Archive for May 2010
The Burmese regime, by most accounts, is ruthless, xenophobic, and hermetic. Yet at an event I attended last month organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Southeast Asia program, I witnessed a remarkably different face from the Burmese diplomats in attendance, which, I then suspected and have since subsequently confirmed, is a rare sight.
The on-the-record event was supposed to be on humanitarian assistance in Burma, with two individuals (Thet Win from U.S. Collection, Humanitarian Corps and Vaughan Turekian from the American Association for the Advancement of Science) sharing their experiences from recent missions there and the rest of us huddled around a mid-sized table. As a few of us were exchanging pleasantries and cards before the event, three suit-clad men filed in.
It was only in the middle of the talk, when one of the presenters, Mr. Thet Win, said he was “pleasantly surprised” to see Burmese embassy representatives present, that I realized who they were. My eyebrows immediately rose. I’ve attended my fair share of these DC events, but I had never seen one, much less three, Burmese embassy representatives (nor have several others I have spoken to). That alone was remarkable. The talk continued, and both presenters seemed to be emphasizing either that removing the politics in a frayed relationship like between U.S. and Burma could make other kinds of technical and scientific cooperation possible (Mr. Turekian), or that engagement would be a better approach than isolation and sanctions (Mr. Thet Win).
The climax was when one of the CSIS staff invited the Burmese Embassy’s First Secretary to comment on the proceedings if he so wished. I don’t think most people expected much other than a flowery thank you message from a member of the usually rigid and tight-lipped Burmese embassy. But the First Secretary gave a 12 minute-long speech (I monitored and recorded it in my notes), which, Mr. Thet Win, who I imagine has had a lot of interaction with Burmese diplomats previously, himself noted as “the longest public speech I have ever heard from a Burmese official”.
More fascinating then the length of the speech, though, was the content and how candid he was about it. He outlined how engagement and technical cooperation were important, and did include the spiel about how pleased he was at these missions and how willing Burma was to respond to these initiatives. But he also admitted that “we have our own problems”, “especially in the area of education”, and went on to dwell on the fact that while Rangoon University was Southeast Asia’s premier institution in the 1940s and 1950s, the level of education had deteriorated since then to deplorable levels. He even cited specific details. It seemed like an honest assessment of his country and a genuine request for aid and cooperation.
Now, the behavior of a diplomat at one forum should not be used to generalize about the nature of the Burmese regime or provide a rationalization for its actions. But it was a rare window into what Burmese diplomats may be thinking, and a refreshing one to the extent that at least one of them acknowledges what most who study the country have long known: that the promise of Burma following decolonization was squandered in the decades that followed, whether in agriculture or education.
Responding to the surprise at many of the participants at his candor, the First Secretary said he had initially been apprehensive about attending the event, fearing a series of condemnations about his country. I’m glad he eventually did, and I hope the Burmese embassy continues to do so in the future. It may not result in groundbreaking changes in the situation inside Burma or in its relationship with the United States, but it will at least provide those of us who care about Asia with some idea as to what the Burmese themselves are thinking, no matter how much we may disagree. Hearing a Burmese diplomat speak so candidly ought not to be such a rarity.
*NOTE: The use of Burma as opposed to Myanmar is based on personal preference, and is not meant as a political statement.
While the subject of Chinese ‘soft power’ in Asia has become an alluring topic of late in international affairs, one would be hard pressed to find anyone — much less Indians– seriously talking about using Indian soft power in the region.
So I was surprised when, during a talk which I attended at the East-West Center in Washington, D.C. about India’s ‘Look East Policy’ — an informal term for the initiatives India has taken toward East Asia since the end of the Cold War — the Indian scholar Baladas Ghoshal suggested that India deploy its soft power more strategically and systematically in its relationship with East Asia.
Soft power is a loose and hotly debated term, but it roughly means using culture, values, and institutions instead of military or economic measures to gain influence. In India’s case, Mr. Ghoshal felt that New Delhi’s record of maintaining a multicultural and democratic society without imposing uniformity or curtailing freedoms could offer some lessons for other Asian governments. That message, in his mind, could be transmitted via greater educational scholarships, cultural exchanges, and people to people visits.
The resilience of India’s democratic tradition is indeed impressive. The world’s largest democracy has managed to preserve its sociocultural, ethnic and linguistic diversity in spite of separatism, terrorism, societal inequalities and other challenges since independence in 1947, and India is now among the fastest growing economies. Former U.S. President George W. Bush once summed up his marvel for India as follows: “A billion people, in a functioning democracy. Ain’t that something?”
Yet I am skeptical about deploying ‘Indian soft power’ for two main reasons. The first is that while Indians are proud of the state of their democracy, it seems to me that they are too attentive to its flaws to have any appetite for exporting their model to other countries.
For instance, whenever I express my qualified adoration for Indian democracy to Indian scholars and students, a surprisingly large number give me a long (and true) shopping list of problems with Indian democracy (a disturbing number of Indian politicians have criminal backgrounds, half of Indian women are illiterate, and around 37 percent of Indians fall below the international poverty line). They also mention China’s successes under its authoritarian model with some envy (for a good feel of this interesting perception, see NPR‘s recent piece on “India’s China Envy”). The impression I have gotten, which I have confirmed with several others knowledgeable about India, is that while Indians are proud of their country and what it has achieved, they also believe India has to fix its own internal flaws before trying to export its model to others beyond its borders.
Even if this is dismissed as ‘unscientific’ or a ‘biased sample’, my next argument alone is sufficient to challenge Ghoshal’s suggestion. Simply put, if, as Mr. Ghoshal and other scholars present at the talk seemed to admit, Indian foreign policy lacks strategic vision, then it is unlikely that it will be able to undertake such a project anytime soon. Mr. Ghoshal, who characterized his country’s foreign policy in general as “reactive and fire-brigade like”, and India’s policies toward East Asia as “focused too much on imitating China”, “at a groping stage”, and with “no long term objective”, seemed at times to doubt his own recommendations as much as some members of the audience.
While it is admirable that he was trying to challenge his country’s foreign policy elite to think outside the box, the prospects for New Delhi to embark on some kind of soft power offensive are bleak when there has yet to be a single official foreign policy statement on its almost two-decade old Look East Policy, and its own former foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee called that policy “more of an approach” just a few years ago.
There were several good ideas in Mr. Ghoshal’s remarks — more scholarships for East Asian students to study in India, more emphasis by India on its common cultural heritage with Southeast Asia, and more exchanges beyond the inter-governmental level, such as among civil society groups. But translating these ideas into action, I think, will be the real challenge for India.
When I first considered starting The Asianist — a blog devoted to Asian affairs — the idea was met with much apprehension by family and friends alike.
Why box oneself into a single region in an increasingly interconnected world? What value would this add to the already countless blogs out there, including some very good ones on Asia? Would I be able to keep up with the feverish pace of the blogosphere? Am I voicing my opinions before I have the qualification or expertise to have them?
While I have chosen to go forward with the idea nonetheless, I feel compelled to at least address some of these legitimate concerns.
The focus on Asia, as opposed to a particular topic or the world in general, is mostly due to my own selfish interest. I spent the first seventeen years of my life in Malaysia, Singapore and Philippines. I have traveled through parts of Northeast, Southeast and South Asia, and have studied and read about those regions, in addition to Central Asia and the Middle East. It also can’t hurt, of course, that Asia houses more than half of the world’s population, dominates today’s headlines (from North Korea to Iran to China), and has been dubbed the center of global geopolitics in the so-called ‘Asian Century’.
Any project that claims to be ‘Asia-focused’, in my mind, has to first grapple with the question of what constitutes Asia. Again for selfish reasons of interest, ‘Asia’ in this blog will consist of Southeast Asia, Northeast Asia, Central Asia, the Pacific Islands, and Western Asia (or the Middle East). But perhaps in recognition of increasing global connectivity, it will also cover events in other parts of the world that are related to Asia either directly (eg. China’s influence in Africa) or indirectly (eg. a piece on the G-20). No blog, however region-focused, should be blind to what goes on in the rest of the world.
As to the value this might add to the blogosphere, the chief aim of this blog is for me to record and share my observations and experiences about Asia with those who find them interesting enough, not to clinch first place in an obscure blogging contest or boast about how many followers I have on Twitter. But if I do manage to stimulate some debate, pique some interest or broaden people’s minds along the way, that’s a plus.
I do have some experience in Asia. I have lived in some parts, visited others, and have worked on Asian issues at several places, including Amnesty International, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Singapore-based Rajaratnam School of International Studies, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and, now, the Project 2049 Institute where I am a research assistant. I’ve written pieces in several online and print publications, including Asian newspapers like the China Post (Taiwan), the Straits Times (Singapore) and The Nation (Thailand). My two bachelors honors theses at the University of Virginia, from which I graduated last year, were the products of my field research on the insurgency in Southern Thailand and Chinese influence in Southeast Asia.
Yet as a 23 year old who is just about to begin my masters at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, I realize there are definitely innumerable individuals who know far more about the region and probably deserve this soapbox much more than I do. I harbor no illusions of grandeur; only the hope of participating in a conversation about issues I care deeply about.
Perhaps I ought to — as some have cautioned — wait to earn a PhD., and, with it, the right to opine. But having been an opinion columnist since my high school days, I’ve never shied from expressing my views, even if they may be held against me further down the line. Besides, The Asianist is dedicated, as I have tried to be most of my life, to a balanced, fact-based perspective on Asian issues. In that sense, this is more of a collection of experiences and views I have come across rather than the vitriolic diatribes of a partisan hack.
Finally, the pace of the blogosphere is feverish, and it will be (and has been) a challenge to keep up with it. All I can say is that I certainly hope that I will be able to, and will try my best.
So, with that, I’m Prashanth Parameswaran, and welcome to The Asianist, and I hope you will continue to stay in touch in the future.