Friday, November 25, 2005

Back on the Radar Screen

One significant though unreported aspect of President George W. Bush’s recent trip through Asia was the attention he and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice devoted to Myanmar. It featured prominently in his speech in Kyoto and in meetings with Southeast Asian leaders in Pusan.

In his Kyoto speech Bush noted that, “abuses by the Myanmarese military are widespread and include rape, execution and forced relocation; use of child soldiers and religious discrimination are all too common. The people of Myanmar live in the darkness of tyranny – but the light of freedom shines in their hearts. They want their liberty and one day they will have it.”

Shortly before he departed on his week-long trip, Bush gave some quality time at the White House to Charm Tong, the founder of Shan Women’s Action Network. Its acronym SWAN seems a little too peaceful for its mission, which is to draw attention to the army’s alleged use of rape as a weapon of war. The 24-year-old activist was recently named one of TimeAsia’s “Asian Heroes for 2005.”

In Pusan Bush met with seven ASEAN leaders (Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia are not members of the Asia-Pacific Cooperation Council) and again urged them to pressure Yangon to deal respectfully with the democratic opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Secretary Rice said Myanmar “too often kind of falls off the radar screen of people who won’t concern themselves every day with human rights and democracy issues.

Myanmar has become an embarrassment to ASEAN, but a cardinal rule of the grouping is not to criticize a member. It goes back to the founding days when several members, notably Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, were run by dictators. It was something of a milestone when earlier this year Malaysia publicly urged Yangon to decline chairmanship of ASEAN next year.

To the surprise of many Myanmar agreed to forego its turn. Quite probably the junta didn’t want the press to descend on its capital, or, I suppose, one might now say former capital. Earlier this month civil servants began what might be called another forced relocation -- to a new capital in the village of Pyinmana about 400 km to the north of Yangon in central Burma.

The generals have been as secretive about this latest move as they are about just about everything else. The diplomatic corps apparently has not moved to this new Brasilia in the jungle, but may be forced to do so later. The town is said to have few amenities except mansions for the generals and a de riguor golf course.

It has not been clear why the capital move is being made. Some speculate that the generals fear that Yangon might be too exposed to an American assault being located on the coast. Since that prospect is very unlikely another reason may be to insulate the rulers against the kind of street rioting that convulsed the capital in 1988.

Significantly, the Philippines broke ranks with ASEAN to announce that it would support the placing of a resolution to debate Myanmar before the U.N. Security Council. Washington wants the issue to be debated but has had trouble rounding up support of the nine council members necessary to table a resolution.

Support of the Philippines might be enough to force the issue, but unfortunately, Manila goes off the council in January, so Washington has to move fast or try to round up support from another crew of nations that take their seats next year. The Russians and Chinese are likely to veto any action that might materialize, but many still see value in forcing a debate and putting the two countries on record as supporting the dictatorship against world opinion.

In late September a report commissioned by former Czech President Vaclav Havel and Nobel winner Desmond Tutu described Myanmar as a present threat to regional security: “the situation in Myanmar is much more severe compared with other countries in which the UN Security Council has chosen to act in recent years.” It listed Liberia, Rwanda, Haiti and Sierra Leone, as examples. Indeed, it said Myanmar was an even great threat to peace than the previous examples.

The report called for national reconciliation with pro-democratic forces, the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and permitting U.N. agencies and representatives to enter the country, but it falls short of calling for any kind of collective intervention, something certain to be opposed not only by China and Russia but probably by ASEAN neighbors as well.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Why They Call Hu "Mr. President"

Actually, they call him Comrade Hu Jintao. China is, after all, a communist country. They just don’t like to advertise the fact. Everyone else in the English-speaking world refers to Hu as the President of China, and in that capacity he will be receiving the President of the United States, George W. Bush, in Beijing this week.

In fact, it is only fairly recently that China’s Mr. Big has been known by the title “President.” Mao Zedong was famously known as “Chairman Mao,” chairman of what I’m not sure – probably the Chinese Communist Party, although it is customary now to refer to the CCP leader as its Secretary General.

The next most important figure in post-1949 China, Deng Xiaoping, never had an official government title higher than vice premier, which came no where near conveying his power and influence. Journalists had to invent terms like “Paramount Leader” or “Patriarch,” terms nowhere mentioned in China’s constitution, to describe him.

China has had a president since the communists came to power. But for most of those years the post was a powerless sinecure for aging party elders. It still is essentially powerless. Hu’s real authority derives from the two other positions he holds: Secretary General of the Chinese Communist Party and chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission, i.e. commander-in-chief.

Hu’s immediate predecessor, Jiang Zemin, was the first Chinese leader to garner to himself all three positions as head of state, head of party and head of the army. Jiang was a globetrotter. He loved the pomp and ceremony of being a head-of-state. He thrived on trooping the line, listening to 21-gun salutes.

Jiang even paid an official state visit to Iceland, of all places. Pity Iceland doesn’t have an army, so there were no soldiers for him to inspect.

I’m don’t know if Hu Jintao has these same personal proclivities, but he obviously puts value in such gestures as due the titular leader of a rising Chinese state. Americans and Chinese argued strenuously over the modalities of Hu’s planned visit to Washington last September (canceled because of Hurricane Katrina).

The Chinese wanted the full monty -- state dinner, red carpet, 21-gun salute. The Bush administration balked at the state dinner but was willing to grant the red carpet and salute. I’m not sure of the official arrangements for Bush’s visit to Beijing, but I imagine that they will be perfectly calibrated to reflect Hu’s planned reception in Washington.

Ever since China emerged from its self-imposed isolation in the 1980s, China’s leaders have found it politic to use the government title rather than those that emphasize where their power really lies. That’s especially true now that China’s president is popping up every where.

Mao Zedong never left China his entire life except for, I believe, one visit to Moscow. Hu Jintao has been in perpetual motion. In the past two months he’s been to Canada, Mexico, New York, London, Madrid, Pyongyang, Seoul, Pusan and probably some other places I’ve missed.

Deng Xiaoping is best known for his economic reforms and opening of China, but he actually put a lot of thought into political reform. Nothing as far-reaching as democracy, of course. But he wanted to inculcate at least a sense of term limits and something of a normal secession.

Deng didn't want old party octogenarians and even nonagenarians clinging to power to their death beds, blocking the way for younger blood. He knew what he was talking about. Deng didn’t surrender his last real power post, chairman of the party’s central military commission, until a couple years before his death at 94.

He was not as successful in arranging for an orderly succession as he was in opening China to the world. His first choice as party leader, Hu Yaobang, was removed from the post in 1987 as favoring faster political changes than the elders were willing to consider. His replacement Zhao Ziyang was ousted in 1989 for supporting the student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square.

Third time lucky. He plucked Jiang Zemin out of Shanghai, where Jiang had managed to keep the Tiananmen infection from spreading, and made him party leader. This time his decision stuck. Jiang served as China’s leader for more than a decade, surrendering his last post, chairman of the military commission, in 2004.

Coincidentally, Hu Yaobang’s reputation is being rehabilitated. Communist Party bigwigs attended an official observance of what would have been his 90th birthday today (Nov. 18) in the Great Hall of the People. Hu’s death in April, 1989, precipitated the student movement in Tiananmen Square that ended in the bloody June 4 crackdown.

President Hu is said to have pushed hard for Hu’s (no relation) rehabilitation, overruling opponents in the Politburo Standing Committee. It is thought that his interest had less to do with Hu’s supposed political liberalism than their mutual experiences in the Communist Youth League.

It is perhaps too soon to be speculating about Hu’s successor (though plenty of people do). Before becoming president Hu served a spell as vice president. If the presidency was an empty suit in years past, one can imagine how inconsequential the office of vice president was. Yet this was the immediate stepping stone for Hu.

So is there a pattern forming? Does one now advance naturally from being vice president to the top job? Certainly the current incumbent, Zeng Qinghong, is no cipher. He was considered a rival to Hu, and there are some China Watchers who still think he is a rival, though the two seem to cooperate well.

But Zeng is a couple years older than Hu (62). If in the normal course of events, Hu stays in power for a decade or so, Zeng would probably be too old to succeed him. Of course, this does not preclude moving Zeng out after a few years and moving an anointed successor into that position. We have to wait to see how the wheel turns.

Friday, November 11, 2005

You Will Get Along!

July 21, the birth date of the Prophet Muhammad, is known in Singapore as Racial Harmony Day. It commemorates and reminds everyone of that day in 1964 when the island nation suffered the worst turmoil in its history, worse than what’s happening now in France. The communal rioting killed 23 and injured 454.

Forty years later it is a time for celebrating multiculturalism and reminding school children about the country’s diversity. If this sounds all woolly and touchy-feeling, it is. But Singapore goes far beyond mushy school programs. This is a country that is serious about maintaining racial and religious harmony and assimilating minorities.

Take public housing. We’ve been reminded repeatedly over the past few days that France’s significant Muslim minority has been relegated to ethnic ghettos and “no go areas” surrounding Paris and other French cities. In Singapore by design there are no ethnic enclaves.

About 80 per cent of Singapore’s people live in public housing estates that are maintained according to rigid racial quotas that reflect the ethnic make up of the country as a whole, which is about 75 per cent Chinese, 15 percent Malay, most of whom are Muslins, and 10 percent Indian.

For Singapore, it is not enough that the different religions and races mingle with each other in school or in the armed forces – with a population of only about 4 million, Singapore has military conscription, National Service, as much for assimilation and building a sense of common national identity as for defense. France unwisely abandoned the draft.

The government encourages homeownership, and many people use their mandatory savings to buy the apartments they live in. But even here there are restrictions. The government can and does step in to stop a citizen from selling his apartment if the sale would alter the ethnic balance of the neighborhood.

Some Malays consider the quota system to be politically motivated to discourage concentrations of voters of one race or religion and thus prevent the formation of political parties based on race, something common in next-door Malaysia. Still, the government has found other means to encourage minority participation in politics.

About a decade ago it altered its Westminster-style parliamentary voting system to create a number of Group Area Constituencies. In these districts three candidates run as a team. One of them must be a Malay or an Indian.

The introduction of the GRC system was dismissed by most Western commentators as just another way for the ruling People’s Action Party to make things difficult for the opposition (such as it is). Maybe so, but it was also a way of ensuring more minority Members of Parliament.

But the lengths that Singapore’s government will go to ensure racial harmony were vividly demonstrated last month when two young ethnic Chinese bloggers were jailed for saying disparaging things about Islam on the Internet.

This curious incident started when a Malay woman wrote a letter to the main Singapore newspaper, the Straits Times, complaining about uncaged dogs in taxi cabs, which she said was offensive to Muslims. That teed off one Benjamin Koh, 27, who happens to be a kennel employee and ran a website for dog lovers.

He posted some disparaging things on his site. The exact words were not made public (to my knowledge anyway) but reportedly included expletives and urging the desecrating of Islam’s holy site in Mecca. Another youth chimed in on a chat room as did another 17 year old. All three were charged under the Sedition Act. Imagine a 17-year-old being charged with sedition.

The Act makes it illegal to “promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between the different races or classes of Singapore.” In October Koh got one month in jail; the younger Chinese one day, the 17-year-old a warning. Said the judge: “The callous and reckless remarks on racial and religious subjects had the potential to cause social disorder.”

To say that the incident has caused consternation among bloggers in Singapore is an understatement. Even the person who alerted the authorities seemed taken aback. She seemed to think that they would be let off with just a warning.

This incident may have been over the top, but the Singapore model reflects the tough-minded realism of its founding father Lee Kwan Yew. Racial peace does not flow naturally from the human breast, at least not in Asia. You have to work hard at it.

Indonesian authorities scored a major coup by cornering master bomb maker Azhari bin Husin near Malang in east Java this week. It is not clear yet whether Azhari died in his own bomb blast or in a gunfight. His sidekick in terror, Noordin Top, barely escaped and may soon be captured. The two were the brains behind most of the recent bombings in Indonesia, going back to the first Bali bombing in 2002. It’s a pity that this success in the global war on terrorism has received almost no attention outside Asia. If it doesn’t happen in Iraq, it doesn’t happen.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Inside Asia's Terror Network

Decades before al-Qaeda was a worldwide household word, religious radicals were laying the groundwork for a struggle to create a pan-Asia Islamic empire. Thus was born Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a secretive terror organization that spans half a dozen countries.

One of the world's leading authorities on Asian terrorism is Ken Conboy. His latest book, The Second Front: Inside Asia's Most Dangerous Terrorist Network, could not have appeared at a more auspicious time, published (by Equinox, Jakarta) only weeks after the second Bali bombing.

Conboy is obviously well-connected. His previous best-selling books include, Intel: Inside Indonesia’s Intelligence Service and Kopassus, Inside Indonesia’s Special Forces. He currently is country manager for Risk Management Advisory, a private security consultancy in Jakarta.

Asia Cable October was a hard month for Indonesia, beginning with the second Bali bombing on Oct. 1 and ending with atrocity in Poso, where three Christian school girls were murdered. What are the latest developments?.

Ken Conboy The Bali investigation is not producing quick results, and the authorities are clearly frustrated over this. One should remember, however, that many of the previous terror attacks – the Christmas 2000 bombings, for example – went unresolved for many months before the perpetrators were identified. Perhaps most surprising is the fact that the three bombers have not yet been identified. Again, there is a precedent: one of the bombers in the first Bali bombing has yet to be properly identified beyond a nickname.

The Poso beheadings are apparently the work of parties who want to see that district again devolve into major sectarian violence. For the past three years, in fact, there have been sporadic – and largely unsolved – attacks by extremists whose sole aim is to rekindle inter-religious tension. What makes the most recent attack notable was the brutality of the act, which was extreme even by extremist standards.

AC How many arrests and convictions have there been in the major JI operations, namely Bali, the Marriott Hotel and the Australian Embassy?

KC I’ve never seen a definitive tabulation. A couple hundred persons were detained after the first Bali bombing; of these, convictions resulted in every level from death penalties to prison time. Complicating matters is the fact that some terrorists have been involved in more than one attack, some tangentially involved with the Bali bombings were also linked to the Marriott strike, for example. For the latest bombing, about a dozen persons have been detained, though it now appears that none to date were actually involved in terrorism.

AC Many who monitor terrorism in Southeast Asia thought JI was almost finished as an effective force due to arrests and internal dissention. Then came the second Bali bombings. Did they get things wrong?

KC There is a large body of sympathizers from which JI members such as Noordin Top and Azhari Husin can recruit personnel for such operations as the Marriott Hotel and Kuningan strikes. They often see themselves as Darul Islam adherents, not necessarily JI [Darul Islam is a fundamentalist movement seeking to turn Indonesia into an Islamic state that dates back to Independence in 1945 and before]. Thus, while there is no denying that JI has been heavily impacted by arrests, Indonesia still harbors a sizable and threatening number of extremists.

AC Australia and some other Western governments have been pressuring Jakarta to outlaw JI and close its schools. Do you agree?

KC Jakarta views JI as an underground movement. It has not been banned because it has never been officially recognized. I believe JI should be banned because it would show that the government has no tolerance for such extremism and because it would allow the government to move against assets held by JI members. JI does not have any schools per se, although there are a handful of religious schools that have produced top JI members. The government is now exploring ways of regulating the curriculum at these schools, which I think is a good move.

AC It has been said that Jakarta won’t ban JI because the name means “Community of Islam” and thus would be seen in the country as an attack on all Muslims. Is this a real concern or an excuse?

KC Both the previous governments and the current administration are leery of banning JI because they fear losing support from the harder-line Muslim political parties. The government has found it expedient to use the excuse that JI cannot be banned because it is an underground movement and thus not officially recognized.

AC I notice that Abu Bakir Bashir does not loom large in your book, even though people in Australia and elsewhere in the West complain that his light, 30-month sentence for conspiracy and subsequent remissions post Bali 1 are evidence that Jakarta is weak on terrorism. What is your take?

KC Abu Bakir Bashir is the spiritual head of JI and held a leadership role during the group’s shift toward Western targets. My book focuses on the planning and execution of JI’s attacks, and in that sense Abu Bakir Bashir was not generally involved at the tactical level. However, I feel that he should have been given a longer sentence. Most foreign observers saw his trial as a litmus test to determine whether Indonesia was serious about cracking down on extremism. His relatively short sentence dismayed many. I can understand why Australians see a disconnect between his sentence and the overly harsh punishments meted out to some of their nationals for drug offenses in Bali.

AC Some observers worry that the increasingly violent insurgency in southern Thailand is morphing from a local insurrection, ala Aceh, into a new al-Qaeda front. What is your opinion?

KC There is some evidence that Indonesian volunteers may be headed for southern Thailand in search of a worthy jihad. If true, it could be an indicator that the Pattani rebellion is shifting from a localized ethnic insurgency into a wider sectarian struggle, attracting the attention of a wider extremist audience.

AC I see that one of JI’s senior people, Umar Faruq, escaped from American custody in Afghanistan. Is this cause for concern?

KC Faruq has proven himself to be dangerous and determined to strike at the West. I think it unlikely that he would risk traveling back to Southeast Asia. Given his ethnic background [he is an Arab from Kuwait] he might be inclined to head to Iraq.