Monday, February 27, 2006

The Limits of People Power

Almost twenty years to the day that former dictator Ferdinand Marcos was forced to flee the Philippines in the country’s first display of people power, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has declared a state of emergency.

The soldiers are restless again, this time aiming to topple a president who may or may not be personally corrupt, who may or may not be a competent head of state but who is no dictator. Whether she is a legitimate president has always been another matter.

President Arroyo’s problems go back to the way she came to power in 2001 in another popular upheaval, known as People Power 2. But, unlike the glorious events of 1986, it was one that left a sour after taste.

She ran for re-election in 2004 and won, but has been dogged by accusations of election fraud. A series of tapes purporting to show her talking improperly to the head of the election committee brought threats of impeachment last summer, threats she successfully rode out until this latest crisis.

Many people forget that it was another disputed election that sparked the first people power protest 20 years ago. In mid-February Ferdinand Marcos seemingly defeated Corazon Aquino, wife of the murdered opposition leader Benigno Aquino, in what was universally condemned as a stolen election.

In that instance, Aquino simply acted as if she had won the election and was sworn in as president. The street and the armed forces moved to her side. Marcos fled the country, and the rest is history. People Power 2 was different.

The ex-actor Joseph Estrada turned out to be as much of a disaster as president as most people in the Philippine middle classes had feared. He was corrupt, incompetent, a drunk. Stories abounded how he signed state papers in the middle of the night while carousing with his cronies.

By rights, he should have been impeached, but the Philippine Congress funked its duty. The House of Representatives sent an impeachment indictment to the Senate without even taking a vote. The senate dithered and never voted to convict Estrada before being over taken by events.

Instead, the generals went to the people power shrine in Manila and announced that they were “withdrawing support” for President Estrada. Arroyo, then vice president, took the oath as president from the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Two days later the U.S. recognized her as the legitimate president.

Estrada left the presidential palace but not the country (he’s still facing slow moving corruption charges) He issued a statement saying he was temporarily turning over his powers to Arroyo as “acting president” but he never actually resigned.

Later the Philippine Supreme Court provided Arroyo some fig leaf of constitutionality to what was basically a coup by declaring that Estrada had passed some kind of “totality test” and by his actions had effectively resigned the presidency.

It is worth noting that only a few months later Indonesia went through a similar crisis as the People’s Consultative Assembly voted to remove President Abdurrahman Wahid for misappropriation of funds and general incompetence and replace him with the vice president, another daughter of a former president, Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Megawati, who was generally perceived to be ineffective too, was soundly defeated for re-election in 2004 in Indonesia’s first direct presidential election by the current incumbent, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. But In Indonesia these two tranfers of power were done constitutionally and democratically without mass demonstrations or interference from the army.

Perhaps then it is no coincidence that of the three largest democracies of Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines, only Indonesia is currently and free of constitutional strife.

Many in the Philippines think that the solution to the permanent political weakness is to scrap the U.S.-style constitution and create a parliamentary form of government. President Arroyo herself seems to favor such a solution.

But parliamentary democracy isn’t proving to be a panacea in Thailand, where some 200,000 people turned out in central Bangkok Sunday to denounce Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. To stem growing protests over the sale of his personal holdings to Singapore, Thaksin dissolved parliament and called for new elections April 2.

It is hard to predict what will happen in either country over the next few days or weeks, but I’d guess that President Arroyo will again ride out the storm again as she did last summer. I don’t see the stars aligning for a third reprise of People Power.

Fernando Poe, Arroyo’s main opponent in the 2004 presidential election died last year, and his widow, Susan Roces, doesn’t seem to be another Corazon Aquino. Nobody seems particularly hot to see Vice President Noli de Castro take over either.

A short lived mutiny by marines in downtown Manila, led by Gen. Ariel Querubin, a veteran of the 1989 coup attempt against Corazon Aquino (coup plotters are never really punished in the Philippines) fizzled out. Only a couple thousand people turned out to support them.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Xenophobia Run Amok

The thing that depresses me the most about the controversy over Dubai World Port’s purchase of the assets of the British P&O Line is that it is not an isolated instance of nationalist, tub-thumping xenophobia run amok.

Recall last summer’s fever over efforts by the Chinese petroleum company that goes by the initials CNOOC to acquire the Unocal Corporation. The Beijing company eventually pulled out of the deal after it became clear that Congress might intervene to block it on national security concerns.

Also last summer the House of Representatives voted to forbid the Export-Import Bank to help fund Westinghouse’s sales of nuclear reactors to China. This was accompanied by considerable nationalistic breast-beating about using taxpayer money to subsidize foreign countries.

This is because Westinghouse is owned by British Nuclear Fuels – a British company, for God’s sake. (BNF is currently negotiating to sell Westinghouse to Toshiba). There was also much high-minded talk about transferring precious national technology to China.

Go back a few more years to another port controversy involving a state-owned foreign company leasing the old Long Beach Navel Base, which the defense department was turning over to the Port of Long Beach for civilian cargo. The port, in turn, sought to lease it to COSCO, the state-owned Chinese shipping firm.

The right wing went bonkers over the deal, accusing the Clinton administration of wanting to turn the former naval base over to the People’s Liberation Army or worse. San Diego Rep. Duncan Hunter managed to insert a clause in a defense appropriations bill to kill the deal.

COSCO simply moved next door to the Port of Los Angeles where it has run one or more of its container terminals there without controversy and without any threats to our national security for half a dozen years now. So one wonders what the opponents of the Long Beach deal really accomplished.

Strangely, I haven’t noticed Rep. Hunter being in the forefront of the opposition to the Dubai ports deal, considering the leading role he played in scotching the Long Beach deal, not to mention that he chairs the House Armed Services Committee and presumably is interested in national security.

But then I haven’t noticed that many West Coast lawmakers taking a stand on the ports controversy. Of course, the ports in question are on the East Coast, but I suspect that most of the westerners are praying that the whole controversy blows over before Congress does something really stupid, such as passing some law to ban foreign operations of port terminals. That would cause chaos on the West Coast.

Take for example, the Port of Seattle. Of the three terminals, one is leased to an American stevedoring firm MSS America, one to Hanshin, the South Korean shipping line, and the other to the American President Lines (now APL) which, despite it venerable patriotic name, is actually owned by Singapore.

Port management is an international business that is dominated by foreign interests. That’s not hard to understand since there are obviously close synergies between ships and terminals. And an American merchant marine scarcely exists.

I said last year when the Unocal flap arose that if national security is so important in these issues, then why not nationalize Unocal. Why doesn’t Washington bid for the P&O shares itself? Add a few gild-edge shares to the national portfolio now filled with IOUs to China and Japan.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Go and Sin No More

Representatives from the four big American high technology firms were hauled before an American-style inquisition last week. The four, Yahoo, Cisco, Google and Microsoft defended their company’s operations in China before a subcommittee of the U.S. Congress.

All have sinned, but there are mortal sins and venial sins. Yahoo handing over information to authorities that helped to send three Chinese dissidents to jail certainly seems to be an example of a mortal sin. The others stand accused of venial sins.

Microsoft shut down the blog of an outspoken blogger. Cisco apparently sold equipment that can help the Chinese censor the Internet, while Google agreed to block access to certain politically sensitive subjects and websites on its new Chinese-language search engine.

I have the most sympathy for Google. Google is, in essence, a publisher, albeit a very large one. And it is by no means the first publisher to have to deal with censorship while trying to sell its editorial content in a country that has no First Amendment protections.

Even Sen. Hillary Clinton found that her popular memoir, Living History, was altered, that is censored, in the Chinese edition. Her Chinese publisher insisted that she remove certain references to sensitive subjects, such as Tibet or the Chinese dissident Harry Wu.

Clinton was quoted at the time as saying, “I was amazed and outraged that they censored my book.” Outraged? Certainly. But amazed? This is China. China is a communist country. Communist countries censor things.

China isn’t the only country in Asia that has taboo subjects. Publish a cartoon or just an unflattering photograph of the King can get you banned in Thailand, which otherwise has a vigorous free press. The late Iris Chang had difficulty finding a Japanese publisher that would translate her history of the Nanjing Massacre exactly as she wrote it.

My sympathies tend to go more with the people who venture out into the arena over those pundits, not to mention Congressmen, who censure Google and the other companies from the safety of their First Amendment cocoons.

At Asiaweek, a newsmagazine, where I worked in Hong Kong, we made editorial decisions every day that could get us censored, banned or punished. So did our competitors. We railed against it, we pushed against the boundaries, worked around them when we could and took our punishments when we had to.

Ironically, China was the least of our problems. But that was mainly due to the fact that our circulation was minuscule. Very few Chinese had the interest or the means to purchase an English-language newsmagazine. The Internet is different. There are said to be more than 100 million Internet users and 13 million bloggers in China.

So maybe Google isn’t just another publisher. The real reason it’s actions have touched a nerve is that the criticism is bound up in the mystic of Google, the mystic of the Internet as somehow transcending censorship rules, and a displaced anxiety about a rising China.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Japan's Permanent Succession Crisis

“To promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion or empire above any realm, nation or city is repugnant to nature, contumely to God and the subversion of good order.” – John Knox.

It didn’t take long for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to shelve proposed legislation allowing a woman to succeed to the Chrysanthemum Throne. Just one day after the Imperial Household Agency confirmed that Princess Kiko, wife of the Emperor’s second son, was pregnant Koizumi backed away from the bill.

The prime minister had agreed to push for revisions in the Imperial Household Law that would allow a woman to become a reigning empress, since it is becoming obvious that Crown Princess Masako, mother of one daughter named Aiko, will probably not bear another child thus bringing into question who will carry on the line, supposedly unbroken for 2,000 years.

But even before the pregnancy was announced –or at least before it was made official -- a surprising amount of opposition was building up against the female succession bill, at least among the more conservative members of Koizumi’s Liberal Democratic Party.

It was never clear, however, how these opponents of female succession could overcome the biological barriers. The current emperor’s cousin Tomohiko went so far as to suggest that the family revive concubinage (for imperial families only, one presumes) to find an heir.

Concubinage was common in years past. The Emperor Meiji was the son of a concubine. Interestingly, Hirohito resisted appeals for him to take a concubine after his wife gave birth to a worrying succession of girls, until finally the reigning monarch, Akihito was born.

Some say Crown Prince should imitate Henry VIII and divorce his wife and find another mate. That might seem a little drastic in a country where the monarch is just a powerless symbol of state. Never mind that all of Japan rejoiced at what was (and by all signs still is), obviously a love match in 1993 when Naruhito and Masako Owada married.

It would seem that the household agency has realized that putting pressure on Masako was driving her to a nervous breakdown. So the attention turned to Naruhito’s brother’s family. After all, Princess Kiko, now 39, last gave birth more than ten years ago. They have two daughters, Mako and Kako and may have felt they had completed their family.

Conservatives have argued that the bill should be delayed until a “national consensus” develops over the issue. Since polls have shown as much as 90 percent of Japan’s public approve of a female succession, one might think that a national consensus for reform already existed. (Poll numbers have fallen in the wake of the pregnancy).

The Japan Times commented dryly, “ If Japan were truly ready for a female emperor, why is everyone so thrilled about this pregnancy? Television announcers all but wept breaking the news on Tuesday. And opponents of the prime minister’s plan appear giddy with relief at the thought that a boy could yet appear and save the nation from the frightful prospect of a reigning empress who could be succeeded in turn by her own daughters.”

The roots of Japan’s permanent succession crisis go back to the years immediately after World War II. American occupiers defined the emperor of Japan as the head of state and “symbol of the sate and unity of the people,” but in redrafting the Imperial Household Law in 1947 they maintained the provision that only males can inherit the throne.

This was a curious anomaly since elsewhere in Japan’s new constitution they wrote in an “equal rights amendment” (Article 24) years before a proposed ERA to the U.S. constitution soared then fizzled. Conservatives want to gut this article in a general constitutional revision, but that’s another story.

At the same time, the Americans instituted other changes that would eventually complicate the succession. They abolished the aristocracy and divested 11 families of imperial status, considerably shrinking the pool from which future emperors could be drawn. That is why all of the male members of the family have married commoners.

This works up to a point because in Japan the woman leaves her birth family and becomes a member of her husband’s family. It doesn’t work the other way. When Princess Nori wedded a Tokyo civil servant last November, she gave up her title and her membership in the Imperial family and became plain Mrs. Sayako Kuroda.

So if, for example, Empress Aiko married a commoner and if the couple had a child who succeeded to the throne, some scion of a respectable Osaka Brewery family or some senior civil servant in Tokyo would find himself the founder of a new dynasty, the first one in the more than 2,000 years.

Some think the answer may lie in reviving the aristocracy, in order to provide more males. But after being submerged in the general commonality for more than 60 years, many in Japan might find this move unpalatable too.

Koizumi and company would like nothing better than to welcome a new prince into the world and thus move this political and cultural hot potato several more generations down the line. The advisory panel has cautioned that the possible birth of more boys would not change its conclusion that allowing a female monarch is inevitable and desirable. The problem is not going to go away.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Nuclear Mishmash


Trying to make sense of international efforts to disarm North Korea of its ambitions to own nuclear weapons is like trying to follow three-dimensional chess. Ostensibly, all six countries that are part of the Six-Party talks favor a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.

That includes even North Korea, which, in theory at least, is willing to trade its purported nuclear weapons for aid, recognition and light water reactors. Everyone, it would seem is singing from the same music sheet. In reality, all of the participants have conflicting agendas.

China basically wants to be seen as a good world citizen by hosting the negotiations and to gather any favors that might come its way. But Beijing has relatively little interest in nuclear proliferation, indeed, has been a proliferator itself. Basically, the Chinese don’t believe North Korea would be stupid enough to drop a bomb on them.

South Koreans can’t bring themselves to believe that their brother Koreans would use a nuclear weapon against them and many may harbor some secret pride that fellow Koreans might have the bomb. Japan is obsessed with returning its nationals abducted by the North in the 1970s. Russia is mostly along for the ride.

And what about the United States? American policy is torn by a perpetual ideological tug-of-war. One faction wants to pressure North Korea into collapse; the other sees little choice but to negotiate.

In such circumstances, you need a scorecard to keep track of all the players. Gordon C. Chang’s book Nuclear Showdown, North Korea Takes on the World, (Random House, $25.95, 327 Pages) attempts to provide one but with only limited success.

The chapters on Japan and South Korea are good in describing their particular obsessions. The chapter on North Korea is intriguing in describing a society undergoing more ferment and change beneath the surface of repression than a lot of other observers have noted.

Chang does not appear to have actually ever been in North Korea. That in itself is not crippling. Many a good journalist has returned from Pyongyang with nothing much more than impressions of empty boulevards, sterile buildings and statues of the ex-Great Leader Kim Il Sung.

Nuclear Showdown is supported by an impressive amount of secondary sources, including interviews with various aid workers, scholars and politicians. But all too often it is punctuated by extraordinaryly sweeping, often dubious, contradictory and even bizarre statements.

We are told on one page: “no person in Japan takes pride in Article 9” (The part of Japan’s Constitution that renounces war.) On the next page, Japan is “a nation that is still influenced by a pacifist mentality.”

“Kim Jong Il will soon be able to land a nuke anywhere in America,” Chang declares on one page. A little later, maybe not: “At this moment, the North Korean leader cannot put nuclear warheads on his missiles, even short-range ones.”

Former President Jimmy Carter is gratuitously slammed as a “dictator groupie” on one page then lauded as a “global human rights advocate” on another. “To his lasting credit, [Jimmy Carter] brought a much needed emphasis on democracy to America’s Korean policy.”

The Yalu and the Tumen rivers that form the border between North Korea and China make for what is described as an “artificial” border. Right. About as artificial as the Rio Grande border between Mexico and the U.S. And so on and so on.

The penultimate chapter, in which the author supposedly ties up the loose ends and presents his thoughts on a solution to the nuclear crisis is a complete muddle. He seems to be suggesting at first that the U.S. should disarm so that it has the moral persuasion to force Pyongyang’s hand.

Then he comes down for unilateral military action even though it might cost millions of lives. “The loss of any South Korean diminishes the world, of course. But should it deter America?” he writes. Some South Koreans might demur.

No one can doubt the urgency that Chang feels about the subject, but the readers is still left puzzled about what to do about it. We need a better scorecard than the author has provided.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Playboy Comes to Indonesia

Playboy is coming to Indonesia next month. Will the world’s largest Muslim nation ever be the same? Playboy Indonesia will be the first local edition of the American nudie magazine in a Muslim country since the demise of the Turkish edition in 1996.

Of course, the Indonesian edition will not be the same Playboy we know and love in the U.S. The local publisher and the American parent have promised that Playboy Indonesia will “respect local values” -- meaning no photographs of naked women. Or, as local promoter Avianto Nugroho says, “the contents will be suitable for whatever is acceptable in Indonesia.”

So here we have another large American company with world-wide brand recognition that wants to do business in a large Asian country that is censoring itself. Except that Playboy’s actions are more in the nature of preemptive self-censorship since there are no specific laws that would prevent the unadulterated Playboy from publishing in Indonesia.

The Indonesian criminal code does not clearly define what constitutes pornography. Parliament is working fix that now, but, like in other countries, the anti-porn bill is running into difficulties in defining what exactly is decent and what is indecent.

Playboy’s self-censorship hasn’t drawn the same censure that Google received for allowing Chinese authorities to block access to certain politically sensitive terms on its new Chinese-language search engine. After all, the Chinese want to block out such lofty subjects as “democracy” or references to the “Tiananmen massacre.”

All Playboy plans to censor are boobs.

But it might be argued that boobs are as central to Playboy’s products as “information” in the broadest sense is to Google’s business.

Playboy’s editorial director, David Walker, solemnly pledged that, “any magazine we launch in Indonesia would be focused on the many of the other things Playboy is well known for: high-quality editorial, including interviews and feature stories written by renowned local writers and journalists.

But not even opponents of Playboy’s entering Indonesia seem willing to buy that one. Vice President Jusuf Kalla said, “if the Indonesian version differs from the American Playboy by replacing photos of naked women with tasteful articles on lifestyle, political and economic issues, consumers will justifiably feel cheated.”

Indonesian model Tiara Lestari said much the same thing on her weblog: “What kind of content adjustment do you need to make it so Playboy can be accepted by Indonesians?” she asks. “It’s like asking Time to only do Hollywood gossip.”

As every one of Indonesia’s 241,973,879 citizens over the age of ten knows, Tiara Lestari recently became the first Indonesian woman to pose in a Playboy spread that appeared in one of the European editions last summer.

The local promoter has suggested that initially Playboy Indonesia will be available only through subscriptions and book stores, not on news stands and kiosks. Translation: If the vice squads don’t trash the books stores or Islamist radicals don’t bomb them, we’ll consider selling the magazines in the open.

But in practice, Indonesia is not as prudish as the squabble might suggest. Indonesia already has a thriving market in hardcore pornography, including pirated DVDs and smutty magazines. The country’s domestic television stations broadcast late night programs that show scantily clad models in fashion shoots.

You can even find a publication colorfully entitled “Tits” for sale on the nation’s kiosks with pictures of undressed women. So it is likely that the real problem in the eyes of Indonesia’s conservatives is that Playboy is a foreign, especially an American publication.

Anyone who has worked in Asia knows, that what might seem perfectly normal and acceptable if published locally can be scorned as “cultural imperialism,” coming from as foreign source.

Of course, the question that most Indonesian’s are really asking is who will be Playboy’s first Indonesian playmate (not counting American Jodi Ann Paterson, “Playmate of the year for 2000,” who was born in Balikpapan.)

Tiara Lestari says that she doesn’t plan to volunteer, although it is possible she might be drafted. She doesn’t have control over the pictures that Playboy has already taken for the European editions. Meanwhile, another comely model/diva named Indah Ludiana is rumored to have flown to California for a photo shoot. Stay tuned.