Friday, July 31, 2015

INTERVIEW/ Richard Falk: New global order needed to pursue human--not national--interests


The Islamic State group’s expanding influence, the lack of progress in Middle East peace talks and the increase in ethnic and religious conflicts are just some of the signs of greater confusion in the world today.

Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, was asked what is needed to create a new world order to help deal with these regional issues as well as global issues, such as climate change and nuclear weapons.

Falk was involved as a peace activist and expert witness in Congress during the Vietnam War and in human rights issues concerning Palestinians.

Excerpts of the interview follow:

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Question: How do you assess the view that the diplomatic influence of the United States has been declining in recent years?

Falk: There are several factors. The first factor is that the change in the domestic political situation within the United States has put foreign policy under a great deal of what I would call “irrational pressure.” American policy in the Middle East has been especially distorted by its need to satisfy the Israeli lobby.

There were many mistakes made by the United States, Iraq being the most spectacular. Not only the initiation of a war against Iraq, but a very misguided occupation policy definitely encouraged the rise of sectarianism.

This helped to create the conditions for the emergence of (the Islamic State) by purging the Sunni officer corps of the Iraqi armed forces.

The United States has spent billions on training the armed forces of Iraq. (The Islamic State) arrives on the scene with no particular big-power backing, yet seems to be a very effective force on the ground because they have the political will to engage effectively in military combat.

Q: About a year ago, the Islamic State issued a declaration calling for the establishment of a caliphate state and for people to follow the strict form of Islamic law, or Shariah. How do you view such measures designed to change the present order?

A: Saudi Arabia also is a practitioner of a very harsh form of Shariah. There are no high-profile international complaints when they routinely behead criminals and others that they accused of a crime.

There exist a range of governing processes that are not altogether consistent with Western, liberal values. Self-determination implies different societies can choose different political systems.

The most severe problem associated with (the Islamic State) is that it has definitely engaged in genocidal conduct, and that is intolerable.

Q: But isn’t the United States trying to put down the Islamic State through force?

A: I feel that one of the problems with American foreign policy is that it has great difficulty thinking outside the “military box.”

The political sensibility has become over the years of World War II, the Cold War and now the war on terror unduly dominated by hard-power capabilities and solutions.

The record of deploying hard power is very poor since World War II. I think Vietnam was the clearest case where the United States had complete military dominance and yet lost the war. There is a need to couple a military approach with a continuous exploration of possibilities for a diplomatic solution.

Q: Wasn’t the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan also a mistake?

A: The Afghans have an interesting slogan—“You have the watches and we have the time.”

The intervening side makes a cost-benefit calculation, but the target society has its own destiny that is at stake, so it is more patient. It is far more reluctant to surrender, and Third World movements have learned if they are patient, they are likely to prevail even if militarily inferior.

From my conversations with leaders in Hanoi during the Vietnam War, they had a 50-year plan of resistance.

Q: Are you saying the United States should try to seek out non-military solutions?

A: Although it seems difficult to explore diplomatic possibilities, a military approach to a problem is more likely to create more recruits for the terrorist adversary than it is to end the challenge.

I heard (former British Prime Minister) John Major talk about his efforts to find a peaceful solution in Northern Ireland, and he said that he only began to make progress when he saw the (Irish Republican Army) not as a terrorist organization, but as a political actor.

I am not saying that this would necessarily happen with (the Islamic State).

Now, (the United States and Afghanistan are) trying to negotiate with the Taliban.

Q: Could you explain your definition of terrorism?

A: It is used so instrumentally by the geopolitical forces. I think a clearer understanding of political conflict arises by not using the terminology of “terrorism.” If it is used, I believe it should be used to encompass both movements like (the Islamic State), but also governments.

The essence of terrorism is deliberate political violence against those who are innocent civilians. State terrorism is in my way of thinking more destructive of people than is the terrorism of the anti-state movements.

Hamas won the election in 2006 (in Palestine), but it has been in Israel’s interest to keep them in this “terrorist box,” and the United States has endorsed that approach.

Q: You served as special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights for the United Nations. Do you see any progress toward the establishment of a Palestinian state?

A: Israel has created conditions that make it very hard to imagine how to create a Palestinian state. In that sense, I don’t have the political imagination to understand how a two-state solution (for Israel and Palestine) could emerge given present realities on the ground. People have talked about confederations and a secular one-state solution. But these solutions do not seem to be on the political horizon.

I am not smart enough to be pessimistic, but I’m not smart enough to be optimistic either, so I don’t know what will unfold in the future, but it is likely to be something that we don’t anticipate at the moment.

There has been a new tactical emphasis on the Palestinian side. A combination of Palestinian soft-power initiatives coupled with a growing solidarity gives Europe, and maybe Japan, an opportunity to play a more independent role.

There has been the recognition of Palestine as a state against the will of the United States and Israel, by the United Nations, Sweden and Pope Francis.

Q: How should we understand your criticism of Israel even though you are a Jewish-American?

A: I give priority to species identity rather than subspecies identity. My Jewish identity is a subspecies identity, but my human identity is species identity. Many of the problems of the world come out of giving too much weight to subspecies identity, whether it is nationality or ethnicity or religion or civilization. The world has become too interdependent in this era of globalization for the subspecies entities to retain their dominance, but the pressure against it makes it stronger.

It is both a consciousness problem and a structural problem. The world is organized into territorial sovereign states and so are organizations like the United Nations or the World Bank.

We will have a very self-defeating future for humanity if we continue on this path of modernity that comes from the Westphalian peace treaties of the 17th century based on the idea of the nation-state as the only full-fledged political actor on a global stage.

In the pre-Westphalian Europe, there was a kind of a normative unity that was provided by the Catholic Church, and so you had a Christian community. It was a non-territorial community similar to the Islamic “ummah” (community).

The idea of the nation-state served the international consciousness of avoiding religious wars between Catholics and Protestants. That was a rational solution in the 17th century, but it is not a rational solution in the 21st century.

Q: Do you believe the nation-state is incapable of dealing with the global issues of today?

A: In connection with climate change negotiations, governments correctly feel that their primary responsibility is to pursue their national interests. In a situation like this, you can’t achieve an agreement that is good for everyone. Nuclear weapons and climate change are problems that are not solvable merely by cooperation among states.

You need some mechanism to protect global interests or the human interest, and the United Nations is too weak to do that. If one wants it to serve the interests of humanity, world order needs to either be reformed or transformed in such a way as to allow the global interests to be protected.

There are really two sets of issues, one is containing the geopolitical actors within an agreed legal framework, and the other is overcoming the primacy of national interests.

Q: Has a vision emerged of a new world order?

A: (The pope) more than any other global figure seems to go beyond his subspecies identity and seems to be speaking a universal language. I think religion has the potentiality of contributing to this sentiment of being part of the human family.

My own political imagination doesn’t depend on “waiting for the Messiah.”

Changes in political consciousness are somewhat mysterious. They come from underneath the surface, and so they are very hard to anticipate, like earthquakes. There is a situation that may give rise to something completely different, but you don’t know quite how it emerges.

Tolstoy, at the end of “War and Peace,” writes an epilogue in which he asks: Why do historians always get history wrong? He says: “Though the surface of the sea of history seemed motionless, the movement of humanity went on as unceasingly as the flow of time. ... . The sea of history was not driven spasmodically from shore to shore as previously. It was seething in its depths.”

By TSUTOMU ISHIAI/ Foreign News Editor


Russia Races to Outflank China in Middle East Nuclear Technology Market

Moscow is hurrying to secure new markets as China emerges as a competing supplier.

As China enters the market for nuclear power plant construction in post-sanctions Iran, Moscow is racing across the Middle East to develop new export markets for Russian nuclear technology. On July 22, the head of Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) announced that Beijing and Tehran have agreed to China’s construction of two nuclear power plants on Iran’s southern coast. However the loss to Beijing of some of its market share in nuclear technology exports to Iran has not caught Moscow flatfooted. While world attention was focused on the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 nations during the first half of 2015, one of those P5 nations – Russia – was scrambling across the Middle East to sign nuclear plant construction contracts with Iran’s Sunni rivals. In addition to seizing upon a good business opportunity among Iran’s regional rivals, Russia was also attempting to outflank another P5 nation, China, before Beijing emerges as Moscow’s rival in the Middle East market for civil nuclear technology.

Expanding Russia’s global market share in nuclear reactor construction is a policy priority for Moscow. Russia itself is the world’s third-largest generator of nuclear power. During his first tenure as president of Russia, Vladimir Putin set a national goal of generating 25 percent of Russia’s electricity from nuclear energy by 2030. Moscow has the second largest number of reactors under construction in the world. Preserving its premier position in the global market for civil nuclear technology is also essential for maintaining Moscow’s own nuclear industry. Yet that position is now threatened by Beijing’s entrance into the global market with a Chinese-designed reactor. To build its brand, China is muscling Russia out of the market in a post-sanctions Iran. China’s emergence as a competing supplier of civil nuclear technology in Iran is one of the principal reasons Russia is hurrying to secure new markets across the Middle East.

Russia’s first and only project in the Middle Eastern market outside of Iran is Turkey’s Akkuyu nuclear power plant that will feature four Russian-designed VVER reactors. Turkey and Russia held the groundbreaking ceremonies for the project less than two weeks after Iran and the P5+1 nations announced the April 2, 2015 Framework Agreement. The plant is being financed by Russia under a Build-Own-Operate model. A two months earlier Putin and Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU)for Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy company ROSATOM to build Egypt’s first commercial nuclear power plant. A month after the Russian-Egyptian MOU, Russia signed a $10 billion agreement with Jordan to construct the country’s first nuclear power plant, with ROSATOM as 49 percent stakeholder. In June, a few weeks before Iran and the P5+1 concluded a deal over Iran’s nuclear program, Russia signed an agreement with Iran’s Sunni arch-rival Saudi Arabia that creates the legal framework for bilateral cooperation in civil nuclear development. The agreement was followed by a Saudi commitment to invest $10 billion in Russia.

During the sanctions regime, Russia had a near monopoly as a supplier of materials to Iran’s nuclear program, most notably ROSATOM supplies fuel for Iran’s nuclear facility in Bushehr. To prevent Russia from losing its dominant position in Iran’s nuclear energy sector, ROSATOM signed an agreement with Tehran to construct two new VVER reactors at Bushehr in the short term as well as two more reactors in the medium term. Additionally, the agreement provides for the Russian construction of an entirely new nuclear power plant in Iran with another four of the same Russian-designed, pressurized water reactors.

However, a few weeks after the April 2015 Framework Agreement, Iranian officials met with their Chinese counterparts in Beijing to discuss China’s construction of a near equivalent number of reactors in Iran after sanctions have been lifted. On April 25, 2015, the deputy head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) Behrouz Kamalvandi met with his Chinese counterparts in Tehran to advance negotiations over China’s construction of a number of nuclear plants in Iran. Earlier in the month, Kamalvandi had announced that China would construct an unspecified number of nuclear power reactors, intimating that Russia’s ROSATOM would be limited in the future to the six reactors it had already be contracted to build .

In 2014, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) approved China’s Hualong One reactor. It was the first time the IAEA approved a Chinese-designed reactor. Beijing hopes that a big splash in the Iranian market will build up the brand for the Hualong One, a third generation reactor. Iran’s cooperation seems likely to help China muscle in on some of Russia’s share in the global market for civil nuclear reactor construction. Given Beijing’s success in the Iranian market, China can be expected to follow close behind Russia as a major nuclear exporter to other Middle Eastern markets. Sino-Russian competition for market share as well as for political influence in the Middle East will facilitate the further nuclearization of the region.

Micha’el Tanchum is a Senior Fellow with the Eurasian Energy Futures Initiative at the Atlantic Council

(An earlier version of this article appeared in Policy Forum sponsored the Asia & the Pacific Policy Society.)


Japan's Xenophobia Problem-Despite recent efforts, hate speech and racial discrimination continues to plague Japan

Japan's Xenophobia Problem

Despite recent efforts, hate speech and racial discrimination continues to plague Japan.

While hate speech rallies in Japan may have faded from the headlines compared to a year or two ago, xenophobia is unfortunately still prevalent in Japan – as demonstrated by a recent rush of Japanese citizens eager to turn in their “illegal” Korean neighbors. It is not clear yet whether the source of this frenzy, an Internet rumor, was started by an innocent error or the willful intent to do harm, but what is clear is that it has yet again exposed the ugly side of Japanese exceptionalism.

The rumor that Zainichi ethnic Koreans with “special permanent resident” status are subject to deportation as of July 9 led to a surge in calls, letters, and emails from ordinary Japanese turning in ethnic Koreans who actually have – and will continue to have – legal residency in Japan. The rumor seems to come, in part, from confusion over the July 8 deadline for permanent residents to switch from alien registration cards to new residence cards. Though a penalty could be imposed for missing the deadline, it does not lead to a loss of one’s special permanent resident status.

The situation had become “serious” enough for the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau to post an “important advisory” on its website on July 16 that missing the July 8 deadline for making the switch would not lead to deportation of such special permanent residents.

However, Yasuko Morooka, a lawyer focused on human rights of foreigners, believes more needs to be done by the government to clarify that the rumors are groundless. As she told Asahi Shimbun, “The ongoing problem of hate speech [against Koreans in Japan] appears to have moved into a new dimension since many people did take the action of reporting people to the Immigration Bureau. The incident shows that it could escalate into a crime or hate crime against specific racial or ethnic groups.”

Racial discrimination against Korean and Chinese residents in Japan has a long history, beginning with the aftermath of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. After the earthquake, incensed by rumors that “Koreans are poisoning the wells” and “Koreans will attack us,” Japanese vigilantes murdered thousands of Koreans and hundreds of Chinese. Social media makes the spread of such rumors even more pernicious in the modern day – as exemplified by the reaction to the deadly mudslides in Hiroshima prefecture last August.

In response to increasing activities by the right-wing groups such as Zaitokukai (“citizens against special privileges for Zainichi Koreans”), international pressure has been building against the Japanese government’s feeble response. The UN Human Rights Committee released a report last July that called on the Japanese government to ban hate speech. The report expressed concern about remarks hostile to Korean, Chinese, and other foreign residents in Japan that could foster hatred and discrimination. This February, Amnesty International criticized Japan for not introducing legislation that bans hate speech in accordance with international standards. The U.S. State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014 noted “entrenched societal discrimination” against “the country’s Chinese, Korean, Brazilian, and Filipino permanent residents and discussed recent hate speech incidents in Japan. (Also read Freedom House’s 2014 Report on Japan here.)

While much more needs to be done, there have been some positive developments that should also be noted, with the court system leading the way in recognizing the suffering of victims. Last December, the Supreme Court upheld lower court rulings that ordered Zaitokukai to pay compensation for racist “hate speech” directed towards ethnic Koreans, including children, in Kyoto. The Kyoto District Court found in October 2013 that Zaitokukai’s speech contravened the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and in upholding that decision, the Osaka High Court stated: “The innocent students at the school were exposed to vulgar attack based solely on their ethnic origin and suffered major psychological damage through the irrational acts of racial discrimination.”

Civil society is also beginning to take a stand. For example, Ryang Yong Song and his Korean and Japanese allies have created the Anti Racism Information Center – a website where ethnic Koreans suffering racial abuse can report their grievances and receive help. The information gathered from the site is intended to help craft legislation to address such racism.

The government is also launching its own nationwide investigation into the problem of hate speech. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga announced at a news conference on July 2, “We should carry out a full-scale investigation to find out how many cases of hate speech occurred and what is at issue.”

With Japan hosting the Group of Seven (G7) summit next year and the 2020 Summer Olympics, the national government needs to get its act together – but as usual, it seems that local units will be leading the way. This spring, Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto declared that he hopes to have an ordinance passed to crack down on hate speech within the year. Osaka could become a role model for other Japanese cities.

While a genuine change of heart by the 10,000 or so members of Zaitokukai would be ideal, it’s more realistic to hope that international pressure can change the most egregious instances of their discriminatory behavior. All humans deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their legal status or racial/ethnic background. If Japan wants to maintain its standing in the world, it ought to ensure that such dignity is afforded to every individual that resides within its borders. The Diplomat By for The Diplomat


Is South Korea's Intelligence Agency Spying on Its Own Citizens?

Leaked documents suggest Korea’s NIS was trying to spy on its own citizens via the Kakao Talk app.

South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) is once again the object of unwanted attention. It is alleged, based on leaked information, that in 2012 the NIS purchased spyware from the Italian firm Hacking Team with the intent to spy on its own citizens by hacking Kakao Talk, an messaging app that allows users to text or call each other. Hacking Team, a Milan-based ICT company, sells “offensive intrusion and surveillance capabilities to governments, law enforcement agencies, and corporations,” according to one description.

States instinctively want to know more, because, as students learn in Foucault 101, there is immense power in knowledge. Through various state apparatuses, typically an intelligence or security organization, information is gathered under the guise of keeping citizens safe and free. Seen from the perspective of the state, it is both reasonable and expected that information will be culled, curated, and analyzed. But there is a line, and many feel the NIS has crossed it, again.

Recently leaked files, released following — ironically — a hack of Hacking Team, shows that South Korea’s “5163 Army Division” was among its foreign clients who had purchased Remote Control System (RCS) spyware. It is suspected the 5163 Army Division (no such division actually exists in South Korea’s army) is a name used by the NIS; the mailing address for the South Korea-based client “matches the address of the NIS civil service department,” according to the Korea Times.

According to Hacking Team’s own description found in a document hosted by WikiLeaks, RCS is used as “a stealth, spyware-based system for attacking, infecting, and monitoring computers and smartphones. Full intelligence on target users for encrypted communications (Skype, PGP, secure web mail, etc.).”

One particularly troubling document, an email exchange from March 2014 between employees of Hacking Team, shows that the South Korean client, referred to as “SKA” (re: South Korean Army), was interested in “the progress of Kakao Talk,” implying an intention to use RCS to spy on Kakao Talk users. The document also shows SKA was, at the time, considering “the possibility of relocating their deployment overseas to prevent any future linkage between RCS and their country.”

Hacking Team has come under scrutiny after reports from the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab accused the firm of selling spyware to illiberal governments. Specifically, Citizen Lab has discovered RCS spyware being used by, they suspect, the Ethiopian Information Network Security Agency to spy on journalists at the Ethiopian Satellite Television Service (ESAT) in the United States. This accusation, and more general concerns, are outlined in an open letter penned by Professor Ronald Deibert, director of Citizen Lab, to Hacking Team.

The NIS has denied using RCS to spy on its own citizens, according to sources, but refuses, on security grounds, to release the relevant log files. The relevant files were maintained by a now-deceased NIS agent, surnamed Lim. The agent took his own life earlier this month, apparently overcome by the brewing controversy. The suicide note left by Lim rejects the claim that South Korea was spying on its own citizens. The agent also indicated that he had deleted materials, acquired using the RCS spyware, related to North Korea. The NIS has since recovered the deleted files and claims that only “North Korean targets or terrorist suspects” were targeted.

In the meantime, the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) and ruling Saenuri Party have drawn battle lines. NPAD has taken to the offensive, with party members calling for the NIS to disclose its log files. On Thursday, NPAD co-hosted a seminar to discuss illegal surveillance and the allegations leveled at the NIS; Citizen Lab participated in the seminar via webcast.

The ruling party, meanwhile, has been providing cover for the NIS, insisting that its own internal review, which concluded that the agency never intended to spy on South Korean citizens, is sufficient. Saenuri’s position on the matter is in line with NIS: forcing South Korea’s intelligence organization to open relevant logs may reveal sensitive information about North Korea, ergo dealing a blow to South Korea’s national and cyber security. Opposition members, likening Saenuri’s position to religious belief, want a panel of civilian experts to join legislators in a more thorough investigation of the NIS’s spying activities.The Diplomat By for The Diplomat

The Future of Freedom in Myanmar

Delphine Schrank about Myanmar’s trajectory.

Delphine Schrank is a contributing editor to the Virginia Quarterly Review and a co-founder of DECA Stories, a pioneering writers’ cooperative for deeply reported, global journalism. She was The Washington Post’s correspondent in Myanmar and is the recent author of The Rebel of Rangoon: A Tale of Defiance and Deliverance (Nation Books, 2015), a narrative, nonfiction account about dissidents in Myanmar and their multi-generational fight for democracy.

She recently spoke with The Diplomat’s associate editor Prashanth Parameswaran about the future of democracy and human rights in Myanmar ahead of upcoming historic elections expected this November. An edited version of that interview follows.

You had a chance to interact with the people who resisted the regime politically, which forms the basis of your book. Has that experience made you more optimistic or pessimistic regarding the trajectory of reform in the country?

Optimistic! Burma/Myanmar presents a rare case of a country with a social movement whose members have had decades of experience pursuing their goal of democracy and attendant freedoms under one of the world’s most repressive and whimsically cruel regimes. People across the years died or fled into exile or broke under the pressure. It wasn’t a story of victory – they failed time and again, or felt themselves fail. But they studied their mistakes and lessons from their history, or sought inspiration from outside, and they evolved. So they’ve developed an unparalleled sophistication, at least relative to other people’s struggles for freedom – and we are seeing this now, very visibly, as they take full advantage of the political space that has opened since 2011 to expand the reforms – beyond whatever limits the military-dominated government had intended. And that’s across all sectors – the media, in commerce, in education – people working to build civil society, or adapting to the flawed parameters of the parliamentary system. Very creatively, they’ll find ways to make sure the clocks don’t turn back.

You experienced the media environment in Myanmar first hand as a foreign journalist from 2008 to 2012. How was the environment and how do you think that has changed over time? What are the challenges that remain?

In 2008 to about 2011, Myanmar’s press censorship was among the worst in the world. Everything for print had to pass through the Press Scrutiny Board and the junta had complete control over the Internet – although people employed proxies to get around firewalls. But everything was licensed and regulated, from acquiring flash-drives to copy paper. It was nearly impossible to publish anything even vaguely subversive. The consequences for defying the censors, or laws such as the notorious Electronic Transactions Act, could be years in prison. For credible local news, people were forced to depend on the illicit broadcasts of the Burmese services of the British Broadcasting Corporation, Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, or the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma.

But in the decade before 2011, a core of serious journalists managed to keep alive about 100-150 private journals, weekly or monthly publications. They could only obliquely or metaphorically pass messages about the economy, or political issues and many filled their pages with horoscopes and sports news. But there was a thirst for more substantive information.

So it’s no surprise to me that with the easing of censorship since 2011, there’s been a burst of new publications and a very vocal and combative journalism—some of it ready to take on the most sensitive political taboos such as corruption within the ranks or state-led crackdowns on protesters. The battle’s ongoing right now for freedom of the press. But journalists are covering it, and a whole slew of new journalists, not always abiding by the best editorial or ethical standards. So—there’s a long road ahead. And publications will be born and die as fast. But the fourth estate is very much alive, and with a little time, it’ll grow up.

Within Myanmar’s fight for democracy, democracy icon and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has loomed large. How was she perceived in the dissident underground in Myanmar, and how should we think about her role?

Aung San Suu Kyi remained the unchallenged leader of the democracy movement for members of the dissident underground– but largely without the cult of personality that wider society built around her. There was a strategic reason for this: dissidents saw her as the only public figure who could cultivate widespread trust, and bring together Burma/Myanmar’s different stakeholders in the interests of national reconciliation. No one else, they’d say, not even the iconic student leaders who had led the 1988 uprising, had her broad reach. At a personal level, dissidents who had worked beside her or were directly inspired by her to join her party, the National League for Democracy or the movement beyond, repeatedly told me anecdotes illustrating her qualities of leadership – her intelligence and strength of character. And even if they disagreed with some of her positions, they saw the need for her as a unifying force – as a focal point for the opposition.

But I think the reality now is more complex—and even as she remains the single greatest source of inspiration and the most eloquent defender of their rights and aspirations, there are multiple actors within the pro-democratic opposition who have begun to earn people’s trust and who are making their voices heard more independently, because now they can. Until now, few of them wanted to break rank, in that sense. They understood that even if they had their differences, working under the kinds of constraints of authoritarian rule meant keeping quiet and standing behind Aung San Suu Kyi.

Myanmar is expected to hold historic elections in November 2015. How do you think this will impact the country?

Among the 75 percent of parliamentary seats that will be up for election, it seems clear that the military-backed Union Solidarity Democratic Party (USDP) will lose its absolute majority – which it had secured in the last general elections in 2010 largely by rigging the vote. With the world watching, and if the elections are relatively clean (and that’s a big if), there will likely be a surge of new seats for the pro-democratic parties and representatives of the ethnic minorities. People are speculating the largest win for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).

And I think that can only be a good thing – because these are parties with clear and explicit mandates that have less to do with holding onto power than delivering on promises to the people on whose behalf they’ve been advocating for years. That might sound naïve, but these are politicians who couldn’t talk aloud for years, many of them jailed, and now they’ll be able speak openly in parliament and legislate on a raft of issues that deeply affect people’s livelihoods.

Before the last general elections, I heard people say that every five years they’d get a few more seats, and in that way, nibble away at the in-built undemocratic flaws within the parliamentary system. So even though the constitution still reserves a 25 percent bloc of seats for the military, and other clauses remain offensive to pro-democracy activists, it’ll be interesting to watch how forcefully they’ll push for aggressive changes within the parameters of the legal system.

So in sum: fewer military men or former military officers in parliament; a break-up of the old centers of power; and more reform, incrementally. And there’s also a slow, deep cultural change that comes of people learning to articulate their grievances through public discourse, and legislating accordingly, as opposed to resisting orders from men in uniform.

That’s a very optimistic reading, which is not to say it won’t be a battle at every turn, with spoilers who retain a lot of power looking for ways to trip up the reform process. But that’s the definition of politics!

The Rohingya migrant crisis has made the headlines the world over this year and focused global attention on a heavily persecuted group. How should we think about the Rohingya issue within Myanmar’s struggle towards democracy and freedom?

Since the violence escalated in 2012, the government has seemed either unable or unwilling to prevent attacks on the Rohingya, who are concentrated in eastern Arakan state. People have been quick to point out that security forces have no trouble cracking down on activists who are protesting for land or education rights, but meanwhile those same forces have done next to nothing to contain the ultra-nationalist movement that invokes the name of Buddhism and the Buddhist character of the country to spew invective and fan longstanding anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim sentiment, despite the fact that those populations have lived for generations in the country. Why there is such visceral hatred of the Rohingya – and official refusal to acknowledge their rights as citizens or their historical presence – remains a mystery in a country that recognizes 135 other ethnic groups.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticized heavily, particularly outside the country, for not coming out explicitly to denounce persecution of the Rohingya, and the NLD has likewise been muted. And that seems indefensible – they are the best placed voices to stand up forcefully for the lofty goals and expansive rights that they’ve been fighting for – and those were never intended for exclusive enjoyment by the country’s Buddhist majority. So I think there’s a real challenge here that’s symptomatic of a country in which the question of national identity has always been fraught, complex and unresolved. But also it’s important to remember that the NLD and the democracy movement have yet to fully achieve their goals. Burma isn’t yet a democracy. The country is still run under a military-dominated system. There’s still a very delicate line to tread for the NLD and other pro-democracy forces—and they are well aware of this. The creativity I wrote of above, that’s in part a necessity because they still can’t always be direct—they have to be devious. History has shown them that head-on confrontation against the military can result in genuine setbacks.

So, without defending their failings, I think it’s important to recognize the inherent complexities of a democracy struggle that operates in a muddy and complex reality, particularly as the black-and-white struggle of junta-vs-people cedes space in people’s perceptions to Burma/Myanmar’s other emergencies. There’s still a long way to go.

Asia’s ‘Unruly’ Children-Understanding cultural hegemony in Asia highlights the difficulties faced by young progressives fighting for change

Asia’s ‘Unruly’ Children

Understanding cultural hegemony in Asia highlights the difficulties faced by young progressives fighting for change.

One of Singapore’s sons was freed earlier this month after spending a total of fifty days in detention for his irreverent comments about the city state’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, who passed away in March at the age of 91.

Ostensibly, 16-year-old Amos Yee was charged with “wounding the religious feelings of Christians” in a YouTube video that lambasted Lee Kuan Yew and compared him to Jesus, whom the young blogger described as ‘power hungry and malicious’. Amos was also found guilty of posting obscene material on the Internet, reference to a crude illustration of Lee and former British premier Margaret Thatcher in an acrobatic sex maneuver.

However, the ferocity with which the Singaporean authorities pursued the boy suggests that religious sensitivity and obscenity were secondary concerns – his real crime was having the impudence to attack the revered elder statesman, particularly at the time of his passing and in such a vulgar way.

Expletives aside, Amos’ video offered a convincing critique of Singapore’s illiberal democracy, in which the People’s Action Party formed by Lee Kuan Yew has completely dominated politics since 1959. He also drew attention to the country’s long working hours, income inequality, high tax rates, and poor social security – issues increasingly vexing to the lower and “squeezed middle” sectors of Singaporean society. Although the PAP won its usual supermajority in 2011 elections, it did so with the lowest ever share of the popular vote. With an election imminent, Amos’ comments would have caused disquiet amongst the ruling elites, who hastened to arrest him on the day of Lee’s funeral.

Elsewhere, the video may have fallen outside the boundaries of good taste but would nonetheless be protected as free speech. Not in Singapore, which the Press Freedom Index ranks a miserable 150th in the world. Public criticism of the government is treacherous terrain to navigate and has often landed people in court, including two infamous defamation suits filed against Far Eastern Economic Review and International Herald Tribune by Lee Kuan Yew himself. His son Lee Hsien Loong, who became prime minister in 2004, has recently won another controversial case which seems set to financially cripple blogger and activist Roy Ngerng.

The treatment of Amos Yee seemed “disproportionate and inappropriate” according to the UN Human Rights Office for South-East Asia. Other group such as Human Rights Watch called for Yee’s release and when the boy was strapped to a bed for a day and a half, his lawyers expressed concern that he was receiving “special treatment.” Much of Yee’s detention focused on psychiatric assessment – an attempt to medical’s as abnormal what was in fact perfectly rational political opinion, delivered with a cocky iconoclasm few in the country seemed able to comprehend.

Amos started proceedings in March with defiance, nonchalantly eating bananas and giving the finger to media on his way to court. Out on bail before his remand period, he wrote in his blog: “I have not ‘learnt my lesson’, nor do I see any ‘lesson’ that needs to be learnt.”

However, the boy who was released this month was not the impish rebel we had grown accustomed to. Head bowed and defensively clutching a tote bag to his stomach as his mother led him through the media scrum, he seemed for once not to relish the attention. Unsteady on his feet, disheveled and thinner than before, he looked sadly defeated. Amos is clearly an independent thinker, able to shrug off social pressure to conform; but when the full power of the state bore heavily down on his narrow shoulders, it proved too much.

Aside from a smattering of civil society activists, Singaporeans seemed largely unsympathetic to Amos’ plight. His video was roundly condemned, often in no uncertain terms. One middle-aged man was so affronted by the disrespect shown to Lee Kuan Yew that he gave the sixteen year old a painful slap on his way to court, which he claimed would “instill fear in the teenager, let him know what the ways of the world are and teach him a lesson.”

‘Asian Values’

Had the assailant taught this “lesson” less violently, he might have chosen the Analects of Confucius as the assigned text, for this is the cultural lens that helps us understand the story more clearly. Deeply conservative, Confucianism emphasizes filial piety, or respect and obedience to parents, elders and ancestors. This is then extended to rulers – with the state representing the family writ large – as a way of maintaining social harmony. It is a model that serves authoritarian regimes well.

The concept was a cornerstone of the “Asian values” extolled by Lee Kwan Yew and other regional patriarchs such as Mahathir Mohamad and Suharto in the nineties. While the idea may have lost some of its swagger in the ruins of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, it was too deeply engrained to disappear completely and may well flourish once more as Asia plays an increasingly important role in world affairs. Understanding this cultural hegemony explains the popular backlash against Amos Yee in Singapore and highlights the difficulties faced by young progressives fighting for change all over the region.

Hong Kong’s chief executive C. Y. Leung is no Lee Kuan Yew – a fact lamented in Beijing, where the Chinese government must feel that a stronger, more capable leader is needed to guide the Special Administrative Region through its current crisis and towards integration with the mainland. Prone to gaffes and deeply unpopular with large sections of society, Leung falls considerably short of the archetypal Asian patriarch. Most troubling perhaps – from the Confusion perspective of seeing the family as the microcosm of the state – is that he seems unable to manage his own wayward daughter, who often makes headlines for all the wrong reasons. Fittingly then, it is with the youth of Hong Kong that he has the biggest discord.

The most public face of Hong Kong’s new generation of activists is a slight, bespectacled boy called Joshua Wong, who became a household name at the age of just 15 when he founded the group Scholarism to protest against the “moral and national” education reforms aimed at primary and secondary schools. The proposed curriculum was criticized as an attempt to brainwash schoolchildren with pro-Beijing propaganda and tens of thousands marched against it in the summer of 2012. The government’s response was sly; by making adoption of the curriculum non-compulsory, the students were handed a face-saving victory, only to find that many schools endorsed the syllabus anyway.

Wong then played a role in the unprecedented mass civil disobedience of 2014 which came to be known as the Umbrella Movement. Objecting to regressive reforms to Hong Kong’s electoral system, the predominantly student-led movement demanded full universal suffrage and occupied key areas in Hong Kong for several months. At times the police responded heavily with pepper spray and tear gas. As in Singapore, Wong and the other students faced considerable pushback, not just from the state but from society at large. A Chinese University of Hong Kong poll showed considerably less support for the protests amongst older people than those aged under twenty-four. Many of the students went home from the barricades at night only to face antagonism from their disapproving parents. At times, the generational friction turned violent, with countless attacks on the protesting students, usually by middle-aged “uncles” irritated by all the upheaval. Just last month, Wong and his girlfriend were left with injuries after being attacked by a member of the public as they returned home from the cinema.

However, it is in Thailand where young activists face the gravest danger. There, Confucian values such as respect for authority and filial piety have merged with something close to a devaraja cult, in which the country’s 87 year old monarch, King Bhumipol, is considered by some to be God-like. Known colloquially as “father,” he is central to the orthodoxy of “nation, religion and king.” According to this brand of royal-nationalism, all Thais love the king – anyone perceived not to is dismissed as “unthai” and will face severe social sanctioning, if not the harsh lèse-majesté law. During the Red Shirt protests of 2010, a well-known actor gave an emotional speech at an awards show in which he likened Thailand to a household with the king as the father. He admonished anyone who “didn’t love father” and advised them to “leave the house immediately.” His speech brought the star-studded, blue-blooded audience to their feet, wiping tears as they applauded loudly. This highly emotional ultra-royalism can be dangerous. In 1976, when a spirited student movement was wrongly accused of anti-monarchy activities, police and right-wing vigilante mobs descended on Thammasat University campus, killing more than one hundred students and mutilating their corpses.

The origins of this virulent form of royalism can be traced back to the late 50s-early 60s dictatorship of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, a staunch royalist who gave the then beleaguered monarchy the political space to re-assert itself in Thai life. Sarit’s traditionalist and highly authoritarian style of rule has been dubbed “despotic paternalism” by Thai scholar Thak Chaloemtiarana. It is a style of governance that has now sadly returned to the kingdom. Thailand’s new dictator Prayut Chan-o-cha, who seized power in a 2014 coup, is cut from the same khaki-cloth as Sarit. As a general, he was known as a royalist hardliner who led military operations against Red Shirt protestors in 2010, which saw 96 killed. Since he traded his green uniform for a grey suit, he has maintained a firm grip on power.

With his 50s hairstyle and mentality to match, Prayut is an anachronism. There is a sense that falling back on such an old-style strongman was an embarrassing last resort for the Thai elites. However, it was deemed necessary to ensure victory in their decade-long battle to suppress the electoral appeal of politicians associated with the former Prime Minster Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a prior coup in 2006. The general’s mandate is to oversee a “freeze” on democracy, during which time the Thaksin political machine can be dismantled and the constitution rejigged to weaken the role of elected politicians. Prayuth will likely hold on to power until the sensitive royal succession is completed, with the aim of preserving the predominance of the monarchy into the next reign. It is in this difficult cultural and political context that young Thai activists must operate.

Schoolboy Netiwit Junrasal has much in common with Joshua Wong. Bespectacled and unassuming, yet earnest beyond his years, he began his activism by protesting issues directly affecting his life at school, such as the imposition of military-style haircuts on students and the tradition of prostrating to teachers on Teacher’s Day. Around the same time, trans-female university student Aum Neko caused a stir with her raunchy poster campaign denouncing university uniforms as a form of thought control. Both students raised important points about an education system that often seems more intent on controlling and conditioning than educating. However, they faced an aggressive backlash from conservative sections of society. Aum was later charged with lèse-majesté for statements she made on a talk show and fled to France, where she was granted political asylum.

The Red Shirt movement, most of whom supported the ousted regime, have been silent since the coup – the current climate is just too risky for them. However small groups of students have come bravely forward to fill the void. One Bangkok-based group known as the Thai Student Center for Democracy have been holding sporadic protests for the past year. Meanwhile, in the northeastern city of Khon Kaen, a group called Dao Din have emerged to call for a return to democracy. The two came together in Bangkok this May to stage a heated protest on the first anniversary of the coup. Fourteen were arrested and held by the junta. They have since been released but still face charges.

The young activists mentioned here have all shown bravery in speaking out when the dominant ideologies of their culture dictate that they be seen and not heard. When world leaders rushed to join Singaporeans in canonizing Lee Kuan Yew as the man who single-handedly built modern Singapore, Amos Yee, in all his youthful tenacity, threw himself on the wheel of history as a reminder of the founding father’s other, less laudable legacies. With the specter of Tiananmen looming in background, the youth of Hong Kong fought a grueling four month battle against their government and its backers in Beijing. They did so with an impressive discipline and maturity. And whilst other opposition groups in Thailand are cowed by the most repressive regime the kingdom has seen in decades, a small handful of students have stood up as a lone voice for democracy.

Despite cultural constraints, young people will always try to right the societal wrongs of their elders. It seems almost a natural cycle of life – an evolutionary process perhaps – which ultimately no construct or regime can suppress.

James Buchanan is a lecturer and PhD candidate at the Department of Asian and International Studies, City University of Hong Kong.


The discovery of plane debris has rekindled efforts by family members to seek greater compensation

The discovery of plane debris washed up on a remote island in the southern Indian Ocean has rekindled efforts by family members of passengers on board a missing Malaysia Airlines flight to seek greater compensation.

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared in March last year en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 passengers and crew on board. No trace of the plane has been found yet but the appearance of an object, identified by aviation experts as part of a wing, on Reunion island east of Madagascar could offer the first real clue.

Most of those on board were Chinese. Zhang Qihuai, a lawyer representing the families, told Reuters more than 30 family members in China have already agreed to sue if the debris is confirmed to be a part of the missing plane.

Joseph Wheeler, special counsel at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers in the Australian city of Melbourne, also said he had started fresh talks with more families in Malaysia since Wednesday’s discovery.

“It’s triggering renewed monitoring and recommendations to families,” Wheeler told Reuters.

“If there is evidence that the aircraft has failed, that very well may trigger a wave of lawsuits from around the world, predominantly Malaysia and China,” he said.

Zhang said the families had discussed filing lawsuits in China, Malaysia or the United States.

A Malaysian official and aviation experts have said the piece of debris, a 2-2.5 metres (6.5-8 feet) long wing surface known as flaperon, is almost certainly part of a Boeing 777, the same type of aircraft as MH370.

In January, Malaysia Airlines declared the plane’s disappearance an accident, clearing the way for it to pay compensation to victims’ relatives while the search for the missing plane goes on in a vast area 1,600 km (1,000 miles) west of Australia.

“Regardless of whether our loved ones return or not, I will definitely sue Malaysian Airlines ... they have put us through so much pain and suffering, they must be held responsible,” Li Zhen, whose husband was on the plane, told Reuters by telephone.

Under the Montreal Convention, which governs such accidents, families have until March 2016 to either resolve their claim or file legal action.

The piece of debris, covered by barnacles but otherwise in reasonable condition, raised hopes that other useful debris could also turn up. Investigators could then examine such components for “patterns of destruction” to see if they had failed, Wheeler said.

“When we find things like that we are able to investigate whether similar parts or similar manufacturers of parts have come under scrutiny in the past,” he said.

If Boeing Co was found by expert evidence to be the cause of the accident, families might seek to sue the aircraft manufacturer in the United States, helping them claim millions of dollars in compensation, Wheeler said.

Boeing has declined to comment on widely circulated photos of the debris.

However, Daniel Rose, a partner at Kreindler & Kreindler LLP in New York, which represents more than 50 victims’ families, said the discovery was unlikely to trigger a wave of lawsuits.

Families are pursuing a settlement with insurer Allianz through Kreindler, he said, but the firm could sue before the two-year statute of limitations runs out. --Reuters


Fight to Save Indonesia’s Jungle Corridors Key for Endangered Orangutan


Camp Leakey, Kalimantan. The bushes shook violently and the female orangutan froze. Her baby clutched her tightly before the two quickly disappeared into the Borneo undergrowth. As the bushes parted, a broad-shouldered male orangutan strutted to the feeding platform.

Dominating the fruit on offer, the male great ape dared the other orangutans in the trees to challenge him for the food.

The endangered orangutan is a solitary animal and it is rare to sight these great apes in groups, but this is Camp Leakey in Tanjung Puting National Park in Indonesia and home to around 6,000 rescued orangutans.

The park in Central Kalimantan province has been protecting great apes for 38 years, but its success is now a problem as the reserve does not have sufficient space and resources to sustain any more apes.

Yet Dr. Birute Galdikas, 69, who heads the Orangutan Foundation International (OFI), has some 300 more rescued orangutans in her care waiting for a release back into the wild.

Galdikas’s OFI is desperately trying to buy 6,367 hectares of land opposite the park, which includes a vital stretch of land along the Sekonyer River, to accommodate the extra apes – price tag $2.5 million.

But the OFI, which relies on donations and money from ecotourism, has only been able to raise a third of that amount.

“We have to protect this stretch of land,” Galdikas told Reuters following an eco-trip to Camp Leakey to visit some of the rehabilitated great apes returned to the wild.

“If we lose this river edge, where are all the proboscis monkeys going to go? Where are all the [300] orangutans going to go?”

Protecting the forest habitat of the orangutan has become as important as rescuing the great apes if the species is to survive, says Galdikas, who came to the Tanjung forest when she was 25 years old and has spent 44 years trekking through forests and wading up to her armpits in swamps to protect orangutans.

Palm oil

Global demand for palm oil, which is found in supermarket products from margarine to lipstick and shampoo, and is also used as a biofuel, has helped drive deforestation.

Oil palm plantations now surround Tanjung Puting National Park, cutting corridors through which orangutans and other wildlife use to cross from one large forest to another.

Indonesia, which is ranked fifth in countries with the most annual tree cover loss, imposed a 2011 moratorium on clearing primary natural forests and peat land.

President Joko Widodo in April extended the moratorium for two years and expanded it to cover 1 million hectares. The government also increased penalties for illegal logging.

But the moratorium applies only to new areas of forest. Forests in existing commercial concessions are not protected and as a result oil palm plantations have expanded.

Palm oil production in Indonesia rose from 10.5 million hectares in 2013 to an estimated 11.44 million hectares in 2015, according to the Agriculture Ministry.

Togar Sitanggang, secretary general of the Indonesian Palm Oil Association, put expansion this year at about 300,000 hectares, and said it was limited to areas already given permits a few years ago. He said a pledge on sustainable development, new forest laws and a soft market were slowing expansion.

Indonesia says palm oil is important for development because it reduces poverty by bringing roads, schools and other infrastructure to rural communities and generates five million jobs that benefit 15 million people.

And a government biofuels policy, which aims to cut fossil fuel imports and save $1.3 billion, is encouraging small landholders to turn to palm oil production. Under the policy, each liter of diesel must contain 15 percent biofuel.

“The problem is allowing landholders in Indonesia taking part of the forest for palm oil plantations – what is good for the economy may not ultimately be good for the forests,” Galdikas said.

Reuters By Kit Yin Boey