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Southeast Asia

To Thailand, with hope

Rattana Lao

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BANGKOK – The picture in front of me is beautiful, almost surreal. Students across high school and universities are getting to know each other, sharing their stories and enjoying the moment. While some, rushed to prepare their case with their team in quiet rooms.

Here we are at the 10th European Union and Thailand National Intervarsity Debate Championship hosted by Thammasat University. The forum was created back in 2005 through the collaboration between the European Delegation of Thailand and the Thammasat Speakers Union (TSU). From a humble beginning of 54 participants, this year tournament welcomes more than 200 students from nearly 20 educational institutions. It has become the biggest and most inclusive tournament in Thailand whereby high school and university students can join, free of charge.

For the past ten years, the EUTH – as we call it, has created a positive space for Thai students to sharpen their critical thinking, teamwork and English speaking ability – skills much needed in today’s world.

After five days of intensive debate competition, debating between the need to impose austerity measures towards Greece and the decline Marxism, the motion for the Grand Final is:

This house believes that ASEAN should have a body of representatives directly elected by the public.

On the side of the Proposition is Mahidol University and on the side of Opposition is Chulalongkorn. Two top teams from the tournament and students of Thailand’s most famous universities are meeting head on to debate on the direction of ASEAN, as they see it.  

On the one hand, the proposition proffered the need for direct election of the Secretary General to instill long term vision, mitigate national interest and instill democratic value for ASEAN. On the other hand, the opposition argued that the status quo of 5 years rotation of all member states present no need for such radical change.

These students are not only being eloquent in English but they exhibit other qualities such as wit, courage and confidence.
His Excellency Jesus Miguel Sanz, the Ambassador and Head of the Delegation of the European Union to Thailand poignantly said: “the ability to rationally and constructively engage in a debate or discussion is crucial for anyone who wishes to contribute to a truly democratic and inclusive society.”
Despite the political climate in Thailand, whereby freedom of speech has been largely infringed and many academic activities have been cancelled due to the so-called “national security,” these students show us there is hope.


Today they might be practicing their skills debating on the future of ASEAN or the policy in Europe. There will be one day that the people of this generation can stand proudly and freely to debate the future of their beloved country, Thailand.


Slowly and surely.

Rattana Lao holds a doctorate in Comparative and International Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and writes on education and development. She is based in Bangkok, Thailand.

Southeast Asia

Indonesian Muslim leader signals global shifts in meetings with Pence and Netanyahu

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Yahya Staquf, a diminutive, soft-spoken leader of Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim movement, and Indonesian president Joko Widodo’s advisor on religious affairs, has held a series of meetings in recent weeks that reflect the Muslim world’s shifting attitudes towards Israel and the Palestinians and a re-alignment of socially conservative Muslim and Christian interests.

Just this month, Mr. Staquf, a staunch advocate of inter-faith dialogue and religious tolerance, met in Washington with Vice President Mike Pence, a devout evangelist Catholic who has described himself as “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order,” and in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu.

Messrs. Pence and Staquf were joined by Reverend Johnnie Moore, an evangelist who in May was appointed by US President Donald J. Trump as a member of the board of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Mr. Staquf’s discussions would likely raise eyebrows at any given moment.

But they take on added significance because they came in the wake of Mr. Trump’s controversial recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, stepped up US support for Israel in United Nations bodies, and in advance of a whirlwind visit to the Middle East by US peace negotiators Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestine Authority has refused to engage with the Trump administration since the US recognition of Jerusalem and Palestinian officials were unlikely to meet with Messrs. Kushner and Greenblatt during their Middle East tour that focused on a draft US plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Details of the plan, described by Mr. Trump as the ‘deal of the century,’ remain under wrap, but Palestinians fear that it will be heavily geared towards supporting Israeli negotiating positions.

That fear has been reinforced by the Trump administration’s fiery support of Israel in the UN. The United States this month withdrew from the United Nations Human Rights Council, citing, among other reasons, the council’s repeated criticism of Israel.

Whether by design or default, Mr. Staquf’s meetings appeared to reinforce efforts by close US allies like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt to stifle opposition to Mr. Trump’s approach to Israeli-Palestinian peace. Turkey has been in the forefront of condemnation of US policy that resonates in Muslim public opinion, particularly in Asia.

Frustration with US and Israeli policies has undermined popular Palestinian support for a two-state solution that envisions the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, has facilitated weeks of protests along the border between Gaza and Israel in support of the Palestinian right to return to lands within Israel’s boundaries prior to the 1967 Middle East war during which Israel captured East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights.

Israel has since annexed East Jerusalem and withdrawn from Gaza, which it blockades together with Egypt in a bid to undermine Hamas’s rule.

At least 142 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces since the protests erupted in late March and some 13,000 wounded.

Mr. Netanyahu trumpeted the political significance of his meeting with Mr. Staquf in a statement following their encounter.

“Muslim states are becoming closer to Israel because of the common struggle against the Iranian regime and because of Israeli technology. … The prime minister hopes that there will be progress in our relationship with Indonesia, too,” Mr. Netanyahu’s office said.

Indonesia and Israel do not maintain diplomatic relations but do not stop their nationals and officials from travelling between the two countries. Mr. Staquf has insisted that he was visiting Israel in his private capacity rather than as an advisor to the Indonesian president.

Indonesia recently revoked Israeli tourist visas in protest against Israel’s hard-handed tactics in Gaza. In response, Israel has threatened to ban tourist visas for Indonesians. Some 30,000 Indonesians, mostly Christian pilgrims, obtain visas to visit Israel each year.

Indonesia in May exempted Palestinian imports from custom duties in a bid to support the Palestinian economy.

Mr. Staquf insisted that his visit to Israel at the invitation of the American Jewish Congress was intended to promote Palestinian independence. “I stand here for Palestine. I stand here on the basis that we all have to honour Palestine’s sovereignty as a free country,” he said in a statement posted on his organization’s website.

Nonetheless, Mr. Staquf did not meet Palestine Authority officials during his visit. Osama al-Qawasmi, a spokesman for Mr. Abbas’ Al Fatah group, charged that his visit was “a crime against Jerusalem, against the Palestinians and Muslims in the world, and constitutes support for the criminal Israeli occupier against our fighting and resolute people.”

Mr. Staquf was the second NU leader to visit Israel in the past two decades. Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid travelled several times to Israel before and after his presidency but not while he was Indonesia’s head of state.

Muslim leaders, many of which have long reconciled themselves to recognition of the State of Israel’s existence, have largely been reluctant to publicly engage with Israeli officials as opposed to non-Israeli Jews as long as Israel and Palestine have not made substantial progress towards peace.

Mr. Staquf like Mr. Wahid before him broke ranks by travelling to Israel, a move that sparked criticism and condemnation on Indonesian social media and from some members of parliament.

While the criticism has focussed on Mr. Staquf’s visit to Israel rather than his meeting with Messrs. Pence and Moore, it is also rooted in widespread perceptions of evangelists as purveyors of rising Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment.

Lost in that criticism is the fact that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is being hailed by some evangelists as heralding a new era with his projection of greater religious openness in the kingdom and his unprecedented statement that both Palestinians and Israelis “have the right” to have their own land.

“You know I couldn’t believe my ears actually when I was watching the news report where the crown prince of Saudi Arabia said directly, verbatim, He said this kingdom will become a kingdom for all religions. I had to watch it again and he was crystal, crystal clear.

You know as evangelicals this is a new day for us in the Middle East. Evangelicals are the baby Christians in the region… What we’re seeing is a new openness to what evangelicalism is, which I think is a move of the Holy Spirit.” Mr Moore said.

Mr. Staquf projected his visit to Israel as promoting the concept of rahma or compassion and mercy as the basis for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the forging of relations between Israel and the Muslim world.

In practice, by design or by default, it supports US and Saudi efforts to impose their will on the Palestinians and the larger Middle East that potentially could produce as many problems as they offer solutions.

In doing so, it pays tribute to Prince Mohammed’s ability to project himself as an agent of change in Saudi Arabia even if the precise contours of his vision have yet to emerge.

In a twist of irony, it is a tribute by the leader of a movement that was founded almost a century ago in opposition to Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim worldview that long shaped Saudi Arabia and that Prince Mohammed is seen as disavowing.

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Southeast Asia

Will Mahathir Reset China-Malaysia Trade Relations?

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A shock electoral upset has just returned 92-year-old Dr Mahathir Mohamad to the prime ministerial chair in Malaysia. The run-up to this climax was muddled by a miasma of fake news, lurid allegations and outright conspiracy theories from eitherside of the political divide. China-baiting was inevitably drawn into this tawdry mix despite mainland investments being a stabilizing main stay of the local economy.

According to an Economic Intelligence Unit report last year, Malaysia was the fourth-largest recipient of mainland Chinese direct investments – right behind Singapore, United States and the autonomous Chinese province of Hong Kong. Although the sum total of Chinese investments in Malaysia has not been adequately tallied,the US$100 billion Forest City project provides a snapshot of the staggering amounts being invested into the local economy.

While former Prime Minister Najib Razak hailed these investments as an imprimatur ofhis government’s investor-friendly policies, the opposition camp (and new government) accused him of “selling out to China”. In reality, one doubts whether foreign consortiums canmatch the scale, cost-effectiveness and speed of execution of many Chinese-led projects in Malaysia.

Business Compradors

Dr Mahathir has particularly taken issue with the inadequate number of local jobs created by Chinese investments in Malaysia. It is an argument not without merit.Overseas Chinese infrastructure projects are known for their heavy reliance on mainland labour, machines and supplies – of the lock, stock and barrel variety – tokeep costs, graft and middlemen interference to the lowest possible scale.

Curiously, the backbone of Dr Mahathir’s electoral tsunami came from the ethnic Malaysian Chinese community who openly hailedthe global ascent of China. That was until theydiscovered thatmainland business models accommodated as few middlemen as possible.It was Alibaba on a massive scale, missing 40 thieves and in perennial need of 40innovators.

Many Malaysian consumerssave thousands of ringgit each year by purchasing a variety of consumer products directly from China instead of forking out a hefty mark-upat local stores.Unsurprisingly, there are now growing calls to tax online purchases from China. This is not going to help budget-strapped Malaysians who voted in the new administration on the back of complaints over rising living costs. Malaysia’s shadow economy has been estimated by various studies to range between 30 percent and 47 percent of its GDPup till 2010.

The anti-China narrative therefore may be couched in terms of multifaceted grievances like jobs and the South China Sea but it primarily boils downtoincentives for middlemen who contribute little or nothing in terms of value-additions to projects, productsor services offered by mainland companies. These modern-day compradors have an ally in another area bereft of value – added or otherwise.

Media Compradors

The biggest impediment to the Malaysian economy is not China, its business modus operandi or the lack of local talent. It is the Malaysian media which has abjectly failed to relay grassroots ideas and innovations to national policy-makers for decades.

The author himself vividly remembers the lament of Dr Mahathir’s former national science advisor on the dearth of science journalists in Malaysia. This translates to recurring losses in taxpayer money.There is an oft-told account of how a fact-findingdelegation to the United States, seeking particular expertise in renewable energy technology,were told that the expert they were looking for was a Malaysian academic back in Kuala Lumpur!

Researchers needing critical economic or scientific data on Malaysia are likely to get them from foreign sources as even google cannot cope with the bottomless insipidity and juvenile meanderingsof the local media. Publicity-seeking experts with dodgy backgrounds are routinely sought for their banal insights and quotes in return for guaranteed filler spaces in a lack lustre media.Malaysia is gradually losing its economic and intellectual competitiveness due to the entrenched practise of mediocrity promoting mediocrity – egged on by Western interests.This forms the main backdrop to the current anti-China narrative.

Local media stalwarts privately blame politicians, in particular Dr Mahathir himself (during his previous 22-year reign) for the lack of media vigour and freedom in Malaysia. While media restrictions undeniably exist, one wonders how proposed articles on topics such as Open Governance could be seen assubversive.

It is high time to drain the swamp in Malaysia. Dr Mahathir has already indicated that the bloated 1.6 million-strong civil service in Malaysia would be pruned to promote economic and government transparency. For decades, successive governments had rewarded personal loyalty with plush posts and contracts. Malaysians now have another chance to demand efficient, meritocratic and transparent governance. Not mass-mediated bogeymen, viral passions and pies-in-the-skies.

The billion-dollar question now is whether the new administration will be able tousher in a transparent and vibrant media – one that can explore greater synergies within and abroad.Otherwise, Malaysia’s relations with its neighbours and trading partners are bound to deteriorate, along with its economy.

An abridged version of this article was published by CCTV’s Panview on May 14, 2018

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Southeast Asia

Changing dynamics of China-India and China-Japan ties

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Over the past year, there has been a growing interest with regard to the vision of a Free and Fair ‘Indo-Pacific’. While this term has been used in recent years by policy makers from the US and Australia and has been pushed forward by a number of strategic analysts, a number of developments since last year have resulted in this narrative gaining some sort of traction.

US President Donald Trump during his visit to South East Asia and East Asia in November 2017, used this term on more than one occasion, much to the discomfort of China (which prefers ‘Asia-Pacific). On the eve of his visit to India last year, Former Secretary of State, Richard Tillerson while speaking at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS, Washington DC) spoke about a larger role for India in the Indo-Pacific, and the need for India and US to work jointly. Said Tillerson:

     ‘The world’s center of gravity is shifting to the heart of the Indo-Pacific. The U.S. and India, with our shared goals of peace, security, freedom of navigation, and a free and open architecture, must serve as the Eastern and Western beacons of the Indo-Pacific, as the port and starboard lights between which the region can reach its greatest and best potential’.

In November 2017, the Quad grouping (Australia, US, India and Japan) met on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit pitching not just for a rules based order, but also in favour of enhancing connectivity. Commenting on the meeting, US Department of State had said that the discussions were important and members of the Quad were:

‘committed to deepening cooperation, which rests on a foundation of shared democratic values and principles.”

Earlier too the four countries had coalesced together, but as a consequence of Chinese pressure, the grouping could not last.

There have also been discussions of coming up with connectivity projects. While this was discussed during Australian PM, Malcolm Turnbull’s meeting with Donald Trump in February 2018. In April 2018, representatives of Japan, US and India met in New Delhi and committed themselves

Indo-Pacific and China factor 

While members of the Quad continuously denied, that the Indo-pacific was specifically targeted at China, it would be naïve to believe, that this assertion. In fact, during a visit to Australia, French President Macron who is trying to position himself as one of the frontline protagonists of liberalism in the Western world, spoke about the need for India,  Australia and France to work together in order to ensure a rules based order.  Commenting on the need for India, France and Australia to jointly work for a rules based order, and checking hegemony (alluding to China), the French President, Emmanuel Macron, stated:

   ‘What’s important is to preserve rules-based development in the region… and to preserve necessary balances in the region….It’s important with this new context not to have any hegemony,”

Changing dynamics of China-India and China-Japan ties

While it is good to talk about a rules based order, and Free-Fair Indo-Pacific, it is important for members to do a rational appraisal, of ensuring that the Indo-Pacific narrative remains relevant . especially in the context of two important events. First, the reset taking place between India-China, and second the thaw between Japan-China.

This has already resulted in some very interesting developments.

First, Australia was kept out of Malabar exercises in June (Japan, US and India will be participating).  Australia is a member of the Quad alliance, and has been one of the vocal protagonists of a Free and Fair Indo Pacific Narrative, and a greater role for India in the Indo-Pacific.  Australia has on more than one occasion, expressed its desire to participate in the Malabar Exercises.

Many argue, that the decision to exclude Australia from the exercises, is a consequence of the significant shift taking place in India-China relations. Though India has been dismissive of this argument,

Second, Japan has expressed its openness to participate in the (Belt and Road Initiative) BRI,  as long as international norms are met. During meetings between the Chinese and Japanese Foreign Ministers (Wang Yi, in April 2018, such a possibility was discussed. During Wang Yi’s meeting with Japanese PM, Shinzo Abe too this possibility was discussed. The Japanese PM who is seeking to improve ties with China, reiterated the potential of the Belt and Road Initiative in giving a boost to the regional economy.

It would be pertinent to point out, that a number of Japanese companies are already participating in countries which are part of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Interestingly,  Japanese led Asian Development Bank ADB which has been funding many projects (spearheaded by Japan) which have been projected as a component of the Indo-Pacific strategy has even gone to the extent of stating, that it does not perceive AIIB as a threat. Commenting on the possibility of cooperation between ADB and AIIB, President of ADB, Takehiko Nakao  stated:

“AIIB, it’s not the kind of threat to us. We can cooperate with AIIB because we need larger investment in Asia and we can collaborate.”

Where does Indo-Pacific go from here?

In terms of strategic issues, especially ensuring that China is not unfettered influence in the region, the narrative is relevant. The Chinese approach towards Indo-Pacific and Quad as being mere froth is an exaggeration. Addressing a press conference on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress, Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi had stated, that there was:

‘no shortage of headline grabbing ideas” but they were “like the foam on the sea” that “gets attention but will soon dissipate”,

Similarly, in terms of promoting Democratic values it certainly makes sense. The real problem is in terms of connectivity projects (beyond India-Japan, none of the members of the Quad have elaborated a coherent vision for connectivity). The US has spoken about an Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor, but given the Trump Administration’s approach, it remains to be seen to what extent this can be taken further. While Australia has been steadfast in its opposition to China’s growing economic clout, it has its limitations, in terms of funding any concrete connectivity projects. Possible regions where Australia could play a key role should be identified. It has been argued, that Australia could play a key role in important infrastructural projects in the South Pacific.

Conclusion

It is fine to speak in terms of certain common values, but to assume that China can be the only glue, is a bit of a stretch, especially given the fact that it has strong economic ties with key countries pushing ahead the Indo-Pacific vision. It is also important, for the Indo-pacific to come up with a cohesive connectivity plan. Currently, the narrative seems to be driven excessively by strong bilateral relationships, and the individual vision of leaders. In the ever evolving geo-political and economic dynamics in Asia, with China re-examining its relations with both Japan and China, the key stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific region need to do some serious thinking.

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