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Southeast Asia

Asia’s dark underbelly: Conflicts threaten long-term stability and development

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A host of conflicts, stretching across the Asian landmass from the Middle East to Southeast Asia and northwest China, are likely to spark violence, complicate economic development, and dash hopes for sustainable stability.

The conflicts and tensions range from ethnic strife in Kurdish areas of Syria and Iran, mortally wounded Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, embattled Baloch nationalism in Pakistan, disposed Rohingya in Southeast Asia, and widespread discontent in Iran, to iron-grip repression in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Xinjiang. Individually and collectively, they promise to create black swans and festering wounds that threaten economic growth and social development.

Stripped to their bare essence, the conflicts and tensions have one thing in common: a quest for either cultural, ethnic or national, or political rights or a combination of those, that governments not only refuse to recognize but are willing to suppress with brutal force.

Repression and military action are designed to suppress political, ethnic and/or national, and economic and social grievances in the false belief that a combination of long-term suppression and economic development will weaken ethnic and/or national and political aspirations as well as undermine dissent.

That is true in case of the Rohingya and Uyghurs as well as for brutal repression in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and northwest China, and military actions such as the Turkish intervention in Syria’s Afrin.

Problems in the Middle East and South Asia are aggravated by a debilitating struggle for regional hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran that threaten to destabilize the Islamic republic and Pakistan, have already produced a devastating war and a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, and are dragging the Horn of Africa into its orbit.

If history teaches anything, it is that only a minority of autocrats have achieved economic and social development. General Augusto Pinochet ensured that Chile is the only South American member of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), albeit at a high human cost, while Asia gave birth to tigers like South Korea and Taiwan.

Moreover, Asia’s multiple conflicts and tensions do not distract from the fact that by and large, the continent is flourishing economically.

History, however, also teaches that ethnic and/or national aspirations explode with vehemence the moment opportunity arises. Seventy years of communist rule in the Soviet Union failed to smother nationalist sentiment in parts of the empire like Chechnya and the Caucasus or erase nationalist differences between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Forty-seven years of communism did not prevent nationalist sentiment from breaking Yugoslavia apart in a series of bloody wars in the 1990s in the wake of the demise of the Iron Curtain.

Carved out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire, modern Turkey has failed to erase demands for Kurdish cultural, if not ethnic or national aspirations, through economic development and political integration based on the principle of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the visionary who founded the republic, that “happy is he who is a Turk.”

Similarly, Palestinian nationalism is alive and kicking 51 years into Israeli occupation of lands conquered during the 1967 Middle East war.

The aftermath of the 2011 Arab popular revolts, involving a concerted counterrevolution co-engineered by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, has laid bare the essence of current conflicts and disputes: a determination of regimes to impose policies on minorities or states at whatever cost.

The UAE-Saudi-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar is a case in point as are Asia’s multiple ethnic conflicts. They erupt in a world in which post-colonial borders are being called into question in countries like Syria, Iraq, Libya, Myanmar and Pakistan.

The Rohingya, amid the dizzying array of ethnic and national conflicts stretching from the Middle East or West Asia to China in the East, exemplify the problem in, perhaps, its purest form. Potentially, the Rohingya could become Southeast Asia’s Palestine.

What makes the Rohingya unique is the fact that their aspiration, unlike Palestinians, Kurds, Baloch or Uyghurs, does not involve attachment to a specific piece of land despite a centuries-old history in the Myanmar state of Rakhine. That is also what potentially enables creative thinking about a solution that could open the door to innovative thinking about a multitude of other conflicts.

To many Rohingya, lingering in abysmal conditions in Bangladesh’s Cox Bazaar, after some 650,000 fled repression and terror in Myanmar, securing a sense of belonging on whatever territory that guarantees them protection from persecution as well as economic and social development, is more important than returning to an uncertain existence in Rakhine state. “All I want, is a place to which I can belong,” one refugee said.

Few Rohingya, analysts and officials believe that an agreement that in theory allows Rohingya in Bangladesh to return to Rakhine state will solve the problem. Even if the Rohingya were allowed to return in significant numbers, something that many doubt, nothing in Myanmar government policies and statements suggests that they would be anything more than a barely tolerated, despised ethnic group in a country that does not welcome them.

The makings of a Palestine-like conflict that would embroil not only Myanmar but also Bangladesh and that could spread its tentacles further abroad are evident. In a rare interview with Al Jazeera, Mohammed, a spokesman for the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) using a false name, predicted that suicide bombings constitute the next phase of their effort to secure a safe and stable existence.

The Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation, a charity associated with Lashkar-e-Taiba, one of South Asia’s deadliest groups, claimed in December that it had established operations in Rakhine state where it had distributed blankets and cash.

“We attacked them (the Myanmar military) because they refuse to give us our basic rights as citizens. Again and again, [the] Myanmar government lies to the world. They say they treat us well and give us rights, but they don’t. We are unable to travel from one place to another. We are not allowed to run a business. We are not allowed to go to university. The police and military use various way to suppress us. They beat, torture and humiliate us. That is why we decided to stand up,” Mohammed said.

Preventing the Rohingya issue from spiralling out of control and becoming a problem that can no longer be contained to a specific territory, much like the multitude of similar conflicts, disputes, and repression-based regime survival strategies across Asia, requires out-of-the box thinking. Short-term repression and efforts to impose one party’s will at best buys time and sets the scene for avoidable explosions.

With out-of-the-box thinking a rare commodity, nationalism and protectionism on the rise, and regimes, emboldened by an international community unwilling to stand up for basic rights, able to go to extremes like the use of chemical weapons against rebels in the Syrian province of Idlib, long-term prospects for stable and secure development in Asia are dimmed and potentially threatened by predictable black swans.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Southeast Asia

The Malaysian Model

Hareem Aqdas

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Prime Minister Imran Khan paid his visit to Malaysia later the last month, which was concluded as successful, endorsed by the Prime Minister of Malaysia- Mahathir Mohamad himself. The visit was planned for two days with the two prime ministers having a one-on-one meeting, followed by delegation-level talks. The visit provided an opportunity to further cement the existing friendly and cordial bilateral relations by enhancing economic, trade and commercial ties for the mutual benefit of the two countries. It has been a success in the view that it has been a way forward for the terminating of trade cooperation agreements between the two countries. At the end of the visit, the energy sector especially LNG, tourism, greater collaboration between high-tech industries in Malaysia and Pakistan, and possibility of Malaysian investment in Special Economic Zones were discussed.

Imran Khan was welcomed warmly by the Malaysian delegation on his arrival. The purpose of the visit was for Imran Khan to inspect analytically the Malaysian economic model as of how they have been successful in achieving a great economy, without the interruption of the West. Imran Khan with an intention of following the model Malaysia had adopted scheduled his visit. There is no qualm over saying that this decision is to be appreciated by the new government if they are successful in implementing in Pakistan whatever they learned in Malaysia. Malaysia by targeting on the direct social realities of their country has been able to achieve the zenith of economic and social success.

Malaysia has followed an indigenous economic model, basing their economy on purely autarky by developing products what their local conditions and society were in need indigenously rather getting the dictation from the western models of economy, without ever feeling the need of foreign assistance for their local expense decisions- the position where Pakistan lacks.

Malaysia has continued over four decades of brisk inclusive growth, declining its reliance on agriculture and commodity exports to become a diversified, contemporary and open economy. The profit of development have been extensive and the high levels of income inequity inherited at independence progressively reduced through a development model emphasizing impartial growth, including increased participation of the Bumiputera (ethnic Malays and indigenous groups) in the modern economy. Growth has been determined by a series of structural reforms and the country cultivated its complimentary geographical location on global trade routes to promote export-oriented industrialization and endorsing regional incorporation. This has facilitated the improvement of manufacturing, boosting growth, employment and yield by expanding access to global markets, capital, knowledge and technology.

Pakistan since its birth has been following the western model of economy where Pakistan does not decide what its economic needs ought to be, but the west decides what the Pakistani economy needs. This dependence on the west has lead Pakistan in having the detrimental economic situation it has today where the “Dollar” seems to be getting more expensive and the rupee, de valued, thus the economy crippling.

Socially, Malaysia stands as the only country globally that has in actuality criminalized war in their national law. The society has always been free from political turmoil since politics has been very stable for the country, unlike Pakistan.

It will be unfair if it is advised that Pakistan starts following the complete Malaysian model of economy since the politico-economic situation and history of both the countries have been very different, thus applying the exact replicated model will not be possible. Pakistan unlike Malaysia has been subject to political and economic instability, has witnessed change in policies, dealt largely with the menace of corruption, have had government that would reverse economic models of each incoming government to start anew etc. It was pointed out rightly by PM Imran Khan that if “Malaysia, with a population of 30 million people, has exports worth $220 billion, and we, with a population of 201 million people have exports worth $24bn, then clearly we are doing something wrong”.

A solution can be applied in the act that Pakistan rather relying on the West for its economic build up, shall shift its focus on countries with the similar background and a more tangible yet acceptable economic model as that of Malaysia and other Asian economic giants. Pakistan can try to learn from them and follow their economic models as a replacement of the West. Following a pattern of economic development of similar nations will be much easier to pursue, less exploitative and attainable compared to the unrealistic western models.

Pakistan should realize what their need is indigenously rather letting the west dictates it for them. The Western model has always been exploitative towards countries like Pakistan and this is the right time to abandon it and take other inspirations in view.

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Southeast Asia

Can disruption empower youth in politics? Interview with Malaysian Minister of Youth and Sports Syed Saddiq

Rattana Lao

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Bangkok – On a hectic Wednesday night, I rushed to the heart of Bangkok for an event hosted by Oxford Foundation and Talk Foundation. The audiences were debaters, students, and young politicians from leading Thai political parties eager to have a glimpse of ASEAN’s youngest Minister.

Eager to learn from his “success”.

A special guest was in town; it was a fireside conversation in the honor of Malaysian Minister of Youth and Sports, Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman.

In the landslide election in May that brought Mahathir, a veteran, 93 years old, back to office, it was undoubtedly clear that youth voters were amongst the key component to that victory and Syed Saddiq was the player in that triumphant election.

Amongst all the techniques he used, he mobilized new millennials through social networks. With 1.5 million followers on Instagram, he told the audience how he used these online platforms for his political purpose.

Youth votes accounted for 41% of Malaysian electorates.

“On the eve of the election, we told everyone to watch Facebook Live at 10 pm. On that day, all Party members were garnering support through local places and online platforms to build up for the 10 pm Live. By 10 pm, we broadcasted Mahathir speech to the public.”

“The parents’ and grandparents’ generations were still with the current government. So, we relied on youth. We asked them to use their cell phones and they showed that to their parents.”

“It worked”.

When asked what can youth bring to politics, Saddiq seemed fixed that “disruption is the only way to go”.

“We need to disrupt, disrupt the old ways of doing things, disrupt old politics, disrupt corruption.”

“The lowering of voting age is the case in point where disruption is a successful technique to champion youth agenda.”

Malaysia has recently been successful in lowering the youth eligibility to votes from 21 years old to 18 years old.

He was not naïve, however. He went on to elaborate his points that one needed to “pick the battle”.

All politician do.

Saddiq gave an interview that it is important for youth to strategize their precious voices for things that matter to them. Saddiq was confident it was education, a better and fairer education system, employment, and good standard of living.

“I said time and again that the Ministry of Youth and Sports must work hands in hands with the Ministry of Education. The two issues are different, but intertwined”.

In a casual, meticulous, leather jacket, Saddiq won the crowd on that day with his wit and humor. Instead of talking top down and being patronizing, the young politician was vibrant with energy and optimism.

He was on point.

The night was straightforward and inspiring. A young man aimed high and succeeded. He brought a new face to the old politics of Malaysian longstanding cronyism.

Saddiq stood tall and high as an epitome of youth empowerment.

But youth in politics is nothing new. The 1970s in Thailand democratic demonstrations to topple military dictatorship, the Vietnam war uprising in the United States or the recent rounds of youth activism for debt, LGBT and sexual harassment as well as the Apartheid Disinvestment in the 1970s to 1980s saw youth participation in good numbers.

There is no debate on whether the young are powerful. Of course, they are. The power of the young is immeasurable and there is a lot youth can bring to politics.

But youth in politics must bring more than young faces in the old regime. Youth in politics requires a new way of thinking – disruption perhaps – but how to make it sustainable? Youth in politics demands us to take ourselves seriously and reflect respect in our opinion as something serious and accountable.

When talking about youth, most of the time, it is the case that the loudest and most privileged are the ones that get heard and make noise. How can the new system ensure all kinds of youth voices count?

This reminded me of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. If I could paraphrase the Broadway famous song:

“Do you hear the youth sing? Singing the song of angry men and women and gay and the poor? This is the song of young people who will not be slave again.”

To make politics work for youth, it must not be a rich boy game.

The fight has just begun. I wish you well.

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Southeast Asia

Letter to heaven: An eulogy to Luang Poo Boonyarith Bundito

Rattana Lao

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Luang Poo Boonyarith with a Pagoda in the Thai Forest

Everyone knows him as a great monk who was an exceptional teacher of meditation. From the royal family to a layman, Luangpoo Boonyarith Bundito was well loved and respected.

Luang Poo Boonyarith was a forest monk who ordained since the age of 31. Like forest monks before him from Luang Poo Mann Puritat to Luang Poo Chob Thannasamo, he followed a strict tradition of solitude. For decades, he traveled to the furthest parts of Thailand and remained there on his own. For at least 9 years, he lived by himself in the peak of a Karen Mountain in the Northern Part of Thailand.

“The karen has an innocent mind” he said in his meditation preaching.

In 1974, he was sent by Wat Bawornnivetviharn on a diplomatic mission to preach Buddhism in Australia. During more than 30 years of his tenure there, he built, strengthened and taught the beauty of mediation to foreigners and Thai alike.

An epitome of what a modern diplomacy is.

With his compassion and open-mindedness, he welcomed Christian, Jewish and Muslim into his temples to learn how to meditate, even though they were clear not to be Buddhist.

He was equally straightforward to them. “Meditation and Buddhism is intertwined and Buddhism is a religion, not a philosophy nor a lifestyle”.

Something that would kill the New Age followers.

I had the privilege of knowing him since I was nearly four years old, where he would stay at our house during his trips and sabbatical to Bangkok. Sometimes he stayed for a couple weeks, sometimes that would last for a couple months. At least for 20 summers, we were lucky enough to host him.

While his disciples came to our house to seek truth and find peace, for a 4 years old me, Luang Poo was my English tutor. Having been fluent in French, German and English, Luang poo was a great linguist who paid attention to details of grammatic rules and depth of meaning and complexity of the vocabulary.

He is an avid reader – with extensive collection of books on philosophy, history, maps, arts and great classics. His gifts for me involved pens and notebooks, collection of postcards from foreign lands I never been or books I had never heard of.

At the age of 16, he gave me Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. With the density of idea and complexity of vocabulary, I quickly returned it to him.

He insisted: “keep it, when the time comes, you will get it.”

I did. When I joined Thammasat as an undergraduate student, Brave New World became my favourite, inspiring reference to make a difference in a toxic society.

As I became more interested in graduate schools and had my eyes on the most prestigious scholarship in Thailand, the Anandamahidol scholarship under the royal patronage the late king Bhumibol of Thailand, our conversation became more intense, focused and intellectual.

We debated ideas. With his wealth of knowledge on world history, we would always talk current affairs and politics. Theories and concepts.

Who would have thought a forest monk would be on point on world political affairs?

Luang Poo continued to guide me through the hardship of graduate schools. We would talk on the phone on the books I read, the papers I wrote and the difficulty things were for me to conceptualise.

“Sati, Ninja, Sati.” Conscious that meant. He said, “one word at a time. Never skim”.

He loves dictionary so he taught and trained me to open up every word I don’t understand.

If you open his books, you will find scribbles on the sideline on the explanation of words he did not know or his interpretation of them.

As studying theories became more complex, that kind of attention to detail allowed me to be on point, concise and succinct.

He said however that a Buddhist is not a theorist. A Buddhist is a doer. Test the theories, he meant.

When I consulted him with the idea of creating UNITE Thailand, he was on board and gave me the most life changing advice to an idealistic me with heavily foreign influences.

“Forget the theories, forget democracy, forget Buddhism, make kids happy, as many as possible.”

We did.

Before the tragic day of the 14th of November 2018 where he parted this world for heaven, he has suffered severe health issues and complication for 7 years that he could not talk, move or eat by himself.

He was the educator who loved Thailand so much. The last sentence he ever said to me was “a great person is one with gratitude. We are indebted to this land, be good. Be kind. Be nice. Be helpful.”

Thailand loses a great monk who taught them Dhamma. I lost a grandfather who helped me through the intensity of life, who taught me to read, write and question, who taught me the beauty of life, the necessity to serve our society.

Enjoy heaven, Luang Poo.

I will always remember you.

Ninja.

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