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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Aung San Suu Kyi’s Burden: The Plight of The Rohingyas


September 18, 2018

Aung San Suu Kyi’s Burden: The Plight of The Rohingyas                           

by Bunn Nagara

Image result for aung san suu kyi

The problem with tracing the origins of Myanmar’s current massacres of its Rohingya people is that the starting point goes back many years.

Myanmar’s campaign of genocide has been consistent albeit punctuated by peaks and troughs, with violent discrimination against Muslim Burmese people in Arakan (later renamed Rakhine) state dating to at least 1930. It is easy to forget that until 1982 Rohingyas were still accorded Burmese citizenship, but their treatment by the military government and the general public soon deteriorated sharply. For many observers, the “current round” of mass killings and rapes of Rohingya villagers with looting and burning of their homes began in August last year. There have been many horrendous rounds, with each merging into the next.

More limited and stilted have been international campaigns against Myanmar’s government for allowing, aiding, abetting and participating in the crimes. Even so, the current international campaign reaches back to at least December 2016 when fourteen Nobel laureates including 12 Nobel Peace Prize laureates, with other public figures, urged the UN Security Council to halt the humanitarian crisis confronting the Rohingyas.

Image result for the plight of the rohingya

International opinion has grown steadily against Myanmar State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi, a once-respected leader in her people’s struggle for democracy. In the 2015 election campaign she boasted that she would be “more powerful than the President,” even though the army-friendly Constitution barred her from running for the presidency. She won the election but has since been less powerful than a presidential poodle. Worse, she has served to deny all the atrocities committed by state forces and reported by credible international monitors, instead condemning Myanmar’s accusers for spreading false news.

Questions about possibly recalling her Nobel Peace Prize arose, then faded away. If the Nobel Committee knew as much about her in 1991 when they presented it as they do now, she might never have received it.

Other awards she received as figurehead of Myanmar’s struggle for democracy have been withdrawn. Oxford University and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum have revoked the prestigious honours they had bestowed on her earlier.

In 2015 the US Holocaust Memorial Museum sent a fact-finding team to Myanmar to observe conditions of the Rohingya community on the ground. They came away horrified that the conditions for genocide were already in place.

Image result for the plight of the rohingya

More critical voices from concerned distinguished persons were heard from around the world. The Dalai Lama reproached Myanmar’s mostly “Buddhist” mass murderers, saying that Buddha himself would have helped the Rohingyas.

The spotlight remained on Suu Kyi as the country’s (nominal) leader. Last year Yanghee Lee, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, called on Suu Kyi to issue a statement but she remained silent.

Increasingly, Suu Kyi’s stubbornness has made her criticise the critics of Myanmar’s genocide while denying any crimes had taken place. This month, Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said Suu Kyi should have resigned if she could do or say nothing against the military’s crimes against humanity.

The UN Security Council visited Myanmar in March, with plans for a fact-finding mission to investigate the situation. Myanmar banned the mission, which then had to interview hundreds of Rohingya refugees fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh.

The report of the mission names six senior military officers who should be put on trial at the International Criminal Court. It also blames Suu Kyi for doing nothing to stop the mass atrocities.

In turning things around by inverting the truth, Myanmar’s government rejected the report outright. Instead it blames those responsible for producing what amounted to a pack of lies.

Image result for the plight of the rohingya

Myanmar officials should know about telling lies. The army’s public relations unit called True News produced a book with photos allegedly showing Rohingyas attacking other locals. Reuters examined the photos and found that they came from somewhere else – Bangladesh’s 1971 independence war, when Pakistani troops attacked Bangladeshis.

Government and military spokesmen could not be reached for comment. An Information Ministry official declined comment by saying that he had not seen the book, which is on sale publicly.

After the international community had pressured Myanmar to take back the hundreds of thousands of refugees it had expelled, it announced the return of a family of five Rohingyas from Bangladesh in April.

Bangladesh immediately denied that had happened. An independent refugee expert agreed with Bangladesh, saying that Myanmar’s claim of repatriation was yet another publicity stunt.

Meanwhile Myanmar’s verification process for Rohingya returnees remains obstructive. Among the requirements is that the Rohingyas must renounce their claim to ever being a citizen of Myanmar, placing them officially as illegal migrants liable for deportation. Rohingyas want to return home to rebuild, so long as they can enjoy basic human rights and freedom from persecution. Myanmar only has to agree to this.

It is difficult to see how Myanmar can agree to anything decent given all that has happened and continues to happen. Rohingya men, women and children have been slaughtered or otherwise terrorised and their homes razed in driving them from their land.

Image result for the plight of the rohingya

There may be valuable minerals in the ground in Rakhine state, and politicians, business people and the military may exploit them better if the population was cleared or reduced. Hence, “ethnic cleansing.”

The Myanmar military or Tatmadaw has fought internal wars with dozens of ethnic minority groups, some of which have become defunct or which have been engaged in talks with the government.

At least nine militant ethnic groups remain. Yet the Rohingyas are not among them, since they are not even recognised as an ethnic minority. Rohingyas are the most persecuted of all the minority communities also because they have fought back the least. The Tatmadaw’s bullying style is to target the weakest the most.

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa) has conducted some sporadic operations against the army, but nothing like the other ethnic minority armies. The Tatmadaw then exploits Arsa’s resistance efforts as a pretext to persecute Rohingyas further.

Even as Suu Kyi joins her generals as international pariahs, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull feted her in Sydney in March. Within 23 weeks Turnbull was removed as Prime Minister, and in another week he had left Parliament altogether. Would Suu Kyi go down a similar road?

It is no longer a secret that the real power in Myanmar still lies with the military. Suu Kyi may be afraid that if she did anything decent about the Rohingyas she may be out of a job.

She is known to have said: “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it”. Has she been corrupted by power? She may say no, if only because she never had it. Then she should have no fear of losing what she never had.

She has also said: “The only real prison is fear, and the only real freedom is freedom from fear.” The Myanmar military has allowed her outside her house for some time now. But will she allow herself to enjoy real freedom?

She may have no power over the Tatmadaw, but she has power over her own actions. Rohingyas hope their leader will let them enjoy freedom too.

Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at ISIS Malaysia.
http://www.thestar.com.

ASEAN: Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi and the Rohinnya Genocide


September 8, 2018

ASEAN: Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi and  the Rohinnya Genocide

by Bunn Nagara

http://www.thestar.com.my

THE problem with tracing the origins of Myanmar’s current massacres of its Rohingya people is that the starting point goes back many years.

Image result for aung san suu kyi quotes

Myanmar’s campaign of genocide has been consistent albeit punctuated by peaks and troughs, with violent discrimination against Muslim Burmese people in Arakan (later renamed Rakhine) state dating to at least 1930. It is easy to forget that until 1982 Rohingyas were still accorded Burmese citizenship, but their treatment by the military government and the general public soon deteriorated sharply. For many observers, the “current round” of mass killings and rapes of Rohingya villagers with looting and burning of their homes began in August last year. There have been many horrendous rounds, with each merging into the next.

More limited and stilted have been international campaigns against Myanmar’s government for allowing, aiding, abetting and participating in the crimes. Even so, the current international campaign reaches back to at least December 2016 when fourteen Nobel laureates including 12 Nobel Peace Prize laureates, with other public figures, urged the UN Security Council to halt the humanitarian crisis confronting the Rohingyas.

Related image

International opinion has grown steadily against Myanmar State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi, a once-respected leader in her people’s struggle for democracy. In the 2015 election campaign she boasted that she would be “more powerful than the President,” even though the army-friendly Constitution barred her from running for the presidency. She won the election but has since been less powerful than a presidential poodle. Worse, she has served to deny all the atrocities committed by state forces and reported by credible international monitors, instead condemning Myanmar’s accusers for spreading false news.

Questions about possibly recalling her Nobel Peace Prize arose, then faded away. If the Nobel Committee knew as much about her in 1991 when they presented it as they do now, she might never have received it.

Other awards she received as figurehead of Myanmar’s struggle for democracy have been withdrawn. Oxford University and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum have revoked the prestigious honours they had bestowed on her earlier. In 2015 the US Holocaust Memorial Museum sent a fact-finding team to Myanmar to observe conditions of the Rohingya community on the ground. They came away horrified that the conditions for genocide were already in place.

Image result for the rohingya genocide and The Dalai Lama

More critical voices from concerned distinguished persons were heard from around the world. The Dalai Lama reproached Myanmar’s mostly “Buddhist” mass murderers, saying that Buddha himself would have helped the Rohingyas.

The spotlight remained on Suu Kyi as the country’s (nominal) leader. Last year Yanghee Lee, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights, called on Suu Kyi to issue a statement but she remained silent.

Increasingly, Suu Kyi’s stubbornness has made her criticise the critics of Myanmar’s genocide while denying any crimes had taken place. This month, Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said Suu Kyi should have resigned if she could do or say nothing against the military’s crimes against humanity.

The UN Security Council visited Myanmar in March, with plans for a fact-finding mission to investigate the situation. Myanmar banned the mission, which then had to interview hundreds of Rohingya refugees fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh.

The report of the mission names six senior military officers who should be put on trial at the International Criminal Court. It also blames Suu Kyi for doing nothing to stop the mass atrocities.

In turning things around by inverting the truth, Myanmar’s government rejected the report outright. Instead it blames those responsible for producing what amounted to a pack of lies.

Myanmar officials should know about telling lies. The army’s public relations unit called True News produced a book with photos allegedly showing Rohingyas attacking other locals. Reuters examined the photos and found that they came from somewhere else – Bangladesh’s 1971 independence war, when Pakistani troops attacked Bangladeshis.

Government and military spokesmen could not be reached for comment. An Information Ministry official declined comment by saying that he had not seen the book, which is on sale publicly.

After the international community had pressured Myanmar to take back the hundreds of thousands of refugees it had expelled, it announced the return of a family of five Rohingyas from Bangladesh in April.

Bangladesh immediately denied that had happened. An independent refugee expert agreed with Bangladesh, saying that Myanmar’s claim of repatriation was yet another publicity stunt.

Meanwhile Myanmar’s verification process for Rohingya returnees remains obstructive. Among the requirements is that the Rohingyas must renounce their claim to ever being a citizen of Myanmar, placing them officially as illegal migrants liable for deportation. Rohingyas want to return home to rebuild, so long as they can enjoy basic human rights and freedom from persecution. Myanmar only has to agree to this.

It is difficult to see how Myanmar can agree to anything decent given all that has happened and continues to happen. Rohingya men, women and children have been slaughtered or otherwise terrorised and their homes razed in driving them from their land.

There may be valuable minerals in the ground in Rakhine state, and politicians, business people and the military may exploit them better if the population was cleared or reduced. Hence, “ethnic cleansing.”

The Myanmar military or Tatmadaw has fought internal wars with dozens of ethnic minority groups, some of which have become defunct or which have been engaged in talks with the government.

At least nine militant ethnic groups remain. Yet the Rohingyas are not among them, since they are not even recognised as an ethnic minority. Rohingyas are the most persecuted of all the minority communities also because they have fought back the least. The Tatmadaw’s bullying style is to target the weakest the most.

The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa) has conducted some sporadic operations against the army, but nothing like the other ethnic minority armies. The Tatmadaw then exploits Arsa’s resistance efforts as a pretext to persecute Rohingyas further.

Even as Suu Kyi joins her generals as international pariahs, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull feted her in Sydney in March. Within 23 weeks Turnbull was removed as Prime Minister, and in another week he had left Parliament altogether. Would Suu Kyi go down a similar road?

It is no longer a secret that the real power in Myanmar still lies with the military. Suu Kyi may be afraid that if she did anything decent about the Rohingyas she may be out of a job.

She is known to have said: “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it”. Has she been corrupted by power? She may say no, if only because she never had it. Then she should have no fear of losing what she never had.

She has also said: “The only real prison is fear, and the only real freedom is freedom from fear.”The Myanmar military has allowed her outside her house for some time now. But will she allow herself to enjoy real freedom? She may have no power over the Tatmadaw, but she has power over her own actions. Rohingyas hope their leader will let them enjoy freedom too.

Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at ISIS Malaysia.

WEF on ASEAN: Key Agenda


September 8, 2018

WEF on ASEAN: Key Agenda

by Chheang Vannarith / Khmer Times
 
Image result for wef on asean 2018
Justin Wood, Head of Asia-Pacific, Member of the WEF Executive Committee told reporters on September 6 (Photo: VNA)

 

The World Economic Forum of ASEAN will discuss the Fourth Industrial Revolution, powered by a wide range of new breakthroughs. Chheang Vannarith writes these new technologies are revolutionary due to the speed, breadth and depth of anticipated change they will bring and warns that if Asean leaders do not think regionally, they will miss out on opportunities and fail to address growing challenges.

The World Economic Forum on ASEAN is going to take place in Hanoi on 11-13 September, with the participation of, if nothing changes, seven state leaders from ASEAN member states, namely State Counsellor of Myanmar Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc.

Image result for wef 4th industrial revolution

The main theme of the forum this year focuses on how Asean can embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution – which generally refers to technological revolution in the fields of artificial intelligence, robotics, 3-D printing, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing. This is a new, critical area of regional cooperation as Asean moves towards building a genuine people-centered, people-oriented community.

Opportunities are present, stemming from the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and we need to be aware of and get ready to face emerging challenges such as job losses and disruption, inequality and political instability, and cyberattacks. With the accelerating pace of change and transformation in almost all dimensions of social, economic and political landscapes, Asean member countries need to accelerate their comprehensive reforms, especially regulatory reforms, in order to grasp the benefits and overcome the challenges.

Image result for wef 4th industrial revolution

Information and knowledge sharing is critical to building national and regional capacity in navigating through these transformations and uncertainties. The less developed economies like Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar need more international support in building their digital infrastructure and human capital to survive and stay economically competitive. If not, they risk being left far behind. Be aware that widening the development gap within the region will prevent the realisation of a genuine regional community and could potentially trigger regional division and instability. A two-tiered ASEAN is not a healthy ASEAN.

The report by the World Economic Forum and the Asian Development Bank in 2017 suggests that regional governments must be fast, agile, experimental, inclusive, and open in developing an ecosystem for digital integration. Being inclusive in policy design and execution has been one of the main shortcomings in regional integration in Southeast Asia since regional projects are chiefly led by political ruling elites with low participation from the private sector and civil society. It is commonly said that ASEAN is an elite-driven regional project.

How to transform this unprecedented breadth and depth of technological revolution into a source of inclusive and sustainable development remains the top challenge for ASEAN and its member states. It is proven that inequality is one of the root causes of political and social instability and ASEAN must develop a strategy to link technology with the narrowing development gap – one of which is to promote “an inclusive Fourth Industrial Revolution”.

Image result for wef 4th industrial revolution in Hanoi 2018

 

The new Cambodian government to be formed today has included digital economy into its development agenda for the next five years, with the expectation that it will help Cambodia to compete with other regional countries within the context of intensifying market competition, the gradual collapsing of labor-intensive manufacturing industry, and the concentration of market power by multinational companies.

The local enterprises, especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), will face mounting challenges to remain competitive in the market that will transition to virtual products and services than real ones. Technology remains unaffordable and inaccessible for many SMEs in the region and there is an urgent need to develop a support mechanism, both financial and technical support, to assist SMEs in utilizing the benefits accorded in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Another interesting agenda of the forum is the dialogue session on the future of the Mekong region – a new growth center and strategic frontier of Asia. The leaders from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam will present their views on the current state of regional development and integration in the Mekong and the management of the Mekong River. There are increasing concerns that hydropower dams being constructed and planned along the mainstream of the river will severely affect the livelihoods and ecosystem in the whole Mekong River Basin. The recent dam collapse in Laos has prompted riparian countries to review their hydropower projects.

The two downstream countries, Cambodia and Vietnam, are the most affected countries. They have put certain pressures on upstream countries, particularly Laos, to conduct trans-boundary environmental and social impact assessments before constructing dams. Data sharing on water flow and quality is another key area of cooperation, especially in the dry season. There are many outstanding issues and emerging challenges that the Mekong countries need to overcome and find suitable solutions for all. A win-win cooperation must be real on the ground, not only in diplomatic statements. The perception of the local people, not the ruling elites, is the best indicator to reflect and prove whether a development project is a win-win project.

ASEAN and other sub-regional institutions such as the Mekong River Commission share one common weakness which is the lack of implementation and enforcement. Policies abound – either in the form of blueprints, declarations, or joint statements – but implementation is lacking. Next week, ASEAN leaders will share their perspectives on the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Mekong River. It will be a reminder that people want to know concrete actions and solutions that benefit whole societies and not small groups of political and business elites. That is what inclusiveness is all about.

Chheang Vannarith is a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum.

 

Southeast Asia: Changing Geo-Political Dynamics in the Trump Era


August 30, 2018

Southeast Asia: Changing Geo-Political Dynamics in the Trump Era

Widespread reports of China’s hegemony over the neighboring region miss the nuance of fast-shifting political and strategic dynamics

Phnom Penh 
A historical map depicting China's flag over Southeast Asia. Photo: iStock

Is China truly establishing dominance over neighboring Southeast Asia, or is it a prevailing perception among academics and journalists who have uncritically adopted a pervasive pro-China narrative built on Beijing’s rising investment and influence in the region?

Two recent Southeast Asian elections denote a shifting spectrum. Last month’s general election in Cambodia, by far China’s most loyal ally in the region, was taken by some as indication of how far the country has moved away from its past Western backers and closer to Beijing.

Image result for Hun Sen-President Xi

As Cambodia abandons multi-party democracy for one-party authoritarianism, similar to the dominance of the Communist Party in China, some see Cambodia as the first domino to fall in China’s grand regional ambition for political and economic control over the nearby region.

Indeed, some in Cambodia’s exiled opposition have claimed that the country has become a de facto “Chinese colony” under Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

The Harapan coalition’s win at Malaysia’s May 9 general election, however, pointed in the opposite direction. The long-ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) was ousted by an alliance whose campaign narrative was built in part on opposing Chinese investment, which boomed under the previous government.

Now as prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad has cancelled US$22 billion worth of Chinese-backed infrastructure projects, including a Belt and Road Initiative-inspired high-speed rail line, for reasons of fiscal prudence.

While Mahathir warned of the risk of new forms of “colonialism” during a recently concluded tour of China, he also made the diplomatic point that his government isn’t anti-China.

Indeed, some in Cambodia’s exiled opposition have claimed that the country has become a de facto “Chinese colony” under Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

The Harapan coalition’s win at Malaysia’s May 9 general election, however, pointed in the opposite direction. The long-ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) was ousted by an alliance whose campaign narrative was built in part on opposing Chinese investment, which boomed under the previous government.

Now as Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad has cancelled US$22 billion worth of Chinese-backed infrastructure projects, including a Belt and Road Initiative-inspired high-speed rail line, for reasons of fiscal prudence.

While Mahathir warned of the risk of new forms of “colonialism” during a recently concluded tour of China, he also made the diplomatic point that his government isn’t anti-China.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (L) and China's Premier Li Keqiang talk during a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on August 20, 2018.Mahathir is on a visit to China from August 17 to 21. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / HOW HWEE YOUNG

“We should always remember that the level of development of countries are not all the same,” Mahathir said this week at a joint press conference with Chinese premier Li Keqiang. “We do not want a situation where there is a new version of colonialism happening because poor countries are unable to compete with rich countries, therefore we need fair trade.”

It is undeniable that China now plays a major and growing role in Southeast Asian affairs, even if judged by only its economic heft.

A recent New York Times report noted that every Asian country now trades more with China than the United States, often by a factor of two to one, an imbalance that is only growing as China’s economic growth outpaces that of America’s.

With China’s economic ascendency projected to continue – the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts China could become the world’s largest economy by 2030 – some believe that Beijing aims to replace the US-backed liberal international order in place since the 1950’s with a new less liberal and less orderly model.

Cambodia’s case, however, tests the limits of that forward-looking analysis. The US and European Union (EU) refused to send electoral monitors to Cambodia’s general election last month on the grounds the process was “illegitimate” due to the court-ordered dissolution of the country’s largest opposition party.

Washington has since imposed targeted sanctions on Cambodian officials seen as leading the anti-democratic crackdown, while new legislation now before the US Senate could significantly ramp up the punitive measures.

Hun Sen aired a combative response to threats of sanctions, saying with bravado that he “welcomes” the measures. Some commentators read this as an indication that Phnom Penh no longer cares about the actions and perceptions of democratic nations because it has China’s strong and lucrative backing.

Yet the CPP still made painstaking efforts to present a veneer of democratic legitimacy on to its rigged elections, something it would not have done if it only cared about Beijing’s opinions. Hun Sen now says he will soon defend the election’s legitimacy at the United Nations General Assembly, yet another indication that he still cares what the West thinks.

China’s rise in Southeast Asia is viewed primarily in relation to the US’ long-standing strong position, both economically and strategically. Many see this competition as a zero-sum game where China’s gain is America’s loss.

Along those lines, some analysts saw US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent whirlwind trip to Southeast Asia as “parachute diplomacy” that only underscored certain entrenched regional perceptions of the US as an episodic actor that has no real strategy for Southeast Asia.

The Donald Trump administration certainly lacks an overarching policy comparable to his predecessor Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia,” a much-vaunted scheme with strategic and economic components that made Southeast Asia key to America’s policy of counterbalancing China.

Despite no new policy moniker, Trump’s administration has in many ways continued Obama’s scheme: Vietnam remains a key ally, support for other South China Sea claimants is unbending, military sales remain high, and containing Chinese expansion is still the raison d’etre.

It’s also been seen in the number of visits to Southeast Asia by senior White House officials, including high profile tours by Pompeo and his predecessor Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and Trump himself to Vietnam in November 2017 and Singapore in June.

A little noticed December 2017 National Security Strategy document, produced by Trump’s White House, explicitly notes that “China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.”

Yet perceptions of new Cold War-like competition in Southeast Asia often fail to note the imbalance between America and China’s spheres of influence in the region.

 

US President Donald Trump (L) and Vietnam's President Tran Dai Quang (R) attend a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi in Hanoi on November 12, 2017.Trump told his Vietnamese counterpart on November 12 he is ready to help resolve the dispute in the resource-rich South China Sea, which Beijing claims most of. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / KHAM

Absent President Donald Trump’s Asia Policy, China emerges as the dominant  player in Southeast Asia

China’s two most loyal regional allies are arguably Cambodia and Laos, countries of less economic and strategic importance than America’s main partners Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam.

The historically pro-US Philippines has gravitated somewhat into China’s orbit under President Rodrigo Duterte, though at most there has been an equalization of its relations between the two powers rather than outright domination by China.

Strategic analyst Richard Javad Heydarian recently noted that Duterte likes to think of himself as a “reincarnation of mid-20th century titans of the so-called Non-Aligned Movement,” though Heydarian suggested that this could prompt a backlash from the Philippine public that remains resolutely pro-America.

Malaysia, another country that was thought to have been moving closer to China, has ricocheted strongly in the other direction after the change in leadership from pro-China Najib Razak to China-skeptic Mahathir Mohamad.

Thailand has boosted military ties with Beijing since the country’s military coup in 2014, which caused some panic in Washington, but a recent incident has shown just how fragile their bilateral relations remain.

After two boats sank near the resort island of Phuket in early July, killing dozens of Chinese tourists, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan blamed the Chinese tour operators, commenting the accident was “entirely Chinese harming Chinese.”

His claim led to calls in China for tourists to boycott Thailand, which could cost the country roughly US$1.5 billion in cancellations, according to some estimates. Thailand’s tourism sector is now facing a major public relations problem after China’s jingoist state-owned media lambasted Prawit’s tactless response.

More explosively, rare nationwide protests in Vietnam in June were sparked by nationalistic concerns that a new law allowing 99-year land leases in special economic zones would effectively sell sovereign territory to China.

There are strong perceptions, aired widely over social media, that Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party is too close to Beijing, a cause of resentment that some analysts suggest is the country’s biggest potential source of instability.

Even in perceived pro-China nations like Cambodia and Laos, anti-China sentiment is rising in certain sections of the public. Arguments that Chinese investment actually harms the livelihoods of many Cambodians, especially in places like coastal Sihanoukville and Koh Kong, is on the ascendency.

Social media criticism has centered on a concession deal the Cambodian government entered with a Chinese company that effectively gives it land rights to an estimated 20% of Cambodia’s coastline.

The same goes for Laos’ ruling communist party, which has taken steps to curb the growth of certain sectors dominated by Chinese investment, such as banana plantations and mining, over public complaints about their adverse health and environmental impacts.

The IMF and others, meanwhile, have expressed concerns that Laos risks falling into a Chinese “debt trap”via its Beijing-backed US$6 billion high-speed rail project, a claim that Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith felt the need to publicly rebuff in June.

Still, there is a certain misapprehension that China’s rising economic importance to the region, both as a provider of aid and investment and market for exports, necessarily equates to strong political and strategic influence.

It doesn’t always add up that way. In January, China fractionally overtook America as the largest importer of Vietnamese goods, according to the General Department of Vietnam Customs. Nonetheless, Hanoi remains decidedly pro-US in regional affairs and that position isn’t expected to change, even if its exports to China continue to outpace those to America.

More fundamentally, China’s rising economic presence in the region is in many instances destabilizing relations. Rapid growth in Chinese investment to Malaysia in recent years prompted a public backlash, a phenomena seized on by the victorious Harapan coalition. There are incipient signs the same type of backlash is now percolating in Cambodia and Laos.

Chinese investment is likely to play a role in Indonesia’s presidential and legislative elections next year, perhaps negatively for incumbent President Joko Widodo, under whose tenure China has become the country’s third largest investor.

“The relationship with China could turn toxic for [Widodo],” Keith Loveard, senior analyst with Jakarta-based business risk firm Concord Consulting, recently told the South China Morning Post.

To be sure, China has translated some of its economic largesse to strategic advantage. Philippine President Durterte, for example, said in October 2016 that his country’s one-way security ties with the US would come to an end, though America’s provision of “technical assistance” during the Marawi City siege last year cast the extent of that into doubt.

China has also developed closer ties to the militaries of Thailand and Cambodia, so much so that the latter cancelled joint military exercises with the US last year. It has also resumed its past position of shielding Myanmar’s generals from Western condemnation during the recent Rohingya refugee crisis.

But America still remains the predominant security ally of most Southeast Asian nations, something that will only become more important as concerns about the spread of Islamic terrorism heighten. This month, Washington provided an additional US$300m in security funding to the region.

Only Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar buy more arms from China than America, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The rest of Southeast Asia’s military procurements, sometimes exclusively, come from the US.

Still, some of China’s recent regional successes have been the result of America’s missteps. China has been greatly helped by Trump’s withdrawal of America from its long-standing leadership role in certain multilateral institutions, as well as his ad hoc policy towards Southeast Asia that favors more bilateralism.

Had Trump not withdrawn the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral trade deal championed by Obama that excludes China, regional trade flows would be geared more towards America, providing an important counterbalance to many regional countries’ rising dependence on Chinese markets.

By doing so, Trump allowed Beijing’s multilateral economic institutions, like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank, to gain an upper hand.

Yet most reporting on China’s influence in Southeast Asia rests on the assumption that the trends of the past decade will continue into the future. But it’s not clear that Chinese investment will keep growing at the same rate – or even faster – while America continues to fumble over how best to engage with Southeast Asia.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (C) poses with Thailand's Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai (L), Vietnam's Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh (2nd L), Malaysia's Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah (2nd R) and Laos Foreign Minister Saleumxay Kommasith (R) for a group photo at the 51st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) - US Ministerial Meeting in Singapore on August 3, 2018. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

China cannot rule out that in 2021 America could have a new president able to articulate and implement a more coherent policy towards Southeast Asia, nor that upcoming elections in Indonesia and possibly even Myanmar see the rise of anti-China candidates.

Neither can Beijing rule out that India won’t become a major player in the region, despite it so far failing to live up to expectations. A recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations, a US-based think tank, asserted that it can be “a more forceful counterweight to China and hedge against a declining United States.”

Moreover, there is great uncertainty over whether the South China Sea disputes pitting China versus the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, among others, might at some point turn hot, which would significantly alter the region’s security approach in place since the 1990s.

China’s growing trade war with the US could also impact on its relations with the region. Some believe China could soon devalue its currency in response to the US-China trade war, though Beijing says it won’t.

Not only would a devalued renminbi make Chinese-made products cheaper, negatively affecting competing Southeast Asian exporters, it would also affect the region’s supply chains as Chinese buyers would be expected to demand cheaper prices. Few, if any, in the region would win from rounds of competitive currency devaluations.

But viewing China’s power in the region vis-a-vis America’s is only part of the picture. Japan, and to a lesser extent South Korea, are also major players and potential counterweights to China.

Since the 2000s, Japan’s infrastructure investment in the region has been worth US$230 billion, while China’s was about US$155 billion, according to recent BMI Research, an economic research outfit. The balance might tip in China’s favor with the US$1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative, but probably not for another decade or so, BMI projects.

Tokyo rarely boasts of its own soft power in Southeast Asia. Indeed, while Philippine leader Duterte’s overtures to China are among his major talking points, quietly it has been Japan, not China, that is funding his government’s ballyhooed major infrastructure programs.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (R) and Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad shake hands during joint press remarks at Abe's official residence in Tokyo on June 12, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Toshifumi KITAMURA

Japanese diplomacy towards the region falls somewhere between China and America’s. While Washington’s, at least past, insistence on human rights and democracy-building puts off to many regional countries, Beijing’s diplomacy is more laissez faire, as long as Chinese interests are protected by sitting governments.

Tokyo, by contrast, tends to practice quiet sustained diplomacy, decidedly in support of rule of law but without the threat of punitive measures if a partner government strays. That is likely one reason why there is little anti-Japan sentiment in the region and why its relations receive much less public attention.

Malaysia’s Mahathir, whose first trip abroad after May’s election win was to Tokyo, not Beijing or Washington, has recently spoken of Japan’s importance in regional affairs.

Mahathir shaped Southeast Asia’s approach to great powers during his previous tenure as Prime Minister from 1981-2003, and his belief that Japan can play an even larger role in regional affairs could soon be taken up by other regional governments.

“Specific Southeast Asian states are now seeking to diversify their strategic partnerships, beyond a binary choice between Beijing and Washington,” reads a recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations.

Mahathir’s apparent desire is for a more diversified regional network, similar to the hedging policies he promoted in the 1990s. Mahathir is certainly not pro-China, but neither is he pro-US.

What most Southeast Asian nations desire is not unipolarity but competition among many foreign partners that allows them to maximize benefits and negotiating leverage. When America and China, or Japan and India, compete to gain an economic and political footing, regional nations often win through the bidding.

 

 

Foreign Policy: Myanmar Opens a New Chapter in Dealing with Big Neighbor China


July 6, 2018

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Asia Pacific Bulletin, No. 432

Publisher: Washington, DC: East-West Center
Available From: July 25, 2018
Publication Date: July 25, 2018

Myanmar Opens a New Chapter in Dealing with Big Neighbor China

By Khin Zaw Win

Myanmar’s Shan state — the country’s biggest state — has a long border with China, and is on the cusp of becoming the axis of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It is home to the famed “Burma Road” which had been a lifeline for the Republic of China before and during WWII — a conduit for US war supplies to the beleaguered Chinese forces holding back a Japanese invasion. And long before it was the “Burma Road” the route had seen trade and invasion from China into Myanmar for centuries. Tea, opium, silver, and lead were among the commodities carried by mule caravans to Yunnan and beyond.

Geography and history favor the Corridor, but politics do not. As an economic development and infrastructure project, there are rationales and counter-rationales for CMEC (Myanmar’s infrastructure rankings are among the lowest in the region).

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Advocates from China constantly use the term ‘win-win’ to describe economic cooperation, but even the most cursory observer will know which country wins more. Suddenly there are indications that a memorandum of understanding on the Corridor is to be signed in the very near future. However, no information on the possible terms of such an agreement have been made public; and to date there has been no official announcement.

The civilian minister for planning and economic development who had agreed to the deal in Beijing last February, has since resigned amidst allegations of unspecified corruption. A senior Myanmar investment official who reviewed ten points attached by China to the MoU objected to them. Ultimately, the Chinese withdrew the ten points, saying they are very keen for the project to proceeds. But beyond such developments, there is hardly a murmur from the Myanmar government — civilian or military — about the specifics of an MoU on the planned Corridor. The lack of public consultations and information about such an important purported engagement with China are unfortunate and unjustified.

If the word ‘distant’ is used to describe quite a number of national capitals across the world, Myanmar’s new capital of Naypyidaw, situated half-way between Yangon and Mandalay, is even more so. The tangible impression now is that it has become more opaque and divorced from reality than even during the administration of former general Thein Sein (2010-2015).

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The current National League for Democracy (NLD) government is at the mid-point of its tenure and what had started out as a widely-welcomed revival of a democratic system is now beset by multiple crises. While acknowledging that the structural challenges of transition in Myanmar are great to begin with, the situation has been aggravated by the style of government. Besides the dual state (civil and military) that consults poorly with each other, the centralization of decision-making in one person, even though elected, hinders democracy.

Against this political background, the decision on the Myanmar-China economic Corridor also comes at a time when the government and military are facing a backlash from the West over their handling of the ongoing Rohingya crisis. It stands to reason that China is seizing the moment to press forward on the infrastructure arrangement with Naypyidaw.

Of China’s four existing mega-projects in Myanmar, the Myitsone dam is stalled. China is keen to resume work but is not pushing that much. The Letapadaung copper mine is operating – under heavy security provided by both Myanmar police outside the site and Chinese security inside. The oil and gas pipeline from the Bay of Bengal coast to south-west China is also functioning. The Kyaukphyu deep sea port and adjoining SEZ are going ahead, and China’s ‘pricing’ of the investment comes to US$10 billion. Aung San Su Kyi’s economic adviser has faulted this as being too high. Other voices warn of the debt trap, although China dismisses this. No doubt many are observing the recent experiences of Pakistan and Sri Lanka regarding debt burdens resulting from Chinese projects.

For China, there is ample reason for Myanmar (which it called the ‘land of the southern barbarians’ in ancient times) to be incorporated into BRI even though the environment in the country is complicated. Under the NLD-led government, with all its deficiencies, Myanmar is now more or less a democracy again, after a long and arduous struggle. But it is poorly governed and the military still has political ambitions. Of added relevance is the country’s move to the right – entrenched military, big business with tentacles everywhere, ethnic assertiveness, and the resurgence of militant religion. National peace is still elusive as evidenced by continued ethnic insurgencies, mistrust is high, and corruption is rife. Nonetheless China is prepared to take the risk and move in on a bigger scale.

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China will also have to grapple with ground attitudes in Myanmar toward expanded engagement. As a recent policy brief by the International Growth Centre of China warns:

     “Chinese investors should be wary of existing negative attitudes [in Myanmar] but can improve their image by carefully selecting their local partners and engaging directly and actively with the affected communities. Furthermore, this research offers a warning for the BRI and the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor about the potential local resistance they may face if their investment strategies do not consider the local context carefully.”

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The planned China-Myanmar Economic Corridor will have implications far beyond infrastructure and economic development. A very pertinent starting question would be: if there are to be benefits for Myanmar, how will these be shared? What will be the impact of specific contemplated projects on ending the civil war and creating the hoped-for federal system? How will it affect the regional balance of power in Southeast and South Asia? It is a matter of some doubt whether these and similar concerns are even being considered in the halls of Naypyidaw. On the CMEC as well as in other spheres, a more consultative, inclusive and participatory approach is urgently required. More than just about overcoming crises and electoral prospects at the next elections in 2020, CMEC must ultimately be directed towards building a viable, plural, and federalist democracy, and a more equitable and tolerant society.

Khin Zaw Win is Director of the Tampadipa Institute in Yangon. He can be contacted at Khin.Z.Win@gmail.com.