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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August 20, 2013

Surabaya’s Mrs. Mayor: Indonesia’s Best-Kept Secret

by Stanley A. Weiss

Surabaya, Indonesia–Here, in Indonesia’s second-largest city, legend tells of a titanic battle between Sura, the great white shark, and Baya, the crocodile. Meeting in a river one day, the two creatures fought ferociously for supremacy of the animal kingdom. The place where they clashed became known as “Surabaya,” the city of the shark and the crocodile, emblematic of the repeated waves of colonial sharks and crocodiles that have controlled the city for centuries.

Settled in the late 1200’s on the northern shore of East Java, Surabaya rose to become a major Southeast Asian port and trading center, frequently fought over and eventually controlled by the Dutch East Indies Company for over three centuries. The Dutch surrendered to Japanese troops in 1942, who occupied the country until their surrender to the Allies in 1945.

After the nationalist leader, Sukarno, declared Indonesia’s independence on August 17, 1945, violence broke out between Indonesian freedom fighters and the Dutch and British, who returned to the country to take possession of Allied prisoners of war. A British brigadier-general was killed in the crossfire, and the enraged British attacked Surabaya . The bloody Battle of Surabaya is celebrated as a turning point in Indonesia’s war of independence. Ever since, Indonesians have called it “the City of Heroes.”

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July 8, 2013

China’s Indian Ocean Strategy Not a Danger-Yet

by Stanley A. Weiss

LONDON–When the Chinese admiral Zheng He set out on the first of seven historic voyages of exploration 608 years ago, the sails of his 317 ships blotted out the horizon. Included in the fleet were several colossal, football field-sized vessels–large enough to fit 65 of Columbus’ ships end-to-end–whose holds would eventually bring home mountains of gold, ivory, and porcelain for the glory of the Ming emperor. Sailing to a dizzying array of coastal countries over the next three decades, Zheng’s flotilla made its way across the modern-day Middle East, ultimately reaching the Cape of Good Hope some 4,000 miles away.

Such expeditions had never been seen before–and would not be seen again. Internal instability, Mongol threats, and high financial costs conspired to cripple China’s Age of Exploration. Zheng died and was buried at sea. His magnificent ships were burned. Records of his voyages were destroyed. For nearly six centuries China turned inward, away from the ocean.

That is, until now. With its release last month of a 350-page “blue book” detailing China’s strategy in the Indian Ocean, Beijing has served notice that–while insisting its interests are strictly economic–it is not content to ignore the waters to its west any longer. And India, which relies on the Indian Ocean for most of its trade and has long suspected China of pursuing a so-called “string of pearls” strategy in the region–encircling the subcontinent with a network of commercial and military facilities–is understandably wary.

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March 5, 2013

The Oracle of Thailand

by Stanley A. Weiss

BANGKOK–Imagine for a minute that Hillary Clinton is elected president of the United States in 2016. Imagine that within days of being sworn into office, there are widespread rumors that her husband, former President Bill Clinton, is actually running the government. Imagine friends of the First Couple being quoted at dinner parties as saying, “Hillary cuts the ribbons, but Bill calls the shots.” Imagine that one cabinet minister is so brazen with this information that he goes on record as saying, “If we’ve got any problem, we give Bill a call.”

It sounds like a crazy way to lead a country. Well, not to most people here in Thailand, America’s oldest ally in Asia. Remote leadership is currently its preferred form of government. As journalist Thomas Fuller has written, “For the past year and a half, by the party’s own admission, the most important political decisions in this country of 65 million have been made from abroad, by a former prime minister who has been in self-imposed exile since 2008 to escape corruption charges.”

Here, it’s not a husband and wife story — but rather, brother and sister. Officially, Yingluck Shinawatra — who very publicly charmed President Barack Obama during an official visit here last fall — is the prime minister. But it is her brother, exiled former prime minister and Thai billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, who calls the shots via Skype and cell phone from his homes in Dubai and London. Part of the reason the power-sharing works is that the same brilliant advisor is close to both.

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February 25, 2013

Hacking a Path Between China’s California and Myanmar’s Dracula

by Stanley A. Weiss

MANDALAY–Reading the news that the Chinese army systematically hacked into United States computer networks brought to mind another group of soldiers who engaged in an entirely different kind of hacking here seven decades ago: Merrill’s Marauders. What makes them most memorable is that it was one of the few times that American and Chinese soldiers fought on the same side against a common enemy.

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January 9, 2013

The Emerging ‘Eastphalian’ International System

by Stanley A. Weiss

LONDON — In global affairs, nothing can be so hard to see as the obvious, if it is big enough. Nowhere is this truer than in the transformation of the international diplomatic and security system now underway. Before our eyes — if not yet in strategic planning — the map of the world is rearranging itself.

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November 15, 2012

Myanmar: No Ethnics; No Nation

by Stanley A. Weiss & Tim Heinemann

WASHINGTON – President Obama’s upcoming Saturday trip to Myanmar, the nation previously known as Burma, is intended to encourage the continuing democratic transition of what was once pariah state. But the way it is now structured may guarantee a lost opportunity instead.

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October 18, 2012

Idea for the Final Debate: Talk About the Biggest Challenge of Our Time

By Stanley Weiss and Tim Heinemann

WASHINGTON — Both political parties should be ashamed.

Through the last three debates, we Americans have listened to such bumper sticker one-liners as “GM is alive and bin Ladin is dead” and “I know how to run a business.” We have heard new slants on old themes, more accusations and counter-accusations, verbal whiteouts of statistics, formulas and gotchas, and studied political-consultant rhetoric certified to make the speaker sound “presidential.” It is a no-brainer to assert: “I was the one who decided to go after bin Ladin,” as if any American would not have made the same decision. Doesn’t real presidential leadership require focusing on the toughest issues, where Americans are at the greatest risk?

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