Monday, October 20, 2014

Joko, we’re not in Solo any more


 

LATE last year Joko Widodo, then governor of Jakarta, Indonesia’s vast and messy capital, took Banyan with him on one of his daily blusukan or “spot-check” inspections of the city—to Benhil, a dilapidated market. We were joined by a flock of local press and hangers-on, but only three security guards. On October 13th Jokowi, as he is known, took another visitor, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, to another Jakarta market, Tanah Abang. Not only does Jokowi, now president-elect, keep better company these days; he is also trailed by a security detail numbering dozens, including snipers. At Benhil, he chatted at length with stallholders in his direct, unassuming way; at Tanah Abang he and Mr Zuckerberg lasted barely quarter of an hour.

That it will be harder to drop in on ordinary Indonesians and chew the fat seems a small price to pay for the highest office in the land. But Jokowi, who was  inaugurated as Indonesia’s seventh president on October 20th, says he intends to govern the country as he did Jakarta, and before that Solo, the town in central Java where he was first elected mayor in 2005. That is, he wants to retain his contacts with the people who elected him, and use his personal popularity to sweep political obstacles aside.

Adapting this approach to leading a country of 250m people, however, will not be easy. Foreign policy, for example, does not lend itself to blusukan, and in his first month in office Jokowi will be plunged into a whirlwind of summitry in China, Myanmar and Australia (which he may duck out of). And even at home, political troubles have been piling up since he won the presidential election in July. Jokowi, the little man, the first from outside the metropolitan elite to lead the country, takes office looking less like the vanguard of a triumphant reformist army and more like the leader of a beleaguered opposition.

The most obvious problem is that he lacks a parliamentary majority. A “red-and-white” coalition of parties marshalled by Prabowo Subianto, the presidential candidate whom Jokowi defeated in July, controls the new parliament convened on October 1st as it did the outgoing one. Jokowi has disdained the horse-trading that presidents use to buy parliamentary support, typically by offering cabinet posts for votes. Well, almost: he has retreated from his hope of a cabinet stacked with independent technocrats. But he still intends to give “professionals” fully 18 seats out of 34. The remaining 16 are barely enough to satisfy his own Indonesian Party of Democratic Struggle, the PDI-P, and its coalition, let alone to win over the opposition. The cabinet will be scrutinised for evidence of whether Jokowi really is his own man.

The red-and-whites have already done mischief. They have overturned the practice of giving the parliamentary speakership to the largest party—the PDI-P in this case—in favour of a vote, which the red-and-whites won. More egregiously, they passed a bill to abolish direct elections for hundreds of local posts (such as mayor of Solo and governor of Jakarta) and to have the jobs filled by indirect elections in local legislatures instead. Since the red-and-whites control 31 out of 34 provinces, and Indonesian government is highly decentralised, this would enormously complicate the president’s job. It would also represent the old establishment’s revenge on reforms that allowed outsiders such as Jokowi to rise to the top. It might make him the first and last president from outside the elite. His outgoing predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, overturned the new law by presidential decree. But his veto still has to be ratified by a vote in the new parliament.

It is not just the opposition Jokowi has to worry about. He also has to keep the PDI-P happy, which means deferring to its leader, Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of the country’s founder and a former president herself. That complicates, for example, efforts to patch things up with Mr Yudhoyono and his Democrat Party. She has never forgiven him for replacing her as president. Jokowi’s vice-president, Jusuf Kalla, who returns to a job he held under Mr Yudhoyono in 2004-09, is a veteran political operator. But having an influential and capable deputy may well turn out to be a mixed blessing.

The third big difficulty is that Jokowi assumes the presidency at a time when the economy is slowing, the outlook is clouded and it appears harder than it has for some time to fulfil his long-held mission. He wants to show that democracy is capable of working as an economic proposition in producing leaders who can improve the lives of the poor Indonesians who elected them. To have the money to do that, he needs to cut the fuel subsidies that consume about one-fifth of the government’s budget. Despite the recent fall in the oil price, this still means sharply higher fuel costs for consumers, and hence demands for higher than usual settlements in the minimum-wage negotiations due in the coming months. Parliamentary weakness will make it harder for Jokowi to resist populist pressures.

Power to the people

Jokowi’s enduring popularity, however, remains a great advantage. His strategy is to use it to embarrass the politicians into doing his bidding, and to intervene directly to remove blockages to progress—in the landownership wrangles, for example, that can delay the big infrastructure projects Indonesia so badly needs. And Jokowi did not become the first Indonesian since independence in 1945 to rise from nowhere to the presidency without also acquiring some skills in close-quarter political fighting. Both within the PDI-P and in dealing with the parliamentary majority, he will need them. The red-and-whites have promised to use their power “to investigate and to obstruct”. But under the Indonesian constitution, the executive branch also has considerable power. The red-and-whites’ hope, for example, to neuter the anti-corruption commission, the KPK, will be impossible to realise so long as Jokowi stands firm. He may lead the opposition, but he does so with the power of the presidency. By Banyan for The Economist

 

Taiwan tests submarine-launched Harpoon Missiles supplied by the USA


                  Taiwanese servicemen to load an air-to-air missile onto an F-16 fighter.

Taiwan's navy successfully test-fired two anti-ship missiles from a submarine in the first such exercise since the weapons were bought from the United States.

The Harpoon missiles were launched during a drill last week from the Hai Hu, or Sea Tiger, a Dutch-built conventional submarine.

The sea-skimming missiles, which have a range of 278km, would boost the attack capabilities of the two submarines previously only armed with torpedoes with a much more limited range, the naval sources were quoted as saying by the newspapers.

Taiwan, which already has Harpoon missiles installed on frigates and F-16 fighter jets, ordered the submarine-launched weapons in 2008 as part of a US$6.5 billion arms sale that was strongly criticised by Beijing.

The deal also included advanced interceptor Patriot missiles and some 30 Apache attack helicopters.

Ties between Taipei and Beijing have improved markedly since the island's president, Ma Ying-jeou, and his mainland-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) party came to power in 2008 promising to strengthen trade links and allow more mainlanders to visit the island. Ma was re-elected in 2012.

Beijing has repeatedly threatened to invade Taiwan should the island declare formal independence, prompting Taipei to seek more advanced weapons, largely from the US.

However, it was reported last week that Taiwan was seeking US support to build its own submarines after failing to get the military hardware from the US or other countries.

Washington has not followed through with a 2001 deal to sell eight diesel-electric submarines over fears it could hurt mainland-US relations.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post

 

After spectacular rise, stunning downfall now threatens Jokowi


 

The inauguration of President Joko Widodo raises hopes of a new beginning for Indonesia. Can he assuage doubts about his political longevity?

The rise of President Joko Widodo ushers in yet another chapter - a significant one - in Indonesia's long and seemingly unending transition to civilian democratic rule. The new president's assumption of office yesterday was accompanied by widespread hope of a change in national fortunes spurred by what Widodo represents - a clear break from his predecessors.

President Jokowi, as he is fondly known, is not from the military, unlike Suharto or Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Though Muslim, neither is he from the Islamic voting bloc - a powerful constituency which only the military had been able to balance. He is also not drawn from the elite that spawned presidents Sukarno, Habibie and Megawati, or the religious class of Abdurahman Wahid. The 53-year-old Jokowi grew up in the slums, became a furniture entrepreneur and then emerged from the "woodwork" to become mayor of Solo in 2005, governor of Jakarta in 2012 and now president of the world's fourth-largest country. Those three gigantic leaps took just nine years. This is as spectacular as it is unprecedented in Indonesian politics.


Rapid rise, rapid opposition?


Jokowi's popularity is down to him being a fresh face, coupled with the simplicity and humility of the wong cilik - the "small man" - with a big mission of reform. These form an exciting prospect for the millions of voters who had grown tired of the usual leadership slate of candidates from the military and political establishments.

However, despite months in the limelight as a competitor for power, President Jokowi's enigma is yet to be fully unpacked: his potential is yet to be discovered or unleashed. Still, his supporters hope he will lead them to a new Indonesia - a developed country with a place in the sun for every Indonesian regardless of background; an archipelagic state of 250 million who see their destiny as a regional maritime power in this part of the world.

It is thus only natural that, having won the presidential election in July on a wave of popular support, Jokowi was widely expected to lead a strong government, with professional talent rallying around him to help tackle the country's key challenges ahead. These include the economy, which has to be kept galloping so that millions of jobs can be created; growing budget deficits due to burgeoning fuel subsidies; underdeveloped infrastructure; notoriously endemic corruption; and a bloated bureaucracy. Jokowi has rightly resolved to bypass the politics of coalition and horse-trading that has weakened previous administrations. But despite having correctly identified the core problem, he does not possess the necessary levers of power to tackle it.

How long before he's gone?

Indeed, after his rapid rise, one question already being asked is, how long can he last as president? That such doubts about his political longevity are emerging so early is troubling. There have even been predictions of him not going past two years. The chief reason is this paradox: while he has won the presidency, he is losing the power game.

Jokowi's supporting parties in the Great Indonesia Coalition (Koalisi Indonesia Hebat, KIH) have only 37 per cent of the seats in the new House of Representatives. Control of the House, by 63 per cent, is in the hands of the Red-White Coalition (Koalisi Merah Putih, KMP) led by Prabowo, the defeated presidential contender.

Having failed to challenge the legitimacy of Jokowi's victory in July, Prabowo's KMP moved with ruthless efficiency to secure key positions in Parliament by first changing the rules of filling the House leadership posts in favour of voting, which suits its interest. The KMP then flexed its muscle by winning the posts of House Speaker and Deputy Speakers.

As if this wasn't enough, the opposition-dominated Parliament scrapped direct elections of regional leaders - governors and mayors - giving back that power to the local legislative councils. It slao has plans to roll back direct presidential elections and return the power to elect the president to the upper House, the People's Consultative Assembly. This was precisely how Suharto ran presidential elections until he was deposed in 1998 and direct presidential elections introduced in 2004 during the reformasi era.

Throughout all this, Jokowi's coalition appears helpless as the incoming president is busily preparing to form his Cabinet. Jokowi has been trying to change the power balance by winning over some members of KMP, but to no great success so far. The earlier plan to swing the biggest opposition member, Golkar, has also fallen flat. Golkar leader Aburizal Bakrie has openly declared his loyalty to KMP in its role as a constructive opposition - amid Prabowo's conciliatory stance towards Jokowi of late.

The implications are ominous for President Jokowi. His government is under threat from a possibly hostile parliament. To make things worse, he has inherited from his predecessor Yudhoyono a budget with the "time bomb" of a growing deficit. In all, the Prabowo-led coalition could block the minority government's budgets and policies at a whim. In other words real power to run the country lies in the hands of the legislature, not the executive.

Jokowi needs a high-powered Cabinet, to be announced this week, to help him deliver in spite of the huge obstacles ahead. Failure to fulfil his campaign promises could lead to public frustration with his leadership and eventually perhaps to moves to impeach him.

What now?

Jokowi's counter-moves are two-fold: the first - to restructure the parliamentary power balance by winning over some members of the Prabowo-led coalition - is making only limited headway. A significant swing could still happen if other KMP parties defect in sufficient numbers to give him the simple majority he badly needs. The second counter-move is to appeal directly to the people and put pressure on Prabowo's KMP. If Jokowi still fails, a political crisis may develop leading to his downfall.

"He has to revamp the 2015 budget, otherwise the people will not have faith in him. If he does not come up with a sophisticated breakthrough, Jokowi may last for only two years," former coordinating economy minister Rizal Ramli said in late August. Nothing much has changed to alter the validity of this prediction.

So President Jokowi will spend much energy fighting his way through Indonesia's byzantine politics rather than building a new Indonesia. Hopefully beneath his enigma lie some hidden strengths. Otherwise he will join the pantheon of short-lived presidencies now occupied by Habibie, Abdurahman Wahid and Megawati. To be the saviour of post-Suharto Indonesia, Jokowi must keep the flame of hope alive.

Yang Razali Kassim is Senior Fellow with the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.



 

One step forward for Indonesia, one step back for Malaysia



While Indonesia marked another democratic advance on Monday, democracy in neighbouring Malaysia goes backwards.

Indonesia inaugurates the man that most voters chose to be leader, while Malaysia concludes a sham trial to destroy the man that most voters chose to be leader.

Indonesia is conducting the first transfer of power from one directly elected president to another.

And Malaysia? It remains under the control of the same party that has ruled continuously since independence in 1957.

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"While Indonesia is making huge progress, we are rewinding and the democratic space is going back to the Mahathir era of the 1990s," says Malaysia's opposition treasury spokesman, Rafizi Ramli, during a visit to Australia on Monday. "We have not recovered from last year's election."

There is more than democracy at stake. A professor of political science at Monash University's Malaysian campus, James Chin, says: "In Malaysia, politics is being hijacked by political Islam. It really worries me. They are putting Malay supremacy together with Islamic supremacy."

The foundation stone of the perennially ruling party was always racial discrimination – special favour to native Malays over all other citizens, including the country's sizeable Chinese and Indian minorities.

But now it's pursuing policies of religious discrimination as well, says Mr Chin: "Previously, they tried to regulate the body and behaviour of Muslims; now, they are trying to regulate the body and behaviour of non-Muslims too."

He contrasts this with Indonesia, where a secular state does not impose Islamic standards on other faiths. It's one thing to fine Muslims for drinking alcohol, says Mr Chin, but now there are attempts to penalise non-Mulsims taking part in Oktoberfest in Malaysia.

The authoritarian nature of the Najib government will be on display to the world next week when it renews its courtroom persecution of the opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim.

Anwar was the subject of one of the world's most ridiculous political persecutions, an effort by the then prime minister, Mahathir Mohammed, to ruin him by accusing him of sodomy. And now, a ruling on the sequel: Sodomy 2.

He was the deputy prime minister to Mahathir when they had a falling out in 1998. The foolish and farcical pursuit of Anwar failed to ruin him, but it did turn him into a formidable leader of the opposition.

Anwar spent six years in jail before a court overturned his conviction. He emerged to lead an energised campaign at the 2013 election. So the Malaysian people delivered their own verdict on Anwar and his Pakatan Rakyat, or People's Pact party.  

The opposition under Anwar won 51 per cent of the vote at the 2013 election, but only 40 per cent of parliamentary seats.

It was a record result for an opposition and it shook the government. Even in a manipulated system, the ruling party, for the first time, had failed to win a majority of votes.

The result scared the government of Najib Razak into reviving its favoured tactic for repressing Anwar:  the charge of sodomy. Sodomy 2 had been running for a while, but after the High Court knocked out the latest sodomy charge against the married father of five, the government took its trumped-up case to Malaysia's Court of Appeal.

The Court of Appeal overturned the High Court. It gave Anwar a five-year jail sentence. He is free on bail pending appeal. On the weekend he flew home from London to Kuala Lumpur for final appeals. His supporters fear the outcome: "Quite a few of my friends have tried to persuade me to stay away," Anwar told British media just before boarding the plane home.

The prosecution is asking for an even longer jail term.

In an extraordinary illustration of the government's contortions in its manic determination to get Anwar, the prosecution will not be led by the a lawyer from the prosecution system but a private lawyer hired by the state. Experts say there is no precedent in Malaysian jurisprudence.

In fact, the prosecution is to be conducted by the personal lawyer for Mr Najib.

The political crackdown is much wider than Anwar. Human Rights Watch has detailed at least 14 cases this year where the government has brought spurious charges against political opponents and activists under the 1948 Sedition Act. One opposition politician faces the prospect of five years in jail for saying "damn UMNO". UMNO is Najib's political party.

The Najib government has two options, according to the opposition's Rafizi Ramli: "It can reform and allow more democratic space. Or they can go for the crackdown, and risk an even worse backlash from the public."

He has personal experience of the crackdown. Before entering politics he ran a corruption-busting NGO that exposed a Najib government minister misusing a $A90 million taxpayer loan. Instead of setting up a cattle farm, she was using the money to buy luxury apartments.

The expose forced the minister to resign. But now Mr Ramli is the one facing jail. He's facing the risk of three years in jail for breaching banking secrecy laws in disclosing the corruption. Mr Ramli, the man who busted the scam, is the only person charged over it.

Mr Ramli, also the secretary-general of the opposition party, is in Canberra on Tuesday, leading a delegation. He's hoping to convince Australian politicians to help coax Mr Najib  from authoritarianism to democratic openness.

Professor Chin says Mr Ramli has no hope of support from the Australian government: "The Abbott government loves Najib."

Australia favours the Najib government based on a long-standing view that Malaysia is a modern, Western, secular, like-minded power in a region fretting about a backward Indonesia, he says.

But Indonesia is modernising and it is Malaysia that is going backwards. "The romantic view of Malaysia," says Chin, "is based on a country that hasn't existed for the last ten years."'

Peter Hartcher is the international editor.


Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/comment/one-step-forward-for-indonesia-one-step-back-for-malaysia-20141020-118vq6.html#ixzz3GiiucxPk

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Xi's clampdown on free speech has potential for backlash


 


The Xi administration in China has been tightening controls on free speech.

Xi Jinping, leader of the Chinese Communist Party, the state and the military, has solidified his power base by taking over as head of the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms, which was set up to implement structural reforms in five key areas: the economy, politics, culture, society and ecology. He also is head of the Central National Security Commission, whose purpose is to decide on and carry out policies concerning national security.

At the first meeting of the Central National Security Commission, held in April, Xi placed emphasis on holding fast to "the overall national security outlook," which is also known as "total security." Because Xi also touched on security in such spheres as culture, society and information, on top of traditional areas like diplomacy and military affairs, there are concerns that he may further clamp down on free speech under the pretext of ensuring that his wishes are carried out.

Xi is suppressing a power struggle within the party by wielding his authority to weed out corruption. His aim is to preserve the present system of one-party rule, but tougher restrictions on speech could instead represent a sense of crisis over the system's sustainability.

In May last year, an internal memo of a party propaganda organ on the "Seven Speak-Nots," phrases that must not be spoken, were divulged on the Internet. It listed topics not taught at universities, such as universal values, freedom of the press and civil society. The foreign media later reported on the same policy enumerated in "The Central Committee of the Communist Party of China Document No. 9."

The Organization Department of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, which oversees party personnel and organizational reforms, issued a notification in July on training top officials. It names three matters warranting attention. The first is to "study and understand the spirit of the important speeches of Secretary-General Xi Jinping." The second is to "reinforce our faith in Marxism, and not lose our bearings amid the noise of Western constitutional democracy, universal values, civil society and so forth." The third is to "develop the exceptional traditional culture of China" and to "not be 'yes-men' to the West's ethical values." Following up on the "Seven Speak-Nots" and "Document No. 9," the notice is meant to keep a lid on actions that would further promote democratic values.

In August, the "Ten WeChat Rules," or "Weixin Ten Articles," were announced as a temporary set of regulations to control the Internet. China has more than 600 million people online, and the number of those using the instant messaging app "Weixin," known as "WeChat" in English, is soaring. In addition to a new rule requiring registration with one's real name when signing up for WeChat, the regulations state that nonofficial media accounts may not disseminate news or commentary on current affairs through the service.

The Chinese government is growing increasingly alarmed over the spreading influence of public opinion online.

TIGHTER CONTROLS IN RESEARCH, EDUCATION

The Xi administration's controls on free speech are intended to fend off such universal values as human rights, freedom and democracy that are held in high regard in the international community. As with media policy, I also pay attention to trends to implement tighter controls in the areas of research and education.

In July, the National Planning Office of Philosophy and Social Science announced important National Social Science Foundation of China projects for fiscal 2014. Beijing disburses grant money for these research projects. Many of those the foundation has undertaken are on themes that support the policies of the Xi administration from the academic side, including "the spirit of Secretary-General Xi Jinping's important speeches," the "Chinese Dream" and "China's traditions."

Even the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government-affiliated think tank, is having the screws tightened on it. A top official of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Communist Party of China criticized the academy in June for having problems with ideology. The academy's director then gave a speech in July on restricting academic freedom.

Meanwhile, thought control is becoming stronger in the realm of personnel training. China's leading universities have journalism and communications schools to train people working in the media, but now there is a restructuring under way throughout the country that begins with the school year starting this month.

Through this initiative, the Chinese media and propaganda departments of regional-level party committees will work with universities to establish and administer more such schools. The controls on the media are starting from the time people begin their training.

I believe the Xi administration's controls on free speech will become even stronger. On the surface they seem intended to maintain social stability, but the true purpose is to ensure the legitimacy of the Communist Party's rule and keep the current system in place.

However, the tougher the controls get, the more people might instead yearn for freedom.

Junko Oikawa has a Ph.D from Nihon University Graduate School in General Social and Cultural Studies. She has served as an expert researcher at the Japanese Embassy in Beijing and is now a visiting academic researcher at Hosei University, a visiting researcher at the Institute for Northeast Asian Studies at J. F. Oberlin University, and an adjunct instructor at Nihon University. Her areas of expertise are modern Chinese intellectuals, speech "space" in Internet forums, newspapers and magazines, and political culture studies

 

Concerns fester in Vietnam over China policy, industrial pollution


 


Many times I have heard intellectuals critical of Vietnam's system of Communist Party rule say, "This country's political system will change in a few years."

I do not know in how many years exactly, but some experts among those demanding the enactment of civil rights--such as free elections with multiple parties, freedom of speech, expression and assembly and so on--who portray the near future as seeing the destruction of the Communist Party system. What is certain is that little by little, Vietnamese citizens are taking more action and yearning more for political democratization--even if they are not dramatic as the changes in Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s.

Anti-Chinese demonstrations in Vietnam were first independently organized due to disputes concerning the sovereignty of islands in the South China Sea in recent years, and the criticism has also turned toward the government over its China policy. Along with the South China Sea issue, Chinese companies' exploitation of bauxite resources in Vietnam's south-central highlands have also prompted citizens to raise objections. The south-central highlands are a strategic area said to hold the key to control over all of Indo-China. Since the influx of Chinese capital here was a backroom deal agreed on between the leadership of the Chinese and Vietnamese communist parties, the criticism against the government has intensified, first from senior military officers wary of China, followed by civilians.

This summer I visited the development sites in Nhan Co, Dak Nong province, and Tan Rai, Lam Dong province, for the first time in more than two years. Bauxite extraction, alumina production plant construction, and road repairs and expansions to transport alumina are more than two years behind the initial plan's schedule. Intellectuals critical of the project are reporting the current situation on the Internet. However, local farmers who have made a livelihood out of cultivating coffee and tea plants see the problem differently from urban intellectuals.

 

DIRTY WATER, FOUL STENCH

The noise is incessant and a foul stench wafts through the air around the alumina production plant in Tan Rai that commenced operations in 2013. I heard stories from residents who said parents do not let their children play outside due to the bad air and that many fish have died in ponds with polluted water. I had already heard on my first visit two years ago that people have pleaded in vain with government agencies and companies to act. Even now, nothing seems to have fundamentally changed. The dust on the road for transporting alumina, kicked up by the growing number of large trucks and the expansion work, was awful, and nearly everywhere I looked was pure white. My heart sank as I watched children riding their bicycles to and from school alongside the trucks that frequently come and go.

When I ask intellectuals in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City about bauxite development problems, I know that their concern is on more than the economic results: the threats to national defense and order by the influx of Chinese laborers and the adverse effects exerted on the environment by Chinese methods.

When I asked a Vietnamese journalist what it would be like if a Japanese company had picked up the contract for the project, the reply was, "The Vietnamese people would probably be more comfortable with that." At the moment it seems the perception of a Chinese menace is on their minds more than what is happening at the site.

On the other hand, when I ask residents in the development zone about the Chinese laborers, they do not seem too bothered. They say "there are very few" of the workers and that there has been "no effect on the surrounding area." While city dwellers are criticizing the development as a core component of their anti-Chinese nationalism, local residents' first-hand experience has led to concerns over environmental pollution that directly affects their lives.

PEOPLE DEMAND ANSWERS

The government of the Communist Party of Vietnam is trying to maintain the legitimacy of one-party rule founded on a record of economic growth and nationalism under the slogan "National Great Solidarity." However, large-scale development for the sake of growth has produced problems Vietnam has never experienced before, such as the pollution of the environment--and now the people are demanding that the government provide explanations. In addition, since Vietnam's present nationalism and anti-Chinese sentiment are two sides of the same coin, development projects involving China are, like the South China Sea dispute, generating greater criticism of the government's China policy.

However, civil action seeking democratic reforms also has limits. As the bauxite development issue has made clear, it is not easy for urban residents connected to the world through the Internet to share information with less-privileged residents of farming villages and work with them to resolve an issue. Furthermore, while opposition to China resonates with many people, it will likely take more time before assorted entities band together behind universal themes like democracy, human rights or environmental issues. Those who advocate democratic reforms must conquer the information gap--defined primarily by whether one has Internet access or not--and the limits of anti-Chinese nationalism.

As I stated at the beginning, I do not know how many years "in a few years" is, but I can predict that more people will acquire a certain level of financial resources, knowledge and skills due to economic growth, and the gap between the cities and the farming villages will also gradually narrow. People who have gained the power to act autonomously are likely to demand that the government make policy decisions transparent and take the responsibility to explain them.

Meanwhile, the large-scale development could possibly create yet new risks and threaten people's lives and property. I believe this will produce an array of problems that the conventional thinking of the Communist Party leadership cannot deal with. Rather than making the citizenry out to be its foe, the Vietnamese government within "a few years" will probably have to establish a system that can bring them into the fold in solving problems.

Ari Nakano is a professor at Daito Bunka University. She did her postgraduate work at Keio University and earned her Ph.D. Her areas of expertise are Vietnamese politics, diplomacy and human rights.

 

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC): A Bloc Whose Time Has Come



The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation is more relevant than ever before. Time to give it more power.

The 18th summit meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is to be held in Kathmandu from November 22 to 27. Yet few people in Kathmandu appear to even be aware of the event, let alone evincing any enthusiasm about it.

The lack of interest is widely shared. SAARC has just not been able to bring the countries of the South Asian region closer together in any substantial way. While their heads of state get together every once in a while, there is no significant two-way flow of ideas, resources, trade or people between any two countries in the region, let alone among all SAARC member states.

Like other regional associations, SAARC was created to enhance regional cooperation so that, thus united, the region as a whole would be able to solve problems that were beyond the capabilities of individual member states. There are scores of issues that require just such a joint, region-wide approach. This was true in 1985, the year in which SAARC was conceived, and it is even more true today. The world is far more interconnected than it was in 1985, for better and for worse. Now more than ever, borders are slowly being rendered obsolete as resources, people, and perhaps most crucially, information flows on an unprecedented scale.

Some of these flows, left to their own devices, have the potential to dramatically enhance well-being. Others threaten to produce disastrous consequences. The speed with which they move puts them beyond the control of any single nation state. Take the growth of the murderous philosophy of the Islamic State; even the United States has admitted that it was surprised by the rapidity with which the group has emerged. Clearly, leveraging or controlling these flows requires a regional approach to problem solving.

Today the Islamic State has begun to attract jihadis from all over the world, including many from South Asia. A third of all Muslims worldwide live in South Asia, so it should come as no surprise that a radical few would find their way to the battlegrounds of Iraq and Syria. But the authorities should nonetheless be very concerned as to what will happen when those that survive return. How will the countries of South Asia, infrastructure-poor and delineated by long and often porous borders, keep track of them?

Indeed, unnecessarily tight border controls themselves is symptomatic of the true ailment facing the region: a lack of adequate information. Stringent border controls may serve to filter out “bad” flows some of the time, but they cannot be effective all of the time – the resources simply don’t exist. Strict border controls apparently have not stopped Bangladeshi migrants from entering India in droves. Rather than invest in such ineffective measures, surely it would be more productive in the long run for the countries of the region to create a joint mechanism for tracking flows of suspicious people into and out of the region?

Jihad is not the only source of havoc. India’s northwestern state of Punjab was originally a transit point for the shipment of narcotics, particularly heroin, throughout the country and beyond. Today, it has become a significant consumer of drugs itself. Clearly, stringent border controls or not, Afghan heroin has been finding its way via Pakistan into northwestern India. At the national level, illicit drug use correlates fairly closely with prosperity, so we ought to expect drug use in India to rise as its middle class becomes more affluent. That makes it all the more necessary for the countries in the region to pool their resources to better understand how the flows of drugs and their couriers are taking place. Significantly for India, its eastern states also border another heroin producing country: Myanmar. Because of the difficult terrain and the presence of guerillas, it is even more difficult for India to patrol its eastern border constantly.

But if stringent border patrols are only partially effective in curtailing the flow of things with “bad” consequences, it actively discourages flows with “good” consequences. Harsh patrolling deters trade and the movement of ordinary people from place to place. Both of these flows could help the economies of countries on both sides of the border grow. After all both of these normal flows are the result of shortages of goods or people. Nepal and India are supposed to share an open border, but harassment of people moving to and from these countries still occurs, particularly on the Indian side.

Again, if the countries had the ability to rapidly access and share information about the movement of people and goods, the need for such rigorous patrolling of the border would diminish. Resources could be deployed more effectively to places where its presence was actually necessary. Without impediment, relations between people on opposite sides of the border – economic, social and cultural – could flourish.

In recent years, South Asian heads of state have tried to transform SAARC from a marginal player into a proactive force within the region. The formation of South Asian University, and the introduction of free trade regimes like SAFTA and SAPTA are example initiatives. Recently, SAARC members have agreed on the need to open a regional bank. While all of these are important steps in achieving regional cooperation, they won’t get very far if there is, as is the case today, a trust deficit among the countries. Member countries are not willing to be fair or open with one another. Trade and cooperation can only really occur in an atmosphere of trust, which in turn cannot be created overnight.

Sharing information about issues that concern the region is one way SAARC members could begin to bridge this trust deficit. Once cooperation on this crucial but neglected area begins, it could facilitate cooperation in other areas. Equally importantly, South Asian countries need to trust SAARC. They need to appreciate that they have created an institution that could truly lead to wider cooperation between member states and that, by marginalizing it, they only hurt themselves.

Thankfully, Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister and easily the most powerful politician in the South Asian region, appears to understand the need to strengthen SAARC. How effective the organization proves to be in the coming years will very much depend on how much power Modi is really willing to allocate to it.

Manish Gyawali is a graduate of Miami University and Kathmandu University. He is a consultant and writer.