Friday, November 17, 2006

Letter from Thailand (3)

Or how I learned to stop worrying and love martial law

HUA HIN, Thailand. -- My wife answered the telephone at 5 a.m. The caller was one of her friends in Japan, which is two hours ahead of here. She had just read the news in the Asahi Shimbun.

“There’s been a coup d’etat!” she said.

“Where,” I answered stupidly.

“Here, in Thailand.”

We turned on the TV, but all of the Thai channels were showing nothing except file footage of the King. Finally, we found an Australian channel that informed us that the army had seized power in Bangkok and ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

They showed a lot of pictures of soldiers standing in the rain in front of their tanks, smiling at onlookers. Later, we’re told the soldiers were ordered to smile. Well, this is the Land of Smiles.

I don’t live in the capital. I had come to Thailand five months previously to work for Asia Times Online, an online news magazine which has its main office in this seaside resort town about 200 km south of the capital.

There were few signs of the coup in Hua Hin that day, except that the post office was closed. Two days later I took the van to Bangkok to renew my work permit, and we ran into a major military roadblock half way there.

Most of the pictures of the coup showed friendly soldiers in berets posing pleasantly with civilians and their children. It reminded me of the People Power Revolt in the Philippines in 1986 that overthrew Ferdinand Marcos.

That image was accentuated by the yellow ribbons that the soldiers tied around their arms and the barrels of their guns. Yellow was the color of Corazon Aquino; here it is a sign of loyalty to the King.

But the soldiers we encountered on the way to Bangkok were dressed for business: helmets, flak vests, a humvee with a soldier manning the machine gun on top. I don’t mean to say they were intimidating.

The officer in charge gave our van a look over and then waved us on with a jaunty salute. Evidently they were looking for vehicles with suspiciously large numbers of young men being smuggled into the city to stage a counter-coup.

The next day my wife had to make a “Ranong run” to renew her tourist visa. It is something that expats living in Hua Hin do. Ranong is a village on the border with Myanmar about 500 km south of here. People take a ferry across the bay to the very southern tip of Myanmar, turn around and re-enter Thailand with a fresh stamp in their passport.

But when she got there after a grueling five hour van ride, she found that Myanmar had, in the interval, closed the border. Then it was another five hour-trip back empty handed.

So now we live under martial law, although you would scarcely notice it. The soldiers have returned to the barracks, a retired general serves as prime minister of a caretaker government. Life goes on.

There seems little or no censorship, as far as I can tell. We don’t submit our copy to the military for approval. Strangely enough we were the beneficiaries of the coup. That’s because Asia Times Online is a small cog in the empire of Thai media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul.

Sondhi was in a kind of death struggle with the prime minister. Earlier this year, if you looked hard enough in the back pages of the newspaper, you might have seen small stories with headlines like: 200,000 DEMONSTRATE IN BANGKOK against the prime minister..

You could be sure that Sondhi was cheering them on, not just through his own vernacular news organs and talk show but in person. You could say that the prime minister was not amused.

Of course, the government had plenty of levers to make Sondhi – and our – lives miserable. Sondhi was, of course, hit with numerous lawsuits and charges of lese majeste (insulting the King, a serious offense here).

At the same time, Thaksin and his friends began to squeeze his sources of credit and income, some of which came from outside the country and thus under direct government scrutiny.. It was as if somebody had put their big heavy foot down on the money hose.

For us pay day came and payday went with nothing to show in our bank accounts. After two weeks we became restive, not knowing what exactly was going on – Hua Hin can be a little remote in that respect – or if we would ever get paid.

In September Sondhi was forced to close another English-language publication called ThaiDay, which appeared as a supplement with the International Herald Tribune.. Sondhi told one website he was afraid that the New York Times, which owns the IHT, would face trouble if he were charged with treason.

We at Asiatimes Online wondered whether we would be the next victim. A couple members of our small staff quit and looked for work elsewhere.

Then came the coup. Thaksin was deposed and exiled in London. Suddenly our salaries were posted promptly on payday. It was as if somebody had lifted its foot from the money hose.

So here we are today, publishing as normal, getting paid as normal. It is a strange feeling being caught up like this in a Thai political struggle. But I suppose that if you must to be caught up in a coup e’tat, it’s better to be on the winning side.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Asia Needs a Rethink Too

Last Tuesday, November 7, was a memorable day. No, I’m not talking about the mid-term election in the US. It just happened that the Chinese picked that day to announce another record trade surplus ($23.4 billion) and that its foreign currency reserves had passed the trillion dollar mark.

About 70% to 80%, or to put it another way between $700 billion and $800 billion of those reserves are denominated in US dollars. A large chunk - $340 billion – are in US Treasury bonds. Surely, no country has ever controlled such a large portion of another country’s wealth.

The election and especially the firing of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his replacement with Robert Gates are certain to prompt some soul-searching about Iraq. It should also prompt some re-thinking about Asia too. A good place to start is North Korea.

No other part of the administration’s Asia policy has been so infected by ideology, by the attitude that if Bill Clinton did it, it must be wrong, than North Korea. A few years ago President George W Bush famously linked North Korea with Iraq and Iran as the “axis of evil”.

The administration’s approach to North Korea has from the beginning marked by a kind of Sunday School view of the world. Dear Leader Kim Jong-il is evil; he wants something; therefore it must be denied him. Consequently nothing much has been accomplished in the past six years.

However, the stage is set for some progress, if the administration grabs the nettle. Pyongyang has made its demonstrations (mostly demonstrating weakness – their long-range missile and atomic bomb both fizzled.)

But the return to the six-party talks won’t accomplish anything unless the American negotiators are permitted to talk directly with their North Korean counterparts. I suspect that the US representatives will be given that latitude.

After all, “talk” is going to be the watch word in international affairs over the next few months, talk with the insurgents in Iraq, talk with Syria, talk with Iran and talk with North Korea.

The other major policy issue will, of course, be that giant elephant in the room, China. The administration’s policy toward China has, unlike North Korea, moved along mainly non-ideological paths (despite the occasional neo-con outburst about the “China threat.”)

Nevertheless the growing trade deficit and American dependence on China financing its debts is getting too worrisome to ignore. And if Bush does ignore them, you can be sure that many of the new Democrats elected to Congress last week are ready to keep his feet to the fire.

Within days of the election, the governor of China’s central bank was talking vaguely of having a “clear plan for currency reserve diversification,” using the dreaded word “diversification”, meaning selling big chunks of dollars, that sends chills up the spines of finance ministers.

The remarks made little impact on the American conscience (except in currency markets, where the dollar fell) but someday China may do more than just make hints. Other Asian nations with huge dollars holdings may follow setting the stage for a major recession in the US.

For the most part, American policy toward the rest of Asia has been characterized mainly by neglect, allowing China to move in and cement stronger trade and strategic relations with Southeast Asia.

President Bush has a chance to give this policy a fresh turn this week when he attends the annual meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, held this year in Hanoi.

He would be wise to play down his favorite topic – terrorism. Most Southeast Asian nations are sick and tired of being lectured on this subject, to the exclusion of all else, whenever Bush attends and Asian summit. And, in fact, they are doing pretty well in combating terrorism un their countries, thank you very much.

If he gets on this subject, most of the Asian leaders will politely tune out, waiting for the man to turn to another subject, and counting the minutes when they can button-hold the Chinese leaders to talk about trade and investment.

Monday, November 06, 2006

A Cautionary Tale (2)

Editor’s Note: This article in a different form was first published a years ago. It is being reprinted since it seems even more pertinent.

Malaysia’s Internal Security Act (ISA) was enacted in 1960 during the “Emergency,” the communist insurgency that engulfed the newly independent country in the 1950s and 1960s. That rebellion petered out long ago, but the law is still on the books, proof that “emergency” measures tend to linger long after the emergency has passed because they are useful to the authorities.

Originally aimed at communist insurgents, the Internal Security Act, which provides for unlimited detention without trial, has been used against all kinds of “security” threats, even common criminals, like forgers, and against political activists, student leaders, union bosses and journalists, anyone who challenges authority

Malaysia’s experience is a cautionary tale for the U.S., since, in the wake of the terrorist attack on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. has been moving stealthily toward its own version of detention without trial, an internal security act in everything but name.

Last month Congress passed and the president signed the Military Commissions Act. It allows unlimited detention without trial to anyone, foreigner or U.S. citizen, whom the president declares to be an enemy combatant.

Since 1960 more than 3,500 Malaysians have been held under the law that permits detention for up to two years without trial and allows the Home Minister to renew the detention order indefinitely. One detainee, Loh Meng Liong, was held for 16 years before he was freed in 1982. There is no maximum limit.

The Malaysian experience also demonstrates that torture and unlimited detention go hand in hand. Former ISA detainee Tian Chua, who is now information chief for the opposition New Justice Party, recalled at a recent gathering of former detainees, “We were routinely tortured during interrogations, stripped naked, beaten with broomsticks and threatened with rape.”

Former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was detained under the ISA as late as 1998 for opposing Mahathir Mohamad. He was later tried in court, convicted of sodomy and corruption and served six years in jail until his released last year. Ironically, he had been detained under the ISA as a young politician, protesting treatment of peasants.

The September 11 attacks on the U.S. gave the ISA a fresh lease on life since it provided former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad justification for more arrests. About 100 members of the banned Jemaah Islamiah organization, which is believe to have inspired, if not directed the October, 2002, Bali bombings, were detained under the act.

Washington used to regularly condemn Malaysia’s (and Singapore’s) use of the unlimited detention as a violation of human rights. One doesn’t hear Washington complaining so much these days. Wonder why. Shortly after the terror attacks, President George W. Bush thanked Mahathir for Malaysia’s efforts against terrorism. .

Ironically, this month the government of communist Vietnam – let’s repeat that, communist Vietnam – said it had decided to repeal “administrative detention decree 31/CP” which allows for detention without trial for up to two years in the name of national security.

Hanoi evidently felt a need to burnish its human rights credentials because it is hosting the annual meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. President George W Bush is attending. The irony would border on the absurd if Bush were to praise Vietnam for abolishing something akin to what he just signed into law.

Malaysia is not Vietnam. It is a functioning democracy, which is, in many ways, a model for a moderate Muslim-majority state. We should be so lucky if Iraq turned out to be half as stable, prosperous and democratic as Malaysia is today. That’s why Malaysia’s experience is pertinent to the U.S. today.