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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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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