Friday, October 31, 2014

China’s ‘Tianxia’: For All Under Heaven, Just One Arbiter?

With China reemerging as a dominating economic and military power in the world, some Chinese scholars have wistfully harkened back to another era, circa the 5th century B.C., when under a virtuous and benign Confucian emperor, all was well under heaven. The implicit suggestion in this historical retrospective — under a virtuous China one could return to the golden age.

In this narrative, the benign emperor maintained a pax sinica and ruled tianxia, all under heaven. This was symbolized by the tribute system, under which rulers of lands surrounding the Celestial Kingdom visited the imperial court, performed ketou, or obeisance, and presented gifts of local produce. In return, their legitimacy as rulers was affirmed. They were presented with the dynasty’s calendar and received costly items emblematic of the superior Sinitic civilization. The result was datong, or great harmony.

However, this idyllic setting was purportedly destroyed by the arrival of rapacious capitalist powers who were eager to expand their commercial empires and imposed the trading system and the Westphalian notion of sovereignty, with its notion of the equality of nation states answering to no higher authority. Since this leaves states free to act according to their perception of their own best interests, the result has been a Hobbesian war of all against all and a failed world. The solution to this baleful situation, suggest scholars like Zhao Tingyang, is to reinstate tianxia, presumably with Chinese leadership performing the role of adjudicator for all under heaven.

The problem is that the golden age never existed and is likely to prove ineffective for the modern era. The late Harvard sinologist Yang Lien-sheng stated flatly that “the sinocentric world order was a myth backed up at different times by realities of varying degree, sometimes approaching nil.” As other Chinese scholars have pointed out, force was needed, both to keep the empire together and protect it from external enemies. In Wang Gungwu’s formulation, the reality of empire was that of a hard core of wei, or force, surrounded by a soft pulp of de, virtue. Astute statecraft lay in finding the right balance.

Although court records praise the Confucian wisdom of emperors, they in fact behaved like Legalists, who suggested that the well-ordered society depended on clear rules and punishment for violators rather than benevolence. Others have noted that the superiority of the Chinese model in preventing war is ludicrous to anyone familiar with the details of Chinese history replete with conflict.

Nor is Confucianism a suitable paradigm for a cosmopolitan world. The Great Wall, one of the glories of ancient Sinitic civilization, is also a symbol of the empire’s isolationism: It was built to keep the barbarians out. Moreover, nowhere in the Confucian canon does one find that ties to others should be as strong as ties to kinfolk. In Confucius’ conception of the well-ordered kingdom, relationships should be extended from family members outward, with progressively diminishing intensity. The concept of filial piety has little meaning if one is expected to treat everyone as a sibling. As well, his views on the subordination of women and diminution of the entrepreneur would find little resonance today.

In yet another dissonance between theory and reality, those who accepted the status of vassal to the Chinese empire did not necessarily accept the notion of their inequality and conducted negotiations much as equals. In the mid-15th century, the ruler of Ayudhya refused the Ming dynasty envoy’s demand that he ketou to show respect to the emperor. For this ruler and others, recognition served a utilitarian purpose — in this case, obtaining the dynasty’s backing to counterbalance other aspiring hegemons.

Differences in power between the Chinese ruler and the rest could even result in role reversal: In 1138, the founder of the Southern Song dynasty, accepted vassal status to the barbarian Jin dynasty. In the 18th century, in response to pressure from Japan, the Ryukyus sent tribute to both the Tokugawa shogun and to Beijing. Even the Koreans, the most faithful of those professing allegiance to tianxia, repeatedly balked at Ming Emperor Hongwu’s requests to send horses, apparently because they wanted to reserve their stock for use in possible conflicts with the Ming in Manchuria. During the Qing dynasty, though continuing to send tribute, Korean rulers looked down on the Qing and pointedly retained the rival Ming dynasty calendar.

Well before the arrival of the Westerners, there had been a gradual shift away from tribute to trade. During the Ming dynasty, commercial transactions existed between the Ryukyus and parts of Southeast Asia. Private trade existed between China and Japan, even during the so-called sakoku period of the 17th century when Japan was theoretically closed to foreign commerce. Chinese court records from the late 1400s indicate concern about trade growth. Despite serious consequences, including decapitation, by the 15th century, a trading system had evolved that encompassed Southeast and North Asia. Since the earliest Western power, the Portuguese, did not arrive until 1524, this undermines the contention that trade was imposed from the Occident.

Moreover, the imposition of treaty trade did not necessarily result in a worsening of the fortunes of states that were notionally or actually part of the tianxia system. Research by Hamashita Takeshi shows that, far from being passive victims of avaricious foreign powers, the Western arrivals brought new opportunities. Never actually powerless within the system, these states further increased their autonomy. In one case, in 1884, an envoy from Guangdong told the consul of Siam that stopping its tribute embassies to China was not justified under international law, thereby invoking both tribute and trade systems. The consul replied by suggesting negotiations. Both parties saw their states as in a tributary relationship while simultaneously discussing a treaty between equals. The Koreans likewise combined elements of treaty and trade systems to benefit their best interests.

If tianxia has its problems, what of Westphalian sovereignty? While it is evident that all states are not equal in size and power, and that the presence of a supreme arbiter might be helpful in dispute settlement, few seem willing to cede that role to Beijing. The myth of equality is more attractive to most decision-makers than the myth of subordination to a benevolent ruler. There is also a question of how benevolent a ruler China would be: It is difficult to see Xi Jinping, his predecessors or likely successors in this role. The possibility that the Beijing leadership will become rule-maker to the world to ensure a global pax sinica raises the same concerns expressed by the 1st century AD Roman satirist Juvenal: “Quis custodiet ipso custodes” – Who will watch the watchmen?

Supporters of the revival of tianxia as model for today’s world are essentially misrepresenting the past to reconfigure the future, distorting it to advance a political agenda that is at best disingenuous and at worst dangerous. For all its deficiencies, sovereignty would be the preferred option by most. To rephrase Winston Churchill’s words on democracy, sovereignty may be the worst of all forms of world government, save for all the others.

June Teufel Dreyer is professor of political science at the University of Miami. She is a senior fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and previously served as commissioner of the US-China Economic and Security Commission established by the US Congress.

This article is excerpted from a longer paper which will appear in The Journal of Contemporary China.



Jokowi Talks Tough With Fading Power Australia


Indonesia's newfound chest-thumping may simply be a fledgling administration's efforts to win domestic approval, but is nonetheless indicative of shifting powers in the region

Two days before his Oct. 20 inauguration, new Indonesian President Joko Widodo, gave Australia a stern warning not to test the territorial sovereignty of the world’s largest archipelago.

Bolstering Jokowi’s message, Indonesia’s new Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi — the first ever female in the role — confirmed on Wednesday a departure from former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s principle of “thousand friends, zero enemies” to national interests first.

“To uphold our political sovereignty, what we must do is preserve the sovereignty of the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia,” Retno said at her first press conference. “We’ll do this firmly and clearly.”

The interception one day earlier of a Singaporean passenger aircraft over a well-traveled flight path that cuts through Indonesian airspace may be indicative of Jakarta’s new hard-line stance. Indonesian fighter jets forced the aircraft to land and pay a $4,900 fine — despite protestation from the Singaporean owner, ST Aerospace, that it had been using the route for a number of years without the need for prior clearance from Indonesia’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation.

However, these messages must be read within the context of Indonesia’s time-honored political melodrama, where tough talk against meddling foreign powers is par for the course. It’s also an easy and predictable way for new administration to score political points on the home front. “I think Jokowi’s warning to Australia was made for domestic consumption rather that advocating a nationalistic tone in foreign policy,” says Philips Vermonte, head of international relations at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta.

Indeed, Jokowi’s apparent double standards when dealing with Chinese incursions in the fish- and gas-rich waters of the Natuna Islands, on the northwest coast of Indonesian Borneo, seems to demonstrate diplomatic nuance rather than a new era of nationalistic fervor.

As recently as March 2013, armed Chinese ships bullied Indonesian patrol boats into releasing Chinese fisherman caught trawling illegally near Natuna. China has also included parts of the waters around Natuna within its so-called nine-dash line — its vague southern maritime boundary, adding Indonesia to the long list of countries it’s dueling with over aggressive claims to some 90% of the South China Sea.

In April, Indonesia’s armed-forces chief General Moeldoko penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal promising to strengthen Indonesian forces on Natuna and prepare fighter jets to meet “any eventuality.”

But two months later, during a presidential-election debate in June, Jokowi claimed Indonesia had no beef with China. In later interviews he adroitly turned the burning strategic problem with China on its head, suggesting Indonesia could serve as an “honest broker” vis-a-vis the Middle Kingdom’s disputes with other countries in the South China Sea.

This should not, however, be understood to mean the new Indonesian administration will be pushovers. Its soft stance on overlapping territorial claims with China is obviously linked to the fact that China is Indonesia’s second largest export trading partner. Australia, meanwhile, barely makes the top 10.

The lesson, it seems, more concerns shifting regional power than newfound Indonesian belligerence. “Australia needs to understand that Indonesia’s place in the world is growing, while it is not,”
adds Professor Tim Lindsey, director of the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society at the Melbourne Law School. By current estimates, he adds, Indonesia will have world’s seventh largest economy in around a decade and the fifth largest by 2050. “Australia’s current policies of turning back the boats doesn’t seem to factor in any of that at all,” says Lindsey.

“I think Australia would be advised to take [Jokowi’s latest about naval incursions] warning very seriously, and that it would be unwise to look at it in narrow terms by saying, ‘Their navy is very small so it’s not a valid threat,’” opines Antje Missbach, a research fellow at Monash University’s School of Social Sciences in Melbourne. “There are many ways Indonesia could make a point without involving its navy.”

Moreover, she adds, “Look what happened last time Australia offended them,” referring to when Indonesia recalled its ambassador to Australia for six months following revelations by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden that Australia had spied on Yudhoyono and his wife.

Speaking to TIME, Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison says, “It is not the government’s policy to incur Indonesia’s waters” and blames past incursions on the opposition government it replaced following the September 2013 general elections. “[We're] working closely with the new government of Indonesia on people-smuggling issues and we are optimistic about initial responses,” Morrison says.

Optimism is one thing; keeping out of your neighbor’s backyard is another altogether.

by Ian Lloyd Neubauer in Sydney

Suu Kyi Presidency Moves a Step Closer to Reality in Myanmar


Myanmar's president and military chief met with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Friday, an unprecedented event that could pave the way for major reforms in the once pariah nation.

The meeting culminated with the leaders agreeing to allow Myanmar's parliament to consider amending the country's constitution – which currently bars Ms. Suu Kyi from becoming president – ahead of elections next year.

The elections are expected to be a major test for the nominally civilian-run country, which has undergone a series of democratic reforms since 2011. But a constitutional ban that prevents Suu Kyi from becoming president still remains – a lasting reminder of the brutal military regime that ruled Myanmar for the previous five decades.

A Nobel laureate and widely beloved leader, Suu Kyi is ineligible to lead the country because of a clause in Myanmar's 2008 constitution that bans anyone whose spouse or children are foreign citizen from becoming president. Her late husband was British, as are her two sons. Test your knowledge How much do you know about Myanmar? Take this quiz and find out.

The opposition party led by Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy (NLD), is widely expected to win the 2015 election if they are free and fair, AFP reports.

The NLD won almost every seat available in the 2012 election, making Suu Kyi a member of parliament for the first time. She's since called repeatedly for a constitutional amendment that would allow her to run for president – and for a meeting between ruling leaders and their opposition counterparts like the one that finally took place on Friday.

Dozens of leaders from rival ethnic groups and political parties, including President Thein Sein and military chief Min Aung Hlaing, took part in the talks. Held in Naypyidaw, Myanmar's capital, the meeting was the first of its kind in the Southeast Asian country. It ended with a broad agreement between leaders to work together on reforms – and on peace talks with more than a dozen rebel ethnic groups.

The Associated Press reported that the meeting "appeared timed to showcase the Southeast Asian nation's ongoing reforms" ahead of a regional summit in less than two weeks. Critics called it a hollow attempt to show the international community and summit participants – President Barack Obama chief among them – that political dialogue is still continuing.

"It looks as if this is being timed for Obama's visit, but this might be the start of what has been needed for a long time, an institutional framework for dialogue," Aung Thu Nyein, a Bangkok-based academic and Myanmar specialist, told Reuters. "There's a lot that needs to be talked about and problems that will need solutions."

In separate phone calls Thursday with Suu Kyi and Mr. Sein, Mr. Obama pushed the two rival leaders on furthering Myanmar's democratic reforms, the AP reports.

Obama underscored the need for an inclusive and credible process for conducting elections next year, the White House said. He also stressed the importance of addressing tensions in Rakhine State, where more than 100,000 members of a Muslim minority have fled attacks and persecution over the last two years.

The upcoming East Asia Summit is scheduled for Nov. 12-13.

Agence France-Presse reports

The Missing Women of Afghanistan

After 13 Years of War, the Rule of Men, Not Law 

On September 29th, power in Afghanistan changed hands for the first time in 13 years. At the Arg, the presidential palace in Kabul, Ashraf Ghani was sworn in as president, while the outgoing Hamid Karzai watched calmly from a front-row seat.  Washington, congratulating itself on this “peaceful transition,” quickly collected the new president’s autograph on a bilateral security agreement that assures the presence of American forces in Afghanistan for at least another decade. The big news of the day: the U.S. got what it wanted.  (Precisely why Americans should rejoice that our soldiers will stay in Afghanistan for another 10 years is never explained.)

The big news of the day for Afghans was quite different -- not the long expected continuation of the American occupation but what the new president had to say in his inaugural speech about his wife, Rula Ghani. Gazing at her as she sat in the audience, he called her by name, praised her work with refugees, and announced that she would continue that work during his presidency.

Those brief comments sent progressive Afghan women over the moon. They had waited 13 years to hear such words -- words that might have changed the course of the American occupation and the future of Afghanistan had they been spoken in 2001 by Hamid Karzai.

No, they’re not magic.  They simply reflect the values of a substantial minority of Afghans and probably the majority of Afghans in exile in the West. They also reflect an idea the U.S. regularly praises itself for holding, but generally acts against -- the very one George W. Bush cited as part of his justification for invading Afghanistan in 2001.

The popular sell for that invasion, you will recall, was an idea for which American men had never before exhibited much enthusiasm: women’s liberation.  For years, human rights organizations the world over had called attention to the plight of Afghan women, confined to their homes by the Taliban government, deprived of education and medical care, whipped in the streets by self-appointed committees for “the Promotion of Public Virtue and the Prevention of Vice,” and on occasion executed in Kabul’s Ghazi stadium. Horrific as that was, few could have imagined an American president, a Republican at that, waving a feminist flag to cover the invasion of a country guilty mainly of hosting a scheming guest.

While George W. Bush bragged about liberating Afghan women, his administration followed quite a different playbook on the ground. In December 2001, at the Bonn Conference called to establish an interim Afghan governing body, his team saw to it that the country’s new leader would be the apparently malleable Hamid Karzai, a conservative Pashtun who, like any Talib, kept his wife, Dr. Zinat Karzai, confined at home.  Before they married in 1999, she had been a practicing gynecologist with skills desperately needed to improve the country’s abysmal maternal mortality rate, but she instead became the most prominent Afghan woman the Bush liberation failed to reach.

This disconnect between Washington’s much-advertised support for women’s rights and its actual disdain for women was not lost upon canny Afghans. From early on, they recognized that the Americans were hypocrites at heart. 

Washington revealed itself in other ways as well.  Afghan warlords had ravaged the country during the civil war of the early 1990s that preceded the Taliban takeover, committing mass atrocities best defined as crimes against humanity.  In 2002, the year after the American invasion and overthrow of the Taliban, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission established under the auspices of the U.N. surveyed citizens nationwide and found that 76% of them wanted those warlords tried as war criminals, while 90% wanted them barred from public office.  As it happened, some of those men had been among Washington’s favorite, highly paid Islamist jihadis during its proxy war against the Soviet Union of the 1980s.  As a result, the Bush administration looked the other way when Karzai welcomed those “experienced” men into his cabinet, the parliament, and the “new” judiciary. Impunity was the operative word.  The message couldn’t have been clearer: with the right connections, a man could get away with anything -- from industrial-scale atrocities to the routine subjugation of women.

There is little in the twisted nature of American-Afghan relations in the past 13 years that can’t be traced to these revelations that the United States does not practice what it preaches, that equality and justice were little more than slogans -- and so, it turned out, was democracy.

Taking Sides

The American habit of thinking only in the short term has also shaped long-term results in Afghanistan.  Military and political leaders in Washington have had a way of focusing only on the most immediate events, the ones that invariably raised fears and seemed to demand (or provided an excuse for) instantaneous action.  The long, winding, shadowy paths of history and culture remained unexplored.  So it was that the Bush administration targeted the Taliban as the enemy, drove them from power, installed “democracy” by fiat, and incidentally told women to take off their burqas.  Mission accomplished!

Unlike the Americans and their coalition partners, however, the Taliban were not foreign interlopers but Afghans. Nor were they an isolated group, but the far right wing of Afghan Islamist conservatism.  As such, they simply represented then, and continue to represent in extreme form today, the traditional conservative ranks of significant parts of the population who have resisted change and modernization for as long as anyone can remember.

Yet theirs is not the only Afghan tradition.  Progressive rulers and educated urban citizens have long sought to usher the country into the modern world. Nearly a century ago, King Amanullah founded the first high school for girls and the first family court to adjudicate women’s complaints about their husbands; he proclaimed the equality of men and women, and banned polygamy; he cast away the burqa, and banished ultra-conservative Islamist mullahs as “bad and evil persons” who spread propaganda foreign to the moderate Sufi ideals of the country. Since then, other rulers, both kings and commissars, have championed education, women’s emancipation, religious tolerance, and conceptions of human rights usually associated with the West.  Whatever its limitations in the Afghan context, such progressive thinking is also “traditional.”

The historic contest between the two traditions came to a head in the 1980s during the Soviet occupation of the country. Then it was the Russians who supported women’s human rights and girls’ education, while Washington funded a set of particularly extreme Islamist groups in exile in Pakistan. Only a few years earlier, in the mid-1970s, Afghan president Mohammad Daud Khan, backed by Afghan communists, had driven radical Islamist leaders out of the country, much as King Amanullah had done before. It was the CIA, in league with the intelligence services of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, that armed them and brought them back as President Ronald Reagan’s celebrated “freedom fighters,” the mujahidin.

Twenty years later, it would be the Americans, spearheaded again by the CIA, who returned to drive them out once more.  History can be a snarl, especially when a major power can’t think ahead.

Whether by ignorance or intention, in 2001-2002, its moment of triumph in Afghanistan, the U.S. tried to have it both ways. With one hand it waved the progressive banner of women’s rights, while with the other it crafted a highly centralized and powerful presidential government, which it promptly handed over to a conservative man, who scarcely gave a thought to women.  Given sole power for 13 years to appoint government ministers, provincial governors, municipal mayors, and almost every other public official countrywide, President Karzai maintained a remarkably consistent, almost perfect record of choosing only men.

Once it was clear that he cared nothing for the human rights of women, the death threats against those who took Washington’s “liberation” language seriously began in earnest.  Women working in local and international NGOs, government agencies, and schools soon found posted on the gates of their compounds anonymous messages -- so called “night letters” -- describing in gruesome detail how they would be killed.  By way of Facebook or mobile phone they received videos of men raping young girls.  Then the assassinations began. Policewomen, provincial officials, humanitarian workers, teachers, schoolgirls, TV and radio presenters, actresses, singers -- the list seemed never to end. Some were, you might say, overkilled: raped, beaten, strangled, cut, shot, and then hung from a tree -- just to make a point.  Even when groups of men claimed credit for such murders, no one was detained or prosecuted.

Still the Bush administration boasted of ever more girls enrolled in school and advances in health care that reduced rates of maternal and infant death.  Progress was slow, shaky, and always greatly exaggerated, but real. On Barack Obama’s watch, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton renewed American promises to Afghan women.  She swore repeatedly never to abandon them, though somehow she rarely remembered to invite any of them to international conferences where men discussed the future of their country.

In the meantime, Karzai continued to approve legislation that tightened restrictions on the rights of women, while failing to restrict violence against them. 

Only in 2009, under relentless pressure from Afghan women’s organizations and many of the countries providing financial aid, did Karzai enact by decree a law for “The Elimination of Violence Against Women” (EVAW). It banned 22 practices harmful to women and girls, including rape, physical violence, child marriage, and forced marriage.  Women are now reporting rising levels of violence, but few have found any redress under the law.  Like the constitutional proviso that men and women are equal, the potentially powerful protections of EVAW exist mainly on paper.

But after that single concession to women, Karzai frightened them by calling for peace negotiations with the Taliban. In 2012, perhaps to cajole the men he called his “angry brothers,” he also endorsed a “code of conduct” issued by a powerful group of ultra-conservative clerics, the Council of Ulema. The code authorizes wife beating, calls for the segregation of the sexes, and insists that in the great scheme of things “men are fundamental and women are secondary.” Washington had already reached a similar conclusion. In March 2011, a jocular anonymous senior White House official told the press that, in awarding contracts for major development projects in Afghanistan, the State Department no longer included provisions respecting the rights of women and girls. “All those pet rocks in our rucksack,” he said, “were taking us down."  Dumping them, the Obama administration placed itself once and for all on the side of ultraconservative undemocratic forces.

Why Women Matter

The U.N. Security Council has, however, cited such pet rocks as the most durable foundation stones for peace and stability in any country. In recent decades, the U.N., multiple research organizations, and academicians working in fields such as political science and security studies have piled up masses of evidence documenting the importance of equality between women and men (normally referred to as “gender equality”).  Their findings point to the historic male dominance of women, enforced by violence, as the ancient prototype of all forms of dominance and violence and the very pattern of exploitation, enslavement, and war.  Their research supports the shrewd observation of John Stuart Mill, the nineteenth century British philosopher, that Englishmen first learned at home and then practiced on their wives the tyranny they subsequently exercised on foreign shores to amass and control the British Empire.

Such research and common sense born of observation lie behind a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions passed since 2000 that call for the full participation of women in all peace negotiations, humanitarian planning, and post-conflict governance. Women alter the discourse, while transforming unequal relations between the sexes changes men as well, generally for the better.  Quite simply, countries in which women and men enjoy positions of relative equality and respect tend to be stable, prosperous, and peaceful. Today, for instance, gender equality is greatest in the five Nordic countries, which consistently finish at the top of any list of the world’s happiest nations.

On the other hand, where, as in Afghanistan, men and women are least equal and men routinely oppress and violate women, violence is more likely to erupt between men as well, on a national scale and in international relations. Such nations are the most impoverished, violent, and unstable in the world. It’s often said that poverty leads to violence.  But you can turn that proposition around: violence that removes women from public life and equitable economic activity produces poverty and so yet more violence.  As Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong put it: “Women hold up half the sky.”  Tie our hands and the sky falls.

Women in Afghanistan have figured this out through hard experience.  That’s why some wept for joy at Ashraf Ghani’s simple words acknowledging the value of his wife’s work.  But with that small, startling, and memorable moment came a terrible sense of opportunity wasted.

Some in the international community had taken the rights of women seriously. They had established women’s quotas in parliament, for instance, and had written “equal rights” into the Afghan constitution of 2004. But what could women accomplish in a parliament swarming with ex-warlords, drug barons, and “former” Taliban who had changed only the color of their turbans?  What sort of “equality” could they hope for when the constitution held that no law could supersede the Sharia of Islam, a system open to extreme interpretation? Not all the women parliamentarians stood together anyway. Some had been handpicked and their votes paid for by powerful men, both inside and outside government.  Yet hundreds, even thousands more women might have taken part in public life if the U.S. had sided unreservedly with the progressive tradition in Afghanistan and chosen a different man to head the country.

The New Men in Charge

What about Ashraf Ghani, the new president, and Abdullah Abdullah, the “CEO” of the state?  These two top candidates were rivals in both the recent presidential election and the last one in 2009, when Abdullah finished second to Karzai and declined to take part in a runoff that was likely to be fraudulent.  (In the first round of voting, Karzai’s men had been caught on video stuffing ballot boxes.)

In this year’s protracted election, on April 5th, Abdullah had finished first in a field of eight with 45% of the votes.  That was better than Ghani’s 31%, but short of the 50% needed to win outright.  Both candidates complained of fraud. In June, when Ghani took 56% of the votes in the runoff, topping Abdullah’s 43%, Abdullah cried foul and threatened to form his own government. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hustled to Kabul to lash the two men together in a vague, unconstitutional “unity government” that is still being defined but that certainly had next to nothing to do with electoral democracy.

Both these men appear as famously vain as Hamid Karzai in matters of haberdashery and headgear, but both are far more progressive. Ghani, a former finance minister and chancellor of Kabul University, is acknowledged to be the brainy one. After years in academia and a decade at the World Bank, he took office with plans to combat the country’s notorious corruption.  He has already reopened the superficial investigation of the Kabul Bank, a giant pyramid scheme that collapsed in 2010 after handing out nearly a billion dollars in “loans” to cronies in and out of the government.  (Ghani may be one of the few people who fully understands the scam.)

Abdullah Abdullah is generally credited with being the smoother politician of the two in a country where politics is a matter of allegiances (and rivalries) among men. As foreign minister in the first Karzai cabinet, he appointed a woman to advise him on women’s affairs. Since then, however, his literal affairs in private have become the subject of scandalous gossip.  In public, he has long proposed decentralizing the governmental structure Washington inflicted upon the country. He wants power dispersed throughout the provinces, strengthening the ability of Afghans to determine the conditions of their own communities.  Something like democracy.

The agreement between Ghani and Abdullah calls for an assembly of elders, a loya jirga, to be held “within two years” to establish the position of prime minister, which Abdullah will presumably want to occupy.  Even before his down-and-dirty experiences with two American presidents, he objected to the presidential form of government. “A president,” he told me, “becomes an autocrat.” Power, he argues, rightly belongs to the people and their parliament.

Whether these rivals can work together -- they have scheduled three meetings a week -- has everyone guessing, even as American and coalition forces leave the country and the Taliban attack in greater strength in unexpected places. Yet the change of government sparks optimism and hope among both Afghans and international observers.

On the other hand, many Afghans, especially women, are still angry with all eight candidates who ran for president, blaming them for the interminable “election” process that brought two of them to power. Mahbouba Seraj, former head of the Afghan Women’s Network and an astute observer, points out that in the course of countless elaborate lunches and late night feasts hosted during the campaign by various Afghan big men, the candidates might have come to some agreement among themselves to narrow the field. They might have found ways to spare the country the high cost and anxiety of a second round of voting, not to mention months of recounting, only to have the final tallies withheld from the public.

Instead, the candidates seemed to hold the country hostage. Their angry charges and threats stirred barely suppressed fears of civil war, and fear silenced women.  “Once again,” Seraj wrote, “we have been excluded from the most important decisions of this country. We have been shut down by the oldest, most effective, and most familiar means: by force.” Women, she added, are now afraid to open their mouths, even to ask “legitimate questions” about the nature of this new government, which seems to be not a “people’s government” consistent with the ballots cast -- nearly half of them cast by women -- but more of “a coalition government, fabricated by the candidates and international mediators.”  Government in a box, in other words, and man-made.

Knowing that many women are both fearful and furious that male egos still dominate Afghan “democracy,” Seraj makes the case for women again: “Since the year 2000, the U.N. Security Council has passed one resolution after another calling for full participation of women at decision-making levels in all peace-making and nation-building processes. That means a lot more than simply turning out to vote. But we women of Afghanistan have been shut out, shut down, and silenced by fear of the very men we are asked to vote for and the men who follow them... This is not what we women have worked for or voted for or dreamed of, and if we could raise our voices once again, we would not call this ‘democracy.’"

Ask yourself: Would you?

Ann Jones, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of Kabul in Winter, and War Is Not Over When It’s Over, among other books, and most recently They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars -- The Untold Story, a Dispatch Books project.  She and Andrew Bacevich will be in conversation November 12 at the Lensic Performing Arts Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, as part of Lannan Foundation’s cultural freedom program.

India’s Modi Merges Myth and Reality

Ancient art of plastic surgery fixed Ganesh’s head onto a man’s body. What??

India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has caused consternation and controversy by telling an audience of doctors and scientists last weekend that plastic surgery and genetic science existed and were in use thousands of years ago in ancient India.

That, he said at the dedication of a hospital in Mumbai on October 25, was how the Hindu god Ganesh’s elephant head became attached to a human body, and how a warrior god was born outside his mother’s womb.

The theme of Modi’s speech was that India needs to improve its (grossly inadequate) healthcare facilities, which is in line with campaigns he has launched for cleanliness and the provision and use of toilets in schools and elsewhere. Quoting the ancient Mahabharat epic, he extended this to say that “our ancestors made big contributions” in such areas and that those capabilities needed to be regained.

The speech,at a hospital funded by the Ambani family of Reliance, one of India’s two biggest groups, is on the prime minister’s office website in Hindi (click here), and theIndian Express has published some of the paragraphs with an English translation (click here):

“We can feel proud of what our country achieved in medical science at one point of time. We all read about Karna in Mahabharat. If we think a little more, we realise that the Mahabharat says Karna was not born from his mother’s womb. This means that genetic science was present at that time. That is why Karna could be born outside his mother’s womb…..We worship Lord Ganesh. There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant’s head onto the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery.”

This is significant for three reasons. One is the unusual position of a prime minister who makes such utterances as fact, which caused the consternation and was debated earlier this week on the Headlines Today To the Point tv channel. The second is that, apart from that program, there has been very little coverage of this part of his speech in the Indian media, which has largely fought shy of criticizing or questioning Modi and his ministers since the general election.

The third reason is that it controversially illustrates how Hindu nationalist views are moving to center stage now that the BJP is in power. Activists have a simple vision of building a strong India that is respected worldwide as a modern version of an ancient Hindu civilisation, which is the pivotal point of their view of history.

It is this vision that drives Modi and many of his ministers, raising the question of how much they would disturb India’s broadly-based traditions and view of history that have been built since independence by Congress governments to embrace Muslims and other minorities. Re.-writing school textbooks is part of the government’s program, as it was when the BJP was last in power.

That Modi supports theories such as Ganesh’s head is well known. He has spoken about them before and propagated them in schools when he was chief minister of Gujarat, writing the preface of a book that claimed the ancient inventions of motor cars, airplanes and origins of stem cell research.

In a similar vein, Modi’s water resources minister, Uma Bharti, has revived a geological search for the mystical River Saraswati, which is mentioned in Vedic texts and is alleged to flow roughly parallel to the Indus from the Himalayas to the Arabian sea. 

Even under the recent Congress government, the Archaeological Society of India, an official body in charge of ancient monuments and sites, last year authorized a (fruitless) dig under an old fort in Uttar Pradesh after a seer had dreamed that 1,000 tonnes of goldwere buried there

The Ramayana, the Hindu religion’s most popular epic dating from 3,000 years ago, has for seven or more years been the basis of opposition to a project to dig a shipping channel in the Palk Straits between the southern tip of India and Sri Lanka. It has been argued the channel would breach a crop of rocks known as Adam’s Bridge (or Ram Setu) thatLord Ram built across the straits so that his armies could rescue his wife Sita from the clutches of the Lankan king.

Such suggestions and actions need to be seen in the context of Indians’ everyday lives, which absorb mythologies and religions without necessarily questioning and analyzing the boundaries between mythological and religious beliefs and modern reality.

What is unusual is to have a prime minister say Ganesh was the product of plastic surgery without acknowledging that accuracy cannot be vouched for in the empirical western sense of history, even though inspirational mythology usually has some basis in truth.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent.  He also blogs under the title Riding theElephant, which can be found at the bottom right corner of Asia Sentinel’s face page.


Time for Thai Royals to Face Reality

Monarchists are out of touch and one self-exiled Thai woman says, ‘Enough!’

I have often asked myself why Thai royalists are so blindsided, so irrational and so acrimonious whenever anyone with a free-spirit questions the high-flying status of the royals or the vast sums of taxpayer money that goes to support them each year.

Thai authorities and royalists simply refuse to listen to reason and logic. It is virtually impossible to discuss anything regarding the subject in a peaceful way. I do not know how the country became this way but it seems to me everyone is living in fear, especially in the light of the royalist-supported coup d' etat by Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha who has appointed himself the new prime minister.

Thai royalists even put a stigma on those who disagree with them by creating a social taboo with the Thai words "Lom Chow (ล้มเจ้า)," as if people with inquisitive minds are bad people. The royalists and those aged elites would want Thailand to roll backward to the Puritan Era so they can impose their own barbaric rules and dictatorship against the Thai people.


Out of touch

Sorry, with all due respect, I cannot buy their out-of-touch concept, even to my own detriment. This is the 21st Century and the Age of the Information Superhighway; free-thinking Thai people must be united and set the country free. We must not let the less than 1 percent of selfish elites to control 85 percent of the wealth and economy of the country.

I could understand the poor and uneducated living in Thailand who have been bombarded with nonstop royal propaganda since birth while, at the same time, truthful and negative information is blocked by the state apparatus such as Ministry of Information and Technology (ICT) and the royalist-controlled print and television media.

Huge posters of the royals are ubiquitous in every major street corner, showing their greatness without any justification. It is unbelievable such expensive posters are all paid for by taxpayers! I am astonished to learn that there is a "Promotional Budget for Thai royals" in the government's annual budget. Such money should have been better used for building schools and hospitals and providing nutrition for poor children!

People are forced to comply with their despicable lese majeste law, which carries a mandatory jail term of 3 to 15 years for each offense if convicted! Scores of prisoners are in Thai jails throughout the country.


Barbaric law

The lese majeste law is indeed barbaric and contradictory. How could you find out the truth when you don't even know if the one who praises the royals is being truthful? Praising the royals is the ONLY way for anyone to talk about them openly and without fear of reprisal. If you utter even a slight hint of negativity, it could land you in a Thai jail.

It is a misconception and a myth for the Thai and foreign media to say the Thai king is so beloved and revered by the Thai people. Just to remind you, once and for all, saying otherwise regarding the royals would land you in a mosquito-infested jail for years! So please stop printing that they are so revered and so loved!

The lese majeste law also hinders creativity. A case in point is the recent lese majeste case against two student actors in a drama on stage at their university. Patiwat Saraiyaem, 23, and Pornthip Munkong, 25, were arrested on Aug. 14 and 15, 2014, respectively, for their participation in “The Wolf Bride,” a play presented in October 2013 as part of the 40th commemoration at Thammasat University of the October 1973 pro-democracy protest. The play involved social and political issues. If the two students were in the civilized world, an accolade would be given for their talent, creativity and bravery. Not so in Thailand where self-censorship is the norm.

I am sure a growing number of the populace now realize that they have been deceived all these years by the royals but they are too fearful to express themselves. Thais are basically non-violent people. Royalists know this and that may be why they have been able to control the minds of the people for so long.

All of Thailand's neighbors got rid of their parasitic royals a long time ago. Even Laos, which Thai elites often look down upon, abolished its monarchy some 39 years ago!


Why attack me?

A small number of Thai royalists living abroad have attacked me and my ex-husband’s family and touted their illegal actions on YouTube. This is not free speech! You don't attack or damage people's property. You don't throw eggs at them. You don't hang bags of dog's feces on their doorknobs. Such acts will never intimidate me from telling the truth about the Thai monarchy.

These criminal acts are illegal in the UK where I live and punishable with jail terms. One depraved royalist in London erroneously stated that only 5 percent of the Thai populace dislikes the monarchy. May I remind her that in each of the past elections (since 2001), former Prime Minister Thaksin's political party won. More than 16 million voters had confidence in him. The old royalist political party, the misnamed Democrat Party, has never won a single election during the past 20 years. I dare say that more than 70 percent of the population would want the monarchy abolished.

This is what got my attacker in deep trouble with the UK police. It was not the speech she made on her Facebook page; it was not the vulgar language she used against me. It was her and her buddies' illegal actions that got them in trouble with British law.



I have never displayed my opinion about the Thai royals through violent and physical means. I simply tell the truth with facts, evidence and links. Like most people living in Thailand now, I was deceived by the Thai royal's massive propaganda ever since I was born. I went to a royalist school. I watched their royal news. I used to defend them when my foreign friends said anything negative about them.

But I had a chance to do my own research when I came to live in the UK.  This is like being born-again to me. I am enlightened in so far as the Thai monarchy goes. I have learned that:

·  Queen Elizabeth is loved by her people not because of lese majeste laws. The Brits can criticize her and even make fun of her without fearing going to jail like in Thailand.

·  It is wrong for Thai royals to be fed by Thai taxpayers to the tune of some £300 million sterling a year while the Thai king has been ranked as the richest monarch in the world by Forbes magazine.

·  The Thai monarchy and its network have been deeply involved in Thai politics in order to maintain their opulent status.

·  Thai elites never go to jail even if they commit heinous crimes. This culture of impunity must stop if Thailand wants to be recognized as a decent country.

·  Thailand has a warped political system they call Thai-style democracy when in fact it is still an absolute monarchy run by royal proxies. All the important branches of government are hand-picked by the top royals ‑ Chief of the Armed Forces, judges, ministers, the police and even rectors of universities. An elected PM does not have the ultimate say in any important issues unless it is cleared by the palace.

·  The gap between the rich and the poor is getting wider. One can see Thai elites driving their latest model Mercedes Benz passing dying beggars on the street and they could not care less.

·  There is absolutely no welfare system for the poor and disabled. Poor children are forced to sell whatever they can on the streets to help their families while children of the elites ride to school in their luxurious cars.

·  Pretty women are forced into prostitution to make ends meet while not-so-pretty women work in unsanitary factories and are paid slave wages.

·  Leaders of labor unions are often killed in order to silence workers from demanding decent wages.

·  Members of the royal family do not pay income taxes.

To those Thai royalists living abroad, all I can say is this: "Shame on you!"


And another thing

Last but not least, I am often asked, "Aren't you afraid of the lese majeste law?" "Don't you want to go back to visit Thailand?"

My answers to the above would be, "No, I am not afraid of their barbaric and uncivilized lese majeste law, which is rejected by the civilized nations of the world." As to the second question, "No, I don't want to visit Thailand the way it is now. I love the Thai people who are all my brothers and sisters. Unfortunately, they are being governed by evil and selfish and rather dumb military and royalist leaders." It is not a Land of Smiles anymore. It's a Land of Deceit and Lies.

I know in my heart that our day will come when we can all celebrate true freedom, liberty and democracy! I wish to quote the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous speech that one day we can all join hands and declare: "Free at last, free at last! Thank God, Almighty, we're free at last!"

Chatwadee Amornpat is a Thailand-born UK citizen who has issued a series of blistering condemnations of Thailand’s royal family.  She has been charged with lese majeste in Thailand and harassed, threatened and excoriated.  She remains defiant.  She wrote this for Asia Sentinel.