Sunday, August 31, 2008

To the Barricades!

The world, that part of it at least that pays attention to anything happening in Southeast Asia, has been treated to an arresting sight for the past week: The Bangkok mob storming the barricades to demand . . . an end to democracy in Thailand.

Two decades ago last month the people in neighboring Myanmar (Burma) by the tens of thousands went to the barricades in Yangon, chanting, “we want democracy.” An estimated 3,000 of the protestors were killed by the army and police.

In 1986 people in the Philippines filled the streets to topple the longstanding dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos and re-establish democracy in what came to be known as the People Power movement. In 2003 half a million people in Hong Kong marched to protest the government taking away their liberties.

The mob that stormed the national television station, blocked runways at the tourist resort of Phuket and has been occupying Government House now for about a week have a different objective. They want to oust a popularly and fairly elected government because, as one of their leaders put it, in a democracy it is “too easy to manipulate poor people.”

Last December Thai people went to the polls and convincingly elected a government headed by the People’s Power Party (PPP) and installed as prime minister one Samak Sundaravej. That this was a manifestly fair election can be assumed from the fact that the Thai army organized the vote and desperately wanted the PPP to lose and because losers never complained that the election was rigged.

No, the problem with last December’s election is that the wrong people won. The leaders of the vastly misnamed People’s Alliance for Democracy, leading the demonstrations in Bangkok, basically say: “We know you voted this government in with a landslide only a few months ago, but you voted the wrong way and it is our duty to reverse that outcome!”

The Bangkok elite don’t like Prime Minister Samak. There is, in fact, much to dislike about him. He has been implicated in bloody crackdowns in the past and often makes embarrassingly boorish comments. But he has done nothing recently that would justify rebellion, and, in fact, he has acted with considerable restraint during the past week as demonstrators occupied his own office-residence, forcing him to govern from an outpost.

The opposition accuses Prime Minister Samak of being just a surrogate for their longtime bête noire, the former premier Thaksin Shinawatra. That may in fact be true, as the PPP is made up of remnants of Thaksin’s followers (his party having been outlawed). It is also irrelevant. What the demonstrators can’t accept it that, given a free choice, Thai people have shown over and over that they want Thaksin.

When the People’s Alliance for Democracy began its campaign to oust then prime minister Thaksin three years ago, it focused on his alleged corruption. But now he has gone into what appears to be permanent exile, they focus their ire the system, namely universal suffrage that brought him and his followers into power.

They make no secret any more that the vote must be taken out of the hands of the unwashed and affairs of state left to the educated elite of Bangkok. One of the leaders, media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul, now agitates against “Western-style” democracy arguing that only the elite should be allowed the vote.

One of their proposals is that just 30 percent of parliament should be filled through direct elections and the remaining 70 percent appointed or chosen through some vague “new style of elections” based on membership in “professions”. In other words, ten million farmers might have one representative in parliament, while a thousand bankers would have their own representative.

The only other jurisdiction in Asia (or the world for that matter) with that kind of system is Hong Kong, where half of the Legislative Council is chosen through small-member functional constituencies along those lines, and people there have been agitating to end that system for years without success.

Thaksin’s real crime in their minds was not allegations of corruption, which they have had a hard time making stick, but his support for populist programs such as easier credit for farmers and an embryonic form of national health care. Such programs have made him a hero to many Thais, especially in the impoverished Northeast.

In fact, the attitude that people are “not ready” for democracy is still fairly common throughout Asia. Hong Kong businessmen make no secret that they oppose permitting full democracy in the former British colony, now part of China, for fear that the masses will tax them to pay for increased social services. They are happy to cooperate with the communist regime to suppress any advances towards fuller democracy

For the moment, the army seems set against staging another coup d’etat, despite the entreaties of the Bangkok mob. The generals held power a year and a half after their September, 2006, coup to oust Thaksin, but they did such a poor job of running the country that they blackened the name of military government.

Some look to Thailand’s revered 80-year-old monarch and final arbiter of Thai politics, King Bhumibol to intervene to solve the impasse, as he has done in the past. Premier Samak had an audience with the King on Sunday but so far he has remained silent, and there is no certainty the country can count of help from that quarter.

One of the ironies is that President George W. Bush chose Bangkok as the place to give a speech on human rights just prior to going to Beijing to attend the opening of the Olympic Games last month and to call for democracy and freedom in Myanmar. It would seem that Thailand is the country swimming against the rising tide of democracy in Asia.

Monday, August 25, 2008

China's Coming Out Party

In the lead up to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, there was a lot of loose talk comparing the Games to those held in Berlin in 1936. That comparison never really gained much traction, and it all but disappeared with the successful conclusion of the games.

There was never a liklihood that China’s rulers would try to turn the Games into showcase communism as an ideology. That doesn’t mean that holding the 2008 Games in Beijing was not highly symbolic in a way that holding the Games in some of the more recent venues such Sydney or Athens was not.

The more obvious comparison is not Berlin 1936 but Tokyo 1964. The Beijing Games have been called many times as China’s coming out party, marking, in a dramatic way, not just the country’s rise from poverty to prosperity but also its entry in good standing into the community of nations.

In much the same way the 1964 Tokyo Games, the first ever held in Asia or, for that matter, any non-Western country heralded its rise from the disaster of World War II and its acceptance by the rest of the world as a normal, increasingly prosperous nation.

Ironically, Tokyo had originally won the games for 1940 but lost them because of Japan’s aggression in China. Of course, the Games were later suspended entirely for the duration of the war. Beijing first bid for the 2000 event in 1993 but lost out to Sydney. The Tiananmen massacre of 1989 was too fresh in people’s minds to allow Beijing to host the games.

The 2008 Beijing Games were as distant in time from the Tiananmen Incident – 19 years – as the 1964 Games were from Japan’s surrender in World War II. Yoshinori Sakai, born August 6, 1945, in Hiroshima the day the atomic bomb exploded, lit the Olympic torch in Tokyo, provided a symbol of a phoenix rising from the ashes of defeat if there ever was one.

Losing its first bid was a major disappointment, but China was lucky since the ensuing eight years gave the country a breathing room to expand its economy and, more importantly, to further its involvement in the international community. It is also a question whether the China of 2000 could have afforded to put on such a spectacular opening ceremony and build some of the more expensive athletic venues.

Both countries were on the verge of prosperity when they hosted the Games. At the time of the Tokyo Olympics, Japan’s per capita gross domestic product (GDP) was around $3,300 at adjusted current values. China’s equivalent figure for last year was $2,460. In the year 2000, it was less than $1,000 per capita. China’s economic circumstances today are similar to those Japan experienced in the 1960s.

By 1964 Japan’s economy had progressed to the point where it was embroiled in trade disputes with the U.S. (over textiles), just as China is embroiled in disputes over the value of its currency. In Japan individuals were becoming car owners for the first time, just as they are in China today. Two years after the games in 1966 Toyota Motor Co would roll out its popular people’s car the Toyota Corolla.

Much ink has been spilled worrying about of Beijing’s polluted air quality, and the effect it would have on the health of the competitors. In fact, the air was unusually clean because the authorities ordered many smoke belching factories to shut down for the duration and imposed traffic restrictions.

Yet it is forgotten how polluted Japan’s air was back in 1964. This was a time when the comedian Bob Hope, entertaining U.S. troops based near Tokyo, could joke that you could earn a Purple Heart (America’s award for wounds in battle) just for breathing. Mercury poisoning in Minamata Bay, one of the century’s worst environmental disasters, was known in 1964 but would not be officially acknowledged until 1968.

China spent lavishly on many modern venues, such as the spectacular stadium known as the “Bird Cage” that will undoubtedly serve the public for decades to come. Nearly 50 years after the 1964 Games, Japanese still enjoy many of the venues that were built for the games. These include the National Gymnasium and Tokyo Budokan, originally constructed to hold judo matches and today an important concert venue.

This year China blew everyone away with its tally of gold medals. Japan was not quite so dominant in 1964, but it still made a respectable showing, earning 29 medals, including 16 gold. It was helped along in the medal count by the introduction of two new Olympic sports, judo and volley ball, that are popular in Japan. The country is still a powerhouse in judo.

Those 29 medals were enough to place Japan third in the medal count in 1964, behind the U.S. and the Soviet Union. This year Japan won almost as many medals – 25, including nine gold – yet that was only good enough to place 11th in the world standings.

Perhaps, like China, it needs the stimulus that comes from hosting the games. If so, it may have a chance to find out, since Tokyo is making a bid to host the 2016 Games, which would make it the first Asian city to host the Games more than once.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Georgia and Taiwan

It is fascinating, and instructive, to compare the U.S. actions, responses and machinations in Georgia with Taiwan. Both are relatively small countries, American clients, located next door to a powerful neighbor that Washington considers a rival.

Both Georgia and Taiwan were once part of those neighboring states. Georgia was absorbed into the Soviet Union a few years after the 1917 revolution; Taiwan was a part of the Republic of China for four years after the end of World War II, until the Kuomintang was exiled there after losing the Chinese Civil War.

Mainland China still considers Taiwan an integral part of its national territory. To my knowledge, Russia does not make similar claims to Georgia as a whole, although it clearly does not recognize the same boundaries that the rest of the world also recognizes.

Both countries are democracies, or so I assume. Certainly, Taiwan’s democracy is well established, as it has, with last March’s presidential election, made two peaceful changes of power between the Kuomintang and its rival the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and now back to the Kuomintang.

Beijing despised former Taiwan president Chen Siu-bian and his predecessor Lee Teng-hui, just as Moscow obviously hates Georgia’s current president Mikhiel Saaskashvili, not necessarily because they were popularly elected but because they were, in Taiwan’s case anti-China, and in Georgia’s case anti-Russia.

Washington has encouraged Georgia’s ambition to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) despite Moscow’s determined opposition. Yet it has discouraged Taiwan’s desire to join the United Nations under the name Taiwan or the Republic of China.

The parallels could go on except in one important respect – Washington’s attitude. While the U.S. has seemingly encouraged and perhaps even egged Georgia on, it has, under President George W Bush, discouraged any action by Taiwan that might lead to a confrontation with China.

During most of Bush’s years in office, Taiwan was led by President Chen Sui-bian of the DPP, which is formally committed to de jure independence from China. Chen has never gone that far but has consistently irritated both Washington and Beijing with proposals for referenda on Taiwan’s formal relationship with the mainland and other provocations.

When Bush came into office nearly eight years ago, he proclaimed that the U.S. would “do whatever it takes” to preserve Taiwan’s de facto independence from China, which was consistent with conservative and Republican Party thinking for decades. His administration quickly authorized sales of modern submarines, anti-missile batteries and patrol planes worth about $18 billion.

But the administration soon soured on Chen as Taipei’s lowered its defense spending in the face of China’s rising expenditures on modern armaments. Repeatedly, the Taiwan Legislature refused to appropriate the funds necessary to purchase the authorized armaments, even as the price was steadily lowered.

Moreover, the administration often felt compelled to rein in Taiwan’s president from making any moves toward declaring de jure independence or other provocative actions such as holding a referendum to change the regime’s official name from the Republic of China to Taiwan, often using blunt language. That stands in marked contrast to the way Washington supposedly led Georgia’s president to believe that the U.S. would come to its defense no matter what it did.

This was true even though Taiwan is far more defensible than Georgia. It is separated from the mainland by 90 miles of the Strait of Taiwan; it has much larger and more armed forces despite years of declining defense expenditures, and it is readily accessible to an American show of force or outright protection from naval bases nearby.

That was clear at the last “crisis” in the Strait in 1994 when China aimed ballistic missile just off Taiwan’s northern shore in “exercises” designed to intimidate Taiwanese from voting for the pro-independence party. Since then Beijing has learned that a policy of reconciliation pays more benefits than intimidation across the Strait.

Both Washington and Beijing welcomed the election of Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang Party in March’s presidential polls, since the party is far less confrontational. That could be seen in the hospitality extended Ma in Los Angeles recently as he stopped over on the way to Paraguay to attend that country’s presidential inauguration (Paraguay is one of about two dozen countries that have formal relations with Taiwan). The administration let Chen stay cooped up in his aircraft on the tarmac in Alaska.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Bush Defuses Island Row

It was a problem that President George W. Bush could easily have done without as he prepared to leave for South Korea, the first stop on his Olympic Games lap through Asia. But unlike some of the other issues that strain South Korean-US relations, such as the free-trade agreement, American beef imports and North Korea strategy, it was easily resolved – for the moment.

Two weeks before his departure for Asia in a trip that will take him to Thailand as well as Beijing to attend the opening days of the 2008 Olympic Games, an obscure US government agency charged with establishing international geographic names said the Dokdo islands were not South Korean territory.

Rather, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN) revised its description to say they were of “undesignated sovereignty.” Adding insult to injury, from Seoul’s point of view, it placed the Japanese designation of the islands, Takeshima, ahead of the Korean version, Dokdo as alternate names.

The US Board on Geographic Names is a federal body created in 1890 to maintain uniform geographic name usage throughout the federal government. Its chairman, Gregory W. Boughton, works for the Central Intelligence Agency. Foreign names are mainly addressed by experts from the CIA and the State Department.

The BGN uses the name Liancourt Rocks to designate the outcroppings rather than either of the Korean or Japanese names. It refers to a French ship, Le Liancourt, which is said to have carried the first Europeans to sight the rocks in the mid-nineteenth century. The recent change in sovereignty designation did not change that nomenclature, but the action nevertheless set off a storm in South Korea.

The Dokdo are located in the Sea of Japan, about 200 kilometers off the western side of Honshu, Japan’s main island. The total surface area of the group (there are two main rocks) is about 200,000 sq meters. The rocks are basically uninhabitable, but South Korea maintains a small presence to underscore its claim to sovereignty.

South Korea strongly asserted its claim beginning in 1952, when then President Syngman Rhee unilaterally extended what is called the Syngman Rhee Line into the waters between Japan and Korea, placing the disputed islands inside the claimed territory.

Anytime Japan makes a move to assert its own counter claim to the islands is sure to raise nationalist hackles, expose barely suppressed anti-Japanese feelings and lead to the recalling of ambassadors. The latest incident arose only a few weeks ago after Japan’s education ministry issued new guidelines for junior high school students emphasizing the teaching that that the Korean-controlled islands were “an integral part of Japan.”

That action prompted Seoul to recall its ambassador to Japan, Kwon Chul Hyun, back for consultations in mid-July, He returned to Tokyo Aug. 5.

The proximity of the ministry’s actions and that of the geographic board led some in Korea to suspect collusion, although there is no evidence that the Japanese had tried to influence the board’s decision. Many were also stunned that a great power, like the U.S., friend and ally of South Korea, was dropping its studied neutrality.

“[The board’s] move is nothing short of backing the Japanese invasion of the Korean Peninsula,” thundered the Dong A Ilbo newspaper in an editorial.

A State Department spokesman insisted that it was all a mistake, an action of technicians who were not fully aware of the political implications. Spokesman Gonzalo Galegos insisted that, “The U.S. position for decades has been not to take a position regarding sovereignty of the islands in questions. We’d welcome any outcome agreed by both Korea and Japan.”

President Bush quickly ordered the board to reverse the decision. “The data base will be restored where it was seven days ago,” Bush told reporters for South Korean, Chinese and Thai newspapers at a pre-trip interview on July 29. Dennis Wilder, head of Asian Affairs for the National Security Council, said he regretted any perception of a change in policy. “I feel like we just escaped from hell,” said one unidentified official from the South Korean foreign Ministry.

While the Koreans were pleased with the president’s swift action, they were put on notice that what was once an obscure dispute between Japan and Korea could draw in other nations. The foreign ministry has set up what it calls the Dokdo Task Force to keep track of any other name changes, and Prime Minister Han Seung Soo visited the island on July 29, the first Korean prime minister to set foot on the islands.

The last time the Dokdo/Takeshima issue flared up was three years ago when the Shimane prefectural assembly, representing the province closest to Dokdo, established “Takeshima Day” to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Tokyo’s formal annexation of the rocks (and assigning them to Shimane’s jurisdiction).

The date is pregnant in that it commemorates the year 1905 when, in the aftermath of the Russo-Japanese War, Tokyo began to assert sovereignty over all of Korea, which culminated in the formal annexation and colonization in 1910. Thus the island issue is inevitably wrapped up in Korean minds with a dark time in its history.

The Koreans trace their claim the islands considerably farther back in history. In the Korean view, King Jijeung incorporated the islets into the Shilla Kingdom in the year 512, meaning they have been a part of Korea for some 1,500 years.

The surrounding waters are said to be teeming with fish, shell fish and edible seaweed. Exploitation of these and other resources are governed by a 1999 fishing treaty between the two countries, which set up a temporary method of operation since the question of defining economic zones cannot be completed while the sovereignty issues are unresolved. But whenever the issue flares, there is some dark talk by Koreans of abrogating the treaty to punish Japan.

For his part, President Bush neatly defused a seemingly trivial but still emotionally evocative issue before he landed in Seoul. If only the other contentious issues with South Korea, such as the free trade agreement, beef exports, troop alignment and strategy for North Korea were that easy.