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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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 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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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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November 12, 2013

Let’s Remember What Iran Has Said About Israel

by Stanley A. Weiss

WASHINGTON-It is one of the great ironies of history that the nation of Israel–and likely, the religion of Judaism as we know it–would not exist if it weren’t for an ancient king from the land that is now Iran. More than 25 centuries ago, it was Cyrus the Great, the founder and first ruler of the Persian Empire, who rose from his roots in present-day southwestern Iran to overthrow the Babylonian Empire, free 40,000 Jews held in captivity and facilitate their return to Judea, the site of present-day Israel.

Of course, this is not a history that you will read in any Iranian textbook. Since Iran’s Islamic Revolution was launched 34 years ago last week by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, two generations of his disciples, in the words of Islamic scholar Andrew Bostom, “have embraced jihad as a central pillar of faith and action” featuring “an unending campaign of vilification and proxy violence against the ‘Zionist entity,’ Israel.” But with Western and Iranian diplomats coming close to an agreement that would provide Iran with limited relief from crippling economic sanctions in exchange for a temporary freeze on some of its nuclear activities, Israel has been cast as the skunk at the garden party.

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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 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 5, 2013

Can Egypt Move Beyond the Politics of Retribution?

by Stanley A. Weiss

BALI, Indonesia— Former United States President Bill Clinton likes to tell the story about the time Nelson Mandela first took him to see his old prison cell on Robben Island, where the South African icon was imprisoned for 18 of the 27 years he served behind bars before the collapse of apartheid. In a small room with barely enough space for a man his size, Mandela slept on the floor, without a bed, for more than 6,500 days. Clinton asked, “Weren’t you bitter and angry when you finally walked out of here?” Mandela replied, “Yes, I was. But then I said to myself, ‘Mandela, they had you for 27 years. If you are still angry with them when you pass through the gate, they will still have you.’ But I wanted to be free, so I let it go.”

Clinton often adds that “nearly all of the conflicts in the world could be resolved if one side would just stand up and let things go. But there aren’t many men like Mandela in the world, because the instinct to hold on to old hatreds and fears is greater than the instinct to let go.”

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