August 8, 2014

What Jokowi Can Learn From Obama

by Stanley A. Weiss

JAKARTA — At 11 a.m. on Wednesday, July 23, the President of the United States placed a congratulatory phone call to the President-elect of Indonesia. “Apa kabar?” — “how are you?” — President Barack Obama asked Joko Widodo before conveying his congratulations. It was a remarkable moment. For one thing, the President of the United States had greeted his Indonesian counterpart in passable Bahasa Indonesian, which Obama learned growing up in Jakarta, roughly 350 miles west of Joko’s Central Javan hometown of Surakarta, also known as Solo. For another, a decade ago few could have predicted that either man would be occupying their respective offices at all.

The phone call came ten years to the week that America first heard the name Barack Obama, as he delivered the captivating keynote at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that began his meteoric rise from the Illinois State Senate to the White House. At the time, half a world away, Jokowi (as he is affectionately known) was an unknown carpenter and furniture exporter. A year later, as Obama began his first year in the U.S. Senate, Jokowi had risen to become the mayor of Solo, where his promise of “Beauty Without Corruption” and hands-on leadership style brought him national and international attention. By October 2012, with Obama well on his way to a second term as President, Jokowi was being sworn in as Governor of Jakarta, Indonesia’s sprawling 10-million person capital. Last month, after 135 million Indonesians voted in only the third direct election for president in their country’s history, Jokowi capped his rapid ascent by besting the former General Prabowo Subianto by eight million votes–though Prabowo, alleging widespread electoral fraud, has refused to concede.

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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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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 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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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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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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April 28, 2014

Somewhere Between Morning and Mourning in New Delhi

by Stanley A. Weiss

NEW DELHI–Watching the national election play out here the past few weeks has brought me back to a late October evening in 1980, when America stood on the verge of making the same choice that India seems poised to make by the time voting ends on May 12. That night, in the only televised debate between the two major candidates running for President of the United States, incumbent President Jimmy Carter repeatedly appealed to voters’ fears by contending that challenger Ronald Reagan’s right-leaning political views were careless, dangerous, and a threat to world peace. While assailing Reagan’s “heartless approach to working families,” Carter charged that Reagan’s eagerness to inject American military force in places like North Korea would lead to the “actual use of it;” and that his “dangerous and belligerent” insistence “upon the nuclear superiority of America as the basis for negotiation in the future with the Soviet Union” would bring a “very dangerous nuclear arms race.”

But none of those strong words were remembered the next day. Instead, all coverage of the debate led with a simple, now iconic question that Reagan asked directly of voters in his closing statement: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” For a country that had lived through four years of Carter-led malaise, inflation and unemployment; endured more than 400 days of American hostages held in Iran; and perceived a softening of America’s military in the face of Soviet aggression in Afghanistan, the answer was an emphatic “no.” It didn’t matter how conservative Reagan seemed to be. People were desperate for strong leadership and wanted a change–proving, as future U.S. President Bill Clinton would later observe, that “when people feel uncertain, they’d rather have somebody that’s strong and wrong than somebody who’s weak and right.”

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March 28, 2014

Cutting Off Our Nose to Spite Our Face in Myanmar

by Stanley A. Weiss

YANGON–One of them has helped reforest environmentally threatened regions and donated money to assist children with Down syndrome. A portion of every ticket his airline sells goes to social welfare organizations. And when Cyclone Nargis devastated Myanmar in 2008, his foundation contributed more than $8 million to rebuild schools, hospitals, and monasteries.

The other has footed the bill for school fees and medical expenses for the families of Myanmar’s political prisoners. He is actively recruiting doctors from other nations to improve the health care system here, and oversees the only national institution — the Myanmar football league — in which ethnic minorities participate on an equal footing with ethnic Burmans. And at a time when corruption threatens to derail this country’s nascent democracy, he is the highest-profile business leader to have opened his books to an internationally-respected accounting firm and then personally presented the full audit to United States Ambassador Derek Mitchell.

Which is not to say that Tay Za and Zaw Zaw, two of the most successful businessmen in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), are Boy Scouts. Over the past two decades, the head of the Htoo Group and the 46-year-old chairman of the Max Myanmar Group built their vast conglomerates of companies — stretching from banking to hotels to construction — by thriving on connections they developed with a regime notorious for human rights abuses. Those contacts landed the two on the U.S. government’s Myanmar sanctions list, which bans American individuals and companies from doing business with any friends of the old regime.

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