South China Sea Tensions Likely to Get Worse Before They Get Better

March 25, 2016

South China Sea Tensions Likely to Get Worse Before They Get Better

Diplomatic Punch: Ambassador to Asylum

February 28, 2016

Diplomatic Punch: Ambassador to Asylum

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

UNITED NATIONS – Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, a former US Permanent Representative to the UN (1961-1965), was a renowned intellectual of his generation, known as much for his riveting speeches as his political witticisms.

A two-time Democratic presidential nominee, he once declared that the social life of a UN diplomat is characterised by three elements: alcohol, protocol and Geritol (a high potency B-vitamin dietary supplement meant for energising low-energy diplomats). The breakdown, according to another diplomat, was 97 percent alcohol, two percent protocol and one percent Geritol.

But anecdotes apart — and there were plenty going around at the delegate’s lounge, the official UN watering hole — one of the most trying things was to get an on-the-record quote on a politically sensitive issue. Permanently on a leash, tightly held by their governments or their foreign ministries, most diplomats assigned to the UN were quick to make bland and predictable statements but never off-the-cuff remarks worthy of tabloid headlines.

In contrast, US politicians are distinctly media savvy. When the US failed to get elected to the UN Human Rights Commission (now called the Human Rights Council), Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (Republican of California) expressed his indignation over the fact that the US was left out in the cold while some of the world’s worst human rights violators were voted into office. “The inmates,” he hollered, “have taken over the asylum.”

That statement was every headline writer’s dream. “Revolt at the UN”, screamed the New York Times. “Tyrants Take Over,” shouted the Wall Street Journal. And the Washington Times reduced the Human Rights Commission to a “Commission of Rogues”.

Back in 1975, when President Gerald Ford refused to bail out a cash-strapped New York City with federal funding to avoid bankruptcy, the New York Daily News ran the story with the immortal headline: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” Still, I don’t foresee any UN-based diplomats — least of all a Sri Lankan Ambassador — telling the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights or the Secretary-General: “Go to Hell,” on even milder language. After all, as someone once remarked, diplomacy is the art of telling someone to go to hell — in a way they look forward to the trip.

The lingering and unanswered question for a such a strong response is: “Why aren’t you taking the Americans, the Brits, the French and the Russians to a war crimes tribunal for all the slaughtering of civilians and bombings of hospitals going on in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya?.”

As a general rule, juicy quotes are hard to come by at the UN, but with one exception. At myriads of daily cocktail parties and regular national day receptions, some diplomats tend to drop their defences while holding onto their pants. Still, it is rare to get a political scoop that can be attributed to an individual diplomat or an ambassador. And so when journalists do get a story, it is usually attributed to an unnamed Western or a Third World diplomat “speaking on condition of anonymity.”

At the news agency I work for, there is a time-honoured rule that every feature story should– as far as possible — have at least one or two sources quoted by name. The New Yorker magazine, best known for its biting cartoons, once ran an illustration of the Evil Queen in the Snow White fairy tale who looks at the Magic Mirror and implores: “Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall, who is the fairest of them all?.” And then, adds: “And I want two sources quoted by name.”

Getting a juicy on-the record quote from a senior UN official was even more difficult than getting a quote from a UN diplomat. But Shashi Tharoor, a former UN Under-Secretary-General (USG) and later an Indian Parliamentarian from Kerala and State Minister, once said every UN official, from a USG to a window-washer, is entitled to express his or her own opinion — but in their area of competence. But that rule died an unnatural death.

Ambassador Palitha Kohona (2006-2009) was one of only two Sri Lankan UN officials (the other being Ambassador John de Saram, Director of the UN Office of Legal Counsel), who graduated from the UN to the post of Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN. (Incidentally, there has never been a Permanent Representative (PR) who was really permanent, although there have been rumours of some PRs leaving their handkerchiefs on their seats when going to the toilet, indicating the seat is occupied, particularly when there is a change of government at home.)

A former Chief of the UN Treaty Section, Kohona held the post of Permanent Representative (2009-2015) embodying a mix of both — and making it doubly difficult to get a headline-grabbing, on-the-record quote from him (although he was an Australian citizen when he headed the Treaty Section and later held dual citizenships — even as he wondered whether he should cheer Sri Lanka or Australia at the ICC World Cup cricket finals in Barbados in 2007. Rumour has it he cheered for Sri Lanka, the losing side, in the company of a “cricket-crazy” President).

Perhaps some of the best scoops from Kohona came with a dire warning: “Not for Attribution” or “Strictly Off-the-Record.” Asked for a quote on a politically controversial issue, he said: “No comment.” And then, provided the punchline: “And don’t quote me on that.”

When he was Foreign Secretary, he apparently had a running battle with a Sri Lankan envoy based in Western Europe. So, he was more than happy when the envoy finished his three year term and was due to pack his bags and return home. Since I was aware of this thorny relationship, I mischievously tried to get a rise out of Kohona by asking him whether he was planning to send this ambassador on a cross posting. “Yes,” came the email reply, “to Angoda.”

I had heard of Sri Lankan ambassadors abandoning their home countries to seek political asylum in Europe and the US — but never mental asylum. As Hollywood would have it: one flew over the cuckoo’s nest.

The writer can be contacted at

Foreign Policy: Dealing with an assertive China

February 23, 2016

Foreign Policy: Dealing with an assertive China in the South China Sea

by Masayuki Masuda
National Institute for Defense Studies (NIDS), Tokyo

China’s rise as a quasi-superpower represents the most important change in the international system in the 21st century. China is now widely viewed as the de facto strategic rival of the United States and a potential challenger to US global supremacy, particularly in the Asia Pacific.

Chinese People's Liberation Army soldiers march during a military parade. (Photo: AAP)

Many observers have described Chinese diplomacy as newly and increasingly assertive in the wake of rising tensions in the South China Sea. How should we understand this ‘new’ assertiveness?

China’s assertive foreign policy has often been understood as a response to the 2008–2009 global financial crisis. In July 2009, Chinese President Hu Jintao delivered a speech to a national envoy meeting, insisting on the need to increase Chinese power and influence in the international arena. Hu referred to the strategic guideline usually abbreviated as taoguang yanghui, yousuo zuowei — ‘keeping a low profile and achieving something’ (KLP/AS) — coined by Deng Xiaoping in the early 1990s. Hu further stressed this policy, stating that China should ‘insist upon keeping a low profile and proactively achieving something’.

While the full text of Hu’s speech has not been made public, the People’s Daily, the official organ of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s Central Committee, stressed that China should pursue ‘four strengths’ in its foreign policy. That is, China should attain greater influence in international politics, strengthen its competitiveness in the global economy, cultivate ‘more affinity in its image’ and become a ‘more appealing force in morality’.

Since then, there appeared to be a significant contradiction between the PRC’s officially announced intentions and the external behaviour of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and maritime law enforcement agencies. Some China-based official media criticised in 2011 the neglect of an indispensable part of its strategy — keeping a low profile.

As Xi Jinping has consolidated power, this picture has changed. Xi Jinping has not mentioned the KLP/AS dictum. Rather, he calls for fenfa youwei (‘striving for achievement’ or SFA) to realise the ‘Chinese dream’ on the world stage, and particularly in China’s peripheral diplomacy. The Chinese dream is a vision of the Chinese nation rejuvenated as a prosperous country with a powerful military.

Xi has tried to rebuild domestic foreign affairs and security institutions, including by establishing the Central National Security Commission (CNSC) in January 2014. The CNSC, headed by Xi, is intended as a top-level body for improving interagency coordination and developing a holistic national security strategy.

President Xi — who is General Secretary of the CCP and chairman of both the Central Military Commission (CMC) and the CNSC — has played an increasingly dominant role in foreign and security policymaking and interagency coordination among the Party, the government and the PLA.

Xi’s SFA declaration does not have much in common with the phrase ‘keeping a low profile’. Rather, SFA stresses the need to safeguard China’s national sovereignty and security interests as well as economic success. According to Tsinghua University Professor Yan Xuetong, Xi’s SFA strategy aims to achieve a favourable environment for China’s national rejuvenation. This differs fundamentally from the KLP strategy, which aims to create an international environment conducive to economic development.

Xi sees his country as a major power on the world stage. In an October 2014 speech, Xi presented the concept of ‘major-power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics’. This was the first time in many decades that Beijing’s leadership has described China’s diplomacy as that of a ‘major power’.

China has put the SFA strategy into practice through its proposal for a ‘new type of great power relations’ between China and the United States, through the One Belt, One Road initiative for connectivity in Eurasia, and through Xi’s pledge to contribute 8000 troops to a UN peacekeeping standby force.

The Asia Pacific region is the core of China’s current foreign and security policy activities. Xi said in 2013 that China should aim to promote political relationships, solidify economic bonds, deepen security cooperation and intensify cultural exchange in the region. This announcement was followed by China’s proposals to establish the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Silk Road Fund.

The region is full of potential traditional threats for China, including the territorial and maritime boundary disputes and the US rebalance to Asia. The latter is seen in Beijing as the biggest obstacle to resolving the territorial disputes in China’s favour. Protecting maritime sovereignty and rights has become a top policy priority, on par with maintaining regional stability.

Xi stressed the importance of safeguarding national sovereignty in China’s periphery both at the 2013 Periphery Diplomacy Work Meeting and the 2014 Central Foreign Affairs Work Conference. China’s current reclamation and construction efforts in the South China Sea are regarded in China as part of the SFA strategy. In the words of Admiral Sun Jianguo in May 2015, they are ‘legitimate and justified’ activities.

Although China’s land reclamation efforts could improve the country’s ability to maintain military operations in the region on a day-to-day basis, they arguably violate the general spirit of cooperation and self-restraint embodied in the 2002 South China Sea Declaration of Conduct. It has become clear that China has adopted a more heavy-handed approach to the maritime territorial disputes in the region.

China’s ‘new’ assertive behaviour since 2012 should be understood as a unified, intentional development by Beijing. China has emerged as a major strategic power and Beijing’s emphases on sovereignty, security and its great power status reflect this. Now, and in the years to come, the Chinese dream will be played out on the world stage.

Masayuki Masuda is Senior Fellow at the National Institute for Defense Studies (NIDS), Tokyo. He is also a visiting scholar at the East-West Center and a visiting academic at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (DKI APCSS), Honolulu.

Feminism, Hell and Hillary Clinton

February 11, 2016

Feminism, Hell and Hillary Clinton

by Frank Bruni

She is still the best and most qualified politician to lead the United States

I’m 68 (born 19470. My health is decent. And while my mother died young, there’s longevity elsewhere in the family tree.I could live to see an openly gay presidential candidate with a real chance of victory.

Will there be a “special place in hell” for me if I, as a gay man, don’t support him or her? I can guess Madeleine Albright’s answer. She more or less told women that they’re damned if they’re not on Hillary Clinton’s team.

I’m still trying to get my head around that — and around Gloria Steinem’s breathtakingly demeaning assertion that young women who back Bernie Sanders are in thrall to pheromones, not ideas or idealism, and angling to score dates with the young bucks in the Sanders brigade.

That’s right, “democratic socialism” is a known aphrodisiac: the oyster of politics. There’s nothing like denunciations of oligarchs to put you in the mood.

Also, has Steinem forgotten about lesbians? More than a few of them support Sanders, and it’s not because of the way some 26-year-old doctoral candidate looks in his L. L. Bean flannel.

There’s a weird strain of thought swirling around Clinton’s campaign: that we should vote for her because she’s a woman. Or that she’s inoculated from certain flaws or accusations by dint of gender. Or that, at the least, there’s an onus on forward-looking people who care about gender inequality to promote her candidacy.

I care about gender inequality, and I don’t buy it. It’s bad logic. It’s even worse strategy. People don’t vote out of shame. They vote out of hope. Perhaps that was among the lessons of Clinton’s defeat in New Hampshire on Tuesday, where she lost to Sanders among all women by at least seven percentage points, according to exit polling, and among women under 30 by more than 60 points.

Clinton is on sturdy ground, morally and tactically, when she mentions a double standard for women. So are her surrogates. Actually, there are so many double standards that you couldn’t fit them in a column eight times the length of this one, and she has bumped into plenty, including, yes, the fuss over her raised voice.

But the argument that she’s somehow not a full-fledged member of the establishment because she’s a woman — as she contended during the most recent Democratic debate — is nonsense. On that night, she also echoed a past statement to CBS News that she “cannot imagine anyone being more of an outsider than the first woman president.”

Really? Anyone? Off the top of my head I can think of a person who might quibble with that. His name is Barack Obama.Admittedly, there’s no easy way to navigate the terrain she inhabits. Eight years ago, she denied her campaign the romantic sweep of Obama’s by playing down and trying to correct for gender. This time around, she was advised, rightly, not to repeat that mistake. But how to do that without going too far?

Of course gender is an issue – to ignore would be to ignore the reality of the first woman to be seriously considered as President of the… Sanders had a majority with all women, not just the young. I’m 70, female, have been on the left side of politics all my life, and I had a… She evidently did not feel that way for Carly or Sarah… funny how they try to manipulate people with subjects completely unrelated, that…

I think she started out perfectly, with incontestable reflections on women’s challenges in the workplace and with casual asides about the historic nature of her bid. Discussing her age, she said, “I will be the youngest woman president in the history of the United States.”

But more recently, things have fallen out of whack. Bill Clinton’s diatribe about the misogyny of some Sanders supporters sounded like a defensive outsourcing of blame for the Clinton campaign’s disappointments in the polls and the returns: the narrowest of victories in Iowa followed by the resounding New Hampshire defeat.

The Clintons are always quick to point fingers and slow to look in the mirror. On top of which, Bill Clinton’s invocation of sexism felt too pat, his citation of gross language on Twitter (which, sadly, brims with it) too easy.

Clinton’s gender indeed matters. Just as you couldn’t properly evaluate Obama’s arc without factoring in race, you can’t see her accurately without recognizing that she’s a woman of her time, with all the attendant obstacles, hurts, compromises and tenacity.

That informs — and, ideally, illuminates — her perspective. And her presidency would carry a powerful, constructive symbolism that can’t and shouldn’t be ignored.

But those are considerations among many, many others in taking her measure and in casting a vote. To focus only or primarily on them is more reductive than respectful, and to tell women in particular what kind of politics they should practice is the antithesis of feminism, which advocates independence and choices.

We’re all complicated people voting for complicated people. We’re not census subgroups falling in line. I’ll go to the barricades for that imagined gay candidate if he or she has talents I trust, positions I respect and a character I admire. If not, I’ll probably go elsewhere, because being gay won’t be the sum of that person, just as womanhood isn’t where Clinton begins and ends.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on February 10, 2016, on page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: Feminism, Hell and Hillary.



February 3, 2016


By: Kassim Ahmad

I am a patriot, a plain Kassim Ahmad, who a long time ago politely refused an UMNO offer for a datoship.Being from a poor oppressed classed, I began early as a rebel (with causes, of course!) and soon became the leader of the Malayan People’s Socialist Party (1968-1984). In 1984, seeing the collapse of international socialism in the world I left the party and made a strong patriotic statement by joining UMNO in 1986. My aim of reform could not take off. I am still an UMNO member, albeit very critical of UMNO.

On the same day when my UMNO memberhip application was approved, my widely discussed book Hadis – Satu Penilaian Semula was released. After two months of extensive discussions, including an ABIM-organized public dialogue, it was banned by the religious establishment in the country.

Several state muftis penned books to rebut my book, repeating their old and tired arguments, which I have already refuted in the first place. However, I wrote another book entitled, Hadis – Jawapan kepada Pengkritik (1992), briefly dismissing the muftis’ several books, but at the same time giving more details about the Quran.

This started the movement for the review of Hadith as well as for going back to the Quran, not only in Malaysia, but internationally. Hadis – Satu Penilaian Semula has since been translated into English and Arabic. I am glad to say that today the Turkish Government is undertaking a major project of Hadith re-evaluation.

I admit that I was a rebel, and still is. At the core of Malaysia’s problems is  corrupt UMNO, the backbone of its ruling BN Government. In 1946 when UMNO was first formed it was a poor idealistic Malay party embraced en mass by the Malays in their enthusiasm and quest for Merdeka.

To cut the story short, via the bloody May 13, via great Razak’s Mageran (the Council for the  Regeneration of the Country) and his extraordinary vision, Malaysia is what it is today, one of the most progressive countries among the developing world.

At the same time, as it is wont in human affairs, deterioration sets in, as complacancy grows among the ruling elite. UMNO became corrupt, and has perhaps reached the point of no return today. In this atmosphere of gloom when financial scandles abound, pessimism is in the air. Oh Lord! Do we need a second Mageran, ask the thinking part of Malaysia?

The people ask, “What are we to do? Can anything be done? Such voices rise from the depth of the soul of the people, voiced by their intellectuals, the likes of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Dr. M Bakri Musa, HRH Sultan of Johor, HRH Sultan of Perak Dr. Nazrin Shah and HRH the Crown Prince of Johor Tunku Ismail.

Yes, indeed. What is to be done? Can corrupt UMNO be reformed? Can weak Pakatan Rakyat take over? Where is our Saviour? Where is our Imam Mahdi? When is the Second-Coming (of Jesus Christ)?

Unfortunately, all these wailings are of no avail. Man has been created as God’s vicegerent on earth, to rule the earth and change it to His liking. Oh Man! Rise up to your calling! “I created you free,” God said. So wait no more! Act!

Enumerate the things you must do in order of importance. First, you must reform UMNO. Once the difficult task of reforming of UMNO is over, all other problems will be resolved: wastage in manpower in Government, increasing productivity by optimum use of assets, trimming the Government, the need for good governance, increasing salaries of lower-rung Government servants, overcoming periodic floods in some states, eliminating traffic jams by decreasing private cars and increasing and improving public transport, and doing away with tolls, and such like actions to make life more comfortable for all Malaysians.

KASSIM AHMAD is a Malaysian author. His website is

A Young Cambodian Leader Goes to Washington DC

January 23, 2016

Hun Many Speaks to the United States: Cambodia-US Relations

tss logo

This Keynote Address at John Hopkins University was hotly debated by doctoral students at my class today.  I hope this is useful for those who are interested in Cambodian affairs. This erudite and articulate leader spoke with conviction about the path towards freedom, peace and development and the achievements and challenges of his country.–Din Merican

The Voice of America (dated January 21, 2016) carried the following report (by Kamseng Men)

‘Good Prospects’ for Improved US Relations, Cambodia Lawmaker Says

FILE - Hun Many, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's son, attends the Independence Day celebrations in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Nov. 9, 2015.

The U.S. and Cambodia have so far forged a good relationship, but there is room for improvement, a Cambodian lawmaker said Wednesday.

In a rare speaking engagement, Hun Many, a son of Prime Minister Hun Sen and lawmaker for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, told an audience in Washington that there are “good prospects” for the two countries.

“But it starts with us trying to understand each other, trying to put ourselves in each other’s shoes, and [understand that] any decision is actually rational, in regards to the perspective of our own national interests,” he said.

Hun Many, who spoke at the U.S.-Korean Institute under Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, said Cambodia needs more friends than just the U.S. and China.

“We don’t only look at narrow spectrum of, ‘OK, I choose only this friend over this friend,'” he said.

Crowd Reaction

Conor Cronin, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who attended the discussion — which comes as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry prepares to visit Cambodia next week — said that in the current context it is possible for a stronger relationship between the U.S. and Cambodia.

“I think the U.S. wants to be close, but they don’t want to ignore human rights abuses,” he said. “They don’t want to ignore issues with corruption and governance in Cambodia. So I think the U.S. does want to be closer with Cambodia, and Cambodia wants to be closer with the United States, but they need to iron out certain differences before that’s going to be possible.”

However, more work needs to be done to convince others, like Michael Doung, a Cambodian American who attended the talk.

Hun Many and other lawmakers have done little to help Cambodia’s youth who are migrating in high numbers in search of work abroad, Doung said.

“There should be broader education for Cambodian youth, quality education, and there should be jobs for them after they graduate,” he said. “If they have to migrate outside of the country to seek jobs, what’s the point of learning? It’s just a waste of school tuition fees.”

This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Khmer service.

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