The Tragedy of Aung San Suu Kyi


September 16, 2017

The Tragedy of Aung San Suu Kyi

by  Syed Munir Khasru

*Syed Munir Khasru is Chairman of the Institute for Policy, Advocacy, and Governance (IPAG), an international think tank.

http://www.project-syndicate.org

The escalating campaign of ethnic cleansing by Myanmar’s military in Rakhine State is threatening to undermine the country’s ongoing democratic transition – and to tarnish irrevocably the reputation of the country’s de facto leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. But she still wields enough moral authority to act.

DHAKA – Myanmar is in crisis. The Rohingya – a Muslim ethnic minority group in a predominantly Buddhist country – are under attack by the military, with many fleeing for their lives. This escalating conflict is threatening to undermine Myanmar’s ongoing democratic transition – and to tarnish irrevocably the reputation of the country’s de facto leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

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For decades, Myanmar’s government has refused to recognize the Rohingya – who comprise around 2% of the country’s population of over 50 million – as a legitimate ethnic minority, denying them citizenship and even the most basic rights as inhabitants. But it was just last month that systematic discrimination escalated into ethnic cleansing, with security forces responding to attacks on police posts and an army camp by Rohingya militants by launching an assault on all Rohingya people.

So far, Myanmar has confirmed 400 deaths, though United Nations officials put the toll closer to 1,000. Moreover, upwards of 300,000 Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh. Several thousand more Rohingya are waiting at the border, awaiting permission to enter the country.

For a Bangladesh already reeling from seasonal flooding, managing the inflow of refugees has proved a momentous challenge. Makeshift camps are overcrowded, lacking in basic resources, and vulnerable to natural disasters; already, a cyclone has destroyed some camps. Other surrounding countries, including India, Thailand, and Malaysia, are also feeling the effects of the Rohingya’s plight.

Far from moving to stop this humanitarian crisis, Suu Kyi’s government has exacerbated it. While Suu Kyi does not control the military, which is leading the murderous crackdown, her government has blocked UN agencies from delivering vital emergency supplies. The UN Population Fund (UNFPA), Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and Children’s Fund (UNICEF) have all been forced to halt work in the affected areas.

This represents a tragic departure for Suu Kyi, who previously won international acclaim – and a Nobel Peace Prize – for her role in the fight for democracy in Myanmar. The rise to power of her National League for Democracy in 2015 marked the end of 50 years of military rule in the country formerly known as Burma, and seemed to herald a new era, in which the human rights of all inhabitants would be respected and protected.

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Amid the violence against the Rohingya, faith in Myanmar’s transition from military dictatorship to democracy is rapidly deteriorating. The military, which holds 25% of the seats in parliament, has already blocked Suu Kyi from becoming president, and, along with Myanmar’s nationalists, it continues to constrain her authority. Now, the military is actively persecuting and even murdering members of one of the country’s largest ethnic and religious minority groups, in what the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, has rightly called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” – all for political reasons.

Buddhist nationalism has lately been gaining traction among many Burmese, fueling hatred and violence toward the Muslim Rohingya. By attacking the Rohingya, the military secures the support of Buddhist monks, who remain influential in Myanmar and could thus challenge the military’s authority.

As for Suu Kyi, she is now between a rock and a hard place. If she sides with the Rohingya, she will face a powerful backlash from the military and a large share of voters. But, by remaining silent, she is severely damaging the moral authority that allowed her to wear down Myanmar’s generals and place the country on the path to democracy.

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Suu Kyi did appoint a commission, led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, to figure out how to address the divisions between the Rohingya and Buddhists in Rakhine State, where most Rohingya live. But her goal appeared to be simply to buy time, though she probably also hoped that Annan would find a way to resolve her dilemma.

Of course, that was impossible. Instead, the commission called for the immediate establishment by Suu Kyi’s government of a clear, transparent, and efficient strategy and timeline for the citizenship verification process. The commission also emphasized the need to “allow full and unimpeded humanitarian access to all areas affected by recent violence.”

Myanmar’s military made clear its stance on these proposals right after the report was released: it opened fire on Rohingya civilians in northern Rakhine, leaving at least 100 people dead. The massacre was ostensibly a response to an attack by Rohingya militants that killed 12 members of the security forces, though, as al-Hussein put it, the military’s actions were “clearly disproportionate.”

What Myanmar needs today is a genuine peace process that recognizes the ethnic and religious components of the Rohingya crisis. Suu Kyi, who was praised by the Nobel Committee in 1991 as “an outstanding example of the power of the powerless,” should be the person to lead such a process. Yes, her power is severely limited, as she has no authority whatsoever over the military. Yet her moral authority, which once proved powerful enough to bend the military to her will, is not entirely depleted.

To wield that authority effectively, Suu Kyi must be willing to take a political risk. To be sure, as delicate as the political order is in Myanmar, there is no gridlock that obviates an agenda for progress in achieving peace. But a peace process will require Suu Kyi to stand up to Myanmar’s generals, as she has done in the past, reminding them of the enormous benefits they have reaped from the political transition and convincing them that it is not in their interest to jeopardize the democratization process.

Suu Kyi said in her Nobel Peace Prize lecture in 2012, “to be forgotten, is to die a little.” She must not allow the Rohingya to be driven out and forgotten. Her task is to give power to the powerless and bring peace to Myanmar.

The ASEAN Community: A Lofty Historical Challenge


May 11, 2017

The ASEAN Community: A Lofty Historical Challenge

by Michael Heng

“As an economic power, ASEAN is small by international standards. Given the level of development and technological base, ASEAN is unlikely to make a big impact on the global economy.” Do you agree with Professor Heng’s observation)?

http://ippreview.com/index.php/Home/Blog/single/id/433.html

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The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was founded in 1967. Its 50th anniversary this year is a good time to take stock and to look ahead. ASEAN was established with the goal of preserving long-term peace in region at a time when the First Indochina War was raging, even though its explicitly stated goals were economic growth, social progress, and cultural development. One of its guiding principles is to abide strictly by the modern international system of sovereign states where countries do not interfere in each other’s internal affairs. ASEAN’s leaders have chosen to make decisions by consensus, and to avoid airing their differences in the public.

ASEAN has scored significant success as an economic community, due largely to the activities of global production networks in the region. In the assessment of a senior Chinese official speaking at a workshop in 2009, ASEAN is the healthiest and most integrated regional organization in Asia and it should be the center and platform to promote Asia’s economic integration.

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However, one cannot ignore the failure of ASEAN to resolve significant intra-ASEAN problems such as the Thai-Cambodian border dispute, the annual haze originating from Indonesia, and the blatant violation of human rights in Myanmar. Such problems cannot be resolved within ASEAN because of the strict non-interference policy in each other’s internal affairs. But conditions in the international arena today are different from when ASEAN was formed half a century ago. Environmental pollution, climate change, epidemics, terrorism, and transnational crime cannot be solved without close international cooperation. In the event of large scale violations of human rights, sovereignty cannot be used as a cover for the state to fan off interference by the international community. With the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect, the concept of state sovereignty in the past few decades has acquired subtle but important new interpretations. ASEAN’s strict insistence on non-interference is out of sync with prevailing international norms.

Before the 1997 Asian financial crisis, global capital had focused on gaining market access and investment in Southeast Asia. In the wake of the crisis, it began to be disenchanted with the region’s failure to respond effectively to the crisis. Meanwhile, critical examination of the financial meltdown revealed some serious flaws among the political leadership in most ASEAN member states. This period also saw the rise of China and India as new economic powers next door. Between them, these events prompted soul-searching within ASEAN.

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Driven by internal and more so by external developments, ASEAN has strived to deepen and widen its integration and has set its sights on becoming a community of nations. To do so, it has to look beyond the geopolitical and economic dimensions, and widen its scope to include the social and cultural dimensions. Though some progress has been made in this direction, especially in their agreement to the terms of the ASEAN Charter, it remains to be seen whether the member states will be able to live up to the ideals as enshrined in this document. Even if they do so, they need to go further than this document in order to be in tune with prevailing international norms as adopted by the United Nations.

Unity in Diversity

One of ASEAN’s achievements has been its ability to group together ten member states with different political systems, population sizes, geographical sizes, languages, religions, historical backgrounds, and stages of economic development. It should come as no surprise that the ASEAN Charter has adopted as its principle the concept of “unity in diversity.”

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Unity in diversity is the concept of “unity without uniformity and diversity without fragmentation” — thereby moving and raising the focus from unity based on mere tolerance of physical, cultural, linguistic, social, religious, political, ideological and/or psychological differences towards a more complex unity based on an understanding that differences enrich human interactions. One should add that this understanding should go beyond the utilitarian aspect to one founded on the basis of appreciating and cherishing differences. No wonder that unity in diversity is said to be the highest possible attainment of a civilization, a testimony to the noblest potential of the human race.

ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community Blueprint

Just like unity in diversity, the concept of social justice is found in many ASEAN documents. For example, the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community Blueprint of 2009 claims that “ASEAN is committed to promoting social justice and mainstreaming people’s rights into its policies and all spheres of life, including the rights and welfare of disadvantaged, vulnerable and marginalized groups such as women, children, the elderly, persons with disabilities and migrant workers.” The reality in the ASEAN countries however shows clearly that there is a wide mismatch between such lofty statements and what the people experience.

A close reading of the ASEAN Charter will reveal that it has some lofty and high sounding concepts. For example, ASEAN and its Member States shall act in accordance with, among others, the principle of “adherence to the rule of law, good governance, the principles of democracy and constitutional government.” This sounds hollow when its member states undermine the independence of their judiciaries, allow corruption to run wild, pay scant attention to protect their environment, indulge in gerrymandering, and harass their political opposition.

Same Journey but at Different Speeds

ASEAN may be seen as a fine example of unity in diversity. But to strive towards the goal of a community of nations, they must live up to the goals and aspirations as written in their own official declarations. One way to do so is to emulate the best among them in a given area. For example, Indonesia has made significant progress in democratic transformations, and can fairly be said to be the most democratic of the ten. While Indonesia should continue to make progress, the other nine should be inspired by the success of Indonesia and follow its example. Similarly, Singapore’s achievement in economic development and clean government should spur the other nine to do the same.

The common struggles of the ASEAN peoples across the region will be a firm foundation for the growth of ASEAN solidarity, shared consciousness, sense of common interests, and an ASEAN identity.

It is of special importance that Indonesia can carry out democratic reforms, and Singapore can practice clean government. It means that these institutions and practices are not alien to Southeast Asia or in a wider context to the non-Western world.

Unity in diversity here may take on additional meanings: united in pursuing the goals of social justice, economic prosperity, clean government, human rights, democracy, etc. but with different member nations proceeding at different speeds. Those moving ahead should nudge and help those trailing behind.

Promoting Knowledge at the People-to-People Level

According to the Charter, community building is to be intensified through enhanced regional cooperation and integration via the means of the security community, economic community, and socio-cultural community. The first two have enjoyed the lion’s share of official attention. The third deserves to be given its due attention.

A recent study reveals that the general public in cities in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore perceive the formation of the ASEAN Community as beneficial, but they see the formation as elitist and state-centric as it did not involve the people. This is a disturbing finding. City residents are generally more well-informed and involved in the political life of their countries. If they do not feel so involved in the formation of the ASEAN Community, one can imagine how low the sense of involvement can be in the rural areas. Much more must be done therefore to create and nurture a sense of participation by the citizens.

There is a useful role to be played by ASEAN’s professional bodies, like the ASEAN Associations of Lawyers, Engineers, Doctors, Accountants, Architects, Journalists, Writers, Teachers, etc. Through their regular contacts and sharing, we have new channels for evolving ASEAN styles of landscaping, architecture, paintings, music, and so on. The Association of Doctors could also be a good forum for them to develop a teaching program on traditional medicine based on research and as practiced by their ancestors.

In additional to the above are regular exchanges of cultural troupes. Their works should be featured on national television channels, and tickets should be subsidized by sponsors. For those more inclined to intellectual discussions, their interests can be served by local think tanks hosting talks and seminars by public intellectuals and thinkers on topics concerning the broader and long-term future of the region.

Looking Ahead

From its humble beginning, ASEAN has grown into a regional body that is courted by major world powers. Given the different historical backgrounds, cultures, political systems, and their lack of complementary economic activities, its endurance and success might come as a surprise. Credit must be given to its political leaders for being able to respond well to the emerging challenges and opportunities.

The success of ASEAN can also be seen as a clever response to the challenges posed by globalization. This is clearly seen in how the Asian financial crisis prompted ASEAN to speed up and deepen its integration. The same was again seen in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. The latest is how global production networks have integrated the ASEAN economies with that of China, forming the basis for the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement.

But the imperatives for regional integration need to be combined with an awareness of the limitations arising from inter-state competition and divergent domestic capabilities within its member states. Here there is a need to work for the greater common good and with a long-term perspective. There are at least four areas where this approach is needed. The first concerns industrial policy. The member states need to sit down and formulate industrial policies which are complementary to each other. Doing so will increase intra-ASEAN trade, which currently constitutes only 25 percent of ASEAN’s trade. The second concerns protection of the environment, a point that was touched on earlier. The third concerns supporting local cultures and intellectual activities, so that Southeast Asia can boast its own world-class writers, painters, thinkers, musicians, and architects. The fourth and arguably the most difficult, is to translate into real practice the paper commitment of ASEAN member states to democracy and social justice. It includes protecting and respecting the rights of minorities, appreciating the political opposition as assets of the countries, and guaranteeing freedom of the press and association.

As an economic power, ASEAN is small by international standards. Given the level of development and technological base, ASEAN is unlikely to make a big impact on the global economy.

Perhaps the most important area which ASEAN can contribute to the world is to bring about the ASEAN Community with cultures and historical backgrounds different from those of the European Union. The new global conditions present Southeast Asia with opportunities and challenges. The greatest opportunities are the big avenues for economic growth in the region, and long-lasting peace. Territorial contestation leading to war is for most countries a thing of the past. Some challenges are persistent — nationalism, ethno-religious parochialism, discrimination against women, massive natural disasters, diseases, and poverty. Some challenges are new — climate change, environmental degradation, depleting natural resources, transnational crime, and terrorism. The challenges call for political, religious, opinion, and business leaders to re-orientate their courses of action toward the greater common good of the people in the region.

What is more crucial and effective is for the citizens of ASEAN countries to render support to each other in their struggle to realize the ideals of the ASEAN Charter such as environmental protection, rights of migrant workers, human rights, and social justice. It would be difficult for the governments to suppress these struggles because these are struggles inspired by a document crafted and endorsed by the government leaders themselves. The common struggles of the ASEAN peoples across the region will be a firm foundation for the growth of ASEAN solidarity, shared consciousness, sense of common interests, and an ASEAN identity.

Like other historical processes, the journey to the formation of the ASEAN Community will take time and will not be easy. There is still a wide gap between the deeds and words of the government leaders of ASEAN. If and when the realities on the ground are in line with the lofty proclamations of the ASEAN documents, then and only then will the ASEAN Community be no longer a dream but a reality. It will be an ASEAN with a new identity, for it will represent a new moral and political order, able to articulate global issues in international forums with moral authority and coherence.

Shake Up at Foggy Bottom


March 4, 2017

Shake Up at Foggy Bottom

by Julia Ioffe March 1, 2017
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Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel (pic above), the top diplomat for East Asian and Pacific issues at the U.S. State Department, is leaving the job to take a fellowship in New York, the latest senior official to leave the agency since President Donald Trump took office.

Less Money for Diplomacy and Foreign Aid, more for Defense-Security makes streamlining, downsizing and cost cutting necessary for productivity. So Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former Chairman, ExxonMobil,  is not in unfamiliar territory. Will we see a more dynamic State Department or a demoralized bureaucracy with Foreign Policy being driven from the East Wing of The White House? –Din Merican

The State of Trump’s State Department

https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/03/state-department-trump/517965/

Anxiety and listless days as a foreign-policy bureaucracy confronts the possibility of radical change

U.S. State Department

The State Department–Home of American Diplomacy

The flags in the lobby of the State Department stood bathed in sunlight and silence on a recent afternoon. “It’s normally so busy here,” marveled a State Department staffer as we stood watching the emptiness. “People are usually coming in for meetings, there’s lots of people, and now it’s so quiet.” The action at Foggy Bottom has instead moved to the State Department cafeteria where, in the absence of work, people linger over countless coffees with colleagues. (“The cafeteria is so crowded all day,” a mid-level State Department officer said, adding that it was a very unusual sight. “No one’s doing anything.”) As the staffer and I walked among the tables and chairs, people with badges chatted over coffee; one was reading his Kindle.

“It just feels empty,” a recently departed senior State official told me.

This week began with reports that President Donald Trump’s budget proposal will drastically slash the State Department’s funding, and last week ended with White House adviser and former Breitbart head Stephen Bannon telling the attendees of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference that what he and the new president were after was a “deconstruction of the administrative state.” At the State Department, which employs nearly 70,000 people around the world, that deconstruction is already well underway.

In the last week, I’ve spoken with a dozen current and recently departed State Department employees, all of whom asked for anonymity either because they were not authorized to speak to the press and feared retribution by an administration on the prowl for leakers, or did not want to burn their former colleagues. None of these sources were political appointees. Rather, they were career foreign service officers or career civil servants, most of whom have served both Republican and Democratic administrations—and many of whom do not know each other. They painted a picture of a State Department adrift and listless.

Sometimes, the deconstruction of the administrative state is quite literal. After about two dozen career staff on the seventh floor—the State Department’s equivalent of a C suite—were told to find other jobs, some with just 12 hours’ notice, construction teams came in over Presidents’ Day weekend and began rebuilding the office space for a new team and a new concept of how State’s nerve center would function. (This concept hasn’t been shared with most of the people who are still there.) The space on Mahogany Row, the line of wood-paneled offices including that of the secretary of state, is now a mysterious construction zone behind blue tarp.

With the State Department demonstratively shut out of meetings with foreign leaders, key State posts left unfilled, and the White House not soliciting many department staffers for their policy advice, there is little left to do. “If I left before 10 p.m., that was a good day,” said the State staffer of the old days, which used to start at 6:30 in the morning. “Now, I come in at 9, 9:15, and leave by 5:30.” The seeming hostility from the White House, the decades of American foreign-policy tradition being turned on its head, and the days of listlessness are taking a toll on people who are used to channeling their ambition and idealism into the detail-oriented, highly regimented busywork that greases the infinite wheels of a massive bureaucracy. Without it, anxiety has spiked. People aren’t sleeping well. Over a long impromptu lunch one afternoon—“I can meet tomorrow or today, whenever! Do you want to meet right now?”—the staffer told me she too has trouble sleeping now, kept awake by her worries about her job and America’s fading role in the world.

“I used to love my job,” she said. “Now, it feels like coming to the hospital to take care of a terminally ill family member. You come in every day, you bring flowers, you brush their hair, paint their nails, even though you know there’s no point. But you do it out of love.”

Some try to conduct policy meetings just to retain the muscle memory and focus, but, said another department employee, “in the last couple months, it’s been a lot more sitting around and going home earlier than usual.” Some wander around the streets of Foggy Bottom, going for long, aimless lunches. “I’m used to going to three or four inter-agency policy meetings a week,” the employee added, referring to the meetings in which policy is developed in coordination with other government departments. “I’ve had exactly one of those meetings in the last five weeks.” Even the torrent of inter-department email has slowed to a trickle. The State Department staffer told me that where she once used to get two hundred emails a day, it’s down to two dozen now. “Not since I began at the department a decade ago has it been so quiet,” she said. “Colleagues tell me it’s the same for them.”

A lot of this, the employee said, is because there is now a “much smaller decision circle.” And many State staffers are surprised to find themselves on the outside. “They really want to blow this place up,” said the mid-level State Department officer. “I don’t think this administration thinks the State Department needs to exist. They think Jared [Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law] can do everything. It’s reminiscent of the developing countries where I’ve served. The family rules everything, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs knows nothing.”

Right now, those I’ve spoken to in the department seem to know very little about what’s going on. The staffer told me that she finds out what’s going on at State from the news—which she spends all day reading because, after years of having her day scheduled down to 15 minute blocks, she has nothing else to do. And even the news itself isn’t coming from official sources. There hasn’t been a State Department press briefing, once a daily ritual, since the new administration took over five weeks ago—though they’re scheduled to resume March 6. These briefings weren’t just for journalists. They also served as a crucial set of cues for U.S. diplomats all over the world about policy priorities, and how to talk about them. With no daily messaging, and almost no guidance from Washington, people in far-flung posts are flying blind even as the pace of their diplomacy hasn’t abated.

“Meetings are happening,” said one American diplomat stationed abroad, “but it is noticeable that we’re not having press briefings, which makes it hard for ambassadors waiting to take cues. We’re able to echo what Mattis, Tillerson and Pence say. But we’re still not there in aggressively promoting president’s agenda.” Other American diplomats, especially those in geo-politically sensitive posts, find themselves going on old, Obama-era guidance because no new guidance has been issued. But “the diplomacy goes on,” said another American diplomat abroad. “People notice every little change in our position,” the diplomat said. “And we don’t always know where the administration is or is going to be, so you operate on old guidance until Washington takes a new position. We’re largely taking our cues from the president, vice president, and Secretary Tillerson’s remarks and from reading the Spicer briefings,” referring to the daily briefings of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. “We are watching the news and seeing how quickly we can get our fingers on the [Spicer] transcripts,” the diplomat said.

When Rex Tillerson finally arrived in the building, members of the department I spoke to had very high hopes for him. People wanted to like him. But his remarks to the staff left many cold, and confused. “He only spoke of reform and accountability,” said the State Department staffer. “He offered no vision of America and its place in the world.” He also spoke of protecting missions abroad, which some read as a gratuitous reference to Benghazi. “It landed like a thud,” said the staffer. “There are all these people whose sole focus is protecting missions abroad. What do you think we’ve been doing for all these years?”

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shakes hands with State Department employees on his first day earlier this month. Photo by the State Department

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The fact that there hasn’t been a deputy secretary of state nominated, and that many undersecretary slots sit empty, is also unnerving to a bureaucracy used to relying on a strict hierarchy to get things done. “Not having a deputy … is going to become a problem real soon,” the staffer said. “The world has been pretty quiet but it won’t stay that way.” She and others I spoke to worry about the optics of Tillerson flanked by empty seats during his meeting in Bonn, Germany, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who was accompanied by a dozen aides. All these details send signals that other countries’ leaders and diplomats pore over for indications of potential policy changes. “With the Chinese, protocol is policy,” said the mid-level State officer. “We’re sending signals that are potentially damaging the relationship in ways we can’t anticipate.”

It also worries some State employees that Tillerson was unable to name his own deputy. His choice of the neocon Elliott Abrams was vetoed by the White House because Abrams had criticized Trump, and many in Foggy Bottom saw it as yet another signal that they and their secretary were being downgraded. “It’s troubling that his first battle with the president, he lost,” said the State employee. “If he couldn’t even bring in his own staff member, it’s concerning for future issues.”

On Tuesday, Trump confirmed their fears, telling Fox and Friends that there was a reason he wasn’t filling certain government posts: “in many cases, I don’t want to fill those posts. … They’re unnecessary.”

But while senior State appointees have yet to be appointed, other staff has been showing up. The Office of Policy Planning, created by George Kennan after World War II, is now filled not just with Ph.D.s, as it once was, but with fresh college graduates and a malpractice attorney from New Jersey whose sole foreign-policy credential seems to be that she was born in Hungary. Tillerson’s chief of staff is not his own, but is, according to the Washington Post, a Trump transition alum named Margaret Peterlin. “Tillerson is surrounded by a bunch of rather mysterious Trumpistas,” said the senior State official who recently left. “How the hell is he supposed to do his job when even his right hand is not his own person?” One State Department employee told me that Peterlin has instructed staff that all communications with Tillerson have to go through her, and even scolded someone for answering a question Tillerson asked directly, in a meeting.

Peterlin did not respond to request for comment, but former Newt Gingrich aide and State public affairs senior advisor R.C. Hammond clarified that the malpractice attorney was the White House liaison to State, and denied that Peterlin had issued such instructions or admonishments, or that the State Department was slow and listless. “The place is humming,” he said.

He and his staff pointed me to, among other people, Christiaan James, who is the Arabic-language spokesperson for State’s bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. He is busy; he spends a lot of time fielding questions from the Arabic-language press. “Even though we haven’t had a press briefing since January, we still get a lot of inquiries,” he said. “There’s still a lot going on, and we have to respond.” In the absence of a press briefing, staffers are now winging it, trying to interpret for their questioners what the American president meant when he seemed to toss overboard the idea of a two-state solution. “This actually came up yesterday,” James said. “An Egyptian channel wanted me to go on air and talk about this.” So, using the “two pages of guidance” put out by the press officer on the Israel-Palestine desk, James told them that, whatever the two sides agree on, “the United States is committed to finding a solution to this, that we’re going to be involved in the process. It’s about telegraphing that the U.S. is committed and not getting into the nitty-gritty, and talking in more general terms until something more specific gets developed.”

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Such arrogance from 45th POTUS

Michelle Bernier-Toth, who runs overseas services for American citizens abroad, meanwhile continues to monitor the world for crises that might affect U.S. citizens and make consular services for them even more efficient, but she told me that she didn’t need guidance from the White House or even the Secretary of State. “What we do, we just keep on doing it,” she told me. “We’re very much a heart that keeps going. The consular side is law-based, so that’s our guidance.”

A State Department public-affairs officer was on the line with us when we talked. Another public-affairs officer was also on the line when I spoke to Paco Palmieri, a career foreign service officer and the acting assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs. Palmieri has had plenty to keep him busy, from Tillerson’s meeting with the Brazilian foreign minister in Bonn, Germany to his trip to Mexico, but he is an acting assistant secretary and he doesn’t know how long it will take for a political appointee to take his place. “Sometimes as an administration gets started, it takes some time to get a definitive answer but that just means you work harder to get to it,” he told me. “Every transition is unique.” Then the public affairs officer hustled him off to his next meeting.

According to the other people I spoke to, though, Tillerson seems cut off not just from the White House, but from the State Department. “The guidance from Tillerson has been, the less paper the better,” said the State Department staffer. “Voluntary papers are not exactly encouraged, so not much information is coming up to him. And nothing is flowing down from him to us. That, plus the absence of undersecretaries and assistant secretaries means there’s no guidance to the troops so we’re just marking time and responding.”

Many in the State Department openly acknowledge that the department is bloated, that it is at times inefficient and redundant. But they don’t understand why the culling is being done in such a crass and indiscriminate manner. “They didn’t talk to anyone, they didn’t ask them what they did, they just told them to look for other jobs,” said the mid-level officer of the seventh floor dismissals. “Nothing will make you a libertarian faster than working in the federal government,” said the State staffer. “There are inefficiencies, there needs to be reform. They certainly have a right to staffing, or lack of staffing,” the staffer said of the new administration. “But doing it without an analysis of where the inefficiencies are, the cutting just won’t be rational or effective. It just creates ill will.” The last month, the staffer said, “has been a very deliberate stress test.” “There seems to be no effort to benefit from the knowledge and expertise of people who are here, who just want to help,” said the mid-level officer. Instead, they see the White House vilifying them as bureaucrats no one elected, and it all seems, the mid-level officer said, “symbolic of wanting to neuter the organization.”

“This is probably what it felt like to be a British foreign service officer after World War II, when you realize, no, the sun actually does set on your empire,” said the mid-level officer. “America is over. And being part of that, when it’s happening for no reason, is traumatic.”

Trump and New World Order


February 28, 2017

Trump and New World Order

Brought to you by Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy featuring Dr. Amitav Acharya

Published on Feb 27, 2017

The election of Donald J. Trump as the US President has caused much anxiety about its damage to the liberal international order. But Trump is the consequence, rather than the cause, of the crisis and decline of the existing order. That decline, as foretold in Acharya’s 2014 book, The End of American World Order, has to do with the liberal order’s own internal limitations – aggravated by a long-power shift in world politics – that a complacent liberal establishment in the West had glossed over earlier. Recognizing the broader and multifaceted nature of those challenges is key to any hopes for building world order 2.0: a decentered and pluralistic Multiplex World, with its own challenges and opportunities.

Amitav Acharya is the Boeing Company Chair in International Relations at the Schwarzman Scholars Program, Tsinghua University, Beijing, and Distinguished Professor of International Relations and the UNESCO Chair in Transnational Challenges and Governance at the School of International Service, American University, Washington, DC.

This talk is moderated by Prof Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS.

What is Up in Trump’s Washington


February 15, 2017

What is Up in Trump’s Washington after 2 weeks of the 45th Presidency

by Thomas L. Friedman

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The Parting of the Ways–“Mr. Patriotism” and his National Security Adviser, Lt- Gen (rtd) Michael Flynn

Thank God for the resignation in shame by Mike Flynn, President Trump’s National Security Adviser. And not just because he misled the vice president and engaged in deeply malignant behavior with Russia, but, more important, because maybe it will finally get the United States government, Congress and the news media to demand a proper answer to what is still the biggest national security question staring us in the face today: What is going on between Donald Trump and the Russians?

Sorry, Kellyanne Conway, I am not ready to just “move on.”

Every action, tweet and declaration by Trump throughout this campaign, his transition and his early presidency screams that he is compromised when it comes to the Russians.

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Who owns this Make America Great Again Guy?

I don’t know whether Russian oligarchs own him financially or whether Russian spies own him personally because of alleged indiscreet behavior during his trips to Moscow. But Trump’s willingness to attack allies like Australia, bluster at rivals like China, threaten enemies like Iran and North Korea and bully neighbors like Mexico — while consistently blowing kisses to Russian President Vladimir Putin — cannot be explained away by his mere desire to improve relations with Moscow to defeat the Islamic State. And the Flynn ouster gives our government another, desperately needed opportunity to demand the answers to these questions, starting with seeing the President’s tax returns.

We need to know whom Trump owes and who might own him, and we need to know it now. Save for a few patriotic Republican senators like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, the entire Republican Party is complicit in a shameful act of looking away at Trump’s inexplicable behavior toward Russia.

If Republicans want to know how they should be behaving on this issue, they should ask themselves what they would be saying and doing right now if a President Hillary Clinton had behaved toward Russia the way Trump has, and had her national security adviser been found hinting to the Russian ambassador to hold tight because a softer United States policy toward Russia was on its way.

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House Speaker Paul Ryan and  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell–Both should consider impeaching Trump when there is inscrutable evidence to do so, instead of looking away from this traversty. Loyalty has its limits.

House Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, what are you thinking by looking away from this travesty? You both know that if the C.I.A., N.S.A. and F.B.I. had concluded that the Russians had intervened to help Hillary Clinton get elected you would have closed the government and demanded a new election. Now it’s all O.K.? So you can get some tax cuts? Gens. Jim Mattis and John Kelly, our new secretaries of defense and homeland security, you are great patriots who both put your lives on the line in uniform to defend American values from precisely the kind of attack Putin perpetrated. Are you O.K. with what’s going on?

We need to rerun the tape. Ladies and gentlemen, we were attacked on December  7, 1941, we were attacked on September 11, 2001, and we were attacked on November 8, 2016. That most recent attack didn’t involve a horrible loss of lives, but it was devastating in its own way. Our entire intelligence community concluded that Russia hacked our election by deliberately breaking into Democratic National Committee computers and then drip-by-drip funneling embarrassing emails through WikiLeaks to undermine Clinton’s campaign. And what have we done about it? Other than a wrist slap against Moscow, we’ve moved on.

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Turmoil beneath  the beautiful and calm Washington DC

I am not arguing that Trump is not the legitimate President; he won for many reasons. But I am arguing that he is not behaving like one. Trump presents himself as “Mr. Patriotism,” wrapped in the American flag. And yet he has used his Twitter account to attack BMW for building an auto plant in Mexico, Boeing for over charging for a government airplane, the cast of “Hamilton” for appealing to the vice president to reaffirm American pluralism, American newspapers for undercounting the size of his inauguration crowd and the actress Meryl Streep for calling him out for bullying a handicapped reporter. And yet “Mr. Patriotism” has barely uttered a word of criticism on Twitter or off about a Russian President who has intervened in our democratic process.

That’s not O.K. The Russians did not just hack into some emails or break into some banks in America. They attacked the very things that make America what it is — that makes it so special: “its rule of law and its democratic form of choosing and changing leaders,” said Nader Mousavizadeh, who was a senior adviser to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and co-leads the global consulting firm Macro Advisory Partners.

I am not looking to go to war with Russia over this. Back in the 1990s, this column was among the loudest voices warning against NATO expansion — that it would one day come back to haunt us, which it has, by making Russia feel threatened. I don’t care about Putin. His regime will fail because he is forever looking for dignity in all the wrong places, by drilling for oil and gas instead of unleashing the creativity of his people. But I am not willing to settle for evicting a few Russian agents and then moving on. We need to get to the truth, look it squarely in the eye and then act proportionately.

Trump and his senior aides have spent their first weeks in power doing nothing more than telling us how afraid we should be of Muslim immigrants who have not been properly vetted by our intelligence and immigration authorities. Well, Putin was vetted by the F.B.I., C.I.A. and N.S.A., and they concluded that he attacked our country’s most important institution — and Trump has acted as if he could not care less.

If the rest of us do the same, we’ll get the country we deserve, and it will not be great.


 

Foreign Policy: Najib courts China


November 12, 2016

Foreign Policy: Najib courts China and Abandons traditional ties with the United States and its allies

by James Chin

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Najib Razak on Ego Boosting Jet setting Trip to China

Malaysia’s scandal-plagued Prime Minister is finding old friends in Beijing after wearing out his welcome in the West. James Chin looks at whether this is a path more ASEAN countries are likely to follow. 

The Malaysian Prime Minister, Najib Tun Razak, last week took his third official visit to the People’s Republic of China. These sort of official trips do not normally attract much attention, but this one is generating prominent coverage in highly influential newspapers such as the New York Times, Washington Post and Financial Times.

The reasons are obvious – Najib’s arrival comes immediately after the controversial visit of Rodrigo Duterte, the new Filipino president. Duterte made a series of pronouncements in Beijing that caught the Americans off-guard, including his comments about a “separation” from the United States. Many were surprised by Duterte’s statements given that before touching down in Beijing, he was criticising China for its aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea. In fact, the Philippines took China to the International Court of Arbitration over the issue.

Malaysia and the Philippines have overlapping claims with China in the South China Sea and both countries are unhappy with China’s de facto policy of building islands for military use in the disputed waters and using Chinese coast guard vessels to harass fishermen from their countries. It’s well-known that Chinese coast guard vessels regularly sail within 50 miles of Bintulu, the gas-rich town in Malaysian Borneo. Malaysia has sent several diplomatic notes to Beijing on the matter.

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Selling Malaysian Assets to cash rich China for political survival while the Malaysian Ringgit takes a beating against the Greenback (Rm4.5 to 1 Usd)

Despite this, Najib has just signed multi-billion dollar deals in Beijing, including the purchase of Chinese-made military equipment for the first time in Malaysian history. Chinese state-owned enterprises will also buy into key Malaysian assets and provide funding for new infrastructure projects such as a new railway line.

Even more surprising was his interview with Xinhua, Beijing’s official mouthpiece, in which he said he was seeking closer military ties. In an editorial in The China Daily, Najib was quoted as saying former colonial powers should not lecture nations they once exploited as colonies, a clear reference to the West.

So, the question is, are we seeing a tilt in Malaysian foreign policy to China from the previous pro-Western position? The short answer is “Yes”, as long as Najib is in power.

Malaysian insiders will tell you that this was the only position Najib could have taken in light of recent events. To understand Najib’s move, one must look towards domestic politics.

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Malaysia’s Watchdogs

For the past four years, Najib has been mired in a massive corruption scandal called 1MDB. The story is complicated, but suffice to say that there is credible evidence that huge amounts of money, in the region of US$10 to 15 billion, was scammed off 1MDB, a sovereign wealth fund, and part of the amount, in the region of US$1 to 2 billion, allegedly ended up in Najib’s personal bank account. Earlier this year, the US Department of Justice’s Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative filed court action to recover more than US$1 billion in assets tied to 1MBD. The Department named Najib’s stepson and indirectly named Najib as “Malaysian Public Official No 1” in the proceedings. Several other countries such as Singapore, Switzerland and Luxembourg are also pursuing money laundering charges related to 1MDB. The consequence of all these legal actions is that Najib is longer welcome in Western capitals and some are calling on the US administration to ‘distance’ itself from Najib. Prior to the scandal, Najib could boast that he was the only Asian leader invited to golf with Obama in Hawaii, the President’s home state.

Related to the political fallout is investment from the West. The ringgit has fallen more than any other currency in the region against the US dollar in the past three years. It is obvious that a major part of the reason for this is a lack of confidence in the Najib administration. To restore confidence in the economy and kick-start foreign direct investment, Najib can only turn to one country: China.

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China has the money to invest heavily in Malaysia, but more importantly, it does not care about Najib’s alleged corruption allegations or governance issues. For the Chinese, the bigger picture is the ongoing rivalry with the US for influence in the ASEAN region. The Chinese see the US as trying to block their influence by pursuing the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement and pushing ASEAN to collectively confront China over the South China Sea. China has consistently refused to deal with ASEAN on the South China Sea issue, insisting that the solution lies in bilateral negotiations between the claimant countries. China also scored a victory-of-sorts when many ASEAN countries signed up for the China-founded Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank despite the US openly lobbying against it.

China’s investments, including buying 1MDB assets, will allow the controversial company to partly square its accounts and the shortfall from the missing money.

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The added bonus for Najib is that he can show the domestic Malaysian audience that the “next” Superpower, China, will give him a red carpet treatment even if the West has side-lined him over the corruption allegations. Najib and the Chinese are also going to great pains to remind the international audience that it was Najib’s father, Tun Razak, Malaysia’s second prime minister, who opened-up diplomatic relations with China. Thus, according to Beijing, Razak’s son Najib, easily qualifies as China’s “old friend”. In turn, Najib has described China as a “true friend and strategic partner”.

With such “old friends” who needs the meddling West with its “lectures” on good governance, human rights and corruption?

The long-term winner in the current saga will be Beijing. As the south-east Asian region becomes more and more dependent on China for its development funds, tourism and trade, more and more ASEAN countries will start to tilt towards Beijing. This is especially true if Donald Trump becomes President on Tuesday.

Professor James Chin is Director of Asia Institute, University of Tasmania. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute in Malaysia.

This article is published in collaboration with Policy Forum — Asia and the Pacific’s leading platform for policy discussion and analysis.

http://www.newmandala.org/najibs-china-legacy/