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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May 2, 2014

“A Letter From the Kampung

by Stanley A. Weiss

WASHINGTON, DCIndonesia has been wracked by a string of seismic and volcanic activity of late –including a 6.0 magnitude quake today in the eastern part of the archipelago nation of 250 million. But with the world’s third-largest democracy readying for their fast-approaching 2014 presidential elections, the biggest tectonic shift in Indonesia may be political in nature. All eyes are on Joko (Jokowi) Widodo, the charismatic Governor of Jakarta, as he vies with the popular but as-yet-undeclared former special forces commander General Prabowo Subianto to succeed the term-limited President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Eager for insights into the rapidly-shifting currents of Indonesian presidential politics, I reached out to a Javanese friend, who sent me the following letter.

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May 1, 2014

India and the U.S. Need to Play Ball

by Stanley A. Weiss

NEW DELHI–As a longtime fan of the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team, it’s not often that I find myself cheering for the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Phillies’ rival in the state of Pennsylvania. But on July 4, 2009, I couldn’t help but enjoy the sight of Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel — the first two Indians ever to play professional baseball in the United States — each take the pitcher’s mound for the very first time. The two young players, both born in Lucknow, India, had never touched — or even heard of — a baseball before being discovered by an American sports agent a year earlier and selected out of 40,000 Indian athletes to train for the American major leagues.

This month, Singh and Patel’s improbable story is getting the full Disney treatment in Million Dollar Arm, a film chronicling the search for Indians who could be trained to become Major League Baseball pitchers. It’s a heartwarming account of cross-cultural success — which, given the present state of U.S.-Indian relations, makes it a relative rarity.

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March 17, 2014

Rekindling Military-to-Military Ties Between the U.S. and Myanmar

by Stanley A. Weiss

Less than a month after this nation won its independence from Great Britain in 1948, the Communist Party of Burma declared war against the Burmese government. Fighting between the two sides raged for more than four decades. The beginning of the end came 25 years ago this month, when Communist troops grew sick of the fighting and mutinied against their own leaders. By mid-April, the rebellion reached party headquarters, where insurgents smashed portraits of Lenin, Marx and Engels before seizing arms and ammunition. Aging party leaders fled to China. After 41 years of fighting, the Burmese Communist Party disintegrated , “defeated not by shrewd Burmese tactics,” as historian Thant Myint-U has written, “but by the weariness of the local people.”

There is another actor who helped bring about Communism’s end in Burma, now known as Myanmar: the United States. From the moment Burma’s Communists first declared war against its government, America supported the Burmese army. In the early days , it provided emergency aid and easy-to-land planes flown in by U.S. war veterans. When Chinese-backed troops crossed the border and attacked the Burmese army in 1968, American military support grew to include shipments of weapons and military trainers for the Burmese Air Force. In the 1980s, the U.S. financed $4.7 million in military sales to Myanmar while paying for 167 Burmese soldiers to learn about democracy while attending U.S. military schools under the International Military Education and Training (IMET) security assistance program.

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March 8, 2014

What Myanmar Could Learn From Indonesia

by Stanley A. Weiss

YANGON, Myanmar–Indonesians of a certain age still speak about Seulawah, their country’s first airplane, a Douglas DC-3 Dakota purchased from an American airman in Hong Kong during Indonesia’s bitter war for independence from the Dutch after World War II. They can recall how the Dutch blockaded Indonesia while the plane was being refitted in India, forcing the aircraft to seek safe harbor here in Yangon, then known as Rangoon, the former capital of Burma. They can tell you how Seulawah was used to smuggle arms and ammunition from Burma to the Indonesian island of Aceh–and how, when the blockade was broken and Indonesia’s revolutionary war was won, it was Seulawah that fetched Indonesia’s founding fathers and ferried them home to a hero’s welcome.

Sixty-five years later, Myanmar–as Burma is now known–is the country haltingly coming to terms with a future of its own making. And this time, it is Indonesia’s turn to lend its Southeast Asian neighbor a hand–not through the power of its jet engines but through the power of its example as a strong yet decentralized political system.

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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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February 14, 2014

Thailand’s Andrew Jackson Moment

by Stanley A. Weiss

BANGKOK-It was the rowdiest presidential inauguration in American history. On March 4, 1829, thousands of Americans flooded into the White House to revel in the election of Andrew Jackson as the seventh President of the United States. To them, Jackson was one of their own: the orphan son of backwoods farmers, a rough, frontier populist who thumbed his nose at the country’s ruling elite and threw open the doors of democracy to a broader cross-section of the country than ever before.

The chaos was not universally appreciated. One observer compared the scene to “the inundation of the northern barbarians into Rome.” A Supreme Court justice took one look at the shambles left behind and darkly declared it the beginning of “the reign of KING MOB.”

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January 17, 2014

How to Invest in Myanmar

by Stanley A. Weiss and Tim Heinemann

Doing Well by Doing Right

MYANMAR-For a nation that was frozen in place for half a century by a repressive military junta, it is ironic that the government of Myanmar (also called Burma) is charging that change is not happening fast enough. But that was the scene in November, when government officials seized a multibillion-dollar industrial project in the southern port town of Dawei for its owners’ failure to attract foreign investors in a timely fashion. To restart the project, which had previously been run by a Thai company, Myanmar appealed to government officials and private investors in Japan. The first to bite was the Mitsubishi Corporation, which agreed to build a large, coal-fired plant to generate electricity and kick-start operations.

In the middle of the Dawei drama, a local human rights group, known as the Dawei Development Association, warned Japanese investors that they risked becoming complicit in harming half a million minority residents in the area. The group charged that Myanmar’s government had forced thousands of poor farmers off their land “without fair or equal compensation” or “access to adequate housing or livelihoods after being displaced.”

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October 7, 2013

Jokowi’s Obama Problem

by Stanley A. Weiss

WASHINGTON–In 1949, a young press attaché was dispatched from Jakarta to New York, with the difficult task of convincing the American public to support young Indonesians in their fight against Dutch forces, which had ruled Indonesia for more than a century. Realizing that Indonesia, like America before it, was seeking to create a sovereign nation by breaking the colonial ties that bound it to a single European power, he produced an eloquent paper that harkened back to the year America declared independence from Great Britain. Its provocative title? ” It’s 1776 in Indonesia .”

It would be half a century– through five decades of dictatorship –before the Indonesian people would experience true independence. But as this Muslim-majority democracy of 250 million approaches the third consecutive direct election of its president by its people in 2014, the apt analogy to America isn’t 1776, but 2008. That was the year that a 47 year-old former community organizer, state senator and first-term United States Senator with a thin public record and a golden speaking voice was elected President of the United States.

But now, some Indonesians believe they have a Barack Obama of their own in the form of a 52 year-old former furniture dealer, small-town mayor and first-term governor with a thin public record and a golden speaking voice who is hailed as a hero during his frequent visits to Jakarta’s streets. Just as Obama was lauded for being a “fresh and exciting voice in American politics,” Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo is praised as an “open and approachable” public official who “represents a clear break” from “the traditional power centers of Indonesian politics.” While he is not yet a declared candidate, many Indonesians hope that Jokowi can do for Indonesia what Obama is perceived to have done for America.

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September 16, 2013

Prabowo Could Be Indonesia’s Lee Kuan Yew

by Stanley A. Weiss

BALI, Indonesia–If public graft were a symphony, Djoko Susilo might be its Mozart. On a salary of $1,000 a month, the former head of Indonesia’s police academy managed to amass a fortune of $18 million. Earlier this month, Djoko was sentenced to 10 years in prison by the Jakarta Corruption Court for accepting a $2.9 million bribe for a contract that eventually lost the state $10 million.

On the same day Djoko was found guilty, a former Health Ministry official was sentenced to five years in prison for embezzling $1 million. Last month, the country’s top oil and gas regulator–revered as a “clean man in a corrupt industry”–was charged with taking $700,000 in bribes from an oil-trading company. All told, more than 360 Indonesian officials have been jailed on corruption charges since 2002, including cabinet officers, governors, Members of Parliament, and judges.

At a time when every Islamic nation in the Middle East seems to be on fire, Indonesia–which has more Muslims than Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Egypt combined–appears to be a relative oasis of diversity and democracy. On track to become one of the world’s ten largest economies, this southeast Asian nation is also set to witness the third consecutive direct election of its president next year after five decades of dictatorship. But in a country where more than half of the population lives on less than $2 a day, Indonesia’s deepening corruption at the highest levels isn’t just a threat to economic growth–it’s a ticking time bomb whose detonation could send shock waves across Asia, destabilize America’s China strategy and make the violence in Egypt and Syria pale by comparison.

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