May 26, 2016

Hiroshima Saved My Life

by Stanley A. Weiss

WASHINGTON—As President Barack Obama prepares tomorrow to become the first American President to visit Hiroshima since that fateful day 71 years ago, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking of friends long since gone. The atomic bombs that America dropped on Japan in August of 1945 took more than 200,000 lives. But they probably saved mine.

At the time, I was a young sergeant in the United States army being readied to participate in the full-scale invasion of Japan. The previous year, I had enlisted in the service just three weeks after my 17th birthday, a skinny Jewish kid from South Philadelphia eager to follow my big brother, Buddy, into war.

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April 5, 2016

If Thailand Were a Stock, I’d Short It

by Stanley A. Weiss

BANGKOK—In the summer of 1818, as then-United States Army General Andrew Jackson led troops south into Spanish Florida and the U.S. pressed westward with the admission of Illinois as the 21st state, America’s horizons broadened invisibly but indelibly halfway around the world. On a hot and hazy June day of that year, after a stomach-churning 190-day ocean voyage from U.S. shores to Southeast Asia, the first American set foot in Thailand, then known as Siam.

Captain Stephen Williams, a veteran of the War of 1812 between the U.S. and Britain, was not an official envoy. Instead, he was a Massachusetts spice merchant who had come to Siam seeking sugar. Journeying up the Chao Phraya River, he was received in the city of Siam by the minister of trade and foreign affairs, who brought him to the palace for an audience with the Crown Prince, who would soon succeed his father to become Rama III, King of Siam. In a letter to U.S. President James Monroe, discovered among Monroe’s papers years after he died, Siamese nobleman and court reporter Dit Bunnag recounted the royal meeting and exhorted the U.S. commander-in-chief that if another American merchant should find his way to Siam, “he should bring as many good rifles as can be carried” to offer as trade.

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June 15, 2015

Narendra Modi’s Surprisingly Successful Selfie Diplomacy

by Stanley A. Weiss

New Delhi — Last month, in front of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang posed for Modi’s smartphone and snapped a photo. “It’s selfie time! Thanks Premier Li,” Modi tweeted to his 13 million Twitter followers. The photo of the two men–together representing nearly 40 percent of the world’s population–led the Wall Street Journal to wonder, “Did Modi Just Take the Most Powerful Selfie in History?”

Most powerful or not, it certainly isn’t Modi’s first. In the year since he swept into office in a historic landslide, Modi has posed for similar photos with leaders all across the globe. He took one in Fiji with Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama. He took another grinning shot at the Melbourne Cricket Ground with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Modi’s “selfie diplomacy” has become so anticipated that, in advance of President Barack Obama’s most recent visit to India, the Hindustan Timesran a story asking, “Where’s the Obama-Modi selfie we’ve been waiting for?” (They settled for a warm hug.)

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May 14, 2015

An End to Improvisation in Thailand

by Stanley A. Weiss

BANGKOK — Fifty-five years ago, the king of Siam met the king of swing. With Cold War tensions ratcheting up, Thailand’s young monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, embarked on a month-long tour of the U.S. to highlight the strong ties between Washington and Bangkok. In California, Bhumibol and his family visited Disneyland and rubbed elbows with Elvis, Bob Hope, and Lucille Ball. In Washington, the king paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue in an open limousine, received the Legion of Merit from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and addressed a joint session of Congress. On July 4 Gov. Nelson Rockefeller hosted the king at a lavish party in New York.

But perhaps the most memorable part of Bhumibol’s trip occurred the following afternoon, at the home of legendary jazz musician Benny Goodman. There, Bhumibol — a longtime lover of jazz and a talented composer and performer in his own right — participated in a two-hour jam session with Goodman, Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson, and other jazz greats. At the end of the night, Goodman gifted Bhumibol with an appropriate scepter: a new saxophone.

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September 8, 2014

Indonesia, America and China’s Nine-Dash Line

by Stanley A. Weiss

JAKARTA — When the history of the early part of the 21st century is written, one of the great heroes of the People’s Republic of China might turn out to be an anonymous map-maker from the late 1940s whose work is helping to drive increasingly dangerous confrontations today between China and its neighbors across the South China Sea.

The question at issue is: who owns what across this 1.3 million square-mile stretch of water, through which passes more than half of the world’s nautical trade? Numerous studies reveal that maps of the region, including some carved in stone that date back to the 10th Century, show China consistently laying claim to just one island in the Sea: Hainan Island, just off the mainland, which defined China’s southern border for centuries. But as journalist Andrew Browne recently illuminated, in 1947, somewhere deep in the cartography division of the Kuomintang regime, a map-maker added 11 heavy dashes to the familiar atlas encircling 90 percent of the South China Sea and connecting it back to China. No explanation accompanied this change. No Chinese territorial conquest drove it. No treaty enabled it. No other nation acknowledged it. No global body even knew about it.

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July 9, 2014

Could China Become India’s New Best Friend?

by Stanley A. Weiss

On October 20, 1962, 80,000 Chinese troops streamed into the disputed Himalayan borderlands between China and India. Americans could be forgiven for overlooking a border war high in the Himalayas — coming, as it did, a week into the white-knuckled Cuban Missile Crisis. But in China — and especially India — the war, which cost several thousand lives and resulted in India’s humiliating retreat, has not been forgotten. Through the years, tensions over the two nations’ ill-defined boundaries have festered, with frequent reports of Chinese incursions and a recently-released Chinese map including the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh as Chinese territory.

These routine acts of “politico-military belligerence,” as New Delhi-based Dr. Monika Chansoria describes them, have contributed to the sense that the world’s largest democracy and its largest Communist neighbor are destined to be at odds. Several years ago, a Pew survey found more Indians viewed China unfavorably, ranking second only to Pakistan in countries India considered a threat. In 2010, the cover of the Economist featured two arm-wrestling biceps — sporting a dragon and a tiger tattoo, respectively — with the headline, “China and India: Contest of the Century.” A year later, it was the cover of TIME magazine, with an elephant and a dragon fighting beneath the headline, “India vs. China: Which Economy Will Rule the World?”

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June 17, 2014

Looking for Orange Shirts in Thailand

by Stanley A. Weiss

LONDON–In the 1950s and ’60s, when Thailand experienced the bulk of its 19 military coups , a dark joke circulated through the market stalls of Bangkok that the country had three political parties — the army, the navy, and the air force. Last month, it was the army, headed by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, which stepped in on May 20th to declare martial law and then, two days later, a coup d’etat. In one of their first — and most ironic — acts, the military banned a screening of George Orwell’s 1984, a dystopian tale about life in a police state. Though a coup is nothing new in the “Land of Smiles,” the current situation — exacerbated by the uncertainty surrounding the failing health of Thailand’s revered, 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej — threatens to tear Thailand apart.

This story — of a factionalized country forcibly welded together through military might — is as old as Thailand itself. Older, in fact. The pattern began some seven centuries ago , when the region’s city-states first began jockeying for control of the Mekong and Chao Praya basin. With none able to gain the upper hand for long, the so-called land of Siam — with no borders or defined geographic boundaries — gradually coalesced into a loose collection of ethnically-diverse warring states and kingdoms.

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May 12, 2014

The Most Important Regional Organization That Nobody Has Heard Of

by Stanley A. Weiss

NEW DELHI–Last month, as Indian voters began streaming to the polls to elect a new Parliament and prime minister, India’s Bharatiya Janata Party released its long-awaited election platform . Predictably, the document criticized the record of the ruling Congress Party, while stressing the need for greater economic growth and good governance. But buried on page 40 of 42–after the BJP’s evolving stance on nuclear weapons but before their sacred commitment to the “Cow and its Progeny”–was the single, unexpected line, “We will work towards strengthening regional forums like SAARC and ASEAN.”

Though SAARC–the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation –is comprised of eight nations collectively containing over 1.6 billion people, it’s unsurprising that the organization would merit a mere passing mention in the political platform of what is likely to be India’s next ruling party. Founded in 1985 to promote regional cultural and economic integration, SAARC quickly acquired a reputation for “much talk and no action.” For one thing, decisions among its members–India, Pakistan, Afghanitan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal, and the Maldives–must be unanimous. For another, its two biggest members, India and Pakistan, treat each other with the thinly-veiled contempt born of half a century of enmity.

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February 28, 2014

What Thailand Needs Most Is a Bill of Rights

by Stanley A. Weiss

BANGKOK-Over the past century, Thailand has endured colonial aggression, two world wars and neighboring civil wars on every one of its borders.  It has survived extreme nationalism, home-grown fascism, aggressive communism, and stifling dictatorship.  It has persevered through 18 military coups, survived economic collapse, withstood periods of widespread starvation and navigated a ubiquitous regional drug trade.  And after all that, Thailand has emerged as the region’s second-largest economy, with the broadest-based prosperity in its history.

But where do we find ourselves? For the third time in four years, a coalition of urban elites and their allies have taken to the streets wearing bright yellow shirts to force from office a leader that was elected by an overwhelming plurality of the electorate.  It’s the equivalent of having the Tea Party allies of Sarah Palin march on Washington, bar entry to federal buildings, paralyze the work of Congress and insist that the 2012 election of Barack Obama be vacated and turned over to a small council of unelected elites. It might just lead to civil war.

It has taken 180 years, but the lesson of Alexis de Tocqueville has finally come to Thailand.  Tocqueville was a French citizen who toured America in the 1830s.  In his classic work, “Democracy in America,” he tells the story of a mob that destroyed the printing presses of a newspaper that came out against U.S. efforts in the War of 1812.  For their protection, the paper’s editors were brought to the local jail-only to have the mob break in and kill one of the journalists as the police stood by. When the mob leaders were brought to trial, they were acquitted by a jury of their peers. Reflecting on the incident, Tocqueville argued that the greatest threat the United States faced was “tyranny of the majority.”

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September 2, 2013

What Myanmar Must Do To Free Itself of China

by Stanley A. Weiss

LONDON-Once a closed society, Myanmar, previously known as Burma, has emerged since 2010 as one of the world’s democratic hopes. But amidst the euphoria surrounding a seemingly miraculous transformation, American policy makers have missed one essential fact: Myanmar functions as at least five countries struggling to escape overlordship of a sixth. National reconciliation is Myanmar’s greatest need and should be, with an eye toward China, America’s Myanmar policy’s highest priority.

Ethnic Baman or Burmans make up the majority of the country’s 60 million people. Buddhists of the central lowlands, Burmans dominate the government, economy and army. Other significant ethnic groups include the Kachin (who are Christians) bordering China; the Shan (Buddhists) bordering China, Laos and Thailand; the Karen (Christians and Buddhists) bordering Thailand; the Chin (Christians and Buddhists) bordering India; and Muslims bordering the Bay of Bengal and Bangladesh.

The struggle of non-Burmans for an equal place in the country and the opposition of ethnic Burmans is the story of modern Myanmar. Here is the chronology.

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