Friday, July 21, 2006

Was Independence a Mistake?

The turmoil in East Timor and the subsequent deployment of Australian and other peacekeeping troops has prompted much soul-searching, especially among human rights activists for whom the cause of an independent East Timor was an article of faith.

Has East Timor, become, four years after it gained formal independence from Indonesia, just another “failed state”, or as Australian Defense Minister Brendon Nelson said recently: “a haven perhaps for transnational crime, for terrorism, and indeed humanitarian disaster and justice.”

Such a description seems too strong for East Timor, which, though sunk into lawlessness, has not, to my knowledge, harbored any kind of terrorists. The question is more whether this territory of fewer than a million people is or can become a viable country. Was independence a mistake?

This is, after all, a country that probably could not join ASEAN because it cannot afford, on its own, to meet the basic requirement of opening diplomatic missions in the ten Southeast Asian nations that make up the group.

Writing in The Monthly Don Watson, former prime minister Paul Keating’s speech writer, created something of a stir when he wrote: “Life under a murderous occupation might be a little better than life in a failed state, albeit one perennially dependent on Australian aid and Australian policing.”

“What was more, in an imperfect world, Suharto’s Indonesia was a lot better than its critics were willing to concede, or able to see from their lofty Pilgeresque perches.” (A reference to the left-wing journalist John Pilger, a fierce critic of Suharto).

Keating, Australia’s last Labor Party PM, took a markedly pro-Indonesia position (and took a lot of flak for it from the left wing of his party) because he was keen on positioning his country as being a part of Asia. (His successor, John Howard, is much less interested in the “Australia is a part of Asia” business.}

Writes Watson: “The relationship was important because Indonesia was the most populous Muslim country in the world. It was a developing country offering numerous complementary interests. A successful relationship was a precondition of a successful engagement with Asia.”

Watson went on to argue that the years of stability in Indonesia under ex-president Suharto’s New Order government made it possible to drop the “White Australia” policy, welcome Asian immigrants and make Australia a more open and tolerant country.

“Suharto gave us nothing less than an ability to shed our ancient fear of Asia, Liberalism in Australia profited from despotism in Indonesia. What we took for our own courage was just the profit of Suharto’s ruthlessness.”

Nevertheless, the history of appeasing Suharto still leaves a bad taste in Watson’s mouth since he concludes by saying “It was good policy but nevertheless cowardice as well.”

John Pilger would no doubt agree. The fiery, unreconstructed activist recently wrote a piece in accusing Canberra of deliberately provoking disorder in order to remove East Timor’s Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, in effect an act of regime change.

Civil order has returned to East Timor. Former foreign minister Jose Ramos-Horta has replaced Alkatiri as premier. It is probably too early to dismiss East Timor as a “failed state” state. It is certainly a fragile state, but was it a mistake?

Instead of becoming what it is and likely to remain for many years, a poor, independent country and perpetual ward of the UN, non-governmental agencies, Australia and Portugal, it could have remained part of a dynamic and now democratic Indonesian nation.

This notion, of course, would be heresy to many, even as they lament the chaos that overtook the country a few weeks ago. Did not the Indonesian army murder and massacre tens of thousands of Timorese during its 25-year occupation?

It can certainly be argued that Jakarta long ago lost the mandate of heaven to govern East Timor because of its harsh occupation. But one also has to ask whether it is right that national border in Asia be determined by which European colonizer settled where?

Why couldn’t the Timorese have followed the example of Goa? India and Indonesia were in a very similar position at the close of World War II. In both cases the main European colonizer – the British in India and the Dutch in Indonesia – withdrew but left behind small Portuguese enclaves, which Lisbon clung to fiercely.

New Delhi finally lost patience and in 1961 invaded the largest of its enclaves and forcefully expelled the Portuguese. The world condemned India, but the affair was soon forgotten. Goa settled down peacefully, eventually becoming a full-fledged state of the Indian Union.

Fast forward to 1975. The Carnation Revolution has ousted the Portuguese dictator Salazar and Lisbon is shedding its overseas empire. East Timor declares independence, and the Indonesian army invades. But in this case years of guerrilla warfare against the occupation ensue until in 1999 East Timorese vote for independence.

One wonders whether East Timorese might be having “buyers remorse” today. Are they so different from their former countrymen in other parts of Indonesia that they should be independent. If this is true for East Timor, why not for Aceh or Bali or Papua? That, of course, was always Jakarta’s argument.

And if ethnic differences are such important criteria, then how important is it that East Timor itself is divided into the Kaladis of the west and the Firakus to the east. Should the country be further divided into the Republics of East East Timor and West East Timor (throw in a Republic of Oecussi-Ambeno, the small enclave in West Timor).

On independence, East Timor adopted Portuguese as one of its official languages presumably as another way to set themselves apart from their former countrymen. Portuguese teachers flocked to new country to offer instruction, so that in addition to their other disadvantages, the Timorese would learn a language that virtually useless for them in Asia.

By contrast, Indonesians couldn’t care less about studying Dutch or learning about Dutch culture. Instead they cultivated Bahasa Indonesian as a language that would unite the disparate groups that make up their nation.

The great irony of the East Timor struggle is that just as it finally reached its goal of independence in 2002, Indonesia itself was becoming fully democratic. Meanwhile, in Goa they celebrate Dec. 16, the day India invaded, as “Liberation Day.”

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Return of the Iron Ladies

After three years of self-imposed exile in the United States, one of Hong Kong’s most controversial political figures has returned to the territory as a born-again democrat. Politics in the former British colony may never be the same.

Three years ago Regina Ip was one of the most reviled figures throughout the territory. She had made herself a political lightening rod as the leading proponent of a National Security Bill that many in the territory worried would curb their freedoms in an autonomous region of China.

More than half a million people turned out to protest against the anti-sedition law on July 1, sixth anniversary of the handover to China. Former Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa withdrew the bill. Ip resigned as Secretary of Security and left the territory.

She spent those years in California earning a Masters Degree in political science at the Center for East Asian Studies at the prestigious Stanford University. Her thesis? What else: Hong Kong governance and democracy.

The woman who had once disparaged democracy by saying, “Hitler was elected through universal suffrage, and he killed seven (sic) million Jews” now tells the world that “the only way forward [for Hong Kong] is “complete democratization.”

But Regina Ip isn’t the only “Iron Lady” roiling the political waters. In the days preceding the July 1 holiday – which is meant to celebrate the glorious liberation of Hong Kong from colonial rule – former chief secretary Anson Chan was all over the airwaves urging people to hit the streets.

As a consequence, the turnout, at an estimated 58,000 pro-democracy demonstrators, was more than double that of the preceding year. Chan took a prominent place in the march, flanked by family members and a ring of supporters who joined hands to form a protective ring around her.

Chan was the first Chinese and the first woman appointed to the post of Chief Secretary, the highest position in the civil service, just below the governor, or since 1997, the chief executive.

She was appointed by the last British governor Chris Patten, hated by Beijing, and partly for that reason is profoundly distrusted by Chinese authorities. But she is popular with Hong Kong people. In the days preceding the handover, she was, by far, the most popular choice to become Hong Kong’s first Chinese governor.

Since she resigned the government in 2001, Chan had maintained a fairly low profile. She did not take part in the epic march in July, 2003 or the equally well attended July 1 march in 2004. But she emerged as a critic of the administration late last year, when the legislature rejected a modest series of constitutional reforms because they did not go far enough toward “universal suffrage”, a term that in Hong Kong means choosing the chief executive and all of the Legislative Council by popular vote. Currently, the Chief is chosen by an 800-member electoral college; half the Legco through narrow-interest “functional” constituencies.”

Political watchers in Hong Kong have been transfixed in recent weeks the sudden emergence of not one but two new political figures. The two Iron Ladies have reinvigorated the democratic movement in Hong Kong, which has been languishing rudderless for months. On everyone’s lips: What are they up to?

Much speculation surrounds the question whether Anson Chan might challenge Chief Executive Donald Tsang, when he finishes the term of his predecessor in 2007. This seems like a quixotic quest, since the 800-member Selection Committee that chooses the chief is dominated by pro-Beijing appointees.

It is not by any means certain that Chan could best Tsang in a straight election. Unlike the hapless Tung, Donald Tsang is popular in his own right. His failure to enact some modest democratic reforms late last year did nothing to dampen that popularity. People think his heart is in the right place.

Anson is keeping her cards pretty close to her chest. She shrugs off the inevitable questions by saying that she wants to “see one step, take one step.” depending on how things develop. However, it is said that she has been making overtures to Emily Lau, leader of the Frontier Party, a liberal group.

“Anson’s maneuvers have created controversy, divisions and tensions even within the democratic camp,” says long-time Hong Kong political observer Tom Polin. “Many don’t know what to make of her intentions and are not a little jealous, or worried, about her ability to steal their thunder as leaders of the movement.”

For her part, Regina Ip has been back in the territory for only about two weeks, and so her plans are even less clear, even though she is putting out strong signals that she wants to get involved in the political process. She has indicated she might form a new political party.

Ip seems to have had an epiphany of sorts in her three years of study at Stanford, under the tutelage of Professor Larry Diamond, a well-known American political scientist. Sections of her thesis: “Hong Kong. A Case Study in Democratic Development and Transitional Society” has been excerpted in Hong Kong newspapers.

Much of the thesis concerns some fairly arcane points of governance, advocating major structural changes, especially in the dysfunctional relationship between the executive and the legislature. But she says clearly “there is no reason why direct elections to the fifth term of the legislature not be held in 2012.”

Two years ago the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress had ruled out any chance of full democracy either for chief executive or the legislature during the 2007-2008 elections cycles. The next logical moment to introduce democracy would be in 2012.

The two former top civil servants, were not on very close terms when they were in the government and, “the currents of rivalry between them are already palpable,” said Polin.

Ip did not participate in the July 1 pro-democracy march. It may be that she didn’t want to be overshadowed by Anson Chan. Or it may simply be that she had only returned to Hong Kong the two days previously.

Either candidate could, if she chose to run, make a realistic challenge to Donald Tsang. Anson has the popularity, but Ip might make more interesting race - a moderate and perhaps more Beijing-acceptable candidate who might garner the most support from surprising quarters.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

One Shrine or Another

One of the greatest honors that the United States can confer on any foreign leader is an invitation to address a joint session of Congress. All 535 Senators and Congressmen gather in the chamber of the House of Representatives to listen to the speech.

This honor is usually bestowed on America’s closest friends and allies. Winston Churchill set the pattern when he addressed Congress during World War II and won the members over by commenting that he might have made it to Congress himself if his father had been American and his mother British – instead of the other way around.

Only a couple weeks ago, that great and good friend of America, key ally in the war on terror President Vaira Vike-Freiberger of Latvia was invited to speak before Congress. He followed on the heels of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel and President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, the latter a sentimental favorite since Liberia was founded by the US and recently emerged from years of turmoil.

Asian leaders have also addressed joint sessions. They include president Kim Dae-jung of South Korea and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India (who was preceded by former prime minister Atal Bihart Vajpayee, who was preceded by his predecessor, prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao.)

There is one glaring omission in this parade: Japan. No Japanese prime minister or other leader has ever addressed a joint session of Congress. The perfect opportunity to rectify this would have been during his recent visit to Washington.

After all, who else among the world’s leaders has been such a consistent friend and ally of the US? During his five years in office, Koizumi has been almost slavishly pro-American. He bucked Japan’s pacifist traditions by sending Japanese troops to Iraq and helping supply coalition warships in the Gulf.

His tenure as premier has seen the Japanese-American defense alliance strengthened in many ways. His government has been an active participant in the Six-Party talks on Korean disarmament and has been helpful in Iran and many other international issues.

On top of that would have been the sheer symbolic value of a Japanese prime minister speaking from the podium, from the very spot, where President Franklin D Roosevelt had asked Congress to declare war in his famous “Day of Infamy” speech more than 60 years ago.

But Koizumi did not address Congress during this visit. Instead, the self-professed Elvis fan, who shares a birthday with the King of rock and roll, was invited to tour Graceland, the late entertainer’s shrine in Memphis..

The official position is that no invitation to address Congress was extended and none was requested by the Japanese government. But in reality, Tokyo was worried that the dispute over Koizumi’s visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which have brought Japan’s relations with her neighbors to new lows, might blot what they hoped would be the out-going premier’s “victory lap”.

Congressman Henry Hyde of Illinois had written House Speaker Dennis Hastert a letter asking that Koizumi reassure Congress that he would not pay another visit to the Yasukuni Shrine anytime soon after his speech. The next obvious time for such a visit would be August 15, the anniversary of Japan’s surrender. Koizumi is expected to pay his respects there once again before leaving office in September.

In his letter Hyde said he welcomed Koizumi speaking to Congress, but added that making the speech and then visiting the Yasukuni shrine so soon thereafter would be “an affront to the generation that remembers Pearl Harbor and dishonor the place where president Roosevelt made his ‘Day of Infamy’ speech.”

Hyde, a veteran of World War II, is an influential member. He is currently chairman of the House International Relations Committee. While his views may not be widely shared in Congress, the Japanese probably didn’t want to take chances of it developing into an issue and spoiling Koizumi’s upbeat and sentimental farewell from the world stage.

Americans have been curiously detached from the Yasukuni shrine issue. Hyde may be the only member of Congress, indeed the only member of the entire government, who takes the matter seriously and has expressed his disapproval.

This is strange since it makes it seem as if World War II in the Pacific was some kind of parochial dustup between Japan China and Korea, in which the US was simply a passive bystander. Yet Americans might be more concerned if they realized that their entire legacy in that epic conflict is under attack in Japan.

The Yasukuni Shrine is a memorial to the souls of more than two million Japanese soldiers from wars stretching back to the Meiji Era 1868-1912). It also honors 14 “Class A” war criminals (not to mention Class B, C and D. criminals) – 1,068 war criminals convicted in a series of post-war tribunals known as the Tokyo Trials.

The issue isn’t just the technical appropriateness of the Japanese prime minister paying respects to Japan’s fallen (which was recently declared constitutional by the country’s Supreme Court.). The larger issue is what might be called the “Yasukuni Mindset”, an entire catalogue of coalescing attitudes toward the war and its legacy.

Americans would be surprised if they were to visit the Yashukan War Memorial attached to the shrine to learn that:

1. Japan fought a purely defensive war forced on it by “Chinese terrorists” and a cabal of Europeans and Americans who connived to hold down a rising but resource-poor emerging power.

2. That Asian nations from India to Indonesia owe their independence from European colonialism to the thankless efforts of the Japanese.

3. That the Tokyo Trials were a sham. The 1,067 “Showa Martyrs” – from the reign name of the late Emperor Hirohito – were railroaded through victor’s justice.

These views are no longer the province of the right wing fringe, the kind of people who patrol the streets of Tokyo in sound trucks hectoring people through loudspeakers. They are becoming mainstream.

Koizumi’s presumed successor Shinzo Abe subscribes to most of them, even if he is guarded in proclaiming them.. He has questioned the validity of the Tokyo Trials and ducked questions as to whether he considers Japan to have been the aggressor in World War II. He was expected to continue visiting the Yasukuni shrine, although he has lately hedged on that issue too.

The visit to Graceland was a public relations triumph that perhaps gives an exaggerated impression of a surface commonality that tends to mask a sense of deep revanchism that lurks just below the surface in Japan’e elite.

Washington could easily end the Yasukuni visits by making an issue of them instead of ignoring them. In doing so it would go a long way toward defusing a growing animosity among America’s Asian friends that cannot be in the country’s best interest.

Congressman Hyde is retiring from Congress at the end of this term. He will be missed. He seems to be the only person willing to defend America’s legacy from the war with Japan.