2018 in Environmental Review for Southeast Asia


November 10, 2018

By: Gregory McCann

ttps://www.asiasentinel.com/society/2018-environmental-review-southeast-asia/

As 2018 comes to a close it is worth taking a look at the environmental trends throughout the year, with a special emphasis on those within the last six months or so, in order to gain an understanding of what has been happening to this region’s natural heritage and so that we might know what to look for in 2019—and how to address the upcoming challenges.

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A lloincloth-clad tribesmen blockading blockading logging roads in Malaysian Borneo.

While we can say that a lot has been happening everywhere, and this is especially true for Malaysia. The country produces durian that Chinese consumers covet. This means rain forests that are currently home to tigers are being converted into plantations so that more and more of the spiky, pungent fruit can be sold to China. That means bad environmental news, with China the driver. Furthermore, clearing forests will drastically reduce the number of pollinators such as bats and other wild animals, which will in turn lower the durian’s quality.

Another fruit—palm oil—is almost always the whipping boy for conservation problems in Malaysia (and beyond), however, the country is making headway in its own sustainable certification program, which attempts to incorporate Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESAs) into development blueprints across Malaysian Borneo. Nonetheless, huge development projects in Peninsular Malaysia are pushing the environment to the breaking point, with gargantuan Chinese-funded residential projects such as Forest City across the strait from Singapore serving as a striking case in point.

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However, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad recently shut down several Chinese Belt and Road projects.  Malaysia also wants to ban importing plastic waste, as well as single-use plastic straws. Nonetheless, serious problems remain. Even without the durians-to-China issue, tiger numbers are tumbling fast, scenic Langkawi island is coming under so much stress that it may lose its Unesco status, while in Sarawak the forest-dwelling Penan indigenous group continue to block bulldozers and fight for their traditional lands.

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Tabin Wildlife Reserve is located in the eastern part of Sabah, Malaysia

However, a rehabilitated Bornean orangutan was successfully rewilded in Sabah’s Tabin Wildlife Sanctuary, the first orangutan to fully return to the forest after such a long spell in captivity and rehabilitation, and a clouded leopard was sighted within the vicinity of a local hospital.

Across the Strait in Indonesia ecological issues are festering as well. While a new species of songbird has been identified on Rote Island, five other bird species have lost their protected status. The endemic Sumatran laughing thrush is fast disappearing, while the Helmeted Hornbill is relentlessly persecuted in Indonesia. The caged bird trade is bringing many species to the brink of extinction in the archipelago, and biologists say many forests where they work are becoming increasingly “quiet.”

Forest fires raged in South Sumatra and Riau provinces in 2018, and Chinese developers are stubbornly pushing ahead with a hydroelectric dam in the , home to the rarest species of orangutan in the world. The Critically Endangered Sumatra rhinoceros is still in big trouble but there is a movement on to save it, while a pregnant Sumatran tigress was caught and died in a pig trap in Riau.

Like Malaysia, Indonesia has a major palm oil problem, but the country’s anti-graft department says it’s ready to take action against transgressors who are felling natural forest and breaking other laws. Sadly, the Bali government wants to build an elevated highway right on top of some of its last undeveloped sandy beaches. The small volcanic island of Krakatoa in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra has spewed lava and ash this year.   Widespread deforestation, poaching, overfishing, and plastic pollution has been taking over this island nation. Indonesian Presidential contender Prabowo has said that if he is elected to office he will review China’s Belt and Road plans, which could include a cancellation of the , and a court in Aceh recently threw down its stiffest penalty to date for two men caught trying to sell a tiger pelt.

Asia Sentinel recently reported on the surprising number of wildlife to be found in Singapore today. Thailand also received high environmental marks in a recent Asia Sentinel critique, however, Thai-language media recently uncovered a story about a Vietnamese national caught with tiger bones in the kingdom— particularly worrying report as Vietnamese poachers are among the most tenacious in Asia.

Making matters worse, a new and improved road through Kaeng Krachan National Park will likely lead to greater disturbance to the forest’s wildlife, while a few provinces to the north a Burmese national gunned down a binturong. There is rising sentiment to build a Kra Isthmus Canal in Thailand. A large crocodile was caught off the Krabi coast, a whale shark was recently spotted of Koh Racha, and local conservationists have thus far succeeded in fending off a new marina development project in Phuket. However, the deluge of Chinese tourists into the kingdom is pushing Thailand to its breaking point, and it was largely Chinese tourists who are responsible for the closing of Maya Bay in Koh Phi Phi, which remains closed indefinitely so that it can recover.

In Laos, the Nam Theun 2 Dam has been such a disaster that its main financer, the World Bank, has thrown in the towel and walked away.  In Dead in the Water: Global Lessons from the World Bank’s Hydropower Project in Laos contributing author Glenn Hunt remarks: “For one of the pillars that was supposed to be the primary source of income, it’s been an unmitigated disaster.” With about 140 dams either under construction or on the drawing board in its quest to be the “battery of Asia,” Laos faces the potential for most disasters and large-scale environmental and social degradation in a country that has already lost its wild tigers, leopards and many other species.

Despite the tragedy that unfolded in Attapeu province when a large dam collapsed, Laos remains bullish about constructing more dams. And the dam-building frenzy is harming the environment and wildlife all around the country. And while a recent Guardian write-up describing the fantastic-look Nam Et-Phou Luey ecotourism program up in the north of the country describes a healthy tiger population in this region, perhaps the author was given old data.

Wild elephants are reportedly being skinned alive in Myanmar to satisfy a new Chinese demand—for “blood beads,” which are blood-filled chunks of elephant fat. The previous link provides a window into some twisted tastes: “The online trader wants his customers to know the elephant was skinned quickly, with blood still fresh in its veins.” Chinese demand for elephant skin used in bags in jewelry was already shocking, but things can always get worse when it comes to wildlife.

But in more uplifting news from the country, Irrawaddy dolphins are being given greater protection, and the government is also cracking down on illegal wildlife trade in the city of Yangon.

Taking note of how poorly elephants working in tourism are treated across Asia, Vietnam has launched the region’s first “ethical elephant experience.” The country has also taken an interest in seeing that its shrimp farming industry become more sustainable, while the government also recently signed a deal with the EU that promises a reduction in illegal logging (though some in neighboring Cambodia have serious doubts about this). We reported earlier this year that Vietnam’s wildlife is in rough shape, and things haven’t taken much of a turn for the better since.

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Virachey National Park—A major tourist attraction in Cambodia

And finally, Cambodia.  A recent camera-trap check in Virachey National Park so delighted the Ministry of Environment that he shared some of the photos on their Facebook page; even the Thai media took notice of the results. Asia Sentinel reported earlier this year that Cambodia is probably the last hope for Indochina’s wildlife, and this still holds true, despite the fact that nearly 110,000 snares were found in a single national park. A man was recently killed by a wild boar near the Cardamom Mountains, while Kratie province is cracking down on illegal mining, and at the same time the central government is demanding that villagers who grabbed national park land return it.

In other news from the region, the Maubere tribe of Timor-Leste is bringing back ancient customary laws to help protect its forests, seas, and coastline. Chinese demand for logs is wiping out the forests of the Solomon Islands. India is losing tigers and elephants, while two elephants were struck by a train and killed in Sri Lanka.

As always, China casts a menacing shadow over Southeast Asia, and nowhere is this more clear than on the Mekong River and in the South China Sea. The region, with the help of the US and Japan, must find a way to manage Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and beyond, and the some of the numerous dams that it has planned for the region have to be cancelled or scaled down.

Beyond that, Chinese citizens have to be educated about wildlife product consumption, including shark fins, tiger parts, bear gallbladder, elephant skin and blood, and much more, which have no known scientific value. And in a shocking and disturbing announcement,  China has said that it will lift its decades-old ban on the trading of tiger parts and rhino horn, a move that will almost certainly put these species in greater danger.  Or else one of the most biologically rich regions of the world loses everything that made it so special.

Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator of Habitat ID, and the author of Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor. You can support his conservation projects in Cambodia and Sumatra here.

Welcome to Malaysia’s Brave New World


November 5, 2018

Welcome to Malaysia’s Brave New World

by: John Berthelsen

https://www.asiasentinel.com/econ-business/malaysia-brave-new-world/

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“Euphoria is dying off and bodies like Bersih, he continued, have started criticizing the new government. Many from civil society are keeping silent. “I suppose the saving grace is that Najib and his cohorts are gone. But that can’t console people forever.”_- J. Berthelsen

Six months into the rule of Malaysia’s new reform government, the bloom has started to fade as the Pakatan Harapan coalition attracts growing criticism while it seeks to find its feet against the political and economic debris left by the outgoing Barisan Nasional, driven from power on May 9 after six-plus decades in office.

The problems the government faces were starkly outlined on Nov. 1 by Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng in a marathon 14,000 word speech outlining the 2019 budget, in which he stated that the previous government, which he characterized as “kleptocratic,” had understated debt and liabilities by nearly 40 percent, rising to a stunning RM1.05 trillion (US$256.8 billion) in an effort to hide corruption, and that debts from the scandal-scarred 1Malaysia Development Bhd development fund could total as much as RM43.9 billion, not including RM7 billion in interest secretly paid on 1MDB debts using taxpayer money illegally.

To Malaysia’s credit, the frighteningly poisonous racial equation, in which ethnic Malays make up about half the population, the Chinese 23 percent and Indians 7 percent, with the rest split between expatriates and bumiputera tribes in East Malaysia, seems to have cooled markedly. The previous government’s attempt to use fundamentalists Islam to pound minorities has largely ceased although UMNO and the fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia continue to attempt to fan the flames. It remains to be seen what strains there are between the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party, Mahathir’s Parti Bersatu Pribumi, and Anwar Ibrahim’s moderate, urban Malay Parti Keadilan Rakyat – and what internal strains there are inside PKR.

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The country is faced with a long series of monumental tasks – rebuilding a judiciary that was thoroughly corrupted by the previous government’s 61 years in power. The education system is a shamble, built on Malay privilege instead of academic achievement.  Lim called attention to educational shortcomings with a long series of measures allocating funds to lower-income students, upgrading failing schools and educational infrastructure, training and vocational education programs. Other sources say the government is being hamstrung to a certain extent by a civil service loyal to the previous government.

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A series of murders including that in 2006 of Mongolian translator and party girl Altantuya Shaariibuu, AMBank founder Hussain Najadi and prosecutor Kevin Morais (pic above), all believed to be at the hands of high government officials, remain to be solved or even looked into.

The new government, caught by circumstances, has compounded its problems by campaigning against a deeply unpopular Goods and Services Tax (GST) implemented by the government of former Prime Minister Najib Razak, and then actually repealing it once in office, leaving a gigantic hole in government revenues.

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‘–at the same time it has agreed to go along with Mahahir’s ill-conceived hobby horse, another national car project.

…That is despite 30-odd years of his previous ill-conceived hobby horse, the Proton national car, which cost the treasury billions of ringgit and billions more to consumers in lost opportunity costs from paying through the nose for heavily tariffed competitors. “- J. Berthelsen

It is seeking to fill the hole with a variety of piecemeal taxes – at the same time it has agreed to go along with Mahahir’s ill-conceived hobby horse, another national car project. That is despite 30-odd years of his previous ill-conceived hobby horse, the Proton national car, which cost the treasury billions of ringgit and billions more to consumers in lost opportunity costs from paying through the nose for heavily tariffed competitors.

“There was a lot of euphoria when Pakatan won the elections, but expectations were also very high,” said a prominent business source in Kuala Lumpur. “They have a small window. If they don’t deliver, that window will start closing.  But unfortunately, politicians will be politicians. They are inexperienced, and the euphoria is wearing off. So far, we have had no exciting government programs. New Malaysia is like Old Malaysia, minus Najib Razak and his 40 thieves.”

Najib and his wife Rosmah Mansor have both been arrested and are expected to go on trial next year. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been confiscated by Malaysian and US authorities although hundreds of millions more, perhaps billions, remain outside he government grasp.  Jewelry, handbags, watches, cash and other riches belonging to Rosmah that have been confiscated total at least US$273 million, putting her in a league even above Imelda Marcos, the wife of the late Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos, who held the public record for corruption. It remains to be seen if the Najibs surpass it.

The businessman’s assessment could be a bit pessimistic.  The government has abolished with capital punishment and the press appears to remain largely free despite reluctance on the part of the government to abolish a “fake news” bill pushed through at the last minute by the previous administration in an effort to muzzle pre-election critics.

But a sedition act used against the previous government’s foes remains on the books and has been used against critics. Civic organizations including Suaram have called attention to government inactions on a variety of rights issues. There is also concern on the part of the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections, known as Bersih, and others that MPs from the thoroughly disgraced United Malays National Organization are migrating to Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, headed by once and current Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, diluting the reformist zeal of the Pakatan Harapan coalition.  Although as many as 40 UMNO MPs are said to be contemplating such a move, Mahathir said they would be vetted individually and known crooks would be kept out.

But, said Kim Quek, a spokesman for opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat in an email, “I foresee mounting tension when UMNO MPs slip into Bersatu, one after another quietly, causing endless suspicion…and mounting public disapproval.”

The headwinds outlined by Finance Minister Lim paint a pessimistic picture for both business and government. With the Trump administration cracking down on trade in Washington, DC, and the global economy beginning to slow, the budget, at a record RM314.6 billion, is forecast to run 3.7 percent of GDP in the red with economic growth expected to slow to 4.8 percent from 5.9 percent in 2017.  The ringgit, Malaysia’s currency, has fallen by 10 percent against the US dollar, in line with troubles across the world as interest rates rise in the United States, causing a flight out of emerging markets.

Lim, in his speech, set out a series of measures designed to help business and vowed to get government out of commerce, saying “clearly, government owned companies have been competing directly with private companies in non-strategic sectors. The outcome was the apparent ‘crowding out’ of private sector investments where private companies are unable to grow and compete.”

The private sector, he said, must lead, and the finance ministry is expected to establish a task force designed to evaluate and reduce duplication of functions,  a ray of hope that the country’s notorious rent-seeking government-linked companies, which funneled millions from inflated contracts to UMNO, could be cut back and its even more notorious cronyism could be reduced.

“Going forward, the government will focus its expenditure and investments only in strategic sectors and areas where the markets are unable to meet the needs of the people,” he said..

Nonetheless, business investment remains lackluster while the sector tries to figure out which way the government is going to go.

“Malaysia will undoubtedly be affected by the US-China trade war given that both these countries are among our top three trading partners,” Lim said in his budget speech. Exports remain a significant driver of the economy, particularly including electronics, oil and gas and palm oil.

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Comeback kids: Like Dr M, other political figures have had second and even third acts during their careers, including (from left) Netanyahu, Abe, Berlusconi and Churchill    

Leadership remains somewhat unsettled, with Mahathir, at 93 the world’s oldest government leader, committed to staying for two years after the formation of the government. Anwar Ibrahim, now 71, has been waiting in the wing for decades, from the time when he was Mahathir’s chosen successor only to be fired and jailed after disagreements in 1998. Although he said he would study abroad and recover from his most recent imprisonment, he forced a by-election to return to parliament a few weeks ago, disconcerting some of his followers, who accused him of acting too quickly.

In the meantime, two of Anwar’s deputies – Mohamad Azmin Ali, the Minister of Economic Affairs, and Rafizi Ramli, the Parti Keadilan general secretary,  are staging their own internecine squabble to become deputy party leader with an eye to succeeding Anwar, raising concerns over party – and coalition – unity.  Pakatan Harapan remains a work in progress. Azmin is said to be aligned with Mahathir, Rafizi with Anwar.

That raises the spectre of Mahathir and Anwar continuing to try to do in each other despite public pledges of amity, including Mahathir campaigning for Anwar in the Port Dickson by-election that brought him back into the parliament.

“The Harapan guys thought that since they couldn’t get worse than Najib, people would continue to support them,” another source said. “They forget that there will always be alternatives; if not in the next five years, then in the next 10 maybe.  Inflation is creeping up; wages have not gone up; new taxes are being introduced and people still struggle to put food on the table. Business is slow; businessmen are not re-investing as they are unsure of this government’s policies.”

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Award winning Journalist John Berthelsen

Euphoria is dying off and bodies like Bersih, he continued, have started criticizing the new government. Many from civil society are keeping silent. “I suppose the saving grace is that Najib and his cohorts are gone. But that can’t console people forever.”

Growing Disaster of Trump’s Foreign Policy


October 15, 2018

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Growing Disaster of  Trump’s Foreign Policy

by: Philip Bowring

https://www.asiasentinel.com

The developing world is being slow to wake up to the potentially devastating consequences of a key aspect of US President Donald Trump’s foreign policies, particularly now that that John Bolton and his strident “f… the world” views have become so important.

News almost everywhere is dominated by the display of politics and hypocrisy accompanying the appointment of a member of the US Supreme Court, a supposed judicial appointment marred by tawdry performance on all sides. One needs to ask why this display should concern a world simultaneously confronting three frighteningly serious economic issues.

The first is the long-needed rise in interest rates which is necessary but unsettling after so long a period of cheap money, which has boosted asset prices more than economies. The second is Trump’s trade war. Its scope has narrowed with deals with Mexico, Canada and Korea that change the trade picture very little but provide the president with necessary political cover. But the war against China is ever more intense, with unpredictable consequences for world trade generally and Asian trade in particular.

The third however could prove as important as the other two. That is the US attempt to shut down Iran’s sales of oil. The mind boggles at how self-defeating this policy is to US global interests. The main beneficiary is Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which is not only reaping billions of dollars but becoming an even more influential player in the global oil market. Meanwhile US relations are growing poisonous with Europe, which refuses to go along with Trump’s agenda and is sticking with its nuclear deal with Iran. Then there is India, whose friendship the US badly needs if it is not to cede supremacy in Asia to China. It not only needs Iranian oil but has long seen Iran as an informal ally for influence in the Indian ocean, and countering China’s influence via its huge investments in Pakistan roads and ports.

Trump’s Iran threats have added US$15-20 a barrel to the price of oil, and a further rise to US$100 a barrel is widely forecast. The strains this is placing on the trade balances of the likes of India, the Philippines and Indonesia, not to mention an already troubled Turkey and countries in Latin America, has already shown up in steep falls in currencies and stock markets throughout the developing world, and has had an outsized impact on interest rates. As of now it seems unlikely to spark a major crisis, but if oil hits US$100 plus, there is no knowing the consequences.

 

As it is, the price increase is already limiting the room for the major east Asian importers China, Japan, South Korea, to spur domestic demand to offset weakness from the trade wars.

Trump has been complaining about the oil price rise, which is also hitting consumers, but he has only himself to blame for a policy towards Iran which has only two beneficiaries apart from Russia: Israel and Saudi Arabia. The former has had nuclear weapons for decades without being sanctioned by anyone.

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Now Trump is adding to support for a state which is not only self-evidently expansionist but is now overtly racist by law as well as practice. Thanks to US protection 5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are under Israel’s iron fist, which also treats the 1.7 million Arabs in Israel as second-class citizens.

The other beneficiary is Saudi Arabia whose vicious war in Yemen is causing as many casualties as in Syria. Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has stirred up the Gulf while his promises of modernizing the country are largely for overseas consumption. A desert empire built by warrior King Ibn Saud is unlikely to last long if the price of oil falls back to US$40 and stays there. Such are the few friends of Trump’s America. No wonder the world laughs as well as cries and treats the US claim to be defender of liberty and democracy as a sham.

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It is reminder too of how childish the US can be – hardly the sign of a superpower with staying power. It took it 20 years to get over its loss of the Vietnam war. Its view of Iran is still driven by the need for revenge nearly 40 years after the 1979 overthrow of the Shah and the humiliation of the failure of its Tehran hostage mission. It is also a US view which conveniently forgets the CIA-organized coup against the elected secular nationalist Dr Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953, which enabled the Shah to impose a royal rule which became increasingly unpopular, leading to the 1979 revolution.

And it forgets US behind-the-scenes encouragement of the invasion of Iran by Saddam Hussein (later to become evil incarnate) which solidified the rule of the clergy under Ayatollah Khomeini.

Longer term, the biggest damage to the US from its Iran fixation will be to drive others away from using the US dollar. Dependence on that currency for trading and settlement has enabled the US to make it difficult for countries to buy Iranian oil without incurring US reprisals. US policies are already beginning to push countries to use other currencies such as the euro and yuan, but for now the mechanisms are poorly developed and oil majors also fear US reprisals in other ways.

But the more the wider world loathes US arrogance, the more it will seek alternatives to allying with a country which is untrustworthy as well as arrogant. Meanwhile those with smart ways around the sanctions will make a lot of money.

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In Asia, there one country which is benefiting from Trump’s Iran policy: Malaysia. He cannot like the thought, but luckily for retreaded Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, for the time being revenues from the oil price are partly offsetting the coalition’s rash promise to voters to abolish the Goods and Services Tax and bring in the narrower-based Sales and Services tax. Revenue from this source has been cut in half. As the Asian Development Bank in its mid-year update of the Asian Development Outlook points out, Malaysia’s goal of reducing reliance on commodity prices for revenue has “received a major setback,” endangering fiscal health unless new sources of revenue can be found.

Book Review: The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam


October 14, 2108

By: John Berthelsen

https://www.asiasentinel.com/book-review/the-road-not-taken-edward-lansdale-and-the-american-tragedy-in-vietnam/

There was a time when Edward Lansdale was arguably the most famous American in Asia, ostensibly the model for the hero of the novel “The Ugly American” by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer and widely thought of – erroneously – as the protagonist of Graham Greene’s novel “The Quiet American,” both books about a US aid official in a war-torn Southeast Asian country, in Greene’s case Vietnam.

Today, Lansdale, who died in 1987, is largely forgotten. But during the 1950s and 1960s, he was a legend, a man who literally single-handedly turned around the Philippines, ending the Communist Hukbalahap revolution and installing as president Ramon Magsaysay, an incorruptible and effective leader in a shambolic country.  Purportedly an officer with the US Air Force, he was actually on a kind of permanent loan to the Central Intelligence Agency.

As Max Boot writes in this impressive, extremely well-researched biography, the decisions  by generations of American planners stretching from the Kennedys to Richard Nixon to ignore Lansdale’s advice on how to handle wars of rebellion and insurrection were beyond tragedy. Lansdale’s advice, which worked in the Philippines, was to combine clever propaganda with a dedication to democracy, of making sure that all levels of society had a stake in its success, and finding credible local political figures to work with.

It wasn’t just the Road Not Taken, the title of Boot’s 713-page history. Refusal to heed Lansdale resulted in what would arguably be the loss of Vietnam and the death of 2.5 million Vietnamese along with 56,000 Americans who should never have been there in the first place and who, once there,  did absolutely everything wrong.

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After his triumph in the Philippines, Lansdale was posted to Vietnam, where he took on the task of shepherding a truncated country in chaos after partition following the departure of the French, as a million Catholics fled the north. He became mentor to Ngo Dinh Diem, wreaking order out of the disarray and putting South Vietnam, as it was known, on what appeared to be a solid footing before he returned to the US in 1956

That was pretty much the end of Edward Lansdale’s effectiveness. He was posted back to the United States as the Kennedys and the hawks took over.  A long procession of Americans who knew little of the country’s history and cared less decided that Diem was a liability, saddled as he was with his autocratic brother and the brother’s harridan wife Madam Nhu. On Oct 31, 1963, with the Kennedys’ acquiescence, Diem and his brother were murdered in an armored personnel carrier.

On that same day, ironically, Lansdale was officially retiring at the Pentagon. As Blow writes, “While colleagues were delivering flowery toasts and speeches in honor of Lansdale, (Defense Secretary) Robert McNamara walked in. And he kept on walking, striding purposefully forward, one polished wingtip after another, never looking at what was going on through his polished spectacles, much less stopping to join in the tributes to a man who had left behind a successful advertising career to devote the last 21 years of his life to his country’s service.”

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It was McNamara, of course, who was the architect of America’s descent into the folly of the Vietnam War.

Lansdale didn’t leave the service of his country. He was instead put in charge by the Kennedy brothers of attempting to oust Fidel Castro from Cuba, something Lansdale from the start said would be folly. He argued against the disastrous attempt by the Kennedys to invade Cuba, using CIA operatives and anti-Cuban exiles, which ended up one of the administration’s worst embarrassments.  Dubbed Operation Mongoose, the campaign against Castro was characterized by loony attempts to poison El Jefe, to lay dynamite charges in seashells near where Castro swam and other stupidities

Lansdale would be rehabilitated somewhat by Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson and would return to Vietnam to head pacification efforts in a country that already was too far gone to be saved. US troop levels climbed and continued to climb. Lansdale was looked upon as a woolly-headed liberal by most of the establishment in the country – and by the press establishment as well, with the disdain particularly full-throated by David Halberstam of the New York Times and other establishment press figures.  I was there at the time as a correspondent for Newsweek Magazine, and Lansdale was pretty much a shadow. Few ever went to see him. We all were too busy covering the war by that time although a few still believed in his attempts to mold the country into something other than sadly what it became – a killing ground.

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Of course, the folly of the war was never in doubt. And the bigger problem was how American foreign policy followed Vietnam down the rabbit hole.

”The key American shortcoming, in the early twenty-first century, as in the 1960s, was the inability to constructively guide the leaders of allied states in the direction desired by Washington. The Kennedy administration had seen a downward spiral into a hostile relationship with Ngo Dinh Diem after Lansdale’s return home at the end of 1956. Something similar happened with Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai and Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki under the Bush and Obama administrations. What was missing was a high-level American official who could influence those allies to take difficult steps such as fighting corruption without risking a blowup or backlash. Lansdale believed such tricky tasks could be accomplished by a ‘person who was selflessly dedicated to the ideal of man’s liberty, was sustained by spiritual principles of his own faith, was demonstrably sensitive to the felt needs of the people of a foreign culture and had earned their trust.’”

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Lansdale pulled it off twice. But reading Boot’s account, particularly of Vietnam, as official after official came and went, knowing nothing of the country and willfully refusing to learn while piling on the ammunition, is heartbreaking.

Boot was one of George Bush’s Vulcans, a right-wing neocon. But this book, written while he was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a remarkably level-headed and astute  account of how US foreign policy went wrong and how it remains tragically wrong today. The US remains tied up in Afghanistan 17 years after it entered, with no idea how to extricate itself. Nor is the country’s foreign policy any more nuanced or intelligent anywhere else.  With the current administration, which has emptied out the State Department, it is unlikely to get any better any time soon.

America First or America Isolated


September 24, 2018

By: Ramesh Thakor

https://www.asiasentinel.com/politics/america-first-or-america-isolated/

America’s Gangster in Trump’s White House

In a major policy speech on September 10, the United States National Security Advisor John Bolton (above) launched a virulent attack on the International Criminal Court (ICC). In his idiosyncratic view, “the largely unspoken, but always central, aim of its most vigorous supporters was to constrain the United States.”

The US will not join the ICC, will not cooperate with it, and will not provide it with any assistance. Instead, the US will “use any means necessary to protect” its citizens: “If the court comes after us” or Israel, Washington will ban ICC judges and prosecutors from entering the US, impose sanctions on ICC funds held in the US, and prosecute ICC personnel in US criminal courts. Countries that cooperate with the ICC in the investigation of Americans will risk losing access to US economic and military assistance and intelligence.

In other words, the US is now ready to deploy sanctions to coerce other countries into acting illegally. Remarkable.

“Strangle the ICC in Its Cradle”

Last November, ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda a preliminary investigation had established that “there is a reasonable basis to believe that war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed” in Afghanistan since July 2002 (when the ICC became operational) by Taliban, Afghan, and US forces. This paved the way for a formal investigation that can be launched only by the ICC judges. In a sign of nervousness and preemptive self-censorship, the ICC took over a decade to conduct the preliminary investigation into allegations of extrajudicial executions and intentional attacks against civilians.

The response from Bolton, then a private citizen who had never concealed his deep hostility to the U.N.-centric global multilateral order, was blunt. Any investigation of Americans by the ICC would be “a direct assault” on US national sovereignty. Having “done more than any other nation to instill in its civilian-controlled military a respect for human rights and the laws of war,” the US “should welcome the opportunity … to strangle the ICC in its cradle.” He added, “Even merely contesting its jurisdiction” would risk acknowledging “the ICC’s legitimacy.”

Unfortunately for Bolton, the ICC’s legitimacy has indeed been serially acknowledged and affirmed in several U.N. Security Council deliberations and decisions, with full US participation, regarding ICC cases.

Serious Problems with the ICC

The landscape of international criminal justice has changed dramatically at astonishing speed. In 1990, a tyrant could confidently commit atrocities inside sovereign borders with impunity. Today, there is still no guarantee of prosecution and accountability; but no brutish ruler can be confident of permanently escaping international justice. The certainty of impunity is gone. The ICC, activated only if national authorities are unable or unwilling to prosecute, functions as a court of last resort for ending impunity for the perpetrators of the most serious crimes of concern to the international community.

But Bolton’s criticisms cannot be dismissed totally, for there are serious problems with the ICC. Created in 1998, it has 123 members. The extensive membership is misleading. Several major powers and populous countries have not joined. The 70-plus non-members represent two-thirds of the world’s population and armed forces. Former US President Bill Clinton signed on in 2002 but did not submit the document for Senate ratification. In May 2002 President George W. Bush “un-signed” the US from the ICC.

The number of convictions to date has been very few, and the court’s processes have proven time-consuming and inordinately expensive. There have been repeated charges of the court disproportionately targeting Africans, dismissing African views, and jeopardizing delicate peace negotiations.

Although the threatened mass exodus as called for by the African Union on January 31, 2017, has not occurred, several countries have refused cooperation. For years Kenya has refused to hand over suspects to the ICC In October 2017, Burundi became the first country to withdraw from the court following a parliamentary vote a year earlier, and South Africa immediately announced it would follow suit—only for its High Court to rule the withdrawal unconstitutional and invalid. In October 2016, Russia withdrew its signature from the ICC statute.

The list of non-cooperating states includes India. At the third India–Africa Forum in New Delhi in October 2015, the 41 African heads of government and heads of state attending included Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who was under ICC indictment at the time. When he accepted India’s invitation, Bensouda’s office pointed to Security Council Resolution 1593 (2005), calling on all states to cooperate fully with the ICC.

“By arresting and surrendering ICC suspects,” the statement added, “India can contribute to the important goal of ending impunity for the world’s worst crimes.” India’s official response was that Resolution 1593 is not binding on ICC non-signatories. India was happy to comply with its “statutory international legal obligations” but not necessarily other directives. There is thus substance to Bolton’s charge: “We will let the ICC die on its own. After all, for all intents and purposes, the ICC is already dead to us.”

Powers given to the UN Security Council, to refer cases to the ICC and to defer cases already before the court, cross-infect judicial processes with the high politics of major powers. Giving a vote on these decisions to countries that are not ICC members is a violation of the principle of natural justice. And the absence of a democratically chosen and accountable world legislature and executive does raise valid questions about the legitimacy and viability of the ICC.

In no society in human history has a criminal justice system functioned without legislative and executive branches of government as essential prior props.

The ICC can also be faulted for institutional integrity. As documented by the respected Africa experts Julie Flint and Alex de Waal, its first prosecutor was morally compromised. The ICC did not distinguish itself in its handling of the allegations of sexual misconduct by him against a South African journalist trying to interview him in his hotel room in 2005. Rather surprisingly, the case has not attracted fresh attention in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

Image result for trump--the godfather of tribalismThe Donald Foreign Policy Doctrine

 

The US Is Cherry-Picking Global Norms

A year ago, citizen Bolton advised Trump to send Bensouda “a terse note: ‘Dear Madame Prosecutor: You are dead to us. Sincerely, the United States.’” On September 10, National Security Advisor Bolton in effect implemented his own advice. Parts of his speech (e.g. the ICC is a “European neocolonial enterprise”) descended into the theater of the absurd. But the thrust of his thesis is deeply sinister:

“The only deterrent to evil and atrocity is …‘the righteous might’ of the United States and its allies – a power that, perversely, could be threatened by the ICC’s vague definition of aggression crimes.” Coming from a senior official of the righteousness-free Trump administration, this merely proves this administration does irony without knowing it.

Intoxicated by the arrogance of power, neoconservative warriors seem to believe that vast US military superiority confers a matching moral superiority. Furthermore, the same combination of might and virtue empowers and entitles them to construct a world in which all others have to obey universal norms and rules, but Washington can opt out whenever, as often, and for as long, as it likes on cherry-picked global norms with respect to nuclear weapons, landmines, international criminal prosecution, climate change, and international trade regimes. In a world of inexorable power shifts, this equation just does not compute.

Ramesh Thakor is a former United Nations Assistant Secretary General. He wrote this article  for AsiaGlobal Online, a digital journal published by the Asia Global Institute (AGI) at The University of Hong Kong.  Reprinted by request.

Malaysia-China Relations: China Risks a Neocolonialist Tint


September 3, 2018

Malaysia-China Relations: China Risks a Neocolonialist  Tint

By: Toh Han Shih

https://www.asiasentinel.com/opinion/malaysia-china-risks-neocolonialist-tint/

Image result for Mahathir in China 2018

 

At the end of his August 17-21 China visit, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad announced that US$22 billion of Chinese-backed infrastructure projects in his country would be temporarily or permanently cancelled. The world will be watching China’s subsequent actions to see whether they will take on a neocolonialist tint.

The Belt and Road Initiative is Chinese President Xi Jinping’s grandiose plan to connect China with South, Central and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Russia, Africa, Latin America and Europe through infrastructure projects including roads, ports, airports and railways.

The broad geographic reach of the BRI, as it has come to be known, has raised questions whether China intends to use this project for imperial expansion. As Asia Sentinel has previously reported, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Pakistan have found themselves so deep in debt to the Chinese that there are fears political domination will follow. The risk is that Malaysia is on the same course.

The postponed Malaysian projects include an East Coast Rail Link and two energy pipelines.  Mahathir said told a Beijing press conference on Aug. 21 that the three would be “deferred until such time we can afford, and maybe we can reduce the cost also if we do it differently. It’s all about borrowing too much money which we can’t afford, can’t repay, and also we don’t need those projects for Malaysia at this moment.”

The vast majority of the funding for three — US$20 billion for the rail link and US$2 billion for the pipelines – has been supplied by the Export-Import Bank of China (Exim Bank), a state-owned policy lender. Chinese state-owned firms are the main contractors of these three projects, raising criticism that Malaysians are being denied jobs, as they have been in several countries where the belt and the road have reached.

At a press conference of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the same day, when asked about the cancellation of these projects, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said, “Of course, cooperation between any two countries may encounter some problems, and different views may emerge at different times. These problems should be properly resolved through friendly consultations without losing sight of the friendship enjoyed by the two countries and the long-term development of bilateral ties, which, I can assure you, is also an important consensus reached during Prime Minister Mahathir’s visit to China.”

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Dr. Mahathir Mohamad with Ali Baba’s Supremo Jack Ma

Mahathir was tactful enough not to criticize China for these stalled projects, but to lay the blame on his predecessor Najib Razak, who had approved them projects while he was Malaysia’s premier. After being ousted in a shock defeat in the Malaysian elections on May 9, Najib is facing corruption charges over the hugely mismanaged and corrupt 1Malaysia Development Bhd, backed by the Ministry of Finance.

However, Mahathir warned China against being a neocolonialist. At a press conference in Beijing with Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang on August. 20, when asked by Li whether he supported free trade, Mahathir replied, “I agree free trade is the way to go, but, of course, free trade should also be fair trade. We do not want a situation where there is a new version of colonialism happening because poor countries are unable to compete with rich countries, therefore we need fair trade.”

Ironically, Chinese state propaganda expresses similar opposition to colonialism, in its messages conveyed in two Beijing museums, the National Museum and the China Railway Museum. As stated part of the reason for the Republican Revolution of 1911 was the Chinese people’s opposition to foreign domination of China’s railroads. By 1911, foreign powers, including Russia, Japan, Germany, Britain and France, controlled 93 percent of China’s railways, a display in the National Museum pointed out. The Qing government had to pay off huge debts to foreign banks which had bankrolled these railroads.

Around the turn of the 20th century, the Qing government nationalized railways owned by private Chinese businesses, then sold them to foreign interests. This sparked a rebellion, causing the Chinese imperial government to transfer troops from the Chinese city of Wuhan to quell a rail revolt in Sichuan province. As a result, the Wuhan garrison was undermanned, which enabled an uprising in Wuhan to succeed in October 1911, which in turn toppled the Qing dynasty.

Going forward, the Chinese government must avoid provoking resistance to Chinese-funded infrastructure projects in BRI countries whose governments and peoples fear dependency, just as China was reduced to a semi-colonial state by foreign dominance of its infrastructure. Currently, BRI projects are mostly financed by Chinese state-owned banks, just as foreign banks funded most of the railway in China during the Qing dynasty.

At the Aug. 20 press conference, Mahathir expressed his wish that Beijing will be sympathetic to Malaysia’s heavy debt and help resolve its fiscal problems. At the press conference on August 21, the 93-year old leader said, “I believe China itself does not want to see Malaysia become a bankrupt country.”

The Chinese government has a vested interest in ensuring Malaysia’s economy is not sunk by crushing debt if Beijing and Chinese state-owned firms wish to avoid a repeat of the derailment of a US$7.5 billion rail project in Venezuela.

On April 11, 2013, the South China Morning Post reported that this 475 km railway, built by the state-owned China Railway Group, was delayed because the Venezuelan government was unable to pay the entire US$7.5 billion contract. The Venezuelan government owed China Railway US$400 million to US$500 million, Li Changjin, the chairman of China Railway, was quoted as saying. “The reason is the Venezuelan government has no money.”

Onsite media reports in 2016 showed China Railway’s facilities in its Venezuela project were apparently abandoned.

Since 2013, Venezuela’s economy has been in a dire state, with high inflation and difficulty repaying its debts. If Beijing wants the BRI to succeed in countries like Venezuela and Malaysia, it must ensure that costly infrastructure projects do not harm these countries’ economies. Otherwise, trade and investment between them and China will suffer.

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During their August 20 meeting, Xi told Mahathir their nations should have pragmatic cooperation, seeking innovative new models of cooperation. Xi must find viable models of cooperation over BRI if he wishes to avoid blowback against Chinese projects in Malaysia. Only then can Xi demonstrate that Belt and Road is not a Trojan Horse for Chinese imperialism, and convince nations to accept the vast infrastructure projects.

Toh Han Shih is a Singaporean writer in Hong Kong