Obama’s Vietnam “Legacy” Trip: A Reality


May 23, 2016

Obama’s Vietnam “Legacy” Trip: A Reality 

By Greg Rushford

Air Force One touched down yesterday evening in Hanoi. The White House and influential Washington think-tank scholars are spinning President Barack Obama’s three-day Vietnam visit as a “legacy” moment, validating the president’s “pivot” to Asia. Expect much warm talk of how America is forging ever-closer economic- and security ties with a modernizing Vietnam. Expect the usual heartwarming television images of happy people -including peasants toiling in lush rice fields, wearing their iconic conical hats.

Don’t expect any admissions from Vietnamese Communist leaders of the suffering they continue to inflict upon some of their country’s best citizens. As former prisoner of conscience Cu Huy Ha Vu rightly notes, today’s Vietnam is “a kleptocracy.” Intrepid pro-democracy advocates stand in the way.

Courageous men like Dang Xuan Dieu, Ho Duc Hoa, and Tran Vu Anh Binh, three of Vietnam’s 100-plus current political prisoners. They languish behind bars, while some Washington insiders have averted their eyes.

Some of those insiders are Southeast Asian analysts who work inside the gleaming $100 million headquarters of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, just a few minutes from the White House – and who have undisclosed sidelines as business consultants. They know that to speak forthrightly on Vietnam’s shameful human rights record would threaten their easy access to senior communist officials. Their corporate benefactors who depend upon that political access to win lucrative business contracts in Vietnam could lose the big bucks.

Ernest Z. Bower President & CEO, Bower  Asia Group,  is widely recognized as one of the strongest proponents for close ties between the United States and Asia. In recognition of his work, the King of Malaysia has awarded him the Darjah Panglima Jasa Negara (PJN), pronouncing him holder of the title Datuk in Malaysia.  The president of the Philippines also awarded him the rank of Lakan, or Commander, for his service to the Philippines.  Ernie is currently the United States Chair of the Advisory Council on Competitiveness for the Vietnamese Prime Minister and serves on the boards of the Special Olympics, American Australian Education & Leadership Foundation, the Institute for Religion & Public Policy, the United States-New Zealand Council and the Board of Advisors of the United States-Indonesia Society.

Moreover, Vietnam’s Ambassador to the United States has a team of $30,000-a-month Washington lobbyists on his payroll. Their assignment is basically not to let awkward questions about political prisoners interfere with enhanced U.S.-Vietnamese commercial- and security ties, especially the sale of lethal weapons to fend off Chinese maritime intimidation.

One wonders what Dieu, Hoa, and Binh, locked away in their cells, would have to say – if they were free to speak. Dieu, a devout Catholic citizen journalist, has been imprisoned since 2011. He committed the “crime” of exercising free speech. Dieu has been living “in hell” – beaten, humiliated, and treated like a “slave” for refusing to wear a uniform with the word “criminal” – his brother has told Radio Free Asia. Hoa, also a blogger whose crime was his free speech, has been incarcerated since 2011. Binh, a songwriter, lost his liberty in 2012. His crime was writing music that offended the Communist Party. While Binh’s term is scheduled to end next year, Dieu and Hoa could languish behind bars until 2024.

All three men are associated with the Viet Tan, a U.S.-based political party that is highly effective in using the social media to advocate democratic freedoms of speech and assembly. The Viet Tan reaches a wide audience, both inside Vietnam and in the Vietnamese diaspora. For its skilled high-tech advocacy, the Hanoi’s feared Ministry of Public Security brands Viet Tan as a “terrorist” organization.

Binh, Hoa and Dieu were amongst a group of 17 political prisoners who have been represented by Stanford law professor Allen Weiner, a former high-powered U.S. State Department official. Weiner won a United Nations panel determination that his clients – all either Viet Tan members, supporters or friends – had been unjustly imprisoned. While 14 of Weiner’s clients have been released, that’s unfortunately not quite a happy ending. “Some of those who have been released, however, continue to suffer severe harassment and intimidation at the hands of the Vietnamese security services,” Weiner reports. “They continue to pay a heavy price.”

That’s the sort of glaring injustice that no credible analyst of today’s Vietnam would want to downplay. Meet CSIS Asia analyst Murray Hiebert (pic  above)- a man who doesn’t deny that Vietnam has human rights issues, yet is careful never to use clear language that would anger senior Vietnamese officials.

Nine months ago, I brought Allen Weiner’s brave clients to Hiebert’s attention, asking if perhaps this would be an opportunity to highlight the injustice by holding a public forum. The CSIS analyst brushed off the inquiry – at the time I had not realized that CSIS has never held such an event. He also declined to say whether he agreed with Hanoi’s characterization of the Viet Tan as a “terrorist” organization.

(The White House and State Department are better informed than CSIS. Not only do they respect the Viet Tan for its peaceable advocacy, but Obama’s national security officials have maintained close ties with the Viet Tan leadership. Radio Free Asia reported that on May 17 representatives of the Viet Tan, along with other respected Vietnamese pro-democracy advocates including Boat People SOS and Vietnam for Progress, were briefed on Obama’s upcoming Vietnam trip in the White House on May 17.)

A few weeks ago, Hiebert once again did not respond to a request to be interviewed on the imprisoned Viet Tan supporters. I then tried to register for a May 17 press briefing that Hiebert and two other CSIS scholars held on the Obama visit. I had hoped to ask about Binh, Hoa and Dieu. But CSIS spokesman Andrew Schwartz – who also had not responded to a recent e-mail inquiry – denied me admission, asserting that the event was “oversubscribed.”

While the briefing room was indeed rather crowded, even full, according to people who were present, Schwartz found room for Vietnam Television. VTV is a Hanoi-controlled media tool that the Communist Party finds useful for spreading the party line. These days, VTV’s best “scoop” has been in warning Vietnamese independent journalists – and specifically the Viet Tan – to stay away from linking corrupt communist officials to a Taiwanese steel mill that somehow obtained environmental clearance to discharge toxic wastes into the sea, which has resulted in a massive fish kill.

(At the May 17 CSIS briefing, a Television Vietnam correspondent asked if the next American president would continue Obama’s “pivot” to Asia – which at least drew laughter. It is perhaps also worth noting that while “journalists” from Vietnam Television are welcome to peddle their propaganda in the United States, authorities in Hanoi continue to jam Radio Free Asia’s Vietnamese language service. And while the BBC is free to broadcast its English-language programs in Vietnam, the BBC’s celebrated Vietnamese Language Service frequently has run into problems.)

As it turns out, CSIS has a history of making life uncomfortable for guests at the think tank’s public events who might pose awkward questions. On May 24, 2015, former political prisoner Ha Vu angered the Vietnamese Ambassador to the U.S., Pham Quang Vinh, by asking how Vietnam justified persecuting its political prisoners. Vinh, visibly upset, retorted that Vietnam has no political prisoners – which was pretty rich, considering that at that moment, the ambassador was busy trying to avoid making eye contact with one of Vietnam’s most famous political prisoners.

Moreover, CSIS analyst Hiebert, who chaired the panel, did not challenge the ambassador’s absurd claim. (The CSIS event discussed a study on U.S.-Vietnamese relations that Hiebert had co-authored; that study had not disclosed that the Vietnamese government had secretly financed it, Hiebert subsequently admitted to me.)

And last July, Hiebert went to extraordinary lengths to accommodate Vietnamese security officials when Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong spoke at CSIS. Hiebert summoned a guard, escorting Dr. Binh Nguyen, a prominent Vietnamese-American physician, from the premises. Hiebert apologized to Binh, who had been invited, but said that the communist security officials insisted that she be ejected (for details see: How Hanoi Buys Influence in Washington, D.C., www.rushfordreport.com).

Turns out that there are other reasons to doubt Hiebert’s independence. While his official CSIS bio does not disclose it, Hiebert is also a senior advisor to a prominent business consultancy, the Bower Group Asia.

Conflicted interests

Hiebert’s boss at CSIS, Ernie Bower, runs the Bower Group Asia. “Our clients include the world’s best global enterprises,” the BGA website proclaims. “We understand the nexus between politics and economics.” Bower has more than 60 employees in his Washington, D.C. headquarters and in 21 Asian countries (including Vietnam). Another CSIS analyst, Chris Johnson, is a BGA managing director for China. Like Hiebert, Johnson does not disclose his business affiliations on his CSIS website.

Bower, who formerly chaired the CSIS Southeast Studies chair, responded angrily last year when I asked him which was his real day job: CSIS or his business consultancy. He said he was “saddened” that I had suggested he appeared to have conflicts of interest. But perhaps aware that others might also wonder, Bower now identifies himself on the CSIS website as a “non-resident” advisor. The chair remains vacant. CSIS spokesman Schwartz and John Hamre, the think tank’s CEO and one of Washington’s most acclaimed fundraisers, have not responded to persistent inquiries to explain the apparent conflicts.

Here’s how the conflict works:

At CSIS Hiebert has advocated the TPP trade deal. The Bower Group is actively seeking TPP business.

Hiebert has strongly contended that the U.S. lethal arms embargo on Vietnam has outlived its usefulness, and should be lifted. Lockheed, which wants to sell Hanoi its P-3 Orion and C-130 Hercules surveillance planes, has a seat on Hiebert’s CSIS board. So does Boeing, which has been peddling its P-8 Poseidon military surveillance aircraft in Hanoi. Imagine how the giant defense contractors would feel if the money they dole out to CSIS would be used to shine a spotlight on issues involving corruption and human-rights abuses in Vietnam.

Coca-Cola, a Bower Group client, got into Laos a few years ago, thanks to Ernie Bower’s understanding of “the nexus” between business and politics. Coke also has a seat on the CSIS Southeast Asia Board.

Chevron, another major CSIS benefactor, also has a representative on CSIS’s Southeast Asia board. Hiebert authored a November 2014 column for the Wall Street Journal defending Chevron in bitter litigation the oil giant had in Indonesia. In his column, Hiebert identified himself only as a CSIS analyst. Then Ernie Bower got busy on the Bower Group’s Facebook page, touting the Journal piece: “BGA’s Murray Hiebert provides much-needed analysis of the court case against Chevron in Indonesia” in the Wall Street Journal. [Full disclosure: I have been an occasional contributor to the Wall Street Journal’s Asian edition for more than two decades.]

In recent months, Hiebert has been quoted widely by major news outlets including CNN, Reuters, the Associated Press, Forbes, Politico, the Financial Times, the Washington Times, and the Voice of America – always only identified as a CSIS analyst. Readers would not know that Hiebert also works for a business consultancy. They would not know that corporations that fund Hiebert’s CSIS programs have serious financial interests at stake.

One wire-service report that quoted Hiebert about Vietnam’s new top leadership was picked up by the New York Times in April. This gave Ernie Bower another opportunity to twitter to his clients about how “BGA Senior Advisor Murray Hiebert” had made the pages of the Times.

And earlier today, CNN quoted Hiebert’s approving views of enhanced U.S. weapons sales to Vietnam, identifying him only as a CSIS scholar. Viewers were not aware that this “scholar” is funded at CSIS by major U.S. defense contractors, and has taken money from the Vietnamese government for co-authoring a study that called for the lifting of the U.S. weapons embargo to that country. Nor would viewers know that Hiebert also works for the Bower Group, which also touts its interest in facilitating arms deals.

A little digging illustrates how Bower mixes his CSIS affiliations with business. In 2014, for example, Bower opened some important doors in Washington to a Manila wheeler-dealer named Antonio “Tony Boy” Cojuangco. Tony Boy also sits on CSIS’s Southeast Asia board. Bower brought him to town as the head of an “eminent persons” group – such flattery can go a long way in certain Asian circles.

CSIS arranged appointments for the Filipino eminences in the White House, the Export-Import Bank, on Capitol Hill and of course at CSIS headquarters, where they had a scheduled appointment with the think tank’s president, John Hamre. That was during the day. That night, the Bower Group hosted a lavish dinner for Tony Boy and his associates at the posh Jefferson Hotel. Bower, Hiebert, Chris Johnson, and other CSIS/Bower Group operatives were present. To judge from photos I’ve seen, it was a good night all around, lubricated by bottles of Pomerol. (Hamre has not responded to repeated requests to comment. On the CSIS website, the CSIS head asserts that some unnamed journalists who have questioned CSIS ethical practices have ignored evidence to the contrary that he has provided.)

Agents of Influence

Speaking of influence peddling, if one looks closely, the Washington lobbyists on that $30,000-a-month retainer from Vietnamese Ambassador Vinh unwittingly illustrate how the official spin surrounding the Obama visit to Vietnam doesn’t tell the whole story.

The most recent foreign agent’s disclosure form that the Podesta Group has filed with the U.S. Department of Justice lists some of what the firm did to earn its $180,000 for the last six months of 2015. One is left wondering exactly what the lobbyists did to earn their keep.

The lobbyists disclosed only seven meetings, mostly with congressional aides. The only elected representative who met with Podesta representatives was Matt Salmon, an Arizona Republican who is retiring from Congress at the end of this year.

Rep. Salmon had already met with Vietnamese Ambassador Vinh earlier in the year and had been to Vietnam in May. The congressman already had supported an enhanced U.S.-Vietnam trade relationship.

Do the math: $180,000 for seven meetings. That’s about $25,000 a meeting, throwing in about 50 e-mails and five phone calls that the Podesta lobbying form mentions. David Adams, the Podesta lobbyist who has been working to facilitate the Obama visit to Vietnam this week, is a former close aide to Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state. Asked what he had really done to each the money, Adams declined to comment.

This week, when the television screens show images of happy Vietnamese peasants with their conical hats, toiling in their rice paddies, think of David Adams. The average Vietnamese citizen would have to work 13 years to earn enough money to pay for just one $25,000 Podesta Group meeting with congressional aides.

From the days of French colonialism to the present Communist kleptocracy, the Vietnamese central government has always stolen from its poorest people.

Ambassador Vinh’s lobbyist Adams proudly styles himself as a part-time “gentleman farmer” in Virginia’s wine country. Wonder what those Vietnamese peasants would say, if they knew that their stooped labor is helping subsidize such a lifestyle?

Double 7-Down Memory Lane


May 21. 2016

Double 7–Down Memory Lane with Songs

For my special Double 7 Birthday, I skyped Dr. Kamsiah this evening to ask her what I should do to entertain you. She suggested that we play tunes of the ‘ 40s, ’50s. ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. In addition, I have added my all time favorite voice, Nat Cole. Once you have listened to the crooner with a velvet voice, you will perhaps understand why Nat remains my special man through the last  6 decades.

I hope, you like what we have chosen to play for you this weekend. Be of good cheer, my friends. Pursue your dreams and make them real, I say. Thank you for your good wishes for my Double 7 and for your continued support of and interest in the Malaysian DJ Blogger.– Dr. Kamsiah and Din Merican

Best of the ’60s

Best of the ’70s

Best of the ’80s

Din Merican’s All Time Favorite –Nat Cole

At Double 7–My Thoughts


 

May 21, 2016

At  Double 7–My Thoughts

In two days I turn 77 on May 23. Yes, it has been a long and difficult journey for me with more than my share of ups and downs.  I did life my way. Of course, there are stories I could tell you, but I would spare you all the agony of my rantings which are often about the good old times, and there seems to be nothing great about the present. Most people have no time for grandfather stories, so I shall spare them the jarring pain of putting up with mine.

Dr. Kamsiah and Din Merican (77)

Yesterday, one of my students at The University of Cambodia asked me. “How does it feel to be Double 7?”. My answer to him is also a one liner. “I don’t feel a thing.” Like Poet Robert Frost, I say I have miles and miles to keep before I sleep.

Senator John Glenn once remarked: “Too many people, when they get old, think that they have to live by the calendar.” I don’t. So my life goes on and I lead a life of many possibilities, with occasional missed opportunities, although I may feel nasty towards former Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad for his legacy of kleptocratic governance,  and Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Najib Razak and his bunch of corrupt, incompetent, and irresponsible cabinet ministers for making life difficult to  us.

Senator John Glenn of Ohio–My Hero and Role Model

You may remember that John Glenn, this well known astronaut from Ohio turned politician, became the oldest person at 77 to board a U.S. Space Shuttle. He is my role model for exemplifying the ethos that  we shouldn’t let age define and cripple us. The calendar is a useful way to let you know the date, but if you let yourself  to be hemmed in by your chronological age, you may lock yourself out of potentially valuable opportunities. You can bet I do not intend to remain static and come my remaining days.–Din Merican

Malaysia: Opposition has ‘lost its bearings’


May 17, 2016

Malaysia: Opposition has ‘lost its bearings’

by FMT Reporters

http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com

Zaid Ibrahim says the Opposition has lost its bearings by deciding to support PAS in the coming by-elections in Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar against the Barisan Nasional (BN).

Calling the move both “foolish” and one that “serves no useful purpose”, a puzzled Zaid questioned whether Opposition figures like former Premier Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Azmin Ali of PKR and Ambiga Sreenevasan of Bersih had become so motivated by their hatred of BN and Prime Minister Najib Razak that they were making the wrong judgement calls now.

“The credibility of the Opposition is more important than a superficial win by PAS, a party that ultimately serves the BN’s interest. A PAS win in these by-elections will mean nothing,” he said in his latest blog entry.

Arguing against the Opposition’s insistence to beat BN “at all costs”, Zaid asked, “Since when is PAS better than the BN? I lived in Kelantan so I should know.” He pointed out that apart from bringing very little development to Kelantan in their 26 years in power there, PAS clerics were also staunch Najib supporters who argued that according to Islamic law, no definitive judgement could be made against the Prime Minister in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad financial scandals unless there were four witnesses to any activity of alleged corruption. Wow.

“PAS is a party that only wants Muslims as leaders,  that supports child marriage and that believes womens’ place is at home. It’s also a party that wants — above all else — hudud law to be implemented in the country. Is that  PAS you want instead of the BN? You must be out of your mind,” he told Opposition leaders.

“In a straight fight with PAS the BN will win because these parties are now on friendly terms, and Hadi will not embarrass the Supreme Leader.The BN will come out smiling,” Zaid said, adding the ruling coalition would mobilise all its election machinery to guarantee an even bigger majority than the last election.

“Some Opposition leaders have lost their bearings because their struggle is no longer based on what they wish to offer to the people in terms of policies and political messages. They have become consumed by their desire to win another seat, at all costs. This is not progressive politics,” Zaid said.


May 15, 2016

NY Times Books of The Times

Review: Siddhartha Mukherjee’s ‘The Gene,’ a Molecular Pursuit of the Self

by Jennifer Senior

 

Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee

Thank heavens Gregor Mendel was a lousy priest. Had he shown even the faintest aptitude for oratory or ministering to the poor, he might never have determined the basic laws of heredity. But bumbling he was, and he made a rotten university student to boot; his failures drove him straight to his room, where he bred mice in secret. The experiment scandalized his superiors.

“A monk coaxing mice to mate to understand heredity was a little too risqué, even for the Augustinians,” writes Siddhartha Mukherjee in “The Gene: An Intimate History.” So Mendel switched — auspiciously, historically — to pea plants. The abbot in charge, writes the author, acquiesced this time, “giving peas a chance.”

Love Dr. Mukherjee, love his puns. They’re everywhere. I warn you now.It is Dr. Mukherjee’s curse — or blessing, assuming he’s a glass-half-full sort of fellow — to have to follow in his own mammoth footsteps. “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer,” his dazzling 2010 debut, won the Pulitzer and almost every other species of literary award; it became a three-part series on PBS; Time magazine deemed it one of the 100 most influential books written in the English language since 1923.

In his acknowledgments to “The Gene,” Dr. Mukherjee, a researcher and cancer specialist, confesses that he once feared his first book would also be his last — that “‘Emperor’ had sapped all my stories, confiscated my passports and placed a lien on my future as a writer.” The solution, he eventually realized, was to tell the story of the gene. It is his debut’s natural prequel, a tale of “normalcy before it tips into malignancy.”

By the time “The Gene” is over, Dr. Mukherjee has covered Mendel and his peas, Darwin and his finches. He’s taken us on the quest of Watson, Crick and their many unsung compatriots to determine the stuff and structure of DNA. We learn about how genes were sequenced, cloned and variously altered, and about the race to map our complete set of DNA, or genome, which turns out to contain a stunning amount of filler material with no determined function.

Many of the same qualities that made “The Emperor of All Maladies” so pleasurable are in full bloom in “The Gene.” The book is compassionate, tautly synthesized, packed with unfamiliar details about familiar people. (Francis Galton, the father of eugenics, used to rank the beauty of women on the street by “using pinpricks on a card hidden in his pocket.” Ick.)

But there are also crucial differences. Cancer is the troll that scratches and thumps beneath the floorboards of our consciousness, if it hasn’t already beaten its way into the room. The subject immediately commands our attention; it’s almost impossible to deny, and not to hear, the emotional clang of its appeal. In Dr. Mukherjee’s skilled hands, the story of this frightening disease became a page-turner. He explained its history, politics and cunning biological underpinnings; he traced the evolving and often gruesome logic underlying cancer treatment.

And in the middle of it all, agonizing over treatment protocols and watching his patients struggle with tremendous existential and physical pain, was the author himself.

There are far fewer psychological stakes in reading about the history of genetics. “The Gene” is more pedagogical than dramatic; as often as not, the stars of this story are molecules, not humans. Dr. Mukherjee still has a poignant personal connection to the material — mental illness has wrapped itself around his family tree like a stubborn vine, claiming two uncles and a cousin on his father’s side — but this book does not aim for the gut. It aims for the mind.

So what does this mean? That there are many excursions deep into the marshes of biochemistry and cellular biology. Bring your waders. It gets dense in there. Dr. Mukherjee can write with great clarity about difficult genetic concepts — he’s especially handy with metaphors — but the science gets increasingly complex, and it lasts for many pages. Even when the going is easy, readers should be prepared for parentheticals like this: “i.e., ACT CCT GGG –>ACU CCU GGG.”

Dr. Mukherjee’s explanations are sometimes so thorough they invite as many questions as they answer — from the most elementary (why is something that contains so many bases called deoxyribonucleic acid?) to the more esoteric (if, as he says in a Homeric footnote on Page 360, the Y chromosome is so unstable it might eventually disappear, will we still reproduce?)

I do not mean to suggest that Dr. Mukherjee has neglected to attend to big questions or ideas in this work; they just get lesser billing than I’d have liked. But any book about the history of something as elemental and miraculous as the gene is bound, at least indirectly, to tell the story of innovation itself. “The Gene” is filled with scientists who dreamed in breathtakingly lateral leaps.

Erwin Schrödinger in particular was one visionary cat: In 1944, he hazarded a guess about the molecular nature of the gene and decided it had to be a strand of code scribbled along the chromosome — which pretty much sums up the essence of DNA.

With each and every genetic discovery, a host of questions arose, both ethical and philosophical. What are the implications of cloning, of creating genetic hybrids, of gene editing? Is there any value in knowing about the existence of a slumbering, potentially lethal genetic mutation in your cells if nothing can be done about it? (Personally, I wish he’d dedicated 50 pages to this question — it’d have offered a potentially moving story line and a form of emotional engagement I badly craved.)

Does the genome have anything to tell us about race, sexual identity, gender? Do these three-billion-plus base pairs connect, in any way, to what we think of as “a self”?

Dr. Mukherjee answers these questions cautiously and compassionately, if at times too cursorily for my satisfaction. He notes, repeatedly, that for all we know about the genome, there is so very much we don’t — it is a recipe, not a blueprint, as Richard Dawkins likes to say. Yes, sometimes one gene controls one specific trait; but often, dozens of genes do, and in ways we do not understand (or cannot even fully identify), and they interact mysteriously with the environment all along the way.

But as research continues apace, we must entertain the sci-fi prospect of one day customizing ourselves and our children. For now, we’re burdened with more and more moral decisions to make as genetic tests become increasingly refined.

“If the history of the last century taught us the dangers of empowering governments to determine genetic ‘fitness,’” Dr. Mukherjee writes — referring to Nazism, eugenics, every genocidal experiment involving social engineering — “then the question that confronts our current era is what happens when the power devolves to the individual.”

But we are not apps. Dr. Mukherjee knows this, struggles with it. Is optimization really the point of life? “Illness might progressively vanish,” he writes, “but so might identity.”

A version of this review appears in print on May 9, 2016, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: In Molecular Pursuit of the Genetic Code. Today’s Paper.