April 13, 2015

Myanmar is More than Aung San Suu Kyi

by Stanley A. Weiss

YANGON–Of all the great films about American politics, one that has stood the test of time is a 1972 classic about the triumph of symbolism over substance called The Candidate. Starring Robert Redford, it tells the story of an inexperienced son of a beloved political leader who is pulled into politics on the strength of his family name. Turning the general election into a popularity contest, Redford’s character encourages the media to play up the father/son angle, delivers a series of pleasant but empty speeches, and ultimately wins election to the United States Senate. In the film’s iconic closing scene, as screaming fans chase him on the way to his victory speech, the Senator-elect dodges the crowd, pulls his political consultant into a room and asks blankly, ” What do we donow?”

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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 18, 2015

Don’t Let the Crisis in Ukraine Damage Decades of Progress on Nuclear Cooperation

by Stanley A. Weiss

WASHINGTON AND GSTAAD–This December, the world will witness the 70th anniversary of a publication best known for tracking the end of the world. Founded in 1945 by veterans of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was launched in the wake of the devastating nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with the goal of informing the public about nuclear policy. But since 1947, it has been known largely for a metaphorical device it introduced in June of that year: the Doomsday Clock, which measures how close humanity is to extinction.

Launched at seven minutes to midnight, the clock hit two minutes after the first hydrogen bomb was tested in 1953; jumped back to 12 after the United States and the Soviet Union backed away from nuclear confrontation over Cuba in 1962; moved to three minutes at the height of Ronald Reagan-era U.S.-Soviet tensions in 1984; and widened to 17 minutes in 1991, after the Berlin Wall fell and both sides began cutting their nuclear arsenals. While it has moved up and down ever since–based on new threats like climate change and other weapons of mass destruction–it never crossed five again.

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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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February 24, 2015

Now Is Not the Time to Give Up on Russia

by Stanley A. Weiss

LONDON–For a self-professed Christian who has long used the dangling cross he wears around his neck as a tool to define his public persona, it comes as little surprise that Russian President Vladimir Putin would make such a public showing out of his belief in original sin. But, it turns out that the version of original sin that Putin likes best isn’t the religious version, but a political one.

In the Russian strongman’s favorite telling, Western nations promised a teetering Soviet Union on the verge of collapse in 1990 that if Moscow agreed to remove Soviet troops from East Germany, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would vow to never expand further east than Berlin. But then, as the story goes, the West broke its word almost immediately and sought to humiliate Russia, going so far as to attempt the expansion of NATO and the European Union to Russian borders. So naturally, in the heroic Putin narrative, Russian troops were forced to invade Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 to protect its homeland against the aggressive actions of the United States and its European allies.

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February 6, 2015

Moving From Axis to Access of Evil

by Stanley A. Weiss

LONDON — In the fall of 2012, aboard a retired aircraft carrier permanently docked on the west side of Manhattan, I listened as then-United States Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta delivered one of the most chilling speeches I have ever heard. To a roomful of leading CEOs and military leaders, Panetta spoke about the new cyber threats faced by civilized society and the many ways in which America’s adversaries could use computer networks to spread panic, paralyze the country and inflict mass casualties.

“Let me explain how this could unfold,” he said. “An aggressor nation or extremist group could use these kinds of cyber tools to gain control of critical switches. They could, for example, derail passenger trains or, even more dangerous, trains loaded with lethal chemicals. They could contaminate the water supply in major cities or shut down the power grid across large parts of the country.

“The most destructive scenarios,” he continued, “involve cyber actors launching several attacks on our critical infrastructure at one time, in combination with a physical attack on our country. … The collective result of these kinds of attacks could be a cyber-Pearl Harbor, an attack that would cause physical destruction and loss of life. In fact, it would paralyze and shock the nation and create a new, profound sense of vulnerability.”

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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 12, 2014

The Ethnic Apartheid in Myanmar

by Stanley A. Weiss

Given the five decades it spent as one of the most repressive countries in recent history, it’s hard to imagine that Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, was once considered an empire. But 190 years ago this past March, after the Burmese Empire conquered two large Bengali territories across its western border and undertook a series of raids into British-held lands, the British Empire had had enough. British India launched a counter-insurgency that would drag on for two years and take thousands of lives. With some of the heaviest fighting concentrated in Islamic border communities, thousands of Muslims were forced to flee, eventually settling along frontier areas in India and Myanmar.

The Muslim families driven into Burma as a result of Burmese aggression — known as Rohingya Muslims — never left, despite being persecuted ever since. A grisly modern chapter began in 2012, when the alleged rape and murder of a young Buddhist woman in western Rakhine State led to mob violence that took the lives of hundreds of Rohingya over the next two years and saw 135,000 Rohingya held in squalid camps for their own “safety.” Seemingly oblivious to global concerns sparked by the persecution of this Muslim ethnic minority, the Myanmar government last week announced a repulsive new policy: All Rohingya must prove that their families have lived in Myanmar for at least six decades. For those we cannot, the penalty is either a refugee camp or deportation. For those we can, the prize is second-class citizenship, but with a catch: They must first renounce the term “Rohingya” and agree to be classified as a “Bengali.” It’s little wonder that more than 100,000 Rohingya have reportedly escaped Myanmar the past two years.

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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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