Friday, May 30, 2014

arc of Democracy

I actually got the news in a telephone call from Japan, which is two hours ahead of Thailand. “There’s been a coup!” my wife exclaimed after answering the phone. “Where”? I asked stupidly. “Here in Thailand.” We turned on the television to get more news, but every channel was just showing file footage of the King.
That is how I came to learn of the coup d’etat in 2006 that toppled the regime of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Eight years later the Royal Army has seized power again, for the umpteenth time since the country ended the absolute monarchy in 1932. That begs a question: how does this one differ from the 2006 coup?

The 2006 coup might be described as a “soft” coup. Only about half a dozen close aides to the deposed Thaksin were detained (Thaksin himself was outside of the country addressing the UN General Assembly and has remained in exile). The current coup seems to be much “harder.’ As of this writing some 250 people, including the former premier Yingluck Shinawatra have been detained.
This time the military government of Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has spread its net far wider, not just detaining members of the cabinet and the Thaksin family, but retired generals thought to be sympathetic to the government and, more ominously, opinion leaders like academics and some journalists who have written in support of democracy in Thailand.

The coup leaders also detained some prominent “yellow shirt” opponents of the government, including its main protest leader, Suthep Thaungsuban but later released them. The generals have darkly warned that more detentions are possible if there is continuing resistance to the new junta.
The current coup seems to have been planned more carefully than the earlier one. It came in stages, with the army first declaring martial law and then two days later seizing the reins of the government. Certain specified broadcasters were shut down during the short martial law under orders which were later extended to most of the independent stations.

In 2006 the “red shirt” movement did not exist. There had been large-scale anti-Thaksin demonstrations in Bangkok by Thaksin opponents who would later be called the yellow shirts. At the time though, there was no need for a pro-Thaksin movement as he was in charge of the government.
Since then the red shirt movement has expanded enormously, made up predominantly of the underclass of Thais from the country’s north and northeast who benefitted from Thaksin’s populist policies. They put thousands of supporters on the streets and occupied central Bangkok in 2010 in an unrest that resulted in 90 protestors being killed mostly at the hands of the army.

Thailand’s is a conscript army, and many of the soldiers come from the parts of the country and social strata that have proved to be the Thaksin-red shirt base. It is not improbable that Gen. Prayuth felt obliged to act the way out of concern over the possibility of mutiny in the army if soldiers were ordered to fire on protestors and the ultimately, civil war.
Another difference is that after the 2006 coup, the army operated behind a civilian front, talked a lot about reforming the constitution and held out the prospect of a return to democracy. Prayuth has, for the moment, named himself as prime minister, and he has said the junta will remain in power “indefinitely.”  He seems more interested in some kind of long-term reconciliation than restoring democracy any time soon.

This may be inevitable considering Thailand’s difficult recent history with elections. Thailand doesn’t need to restore democracy per se; it needs to develop a civil society in which elections count, and where the results are accepted by the country, both by the winners and losers. That hasn’t been the case in Thailand for a long time.
Increasingly, the new Thai military junta is looking more and more like the one that ruled Myanmar for years. Its official title – the National Council for Peace and Order - even seems to echo the name the Burmese generals picked for themselves in 1988: State Law and Order Restoration council (SLORC).

The royal succession is eight years closer than it was in 2006, and Thailand is eight years closer to a new crisis on top of a crisis. In that earlier coup the leader of the coup was photographed prostrating himself before the monarch. So far, Gen, Prayuth has not been seen with the King, although he claims that the coup has the King’s support.
In 2006 the King was still relatively healthy. Now 86, it has been many years since he was well enough to assert any influence. The likely successor, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, is not popular; his sister Crown Princess Maha is popular, but may find it difficult to win army support for a queen-regnant. Thailand hasn’t had a female ruler from the current Chakri dynasty line that stretches back more than 200 years.

The economy weaker it was in 2006. Many in the business community welcomed the coup as providing needed stability. But eight years of yellow-shirt versus red shirt strife have taken their toll. Many Japanese businessmen for example, remember being left stranded in Thailand in 2008 when the yellow shirts stormed and shut down the two main airports in Bangkok.

The critical tourist industry has had to operate against the backdrop of violence, often in the center of in the capital that is home to many expats. Numerous travel advisories issued by various foreign governments have discouraged tourism. In this instance some countries have gone beyond merely advising caution and unnecessary trips to Thailand to flatly advising their citizens to stay away.
One other difference. The 2006 coup was seen by everyone to be a major failure, not so much in terms of individual oppression, but in simple mal-administration of the government. Everyone on all sides was happy to see it go. It remains to be seen whether this new crew will be any better. People are hoping so but not counting on it.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Close Encounters

Imagine this scenario: China decides to erect another offshore oil digging rig this time on waters in the South China Sea claimed by the Philippines. It surrounds the rig with numerous coast guard and “fishing” vessels. Manila calls for help from its good, long-time alliance partner the United States. But it also appeals for help to another “close ally” - Japan.
Already embroiled in an increasingly dangerous standoff with China over a bunch of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, could Japan be dragged into the South China Sea cauldron too? It is by no means far-fetched to speculate on this possibility depending on how Tokyo ultimately defines the nation’s right to “collective self-defense.”

Collective self-defense is a military term created by Japanese legal scholars several decades ago, relating to policies that basically prohibit Japanese armed forces from firing on any foreign armed forces save for one that might be directly invading the home islands of Japan itself. It served Japan well during the Cold War era, but the prohibition is weakening due to the increasingly changing nearby security situation.

This month a fourteen-member government panel appointed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe released its much anticipated report, calling on Japan to significantly modify its definition of self-defense under its pacifistic constitution to permit Japanese armed forces, if necessary, to fight alongside its formal ally or any country with which has a “close relationship” .
The term seems to be deliberately ambiguous, as it could be argued that Tokyo maintains a “close relationship” with many countries. For example, Tokyo and Canberra have recently signed a defense logistics agreement for the “close cooperation between the [Japan] Self-Defense Forces and Australian Defense Forces.”

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott was invited to be the first foreign leader to attend a meeting of Japan’s new National Security Council during a recent visit to Tokyo. India and Japan touted their close relationship during Abe’s state visit last January, punctuated by the sale of Japanese-made amphibious patrol aircraft to India. Japan is also planning to sell 10 vessels to augment the Philippine Coast Guard.
The Philippine ambassador to Japan, Manuel Lopez, seemed to be anticipating some kind of future alliance with Japan when he told Kyodo news service this week that his country should bolster maritime cooperation with Japan as well as the US to deter China’s growing assertiveness at sea. Being essentially defenseless, the Philippines needs the help of countries such as the U.S. and Japan. “[Japan’s] experience in maritime matters will certainly be a great help to us,” Lopez said.

The bubbling tensions in the South China Sea, where China and Vietnam are involved in a dangerous standoff over an oil rig that  Hanoi claims is in its 200-mile economic exclusion zone (EEZ) serves as a backdrop to Japan’s decisions on legalizing what it considers its UN-chartered right to help defend allies under an armed attack.
In its report, the Advisory Panel on the Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security stated that one of the scenarios for collective self-defense would be “when a foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan comes under and armed attack and if such a situation has the potential to significantly affect the security of Japan.”

It could be argued that almost any such situation in the South China Sea would impact Japan’s security. The energy-scarce country is even more dependent on free-passage of tankers and other ships through the South China Sea than the US. “We cannot be indifferent to the situation in the South China Sea,” said the panel’s deputy chairman Shinichi Kitaoka as quoted in the Stars and Stripes.
The right to collective self-defense is very close to Abe’s heart. He actually formed the panel during his first term of office (2006-2007). It languished under the Democratic Party of Japan government, but was revived with a vengeance when the premier’s party won a landslide general election victory near the end of 2012.

It is by no means certain that the final decisions on this issue will take into account all of the panel’s recommendations. Abe is a practical politician, and his priorities are not as expansive as those on the panel. His main purpose is to create a legal climate that allows the self-defense forces to cooperate with other forces,” says Sheila Smith of the US Council on Foreign Relations.
He will also examine needed new legislation and identify specific situations where the right of collective self-defense might be permissible if an armed attack is made on another country that significantly affects the security of Japan, she says.

It also coincides with the on-going the official review of the US-Japan security guidelines which advise the two government how their militaries operate under the security agreement, including emphasis on new contingencies such as the Senkaku/Daioyu dispute, and the increasing number of situations, usually connected with UN peacekeeping, where the use of force by Japan may be necessary.
Abe hopes to get the cabinet to sign off on collective self-defense by the end of June, but a foreign ministry official stressed that there is no timeline. To affect the changes, about a dozen laws will have to be passed or amended that will extend the debate well into the fall if not next spring, sources say.

Most public opinion polls in Japan show considerable skepticism if not downright opposition to the changes. However, the main opposition in parliament to the policy changes is coming not from the official opposition but from New Komeito, which is actually a part of the government.
Komeito is significantly more pacifistic than Abe’s party, but is not expected that it will leave the coalition over this issue. But it is likely that the government might have to water down some of the provisions to gain the party’s acquiescence. 





Friday, May 09, 2014

At the Yasukuni Shrine

Unless you had read or heard about the controversies swirling around the Yasukuni Shrine, as a casual visitor you would be hard- pressed to understand what all of the fuss is about. It looks like a large but fairly conventional Shinto shrine, sort of like the Meiji Shrine in another part of Tokyo. Except that the Meiji Shrine honors one kami or spirit – the late emperor Meiji, the Yasukuni honors 2,466,532.
Located on about 25 acres on the north side of the Imperial Palace grounds, the long entry pathway up Kudan Hill is demarked by three large concrete torri gates leading to the main temple, with its heavy black tiled eaves and a striking white curtain with the 16-petal chrysanthemum imperial seals on it.

The main temple is in two parts, an inner and outer sanctuary. Visitors approach the outer shrine, clap their hand,s bow their heads and drop coins into the large wooden collection box and then leave. Behind the temple in the recesses of the inner sanctum, is where the kami is said to reside, in this case not one but the spirits of all the fallen soldiers and sailors in Japan’s wars.
The purpose of the Yasukuni is, of course, to honor the memories of these fallen soldiers and sailors, stretching back to the Boshin War fought between soldiers loyal to the Meiji emperor and those of the Tokugawa shogunate and other civil wars that marked the revolution known as the Meiji Restoration. It is this that draws the presence of such high-ranking public officials as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Although it has a well-deserved reputation as a citadel of conservative revisionism, there are no outward signs of ultra-nationalism - no right-wing groups blaring slogans from their sound trucks disturb the tranquility of the setting. There are no banners and few flags are flown. Perhaps the only evidence is a statue of Masajiro Omura, a now obscure Meiji reformer known as the “father” of the modern Japanese Army.
For a more chauvinistic take on Japan’s near history, one repairs to the Yushukan War Museum, discretely located off to the north side and housed in a large concrete modern building. I must admit that the museum was far larger and more sophisticated than I had imagined. I had a mental picture of perhaps a couple rooms with some military equipment and propaganda slogans.

The first thing one encounters on entering the museum is a hulking black steel locomotive. Which was the first to steam through the dense jungle of the Thai-Burma Railway. It is an immediate turnoff, I would surmise, for any British or Australian visitors, as thousands of their compatriots, not to mention other Asians, died in the making of the railroad ( a fact not mentioned at the Yushukan).

Pushing on, however, one navigates a maze of exhibition rooms, about a dozen in all I’d say, filled with soldiers’ paraphernalia and personal mementos as well as panels describing the Japan’s conflicts stretching back to the first Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 up through the Great East Asia War (World War II, to the rest of us).
The panels do have English translations of the text, but the day I visited, I must confess, I had too little time, and too little stamina, to read all of them and determine for myself whether there are as tendentious in their portrayal of the war as popularly imagined.

I have vague impressions of references to “Western demands,” and “unequal treaties”. One panel has a long time-line stretching down one wall and explaining how that wily Roosevelt deliberately gulled the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor. That is a common conservative trope among many right-wing nationalists, including the cashiered former air force general, Toshio Tomagawa, whose DVD is on sale in the gift shop.
I was impressed that the museum had a description of the Nomonhan Incident, an obscure but historically significant battle on the Mongolian border with the Soviet Union in 1939. It was a humiliating defeat for Japanese arms that most Japanese would prefer to forget about it, indeed they have probably forgotten about it.

In general the museum struck me as being similar to the Imperial War Museum I visited once in London, and probably similar institutions around the world that represent their national causes as honorable and those who fought in them as being sacrificial heroes.