March 26, 2015

Will Myanmar’s Military Reform?

by Stanley A. Weiss

YANGON–It was, in a sense, a reverse Pearl Harbor on the Irrawaddy River. After welcoming the Japanese army into Burma in 1942, a young Burmese general named Aung San and his ragtag national army had become disillusioned with Japanese promises to support Burma in throwing off nearly 125 years of British imperial control.

And so on March 27, 1945–70 years ago today–the khaki-clad troops departed the city of Rangoon. Telling their Japanese commanders they were mustering out to fight the British, they paraded through the city–and then turned around and attacked the Japanese all throughout Burma. With Burmese help, the British retook the country in just a few short months.

Every year since, Burma–now known as Myanmar–has celebrated March 27 as Resistance Day, now known as Armed Forces Day. Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, marched in 1947, the year Aung San was assassinated by rivals–and they marched the following year, when Myanmar finally gained its hard-fought independence. They marched in 1962, when one of Aung San’s fellow freedom fighters, Ne Win, took power in a military coup that would rule for decades. They marched in 1990, after student uprisings forced the military junta to call elections, only to nullify the results and place the winner–democratic icon and daughter of Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi–under house arrest for the better part of two decades. And they marched in 2011, when the ruling regime held elections and declared that one of the most isolated countries on earth would finally liberalize.

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March 24, 2015

Back From the Dead in Myanmar

by Stanley A. Weiss

YANGON — Measuring around 17 centimeters in length and weighing about 1 ounce, the Jerdon’s babbler of Mayanmar is a small brown bird that is similar in appearance to a common house sparrow. Discovered by pioneering British botanist Thomas C. Jerdon in 1862, the Jerdon’s babbler is best known for its caramel-colored plumage, for its distinct song, and, since 1941, for being extinct — that is, until last May, when a team of naturalists was shocked to encounter the chirpy little chap darting around the central grasslands of this southeast Asian nation. Announced in a scientific journal this month, the resuscitated creature was found with other feathered friends of the same genus.

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March 2, 2015

In Egypt, Seeing the Muslim Brotherhood for What It Is

by Stanley A. Weiss

GSTAAD AND CAIRO–In the early 1990s, Robert Pelletreau, the United States ambassador to Egypt, met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Washington, D.C. Pelletreau had been asked by then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher to discuss the possibility of Egypt relaxing its repressive stance towards the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist political party with a long history of being alternately tolerated and oppressed by the Egyptian government.

“I’ll never forget what happened next,” Pelletreau told the journalist Robert Dreyfuss. “Mubarak sat up sharply, rigidly. ‘These people killed my predecessor!’ Then he raised this huge fist, and he slammed it down on the table hard, and everything on the table jumped and rattled. Bang! ‘When they come out, we have to hit them.'”

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December 17, 2014

America and Iran’s Taba Moment

by Stanley A. Weiss

As President Bill Clinton tells it, Yasser Arafat wanted to wear something controversial to the White House ceremony in which Israelis and Palestinians signed the Oslo Accords in 1993: his handgun. While Clinton convinced Arafat, then chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, to leave his firearm behind–and then convinced Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to shake hands with Arafat–in truth, a gun abandoned only for a few hours is a good symbol of the tortured road that Israelis and Palestinians have traveled ever since. The closest the two sides have come to realizing the promise of a peaceful two-state solution imagined by Oslo was during a two-month period in the closing days of Clinton’s presidency that began 14 years ago this week.

In negotiations that started at Camp David and continued in the Egyptian town of Taba, Palestinians were offered a solution that met 97 percent of their demands. Both sides declared that they had “never been closer to peace.” But then, negotiations were halted for a looming Israeli election, with the two sides expressing “a shared belief that the remaining gaps could be bridged.” But it was not to be: Israelis elected a prime minister who had no interest in restarting talks, and the hope of Taba died. In the 14 years since, more than 1180 Israelis and 9,100 Palestinians have been killed, Jewish settlers in the West Bank have doubled, and one in four Palestinians remain mired in poverty.

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November 10, 2014

The Trap of Islam’s External Conflict

by Stanley A. Weiss

Washington–It was 35 years ago last week that a group of Islamic revolutionaries swept through the United States embassy in Tehran, taking 60 Americans hostage while opening a new chapter of violence in the Middle East. What began as a student movement to overthrow the Shah of Iran was quickly overtaken by Muslim extremists who had a very different, more fundamentalist agenda in mind. While the three decades of conflict that have defined the region since 1979 is rooted in a lengthy list of grievances and injustices, the blood-feud at its core — and the motivations of the increasingly barbaric cast of characters involved in the war in and around Syria — is an ancient schism that goes back to the very origins of Islam itself.

In fact, as the renewed bombing campaign by the United States in Iraq and Syria enters its third month on the heels of the news that the U.S. will roughly double its troop level in Iraq, it’s increasingly difficult to see a way forward for the U.S. or to feel that the growing web of extremism surrounding the conflict is anything but a trap. This is a holy war, a fight for the soul of Islam in endless search of new battlefields — which is precisely what it is has been in fits and starts since the year 632. In fact, a look back at roughly the same period of time from Islam’s earliest days — the three decades between the death of Mohammad and the rise of the Umayyed Dynasty on the same Syrian landscape scarred with suffering today — is to see that while the names and armies change, the essential conflict remains the same.

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October 27, 2014

The Islamization of Great Britain

by Stanley A. Weiss

“Your brethren who live in the east are in urgent need of your help . . . the Turks and Arabs have attacked them. . . I, or rather the Lord, beseech you . . . to carry aid promptly to those Christians and to destroy that vile race from the lands of our friends . . . Moreover, Christ commands it . . . All who die in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant them through the power of God.” — Pope Urban II’s “speech against the infidels,” at the Council of Clermont, France, November 27, 1095, according to the version of Fulcher of Chartres.

With those words spoken 919 years ago next month, Pope Urban II lit the fuse in a series of wars that would see the often violent deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of men, women, and children of the Muslim and Jewish faiths. While the First Crusade began as a campaign to take back the Holy Land from Muslim invaders, it would give way to six more major Christian crusades over the next two centuries. If it had been possible to conduct a global survey of non-Catholics between the years 1096 and 1291, the overwhelming majority of the earth’s population undoubtedly would have defined Christianity as a violent religion, whose holy book inspired zealots to brutally slaughter non-believers on the promise of eternal salvation. It also doesn’t take much to imagine how abhorrent Christianity would have appeared if the worst atrocities of the most zealous crusaders were played day after day on the World Wide Web.

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July 28, 2014

The Betrayal at the Heart of Prabowo’s Challenge

by Stanley A. Weiss

JAKARTA–The first time I heard the name Prabowo Subianto, it was spoken with admiration by a few highly decorated United States military officers who regarded Prabowo as one of the best soldiers and foreign military leaders that they had ever known. When I first had the opportunity some years later to spend time with Prabowo and his well-connected brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, the former general came across exactly as advertised: tough, decisive, insightful, and highly idealistic about Indonesia and its future. But there was one quality, both in the stories he told about himself and the ones he told about others, that came across more than any other: loyalty. He was a man, as the saying goes, whose word was his bond — a quality he worked hard to bring to all of his business and personal relationships, and one he expected in other people, too.

As Prabowo and his team announced last week that they would challenge the results of the Indonesian Presidential election — a few days after the General Elections Commission announced that populist upstart Joko Widodo, the first-term governor of Jakarta, had defeated Prabowo in the July 9 election by more than 8 million votes — I thought back to the way he talked about loyalty.

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June 23, 2014

Gertrude of Arabia and Her Kurdish Mistake

by Stanley A. Weiss

GSTAAD–From my residence in Gstaad, Switzerland, you can see the Bernese Alps silhouetted against the sky. The range is home to one peak in particular — the 2,632-meter Gertrudspitze — named after Gertrude Bell, the greatest woman mountaineer of the 20th century, who once survived 53 hours clinging to a rope against the sheer face of an uncharted cliff during a freezing blizzard. But as spectacularly daring as her alpine exploits were, it was in the deserts of the Middle East where Bell left her biggest mark.

In addition to being a remarkable mountaineer, Bell was also an Oxford-educated historian, adventurer, archaeologist, British foreign officer, and spy — a female Lawrence of Arabia (and a friend and colleague of Lawrence himself). She traveled thousands of miles through Arabia by camelback, while insisting on eating off fine china. She was the daughter of England’s sixth-richest family, yet spoke Arabic, Persian and Turkish like a native. And she was so knowledgeable and respected that one Iraqi sheik, asked about his own tribes’ geographic boundaries, referred the question to Bell.

It was Bell, as an officer of Britain’s post-World War I Arab Bureau, who helped fix the region’s boundaries after France and Britain carved it up in the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement. (“I had a well-spent morning at the office making out the southern desert frontier of the Iraq,” she once wrote to her father.) And it is Bell — who not only defined the borders but also trained and installed the young King Faisal as its (foreign) ruler — who has been hailed as “the Mother of the Faithful” and called “the architect of an unstable Iraq in the middle of an unstable Middle East.”

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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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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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