American Foreign Policy Endangered


November 13, 2017

The Economist

American Foreign Policy Endangered

America’s global influence has dwindled under Donald Trump

https://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21731132-presidential-tour-asia-cannot-hide-fact-america-has-turned-inward-hurting-itself

A presidential tour of Asia cannot hide the fact that America has turned inward, hurting itself and the world

A YEAR ago this week Donald Trump was elected president. Many people predicted that American foreign policy would take a disastrous turn. Mr Trump had suggested that he would scrap trade deals, ditch allies, put a figurative bomb under the rules-based global order and drop literal ones willy-nilly. NATO was “obsolete”, he said; NAFTA was “the worst trade deal maybe ever”; and America was far too nice to foreigners. “In the old days when you won a war, you won a war. You kept the country,” he opined, adding later that he would “bomb the shit out of” Islamic State (IS) and “take the oil”.

So far, Mr Trump’s foreign policy has been less awful than he promised. Granted, he has pulled America out of the Paris accord, making it harder to curb climate change, and abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a big trade deal. However, he has not retreated pell-mell into isolationism. He has not quit NATO; indeed, some of America’s eastern European allies prefer his tough-talk to the cool detachment of Barack Obama. He has not started any wars. He has stepped up America’s defence of Afghanistan’s beleaguered government, and helped Iraq recapture cities from IS. In the parts of the world to which he pays little attention, such as Africa, an understaffed version of the previous administration’s policy continues on autopilot. As Mr Trump makes a 12-day visit to Asia, it is hard to dismiss him as a man wholly disengaged from the world.

Many people find reassurance in the sober, capable military men who surround him (see article). His chief of staff, his defence secretary and his national security adviser all understand the horrors of war and will stop him from doing anything rash, the argument goes. Optimists even speculate that he might emulate Ronald Reagan, by shaking up the diplomatic establishment, restoring America’s military muscle and projecting such strength abroad that a frightened, overstretched North Korea will crumble like the Soviet Union. Others confidently predict that even if he causes short-term damage to America’s standing in the world, Mr Trump will be voted out in 2020 and things will return to normal.

Reagan, he ain’t

For all its flaws, America has long been the greatest force for good in the world, upholding the liberal order and offering an example of how democracy works. All that is imperilled by a president who believes that strong nations look out only for themselves. By putting “America First”, he makes it weaker, and the world worse off.–The Economist

All this is wishful thinking. On security, Mr Trump has avoided some terrible mistakes. He has not started a needless row with China over Taiwan’s ambiguous status, as he once threatened to do. Congress and the election-hacking scandal prevented him from pursuing a grand bargain with Vladimir Putin that might have left Russia’s neighbours at the Kremlin’s mercy. And he has apparently coaxed China to exert a little more pressure on North Korea to stop expanding its nuclear arsenal.

However, he has made some serious errors, too, such as undermining the deal with Iran that curbs its ability to make nuclear bombs. And his instincts are atrocious. He imagines he has nothing to learn from history. He warms to strongmen, such as Mr Putin and Xi Jinping. His love of generals is matched by a disdain for diplomats—he has gutted the State Department, losing busloads of experienced ambassadors. His tweeting is no joke: he undermines and contradicts his officials without warning, and makes reckless threats against Kim Jong Un, whose paranoia needs no stoking. Furthermore, Mr Trump has yet to be tested by a crisis. Level-headed generals may advise him, but he is the commander-in-chief, with a temperament that alarms friend and foe alike.

On trade, he remains wedded to a zero-sum view of the world, in which exporters “win” and importers “lose”. (Are the buyers of Ivanka Trump-branded clothes and handbags, which are made in Asia, losers?) Mr Trump has made clear that he favours bilateral deals over multilateral ones, because that way a big country like America can bully small ones into making concessions. The trouble with this approach is twofold. First, it is deeply unappealing to small countries, which by the way also have protectionist lobbies to overcome. Second, it would reproduce the insanely complicated mishmash of rules that the multilateral trade system was created to simplify and trim. The Trump team probably will not make a big push to disrupt global trade until tax reform has passed through Congress. But when and if that happens, all bets are off—NAFTA is still in grave peril.

Ideas matter

Image result for donald trump commander in chief picture

America’s Flawed Commander-in-Chief, Donald J Trump

Perhaps the greatest damage that Mr Trump has done is to American soft power. He openly scorns the notion that America should stand up for universal values such as democracy and human rights. Not only does he admire dictators; he explicitly praises thuggishness, such as the mass murder of criminal suspects in the Philippines. He does so not out of diplomatic tact, but apparently out of conviction. This is new. Previous American presidents supported despots for reasons of cold-war realpolitik. (“He’s a bastard, but he’s our bastard,” as Harry Truman is reputed to have said of an anti-communist tyrant in Nicaragua.) Mr Trump’s attitude seems more like: “He’s a bastard. Great!”

This repels America’s liberal allies, in Europe, East Asia and beyond. It emboldens autocrats to behave worse, as in Saudi Arabia this week, where the crown prince’s dramatic political purges met with Mr Trump’s blessing (see article). It makes it easier for China to declare American-style democracy passé, and more tempting for other countries to copy China’s autocratic model (see article).

The idea that things will return to normal after a single Trump term is too sanguine. The world is moving on. Asians are building new trade ties, often centred on China. Europeans are working out how to defend themselves if they cannot rely on Uncle Sam. And American politics are turning inward: both Republicans and Democrats are more protectionist now than they were before Mr Trump’s electoral triumph.

For all its flaws, America has long been the greatest force for good in the world, upholding the liberal order and offering an example of how democracy works. All that is imperilled by a president who believes that strong nations look out only for themselves. By putting “America First”, he makes it weaker, and the world worse off.

This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “Endangered”

Cambodia: Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen adopts strong people-centeric leadership instead of liberal democracy


November 3, 2015

Cambodia: Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen adopts strong people-centeric leadership  stead of liberal democracy

by Carlyle A Thayer

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

Image result for hun sen at wef, may, 2017 in phnom penh

Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia seen with Philippine President President Rodrigo Roa Duterte. 

Since 2016, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has set about deliberately dismantling his country’s democratic system. Month by month, the country’s political opposition has been eviscerated through a combination of coercion and judicial means, known as ‘lawfare’.

 

Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, is one of the world’s longest serving leaders and has now been in charge in Cambodia for 32 years.

Degradation of the democratic process dramatically accelerated during 2017. If this continues, the national elections scheduled for July 2018 will effectively be a one-party affair. Cambodia today is an illiberal democracy rapidly descending into autocratic rule.

In 1991, after Cambodia had spent three years under the murderous rule of the Khmer Rouge and ten years under Vietnamese military occupation, the United Nations was mandated to carry out peace-building. It was the largest such mission of its time. Liberal multi-party democracy was enshrined in the constitution. In May 1993, Cambodia held national elections for a Constituent Assembly. Four months later it promulgated a constitution that restored the monarch, Norodom Sihanouk, and re-established the Kingdom of Cambodia. His successor, Norodom Sihamoni, had for many years spent much of his time abroad.

Cambodia’s current constitution was amended in 2004. Five references to liberal multi-party democracy are enshrined within it, including the assertion in the preamble that Cambodia will ‘become once again an “Oasis of Peace” based on the system of a liberal multi-party democracy’.

Article 1 states that ‘the King shall fulfil His functions according to the Constitution and the principles of liberal multi-party democracy’, while Article 50 declares ‘Khmer citizens of both sexes shall respect the principles of national sovereignty and liberal multi-party democracy’.

Article 51 specifies that ‘the Kingdom of Cambodia adopts a policy of liberal multi-party democracy’ and Article 153 affirms that ‘the revision or the amendment of the Constitution cannot be done, if affecting the liberal multi-party democracy system and the constitutional monarchy regime’.

Image result for hun sen at wef, may, 2017 in phnom penh

Cambodian Minister of Public Works, Sun Chanthol and Transport, Sun Chanthol and Dr. Kao Kim Hourn, Minister in Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Office.

National elections have been held at regular five-yearly intervals in Cambodia since 1993. In 1998, Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) gained majority control and it has won every election since then. In 2012, two opposition parties, the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party, merged to form the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). In the national elections the following year, the CPP suffered a major setback when it lost 22 parliamentary seats, although it still retained control. The opposition charged that the election was rigged and Cambodia experienced a period of domestic turmoil as mass protests erupted.

Since the setback to his control in 2013, Hun Sen has set about systematically destabilising the opposition. His efforts intensified as commune elections scheduled for 4 June 2017 approached. These elections were widely viewed as a bellwether for national elections scheduled for July 2018.

The leader of the CNRP at the time, Sam Rainsy, was forced to flee abroad and in December 2016 he was convicted of ‘falsifying public documents, using fake public documents [and] incitement causing unrest to national security’ in absentia. His successor, Kem Sokha, was forced to step down as party leader while other CNRP members were jailed for ‘inciting social instability’.

Image result for hun sen at wef, may, 2017 in phnom penh

A Member of ASEAN since 1999, Cambodia has been making friends around the world on the basis of mutual respect and win-win partnerships.

In January 2017, Hun Sen cancelled military exercises with the United States for a period of two years, on the grounds that the Cambodian military needed to provide security for the elections and to assist in an anti-drug campaign. Later he abruptly ordered a US Navy unit engaged in humanitarian construction of school toilets and maternity wards to leave the country.

International organisations have also been expelled. In February 2017, Hun Sen countered the opposition by amending the Law on Political Parties so that the CNRP could be dissolved for ‘jeopardising the security of the state’ and ‘provoking incitement’. A Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations was also passed in July 2015. It required the 5000 domestic and foreign NGOs working in Cambodia to register with the government and provide detailed reports on their activities and finances. If they failed to comply, they risked fines, criminal prosecutions or deregistration.

On 11 April 2017, the Cambodian government released an eleven-page report, ‘To Tell the Truth’. It accused Western governments, UN agencies and NGOs of conducting a deliberate campaign of disinformation to denigrate the CPP. The report also accused the United States and the opposition CNRP of colluding to overthrow the Cambodian government.

Yet the Cambodian people continue to support the opposition at the ballot box. Despite efforts by Hun Sen and his CPP to hound and destabilise the opposition, the opposition performed well in the June 2017 commune elections. Even though the CPP received 51 per cent of the vote to the CNRP’s 44 per cent, the CPP lost 436 commune chief seats while the CNRP gained 449 out of a total of 1646 commune chief seats. And the CPP lost 1779 commune councillor seats while the CNRP gained 2052 out of a total of 11,572 councillor seats.

After the commune elections, Hun Sen and the CPP blamed their poor showing on outside interference by the US National Democratic Institution (NDI) and Khmer language broadcasts by Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA). The NDI was ordered to leave Cambodia and the 53 local radio stations that rebroadcast news from VOA and RFA were shut down. The Cambodian Daily was closed on allegations of tax fraud. In September, former leader of the opposition Kem Sokha, the founder and former leader of the Human Rights Party, was charged with treason.

Hun Sen is an autocrat who is clinging to power. To ensure that he remains at the helm he has resorted to subversion of the national constitution. In the process, he is transforming Cambodia’s liberal multi-party democracy into a dictatorship, a democracy in name only.

Carlyle A Thayer is an Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra.

This article was originally posted here on Asian Currents.

 

Ops Lalang: Time to set things right


November 1, 2017

Ops Lalang: Time to set things right

Dr. Mahathir Mohamad must assume ultimate responsibility for Ops Lalang

by Dato’  Dennis Ignatius

http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com

Image result for Dr. Mahathir Mohamad and Ops Lalang

The 30th anniversary of Ops Lalang has rightly generated much discussion about a dark chapter in our history when 106 of our fellow citizens were unjustly arrested and detained under the ISA. As a nation, we need to hear again the personal accounts of the detainees and their families, we need to confront the injustices of the past, if only to remind ourselves of the unfinished task of building a more just and democratic nation.

Taking responsibility

At the time, the government offered various reasons for the arrests including the need to forestall imminent racial riots. We know now that it was nothing but a sideshow to forestall a challenge to Dr. Mahathir’s rule from within his own party and to subdue opposition from without. And if racial tension had reached alarming levels, it was because the government then, as it still does today, sought to manipulate racial and religious issues to serve its own ends.

As Prime Minister and Home Minister at the time, Dr. Mahathir must assume ultimate responsibility for Ops Lalang. The then IGP was simply a willing accomplice, nothing more. To argue otherwise is both dishonest and disingenuous.

Dr. Mahathir may now concede that many of those who were detained were good people that he had simply demonised for political purposes but it is not enough. He should take personal responsibility and apologise to each and every detainee for the injustice he visited upon them.

Dr. Mahathir today is, of course, not the same man he was thirty years ago. He is now part of the political struggle for change and, though he is loathe to admit it, he is working to undo much of the damage that he himself inflicted upon our nation. I hope he will rise to the occasion by doing what is right.

Some have argued that insisting on an apology from Dr Mahathir would simply detract from the on-going efforts against UMNO-BN. On the contrary, an apology would immensely strengthen those efforts. It would also reaffirm that the struggle we are embarked upon is not simply about ousting an unpopular government at the next elections but about building a more just and democratic nation.

A national apology

UMNO-BN’s current leaders are no doubt relishing the fact that Dr. Mahathir is being taken to task over Ops Lalang but they should not be too smug. Some of those presently in government collaborated, acquiesced or defended Dr. Mahathir’s actions 30 years ago.

Image result for Najib Razak and Ops Lalang 1987The then IGP, (Tun) Hanif Omar was simply a willing accomplice, nothing more.

 

Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, for example, was UMNO Youth Chief at the time and did his share of sabre-rattling in support of Dr. Mahathir. Other BN parties, for their part, never challenged Dr. Mahathir’s narrative or protested the mass arrests.

Image result for Dr. Mahathir Mohamad

And besides, if those in authority today disagree with Dr. Mahathir’s action, they have it in their power to set things right by issuing, on behalf of the government, a public apology to all those who were detained during Ops Lalang and awarding them appropriate compensation for the wrong that was done them.

After all, it was done for the judges whose removal from office Dr. Mahathir contemptuously engineered during the 1988 judicial crisis; there’s no reason why it cannot be done for the victims of Ops Lalang as well. It’s the honourable thing to do if there is still any honour left to be found in this government.

Other countries – South Africa, Chile, Argentina, to name a few – have taken courageous steps to confront their dark past through an open accounting of the wrongs that were done. It’s time for us to do the same with Ops Lalang. It is the only way to bring closure to this dark episode in our history and a measure of comfort to those who were so badly wronged in 1987.

Tyranny triumphs when people do nothing

The other point that is worth remembering, as we mark the 30th anniversary of Ops Lalang, is that undemocratic rulers only succeed when there are people who go along with what’s morally wrong in order to get along, who bend their knees to what their heart denies, who turn away from the truth because it is inconvenient or who simply “menurut perintah” regardless of conscience or consequence.

I was Political Counsellor at the Malaysian Embassy in Washington DC when Ops Lalang took place. We were deluged by protests from concerned US politicians and civil society groups and it fell to me and my colleagues to defend the government’s actions, unwittingly repeating the falsehoods about racial tension, Marxist agitators and threats to our democracy and stability.

Now, whenever I hear the stories about how even women were tortured and mentally abused while in detention, how those in power manipulated events and people for political expediency, I am filled with dismay and remorse that I was part of the machinery that caused the detainees and their families so much anguish.

The truth is its not just Dr. Mahathir who is culpable but the entire machinery of government, the judiciary, the police, and the politicians; they may not have given the orders but they stood by and watched it happen, or worse still, allowed themselves to be used in one way or another.

To paraphrase a well-worn quote, evil triumphs when ordinary people do nothing in the face of injustice.

The unfinished struggle

The Ops Lalang detainees have modelled for us courage and determination in the face of injustice and tyranny. Years later, many remain committed and active, undeterred by their ordeal. It is now up to us to be inspired by their example and continue the unfinished struggle for justice and democracy in Malaysia.

Dato’ Dennis Ignatius is a former ambassador.

Cambodia– Responding to Rising Voter Expectations


October 16, 2017

Cambodia– Responding to Rising  Voter Expectations 

by Kongkea Chhoeun, Australian National University

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

Image result for Hun Sen at WEF

As long as the Cambodian government manages to maintain satisfactory economic performance, continues its piecemeal reforms benefitting the majority of the population, and promotes some appearance of democracy in the country, it will continue to demand difficult value judgments on the part of Cambodian citizens as to whether the CPP’s actions against the media and civil society are worth fighting back against.– Kongkea Chhoeun

 

It might be easy to forget given the events of August–September 2017, but Cambodian democracy had until a few years ago been making progress. Many key indicators of democratic quality had continued to improve since the 1998 national elections, which followed the near collapse of the system in the aftermath of the July 1997 internal fighting between armed forces loyal to Prime Minister Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Rannariddh.

 

Competition among political parties increased, thanks to the unification of the opposition parties in 2012 ahead of the 2013 national election. The economy also continued to grow extraordinarily well. Growth has averaged 7 per cent per year since 1993, and poverty has fallen more than 1 per cent per year on average since 2003. Inequality has also declined. Vertical political accountability has been strengthened markedly, thanks to decentralisation and deconcentration. Cambodians are increasingly able to hold local leaders to account through local democratic processes.

Image result for Peaceful Phnom Penh

Sanderson Park, at Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh  has a sculpture of a dove with an olive branch in its beak. It is made up entirely from parts of AK-47 rifles.

But the 2013 polls were a turning point. Although they won the election, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) lost the popular vote for the first time since 1998, seeing its popular vote plummet by more than 20 per cent. To its credit, the CPP-led government subsequently implemented various reforms aimed at winning the hearts and minds of Cambodian voters. The CPP has permitted moderate reforms, restructured the National Electoral Committee and increased public servants pay. And in August 2017, Hun Sen also promised a slew of new benefits for garment workers, including a big increase in their monthly minimum wage.

But with the carrots have come sticks.Indicators of horizontal accountability have either stalled or are in decline. Local and international NGOs and media operated with comparatively little constraint from the state before the 2013 national election period. Since then, the government has made disturbing moves that wipe out progress made in terms of political openness. Among a range of actions is the passage of legislation governing NGOs.

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Despite a boycott by the opposition, the Parliament passed the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations, which requires the nearly 5000 domestic and international NGOs that work in the country to register with the government and report their activities and finances or risk fines, criminal prosecution and being shut down. In August 2017, the government used this law to order the National Democratic Institute (NDI) to shut down its operations and repatriate its foreign staff, accusing the NDI of illegally operating in the country.

The Cambodian government has also targeted foreign and foreign-linked media. In August 2017, the government accused the Cambodia Daily of failing to pay more than US$6 million in taxes, giving the paper one month to resolve the issue or risk being shut down. The Daily is a US-owned outlet credited for its reports critical of the government. In addition, the government instructed more than a dozen radio stations across the country to cease operations, accusing them of failing to report how much and to whom they sell their airtime.

Two major factors — one internal and one external — may explain the government’s recent measures against international NGOs and media. Internally, these measures were escalated as a result of the June 2017 local government elections, the result of which represented a big boost for the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party and a serious blow to the CPP. After the June 2017 local government elections, the CPP still controlled the majority of local governments — 1156 or 70 per cent of communes. But the opposition party’s share of local governments increased about 12 fold in comparison with the last local elections held in 2012.

The external factor is the declining role of the United States as a champion of democracy. The drastic moves targeting US-based NGOs and media occurred in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump. His election and subsequent attacks on mainstream media have disconcerted democrats at home and abroad and certainly delegitimised US efforts to promote liberal democratic principles internationally.

Furthermore, the failure of the United States to pre-empt and manage democratic breakdown in Thailand, and to promote democracy in Laos and Vietnam, only serves to diminish the US role in promoting democracy in Cambodia, and potentially gives the Cambodian government an excuse to maintain the status quo.

Likewise, Australia and European countries have been silent on these issues so far, showing a similar unwillingness to influence internal political decisions in Cambodia. The 2014 Australia–Cambodia refugee deal tainted Australia’s reputation as an altruistic donor to Cambodia, and has certainly undermined Australian leverage in promoting reforms in Cambodian domestic affairs. And European countries have been busy cleaning up the mess in their own backyard after the Brexit vote in 2016 and the rise of populist movements across the continent.

Meanwhile, Cambodia is increasingly dependent on China, and less and less so on Western countries. China is feeding the Cambodian economy, investing US$857 million (roughly 61 per cent of total FDI) and channelling US$320 million in aid (roughly 30 per cent of total aid) to the country in 2015. By contrast, investment and aid from Western countries is either modest or on the decline.

Whatever the mix of domestic and global political influences, the consequences of the CPP’s crackdown on Cambodia’s democracy are being felt. As long as the Cambodian government manages to maintain satisfactory economic performance, continues its piecemeal reforms benefitting the majority of the population, and promotes some appearance of democracy in the country, it will continue to demand difficult value judgments on the part of Cambodian citizens as to whether the CPP’s actions against the media and civil society are worth fighting back against.

Kongkea Chhoeun is a PhD Candidate at the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University.

This article was first published here on New Mandala.

 

International reaction to lambast Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar is unhelpful


October 13, 2017

International reaction to lambast Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar is unhelpful

by Kang Siew Keng

http://www.rsis.edu.sg/rsis-publication/rsis/co17183-after-shaming-aung-san-suu-kyi-then-what/#.WeBukTBRPIW

Image result for daw aung san suu kyi

ASEAN should consider coordinating action to help Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar overcome the complex problem.–Kang Siew Keng

Synopsis

While the UN has described the latest atrocities in Myanmar on the Rohingya minority as textbook ethnic cleansing, the international reaction of shaming Aung San Suu Kyi for the Rohingya crisis is unhelpful to all parties. ASEAN should consider coordinating action to help Myanmar overcome the complex problem.

IN 1991, the international community honoured Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi with the Nobel Peace Prize while she was under house arrest. In 2015, her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won power on a popular electoral mandate. Then, practically overnight, Ms Suu Kyi went from democracy icon to international pariah.

On 4 October 2017, the City of Oxford, where she studied as an undergraduate, decided to withdraw an honorary title it bestowed on her in 1997. This growing disillusionment comes from the sense that Ms Suu Kyi has been too silent too long on the Rohingya issue and not virulent enough when she finally spoke.

Competing Narratives

The scale of the humanitarian disaster is disturbing and haunting. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has condemned the outbreak of violence in Myanmar that triggered the latest outflow of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh as “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Human rights advocates, however, seem to be engaged in a campaign to disparage Ms Suu Kyi and Myanmar.

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The New Yorker named her “the ignoble laureate”; Amnesty International accused her of “untruths.and victim blaming”. No less an icon than Desmond Tutu reportedly wrote her that “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep”.

Yet, against the backdrop of media images of what is an ongoing, overnight, crisis, the international community cannot summarily dismiss Ms Suu Kyi’s counter-narrative of an “iceberg of misinformation” or the wider dispute about ground realities.

One story that has emerged in Myanmar social media is that the attacks on the military posts on 25 August 2017 by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) was timed to provoke precisely the kind of harshest possible response from the Tatmadaw military; the attacks came on the day before the release of the Report by Advisory Commission of Rakhine State.

According to this narrative, they were calculated to doom any prospects in the effort, commissioned by Ms Suu Kyi, to map “a peaceful, fair and prosperous future for the people of Rakhine”. For sure, no deemed past wrongs in history can justify present-day violence, but no present-day policy can bring about reconciliation until the old animosities have been addressed.

Complex and Complicated

The Rakhine situation is too complex for megaphone moral outrage. It is a particularly instructive example of bad communal dynamics, rooted in British colonial divide-and-rule strategy, reinforced by generations of politics and complicated by continuing poverty and economic deprivation that affect both the Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine.

It is easy to forget that Ms Suu Kyi’s NLD was elected to power in 2015 amid a growing tide of nationalism and communal mistrust. Ironically democracy unleashed deep-seated grievances that were more restrained by the iron hand of military rule.

Many of Ms Suu Kyi’s electoral base regard the Rohingya as a late political construct, that many of them were transient migrants on a porous and troublesome border, and were now being used to legitimise old claims for greater autonomy and independence. Significantly, in Rakhine State, the NLD did not perform as well as it largely did in the rest of the country.

Impact of Public Shaming

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ASEAN must acknowledge that the Rohingya is no longer just a domestic problem, but has important implications for regional peace and stability. Left alone, the Rohingya will continue to be a festering wound and destabilise the entire operating environment and regional order in ASEAN.

The international reaction to lambast Ms Suu Kyi and Myanmar is unhelpful to all parties. First, what passes for international moral outrage makes the Myanmar angrily defensive. It serves only to dull the voices of those in Myanmar that are against demonisation of a minority. Instead, it feeds the ultra-nationalist rhetoric that a democratic Myanmar faces an existentialist crisis, which Ms Suu Kyi and her party are ill-disposed to address.

Second, the end of decades of isolation and sanctions has fanned expectations of the economic boom promised by democratic rule. But there are now signs that Myanmar’s economic growth has slowed. Reform has also been slow, not least because Ms Suu Kyi was trying to do too much in too little time. If international opprobrium ends in politically-motivated moves like re-sanctions, it could derail the already very late catch-up in a country that remains one of the poorest in ASEAN.

Third, Ms Suu Kyi has the unenviable task of leading with one hand tied, not possessing all the levers of power, as even her worst critics know. Ultimately her democratically-elected government must find a modus operandi with the military leaders. She needs all the help she can get, inside or outside Myanmar.

Administering a country faced with a multitude of challenges while bringing about national reconciliation is statecraft. It requires political savviness and immense energy for protracted negotiations in a country with a history of communal uprisings that involve not only the Rohingya.

A Role for ASEAN

ASEAN finally issued a predictably anodyne Chair statement on the Rakhine situation following an ASEAN Foreign Ministers meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. Not unexpectedly, Malaysia disassociated itself from the statement. Kuala Lumpur, in early 2017, had hosted a special session of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) that issued a strong rebuke to the Myanmar government. Malaysia is, after all, host to nearly 60,000 UN-registered Rohingya refugees.

Yet, ASEAN must acknowledge that the Rohingya is no longer just a domestic problem, but has important implications for regional peace and stability. Left alone, the Rohingya will continue to be a festering wound and destabilise the entire operating environment and regional order in ASEAN.

ASEAN’s dialogue partner, India, is already threatening to deport its Rohingya refugees on the grounds of growing security concerns. Even if one doubts the hand of terrorist elements using the Rohingya as shield, the chaos and scale of humanitarian disaster is fertile ground for radicalisation and recruitment, which is something all ASEAN countries must be concerned about.

Time for Coordinated Action

It is time for ASEAN to consider a coordinated course of action, and perhaps work with vested dialogue partners like China and India, which can also engage Bangladesh. Myanmar needs a regional solution. ASEAN would do well to engage in the kind of quiet diplomacy it is best equipped to do, across the spectrum of relations, including military diplomacy.

The Myanmar who only see the Rohingya as a political construct must eventually get past the prison of history, be persuaded to put behind real and perceived historical injustices, and acknowledge the ground realities of generations of people who call Myanmar home.

Yet this conversation cannot happen with the world heaping such derision on, and threats of new economic sanctions against, Myanmar and its popularly elected leader. ASEAN can work to counter the potential international isolation of Myanmar that helps neither Myanmar nor the Rohingya.

About the Author

Kang Siew Kheng is Senior Fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. She was formerly Singapore’s Ambassador to Laos.

 

South China Sea Dispute: No Solution any time soon


October 8, 2017

South China Sea Dispute: No Solution any time soon

by Bunn Nagara

http://www.thestar.com.my

Image result for South China Sea

 

WHEN a problem clearly becomes hopeless, it may generate one of two opposite reactions – intellectual equivalents of fight or flight. One is to see tremendous hope in the depths of disappointment; the other is to surrender utterly to crushing despondency. Both extreme reactions are equally unrealistic.

The intractable South China Sea disputes with their multiple layers of challenges form one such example.

Bill Hayton of London’s Chatham House (Royal Institute of International Affairs) think tank became an authority on the subject with his 2014 book The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia.

Image result for Bill Hayton of London’s Chatham House

As his talk at the Institute of China Studies, Universiti Malaya on Thursday showed, China’s current claim to most of the South China Sea is of quite recent origin, beginning after 1909.

China was more concerned about the Paracel Islands closer to home, not objecting to France’s claim to the Spratlys in 1933. For much of the time China even seemed unaware of the Spratly Islands.

Beijing began to claim the Spratlys only in 1946. This island group is now hotly contested by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

In 2009 China sent a letter to the UN Secretary-General asserting its sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters and islands of the South China Sea. Beijing argues that its rights date back centuries if not millennia.

But disputed claims based on little more than assumptions in a hazy and distant past pose problems abroad. Nothing substantive or meaningful can be anchored in international law recognised by all claimants.

For any country to display old maps of questionable origin to support the claims as ancient and therefore legitimate is not enough. That only enlarges the disputes, which is what has happened.

But what have Chinese geographers and legal experts made of Hayton’s revelations? Apparently they have yet to respond, since a Chinese translation of his work is on the way.

Such findings can better inform the disputes, raise the level of debates and encourage more reasonable claims. But that is as far as they go.

New information does not enable anyone – not even Hayton, as he claims – to resolve the South China Sea disputes in a week. That is sheer delusion in full flight mode. Greater familiarity with such disputes would make the many challenges clear enough. But some false hopes still need to be exposed.

The issue of joint development is among them. China has offered to conduct joint exploration and development with other claimant countries, but that has been rejected.

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Apart from the problems of who should pay how much of the costs and receive how much of the profits, any partnership in the spoils of a dispute is no answer. In law, it would already be an admission of another country’s rights over one’s national territory.

Another problem area is the nature of talks itself. Given the multiple claims, should negotiations be multilateral involving all the claimant countries or just bilateral?

Image result for South China Sea--China show of Force

 

China insists on bilateral negotiations only, probably in series as it deals with one country at a time. The general perception however is that only inclusive multilateral talks can be worthwhile.

However, bilateral talks have also been seen as more realistic since the overlapping nature of the claims would get nowhere multilaterally. Too many conflicting disputes with far too many starting points may not see any progress.

But bilateral talks themselves may still go nowhere – each set of talks between two countries cannot proceed without recognising the prior arrangement made in the preceding set of talks involving other countries.

The fundamentally flawed nature of both bilateral and multilateral talks testifies to the surreal nature of ever resolving such disputes. The only realistic assessment of the prospect of successful talks may just be that success is unrealistic.

If all six parties claimed all of the Spratlys, then perhaps a settlement may be reached based on an equitable partitioning of the territory. Alternatively, if each of the claimant states staked a claim on only a part of the area, a settlement may also be reached through an agreed distribution of those parts.

But none of those situations applies. Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines each claims only part of the Spratlys, while China, Taiwan and Vietnam each claims all of the island group.

Complicating things further, there are overlapping claims by two or more countries. Worse, there are several areas of overlap by different sets of countries.

Besides the claims, claimant countries have also occupied various islands, outcrops and underwater features. Vietnam has some 30 military outposts on them, far outnumbering all the others which have 10 or fewer outposts each.

Backed by enormous resources, China has lately been the most ambitious in its scale of construction and land reclamation on the features it occupies. It has also rejected international legal hearings.

International law does not accept historical claims based on assertions, however vocal. Critics say that China avoids international hearings because it may lose by basing its claims on history alone. However, China says that such disputes centre on national sovereignty, and tribunals such as the Permanent Court of Arbitration that rejected its claims last year have no authority to decide on issues of national sovereignty.

To add still more colour and complexity, Taiwan’s claims have been subsumed by China. Since China already claims Taiwan as a province, Taiwan’s claims are also China’s.

This leaves Taiwan in an uneasy position. Even as it wants to assert its own individuality, it is comforted by China’s embrace in its claims to outlying territory.

The other player that is not actually in the game is the US. When the Philippines once relied on it for backing if not outright protection in staking its claims, there are now serious second thoughts.

Unlike claimant countries including China, the US has no claim to any territory in this region. In one sense that makes it neutral in overseeing order on the high seas.

However, in another sense it means an asymmetrical relationship where the US may not go very far in protecting a country’s disputed claims over another’s. At the same time, the US has a very large economic stake of its own in maintaining healthy relations with China.

That explains US actions being limited to “freedom of navigation operations” (Fonops), which see its vessels plying through waters that China has declared as its own.

These are only symbolic and temporary gestures challenging China’s own rhetorical assertions and presumptions. And that is just how they have been treated. Hayton argues that countries in South-East Asia should be more assertive in making their own historical claims as China does, since they have been using the South China Sea for millennia.

However, use of waterways by a country’s nationals in their passage (unlike occupation) may not equate to that country’s sovereignty over the waterways in international law.

Besides, sovereignty may be claimed only by nation states, and those of today’s South-East Asia did not exist centuries or even decades ago. Meanwhile state entities like Champa, Majapahit and Sri Vijaya are no longer with us .Such challenges make any resolution of the South China Sea disputes most unlikely even in a month of blue moons.

Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.