Monday, June 26, 2006

The Forever Wars

Forty bombs went off simultaneously in southern Thailand in mid-June, targeting police stations and government offices. That same month 13 Naxalites were killed in clashes with security forces in the Indian state of Chhattingarth.

Welcome to Asia’s insurgencies. Neither of the incidents mentioned above receive much attention in the US, where the only conflict that matters is the three-year-old insurgency against American troops in Iraq.

Still, it is worth noting that South and Southeast Asia have been racked with insurgencies, many of them raging for 30 years or more.

The violence that has engulfed Thailand’s three southern-most provinces is just in its infancy. The disturbances there go back only to 2004. Some of the other insurgencies have been going on for nearly 50 years – with no end in sight. Here is a list:

Insurgency Year begun

Myanmar – various 1958
India – Naxalites 1967
Philippines – NPA 1969
Philippines – MILF 1971
Indonesia – Aceh l976
India – Northeast 1979
Sri Lanka – LTTE 1983
India – Kashmir 1989
Nepal – Maoists 1996
Thailand – south 2004

Source: Ploughshares, Armed Conflict Reports

Ten insurgencies, not counting those in Afghanistan and Pakistan, have been raging in Asia, many of them dating back to the end of the World War II. The average duration is 27 years – and counting. Insurgencies go on forever.

Probably the most serious spate of violence today is in India – everybody’s current cover story. New Delhi confronts three insurgencies, of which the most serious and growing is the one against the communists, known as Naxalites from the small northeastern town where the rebellion started 30 years ago.

Once a rag-tag force, the Naxalites have grown into a rather formidable army of some 20,000 fighters. They are active now in about half of India’s states, especially in the poorer eastern states, a large swath of territory known as the “Red Corridor.” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently called the Naxalites India’s greatest security threat since independence in 1947. more serious than Islamic terrorism or al-Qaeda.

The governments fight back these various insurgencies with a combination military force, amnesties, incentives, promises of increased autonomy, with various success. This month Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo declared “all-out war” against the communist New People’s Army, one of the world’s longest-running insurgencies.

The Philippines has one of the poorest-equipped armies in Southeast Asia and has to deal not just with the NPA but also with the simmering Islamic insurgency on the southern island of Mindanao. One wonders if Arroyo’s “all-out war” will have any more impact that her predecessors’.

In the world of Asian insurgencies cease fires come and cease fires are broken. Very often the enemy is not one but several different groups – a dozen or more insurgent groups fight New Delhi in India’s troubled northeastern states.

Of course, the nations use divide and conquer tactics. Sometimes insurgent groups abandon the fight and come over to the side of the national government, as happens from time to time in Myanmar.

The signing of an agreement in 1996 between the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front split the rebellion into two parts. One faction, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front continues to make war on Manila (a cease fire is in place).

Sometimes insurgencies finally do come to an end. The twenty-year rebellion in Indonesia’s Aceh province seems to have ended with an agreement signed last year in Sweden. Indonesian troops withdrew, and the rebels turned in their weapons. The shock of the tsunami in late 2004, which devastated Aceh, may have played a part in ending the conflict.

This month Nepal was treated to the spectacle of “Comrade Pachanda”, leader of the Maoists, showing up at government house in Kathmandu to treat with the prime minister. It remaines to be seen if he will end his “People’s War” and join in democratic elections.

The influence of al-Qaeda or any other outside force on any of these conflicts seems to be marginal. Terrorism experts debate the extent to which al-Qaeda is involved in Thailand’s insurgency in its three Muslim provinces in the south. Supposedly the MILF has contacts with al-Qaeda in the southern Philippines.

There is little doubt that al-Qaeda likes to stir up trouble in infidel states. But the aim of the Muslim rebellions in Thailand, and earlier in Aceh, namely independence or autonomy for small Muslim states, runs counter to al-Qaeda’s vision of a pan-Islamic Caliphate.

The Sri Lankan insurgency – actually more like a civil war – involves two ethnic groups that share a common Hinduism, although there are some Muslim Tamils fighting with the rebels.

As mentioned before, several of the insurgencies are actually communist – Communists. Remember them? - although there is no evidence that any of the three communist states in Asia, China, Vietnam or North Korea, has any connection with them.

These countries have little choice but to carry on the struggle, even if it goes on for decades. They are like a long-running sore. Not for them the luxury of debating whether to set a withdrawal date. The rebellions must be defeated or accommodated in some way.

Nevertheless they offer a lesson: Insurgencies go on forever. When one hears about “staying the course” remember Asia’s experiences shows that the “course” can be very long indeed.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Uses of Kings

HUA HIN, Thailand – It is hard to ignore the presence of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-serving monarch, here in this resort town where he maintains his principal residence. Giant portraits of the King and sometimes of the Queen dominate the town square and adorn the facades of major buildings.

In another country this might be called a cult of personality, except that here it does not have that feeling. There is nothing particularly heroic in his poses. The thin, bespectacled King stares unsmilingly into the camera looking like he would rather shuck off the heavy royal robes and pick up his saxophone.

The red, white and blue national flag of Thailand seems to be everywhere, on store fronts, private homes, along the streets, always paired with the yellow royal standard. All to honor the King’s Diamond Jubilee, the 60th anniversary of his accession to the throne on June 9, 1946. And I thought my own country was flag-happy.

It was touching to see how ordinary Thais have chosen to honor their King on this occasion. It seems like everybody in Hua Hin, indeed everybody in Thailand, has been wearing yellow T-shirts these past few days. No massed “unity” parades, no displays of military might, just the individual actions of millions of Thais plucking down a few baht to buy and then wear the shirts.

The rest of the world seems to have forgotten King Bhumibol. Back in the 1960s the Boston-born monarch enjoyed something of a vogue in the United States. Of course, he was younger then and more inclined to travel abroad than he is now. Americans took to the jazz-loving monarch, who jammed with the likes of Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton.

Of course, at that time Thailand was an important ally in the neighboring war in Vietnam, and the King of Thailand was somebody to be cultivated by the powers in Washington.

The King does not travel abroad anymore, but he still plays weekly with long-time members of the royal jazz band at his palace in Hua Hin, even though some of the players are now in their 70s. Perhaps not coincidentally, our town hosted a big jazz festival the week before the ceremonies.

But King Bhumibol has other interests that are more directly appreciated by his people. He has a deep interest in such arcane subjects as water resource and soil management. It is said he knows the water table, drainage pattern of virtually every nook and valley in the Kingdom.

He is certainly the only monarch in the world who holds internationally recognized patents on rain-making. The world’s monarchs who descended on Bangkok last weekend were treated to multi-media presentations on cloud-seeding and the Royal Rain Project.

A week before the celebrations UN Secretary General Kofi Annan flew into our little town to present the King with a lifetime award for his work on sustained development. His palace in Bangkok has many experimental agricultural projects on the grounds.

It matters little whether these projects have had a measurable impact on the lives of ordinary Thais (although his interest in tropical dairy farming is said to have encouraged milk production and consumption.) The important thing is that they exist and that the people know they exist and know that their King is looking out for their interests.

The celebrations took place in the capital, Bangkok, but in recent years the King has spent more time in his other palaces. For a couple decades he lived and worked out of the royal palace in the northern city of Chiang Mai. For the past few years he has spent most of his time in Hua Hin, a small coastal town 200 km south of Bangkok that was first developed in the 1920s as a retreat for Bangkok’s elite.

He lives in what is technically the summer palace, Kla Kangwon, (which appropriately means “far from worries.”). When dignitaries such as the prime minister or the UN Secretary General, need to see him, they fly into the town’s little airport or by helicopter to the army base adjacent the palace..

Some 25 emperors, kings, sheiks, princes and sultans and their consorts or their heirs and descendants arrived in Bangkok to honor the King, most of them figureheads, a handful, such as the Sultan of Brunei, absolute monarchs. None of them has anywhere near the kind of influence that King Bhumibol wields in his own Kingdom.

Technically, Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy since a coup overthrew the last absolute monarch in 1932. In reality, the King has more than once intervened directly in Thai politics. But he uses his influence and authority judiciously.

During the demonstrations against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra that engulfed Bangkok in March, the premier’s opponents implored the King to use his perfectly constitutional powers to dismiss Thaksin and appoint a non-party prime minister. He resisted their demands.

Only after the fiasco of the April 2 general election, boycotted by all major opposition parties, did the King finally speak up. In an address marking coronation day, he more or less ordered the heads of the three independent judiciaries to fix the “mess”. Virtually on cue, the judges found technical reasons to annul the election.

It is customary to say “long live the King,” on occasions such as these. But King Bhumibol, 78, has already lived a long life and enjoyed a long reign. What his subjects really wish is that King Bhumibol would live forever.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Japan, Democracy and Iraq

From time to time Japan is held up as a model for the democratic transformation of its neighborhood that the architects of the Iraq War hope will happen if Iraq becomes a functioning democracy.

The US defeated Japan in World War I, overthrew a fascist dictatorship, and installed democracy. Other Asian nations, seeing what a success Japan became after the war followed her example, leading to the transformation of Asia. So goes the theory.

One of the leading proponents of this theory is foreign affairs analyst Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institute, who has written:

“It [the Iraqi project] would be akin to how Japan showed other nations over a period of decades that democratic principles can co-exist with East Asian traditional values and aspirations and so made the transformation of East Asia possible.”

Or again, “Fifteen, twenty years after the US occupation of Japan was over, when there was a functioning democracy in Japan, it changed a lot of perceptions throughout East Asia. For the first time East Asians could look at Japan and say, ‘that’s the kind of state I could imagine living in’.”

This argument, while having a surface appeal, has a lot of problems, and I don’t think that Pollack, who is, I believe a Middle East specialist, knows much about Japanese or Asian history, post World War II.

To begin it is popularly believed that the US came in and abolished the Japanese government replacing it with a new one– regime change in current parlance. Not so. The Japanese government that surrendered to Gen. Douglas MacArthur in September, 1944, was the same government through that administered his decrees.

And of course, the US administration retained not just the monarchy, but the very monarch, under which Japanese soldiers fought and died in the Pacific.

Japan had democratic institutions to build on stretching back to the Meiji Constitution of 1889, which created the Diet (parliament). To be sure only men could vote, and there were probably property qualifications for the franchise, but that was not so different from our own early steps.

Japan was well on its way to liberal democracy – the “Taisho democracy” of the 1920s - when, militarists, exploiting weaknesses in the constitution, gained their blood-grip over the country. During the occupation the Americans removed these loopholes and gave the franchise to women. That’s about all it did to help create democracy.

So, has Japan been a beacon for democracy in Asia since the end of the American occupation? The governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which first came to power in 1955, last year celebrated 50 years of virtually unbroken power. Only the Chinese Communist Party has been in power longer in Asia.

Japan has yet to accomplish what India has done – namely change governments through elections, going from the Congress Party, to the BJP and back again. For that matter, Japanese people haven’t accomplished what people of Taiwan or South Korea have done – change governments.

One can take this too far and insist, as some do, that Japan isn’t really a democracy. Actually, last year’s general election, in which Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi went to the voters on a major issue, postal privatization was a pretty nifty example of democracy in action. It’s just that it was the opposition that got creamed.

For that matter, Japanese have shown no hesitation to dump unpopular prefectural governors. (Japan is unusual in having a parliamentary form of government at the national level and a “presidential” form at the provincial level.

And it is debatable whether Taiwan or South Korea would have pulled off a change in administrations if they had parliamentary governments instead of directly elected chief executives. (To my knowledge, the pan-green alliance of President Chen Shui-bian has never held a majority in the Taiwan legislature.)

In fact there is an “Asian Way” to democracy, and it has nothing to do with Japan and little to do with the US. This holds that the country starts out as an enlightened dictatorship. The government puts in place economic policies that lead to prosperity. A rising middle class begins to agitate for more freedoms and participation in government.

This is generally the path followed by South Korea and Taiwan and possibly Thailand and Indonesia. Many hope that it is a path one day followed by China, although there are no guarantees. The Asian Way to democracy has a certain logic to it, but it is not exactly an immutable law of physics.

In this the US has had mostly a passive role. It has extended an umbrella of protection that has allowed these countries to develop. Many local nationals lived and studied in the US and brought back some of its liberal values. And it provided markets that helped lift these countries out of poverty.

As for Japan, it is probably true that Asian nations have been more inclined to copy its merchantilist economy policies rather than its political practices. But for many in Asia Japan isn’t really an Asian model for anything; indeed, many don’t even think Japan is Asian.