Old Dominance and new dominoes in Southeast Asia


December 14, 2017

Old Dominance and new dominoes in Southeast Asia

by Dan Slater@www.eastasiaforum.org

Not since World War II has liberal democracy seemed so deeply endangered in so many places. If the flu of political and social illiberalism is circumnavigating the globe, Southeast Asia has precious little immunity with which to withstand it. This is a region where authoritarian regimes have always easily outnumbered democracies, and where liberalism and universalism have always struggled to gain traction.

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Since most of the region is enduringly authoritarian to begin with, Southeast Asia is and always has been well on its way to being a democratic abyss. It is useful to distinguish the cases of existing dominance that establish that dismal baseline from ‘the new dominos’, which find themselves either tumbling or looking increasingly wobbly.

None of the region’s long-dominant authoritarian regimes appear deeply endangered at the moment. Singapore’s People’s Action Party is riding high in the saddle after its electoral–authoritarian landslide in September 2017. In Malaysia, so long as the ruling Barisan Nasional party can compensate for its high-level corruption with high-level repression, it seems likely to get away with it.

Commentators commonly fret that Hun Sen killed the last remnants of democracy in Cambodia when he shuttered the Cambodia Daily and moved to ban the country’s only major opposition party. But what is really transpiring is a transition from multiparty authoritarianism to single-party authoritarianism, since Cambodia has not met even minimal democratic standards for the past 25 years.

Speaking of single-party dictatorships, Vietnam’s leaders have recently stepped up repression of dissidents. But it is not as if the Vietnamese Communist Party ever brooked serious dissent in the first place.

Not coincidentally, in all four cases, old dominance is rooted in old authoritarian ruling parties. Dictatorships ruled by parties have long tended to be more stable than those in which the military plays the leading role. So it stands to reason that the greatest action in the region over the past decade has been in countries where the military either still is, or in the past was, a leading power in political life.

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A militarised past means a high potential for a dominoing present. Just as we can identify four clear cases of old dominance rooted in authoritarian ruling parties, four cases fit more readily in the ‘new domino’ category: Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand. In each case, there is a long history of parties failing to decisively supersede the power of the military, which left their democracies with relatively little institutional strength.

Could Myanmar soon follow Thailand’s recent path back to unchallenged military rule? Could the Philippines descend from its fragile status as an illiberal democracy to an outright one-man autocracy? And does the shocking imprisonment of Jakarta’s ethnic Chinese former governor on blasphemy charges portend the demise in Indonesia of the tolerant norms on which even a minimalist democracy depends?

There is a vital common theme. When procedural democracy arises in otherwise politically and socially illiberal and intolerant conditions, democracy’s own key features can easily undermine its own quality and even threaten its own survival.

Specifically, democratic procedures have a tendency to produce unbridled majoritarianism and unconstrained leadership unless there are powerful countervailing forces. In settings where liberal institutions and societal commitment to inclusive and cosmopolitan values are relatively weak, minorities exist at the mercy of domineering and abusive executives.

In Thailand, the rise of Thaksin Shinwatra did not lead to outright populist authoritarianism in part because the Thai military and monarchy saw fit to re-establish oligarchic authoritarianism. It is in the Philippines where a brazenly violent populist seems inclined to seize as many authoritarian-style powers as the system and public will allow. As abysmal as Rodrigo Duterte has been for human rights, his defenders quite plausibly support a highly popular president responding to actual social ills like the drug trade.

But democratisation does not deserve the brunt of the blame for an ongoing calamity like the forcible expulsion and state-sanctioned mass murder of the Rohingya. In Myanmar as in Indonesia, it is the ideological potency of ethnic and religious nationalism that explains why minorities get brutalised. Authoritarian legacies of militarisation in Myanmar and ethnic and ideological scapegoating in Indonesia best explain the severity of both countries’ nativist downturns.

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If one vivid lesson shines through the dim shadows of Southeast Asia’s democratic downslide, it is that democratisation and human rights are far from the same thing. Nationalists steeped in a lifetime of authoritarian state propaganda are analogously primed to see the world in terms of us (who belong) and them (who do not). Under such conditions, democratic rights may get extended — but no further than the ranks of the supposedly virtuous.

What all this suggests is that the global crisis of liberalism and democracy is first and foremost a crisis of education. Heroic histories of mass urban mobilisation predict that if civil society is to help forge democracy, it will be by ‘people power’.

This may still be largely true in Southeast Asia’s cases of old dominance, where dictatorship must somehow be dislodged before democracy can be defended. But in Southeast Asia’s new dominos, as in Western democracies where pluralism is under assault, a deeper educational imperative underlies the organisational challenge confronting us.

Remarkably, the world has reached a moment when its politics most urgently needs to be driven not by an exalted desire to maximise human freedom, but by the base need to minimise human cruelty. If educational institutions and mass media do not spread the message that even the lives of minorities and suspected criminals have value, who will?

Dan Slater is Professor of Political Science and incoming Director of the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan. This article originally appeared at New Mandala as part of a series on the challenges facing democracy and civil society in Southeast Asia supported by the TIFA Foundation, Indonesia.

 

The Rebranding of Altantuya Shaariibuu’s Surrogate Lover–Dr. Abdul Razak Baginda


December 14, 2017

The Rebranding of Altantuya Shaariibuu’s Surrogate Lover–Dr. Abdul Razak Baginda

by Mariam Mokhtar@www.asiasentinel.com

Image result for perfume of arabia macbeth

“Here’s the smell of blood still. All perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.”–In William Shakespeare’s Macbeth

Oxford-educated Dr. Abdul Razak Baginda, the one-time adviser and close confidante of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was once romantically linked to the murdered jet-setting Mongolian translator and party girl Altantuya Shaariibuu, has popped up after years of discreet absence in the UK.

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The  disheveled and frightened-looking Abdul Razak Baginda

For someone who has been out of the public eye for the past decade, Razak Baginda has wasted no time, propelling himself onto the Malaysian lecture circuit over the past six months but at the same time inadvertently reminding the public he had been a key figure in what had been the biggest scandal in the country’s history until an even bigger one blew up over the state-backed investment company 1Malaysia Development Bhd., the subject of a US Justice Department investigation into the looting of public assets.

Razak Baginda is very different from the disheveled and frightened-looking man who emerged from jail on October 31, 2006, acquitted without trial of abetting the murder of Altantuya, who was alleged to have once been Najib’s paramour. The 28-year-old mother, who was believed to have been pregnant at the time, was shot twice in the head by one of Najib’s bodyguards and her body was blown up with military explosives in a patch of jungle outside the suburban city of Shah Alam.

The allegation that Altantuya had been Najib’s mistress was revealed by the late private investigator P Balasubramaniam, engaged by Razak Baginda to stop Altantuya from creating a scene outside his house. According to a letter found after her death, she was demanding a cut of kickbacks from a multi-billion ringgit Malaysian government deal to purchase submarines from the French.

Razak Baginda once was one of the closest advisers to Najib, then the Defense Minister and Deputy PM (2000-2008), on government arms procurement projects. The political analyst was involved in the purchase of two Scorpene-class submarines and one Agosta-class submarine from the French naval dockyard unit DCN (Direction des Constructions Navales). The deal was worth around RM5 billion.

Hasty departure for the UK

On his release and acquittal, Razak Baginda was swamped by reporters who tried to interview him, but was guarded by a wall of policemen. A month later, at a press conference, he was guarded by a team of lawyers who monitored his answers. He immediately decamped to England, ostensibly to complete a doctorate at Oxford.

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 The Rebranded Dr. Abdul Razak Baginda–Founder, Center for Global Affairs (ICON).

Seven years later, on October. 26, 2015, Razak Baginda emerged to deliver his first public talk in Kuala Lumpur at a “Special Forum” called “Reforming Malaysia: A Conversation with Razak Baginda.” The session was organized by a new think tank he had founded, called the Center for Global Affairs (ICON).

The former Malaysian PrimenMinister, Mahathir Mohamad once said, “Melayu mudah lupa” (Malays easily forget) and Razak Baginda probably thought that Malaysians would have forgotten about him and the brutal murder.

Living abroad helped Razak Baginda avoid the glare of publicity and the anger of the Malaysian public who were furious at the High Court’s handling of the trial. The motive for the murder was never established although the murderers were said to have been offered RM50,000 for the killing.

Wife Implicates Najib

Few can forget the hysterical shout of Baginda’s wife, Mazlinda Makhzan, at the time of his arrest: “Why charge my husband, he does not want to be the prime minister?” an apparent reference to Balasubramaniam’s statement that Najib had passed Altantuya on to the political analyst because it wouldn’t look good to have a foreign mistress when he was elevated to become the country’s leader.

Importantly, there were also unexplained phone texts between Najib and Razak Baginda’s lawyer, Mohamad Shafee Abdullah, which alluded to Najib’s alleged interference in the case. One message read, “Pls do not say anything to the press today. i will explain later. RB (Razak Baginda) will have to face a tentative charge but all is not lost.”

Altantuya’s father, Setev Shaariibuu, has not received any justice for the murder of his daughter and has continued to demand that the Malaysian government give him answers about her death.

Two policemen, Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri and Corporal Sirul Azhar Umar, were found guilty of Altantuya’s murder in a trial that critics said was carefully orchestrated to keep from answering questions who had hired them to kill her. Sirul is now languishing in the Villawood Detention Center outside Sydney, vigorously wheeling and dealing for his release and asylum. Azilah remains in a Malaysian prison.

Razak Baginda probably thought that he could lead a quiet life by relocating to England but he didn’t reckon on the persistence of SUARAM, the Malaysian Human Rights NGO, which complained to the French authorities about the Scorpene deal in November 2009. That triggered a preliminary inquiry and a judicial investigation in Paris in 2012.

Investigative stories Tell Tale of Scandal

The investigation was the subject of a multiple series of investigative stories by Asia Sentinel that won the Society of Publishers in Asia award for excellence in investigative reporting – Asia’s version of the Pulitzer Prize.

Finally, years later, on July 18, 2017, Razak Baginda was indicted in France for “complicity of bribery, acceptance of bribes and concealment of misuse of company assets.”  Two officials of a DCN subsidiary were also indicted on charges specifically of having bribed Najib Razak.

On August 4, the SUARAM adviser, Dr Kua Kia Soong said, “The first indictment of the arms maker shows that SUARAM’s suspicion of commission paid to Malaysian officials in the Scorpene deal is well founded, and we have been vindicated.”

Asia Sentinel reported that the French investigation had revealed that Terasasi HK Ltd., a company owned by Razak Baginda and his father, received €30 million in “consultancy works,” the accepted terminology for kickbacks. Terasasi existed only as the name on the wall of a Hong Kong accounting company. As Asia Sentinel reported, French investigators also uncovered evidence that a Malaysia-based shell company, Perimekar, owned by Baginda’s wife, had received another €114 million in “consultancy services.”

The money was said to have been passed on to the United Malays National Organization with the full knowledge of then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, among others, according to evidence provided to Asia Sentinel.

Timely Rebranding

Baginda’s rebranding is timely, especially as Malaysia’s 14th General Election is due soon. He could have retired a rich man from his alleged kickbacks from Scorpene and lived a life of luxury in England. He could have avoided the scrutiny of the Malaysian public.

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Malaysia’s Infamous Couple–Prime Minister Najib Razak and his FLOM Rosmah Mansor

“He probably thinks that the Malaysian public have forgotten (and forgiven him),” said a social cynic who declined to be named. “He believes he has done nothing wrong, especially as the courts did not find him guilty of Altantuya’s murder.”

It is highly likely that Razak Baginda is repositioning himself in the Malaysian political world, according to a Kuala Lumpur-based political analyst. “Perhaps, Najib summoned him to return as his confidante,” he said. “Najib’s Washington trip was a wash-out. It was probably arranged on the advice of his foreign advisers. The Malays disapprove of Trump’s anti-Islam and anti-Muslim policies.”

A Malay, Muslim and Malaysian, the political analyst “will be in a better position to advise Najib on foreign matters. He is probably testing the waters and seeing how the Malaysian public react to him over a range of issues like education, religion and radicalization.”

However, it is more likely that the French indictment may have spurred Baginda’s return to Malaysia over a desire to remain free.  Malaysia does not have an extradition treaty with France, unlike Britain. His stay in England would be risky.

Razak Baginda dismissed the French charge and said, “The French legal process is different from the Malaysian legal process. The term ‘charged’ in the context of the inquiry means placing the said individuals under ‘formal investigation’.”

We now see the comeback kid, Razak Baginda, re-engaging with Malaysian politics. He appears to be pushing the right buttons on many subjects. More importantly, as long as Najib is around, there is money to be made. ICON has held several forums and issued press releases with alarming regularity.

Pretensions as Oracle

This is proof that he wants to be heard on a range of subjects, upon most of which many Malaysians agree. On radicalization, he has urged the Home Ministry to monitor students, who studied in the middle-east, and warned that Malaysia was losing its reputation as a moderate nation. He has warned that the prominence of religion in schools will lower the quality of education. He questioned the failure of Malaysian leaders to confront the nationalists.

Razak Baginda has defended the bloated Malaysian civil service and blasted the journalist John Pennington for an article in “Asean Today” that unfavorably compared the Malaysian civil service with its Singaporean counterpart.

He also criticized Najib for his silence on the Rohingya issue at the 31st ASEAN Summit in Manila, saying it was a “missed opportunity” and then, on the following day, offered a groveling apology to Najib, saying “I got it wrong.”  He praised Najib’s sincerity in helping the Rohingyas, raising the issue with the Myanmar state counselor, Aung San Suu Kyi, and with President Trump. Saying that Najib’s actions were unprecedented, Razak Baginda described him as bold and strong, willing to voice his displeasure over a matter he cared about.

“Never before has a fellow ASEAN leader brought out what could be regarded as a domestic issue of another member country,” he said. “Kudos to the prime minister, as it shows his commitment to help the Rohingya.”

Still Buddies?

So are Najib and Razak Baginda in constant contact? Or is he positioning himself and working towards a smooth transition to become Najib’s political analyst? On his re-emergence onto the Malaysian socio-political scene, Suaram’s Kua said: “He seems to have a knack of seeking publicity when he’d be better off staying out of media attention. He’s more of a liability for Najib by showing up all over the place and reminding us of Altantuya. But he seems pretty gung-ho about his ‘freedom from prosecution’. We shall see.

Both men have to tread a cautious path, said a political analyst, “but do they care? There is only so much Razak Baginda can do to help Najib, because one wrong step could make the whole Altantuya and Scorpene scandal blow up in Najib’s face, and further reduce his chances in GE-14. Even if it were true that Najib and Razak Baginda have resumed their cozy ties, it is established that they need one another to keep their secrets safe. Remember the adage about keeping your friends close, but your enemies closer still.

Perhaps Najib is willing to take that chance, especially after the warning issued by the American Attorney-General, Jeff Sessions, on Dec. 4, when he said that Malaysia’s 1MDB scandal was the worst example of kleptocracy he had ever seen. Razak Baginda may need Najib to prevent an attempt by the French to subpoena him to the Scorpene trial, but Najib has an equal need to prevent Razak Baginda from giving evidence.

Mariam Mokhtar is a Malaysia-based journalist and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel

 

The State of Mainstream Journalism and Integrity of Malaysian Ministers


November 13, 2017

The State of Mainstream Journalism and Integrity of Malaysian Ministers

by R. Nadeswaran

http://www.malaysiakini.com

Image result for Tengku Adnan MansorNajib Razak and Tengku Adnan Mansor– Chickens of the same feather

COMMENT | It will not be the first time a minister has put his foot in the mouth without even realising it. It will not be the last either. The quality of people who are addressed as “YB Menteri” has certainly deteriorated.

Whenever this comes about, many will rush to the cause – to defend the faux pas or in most cases, words, phrases and views uttered that had caused more damage to reputation and status.

Usually, the common cry is “I have been misquoted” or “my words have been taken out of context”. They never admit that they uttered those offending statements and explain their reasons or justify the stand they had taken.

But when the Almighty is dragged into the defence and punishment in the after-life is offered as a threat, the whole issue takes a different dimension.

Suddenly, the journalist and media outlets are told that they have to answer to God – not the laws of the land or the Home Ministry, which has the power to revoke licences, suspend licences and block websites.

Speaking at a press conference after attending a public transport ceremony in Putrajaya yesterday, Federal Territories Minister Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor entered the fray and said journalists have to be responsible for their reporting.

“I believe, after this, I will be (at fault), just like what Hamzah (Domestic Trade, Cooperatives and Consumerism Minister Hamzah Zainudin) faced when he mentioned (the government’s) effort to reduce the cost of living in his speech, which was later spun to mean something else.

“I don’t know what will happen to this world, especially (to) all of you journalists. You are all responsible, what you are doing is… Remember, you all are going to see God and we will accuse you of lying and slandering towards the community, just to help some people gain success,” Malaysiakini quoted him as saying.

 

A Fake Hadith ?–Economics is Adam Smith’s and Adam Smith is a Man. The Prophet pbuh was  a merchant who understood Islamic Economics.

Hamzah (photo) had said the rise in living costs is God’s will, and quoted a saying, or hadith, attributed to Prophet Muhammad which states: “Verily, it is God who sets prices, who makes things hard, easy and gives out blessings”.)

Having read what Hamzah said and what was reported, why is Tengku Adnan taking umbrage? In the first place, what is the co-relation between God and food prices? What mortal sin have the journalists committed to face the wrath of God?

These are not problems but self-inflicted damage because most politicians open their mouths without engaging their brains in gear. When their words sometimes border on the ridiculous and ludicrous, they think they have found the escape hatch – blame the journalist and the media.

No journalist worth his salt wants to be labelled as a purveyor of fake or false news. Neither does he want to be accused of “manufacturing”, “creating” or attributing quotes which have been picked from thin air.

Editors who re-write to slant news

In some sections of the mainstream media, journalists have complained that their copy had been re-written by editors and seniors to slant towards certain parties and individuals. The editor has the final say and when he exercises his power, the only recourse the journalist has is: “I don’t want a byline as I don’t want to be associated with this article.”

There are few who take such courageous steps while many remain silent as they too become tools of the editor, usually a political appointee.

At a World Press Freedom day seminar a few years ago, I remarked that journalists first need “freedom from their editors” before even talking about anything else. The in-house censorship, the re-write desk and those politically connected have and will continue to change the course of events.

When was the last time you came across “1MDB” in the mainstream newspapers? Last week, US Attorney-General Jeff Sessions described 1MDB as “kleptocracy at its worst” in practice. That is how our country was described. It was not fake news. It was from a man in authority speaking of an organisation which was set up with taxpayers’ funds and has incurred billions of ringgit in borrowings. Aren’t we, as Malaysians, entitled to know about a Malaysian-owned government company?

Did you read about it in your daily newspaper or did you hear it on our news channels? Was it not news worthy to be shared with fellow Malaysians? Herein are the problem and a big difference. Some editors are professional and decide what is good for the country while there are those who decide what is not good for the government and its leaders.

Many believe that the “government censors news” but it is far from the truth. No government official is present when the newspaper is put to bed. It is the editor who decides what you should read.

Having said that, editors have a role to play in ensuring journalists don’t get carried away by taking all and sundry presented to them as gifts. Attempts will be made to feed information by one party which is detrimental to another. They have to ensure that the organisation and individuals do not become tools of certain people.

But to harass journalists for reporting what was said is certainly unacceptable. Having suddenly realised what had been said sounded idiotic, don’t blame the journalists.

They should not be allowed to be bullied by the likes of Tengku Adnan. If this minister and his colleague are aggrieved by what has been written, there are proper channels. Journalists, who now have recording equipment, cameras and mobile phones as tools of their trade, will be able to substantiate what they had written. Therefore, the likelihood of journalists misquoting anyone has been minimised.

It is rather surprising that no one has come to the defence of the journalists. Editors should not succumb to threats. They must be able to draw a thick line between the citizen’s right to know and officialdom’s attempt to cover wrongdoings.

So, let journalists do their jobs without outbursts, threats or invoking the name of the Almighty at the drop of a hat. We are doing them a service in educating, entertaining and informing our fellow citizens on issues that affect all of us. If that cannot be done, then the government will have to replicate the Pravda, a relic of what used to be the Soviet Union. Surely, we can’t come down so low.


R NADESWARAN is passionate about journalism and says freedom of expression and free speech must be encouraged and practised for democracy to thrive. Comments: citizen.nades22@gmail.com

An Interview with Mu Sochua


December 11, 2017

An Interview with Mu Sochua

In Jakarta on 8 December, politicians, activists, and scholars dug deeper into the themes covered in New Mandala‘s ongoing series on Southeast Asia’s crisis of democracy at a special forum hosted by the TIFA Foundation. Among the speakers was Mu Sochua, a senior member of Cambodia’s Cambodian National Rescue Party, which was dissolved by a court order on 16 November 2017. A long time human rights advocate and former Minister for Womens Affairs, she has now joined other CNRP figures in exile after being threatened with imprisonment. New Mandala editor Liam Gammon met with her for a brief interview about how the opposition is adapting to the crackdown.

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CNRP’s Mu Sochua on Democracy in Cambodia–Interview New Mandala

Do you think that by shutting off institutional avenues for opposition to his rule, Hun Sen has raised the probably of some sort of popular uprising—some kind of “people power” movement?

They are waiting for the opposition leaders to give the signal. In 2013 when we contested the result of the elections, we were in the streets for over three or four months. Up to half a million people were with us; we were at park called Freedom Park, it was the most beautiful, beautiful moment for democracy in Cambodia and never had it happened before.

Our party is not just a political party. It comes from a movement, from civil society, that has been able to plant democracy’s seeds in Cambodia for quite some time—after the Paris peace accords. It is actually the UN program on human rights free and fair elections that brought the Cambodian people the principles of democracy, of free and fair elections.

So, after that moment, people and then on the fourth of January 2014 Hun Sen brought the tank, shot the workers—since then, we have not been able to bring the people back. But then after that moment, when they shut down Freedom Park, I myself led a group—there were just two or three of us and then it went on to thousands and thousands—for three months, then I was arrested. Put in jail. And now my colleagues are now in jail for 20 years.

If you look back on the long road leading up to the crackdown this year, are you and other opposition figures thinking about some of the strategic mistakes that the opposition may have made? If you had to identify some things that you would have done differently, what would they be?

There are always gaps and short-sighted decisions. For example, at that moment when the tanks were coming at us—and every day we had half a million people with us—we were fighting all the time about whether to take the crowd to the right, or the left, you know—to confront the parliament and the government, to cross over the bridge, or whatever. So I was always in the camp of the young people—hot-headed, but my leaders are more like “no, we can’t do that”. I come from civil society, you see.

So we have always been, and even today, accused of not having good leadership. But we had half a million people—why did we not take over parliament? And we went over that for so long, even today. But one thing was very clear: we do not want to have bloodshed. Because of our past genocide. At any time in the day when Sam Rainsy said “march”, people will come out and march. But we’re not doing that. And we went into parliament after a year of boycott. When we signed the agreement with Hun Sen, we were too quick to accept the agreements. He [Hun Sen] promised that there be reforms in the judiciary, he promised that the opposition minority would be recognised, he promised that we could have our own TV. We signed the agreement, but we didn’t look at the details, and he didn’t deliver on the details. We lost at that.

Do you think there was an element of complacency within the leadership about whether Hun Sen would actually follow through on those commitments?

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Not complacency, but I think we were too—we made an agreement on the basis of mutual trust. But Hun Sen is not a democrat. And our mistake it that we assumed that he is a democrat.

And this is a central question for outside observers. If we’re making this claim that Hun Sen has killed Cambodian democracy, by implication we’re saying that from 1993 until 2017 it was a functioning democracy. In hindsight do you think that in reality this is not really the fall of a democracy or the fall of a pretence of democracy?

Full democracy, no. A façade of democracy. He allowed us to function in that framework. And the donors—we all knew. But we kept on going for democratic change within elections. But when he saw, and he sees now, that he will never win a truly democratic—even half democratic—elections, that’s why he had to kill it. However, we have 25 years of grassroots—this is not just elitist democracy, but grassroots. So we refuse to say we give up. We are banned from politics for 5 years, but we’re still very active. And we have to reconnect with civil society and our structure inside [Cambodia].

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On the China question: there’s an idea that’s getting stronger that part of the reason why Hun Sen has been so confident in cracking down on the media, civil society, and opposition forces is because Beijing, as it were, will have his back. I guess the question is are we in danger of overstating the influence of China? Would he have done this anyway?

No. I think the international community has been complacent. They want to say “okay, we’re finished with Cambodia”.

They saw it coming! The last time they had a real donor meeting with Hun Sen was four or five years ago. They made no demands whatsoever. And on top of that, I think they forget that Hun Sen needs the legitimacy. Hun Sen has a lot of money. His children have a lot of money. His cronies have a lot of money—invested in Australia, in France, in the USA. So when the US has imposed vis sanctions, within a day, Hun Sen says: “will you reconsider”. It touches a nerve, because he wants China and he wants the west at the same time. But the west is not willing to use its leverage.

It’s interesting that you mention the donor meetings, because they have become infamous as a ritual whereby the donors make of Hun Sen, there are promises that are never fulfilled, and they come back next year and nothing’s changed. Hun Sen has always done terrible things to the opposition—1997 for instance—and gotten away with it. Do international donors have to share in some of the blame for the current situation?

They put in five billion dollars and here it is. Look the judiciary. What reforms have taken place? Look at the scale of corruption. And even now, Australia, for example, still wants to engage Hun Sen, through this $50 million [sic] refugee deal that they made. What is this? So there is no way Australia can say “we didn’t know, we’re not part of it, we tried our best”. I just went to meet with your foreign minister, she still wants to engage Hun Sen. She doesn’t want to isolate Hun Sen. It’s because of the $50 million deal. This is really peeling [away] democracy. And this is how dictators survive. Even killers survive.

So if the threat of withholding western largesse hasn’t changed the regime’s behaviour before, why should we expect it to change now?

Before, Hun Sen didn’t have a lot of money. Now he has a lot of money. “He” meaning all his cronies, his generals. So they have to protect their territory. Before they fought to survive, now they fight to keep the money. To keep the prestige that they have, to keep the comfort that they have. But all of this could crumble very quickly, because he doesn’t fight on principle or anything, he fights just for his own power, so he’s very vulnerable.

This seems almost a silly question to ask, but do you see any role for Southeast Asian governments in disciplining Hun Sen?

Surely. Surely. We have to take measures to prevent another tragedy in Cambodia. If you study the ruling party structure, it has not changed from the communist structure. They had cells, groups, from a group of five, a group of ten, that spy on each other. Now, Hun Sen is doing the same thing. The parents are spying on the children because the youth are not voting for Hun Sen. But they are buying the parents, to force their children to vote for Hun Sen. And the children say no! in the past it was the children that spied on their parents—to see who is communist and who is not, to see who is Khmer Rouge and who is not. It’s the same type of control.

I assume you and your opposition colleagues are still communicating frequently?

There’s a lot of difficulty.

At what point do opposition leaders countenance trying, from abroad, to encourage street mobilisation?

Right now if we were to do it, I don’t know. We haven’t been able to meet in the same room to strategise. So it’s like dealing with this crisis one thing at a time, and that’s why we’re now saying we need to meet.

Within a party there are always differences. So we can fight within the party, and come up with a concrete game plan. Some people say “why don’t we go in. Why don’t we mobilise the people and march again?” Then some people say: “Are you crazy?” Some people are saying “how about a government in exile?”. But definitely, we are—

—strictly speaking, you haven’t won an election yet, so a government in exile might seem a little bit premature…

A shadow government. Although we knew that in 2013 we won, so we are capable of getting the votes. But we don’t want to think that way [about a government in exile], because that means long term outside, in exile. That would kill the hope of the people inside. We have to keep the hope alive.

So you envision a situation in which you and your colleagues could return to Cambodia?

Yeah. Any day. It could be any day. That’s why the role of ASEAN, the role of southeast Asian leaders—it may only take one person, to talk to Hun Sen and say, “what about a dignified exit strategy”.

Who do you think has that kind of clout in Southeast Asia?

Japan.

Do you see any movement there? Have they been sympathetic?

In the past, yes, it’s always been Japan who talked to Hun Sen.

The United States?

They are great at taking actions, but it antagonises. It’s good they deliver. But Hun Sen can say, “oh, it’s the United States”. And all the donors can say “that’s the US.”

It’s interesting that there’s this impulse to talk about the external influences, because one of the criticisms of the opposition, and of Sam Rainsy in particular, was that he was better at cultivating support and networks in Washington or Paris than he was in Phnom Penh.

No, no, no. Totally wrong. Of course, high ranking officials talk to him. But his popularity is in the country. Sam Rainsy can go anywhere in the country, the crowd around him. He’s a symbol. Like Khem Sokha. Even me, when I go to my country, I don’t need anything, I walk around and people get me a motorcycle.

We represent the hope of the people. He is educated, he speaks the language of an educated person. But if he were so close to France, to the Élysée, France would be working with us today. France is not working. We were saying, “France? Where are you?”

You have to live a life on the move now. Living in exile is expensive, isolating, stressful—do you feel safe in exile? Do you expect to be, or have you been, contacted by representatives of the regime?

In Thailand. When I go to Thailand, I don’t feel safe. Now that I talk a lot, that I am the face of the opposition—I’m on BBC, I’m on Aljazeera—I worry. You never know; you don’t want to touch these nerves. And I always go alone. The expenses are always covered somehow. And the loneliness, I have to deal with that. My children want me home, my grandchild wants me home. Of course, I just went through the passing away of my husband. So it’s been a long, difficult two years. However, serving democracy keeps me alive. And I refuse to slow down, although I wish I could, but that’s not a choice. And I have the choice of staying home in Cambodia, but staying behind in a cell. Being captured.

Now there are some CNRP figures left in Cambodia, are they able to engage in any political activity, or are they laying low?

No, they are laying low. Even in communicating with them, we try to not endanger them. We have many in Thailand as well, so even speaking to them—I’m going to go through Thailand, they come to meet me at the airport. I don’t go to visit where they are. And their places have been raided by the local police in Thailand.

So to put it in simple terms, you see the Thai regime as unfriendly to the opposition?

So far they have not kicked us out, but they have given us the message: don’t do anything political. But with Khun Kasit [Piromya], who is the go-between between us and the military, we have been able to stay in Bangkok.

Although you say you have the hope of going back to Cambodia, in the back of your mind do you think about a life outside of Cambodia forever?

[Smiles]. I don’t want to think about it. Because my husband’s ashes are at home. I had less than 24 hours to pack my bags. We had a beautiful home, and a beautiful life. My people are beautiful people. It pains me to stay away from them. It pains me to hear them crying, going back to the farm, going back to being motor taxi drivers, are used to living in exile, are used to hiding [sic], it’s very painful.

The clock is ticking; there’s going to be some kind of election in Cambodia next year, do you think there’s a possibility that Hun Sen could climb down from his current strategy and there could be some kind of free and fair contest? And if not, are you planning towards subsequent elections as a next goal?

At this point we want to be optimistic, so we are focused on lobbying ASEAN. We have done a lot of work in Europe and the US, now it’s ASEAN.

Do you have realistic hopes of being able to contest in 2018?

Yep. We only need six months. Because we are so sure of our strategy.

So in the short term, what do you define as success?

Free[ing] Kem Sokha on 10 December. And for us to go home.

The Politics of Zaid Ibrahim


December 11, 2017

The Politics of  Zaid Ibrahim

by S. Thayaparan

http://www.malaysiakini.com

The only real radicalism in our time will come as it always has – from people who insist on thinking for themselves and who reject party-mindedness.”

– Christopher Hitchens, ‘Christopher Hitchens and His Critics: Terror, Iraq, and the Left’

COMMENT | I have no idea how this saga with former minister Zaid Ibrahim and his persecutors will end. When the late Karpal Singh spoke truth to power, he made two statements that sum up the mess we are in now:

1. “I hope the Royalty will not delve in politics. If it does, then it must be prepared to be criticised for whatever they say.”

2. “The question of being anti-Royalty does not arise. The Tengku Mahkota of Kelantan saw it fit to descend into the political arena by making a statement early this month that the non-Malays should not ask for equal rights.”

These are two powerful statements of principles from the late Karpal Singh.

Image result for hrh sultan of selangorThe Dynamic HRH Sultan of Selangor

 

The irony is, of course, Zaid said more or less the same thing when he responded to the Selangor Sultan.  For his defence of the former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, he invited the usual charges of being anti-Malay and anti-Royalty. He also discovered that he had no “friends” in the opposition who were willing to stand with him in his time of need.

Image result for Pua Tony

 

When Tony Pua claims that Selangor DAP has “no position” on this issue, it is complete horse manure. A member of your political party makes a provocative statement and DAP has no stand on this issue, and going so far as to declare that his statement does not reflect on the party in any way because he is not an office bearer.

Does this make any sense?

Either you disagree with the statements Zaid made and make it clear that DAP does not condone engagement with the Royalty this way – which would be strange – or, you delicately phrase a response which does not make you sound like an arrogant political operative who just wants to save the party’s skin. It does not matter if Bersatu Youth wants Zaid to apologise, which is at least a position taken but rather that Zaid is from your party and has defended DAP numerous times against the assaults of the establishment and their proxies.

 

UMNO dulu, sekarang dan selama lamanya (UMNO past, present and forever)–Loyalty pays

Partisans claim that getting involved in this dispute is just falling into an UMNO trap, but the reality is that, UMNO will always use provocations to paint the DAP as anti-Malay. Pua’s statement is more damaging than anything UMNO can do because it makes those Malays who stick their neck out realise that they will not receive any support for their efforts. They will only be used as window dressing when it suits the purposes of oppositional political elites and thrown to the hounds when they make statements that most feel are right but are politically sensitive.

In addition, what does “would have to deal with whatever repercussions that come” mean? Zaid is being vilified by the outsourced thugs of UMNO. He has been threatened by establishment figures and harassed by the same people who claim that DAP is anti-Malay and wish to destroy Malay institutions, and the best DAP can come up with is to cut Zaid loose?

Speaking truth to power

Imagine if Zaid had said the same thing when DAP political operatives incurred the wrath of establishment figures for making provocative – in the Malaysian context – statements. Imagine if he played the game like Amanah, Bersatu and PAS instead of clearly articulating his stand on issues such as race and religion, which many Malays actually subscribe to but are afraid to voice out. Come on, anytime there were religious and racial provocations, Zaid was the first in the fight defending the secular and constitutional rights of all Malaysians.

The politically accident-prone Zaid Ibrahim

When I interviewed Zaid (photo), he said – “I always believe it’s better to state the right positions clearly and unambiguously on core delicate issues even if it means we have to ‘lose’ some support in the beginning. Politics is not just winning; but about doing the right thing. Long-term goals are equally important.”

The problem here is that people think that by cutting Zaid loose, it absolves them from this fiasco. But the real problem is that every Malaysian who wants to save Malaysia is part of this problem. We were part of this problem when Karpal spoke truth to power and we are a part of it now.

Yes, the establishment is going to vilify you. They are doing it already. But now every Malay who understands that he or she needs to speak truth to power will understand that if they belong to DAP, they are on their own. This is far more damaging than anything the establishment can do.

And for establishment types, the narrative will be that Zaid got what he deserved by joining the “Chinese” dominated DAP, who only used him to run down the Malay community. Right now, they are shovelling great huge dollops of schadenfreude down their mouths. I know, because some of them call me gloatingly about Zaid’s latest “blunder”.

If I were DAP, I would have just issued a statement along these lines making three important points:

1. DAP prays for the safety of Zaid and his family.

2. DAP does not believe that Zaid is anti-royalty or a traitor to the Malay race.

3. DAP respects the royal institutions of this country.

This would have been the honourable thing to do. I have no idea what Zaid will do now. Seeking protection from the man who advocates kenduri kendara gangsters seems tragic but understandable under the circumstances. In this climate, Malay opposition personalities get it worse and Zaid has done enough for the opposition. An UMNO friend told me, even though there may be no evidence that UMNO is still strong, but UMNO can still take down the opposition.

The coming days will see changes in the narrative. Zaid will either become a symbol of saving Malaysia or an object of derision. Either way, he is still not going to have any friends in the political elite.


S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.

 

Trump’s Reagan-like Relative Moralism


November 10, 2017

Trump’s Reagan-like Relative Moralism

https://www.economist.com

Fortunately, he has yet to notice

IF DENIZENS of political Washington recall the commotion, way back on February 24th, when President Donald Trump’s press team excluded CNN, the New York Times and others from a White House briefing, most probably shrug at the memory. Editors lodged formal complaints at the time, not least because the snub came hours after Mr Trump told cheering conservative activists that the “fake news media” are “the enemy of the people”. But there have been many commotions since, and worse snubs.

Image result for Trump and Hun Sen

 

Yet there are places where that kerfuffle in a White House corridor left a mark. Take Cambodia, the South-East Asian country whose autocratic government charged two ex-reporters in November with “espionage”, citing their previous work for Radio Free Asia (RFA), a news outlet funded by the American government. There is a direct connection between the detention of Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin, who face up to 15 years in prison, and that moment of early Trumpian bombast. Hun Sen, Cambodia’s Prime Minister, pounced on the humbling of reporters by the White House, declaring with approval on February 27th that Mr Trump, like him, sees the press causing “anarchy”. The gloating did not stop there. Denouncing a CNN report on sex trafficking in Cambodia in August, Mr Hun Sen grumbled that “President Trump is right: US media is very tricky.” Cambodian officials expelled the National Democratic Institute, a Washington-based outfit that promotes free and fair elections with funding from the American and other Western governments, and ordered radio stations to stop carrying broadcasts by RFA and the Voice of America.

Escalating the fight, the government accused the main opposition party of being involved in an American-backed plot to overthrow Mr Hun Sen, offering as evidence images of opposition activists meeting diplomats and Senator John McCain of Arizona. Livid at being rebuked by the American embassy in Cambodia, Mr Hun Sen took his complaints to the top. Using a summit of Asian leaders in Manila on November 13th to praise Mr Trump face-to-face, Mr Hun Sen called him “a great person” wisely uninterested in human rights. “I don’t know if you are like me, or I am like you,” he swooned. He had just one gripe. Mr Trump should “admonish” diplomats at the American embassy who were working against his “great principle” of non-interference in the politics of foreign lands.

A summit photograph of Mr Hun Sen with Mr Trump, thumbs-up, beaming, was hailed by Cambodia’s former foreign minister as proof that it is better to “meet with the boss” than talk to “slaves”. It was a remarkable moment, and a misjudgment. Mr Hun Sen, along with other despots and autocrats, saw a soulmate in an American President who campaigned by attacking the free press and the judiciary, who threatened to lock up his opponent once elected, who kept secret his tax returns, who suggested that the presidential election might be rigged, and who scorned the idea that his country is a democratic model, growling: “The world sees how bad the United States is.” That led the Cambodian leader to a gamble which, from outside the country, seems highly confusing: to try to recruit America’s president as an ally in a purge built around an anti-American conspiracy theory. It failed. On November 16th the White House issued a statement expressing “grave concern” after Cambodia’s highest court dissolved the main opposition party, declaring that next year’s elections, on current course, “will not be legitimate, free or fair” and warning of “concrete steps” in response.

Cambodia’s story is instructive. Mr Trump has flouted norms upheld—at least in theory—by all modern holders of his office. He has scorned the very idea of American exceptionalism, telling Arab and Muslim leaders in Riyadh in May: “America is a sovereign nation and our first priority is always the safety and security of our citizens. We are not here to lecture, we are not here to tell other people how to live.” A forthcoming national-security strategy is set to mark a step back from global leadership, towards a narrower, more zero-sum view of American interests. Nonetheless, some foreign rulers who felt emboldened to repress domestic enemies with impunity have been startled to find that no Trump doctrine reliably protects them.

The Trump White House is far too chaotic, riven by infighting and buffeted by the impulses of the president, to have clear doctrines about democracy promotion, or many other weighty questions of geopolitics, says a senior administration official. A position may earn signs of support from Mr Trump, but “you can take that to the bank for as long as you are talking to him”, says the official—before a presidential tweet says the opposite minutes later. Mr Hun Sen’s blunder, the official says, was to project his own absolutism onto America. “He seems to think that now we have this rich old guy in charge of the United States, [Mr Trump] can snap his fingers and everything will change.” American government is messier than that. With a small country like Cambodia, policy remains broadly set by career foreign service officers (among them the American ambassador), by staff in the National Security Council and by members of Congress sincerely aggrieved by Mr Hun Sen’s assaults on democracy and news outlets. That group includes Mr McCain and his Republican colleagues Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Congressman Ed Royce of California, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Image result for Viktor Orban

President Donald Trump and Hungary’s Strong Man Viktor Orban

A second telling case may be found in Hungary, a European ally and NATO member state whose increasingly autocratic government greeted Mr Trump’s election with glee, only to overreach in its turn. Relations between President Barack Obama and the Hungarian government led by Viktor Orban were icy, chilled by the passage of laws curbing the independence of the press, the civil service and the courts. They were made worse by official attempts to rehabilitate anti-Semitic Hungarian leaders from the second world war, and by Mr Orban’s admiration for Vladimir Putin’s Russia. At one point in 2014, the State Department banned six Hungarian officials from entering America on suspicion of corruption—a dramatic step against a NATO ally. One of them tried to sue America’s top diplomat in Budapest for defamation.

Mr Orban is proud of being the first European leader to endorse Mr Trump, says the Hungarian Ambassador to Washington, Laszlo Szabo. It is “very obvious” that the two leaders share similar views on defending their countries from illegal immigrants, a term which the ambassador uses to cover the vast majority of those who reached Europe during the refugee crisis of 2015. They also agree on the public’s yearning for strong, sovereign governments that stand up for their national interests with what Mr Szabo calls a “healthy self-consciousness”. In April the Hungarian Parliament amended a higher-education law in a way that threatened to close down the Central European University (CEU), a graduate institute founded by the Hungarian-American billionaire, George Soros, a bogeyman to conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic. In June Hungary passed a law restricting foreign funding for civil-society groups, again singling out Mr Soros, and triggering legal action by the European Commission in Brussels, which believes the measure may breach EU fundamental rights. If Mr Orban expected to be thanked by the Trump administration or Republicans in Congress for this assault on Mr Soros, he was disappointed.

A bipartisan group of senators, led by Chris Murphy of Connecticut, told Mr Orban that the law against CEU threatens academic freedoms. Hungary forgot that Congress has no desire to encourage despotic attacks on the many American universities with branches overseas. The Trump-era State Department called the law on civil-society groups “another step away” from Hungarian commitments to the values of the EU and of NATO. In October the American chargé d’affaires, or acting ambassador to Hungary, David Kostelancik, delivered a blistering speech on press freedoms, decrying the growing dominance of “pro-government figures” over the media, who quash articles critical of the government. Treading a delicate path, Mr Kostelancik conceded that “My president is not shy about criticising the media when he believes reporters get it wrong or show bias,” but noted that “in the finest traditions of our free press”, the targets of Mr Trump’s wrath often point out that “not every criticism of the government is ‘fake news’.” Most pointedly, Mr Kostelancik deplored the “dangerous” decision of media outlets linked to the Hungarian government to publish the names of individual journalists deemed “threats” to the country.

A former Republican congressman who now works as a lobbyist for the Hungarian government, Connie Mack, supported a handful of members of the House of Representatives as they complained about the chargé d’affaires to Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state. Still, Mr Trump has neither sided with Mr Orban nor yet welcomed him to the Oval Office. Frustrated amid the chandeliered splendour of the Hungarian embassy in Washington, Mr Szabo calls his State Department critics “old Obama administration technocrats” who do not speak for Mr Trump. Hungary’s problems do not reach the president, he says. “Decisions about Hungary are not happening at the levels we would like.”

Image result for al sisi president

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi– A Fantastic Guy doing “a fantastic job” says President Donald Trump

A third and final case study involves Egypt, a large, important and problematic ally whose strongman leader, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (with Trump at The White House), has not found the new administration as easy to handle as he seemed to expect. Few modern presidents have pressed Egypt hard on human rights, placing greater emphasis on the stability of the most populous Arab country, and on co-operation with the Egyptian military, intelligence and counter-terrorist services. Relations have been sweetened with tens of billions of dollars in American aid since 1948, much of it to buy weapons.

Early expectations for Trump administration policy were not high. Mr Trump praised Mr al-Sisi as a “fantastic guy” doing a “fantastic job” under trying circumstances, even as the State Department was preparing a formal memorandum to Congress accusing Egyptian authorities of arbitrary arrests, detentions, disappearances and reported extrajudicial killings. But in an unprecedented move the State Department froze nearly $100m in military and economic aid to Egypt, citing human-rights concerns, a move that a senior figure in the Obama administration applauds and calls “a significant piece of pain to impose”. Senators of both parties applied pressure to the State Department, freezing some aid for Egypt on their own initiative.

Mr Trump also secured the release of Aya Hijazi, an American dual national jailed on charges for which the authorities offered no serious evidence, after founding a charity to help street children. Her story caught Mr Trump’s attention—this is crazy, he told aides—and he proudly invited her to the White House after her release. The president, who is often highly interested in whether he, personally, will be given credit for an action, has said nothing in public about the other 60,000 political prisoners thought to languish in Egyptian cells.

A White House official says Mr Trump’s Egypt policy is proof that the President does work to promote human rights, despite his unconventional rhetoric. The approach of President George W. Bush was “to very publicly endorse this idea of pushing democracy and freedom. You saw the Obama administration very publicly embarrass leaders and say you must address these human rights issues,” says the official. But thanks to behind-the-scenes pressure, based on strong personal relations, Mr Trump “gets the results”. This aide casts the President as a Reagan-like realist, treating radical Islam as something akin to the communism of the age and working with imperfect allies, when necessary, to advance major reforms, notably in Saudi Arabia. “Look at the speeches that Bush and Obama gave, and nothing changed.”

Hardline nationalists in the President’s inner circle, notably his senior adviser, Stephen Miller, and colleagues in the Domestic Policy Council, enjoy unusual clout during debates about refugees or UN reform, leaving them locked in what one former official calls “open warfare” with NSC staff. Despite this, democracy promotion schemes continue on autopilot in many countries, shielded by multi-year budgets.

How America projects its values has real-world effects, says Steve Pomper, who worked on human rights in the Obama-era NSC and is now at the International Crisis Group. “It’s a choice: giving people reason to hope if they are languishing in prison, or giving their jailers hope that they can act with impunity.” Mr Trump’s instincts are causing “grievous damage,” concludes a senior administration official. But foreign autocrats are also learning that America’s president does not rule alone. “The president may scorn checks and balances,” says the official, “but we still have them.”

This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Relative moralism”