Beacon of Democracy Moves to Malaysia

The journalists who cover SE Asia for the Anglophone world, aka “the international community”, are back on the “beacon of democracy” hobby-horse.

Malaysia has just shown the world that democracy is alive and well in SE Asia. And in much the same way as happened in the wake of Aung San Suu Kyi’s overwhelming victory in the Myanmar elections just two and a half years ago, the poor, junta-ridden Thais are being twitted for their failure to keep up. If only Thailand could have an election, a genocide, and a widening civil war on multiple fronts, it could get the same sort of plaudits Burma got from the brain trust of white men that constitute the international media hereabouts.

There is precious little in the way of awareness of the gaping irony that Malaysia’s democratic phoenix is manifest in the form of a 92-year-old former demagogue who once imprisoned his closest party rival for being gay, who was accused of every kind of corruption in his almost 23-year run as the head of a one-party state that blatantly and unapologetically promoted the interests of one ethnicity over those of others, and who grew more illiberal, less democratic, and more anti-western as his time in office went on. And on.

When the “shock” victory was first announced, it was confidently announced that Mahathir would stay in office for only a month or two, until Anwar Ibrahim could be released from prison and seated on the Prime Ministerial throne. Two days later, Mahathir was in the media announcing that it would actually be a year or two. There is every possibility that this will turn out to be a lifetime position for the old demagogue.

Mahathir famously once said of Ibrahim that he “would make a good prime minister of Israel”, a very sharp jab indeed in an anti-semitic nation like Malaysia, but in SE Asian democracies there are no permanent enemies or friends, only bodies that can be stepped on to get that much closer to power. While Ibrahim really has been released from prison already, this is not the first time that such an amnesty has been granted the former student activist. And if he gets sent back in, that won’t be a first either.

The local media definition of ‘democracy’ seems to be little more than “election that can be spun for headlines”.  Given the state of the liberal-democratic world, they may be onto something. Either that or they have simply made it so by communicative fiat.

 

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The Lonely Planet Guide to Democratic Retreat: Parts One & Two

I

These days, when the intrepid journalists and NGO press release writers (is there a difference?) who “cover” SE Asia talk about the “Retreat of Democracy” hereabouts, they almost always mean the retreat and/or failure of liberalism.

But that doesn’t matter to these people because, in the western chauvinist view, any regime that isn’t liberal is, by definition, not democratic– no matter how much support it has from its people– because what makes a regime in the old colonial world “democratic” is the support of western journalists and NGOs.

And they say we live in a post-colonial world!

Thailand, which as anyone will tell you was once a “beacon of democracy” in the region, is sliding down the league tables for everything from democracy to freedom of the press to simple all-round freedom. If there is anything a western liberal hates more than a military junta it’s hard to say what that might be. And while they tend not to like populists, even when elected with significant majorities, and even when they remain popular with majorities of their electorates, military juntas are really really really bad.

The paragons of liberal evangelizing do, however, always seem to avoid discussion of Egypt when going on and on about the evils of military governments, perhaps because the Obama State Department was loath to label the coup there as a coup (because Muslims?) and because the EU has mysteriously maintained and supplemented its trade relations with Egypt, at the very same time as it has put all discussion of free trade with Thailand on hold until such time as what passes for democracy in Thailand has been restored.

It may be because the Thai junta has curtailed freedom of speech and expression and jailed some 100 people for violations of Lese Majeste and other laws limiting speech while the Sisi junta has only murdered some 800 protesters and jailed and tortured thousands.

Or could it just be that since al-Sisi has been elected with a landslide 97% of votes in a recent election, the Classics Illustrated definition of democracy has been adhered to and there is no need to wonder about what would otherwise be a glaring discrepancy? Inquiring minds want to know.

We all need a sense of proportion I suppose.

Perhaps “‘Tis a muddle, and that’s aw” as Stephen Blackpool in Dickens’ Hard Times might have said of this odd discrepancy, and it’s best to leave it at that. As anyone who has ever tried knows, asking difficult questions of liberals is often the quickest and easiest way to find yourself  accused of racism and/or being a cast member of “Literally Hitler”, since not holding the approved opinions is obviously an indication of holding the evil ones.

And Myanmar, which just a couple of years ago was the journalist’s and NGO’s emerging “beacon of democracy” for the region, is mired in tragedy with 700 thousand Rohingya having been forcibly relocated to Bangladesh and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi having had her portrait removed from the foyer of some building in some college in the UK. Sometimes it’s hard to know which of those things strikes western people as more ‘significant’, but that’s pretty much par for the course.

The British colonization of Burma rarely if ever comes up in journalistic accounts of the ethnic conflict in Myanmar, regardless of the fact that it’s plainly a case of the British colonial policy of ethnic mixing for the purpose of creating division and weakness having foisted on the Burmese an intractable problem that most of these journalists and all of the NGO folks probably believe GOOGLE could solve with a Diversity Memo, as long as people like James Damore are kept out of the loop. Why won’t these “Burman supremacists” just recognize that diversity is strength and that decade after decade of endless inter-ethnic war is not evidence to the contrary?

We are not, after all, dealing with intellectuals when we talk about journalists and NGO people. They are more like a species of the (usually) male backpackers who, having read and reread their Lonely Planet and Rough Guides, sit in cafes and guesthouse restaurants throughout the region holding forth to the less literate members of the fraternity on the exotic wonders of the cultures of SE Asia. Given half a chance, these westsplainers will even launch into lecturing the locals on what their cultures are really all about. At that point, said backpacker is half way to a career in NGO finger-wagging or journalism.

 

And this is how the rest of the world comes to understand SE Asia.

II

As horrible as the situation of the Rohingya unquestionably is, the people of Myanmar stand solidly behind both Suu Kyi and the Tatmadaw, an organization many of them most definitely did not like or trust until just recently. The democratic legitimacy of the present hybrid administration in Naypyidaw is not really in doubt, except of course to those whose preference for liberalism over democracy leads them to the conclusion that Burmese Buddhists are just another “basket of deplorables” in need of correction by the UN, if not even more forceful foreign “democratic” compulsion.

Perhaps Hillary could convince her friends in Saudi Arabia to contribute to the process of enlightening the benighted Burmese in much the same fashion as they are doing in Yemen. Perhaps liberals in the media and NGOverse could offer explanations as to why the Rohingya “issue” has received so much coverage and the tragedies unfolding in Yemen and South Sudan so little by comparison. But then again, Ken “Interventions ‘R’ Us” Roth of Human Rights Watch is hardly a voice to be trusted in relation to actual human lives as opposed to human rights.

But Thailand and Burma have been superseded as exemplars of “Democratic Retreat” in SE Asia, as the international news cycle churns, and audiences become immune to yet another heartbreaking photo of doe-eyed Rohingya children and one more chilling portrait of a clown-faced Thai general making cracks about women who wear bikinis asking for rape.

The “beacons” of populism and authoritarianism most in the spotlight these days are Roderigo Duterte of the Philippines and Somdech Hun Sen of Cambodia, a pair of worthy contestants in the media competition to crown the Most Evil Destroyer of Democracy in SE Asia.

Duterte seems a likely champion: he has overseen and joked about and justified the extrajudicial execution of some 8000 mainly very poor people in his war on drugs. He makes Thaksin, the on-again off-again hero of democracy in Thailand, look like a real piker for only having killed between 1300 and 2700 in a similar deployment of police-based death squads.

Duterte, like Prayuth in Thailand, makes rape jokes that send the outrage monitors spiraling out of control around those parts of the globe that go in for that sort of thing, but Duterte seems to have ingested a witches brew of curdled testosterone and methamphetamines before he does his repulsive performances of toxic masculinity. He goes so far as to claim to have killed personally in his quest for justice and suggests that gang rape would be OK if only he gets to go first. Trump is an amateur at provoking PC outrage in comparison to Duterte.

But consistent with the liberal horrorshow vs democratic success pattern I am outlining here, as of January this year Duterte had the highest approval ratings, including a measure of “trust”, of any Philippine president since the 80s and the People Power Revolution. As was the case with Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand, who won a historic second term in a landslide after years of consistent criticism for human rights abuses (including the extrajudicial executions in his drug war and repeated flagrant attempts to intimidate and silence media voices), Duterte maintains his democratic legitimacy and the support of his electorate.

But here, of course is where the liberal media and the liberal NGOs and the liberal academics beg to differ. Having the support of an electorate is not a sufficient condition for claiming democratic legitimacy. especially when that electorate is made up of poorly educated ‘peasants’ or desperately poor people who are angry at the people who occupy the liberal, predominantly white, empyrean, where all justice is just and all jokes have been cleared by the PC censors before any politician dares utter them.

For this unseemly constellation of personalities and mass emotion we have the handy term ‘populism’, which is used to refer to “Rule by the Basket of Deplorables” by people who would rather not be frank about the class and race hierarchies they cling to even as they deny them utterly. You might say of people like Duterte that while “they may be sonsofbitches, they are most definitely their sonsofbitches”, and so need to be excoriated and deposed if at all possible.

Bouquets and Brickbats for the Blessed

The ethnic cleansing of Rohingya people from Rakhine State in Myanmar is a still-unfolding horror for the victims of the Tatmadaw and Rakhine militias who have deliberately, and with wide-ranging support from almost all sectors of Myanmar society, driven more than 600,000 stateless people into squalid makeshift camps in Bangladesh.

The effects of this latest round of forced displacement have rippled out beyond the sufferings of the Rohingya people to include the destruction of Aung Suu Kyi’s carefully cultivated image as an icon of human rights advocacy. Her brazen denials that anything untoward has taken place, even going so far as to offer praise for the military’s success at maintaining “stability” in difficult circumstances, almost deserve some sort of reward for obstinacy in the face of massive international disapproval.

In reality she has been stripped of a few meaningless awards from virtue-signalling institutions like St. Hugh’s college (who have gone so far as to remove her portrait from the main entrance)  and the City of Oxford. Her honorary membership in a UK trade union will also be suspended.

One might be tempted to wonder how Unison feels about her Ministry of Labour offering a $3.50/day minimum wage law in the face of Myanmar union insistence that even $5.00/day is barely enough to cover daily expenses for most workers. But what has that to do with union membership, really?

Pope Francis shakes hands with Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyitaw, Myanmar
Pope Francis shakes hands with Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyitaw, Myanmar November 28, 2017. REUTERS/Max Rossi

Also caught in the harsh light that such brutality brings to bear on the difference between media imagery and real-world behaviour is Pope Francis, whose moral cowardice in refusing to utter the word Rohingya while calling for “peace” with all the grace and aplomb of a Miss World contestant deserves far more scorn than media outlets are apparently willing to express.

Rather than castigating him for what is by any measure a failure of moral responsibility, media outlets have been almost unanimous in excusing his silence as “tactical” and subsequently praising him for finally uttering the taboo-in-Burma term on his last day in Bangladesh. Emotionally charged photographs of a Rohingya man shedding tears of joy over Francis’ concession to decency accompanied the articles praising Francis for what is in reality nothing at all.

Such “icons” of humanistic values are thin on the ground these days and wise editors don’t want to toss yet another hot clickbait item into the dustbin of history.

Suu Kyi in Rakhine: A Job Well Done

It has been 6 weeks since State Councillor Aun Suu Kyi gave her stellar performance of Myanmar’s defiance of the international community regarding the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya from Rakhine State.

In that time, the media complex that frames and colors and highlights “news” emerging from SE Asia has shifted from a tendency to blame Suu Kyi for not speaking out and attempting to stop the unfolding tragedy to focus instead almost exclusively on the perpetrators, the conveniently named Tatmadaw.

Precisely how these ethical calculations are undertaken isn’t clear, but the difficulty of rebranding Suu Kyi from “democracy and human rights icon” to “Hitler-clone monster” after the fashion of Sadam or Gaddafi or Kim is obviously a major consideration, even if it is an “unconscious” one.

Yesterday, Suu Kyi visited the afflicted area of Rakhine for the the first time ever. She made stops in Rakhine during her election campaign but not in the north where the ethnic cleansing has been undertaken.

While there, aside from posing for photos, State Councillor Suu Kyi met with a group of Muslim religious leaders and told them three things: “they should live peacefully, the government is there to help them, and they should not quarrel among each other”, as reported by one of the religious leaders who attended the meeting.

And with yet another defiantly flung finger in the face of the UN and all the various human rights organizations currently vilifying the Tatmadaw and other security forces in the region, she congratulated the police and soldiers for a job well done under difficult circumstances.

suu kyi in rakhine

As I said in an earlier post, breathtaking.

 

Send in the Clown: Trump and American Credibility

With all the knicker-twisting going on about how the big baby with the brain of a reptile and his own transplanted anus for a mouth is dribbling the world toward the brink of a possibly nuclear exchange with North Korea, it might be wise to try to remember at least one previous American approach to war even though it’s not really a part of anyone’s Twitter stream or the all-revealing/all-disappearing news cycle.

According to David Halberstam, in his monumental pre-Twitter takedown of the notion of meritocracy, the ironically titled “The Best and The Brightest”, the sainted John F Kennedy remarked to James Reston, apropos of having had his ass taken to the woodshed over American imperialism by Nikita Kruschev, that he needed to beat up on some little 3rd world country that couldn’t be expected to fight back because

“…now we have a problem in trying to make our power credible, and Vietnam looks like the place.”

look ma no hands

Let that sink in while others of our kind are reveling in Ken Burns proto-fascist contention that the Vietnam War was entered into in “good faith”. One does not normally associate the brutal slaughter of millions and the near-total destruction of 3 small countries in order to make a nation’s power “credible” with anything like “good faith” but, you know, American.

Halberstam’s book makes a hash of the currently popular notion that intelligence and an Ivy League education make for better political decisions than knuckle-dragging racist morons like Trump are capable of making. And given that Kennedy and his circle of really smart white men were also profoundly racist, a lot of what passes for “insight” in the era of Trump versus all the smart people is obviously profoundly a-historical and as dumb as the proverbial sackful of hammers.

But I digress.

The bottom line is this: American Presidents and their co-conspirators in the security and defense establishments go to war on a regular basis. And those wars are pretty much always aimed at killing lots of people who aren’t white and not part of “The West”.

It is also the case they they are often entered into to establish the “credibility of American power”, an ever-shifting notion that is, apparently, regularly in need of reconfirmation. And nothing confirms power better than images of little mountains of dead men, women and children of a colour other than American white or black.

You would be hard pressed to find anyone who would question the observation that American power is perceived to be at a very low ebb at the moment; the wailing and the gnashing of teeth over the end of the “liberal global order” can even be heard over the sounds of the record-breaking seven wars that Obama-the-Intelligent conducted during his graceful and educated sojourn in the White House.

It is not so commonly noted but equally clear that yet another invasion of yet another military non-entity like Iraq is not likely to impress anyone the American establishment thinks needs to be impressed with “the credibility of American power”. Now that Russia is back on the military intervention circuit and China is transmitting images of its ultra-modern hi-tech weaponry and building military bases in the South China Sea, establishing the “credibility” of American power might take something more along the lines of a limited nuclear exchange with a feisty little rabbit like North Korea.

And who better to establish the innocence of Ken Burns and all those American tax-payers who can’t stand being held responsible for the actions of their democratically-elected leaders than Donald “Not My President” Trump, “progressive” America’s very own Hitler?

I mean, think about it, once the smoke clears (not the radiation mind you or the global fear and trembling), all Good Americans will be able to blame the war on Evil Clown Trump and most of the dead will be non-white foreigners anyway.

Just the way they like it in the land of the free and home of the brave.

Just the way they blame Bush-Cheney for Iraq and Johnson-Nixon for Vietnam. And hell, they’ve already forgotten what they did to Korea last time around.

As George Carlin once sagely noted:

What did we do wrong in Vietnam? We pulled out! Huh? Not a very manly thing to do is it? When you’re fucking people, you gotta stay in there and fuck ’em good. Fuck ‘em all the way, fuck ‘em ‘til the end, stay in there and keep fucking ’em until they’re all dead. We left a few women and children alive in Vietnam and we haven’t felt good about ourselves since!

 

 

Suu Kyi of Burma: Khaleesi Gives Them All The Finger

Suu Kyi’s performance yesterday in her first address to the international community in the wake of her government’s recent ethnic cleansing in Rakhine was nothing less than breathtaking.

A more dignified “fuck you” has likely never been delivered to so many by someone so small.

Not only did she not admit to any sin of omission on her part for not speaking out against the flagrant human rights abuses being committed by soldiers and local people (very likely as she spoke), but neither did she offer any criticism of any aspect of the way the military has conducted itself.

On the contrary, she had nothing but praise for the way her government has improved things in Myanmar.

She managed to find a way to use a 50% decrease in AIDS deaths (a figure reported last year related to the period 2010-2016 and therefore having nothing to do with her administration) as a metaphorical illustration of how ignoring specific problems– like hundreds of thousands of her people fleeing rape, arson and murder– while attending to general improvements in social programs like health care and education is a more efficient and rational approach to such problems as ethnic cleansing.

Like I said, breathtaking.

She doubled down on every bit of political doublespeak she has resorted to since crowning herself Khaleesi to avoid saying directly that she either supports the ethnic cleansing of “Muslims residing in Rakhine” or is utterly indifferent to the suffering being visited daily on hundreds of thousands of Rohingya:

  1. Rakhine Muslims are not the only ethnic minority in the state whose needs the government must attend to.
  2. Terrorism must be dealt with.
  3. Everyone has problems. Everybody hurts. We should all care about the pain and suffering of all, not just those “Muslims residing in Rakhine”.
  4. There is false news out there and we need evidence. Foreign journalists must be wary of spreading misinformation.

And on and on. The bottom line: “I have heard your criticisms and I reject them.”

In a number of instances, Suu Kyi simply lied.

She claimed there had been no clearances or fighting since September 5th. Journalists taken on a tour of the area after that date reported fresh fires and the sounds of guns near to where they were.

She claimed that all ethnicities had equal access to health care and education in Rakhine. The Rohingya are denied not only access to health care and education but many are living in what some have described as concentration camps, and have limited travel rights even when living “off the reservation”.

Somewhere in that grand flatfooted rhetorical gesture that she performed in front of a global audience yesterday, she made a claim about rule of law and equality before the law that would have been hilarious if it weren’t for the mountain of corpses and charred remains of villages smoldering in the wake of soldiers and citizens whose impunity has been established and reiterated many times over the past 5 years and which is essentially an element of Myanmar culture at this point.

It will be interesting to see how this firmly delivered “giving of the finger” to the media and the NGOs that created “The Lady” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi “Democracy Icon” is spun by her international enablers, given the audacity of her performance.

Repressive laws that discourage free speech in Myanmar plus a tendency on the part of journalists in SE Asia to temper their own speech in order to retain access and keep their jobs may have the predictable effect of softening Suu Kyi’s blunt rejection of liberal internationalism in the eyes of the international audience. We will have to see.

One problem, of course, is that as long as a country like Thailand continues to present an easy target like a “Junta” for SE Asia pundits to take aim at, it won’t matter how many Rohingya die or how many lives are devastated, the simple fact of Myanmar having held an election to put Khaleesi on her throne will be used as a handy screen for all the investment pouring into what has been called Asia’s “last frontier”.

“Democracy”, as Suu Kyi and the generals well know, works as well as Dragons when it comes to legitimizing and sanitizing all sorts of things that liberals might otherwise find beyond the pale.

ASSK

What’s Been Did & What’s Been Hid

The disappearance of the plaque commemorating the 1932 coup that ended absolute monarchy in Thailand has provoked a flurry of responses that inadvertently highlight one of the major problems with Thai democracy: a refusal to deal honestly with either history or the realities of the present.

The idea that the bloodless coup of 1932 ended 700 years of absolute monarchy pops up repeatedly in spite of the glaringly obvious fact that Thailand only ever had “absolute monarchy” for roughly 50 years. Before Rama V managed to gather the reins of power into his own hands, Thailand’s system of government was more similar to feudalism than anything remotely like what we mean by absolutism.

When McCargo labeled the modern Thai system “network monarchy” he was underlining the dispersed nature of power in contemporary Thailand. As was the case under the sakdina system that many equate with European feudalism, under the network monarchy power is shared and shifting according to alliances and the vicissitudes of conflict and economic competition that underlie them.

And regardless of scholarly attempts to establish that this loose yet effective network  has morphed into a more structured “deep state”, it is evident that Thailand is still governed by a network of networks centering on the palace, the military, the bureaucracy and Bangkok capital.

By constantly identifying “royal absolutism” or “absolute monarchy” as the primary obstruction on the road to Thai democracy, analysts are deliberately or otherwise obscuring the realities of power in Thailand.

Directly related to this misidentification of the locus of power is the pointless and often hysterical emphasis on lese majeste legislation- the notorious 112– and the absurd suggestion that making it impossible to criticize one element in the network cripples all attempts at political critique.

The education system in Thailand, with its emphasis on rote learning and hours and hours of time wasted in exercises designed to promote group cohesion and military-style obedience, is not protected by 112. Neither is the justice system which keeps the wealthy immune to prosecution. The various corrupt police organizations in the country are not protected by 112 and neither are the ministries and departments whose “officials” routinely ride roughshod over ordinary Thai people and make a mockery of any law, never mind laws controlling “free speech”.

At the same time as commentators constantly misidentify the historical conditions that were “overthrown” in 1932, they overstate wildly the “democracy” that was thereby established.

plaque

The Promoters, as the group of military and foreign-educated civilians that made up Khana Ratsadon (People’s Party) are known when the subject is the Revolution of 1932, were a near-perfect embodiment of how “Thai democracy” has played out in the 85 years since they established constitutional monarchy in Thailand.

Half military, half civilian, and all elite, the men of Khana Ratsadon did not support the establishment of political parties and did not trust the people of Thailand to constitute a democratic electorate until sufficiently “educated” by their betters. Although initially determined to place severe limits on the power of the monarchy, within months of the coup, Khana Ratsadon gave in to demands from the palace for more authority. This refusal to trust the people of Thailand and reflexive deference to a version of droit de seigneur characterizes Thai politics to this day.

The People’s Party, as is the case in all subsequent Thai political history, was divided by its military and civilian factions and each faction had a leader who would go on to play an outstanding role in the development of “Thai-style democracy” with its endless back-and-forth between elite liberalism (disguised as democracy) and military dictatorship (disguised as protector of democracy and the monarchy).

What is called “pro-democracy” activism in Thailand is always only anti-junta or anti-military dictatorship. There is nothing “pro” about it because there is not and has never been a democratic movement in Thailand, outside of a few heady years in the late 60s and early 70s when left-wing radicalism related to the communist and nationalist surges taking place throughout SE Asia caused a temporary glitch in the normal flow of elite liberalism versus royalist military conservatism that constitutes Thai political reality.

There are many possible reasons for this lack in Thai politics but one that never changes is the nature of the Thai middle classes, none of whom sees any advantage in moving toward a democratic system that would enfranchise the people of Thailand.

This is as true of the supporters of military dictatorship and quasi-fascist thugs like Sondhi Limthongkul and Suthep Thaugsuban as it is of the academics and journalists who go on and on about the constitution and free speech but never address the real questions of what democracy is good for, what it requires beyond the right to say mean things about your betters, and, most importantly of all, who can be entrusted with its administration.