Sunday, January 30, 2005

Democracy's Shining Moment

From the moment the polls opened in the morning it was obvious that the election was going to be a success. Not only were people lining up to vote, they were clamoring to vote, jostling in a good-natured way with their neighbors to be the first to cast their ballot.

By the end of the first day of voting, some 42 per cent of the registered electorate had cast their ballots. By the third day, 85 per cent had voted. At the end of the six-day voting period, 90 percent of the voters had voted in their country’s first free election since independence.

Iraq in 2005? No, Cambodia in 1993.

Going to the polls took courage since the threat of violence was real. The dreaded Khmer Rouge, famous for the killing fields, was still very much a presence. They had waged a propaganda campaign to oppose elections. Anyone who voted was branded a ‘’Vietnamese puppet,’’ referring to the Vietnamese who had occupied the country from 1979 to 1989.

These were not empty threats. The Khmer Rouge was well armed with self-propelled grenades and 107mm rockets. Armed propaganda teams threatened to kill people at the polling places. After the murder of a Japanese election worker, there were calls to delay the election. More than 15,000 international peacekeepers braced for attacks.

Even so they voted. In epic numbers they voted. It may well be that the 90 per cent turnout in this election (surpassed even in the second national election in 1998) must be a record where voting is voluntary. If there were such a thing as a global Democracy Hall of Fame the dates May 23-28, 1993, should have its special place of honor.

Much ink will be spilled in the next few days following Iraq’s election about the turnout and whether it means that this test of democracy in the Arab world is or isn’t a success. But comparisons should not be made with voter turnout rates in more settled(some might sway jaded)democracies such as the U.S.

As a general rule, people who have been denied the opportunity to vote in free and fair elections, do so enthusiastically and in great numbers when finally given a chance. This is true in Buddhist countries like Cambodia and Muslim countries such as Indonesia.

For a more recent example, take Indonesia where 75% of the electorate voted in 2004 in their presidential election. It was not the first democratic election in Indonesia, but it was the first time the people chose their president directly.

Looking back, the 1993 election was a turning point in the Cambodia’s history, much as people hope that Iraq’s election will eventually usher in a new era for that country. Since 1993, and even more since the second national election in 1998 (in which 94 per cent voted) Cambodia has been stable and peaceful.

The Khmer Rouge has disappeared. The infamous Pol Pot died in April 1998, while other former leaders and commanders have been co-opted into the political process. In 2003 Cambodia’s third general election passed peacefully, almost unnoticed by the rest of the world.

These days Cambodia has dropped from the world’s headlines. Only specialists and professional Asia watchers understand or pay much attention to the maneuverings of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and FUNCINPEC and Sam Rainsy as they form and reform coalitions.

If Cambodia breaks into the world’s news it usually is something about the shenanigans of the colorful royal family or the sex trade. But there was a moment in time when Cambodians stood tall and showed the rest of the world the power, and universality, of democracy.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

The Unperson

Tiananmen Square in Beijing was quiet last week. No one came out to publicly mourn the passing of former premier and Communist Party secretary Zhao Ziyang. China’s rulers must be breathing easier. After all, it was the passing of his predecessor, Hu Yaobang, in April 1989 that precipitated the most traumatic event in China’s recent history and led to Zhao’s downfall and disgrace.

China’s rulers were also keeping wary eye on Hong Kong, where 20 pro-democracy legislators stood in a minute of silent tribute in defiance of the presiding officer’s ruling against such a demonstration. Hong Kong’s people supported the student protesters in Tiananmen Square fifteen years ago wholeheartedly, and many still observe yearly memorials to those killed in the bloody crackdown.

Thousands of mourners came out to honor Zhao at an unofficial memorial held in the evening of January 21, in Victoria Park, Hong Kong’s version of Tiananmen Square. Heaps of flowers were laid against Zhao’s portrait at a makeshift “democracy wall” on a backdrop of a concert soccer field. It was the only public memorial to Zhao on Chinese soil.

Zhao is as close to being an “unperson,” to use George Orwell’s phrase from 1984, as is possible in this modern media age. The People’s Daily announced his death in one paragraph buried in the last page of its first section, just above the weather map. It as was as if the Washington Post had buried news of the death of Ronald Reagan on page 24, next to the corset ads.

Interestingly, Zhao and Reagan were exact contemporaries. Zhao served as premier of the People’s Republic from 1980 to 1987, when he was elevated to the top post of secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and was considered the anointed successor to Deng Xiaoping. Zhao shared Deng’s commitment to economic liberalization. The two did not see eye to eye on political reform.

In some ways Zhao was luckier than another controversial Chinese leader, former president Liu Shaoqi, who was ousted from all of his party posts in 1968 for criticizing policies of Mao Zedong and his increasingly powerful wife Jiang Ching, one of the “Gang of Four.” He was murdered by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.

Chinese rulers are not so crude these days. For the past fifteen years Zhao was under house arrest in a Beijing hutong, as they call old style villas with a courtyard. In his healthier days he was allowed occasionally to play golf in southern China. Liu’s reputation was rehabilitated in 1980, so it is not impossible that in the fullness of time Zhao will receive the honor and recognition he deserves.

The problem that China’s leaders have is that they cannot address Zhao without addressing the larger issue of Tiananmen. In the fifteen years since that bloody night of June 4, 1989, China’s leaders have let pass a couple opportunities to seriously reconsider the issue, give the student’s their due and admit that the crackdown was a bloody mistake. The first was the death in 1997 of Deng, the man who called in the troops.

Many China watchers took it as a good omen when President Jiang Zemin, in his eulogy, referred to the protests as “disturbances” rather than using the official terminology “counter-revolutionary riot.” Deng had plucked Jiang out of Shanghai to take over from Zhao after he was removed. Since Deng’s death, however, nothing much more had been said about Tiananmen.

China’s current leadership is in a more favorable position to re-evaluate Tiananmen if it had a mind to do so. President and party secretary Hu Jintao took no part on the suppression of the student protestors, being in faraway Lhasa where he served as governor of Tibet. Premier Wen Jiabao actually accompanied Zhao to Tiananmen Square to meet with the students. In the famous picture taken on May 19, 1989 that shows Zhao with a megaphone, he is standing behind his left shoulder looking inscrutable.

The Chinese have rewritten their turbulent modern history before. Deng himself led a re-evaluation of the Cultural Revolution. The leaders do not have to anoint the student protestors as heroes of democracy. Many of them had only the foggiest notion of democracy. But Beijing needs to acknowledge that they acted from noble, even patriotic motives. As the students and Zhao himself proclaimed over and over, the aim was not to topple the party but to spur it toward positive change, a goal entirely consistent with the political hierarchy’s on position.

Monday, January 17, 2005

The Forgotten Man

President George W. Bush gave out a lot of interviews in the days preceding his inauguration for a second term. Reading through the transcripts, one is struck by a question that few editors bothered to ask. Where is Osama bin Laden?

Of course, the editors had only limited time in the Oval Office and a lot of territory to cover, although the Washington Times editors chose to use some of their precious interview time to inquire how presidential dog Barney is reacting to a new puppy in the White House.

But is it possible that many of the interviewers simply forgot about the man who perpetrated the worst attack on American soil in its history?

Osama bin Laden is rapidly becoming the forgotten man. He has almost totally dropped out of the American discourse. During the recent presidential campaign John Kerry tried to make an issue by accusing the Bush administration of taking its eyes off the ball. But it isn’t just the Bush administration that has lost focus. We all have.

Only rarely does Osama bin Laden impinge on our consciousness now. That happens when he periodically issues a taped statement. It appears on our television screens. The message is debated for a day or two. Then he disappears and nothing more is said or heard about him.

The government would like us to believe that Osama is on the lam, moving from cave to cave somewhere along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, just one step ahead of the American commandos or Pakistani army troops poised to “bring him back dead or alive,” any day now.

But Osama’s most recent taped appearances belie that notion. He has not been filmed somewhere in the Afghan wilderness, a trusty automatic rifle by his side. He speaks from what appears to be in a kind of TV studio. He looks to have fully recovered from wounds that he suffered during the Tora Bora battle.

He isn’t sweating.

To its credit, the Washington Post did question the President about Osama. The segment was brief but in many ways illuminating. Expansive on other topics, Bush became strangely terse and somewhat testy about this subject. Note how the Post tried to pin him down as to what our allies [ie Pakistan] are doing to find and apprehend him.

The Post: Why do you think [Osama] bin laden has not yet been caught?

The President: Because he’s hiding.

The Post: Our allies have done all they can do to help catch him?

The President: We’re on the hunt.

The Post: Do you think others are on the hunt too? Are you happy, content, about what other countries are doing in that hunt?

The President: Yes.

The Post: Anyone you’re not happy with?

The President: Look, bin Laden is elusive. And he is in a remote part of the world. And we are – I am – I cannot think of anyone in the world who is our ally who isn’t willing to do what is necessary to try and find him. And so am I pleased about the hunt? I am pleased that he’s isolated. I will be more pleased when he is brought to justice. And I think he will be.

Is Osama hiding or protected? Pakistan’s President Pervaz Musharaf has stated that he has no idea where Osama is. Should we believe him? Is it conceivable that Osama’s whereabouts are not known to Pakistan’s vaunted Inter-Services Intelligence agency? The agency, which created the Taliban, is known to harbor jihadist sympathizers to this day.

Since the September 11, 2001 attack on America, Osama has made 29 tapes. Most of these tapes have been delivered by anonymous couriers to the Arab television network al-Jazeera’s bureau in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. Why is it that there have been no interceptions of any of these couriers?

Many believe that Osama is hiding somewhere in the “lawless” Northwest Frontier Province. Yet all of the high-profile al-Qaeda operatives that have been captured so far have been nabbed in cities away from the border. This includes 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, captured in Rawalpindi, headquarters for the Pakistani Army!

Pakistan has provided us much service in the War on Terrorism, but it may also be doing us the ultimate disservice by protecting Osama bin Laden. It would not be surprising if the president or anyone else would prefer to duck awkward questions on this subject. Nevertheless, they should be asked.

Any news organization that has a chance to directly query the president, or Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, for that matter, either at a press conference or in an interview is derelict if it does not bring up Osama bin Laden. Never mind whether it elicits a newsy answer. It is important to keep the president’s feet to the fire.