Obama goes to Laos to suck eggs

The Myanmar Times - - Views - ROGER MIT­TON roger­mit­ton@gmail.com

NEXT week, the re­gion’s lead­ers will gather in Vi­en­tiane, the cap­i­tal of Laos, for the an­nual sum­mit of the As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions. It will be graced with a bit of hoopla be­cause Pres­i­dent Barack Obama will be­come the first US leader to visit Laos when he pops in for the East Asia Sum­mit that fol­lows the ASEAN shindig.

Un­for­tu­nately, there is likely to be lit­tle else to crow about.

The lame-duck Obama may well find it tough to gain at­ten­tion from other sum­mi­teers, given that his fa­mous “pivot” to Asia has been a dud and his goals for the re­gion have fiz­zled out.

At this sum­mit four years ago, soon af­ter he’d been re-elected to a sec­ond term, he boldly chose to visit Cam­bo­dia, Myan­mar and Thai­land to shore up pro-democ­racy ideals in those three na­tions.

It was a laud­able move, be­cause back then Thai­land’s elected gov­ern­ment faced threats from vi­o­lent vig­i­lante groups, Cam­bo­dia was be­com­ing more op­pres­sive and Myan­mar’s democ­racy move­ment was still wob­bly.

Well, no need to ask how Obama fared on that oc­ca­sion or in the in­ter­ven­ing years, be­cause ev­ery­one knows that the re­gion has re­gressed even fur­ther as re­gards democ­racy and hu­man rights.

Thai­land’s elected gov­ern­ment has been over­thrown and re­placed by a mil­i­tary junta, while Cam­bo­dia has be­come even more re­pres­sive and con­tin­ues to en­gage in or­ches­trated thug­gery against crit­ics.

As Joshua Kurlantz­ick at Wash­ing­ton’s Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions said, “Cam­bo­dia’s bru­tal tac­tics of the 1990s and early 2000s, when po­lit­i­cal ac­tivists were rou­tinely mur­dered and op­po­si­tion par­ties nearly put out of busi­ness, have re­turned.”

Con­cur­rently, de­spite pleas from Obama and other West­ern lead­ers, there has not been any move­ment to­ward democ­racy and greater free­dom in the rest of ASEAN, aside, par­tially, from in In­done­sia and Myan­mar.

In­deed, out­side lead­ers, as well as aca­demics and an­a­lysts, jos­tle to name which of ASEAN’s 10 mem­bers have re­gressed the most.

David Stein­berg of Wash­ing­ton’s Ge­orge­town Uni­ver­sity wrote, “Viet­nam, per­haps ex­ceed­ing even Brunei, Laos and Thai­land, is ar­guably the least demo­cratic state in all of South­east Asia.” That’s say­ing some­thing.

Point­edly nam­ing Malaysia, Thai­land and the Philip­pines, a Wash­ing­ton Post ed­i­to­rial this week noted how na­tions that were for­merly as­sumed to be democ­ra­cies, in­clud­ing US al­lies, have be­come au­thor­i­tar­ian.

In­deed, Charles San­ti­ago, a Malaysian par­lia­men­tar­ian, said that across ASEAN, “State in­sti­tu­tions, in­clud­ing leg­is­la­tures and courts, are be­ing cowed by strong­men and forced to do the bid­ding of rul­ing par­ties.”

As for the guys host­ing Obama and other lead­ers next week, San­ti­ago noted that in Vi­en­tiane, “The only thing on dis­play will be the com­mu­nist regime’s un­flinch­ing com­mit­ment to author­i­tar­i­an­ism at all costs.”

Aside from the way ASEAN has spurned Obama’s dream of bring­ing demo­cratic gov­er­nance, due pro­cess and re­spect for hu­man rights, what is most de­press­ing is the re­gion’s ca­pit­u­la­tion to Bei­jing.

Com­ing out of the blue, it has left peo­ple dazed and un­com­pre­hend­ing, as if bonked on the head with a co­conut.

Af­ter all, not long ago the re­gion’s for­eign min­istries were headed by the likes of In­done­sia’s Marty Natale­gawa, Sin­ga­pore’s Ge­orge Yeo and Thai­land’s Surin Pit­suwan, vi­sion­ary fig­ures who brought strength and co­he­sion to their re­gional as­so­ci­a­tion.

Not any more. Bei­jing’s mas­sive trade ties and in­vest­ments have changed all that, and as a re­sult, the un­prin­ci­pled num­ber-crunch­ers have taken over and craven com­pro­mise is the name of the game.

First, ASEAN be­gan cav­ing in to Chi­nese pres­sure at its min­is­te­rial meet­ings and omit­ted any men­tion of Bei­jing’s creep­ing oc­cu­pa­tion and mil­i­tari­sa­tion of is­lands in the South China Sea.

Then, af­ter a United Na­tions tri­bunal in The Hague de­clared that China’s ac­tions were il­le­gal and its in­fa­mous “9-dash line” claim­ing vir­tu­ally the en­tire sea was in­valid, the group meekly chose to ig­nore the rul­ing.

In­deed, the no­tion that this re­gion’s claimants and their ASEAN col­leagues might col­lec­tively ask China to re­spect the tri­bunal’s ver­dict and let the Philip­pines and Viet­nam have their is­lands back is laugh­able.

To­day, all of ASEAN has vol­un­tar­ily fallen into Bei­jing’s lap. The views of Obama and the lib­eral democ­ra­cies have been shunted aside.

Al­ready, the Philip­pines and Viet­nam have dis­patched emis­saries to Bei­jing to cut a deal. Their best-case sce­nario is sim­ply to hang on to the is­lands they now pos­sess.

There is lit­tle else they can do. For sure, when they meet in Laos next week, Obama is not go­ing to prom­ise them any sup­port if they try to stand up to China.

For­get Wash­ing­ton’s mod­est moves to boost the de­fen­sive ca­pa­bil­i­ties of Hanoi and Manila. They will not de­ter Bei­jing, and ev­ery­one knows it.

So we are left with an ASEAN that is in­creas­ingly sub­servient to Bei­jing, and worse – and this is no ex­ag­ger­a­tion – is in­creas­ingly em­brac­ing a form of re­pres­sive, Chi­nese-style gov­er­nance.

Look at how Thai­land and Viet­nam copy Bei­jing’s play­book to ap­pre­hend and si­lence dis­si­dents, and the way crit­ics like Chut Wutty and Kem Ley in Cam­bo­dia and Som­bath Som­phone in Laos are phys­i­cally elim­i­nated.

Look also at the con­tempt Myan­mar’s new gov­ern­ment shows to­ward the me­dia, and look at the way Malaysia’s pre­mier ca­su­ally co-opts the ju­di­ciary and in­sti­gates law­suits against his op­po­nents.

What is Obama go­ing to say about all this in Vi­en­tiane next week?

Prob­a­bly very lit­tle, and what­ever he does say will be po­litely ig­nored, be­cause as far as this re­gion is con­cerned, he is a failed and dis­cred­ited leader, and the sooner he goes, the bet­ter.

Whether he is re­placed by Hil­lary Clin­ton or Don­ald Trump makes lit­tle dif­fer­ence, be­cause this re­gion has vol­un­tar­ily de­cided to go in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion.

One of Obama’s pre­de­ces­sors, Ron­ald Rea­gan, once said that the nine most ter­ri­fy­ing words in the English lan­guage were, “I’m from the gov­ern­ment and I’m here to help.”

Right now, if not ter­ri­fy­ing then cer­tainly the most dispir­it­ing words are, “Hi, I’m from ASEAN. Here’s an egg to suck on, you lib­eral West­ern schmuck.” MYAN­MAR Con­sol­i­dated Me­dia and sev­eral spon­sors yes­ter­day do­nated sup­plies to the Myan­mar Red Cross So­ci­ety as it aids flood vic­tims.

The Myan­mar Times pro­vided 129 rice bags, and spon­sors F&N Myan­mar Com­pany, CNF Myan­mar Com­pany, Grand Wynn En­ter­prise, Casabella, Nat Ray Com­pany, and Ikon Mart Trad­ing also con­trib­uted do­na­tions. Some 493,000 peo­ple have been af­fected by flood­ing, ac­cord­ing to the UN. – Staff

Photo: Kaung Htet

US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama speaks to rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the Young South­east Asian Lead­ers Ini­tia­tive in Yan­gon on Novem­ber 15, 2012.

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