Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A Chinese Tsunami

The recent general election in Malaysia left behind a bitter legacy of political division, threats of lawsuits, growing demonstrations and arrests under the Sedition Act. In a larger sense, however, it is another sign that the old political order in Malaysia, and to a certain extent in neighboring Singapore as well, is breaking down.

Ever since Malaysia won independence in 1957, it has been governed by a coalition – the National Front or Barisan Nasional (BN) made up of as many as a dozen parties, representing the ethnic and racial makeup of this diverse and multicultural country.
The quintessential representative of the old order was Mahathir Mohamad, who served 22 years (1981 to 2003 as prime minister, who spoke at the club shortly after the May 5 general election and defended the coalition system as a means of apportioning the power and wealth of the country among its diverse groups.

After each general election the Barisan distributed cabinet posts to the leaders of the various partners, assuring that some posts went to ethnic Chinese, ethnic Indians and representatives of aboriginal and indigenous peoples in the states of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo.
Mostly these were second and third-tier portfolios. The plum jobs, such as defense, foreign affairs, finance, and of course the prime minister’s post itself went to the United Malays National Organization  (UMNO) that represented, in this racial scheme, the Malays, who make up about 60 percent of the population.

This year for the first time no ethnic Chinese will be serving in the cabinet. Chinese voters deserted the main Chinese coalition parties in droves to vote for the opposition coalition under the leadership of Anwar Ibrahim, leaving hardly anyone left to take up the jobs. Prime Minister Najib Razak called it a “Chinese tsunami”. Their place was taken by representatives from East Malaysia.
Increasingly, the BN is dependent on East Malaysian parties to maintain a majority. The 47 seats that the Barisan won in Sabah and Sarawak saved Najib’s bacon. Without them he might have fallen short of the majority needed to form a government under Malaysia’s Westminster style of government.

But it is an unstable base, as it depends on continued malapportionment. For example, the capital Kuala Lumpur with a population of 7 million has 11 seats, while Sabah with 3.5 million people sends 25 members to parliament. That kind of imbalance cannot persist in a democratic country especially as more young people drawn to the under-represented areas and see themselves left out.
In his FCCJ talk, Mahathir lamented that Malaysia is still a divided country, without seeming to acknowledge that the system of race-based politics might itself have contributed to the divisions. The Chinese, who make up a quarter of the population refuse to assimilate, unlike ethnic Chinese in Indonesia or Thailand, he said.

He might have noted that for years under the Suharto regime in Indonesia suppressed outward manifestations of ethnicity, to the point of banning celebrations of Chinese New year. At my old magazine, Asiaweek, we sometime debated using a picture depicting Chinese characters lest the issue be banned in Indonesia.
In neighboring Singapore the old order, built around a monopoly of power for the governing Peoples’ Action Party, is slowly crumbling too. In the 2011 general election the PAP garnered about 60 percent of the vote, better perhaps than the Barisan’s 47 percent this year but still the lowest percentage since independence.

For the first time, the opposition captured a Group Representative Constituency, a unique Singaporean form of electoral machinery whereby five candidates run as a slate. They were designed ostensibly to ensure racial balance as at least one member had to come from the Malay, Indian or another minority community.
That is the rationale, anyway. Many believe it was meant to disable the opposition by making it harder to recruit enough candidates and pay their deposits while at the same time providing electoral refuge for weaker PAP candidates who might lose in face-to-face encounters.

Overnight the opposition tripled its numbers in parliament. Capturing the Aljuniad GRC was like climbing Mount Everest. It will be easier next time. The opposition in Singapore, such as it was, once was made up of gadflies and loners. But a new breed of highly educated Singaporeans is aspiring to lead, exemplified by the new opposition MP Chen Shaw Mao, a former Rhodes Scholar.
Malaysia’s prime minister returns to office considerably weakened. His coalition performed even worse than in 2008 under his predecessor, Abdullah Badawi, who resigned to take blame for the poor showing. Najib faces threat of coalition defections and the possibility, though remote, that some of his members may be disqualified through successful challenges of based on voter fraud.

He is fighting back in part by wielding the Sedition Act against demonstrators and by packing the cabinet with Malay nationalists. Najib has to stand for re-election as leader of UMNO at a party conference later this month (similar to Japan the prime minister must be the president of his own party). He may get a challenge from his deputy Muhyidden Yassin.
In his speech to the FCCJ, Mahathir predicted that, in the end, the party and the coalition will come around to supporting Najib because “there is no alternative.”


Tuesday, May 28, 2013

No Comfort for Hashimoto

From time to time, conservative Japanese politicians get into trouble by denying that Imperial Japan forced women of occupied countries, known euphemistically as the “comfort women”, to work in military brothels serving Japanese troops during World War II.

Nobody however has managed to get into as much hot water over this issue as Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, who doubles as the co-leader, with former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, of the new Japan Restoration Party, the third largest party in parliament.
Ever since he opined with Osaka reporters and on social media that the comfort woman system was a necessary adjunct to the Japanese war effort in early May, the Japanese press has maintained a steady drumbeat of stories and opinions taking Hashimoto to task, and leading to speculation that he might resign as party leader.

Hashimoto had compounded his problem by linking history to the current situation of U.S. forces stationed in Okinawa where, during a recent visit, he claimed to have felt a “strong sense of crisis” about behavior of American forces stationed on the island.
Introduced to the commander of the Marine air station at Futenba, he advised him to make better use of the “legally accepted adult entertainment industry” to satisfy soldiers’ needs. It is not known how the Americans reacted to this high level politician’s seeming to suggest that they should institute a comfort system for their troops.

After all, prostitution is illegal in the U.S. and has been illegal in Japan since the 1950s.
The meeting and his remarks there that took place May 1 might have stayed private except that Hashimoto himself later boasted of his encounter with Osaka journalists and described it on his own Twitter account that is read by about a million people. “Hashimoto ratted on Hashimoto” said Michael Penn, editor of Shingetsu News Agency.

Hashimoto misjudged how his remarks would be received in an audience wider than the more extreme nationalists or that it might harm relations with the U.S., he said. While many Japanese conservatives dislike how history has judged Japan’s wartime aggression (many deny the accuracy of that term), they still value the alliance with the U.S.
The behavior of American military personnel in Japan and especially on Okinawa is a touchy subject. The American high command is intimately aware that any misbehavior can literally endanger the alliance. Whenever one occurs, the military goes into overdrive: mass restrictions to base, curfews, mandatory lectures on how to behave and, if needed, abject apologies from generals, admirals and the ambassador.

The worst incident in recent memory was the gang-rape of a young Japanese girl in 1995, which sparked massive demonstrations and led to an agreement to move thousands of marines from Okinawa to Guam, an agreement that has yet to be fulfilled because of impasse concerning moving the Marine air base at Futenma to a new location.
Cases of rape on Okinawa and elsewhere in Japan are rare and quickly punished. Two American sailors were convicted in 2012 and given 10-year sentence in Japanese prisons. More common are simply the daily irritants that come from living among large numbers of foreign servicemen: aircraft noise, traffic jams, bar fights and petty crime.

Some harsh criticism of Hashimoto from the U.S. alarmed the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, already facing criticism of its own from Washington, Seoul and Beijing over the April visits to the Yasukuni shrine by several cabinet officers and numerous members of parliament. “The [comfort] system cannot be pardoned”, he said.

Former U.S. Ambassador Thomas Schieffer (brother of the well-known newscaster Bob Schieffer) said that nobody in the U.S. would accept any attempt by Japanese officials to justify wartime brothels. Many American newspapers used the term “sex slaves” rather than the euphemistic “comfort women” to describe the system of wartime brothels.

In the wake of the controversy, Hashimoto cancelled a planned trip to the United States, including San Francisco and New York, as there was the real possibility that he would be snubbed by the mayors of the two cities. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, a Chinese-American, has also complained about Hashimoto’s remarks.
The governing Liberal Democratic Party allies with another smaller party called New Komeito, but it is no secret that Abe is interested in cooperating with Hashimoto’s party to pass amendments to the constitution which, among other things, would alter or repeal the famous “no war” clause. Hashimoto is on record favoring such a move.

The incident showed that Hashimoto, despite his conservative and nationalistic leanings, had not assimilated the usual conservative talking points about the comfort woman issue. They cannot deny that the brothels existed; that’s documented. They cannot easily argue that no woman was forced into prostitution. There are still many living today that can testify otherwise.
No, they basically maintain that there is no proof of direct involvement by the Imperial government in recruiting and managing the comfort stations, and area where the facts are a little more obscure and subject to sometime ambiguous arguments (did moving the women around on army trucks constitute state involvement, for example?)

Meeting with the international press, Hashimoto demonstrated that he has absorbed this point as he dismissed the idea that the Japanese government was directly involved. He repeated this argumen in answer to practically every question posed by the foreign press (Abe holds pretty much the same position but is not, for the moment, interested in pushing it.)
The Japanese government’s official position on the matter was laid out in 1993 in a much-massaged Kono Statement named after then chief cabinet secretary Yohei Kono which apologized for at least indirect government involvement. The ambiguity of the statement is a source of continuing controversy with South Korea.

Shortly after assuming office in January, Abe told parliament that his government will stand on the Kono statement and not seek to revise it. During his first term in 2007, Abe did in fact raise questions about direct state involvement in comfort stations, which among other things prompted the U.S. House of Representatives to pass a resolution urging Japan to formally apologize.


Friday, May 17, 2013

Time is Running Out

The new conservative government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is making a new push to try and resolve the decades-long dispute with North Korea over the fate of a dozen Japanese it claims were abducted by North Korean operatives in the 1970s and 1980s and may be still alive.

The issue was not pressed very hard by the previous Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government until the last months of its administration, but it has been raised anew by the more conservative Abe government.
Japan has a cabinet-level ministry devoted entirely to the abduction issue. The current state minister, Keiji Furuya, recently said that Tokyo would not lift bilateral sanctions against North Korea or resume aid until the issue was resolved, even if the North should agree to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

Furuya was in the U.S. a few weeks ago trying to raise awareness of the matter among Americans through symposiums held in Washington and New York. He took with him several relatives of those kidnapped by the North to tell their personal stories.

It may be a good time to be raising the issue, Tokyo thinks, as public attention in the U.S. and elsewhere has been drawn to North Korea as a result of its earlier nuclear bomb test and extreme bellicose threats to launch missiles at everyone. Moreover, he North recently condemned an American citizen of Korean extraction to fifteen years in prison.
The issue involves the fate of more than a dozen Japanese who were snatched by North Korean agents and spirited away to the North, ostensibly to train more agents in Japanese language and manners for future espionage. Most of these disappearances took place in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but it wasn’t until North Korean defectors began appearing in the late 1990s that Tokyo became aware of their true fate.

In 2002 former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi flew to Pyongyang for a summit meeting with Kim Jong-il. At that meeting Kim admitted that North Korea had kidnapped Japanese and apologized for it. . Leader Kim said that 12 people were kidnapped. Of these, five were returned to Japan; the other eight died. Case closed.

Tokyo disputes this. It claims 17 people were kidnapped (including five that Pyongyang says never entered the country), five were returned, and 12 remain unaccounted for. It is skeptical of Pyongyang’s assertions that they died in mysterious “traffic accidents” or committed suicide.
The families of the abductees have become celebrities. The parents of Megumi Yokota, who was snatched in 1977 when she was only 13, appear on television, at press conferences and are interviewed for their opinions on politics, nuclear weapons and North Korea (the latter not complimentary). Many conservative politicians, including Shinzo Abe himself, wear the little blue ribbon in their lapel to show solidarity, much as Americans used to wear bracelets with POW names.

It was Abe who created the cabinet post for the abduction issue during his first term as prime minister from 2006 to 2007. The post languished after him. His successor Yasuo Fukuda showed little interest in the matter, as did the first two DPJ premiers. During the DPJ government, seven individuals held the abductee portfolio or were given it as part of other duties.
The last DPJ premier showed more interest in the issue. Yoshihiko Noda met with the families and indicated a willingness to fly to Pyongyang if necessary to move things along. He also wore the little blue lapel ribbon. However, the momentum for the DPJ was lost in its big electoral debacle.

Minister Furuya is making preparations to meet with North Korean counterparts in Mongolia’s capital, which is a neutral place as Mongolia is not a party to the six-party talks aimed at ending the impasse. Pyongyang is reluctant to reopen the issue as it assumed that the elder Kim’s confession and apology more than a decade ago was sufficient.
In another recent development, it was reported that a senior advisor to the prime minister, Isao Ijima, had flown to Pyongyang on a still undisclosed mission. He was a top aide to Junichiro Koizumi when he made his famous 2002 visit to Pyongyang and summit meeting with the late Kim Jong-il.

It is no exaggeration to say that resolution of the kidnappings has become the most important foreign policy issue for Japan and the main obstacle to normalization of relations with North Korea. Over the years Tokyo has cut off all contacts and even minimal trade in such things as clams plus cracking down on remittances from Koreans living in Japan.

The abductions are a touchy matter for Washington, which would really like to see it disappear as it complicates the united front on what it considers the much larger question of disarming the North of its nuclear weapons armory. Former President George W. Bush found this out the hard way when he first met with Megumi’s parents and then removed North Korea from the list of nations sponsoring terrorism, which many Japanese considered a betrayal.
It complicates negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program. In the past Tokyo has refused to pay its share of promised heavy oil shipments claiming that Pyongyang is dragging its feet on resolving the kidnappings. That in turn gave the North an excuse to claim that parties to the six-party talks were reneging on their commitments.

But for Japanese it is more than just an abstract geopolitical issue. It tugs at the heart strings. Who cannot feel the indignity of 13-year school girl old kidnapped on a public street returning home from school badminton practice or the years in which her parents were totally ignorant of her true fate. “It was like she disappeared in a puff of smoke,” her mother once said.
And there is a new urgency as the abductees that are still living are obviously not getting any younger. The oldest, Yutaka Kume, taken in 1977 when he was 51, would now be approaching 90. The youngest, Megumi, would be 50 if she were still living (Pyongyang says she committed suicide when she was about 30). Time is running out.




Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Pueblo and Benghazi

Comparisons have been made, especially by conservatives, that the terrorist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi last September was another Watergate. In fact, the Pueblo Incident in 1968 best defines what happened in that Libyan city.

The capture of the USS Pueblo by North Korean patrol boats received relatively little attention in the U.S. at the time and was quickly forgotten. This despite the fact that it was the first time a US Navy ship had surrendered in 150 years, and despite the fact that one sailor was killed and 82 other crew members imprisoned and tortured for nearly one year.
The USS Pueblo was a navy intelligence surveillance ship captured by North Korean warships in international waters off the coast near Wonsan. The 82 members of the crew were taken from the ship and held captive for 11 months then released after Washington “apologized” for the intrusion into Korean waters, an apology it repudiated just as soon as the last captive set foot in South Korea.

Today the attack would probably be labeled a “terrorist attack,” even though it was perpetrated by elements of North Korea’s regular military.
The ship was kept in Wonsan harbor until 1999 when it was towed around the Korean peninsula (unmolested by US or South Korean navies) and ended up as a floating museum in Pyongyang. Washington officially considers the Pueblo a captive ship and low-ranking negotiations continue to take place for its repatriation.

Almost all of the charges that have been laid, fairly or unfairly, against the Obama administration for the loss of four American lives, including the ambassador, can be seen in the Pueblo Incident:
Complacency  The navy sent the Pueblo off the coast of North Korea unprotected even though it was practically defenseless. It had over-confidently assumed that the unstated agreement with the Soviet Union that neither would molest each other’s spy ships if they stayed carefully in international waters also applied with North Korea.

The Board of Inquiry that was held after the crew was released made that point explicitly: The major factor in the capture was the “sudden collapse of a premise that had been assumed at every level of responsibility and upon which every other aspect of the mission had been based – freedom of the high seas.”
This fatal misreading of North Korea’s respect for the niceties of international law can be gauged from the fact that Pyongyang sent commandoes into Seoul to assassinate President Park Chung-hee just two days before they captured the Pueblo (the current South Korean President’s mother was killed in the attack).

Although packed with highly sensitive surveillance and communications gear, the Pueblo was ill-equipped to destroy classified materials quickly. They had only axes and sledgehammers to destroy metal safes and other heavy gear. The one death was a sailor machined-gunned while trying to throw weighted bags of classified material overboard.
Tardy Response  By the time higher Pacific command realized the Pueblo was in serious trouble, it was too late to provide effective help. Probably the closest air force unit was the 347th Tactical Fighter Wing based at Yokota AFB in Japan and Osan AFB just south of Seoul.

That outfit was then standing nuclear alert at Osan, meaning it was prepared to take off at a moment’s notice to deliver a tactical nuclear bomb. By the time they were alerted, it was too late to off-load the nukes and upload the conventional ordinance. No US Navy ships were in the vicinity.
One senior officer, the then commander of naval force s Japan and a rear admiral, was eventually reprimanded for failing to properly plan for effective backup support in the eventuality that an essentially unarmed American ship would come under attack.

Cover Up  In the aftermath of the attack on the Pueblo the Johnson administration claimed that the classified gear captured from the Pueblo was “not vital”. This was disingenuous. According to later intelligence reports, plane-loads of classified gear were in the air heading toward Moscow within hours of the Pueblo’s capture.
Among the material allegedly captured by the North Koreans and shared with their Soviet allies were code books. It is also reported that the Soviets gained about three to five years in the race for advanced communications technology because of the Pueblo’s capture.

Political Fallout  There was, in fact, very little. The reason could likely be the date of the incident: January 23, 1968. Within two weeks, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam would breakout and would dominate the nation’s headlines for weeks. In March President Johnson declined to run for re-election, but that had more to do with the Vietnam War than the Pueblo.
Congress didn’t get around to holding any kind of hearings until 1989, when the incident was a comfortable 20 years in the past. It also delved into the shooting down of the American EC121 spy plane with even greater loss of life in 1969.

Accountability  When the 82 captured sailors were released in December, 1968, they were initially treated as heroes, but soon forgotten. A navy Board of Inquiry held in January, 1969, recommended bringing court-martial charges against the Pueblo’s captain, Commander Lloyd Bucher.  After all, he had surrendered his ship.
But the charges against Bucher and two other officers were soon dismissed. The convening admiral said that the crew members had suffered enough and that Bucher had behaved admirably during captivity. “There is enough blame to go around for everybody,” he said.  Probably much the same thing can be said about the Benghazi attack.

Todd Crowell is a longtime foreign correspondent in Asia now based in Tokyo and formerly a member of the 347th Fighter-Bomber wing.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Behind the Mask

In his first four months in office Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has not made a false move – until now. He and his government waded knee-deep into historical revisionism and right-wing ultra-nationalism, bringing down the first real criticism of his new Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) since it won a landslide election in December.

In late April, when Asians pay respects to the dead, four members of the cabinet led by Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso and more than 150 members of parliament made a pilgrimage to the Yasukuni Shrine in downtown Tokyo.  It honors the spirits Japanese war dead, but also includes those of 14 Class-A war criminals condemned and executed for plotting to invade neighboring countries.
Abe was not among them, but his statements in defense of their visit were perhaps more belicose than they had to be. “My ministers will not yield to any kind of intimidation.” He told parliament defiantly. It is natural, he said, to express respect to those who have died for their county. He donated a tree as a personal offering.

The visits were condemned not just from South Korea and China, as one might expect, but also from opinion leaders in the United State and abroad. Both the Washington Post and New York Times denounced the visits, especially as they came at a sensitive time when relations with between Japan and its neighbors are strained and North Korea is making threats.
Washington made no official protest itself, but can hardly be pleased with this sudden shift toward Japanese nationalism. Its desires to bring Seoul and Tokyo closer together to form a united front against North Korea provocations are constantly undercut by these unnecessary and provocative pilgrimages to the shrine.

The last time the Yasukuni roiled relations with neighbors was during the long (by Japanese standards) administration of Junichiro Koizumi, who made annual visits to the shrine in his official capacity. Ironically it was his successor, Abe, who restored relations and good will with China by declining to visit the shrine, something he now says he deeply regrets.
The Yasukuni Shrine has long been connected with state Shinto and an ultranationalist and inflammatory interpretation of Japan’s actions in World War II as being a wholly selfless effort to liberate Asia of European colonialism. Needless to say, other countries occupied by Japan don’t see things that way.

During the first months of his administration, Abe successfully suppressed what the Financial Times called in an editorial his hidden “inner nationalism.” His plan was to concentrate laser-like on economic revival building up popularity, well aware that his unpopular focus on history and the constitution had undercut his government and led to his resignation after only one year in office in 2007.
It may be that his government’s continuing popularity as expressed in public opinion polls that show that more than 70 percent of Japanese approve of his initial moves to revive the economy, called “abenomics”  may be going to his head and that he, to again quote the Financial Times, “let the mask slip.”

The general election for half of the House of Councillors, the upper house of Japan’s bicameral parliament scheduled for July, was also said to exert some restraint, as Abe is very keen on winning. But the government seems to believe more and more that the election is in the bag. The recent landslide election of the LDP candidate in a upper house bye election on April 28 seems to support that notion.
On that same day, the government held what was billed as first “National Sovereignty Day.” The date was said to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of San Francisco in 1952, which restored Japan sovereignty and ended the American Occupation (save for Okinawa which was returned only in 1972.)

Speaking in the presence of the Emperor and Empress, Abe said “the next task for us is to revise the Constitution” That goal called attention to another conservative obsession, revising the constitution that was written by Americans during the Occupation. It seemed to have lot to do with the elevation of the date, April 28, which previously had no special meaning to most Japanese.
Amending or abolishing the constitution in favor of a new one has been a hobby horse of Japanese conservatives, including Abe for years. They say that it is humiliating to be governed under a document written mainly by foreign occupiers. The extreme nationalist Shintaro Ishihara says he would have ditched the whole thing as soon as Japan was free to do so.

Ishihara is not a fringe figure. He is the co-leader of the Japan Restoration Party, which with 51 seats is the third largest bloc in the lower house of parliament. The other co-leader, Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, shares his feelings about changing the charter.
Abe has already had meeting with leaders of this party and the two could easily put together the two-thirds majority needed to change the document (whether the two thirds could be mustered in the upper house even after an electoral victory is debatable.) Their first move will be to change that rule to allow a simple majority enough to approve amendments subject to a national plebiscite.

Although most attention is focused on repealing or altering the famous “no war” Article 9, the LDP’s proposed alternative charter, made public a year ago even before the general election, goes much further in replacing what it terms foreign universal values with more traditional Japanese values, as they view them.
Many will be watching what the new government does in August, the traditional time, linked to Japan’s surrender on August 15,  when Japanese leaders make official visits to the Yasukuni shrine if in fact they are going to make them. Whether they make the visits may depend on how the Japanese public reacts to this recent testing of the political waters.

 At the moment there are no current public opinion polls to test the public reaction (though much commentary on Sunday talks shows was negative). One thing is fairly certain. The Abe administration will be more strongly influenced by local opinion than that of its neighbors.