The emergence of Suukyinomics


March 3, 2019

The emergence of Suukyinomics

 

Author: by Naing Ko Ko, ANU
http://www.eastasiaforum.org

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State Counsellor Aung San Sun Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) administration in Myanmar has been heavily condemned by international policy analysts for its absent economic vision and lack of a tangible policy on minority management. But it seems now there is a plan: Suukyinomics, a brand that began with the announcement on 28–29 January 2019 to amend the 2008 military-backed constitution.

 

Suukyinomics is built on the rule of law and institutional economics. It consists of two broad plans. The Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan (MSDP) aims to achieve a peaceful, prosperous and democratic country. The Myanmar Investment Promotion Plan (MIPP) aims to transition Myanmar to a middle-income economy and persuade foreign investors to part ways with US$200 billion over the next two decades.

The MSDP is structured around three pillars, five goals, 28 strategies and 251 action plans. All are firmly aligned with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and the 12 Point Economic Policy of the NLD government. The MSDP aims to institute strong macroeconomic management and good governance, prudent fiscal discipline and the maintenance of a fiscal deficit no more than 5 per cent of GDP.

The MIPP aims to integrate domestic and foreign investment promotion in line with the directions of the National Comprehensive Development Plan (NCDP) and the Investment Policy of 2016. The MIPP also aims to improve the business environment — by 2020, Myanmar’s rank in the World Bank’s ease of doing business index should drop to below 100.

The Investment Promotion Committee (IPC) will be established to facilitate implementation of the MIPP and is chaired by U Soe Win, the Union Minister of Planning and Finance. Whether it will be a success depends on the effectiveness of Myanmar’s 1.8 million bureaucrats who continue to be criticised for the quality of service delivery. The government of Myanmar is the largest employer in Southeast Asia and its union civil servant board (UCSB) is unnecessary — it is militant and has inflexible business practices.

There are three shining spots to be found in the NLD’s economic reform during the period 2016–19. The first is related to the rule of law. Anti-corruption efforts have been particularly successful. President U Win Myint’s recent dismissal of ex-advocate general of Yangon Han Htoo and ex-lieutenant colonel Yan Naing Tun represent a milestone in the recent five-decade history of judicial practice and public administration. U Win Myint and the NLD’s senior leadership have done well to clean up tainted politicians even within their own party, expelling elected members accused of misuse of entrusted power for private gain.

The NLD has also made successful gains in modernising the Central Bank of Myanmar (CBM). After being heavily criticised by local banks and the private sector for unseating the governor of the CBM U Kyaw Kyaw Maung, reformers U Soe Thein and U Bo Bo Nge were appointed as deputy-governors of the CBM with the remit of correcting institutional difficulties. The CBM is vigorously stabilising the economy by controlling inflation, reducing the money supply and regulating its money and financial markets after issuing the Burmese Way to Basel Regulation in July 2017.

The CBM-floated foreign exchange rate now permits 13 foreign banks to loan project financing and trade financing. Recently, the CBM allowed for the Japanese yen and Chinese yuan to be used as convertible currencies to tackle the dollarisation of trade at Myanmar’s borders. In contrast to previous administrations, the reference exchange rate of the kyat for account transactions against the US dollar and other currencies is released daily on the CBM website. A financial stability report and Myanmar’s monetary report are released periodically.

The third shining spot is infrastructure. Roads are being built and rail tracks upgraded nationwide. Some of Myanmar’s coastal areas and border trade routes are also undergoing development thanks to Chinese investment.

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According to Aung San Suu Kyi, it is the right time to invest in Myanmar. Still, provision of meaningful assistance for the stateless people of Arakan, Kachin and other minority groups in Myanmar’s border regions remains unaddressed.

Suukyinomics itself is ambitious and its outcomes will be tested in coming years as the NLD attempts to amend the militarised 2008 constitution. Whether the NLD remains in power come 2020 will partly depend on Aung San Suu Kyi’s tactical skill, strategic manoeuvring and the success or otherwise of this new economic plan.

Naing Ko Ko is a PhD Candidate at the Regulatory Institutions Network, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

 

The Mekong region is caught in a tug-of-war


February 14, 2019

The Mekong region is caught in a tug-of-war

by Nguyen Khac Giang, VEPR

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2019/02/07/the-mekong-region-is-caught-in-a-tug-of-war/

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For the Mekong countries, including Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam, 2018 was a big year both domestically and regionally. Key developments from last year will inevitably continue to shape the politics of the region in 2019. In terms of domestic affairs, the most worrying trend is the consolidation of autocratic power in almost all countries.

 

In Vietnam, the sudden death of president Tran Dai Quang in September 2018 created a huge power vacuum, which was filled by Vietnamese Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong. By merging the two most powerful positions in Vietnamese politics, he has become the strongest Vietnamese leader since the death of Ho Chi Minh in 1969, edging the communist state towards the Chinese model of centralised rule.

Cambodia, in theory a multi-party democracy, has practically become a one-party regime after an election that saw Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party win all parliamentary seats in July 2018. He is now one of the world’s longest-serving heads of government, having held the premiership for 33 years since 1985.

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Things are no better in Thailand. Four years after seizing power, the military junta has made — and broken — five promises to hold a general election to establish a civilian government. Even if the sixth promise is fulfilled in February 2019, it will be difficult to sen Myanmar, the intensifying Rohingya crisis has not only created Southeast Asia’s biggest humanitarian concern but also exposed the reluctance of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy to complete the democratic transition that started in 2011.e swift change, as the junta will exploit all means available to dominate the electoral process.

In Myanmar, the intensifying Rohingya crisis has not only created Southeast Asia’s biggest humanitarian concern but also exposed the reluctance of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy to complete the democratic transition that started in 2011.

 

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In Myanmar, the intensifying Rohingya crisis has not only created Southeast Asia’s biggest humanitarian concern but also exposed the reluctance of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy to complete the democratic transition that started in 2011.

The autocratisation of the Mekong region has significant implications at a time when its giant neighbour China continues a long march to the south. China has committed billions of US dollars in concessional loans and credit to Mekong countries via the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC), an ambitious initiative which was launched in 2016. But the LMC’s actual impact remains to be seen. While the LMC is ostensibly aimed at creating a ‘shared future of peace and prosperity’, China can use it as part of a carrot and stick strategy due to its largely opaque and non-binding frameworks.

It should be noted that Beijing has a record of working closely with autocracies. Beijing has helped leaders in Central Asia guard against ‘colour revolution’, provided African autocrats with an alternative model of development and has aided socialist Venezuela in crisis. A less democratic Mekong region will be more exposed to China’s strategy of buying influence, which often involves closed-door negotiations and dealings.

Image result for the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydropower dam in southern Laos collapsed,

The LMC, as well as other established regional mechanisms such as the Mekong River Commission and Lower Mekong Initiative, have also failed to address the core issue which theoretically binds Mekong countries together: transnational water management. In July 2018, a section of the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydropower dam in southern Laos collapsed, reportedly killing 34 people, leaving 97 missing and displacing 6000 others. The collapsed part of the dam was only an auxiliary section and the whole project is built in one of the Mekong’s tributaries instead of the main stream. Needless to say, it could have been an even greater catastrophe.

Image result for the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydropower dam in southern Laos collapsed,

In Vietnam, for example, hydro dams are considered to be time bombs ticking over the head of the Mekong Delta on which 90 per cent of Vietnam’s rice exports depend. Despite the incident, the Laos government resumed its dream of becoming ‘a battery for Asia’ by permitting work to continue on several hydro projects. Beneficiary countries of the hydropower boom such as Thailand and China gave condolences and support to Laos but continued building their own dams. China, for instance, has built 7 and has plans for a further 21 dams on the Mekong — plans formulated without consultation with lower-Mekong countries.

The ongoing trade war between China and the United States also has the potential to impact the Mekong region both economically and politically. If the trade war accelerates, investors will consider countries like Vietnam and Thailand, and to a lesser extent Cambodia, as shelters to circumvent higher tariffs and other technical barriers. Exports from the Mekong region to the United States, many of which are substitutes for Chinese goods, will also benefit from the trade dispute. On the other hand, the region also bears the risk of a flood of Chinese goods into domestic markets, which is already a big issue.

More broadly, the Mekong region will continue to be a battlefield for influence between the two global superpowers. The rumour that China seeks to build a military base in Cambodia, although dismissed by Hun Sen, should be a serious warning for Washington. Of the five Mekong countries, only Vietnam is wary of China’s charm offensive due to a lingering sovereignty dispute in the South China Sea. The superpowers’ tug-of-war will perhaps come to play a key role in shaping the region’s development trajectory.

Nguyen Khac Giang is the lead political researcher at the Vietnam Institute for Economic and Policy Research (VEPR) at the Vietnam National University in Hanoi.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2018 in review and the year ahead.

Book Review:The Daughter: A Political Biography of Aung San Suu Kyi


November 19, 2018

Book Review:

The Daughter: A Political Biography of Aung San Suu Kyi

Hans-Bernd Zöllner and Rodion Ebbighausen (translated by Vipasha Bansal) (Silkworm Books, 2018)

http://www.newmandala.org/book-review/selth-the-daughter

Few figures in modern history have attracted as much biographical attention as Myanmar’s State Counsellor and de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Griffith Asia Institute’s select bibliography of Burma (Myanmar) Since the 1988 Uprising, the third edition of which was published earlier this year, lists 34 books in English about her, all written since 1990. There are several others, in other languages, and even a few collections of photographs. Most have been aimed at the general public, including young readers.

All of these books were written after Aung San Suu Kyi became an icon of democracy, adored by millions and held up by the international community as a paragon of virtue, the result of her long struggle for universal human rights and peaceful democratic change.

Very few biographies have appeared since her government took office in 2016, and she was in a position to give practical effect to her ideas about political, economic and social reform. As a result, the world has been waiting for years for a study that rigorously and objectively examines not just the Nobel Peace laureate’s undoubted strengths and achievements, but also her weaknesses and policy failures.

The Daughter: A Political Biography of Aung San Suu Kyi, by long time Myanmar-watcher Hans-Bernd Zöllner and freelance journalist Rodion Ebbighausen, is a comprehensive and thoughtful account of her life and times, and ventures into a few unfamiliar areas, but it still does not satisfy that need.

Before 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi was not just admired, she was idolised. Wherever she went, both within Myanmar and outside it, she was given what journalists liked to describe as “a rock star welcome”. This cult of personality helped her become a household name around the world and boosted her cause, but it had a downside.

In journalistic and even academic circles she was rarely subjected to the same level of critical analysis as other world figures, or members of the military government she opposed.

When more objective Myanmar-watchers dared to point out examples of her poor judgement and tactical missteps, or suggested that, like everyone else, she had flaws in her character, they were subject to an avalanche of abuse. One outspoken critic who wrote disparagingly about The Lady (as she became widely known), and the tunnel vision of her more extreme supporters, was sent a death threat. This had the effect of silencing many commentators aware of her imperfections, or who disagreed with some of her decisions. Even professional analysts began to self-censor what they wrote about her.

To be fair, they did this not just out of fear of being attacked by Aung San Suu Kyi’s legion of supporters, who used the Internet and social media to great effect. Serious observers of Myanmar were aware that to openly criticise Aung San Suu Kyi risked giving the military regime ammunition to use against her.

For years, a virulent campaign was waged against the opposition leader in the state-run news media, where she was cast as a traitorous renegade who had turned her back on her own people. Countless stories and cartoons, including jibes about her marriage to a foreigner and her schooling abroad (in India and the UK) were published with the aim of undermining her popularity with the Myanmar people.

Anything written by foreign commentators in the international press, or said by them in public, that could be used to support the regime and bolster its case against Aung San Suu Kyi, was seized upon and shamelessly exploited. With that danger in the back of their minds, more critical and aware foreign observers tended not to draw attention to her shortcomings as an alternative leader of Myanmar.

Doubtless, in private counsels and confidential reports prepared for senior officials, diplomats and strategic analysts took a hard-headed approach and produced unvarnished assessments of Aung San Suu Kyi’s character, political skills and suitability for high office. Presumably, they also warned that, should she ever find herself in a position of real power, she would inevitably be forced to choose sides between contending factions, and make hard decisions about contentious issues, in ways that would leave some of her admirers dissatisfied. She would not be able to please everyone, or avoid controversy, simply by referring to broad principles and abstract concepts, as was her usual practice. However, for obvious reasons, the recipients of such assessments were unlikely to share them with the public. Some senior officials (George W. Bush and Gordon Brown spring to mind) may have even been reluctant to accept them. Thus the net effect of the world-wide campaign being waged on her behalf was to strengthen the popular image of her as being without fault or peer, existing above the grubby political fray.

This two-dimensional picture was reflected in most of the books written about her. As Kyaw Yin Hlaing pointed out in a review article, “Quite often the biographies of leading political figures are written by their loyalists, enemies, or by neutral authors or scholars. In the case of Suu Kyi, however, one finds that most of the writings about her are written by her sympathisers and her enemy (the Myanmar junta)”.

Works in the former category were not all hagiographies. For example, Bertil Lintner’s Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Democracy discussed some of the criticisms usually levelled at The Lady. Other books made passing references to Aung San Suu Kyi’s human frailties and some other perceived shortcomings. However, these character flaws tended to be brushed over as insignificant in the greater scheme of things. As a rule, very few authors attempted to offer an objective picture of the opposition leader that stripped away her public image to show the real person underneath, warts and all. As Barbara Victor wrote in her own biography, titled The Lady, “deconstructing Aung San Suu Kyi is not part of the game”.

 

 

The TOUGH and GUTSY Lady in OSLO

Over the past few years, however, the pendulum has swung completely the other way. Aung San Suu Kyi is now being lambasted by the international community and, albeit to a much lesser extent, criticised by many people within Myanmar. At one level, this is hardly surprising. Her government has disappointed on several fronts, failing to deliver on most if not all the promises she made before the 2015 elections. Given the challenges she inherited, and the unrealistic expectations held about her ability to solve Myanmar’s “fiendishly complex problems”, that was to be expected. However, her dramatic fall from grace in the eyes of the international community has come about mainly because of her response—or lack of it—to the Rohingya crisis of 2016–2017, which saw three quarters of a million Muslims driven into Bangladesh by Myanmar’s security forces in circumstances that have been labelled by the UN ethnic cleansing, if not genocide. She has also publicly defended egregious human rights violations in other contexts.

Aung San Suu Kyi is now the subject of vitriolic abuse in the international news media. Amnesty International recently stripped her of its highest honour, telling her that “you no longer represent a symbol of hope, courage and and the undying defence of human rights”. There have even been calls for her Nobel Peace Prize to be rescinded.

The collapse of Aung San Suu Kyi’s international reputation, and the flight of her former high profile supporters, begs for a detailed explanation. Also, the apparent abandonment of her principles on universal human rights, and her rejection of the international community’s responsibility to protect the vulnerable in countries like Myanmar, warrants close examination.

 

So, what have these two experienced observers made of Aung San Suu Kyi’s political career and her performance since she achieved her life-long ambition to become Myanmar’s (de facto) ruler?

Her current position is in stark contrast to the well-publicised views she held as a political prisoner. While at one level the picture is clear, these issues can be quite complex, and in certain cases her actions may appear less reprehensible when put into a wider context. For example, Aung San Suu Kyi has no control over the actions of Myanmar’s armed forces (Tatmadaw) which, under the 2008 constitution, act independently of her quasi-civilian government. Similarly, on the Rohingyas, there is a rare consensus between the government, the armed forces and the wider population that may restrict her freedom of action. This is not to offer any excuses, simply to emphasise the need for a thorough and objective account of her policies and personal attitudes.

Hans-Bernd Zöllner is in a good position to offer informed comments on such matters. He is an accomplished Myanmar-watcher, with several major works to his name. To English-speakers, he is perhaps best known for his compilations of Aung San Suu Kyi’s speeches and informal comments to her followers, published as Talks Over the Gate: Aung San Suu Kyi’s Dialogues with the People, 1995 and 1996.

He has also written a history of the conflict between Aung San Suu Kyi and the Tatmadaw, set in a global context. Another work of note is his chapter comparing different accounts of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, published in Volker Grabowsky’s edited volume Southeast Asian Historiography. Rodion Ebbighausen is not well-known in English-speaking countries as a Myanmar-watcher, but he is an experienced journalist who has covered the country for Deutsche Welle and other news outlets. He has also written occasionally about Aung San Suu Kyi, most recently in connection with the Rohingyas.

So, what have these two experienced observers made of Aung San Suu Kyi’s political career and her performance since she achieved her life-long ambition to become Myanmar’s (de facto) ruler?

As might be expected, The Daughter is a well-researched and comprehensive account of Aung San Suu Kyi’s early childhood, her time spent travelling as a young woman, her studies at Oxford and her marriage to British academic Michael Aris.

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It describes her return to Myanmar in 1988 and unexpected rise to fame as General Secretary of the opposition National League for Democracy. Her 15 or so years under house arrest are also covered. There is an interesting excursion into Aung San Suu Kyi’s Buddhist studies, and their apparent impact on her political thinking. The authors also discuss the lack of understanding about democracy in Myanmar and explore Aung San Suu Kyi’s relationship with her followers.
As Nic Dunlop has pointed out, these sections offer helpful insights into her attitudes and personal philosophy at the time. The book finishes with an account of Aung San Suu Kyi’s election to the Union parliament in 2015 and subsequent appointment to the newly-created position of State Counsellor (the presidency having been denied to her by the 2008 constitution).

 

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This narrative is well told and covers all the main bases, but is curiously flat. The book goes over a lot of familiar ground, but offers little by way of new information or original analyses of critical events.

Given everything that has already been written about Aung San Suu Kyi, this was perhaps inevitable to a certain extent, but the reader is left wondering why the authors have not addressed more directly and in greater depth the criticisms made of Aung San Suu Kyi during her political career.

 

Despite the general reluctance to highlight her shortcomings, commentators have referred to such personality traits as her profound sense of personal destiny, her aloofness (or arrogance), her refusal to accept criticism or to countenance dissent, her dismissal of potential rivals, and her reluctance to include activists like the 88 Generation Students Group in the wider pro-democracy movement. Nor have the two authors critically examined her encouragement before 2011 of tough economic sanctions against Myanmar and her opposition to tourism, despite the negative impact these policies clearly had on the wider population.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this book, however, is its failure to take the opportunity to look closely at Aung San Suu Kyi since she took political office. She has been criticised for vetting all bills herself and taking all important decisions on both party and government matters. She has reportedly surrounded herself with a small group of loyalists, and does not consult others who could offer different advice. These practices have caused serious problems in the conduct of government business.

More particularly, her attitude towards the ethnic communities has been described as both imperious and unsympathetic, encouraging the view that, at heart, she is an ethnic Burman centralist who shares the Tatmadaw’s hard line towards minority groups, including the Muslim Rohingyas. Indeed, over the past few years she appears to have made little attempt to curb the blatant misuse of power by the security forces and judicial system. These are all matters that would have benefited from a rigorous and balanced analysis, both to put the record straight where it has strayed from the truth, and to help explain what appears to many people to be a puzzling about face on the part of someone they once admired.

Zöllner and Ebbighausen have said that they are keen to provide a nuanced portrayal of Myanmar’s crises over the past 30 years, with Aung San Suu Kyi as a focal point. They have succeeded in this aim, but failed to meet the not unreasonable expectation that Aung San Suu Kyi would be examined more critically, now that she has revealed herself to be a more complicated person than was once portrayed. Her elevation to the leadership of Myanmar, and the challenges that she has faced in that role, has required qualities that seem to be lacking.

As former US Ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell has written, “Opposing oppressive state power and running a government are two vastly different skills”. There were bound to be teething problems, and grumbles at the slow pace of change. Also, the 2008 constitution was going to require compromises. However, few people expected that Aung San Suu Kyi would become the target of such bitter invective, mostly from the same foreigners and foreign institutions which had once idolised her.

Myanmar has always been much more complex than popularly portrayed, and Aung San Suu Kyi has been subject to as many myths and misconceptions as other aspects of the country’s modern history. Had Zöllner and Ebbighausen written more about the controversies and criticisms now associated with The Lady, and tried to explain them in greater depth, they would have produced a more interesting book, and one that made a greater contribution to the burgeoning literature on modern Myanmar.

Dr Andrew Selth is Adjunct Associate Professor at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University, and at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University. He is the author of Burma (Myanmar) Since the 1988 Uprising: A Select Bibliography and Burma, Kipling and Western Music: The Riff From Mandalay.

Awkward moments at ASEAN Summit in Singapore


November 17, 2018

Awkward moments at ASEAN Summit in Singapore

by mergawati zulfakar

http://www.thestar.com.my

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IT is an ASEAN homecoming for Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad at the summit hosted by Singapore. The last time he attended an ASEAN Summit was in Bali 15 years ago where then Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri gave a tearful farewell speech.

This week at the 33rd ASEAN summit, all eyes will be on the Prime Minister again as he sits down next to another female leader who he has been critical of in recent weeks.

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And because of ASEAN’s way of doing things, the seating arrangement will be done in alphabetical order – which means Dr Mahathir will be seated next to Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi.

In his Address at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September, Dr Mahathir blamed Myanmar authorities, including a Nobel Peace Laureate, for closing their eyes to the fate of Muslims in Rakhine state who were being murdered and forced to flee their homes.

 

In an interview conducted the same week in New York, the Prime Minister made it clear that Malaysia would no longer lend its support to Suu Kyi over her handling of the Rohingya. He remarked that Suu Kyi seemed to be a “changed person” and he had lost faith in her.

For years, it was taboo for ASEAN leaders to even mention the word “Rohingya” during their meeting, skirting the issue by using words like Muslims and Rakhine state, bearing in mind ASEAN’s non-interference in the domestic affairs of another country.

But the situation became worse, and it is understood that Malaysia started raising the matter during the leaders’ retreat as recent as three years ago.

“The leaders’ retreat is where they can raise any issue but it will be unrecorded. But when we saw no serious efforts from Myanmar, Malaysia started using ‘Rohingya’ at official meetings,” said an official familiar with the issue.

“Obviously, Myanmar didn’t like it. It was an affront to them. We all know this is beyond the red line for them but we did it,” he added.

And Suu Kyi, who has been attending these summits, showed her displeasure. “You could tell from the body language and all that. She did not like it,” said an official.

At the ASEAN summit, the 10 leaders would normally pose for a group photo holding hands and giving their best smiles to the international media.Even former Prime MInister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak felt uncomfortable, telling his officers it was awkward.

So how would Suu Kyi handle someone who has lost faith in her? Would she care enough to find time and explain to a leader who once fought hard for Myanmar to be a part of ASEAN despite the world condemnation against the military regime that curtailed her freedom?

As for Dr Mahathir, the rest of ASEAN must be looking to him, wondering what he would do next.

“What else is Malaysia doing after such strident statements by the Prime Minister?No ASEAN country in recent times has singled out the leader of a fellow AASEANean country especially on the United Nations platform,” said an official.

When Dr Mahathir says he no longer supports Suu Kyi, what does he mean exactly? Suu Kyi is a legitimate leader who is still popular among her people.

“What is it that you want to do when you make that statement? What message are you sending? “How do you translate it through Malaysia’s foreign policy,” asked an observer.

“Malaysia must realise there could be some repercussion over such remarks. It may affect not only relations with Myanmar but also other ASEAN countries because “we are like a family”.

Whatever the Prime Minister utters is officially national position. Which means officials will have to rationalise it and implement it in the best way that will protect and promote Malaysia’s interests, not only in its relations to the country concerned but also ASEAN and globally.

For Malaysia to play a constructive role, it is important to protect and maintain some level of goodwill and trust. Putting it simply, it is vital to maintain good relations and keep the communication lines open”.–Mergawati Zulfakar

An official admitted that any statement deemed critical of leaders of another country could diminish any measure of trust that remains between Malaysia and Myanmar.

“In ASEAN or even Asia as a whole, face saving is very important. You do not humiliate, you don’t admonish if you want to maintain relations and some form of trust,” the official said.

Going tough on the Rohingya issue started in Najib’s time. Is Dr Mahathir’s speech at UNGA an indication that the current Government is not compromising and will take an even tougher stance on this issue?

Whatever the Prime Minister utters is officially national position. Which means officials will have to rationalise it and implement it in the best way that will protect and promote Malaysia’s interests, not only in its relations to the country concerned but also ASEAN and globally.

For Malaysia to play a constructive role, it is important to protect and maintain some level of goodwill and trust. Putting it simply, it is vital to maintain good relations and keep the communication lines open.

Mergawati Zulfakar –merga@thestar.com.my

Asia Needs Pence’s Reassurance


November 16, 2018

Asia Needs Pence’s Reassurance

By Patrick M. Cronin

He should confront Trump’s mistakes and put forward a positive agenda.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence at the ASEAN summit in Singapore on Nov. 15. (Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images)

In Asia, anxieties about the United States’ role in an increasingly China-centered world are palpable. While some fear that the United States is retreating from its international obligations, other worry that it is bent on instigating conflict.

.As U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visits Southeast Asia and the South Pacific this week to attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ meetings, he should make clear that the United States remains a stalwart partner for the region with a vision for peaceful cooperation and development.

No U.S. retreat

The United States is not withdrawing into fortress America. It remains actively engaged in global affairs and is focused on strengthening the economic and military foundations of its power. The country’s central aim is to stay competitive in a world driven by a dynamic Indo-Asia-Pacific region. That goal, of course, derives from a real concern that China is challenging the postwar order and an understanding that the United States needs to find new ways to renew its diplomatic, economic, and military competitiveness.

The United States is not withdrawing into fortress America. It remains actively engaged in global affairs and is focused on strengthening the economic and military foundations of its power. The country’s central aim is to stay competitive in a world driven by a dynamic Indo-Asia-Pacific region. That goal, of course, derives from a real concern that China is challenging the postwar order and an understanding that the United States needs to find new ways to renew its diplomatic, economic, and military competitiveness.

But as U.S. President Donald Trump said last November in Da Nang, Vietnam, the United States has been “an active partner in this region since we first won independence ourselves,” and “we will be friends, partners, and allies for a long time to come.” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has likewise been a forceful advocate for diplomacy in the region. Meanwhile, Congress is on the cusp of passing a bipartisan bill designed to bolster U.S. engagement there. The Asia Reassurance Initiative Act would authorize $1.5 billion in new funding over the next five years for regional diplomacy, development, and defense programs. In short, rumors of America’s disengagement miss the mark.

No Cold War with China

Pence also needs to reassure the region that when it comes to China, the United States is not seeking a war—trade, cold, or hot.

Pence also needs to reassure the region that when it comes to China, the United States is not seeking a war—trade, cold, or hot.

Instead, the U.S. administration wants a fair, open, and cooperative relationship. That doesn’t mean ignoring China’s attempts to compete with the United States, including through grey-zone operations like muscling the Philippines out of Scarborough Shoal and militarizing artificial islands despite pledging not to do so. And America will not shy away from meeting challenges directly. But on a fundamental level, the Trump administration would like to channel competition toward cooperation where possible.

In fact, the Trump administration rejects the idea of Thucydides’s Trap: that conflict between a rising power and a status quo power is inevitable. Leaders have agency, and it is up to them to determine the future course of relations. And for its part, the United States seeks to remain a force for good, not to contain or curb the China’s peaceful rise.

Of course, it would be useful for Pence to clarify that Washington will not tolerate coercion or the use of force against allies and partners in the region. But the vice president should also reiterate what he said last month at the Hudson Institute: “America is reaching out our hand to China. We hope that Beijing will soon reach back with deeds, not words.” That sentiment is broadly shared, even among Democrats, who do not agree with some of the administration’s tactics. (As Joaquin Castro, a Democratic representative from Texas, said last month, China should “compete, not cheat.”)

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US Vice President Mike Pence has confronted Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi at the ASEAN summit about what is being done to hold those responsible for the persecution of the Rohingya ethnic minority in her country to to account.

This will be a difficult balance to strike. And here, China’s approach to the South China Sea is instructive. It alone pursues claims there based in part on historical rights rather than contemporary international law. It showers the region with promises of infrastructure investment, but it fails to deliver transparent, equitably financed, high-quality development. It promises to follow an ASEAN Code of Conduct for the region but seeks a veto on the right of ASEAN members to extract natural resources from the South China Sea or hold military exercises there with Australia, Japan, the United States, and other non-ASEAN states.

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But the fear that a major confrontation, or even war, will play out in Southeast Asia is greatly exaggerated. China seeks to advance its goals by means short of war, and the United States aims to cooperate where it can but compete where it must. The resumption of the Diplomatic and Security Dialogue—a U.S.-China working group involving top defense and diplomacy officials—is thus a good sign.

 

Yes to an affirmative agenda for Asia

Beyond dispelling myths about U.S. retrenchment and bellicosity, Pence should also put forward a positive agenda for Asia. Here, he will have to confront some of Trump administration’s mistakes.

Many in the region question the United States’ predictability, because Trump has reversed major U.S. initiatives, from the Trans-Pacific Partnership to the Paris Agreement on climate change. Meanwhile, he has escalated tariff wars without articulating a coherent strategy for achieving results, and his uneven application of penalties has rankled allies and competitors alike. Nor has the administration deployed soft power well, often ignoring U.S. values like democracy and human rights, turning the country’s back on refugees, using unbefitting language, papering over conflicts of interest rather than cracking down hard on corruption, and being far too comfortable with authoritarians.

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Despite these missteps, Pence can use the trip to Asia to burnish four cornerstones that should be the foundation of the administration’s free and open Indo-Asia-Pacific strategy, especially in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. Those four elements are a rules-based order, sustainable economic development, inclusive diplomacy, and effective security cooperation.

First, upholding and peacefully adapting the set of rules chosen freely by strong and independent sovereign states will be the foundation for U.S. engagement with the region. The United States has enduring interests in the South China Sea: stability, freedom of navigation, and resolving disputes peacefully and without coercion.

Although ensuring the rule of law will require far more than freedom of navigation operations, the United States will continue to help maintain the openness of the seas by sailing, flying, and operating anywhere international law permits. Importantly, seafaring nations from Asia and Europe are also demonstrating their commitment to the same cause by conducting similar operations.

Second, for growth to be sustainable, it has to be fair and reciprocal. It should be pursued in a manner that is transparent, non coercive, and environmentally sustainable, especially when it comes to the global maritime commons. There is nothing wrong with China’s Belt and Road Initiative that sunshine and high standards of accountability cannot fix.

Meanwhile, the United States should go even further to mobilize public and private support for trade, investment, and development. Eventually, the country can create a whole constellation of allies and partners that can invest in energy infrastructure, digital connectivity, transportation, and more. For instance, the United States is in active discussions to leverage the BUILD Act to expand joint efforts with allies and partners in the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and elsewhere. In doing so, it can set a gold standard for development in the region.

Take Indonesia for example. China aside, a prosperous, democratic, and stable Indonesia is in the vital interest of the United States. Yet few in Washington are aware of the opportunities that await in Southeast Asia’s most populous country. The U.S. government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation has just completed a successful economic investment in Indonesia. Pence should ensure Washington starts negotiating a follow-on compact while simultaneously using BUILD Act funds to facilitate new U.S. private sector entry into Indonesia.

A third tenet of U.S. policy in Southeast Asia is inclusive diplomacy, including trust-building with competitors and partners alike.

ASEAN deserves broad support for its unique convening authority. Certainly, that is a major reason why the United States embraces the body having a loud unified voice in Indo-Pacific engagement. It also is in favor a strong, binding Code of Conduct—not one that unfairly limits the freedom of action of Southeast Asian states.

Inclusive confidence-building measures, such as plans to extend the voluntary Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea to include coast guard vessels and efforts to protect rapidly depleted fishery stocks, deserve action. The United States should signal its support for promoting a new framework of “Resilience, Response, Recovery,” which is one of several useful concepts being put forward by ASEAN under Singapore’s chairmanship. At the same time, ASEAN members are pragmatic. The United States will often have to cooperate with them on a bilateral or trilateral basis to find effective responses to real challenges.

In terms of diplomacy with China, it might be worth creating a new crisis avoidance mechanism—perhaps mirroring the 1972 Incidents at Sea agreement. The bilateral pact did not prevent all U.S.-Soviet mishaps, but it helped avert major disasters, something that is even more important in a region where intermediate-range cruise missiles, hypersonic weapons, and the military use of cyberspace and outer space are unrestricted.

Finally, the United States will continue to support effective security cooperation centered on information sharing, capacity building, and interoperability. The United States should buttress such efforts by firming up its commitment to respond appropriately to threats of coercion and the use of force.

Boosting the ability of allies and partners to see better what is happening in their maritime backyards will help them become more resilient. And assistance with capacity building, especially for coast guards and other law enforcement agencies, will give nations a better ability to protect their sovereignty. Bilateral, “minilateral,” and larger multilateral exercises can also help create a readiness for dealing with future contingencies.

In sum, a confident but not boastful United States is neither stepping away from Asia nor trying to provoke wars there. Rather, it aims to ensure stability in the region so that all countries there can advance both sovereign interests and regional cooperation.

Patrick M. Cronin is senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. @PMCroninCNAS
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Dr. M’s UNGA Address should hit right home


September 30, 2018

Dr. M’s UNGA Address should hit right home

Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s Address to the United Nations General Assembly was poised, articulate and to the point.

He did not mince his words when he spoke about global political, economic, social and environmental conditions since his last address 15 years ago, in 2003.

The gist? That the world has not changed much in terms of reform; that the developing world is still being bullied by powerful nations; that the trade war between the US and China continues to impoverish poorer and smaller countries; that there is a growing ambiguity of social values, and that the notion of freedom has become skewed, at best.

Intellectually-sharp and laudable, Dr. Mahathir delivered his poignant message, that the “new Malaysia” is not naive. He told the UN General Assembly that Malaysia will continue to soldier on with other countries, through the United Nations, to make the world a better place, economically, politically, socially and environmentally.

In foreign policy jargon, Mahathir delivered a warning against the acts of dangerous, threatening Hitlers and the misconceptions of peaceful, law-abiding allies.

Overall, his Address championed the aspirations of the developing world and smaller non-aligned nations. However, there is more that we should take away from his Address, in order to render his thoughts more relevant in the domestic Malaysian context.

There are three key areas the new Malaysia should focus on. Mahathir spoke of global terrorism. Although he did not specify the actual definition of the term (or of the word “terrorist”), one can read between the lines. He lamented that there is “something wrong with our way of thinking, with our value system. Kill one man, it is murder, kill a million and you become a hero”.

What he actually means is that the powerful have the capacity to define concepts in order to justify certain acts. Terrorism, as coined by the powerful, is a notion applied to non-state actors, jihadists and transnational communities of oppressed people who react violently to achieve justice.

Powerful states have the sole purpose of pushing their economic and political agendas and so a global understanding of the concept of terrorism was born after 9/11.

Yes, about 3,000 died mercilessly at the World Trade Center in 2001. But almost 130,000 (mostly civilians) perished in one day, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in 1945. This is more than 43 times the death toll at the hands of the so-called Islamic terrorists.

Yet, throughout the decades after World War Two, the acceptable narrative describing US geo-political advances (and those of her allies) was never termed “terrorist” or “terrorism”.

I am not condoning such acts as no mass killing of civilians can be considered civilised behaviour. However, we must consider here the socio-political manipulation of labels.

In the Malaysian context it is happening all around us to the detriment of the common people. For instance, the notion of “the rights of Malays” and “the welfare of the Malays”. What rights are we focusing on? The right to get a job based on race or the right that all qualified and capable Malays should be appropriately awarded?

For me, it is the latter. Yet, certain politicians still choose to speak about the unfair treatment of the Malays and that the new Pakatan Harapan government should be tasked to help bring them up to greatness and to be protected.

The label of “rights” is bandied around but its meaning is deliberately couched in ambiguity for an ulterior political motive.

Using Mahathir’s example of the plight of the Rohingyas, his message was an appeal for “caring”; that just because a nation is independent it does not mean the world should close an eye to domestic suffering and injustice.

He reiterated that nations need to solve the problems of global conflict, racism and bigotry by going back to the root causes.

Similarly, the state of Malaysia’s education system needs care and we need to identify the root causes of the inequality that exists in our schools and universities.

Agreed, our teachers and professors are not being massacred, and neither are our students. But mentally, the massacre began 61 years ago.

The public university leadership has failed to produce thinking professional graduates and to my mind, this is humanity’s greatest form of oppression.

We are all aware that our public university leadership is more concerned with national and international rankings, administrative positions of the academic staff, titles and research funding.

But are the research funds, for instance, channeled into meaningful projects to help society overcome real problems of poverty and discrimination?

Are the researchers and academics “caring” enough to plan such research even though they may not be awarded a future government contract or a datukship?

This brings me to my next point: values. Mahathir commented that there is something wrong with our way of thinking.  To my mind, the sole purpose of an education is to instil good values. These include moderation, dignity, integrity, hard work, perseverance and honour. No matter what religion or creed one belongs to, these are universal values.

In post-election Malaysia, this topic has surfaced many times. But I fear it is just a narrative with no substance.

There are many issues that have surfaced since PH took over. From the appointment of key ministerial positions, to presidents of universities, to the PD move, to child marriage, the list goes on.

Nepotism, cronyism and corruption still loom over us but it is not too late for values reform. What better way to start than to realise that, while it is important for us to preach values to the international community, we should apply this to our own society.

There is a need for all Malaysians to delve deeper into Mahathir’s UNGA Address because he was not only sending a message to the superpowers and their allies.We should also see his message as a warning to tackle our own domestic crises; problems that have arisen as a result of past mistakes, on-going stubbornness to address those mistakes and a lack of foresight.

Dr.Sharifah Munirah Alatas is an FMT reader.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

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