Monday, September 24, 2007

Letter from Thailand (5)

The first anniversary of the Sept. 19 coup in Thailand passed soberly last week. There were no demonstrations either for or against the junta. Indeed, the nation’s attention was mostly focused on the tragic airline crash in Phuket the day before.

The Bangkok Post seemed to capture the mood: “Any fond memories about the Sept. 19 coup as manifested by the warm welcome and flowers given to the troops by many Bangkokians in the aftermath seems to have evaporated a year after the overthrow of the Thaksin Shinawatra regime.

“The truth is that a year later, there is nothing about the Council of National Security [the junta’s formal name] and the government it installed that is worth remembering with a sense of pride.”

That is a pretty devastating comment and fairly typical of the commentary that has appeared in the English-language press, and presumably in the vernacular press as well, evidenced by snippets of translations I’ve seen.

From my point of view the junta seems to have ruled with a pretty light hand. That the media – the printed media, anyway – can deliver such a harsh verdict is fairly telling. The junta has been stricter with broadcasters, especially foreign interviews with Thaksin.

After assuring itself there would be no-counter coup, the soldiers returned to their barracks and have not really been very visible since then, at least not to me. Of course, Hua Hin, where I live, is something of a backwater, even if the King does live here.

The only violence this past year was the mysterious string of bombings that occurred in Bangkok on New Year’s Eve that have never been satisfactorily explained. Nor have there been any arrests or trials.

Throughout the year the avuncular visage of interim Prime Minister Surayud Chulanot, a retired general, has been the public face of the, while the uniformed officers stayed mostly in the background.

His government gets mostly low marks for the way it has managed Thailand’s affairs during the past year. People are especially critical of its handling of the economy, including restrictions on foreign investment and a tilt toward the King’s sufficiency economy ideas.

Meanwhile, the peripatetic former prime minister roams the world from his exile home in Britain. He made some waves when he gave interviews in Singapore and Japan shortly after the coup, causing a minor diplomatic flap with Singapore whose government had received him formally.

But of late he seems to have settled into a rather aimless life of golf, shopping and soccer. He used some of his vast fortune to buy the Manchester City football team.

The government has pursued in a desultory fashion bringing corruption charges against him and his family; supposedly corruption was one of the reasons for the coup, but so far they seem only to have pinned a suspicious land deal on his wife.

From time to time there is talk of his returning, either voluntarily or under extradition. One might think that the recent actions against former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Shariff, not to mention the heavy sentence meted out to former Philippine President Joseph Estrada, might give him pause.

In May the Constitutional Tribunal dissolved Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party and banned more than 100 TRT politicians from running for office for five years. The remnants have regrouped under the People Power Party banner, led by former Bangkok governor Samak Sundaravig.

That the former premier still has political potency could be seen in the large negative vote for the new Thai constitution in his former stronghold of the northeast. Overall, the vote was an underwhelming 57% approval.

That paves the way for a new general election scheduled for December. The current betting is that the venerable Democrat Party and its allies will win enough votes to form a coalition government. But it is not impossible that the Thaksinites might also form a government which could make for an interesting 2008.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Short, Unhappy Life of Shinzo Abe

If he had waited just two more weeks to resign, Shinzo Abe could at least have rounded out a full year as Japan’s prime minister. Instead, he seems destined to join the rather large number of Japanese premiers who served a few months and were then forgotten.

Remember Tsutomu Hata? He served about three months as prime minister in 1994 before resigning. And who can forget Sosuke Uno another three-month wonder in 1989, resigning after his mistress denounced him. Going back in time how about Hitoshi Ashida, premier for seven months in 1948?

This seems to be undistinguished company for a man with such a distinguished political pedigree – he is the grandson of a prime minister and son of a foreign minister. Nor did he fulfill the promise contained in being the youngest, at 52, prime minister since the end of the war.

The immediate cause of Abe’s downfall was the July 29 election for half of the House of Councilors, the upper house of Japan’s bicameral parliament. The opposition Democratic Party of Japan trounced Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party to win control of the body.

Opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa, a tough and savvy ex-LDP pol had made it clear that he would not give Abe any slack and would use this majority to block any LDP legislation submitted to it, not just the controversial extension of authorization to support NATO operations in Afghanistan.

(Though often described as the “less-powerful” branch, Japan’s upper house is, in fact, co-equal regarding ordinary legislation. A bill defeated in the House of Councilors stays defeated bar a complicated override procedure.)

His purpose was clear enough. He wanted to force Abe to resign and call for elections to the House of Representatives, an election he had good reason to believe might favor his party given the government’s and Abe’s unpopularity. Abe abruptly resigned after Ozawa snubbed a meeting over the anti-terrorism law extension.

Ozawa got Abe’s resignation; it is unclear as of this writing whether he will get the election, although that is a distinct possibility if an impasse develops between the two chambers. The LDP will choose Abe’s replacement as LDP president and premier on Sept. 19.

Abe’s short tenure got off to a promising start. His early popularity ratings were in the 70s as he basked in the reflected public approval of his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, who chose not to seek re-election.

Just two weeks after taking power, he visited China and South Korea to repair strained relations with Beijing and Seoul, which were perhaps main negative legacy of Koizumi’s government.

And his administration was not without important accomplishments. He passed a Revised Basic Education Law aimed at encouraging patriotism in the schools. He elevated the defense agency to the level of a full-fledged cabinet ministry.

He passed the necessary enabling legislation to allow Japan to revise its constitution, although he was never able to follow through on his desire to amend the document to, among other things, water-down its pacifistic provisions.

On a trip to Europe he became the first Japanese premier to visit NATO headquarters and the first to visit Japanese troops in the field, when he stopped at the air self-defense forces base in Kuwait. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to Japan in April was the fruit of his approaches to China.

But from the very beginning it seemed like his government was beset with gaffes, leaving the impression that he could not control his cabinet. First his health minister talked about women as “baby-making machines”. Then his defense minister said he felt the US invasion of Iraq was a mistake.

Abe gave them a talking-to, but did not fire them. Almost immediately, his headstrong foreign minister Taro Aso, said similar things about the US, Japan’s main ally. Other scandals followed. In all, Abe lost five cabinet ministers for public gaffes or misappropriation of funds, including one who committed suicide.

The parade of scandals continued even after the disastrous July 29 election when on September 3, agriculture minister Takehiko Endo resigned after being accused of misusing farm subsidies and Yukiko Sakamoto, vice foreign minister, resigned over another money scandal.

But his most curious action was to plunge headlong into the sensitive issue of forced prostitution during World War II. Of course, Abe’s conservative views on Japan’s wartime history are well-known. But he had managed to finesse the question of visiting the Yasukuni Shrine in the lead up to his election and thereafter. So why reopen old wounds about the “comfort women”?

After all, the premier’s remarks that he didn’t think that the women had been coerced by the Imperial Army to become soldiers’ sex slaves came just as Japanese representatives were sitting down with North Korean negotiators in Hanoi. (The meeting broke up quickly – no reason why, maybe the comfort women remarks?)

The issue on the table was the North’s abduction of Japan’s nationals in the 1970s and 1980s. But if Tokyo couldn’t come clean about the comfort women – an issue that particularly animates Koreans (North and South) - why should Pyongyang come clean about the abductees?

Then in another bizarre move just last week, Abe, who had been resisting calls for his resignation for weeks following the election, suddenly threatened to resign if the Diet did not extend the authorization to support anti-terrorism operations in Afghanistan, authorization that expires Nov. 1.

This involves the deployment of a Maritime Self-Defense Force (navy) oiler in the Indian Ocean to refuel NATO and other coalition ships patrolling off the coast of Pakistan and Iran. The vessel doesn’t contribute all that much and could easily be replaced by ships from other navies, but it has high symbolic value as supporting the American alliance.

The opposition Democratic Party opposes extension of the law and views the use of Japanese naval vessels to support operations in the Gulf as unconstitutional.

It is early to predict Abe’s replacement. The obvious front-runner would be former foreign minister Taro Aso, who was moved to the No. 2 rank in the LDP in last month’s cabinet reshuffle and who had stood against Abe in the premier election last year.

But Aso is possibly even more of a conservative and nationalist than Abe. And considering that the public gave his party a severe rebuke this summer for elevating conservative obsessions, such as reviving the constitution, over bread and butter issues, one might think he isn’t the right man to come up against the wily Ozawa in the next election.


Friday, September 07, 2007

War with Iran? Relax

To read many of the Washington pundits these days you would think that a massive attack on Iran is imminent. The White House, it is said, is in the middle of laying the PR groundwork for an attack that has already been decided. I don’t believe it.

When I was in air force intelligence years ago, I learned an axiom that I think is valid today: no country goes to war from a standing start. In other words there are many tell-tale signs of preparation that are hard to conceal.

I remember spending a cold couple weeks at Osan AFB, South Korea, back in the late 1960s because the North Korean Air Force decided to stop flying. This is known as a “stand down” and is one indicator of a pending attack (the idea is that if you’re planning an attack you want your force to be 100 percent operational.)

In the lead up to both the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, the signs of a pending attack were obvious. And while the battle plan may have been a secret, there was no effort to conceal the buildup. The same could have been said of the 1944 Normandy invasion.

Strategic bombers of the US Air Force moved to the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, in striking distance of Iraq. Four aircraft carriers moved into position in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, tanks were loaded on railroad cars and trucked to German ports for shipment to Saudi Arabia.

When the US moved armored divisions from Europe to Saudi Arabia, it was clear that Washington was not just planning defensive moves but would push the Iraqis out of Kuwait. Much the same can be said of the lead up to the Iraq invasion too.

But is there anything close to this happening now? I suppose we could all be surprised to wake up and learn that a couple submarines have popped up in the Persian Gulf and let loose a few cruise missiles at some Iranian targets, perhaps accompanied by some air strikes.

But from what I read, the Bush administration has something much more elaborate in mind. The Times of London reports that the US envisions a heavy bombing campaign against more than 1,000 targets in Iran.

If this is the case, there must be some evidence of preparation. The US Navy has a dozen aircraft carriers. Where are they? (Hint: two are in the Bay of Bengal exercising with the Indian Navy!) One would think that a campaign of this magnitude would require at least four to six carriers positioned within striking distance.

Have any leaves been cancelled? Have orders gone out to replenish stocks of precision bombs depleted through four years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan? Are any strategic bombers being moved closer to Iran? Are any minesweepers being deployed to keep Persian Gulf sealanes clear?

Would we seriously contemplate war with Iran with our own troops heavily concentrated in central Iraq with virtually nothing between them and their supply base in Kuwait but 5,000 British troops hunkered down in Basra Airport?

The answers to such questions would not be found in Washington. They would be found in places like Tacoma, Wash., Johnson County, Missouri, Jacksonville, Fla. Fort Cambell, Ky. Just to name a few. How many of the pundits so confident that war is about to have nosed around those places?

The answer would undoubtedly be not many. But I’d bet that Iranian intelligence services are keeping close watch on such places. And they message they may be sending back to Tehran is this: relax.