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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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 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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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 20, 2013

Surabaya’s Mrs. Mayor: Indonesia’s Best-Kept Secret

by Stanley A. Weiss

Surabaya, Indonesia–Here, in Indonesia’s second-largest city, legend tells of a titanic battle between Sura, the great white shark, and Baya, the crocodile. Meeting in a river one day, the two creatures fought ferociously for supremacy of the animal kingdom. The place where they clashed became known as “Surabaya,” the city of the shark and the crocodile, emblematic of the repeated waves of colonial sharks and crocodiles that have controlled the city for centuries.

Settled in the late 1200’s on the northern shore of East Java, Surabaya rose to become a major Southeast Asian port and trading center, frequently fought over and eventually controlled by the Dutch East Indies Company for over three centuries. The Dutch surrendered to Japanese troops in 1942, who occupied the country until their surrender to the Allies in 1945.

After the nationalist leader, Sukarno, declared Indonesia’s independence on August 17, 1945, violence broke out between Indonesian freedom fighters and the Dutch and British, who returned to the country to take possession of Allied prisoners of war. A British brigadier-general was killed in the crossfire, and the enraged British attacked Surabaya . The bloody Battle of Surabaya is celebrated as a turning point in Indonesia’s war of independence. Ever since, Indonesians have called it “the City of Heroes.”

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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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July 8, 2013

China’s Indian Ocean Strategy Not a Danger-Yet

by Stanley A. Weiss

LONDON–When the Chinese admiral Zheng He set out on the first of seven historic voyages of exploration 608 years ago, the sails of his 317 ships blotted out the horizon. Included in the fleet were several colossal, football field-sized vessels–large enough to fit 65 of Columbus’ ships end-to-end–whose holds would eventually bring home mountains of gold, ivory, and porcelain for the glory of the Ming emperor. Sailing to a dizzying array of coastal countries over the next three decades, Zheng’s flotilla made its way across the modern-day Middle East, ultimately reaching the Cape of Good Hope some 4,000 miles away.

Such expeditions had never been seen before–and would not be seen again. Internal instability, Mongol threats, and high financial costs conspired to cripple China’s Age of Exploration. Zheng died and was buried at sea. His magnificent ships were burned. Records of his voyages were destroyed. For nearly six centuries China turned inward, away from the ocean.

That is, until now. With its release last month of a 350-page “blue book” detailing China’s strategy in the Indian Ocean, Beijing has served notice that–while insisting its interests are strictly economic–it is not content to ignore the waters to its west any longer. And India, which relies on the Indian Ocean for most of its trade and has long suspected China of pursuing a so-called “string of pearls” strategy in the region–encircling the subcontinent with a network of commercial and military facilities–is understandably wary.

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July 1, 2013

Helping to Bring Peace to Kashmir

by Stanley A. Weiss

LONDON–It may be the most infamous stomach ache in diplomatic history. In 1947, the United Kingdom partitioned British India, directing the rulers of its 565 “princely states” to choose between the newly-independent nations of India and Pakistan. The last holdout was the Hindu Maharaja of Muslim-majority Kashmir, Hari Singh, who hoped to establish a neutral, independent nation on his state’s vast frontier. Sixty-five years ago this month, Lord Louis Mountbatten–the last Viceroy of British India–accompanied his friend, the Maharaja, on a three-day fishing trip, where he tried to tease out a decision, making it clear that if Singh chose Pakistan, India would understand and raise no objection. But when the Viceroy instead heard his friend make the case for independence, as recounted in the fantastic “Freedom at Midnight,” by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, he exploded:

“I’m sorry,” said Mountbatten, “you just can’t be independent. You’re a land-locked country. You’re over-sized and under-populated . . . your attitude is bound to lead to strife between India and Pakistan. You’re going to have two rival countries at daggers drawn for neighbors. You’ll be the cause of the tug-of-war between them. You’ll end up being a battlefield.”

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June 25, 2013

Reading the Fault Lines in Istanbul

by Stanley A. Weiss

LONDON–It was 45 years ago this summer that I found myself in Chicago, being bludgeoned by a police officer. Earlier that spring, my mentor–German social philosopher Erich Fromm–had convinced me that after two decades as a non-political entrepreneur, it was time for me to get involved. He persuaded me to make a political contribution to the Democrats’ anti-Vietnam War darling, Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, which earned me an invitation to the 1968 Democratic Convention, where I booked a room at Chicago’s Hilton Hotel. In the early evening hours of August 28th, I walked out onto the sidewalk, only to be rendered speechless by the sight of police officers beating protesters across the street, at Grant Park. Intervening to stop one particularly vicious volley, I stepped between a protester and an officer, where I met the business end of his billy club.

It was later reported that so much tear gas was used that Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic nominee, felt its effects while standing in his Hilton shower–news to millions of Americans convinced that he never actually got off his derriere to protest while riots raged below him. Humphrey, who went on to lose the election, was not the only politician affected by riots in 1968. In France, President Charles de Gaulle was the focus of widespread demonstrations, sparked by young Parisians who resented his heavy-handed authoritarian style. While his party recovered nicely–expanding its majority in a hastily-called June election–de Gaulle never did. Recognizing that he had split the country, which saw him as out of touch, the old general resigned the presidency in a moment of grace less than a year later.

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