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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
by Ian Lloyd Neubauer
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.’"
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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!
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
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
Pretty women are forced into prostitution to make ends
meet while not-so-pretty women work in unsanitary factories and are paid slave
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!"
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
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
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