about Mr Obama’s trip is his consistent request to meet with “the youth” and civil society. He did it the last time he was here and he did it again this time.

This is all well and good; he’s quite a charming, intelligent fellow and he says soothing things. So what if he gave us a couple of hours of traffic hell (in this sense, the American Presidency is fair for he treats his citizens and foreigners alike: I have been reliably informed that whenever Obama visits his favourite restaurant in Malibu, the whole town is gridlocked by security measures. What, you can’t do take away, Barack?).

Anyway, I see no harm in all these meetings. But then neither do I see any good. At least not any real and lasting good, apart from perhaps the thrill of meeting one of the most powerful people on earth and having him say things that match your own world view.

The world of social media went a bit loopy when a young man at the “town hall meeting” with youths asked the President to raise issues of good governance with our Prime Minister, to which he replied that he would. And maybe he did, but at the end of the day, so what?

Frankly that’s all he will do, a bit of lip service, because issues of good governance, democracy and human rights will always be low on the agenda of any country when dealing in international affairs. They may make a big song and dance about it, but they don’t really care.

And before you accuse me of anti-Americanism, I believe this applies to most, if not all, countries. The Americans like us because we appear to be hard in the so-called “war on terror”.

They need us, not because we are such a huge trading partner, but because they want us on their side (by way of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement) in the economic battles that they have been, and will be, continuing to fight against China.

We see this behaviour of putting self-interest over any sort of serious stand on principle happening again and again. Why is it that the United Nations Security Council did nothing when Saddam Hussein massacred thousands of Kurds using chemical weapons, but took hurried military action when he invaded Kuwait?

Perhaps it is because at the time of the Kurdish genocide, Saddam was fighting Iran which was deemed by some, at least, as the great enemy. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, even if he is a genocidal butcher.

It is trite to mention the hypocrisies abound in international relations. Anyone with the vaguest interest in world affairs can see it. To expect any less is naïve.

Besides, there is another danger of having a big power like the US mess around with our national problems. If they do so, it will be all too easy for the rabid so-called nationalists amongst us to scream that foreign intervention is leading to loss of sovereignty and national pride. Their “patriotism” will muddy the waters, adding issues to confuse people when there need not be any added issues at all.

azmi sharom

The point of this article is this – for those of us who want to create a nation with true democracy and respect for human rights, we’re on our own folks.



Japan and China step up rivalry over ASEAN infrastructure contracts

November 24, 2015

Japan and China step rivalry over ASEAN infrastructure contracts

by Ben Bland in Kuala Lumpur 11/23/2015

ASEAN's Time

China and Japan are stepping up their battle for strategic infrastructure projects in Southeast Asia amid rising economic competition and tensions over maritime disputes.

At an annual summit of Asia-Pacific leaders in Kuala Lumpur this weekend, China pledged to add another $10bn to its growing pool of infrastructure lending in Southeast Asia, while Japan vowed to halve the time it takes to approve infrastructure loans and take on more financial risk.

China recently beat Japan to win a $5bn high-speed rail project in Indonesia on the back of no-strings financing that did not require the Indonesian government to act as guarantor.

China and Japan are going head to head to secure other high-speed rail projects, including one linking Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, as well as bidding against each other for ports, power stations and other infrastructure deals across this fast-growing region.

Shinzo Abe, Japan’s Prime Minister, said in a speech that Japan’s official development assistance must keep pace with the speed of change in Asia.

Xi and Abe with Jokowi

“We will drastically reduce the time needed for going through the procedures for ODA loans by as much as one and a half years compared with the current system,” he said, promising a significant reduction from the current average processing time of three years. We will also revise the current practice of requiring without exception recipient governments’ payment guarantees.”

A senior Japanese diplomat said that Tokyo had to become more “expeditious” in executing infrastructure projects in Asia, rather than simply highlighting that it has a better record than China in terms of quality, safety and social and environmental protection.

Beijing also pledged to accelerate and deepen its economic co-operation in Southeast Asia with Premier Li Keqiang promising $10bn of new loans for infrastructure as well as an increase in grants to the region’s less developed nations.

Sale of 1MDB Power Assets to China

China rescues Najib Razak from 1MDB scandal

While China clashes at sea with Japan and some Southeast Asian nations including Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, Beijing and its rivals are competing to build alternative spheres of economic influence.

Malaysia, Vietnam, Japan and the US were among 12 nations that recently signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pact that excludes China and is designed to promote a rules-based trading and investment system in the region.

Beijing has backed a rival trade deal with Southeast Asia, called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership,  that has fewer requirements for economic liberalisation.  But hopes to conclude RCEP by the end of the year received a blow on Sunday when Malaysia, which is chairing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, said that negotiations would not be concluded until next year because of the “challenges faced”.

Xi Jinping, China’s President, made an implicit criticism of the TPP on Wednesday when he warned at another regional forum in Manila that “with various new regional free trade frameworks cropping up, fragmentation is becoming a concern”. Despite Beijing’s concerns, since the TPP was agreed last month other Southeast Asian nations including Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand have said they are interested in joining.

“With the TPP now finally coming to fruition, it increasingly seems like it is the best game in town in terms of driving economic development,” said a minister from one of the Southeast Asian nations keen to sign up. “But given the state of our economy and the fact that the existing TPP participants must ratify the deal first, it will take several years before we can join.”

Barack Obama, US President, welcomed the new interest in the TPP from Southeast Asian nations, claiming that the pact would “write the rules for trade in the Asia Pacific for decades to come”, promoting the resolution of economic disputes through dialogue rather than “bullying or coercion”.