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