Archive for September 2011
Voice of America reported earlier this morning that heavy fighting has erupted in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, between forces loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh and armed tribesman siding with anti-Saleh protesters.
Letta Taylor of Human Rights Watch has a recent piece out on what she terms “Yemen’s Hijacked Revolution” that puts this in perspective. Ms. Taylor argues that popular uprising that has gripped Yemen for months has been hijacked by three elite factions vying for power, and that the return of President Ali Abdullah Saleh from Saudi Arabia may plunge the country into civil war. Meanwhile, the civilian population is suffering:
Food, water, and power have become increasingly scarce since the protests began. As a report released this month from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights put it, some elements among those “seeking to achieve or retain power” are tying to “collectively punish” Yemen’s civilians.
More than 100,000 people have been internally displaced in a patchwork of conflicts outside the capital. In the highland city of Taizz and in Arhab, where some have sought shelter in caves, tribal fighters of local sheikhs have been clashing since May with the Republican Guard. In the south, since March, military units have been fighting Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law), a group backed by foreign fighters and perhaps linked to al Qaeda.
She recommends sustained international attention and sanctions to prevent a descent into civil war.
The United States, the European Union, and Gulf states including Saudi Arabia should freeze the foreign assets of President Saleh and his top security officials and officially suspend all security assistance until the authorities stop attacks on protesters and start bringing those responsible to justice. They also should press Yemen to stop resisting the presence of UN human rights monitors. At the same time, the UN Security Council should make it clear to all clashing factions in Yemen that it will not tolerate disregard for restraint. And would-be dealmakers, including Saudi Arabia, should pull any immunity offer for international crimes off the table.
Her forecast of the worst-case scenario is quite grim:
If Washington, Riyadh, and other key players do not move swiftly, Yemen could be headed down the path of Somalia, a failed state just across the Gulf of Aden where armed Islamist militants have imposed draconian rule across vast swaths of territory, and famine and fighting have ravaged the population. In that scenario, last week’s mayhem could be just a taste of the killing and suffering to come.
Read the full thing here.
I returned home to Malaysia in early July to find a mix of fear and excitement hanging in the air. A widespread protest for electoral reform was scheduled to take place on July 9, energizing those agitating for political change and worrying others expecting government repression.
A week later, thousands of peaceful demonstrators in the so−called Bersih 2.0 rally were doused with water cannons and fired with tear gas by the Malaysian police, and over 1,000 were arrested. Another brave attempt by Malaysian citizens to assert their freedom had been forcibly forestalled by their fearful government.
Little wonder that, in talking to some Malaysians at a social gathering over at Harvard University this weekend, I found that they remain skeptical even after Prime Minister Najib Razak, in a televised address earlier this month, vowed to repeal several of the country’s security laws. This includes the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA), which gives the government sweeping powers to detain suspects indefinitely and has been used to put opposition party politicians and activists behind bars. Is some version of the Arab Spring in the air in Malaysia? If Mr. Najib follows through with the slew of civil rights reforms he has promised, they will be nothing short of historic.
That’s a big if. True, Mr. Najib, a British−educated economist and the son of Malaysia’s second prime minister, has tried to introduce several bold reforms since coming to office after his governing coalition’s poor showing in the 2008 elections. He clearly understands what many have been arguing for years: that Malaysia needs to complete its transition to a full democracy and avoid being caught in the middle income trap. In March 2010, Mr. Najib told The Economist that his reforms were “nothing short of bold and courageous”, and that he did not “believe in incremental change.”
He may have spoken too soon. Many of his initiatives, including an effort to abolish pro−Malay affirmative−action privileges, slash fuel subsidies and introduce a good and services tax, have since been rolled back, scaled down, or pushed forward as he wrestles with staunch opposition from conservatives within his own party determined to preserve a network of patronage and rent. Many are beginning to question his ability to lead, with one recent poll showing his ratings slide to 59 percent this August from 79 percent over a year ago.
His latest grand gesture is being read as an attempt to shore up his sagging popularity and win Malaysia’s middle ground ahead of elections to be held within the next year or so. If so, Malaysians will need a lot of convincing. First, it is still not clear whether these reforms will be watered down or rubbished altogether by conservatives within Mr. Najib’s party, the United Malay National Organization (UMNO). His own Home Affairs Minister and a known hardliner, Hishamuddin Hussein, dismissed any talk of abolishing the ISA just two days before Mr. Najib made his announcement, suggesting either that the reforms were either not discussed between major Cabinet members or that strong disagreements remain.
Furthermore, perhaps expecting a backlash against “bold and courageous reform,” Mr. Najib also pledged to replace the repealed security laws with two fresh ones. It is not clear what the shape of these new laws will be, although they are expected to also allow preventative detention, albeit with more judicial oversight and limits on police power. Skeptics worry that these fresh laws will ultimately change nothing substantively and amount to little more than window dressing.
Given Mr. Najib’s past performance, it is not surprising that many Malaysians remain cautiously optimistic about his current reforms. It is clear that their sixth prime minister likes to dream big. What remains to be seen is whether he can bring his party, and ultimately his country, along with him.
This article was originally published in the Tufts Daily here.
I’ve got a new piece in the Tufts Daily today with general comments on the Obama administration’s bad week on Taiwan which included charges of capitulation to China and interference in Taiwanese domestic politics. I won’t paste the entire article here, but I try to move beyond partisan attacks and have distilled general principles that should be kept in mind.
First, treating Taiwan purely as an issue to manage and an appendage of U.S.−China relations understates the independent importance of Taiwan to U.S. ideals. Taiwan is, among other things, the United States’ ninth−largest trading partner, a model democratic nation in Asia, a key shipping hub and home to some of the world’s most vibrant companies. The loss of Taiwan to China would also undermine U.S. interests, since Chinese control of Taiwan and the Taiwan Strait would enhance Chinese naval superiority. And, while arms sales often anger China, its actual response has been limited merely to harsh words and a temporary suspension of some joint military activities. In other words, the United States has a stake in the future of its ally and should support it for its own sake.
Second, the U.S. commitment is not just an act of debating about legislative wording or doling out periodical assistance, but a fundamental commitment to the people of Taiwan. Even as positive developments continue between Beijing and Taipei, China’s military buildup is continuing and the People’s Liberation Army’s assets are still directed toward Taiwan. In this environment, arms sales are designed both to help Taiwan defend itself as the cross−strait military balance tips in Beijing’s favor and to give Taiwan confidence in negotiations with the mainland. Since China’s intentions remain uncertain, Taipei must have to both negotiate from a position of strength and have the tools to defend itself if needed.
Third, how an administration deals with Taiwan is seen as a general marker for how the United States deals with China and treats its allies. Early on, when this administration attempted to placate China by being more “sensitive” to Chinese reservations on issues like Taiwan, it failed to gain concessions and eventually switched to a tougher stance in the face of China’s more aggressive territorial claims which spooked Washington’s allies and friends. It is clear that China has strategic interests irrespective of what the U.S. position is on Taiwan, and that Beijing intends on pursuing them. While U.S.−China cooperation may be desirable, the United States should not be naive about its potential and should pursue its interests and stay true to its allies. In a world where the future of China’s rise remains uncertain, doubt surrounding Washington’s commitment could make the world a much more unstable and militarized place.
You can read the full thing here.