Burma, Cuba, and Iran: the pros and cons of Obama’s rapprochement

deal with it

 

 

2015 has been a big year in Obama’s administration, one that ultimately will shape his presidential legacy. While he did not do so well on the first term, and even on the first half of his second term (thanks to the government shutdown in 2013 and intense bipartisan politics being played in the Congress), his performance became hugely bolstered through the passage of fast-track authority, which enables the administration to finish Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) before 2017 and other proposed mega-regional free trade agreements in the future, as well as the improvement in relations with countries formerly dubbed as ‘sponsors of terrorism’ – while not being hypocritical that US does have its own particular record – and in this specific case, Burma (or Myanmar, you name it), Cuba, and Iran. I will not talk so much about other foreign policy accomplishments that he had done in his presidential period, but these three countries, oftentimes tied together in almost any media report as ‘centerpieces’ in his foreign-policy rapprochement, deserve some particular attention. While Obama’s efforts, which emphasize diplomacy and compromise rather than the overt use of military force, have won plaudits, there are always concerns about what these countries, upon the re-engagement, are doing, and will possibly do, in the present and in the future. In all Polyannaist terms, nonetheless, we do really expect – while keeping our realist mindset on track – that the ‘opening’ of these countries will also lead to the betterment in the surrounding regions, and the world.

 

BURMA

myanmar

Source (for all map images): Lonely Planet

Population: 60 million (almost), GDP (nominal): 60-65 billion US$ (2014)

Pros: since the limited reforms introduced in 2011 by the quasi-civilian president Thein Sein, sanctions have been gradually lifted the country has managed to attract more foreign direct investment from numerous Asian countries (other than the long-standing investor China), such as India, Thailand, Singapore, Japan, European Union, and obviously, from United States. Tens of billions of dollars have been poured in various industrial projects, while construction boom, mostly focused on high-rise buildings, is currently taking place in major cities, particularly in Yangon. For all the doubts among much of the international communities, World Economic Forum did even organize an investment summit in early 2013. Middle class is emerging in major cities, an important component in the country’s path towards eventual democratization. Hundreds of political prisoners are also since then released from prisons, and political participation is also turning into a more competitive arena as well, with numerous parties now participating in the country’s parliament based in Naypyidaw.

Cons: human rights abuses continue to take place, and the notoriety surrounding the country’s treatment of ethnic Rohingyas, as evident in the massive refugee crisis occurring in the seas between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. The government continues to deny the citizenship status of the whole ethnic group, numbered at over 1.7 million strong. Other than Rohingyas, the government remains in belligerence with several ethnic-based insurgency groups in the border, particularly those near India and China (some of the peace accords struck with them in 2012 and 2013 failed). There are also concerns that the political reforms seemingly stall, with the latest regulation reserving 25% of the parliament seats to the armed forces, while a presidential candidate has to secure more than 75% of parliamentary support, an obstruction to the country’s most leading politician, Aung San Suu Kyi, to contest the electoral race scheduled to take place in October this year. It is obviously undeniable, in fact, that she can not become a candidate, but whether the next president will proceed with the ongoing reforms remains a big question that has to be solved.

Obama’s visits to the country: 2012 and 2014

 

CUBA

cuba

Population: over 10 million, GDP (nominal): 80 billion US$ (2014)

Pros: relations between United States and Cuba in 20th century were mostly characterized by Cold War conflicts, and CIA’s numberless covert plans to assassinate Fidel Castro, the country’s leading political figure, until his replacement by his brother, Raul, in 2008. Limited reforms have been introduced since then, most astonishingly, the layoff of over 500,000 public employees in 2010 (which indirectly also led to the growth of entrepreneurs). The rapprochement, initiated in May 2012 as part of a ‘spy swap’ program, had since become a wide-ranging thaw among the two countries, culminating with the December 2014 meetings between Raul and Obama, assisted by Pope Francis. Bilateral meetings between Raul and Obama continued further with Organization of the American States (OAS) Summit in Panama City in April 2015, which, for the first time, oversaw the handshaking between the two leaders.

Cooperation among the two countries extends not only among the leaders, but also in people-to-people level. Cuban medical researchers, which ‘doctor diplomacy’ is widely utilized in Cuban foreign policy, have pioneered a medical breakthrough in cure of cancer, and the cooperation has recently begun between the countries’ scientists. The re-opening of US embassy in Havana last week, as one expects, will push American businesses and tourists, gradually, to invest and interact with the locals living in the country in the future. Furthermore, the country can advance even further in its ‘doctor diplomacy’ strategy, now already dispatching more than 40,000 medical experts across the developing world.

Cons: two major takes. Firstly, US has continued to retain the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison, where the infamous CIA rendition program is still taking place there. Further negotiations between Washington and Havana have to be conducted in order to solve this decades-old, lingering problem. Another concern is the extent to which Cuba, still ruled by one-party regime, will introduce its political reforms, and also allowing more competitive political atmosphere. Such political opening will take years, if not decades; if reforms go too fast, a political crisis will be a real, legitimate threat. Gradual phases of tutelage will be a more recommended pattern to guide the country’s path towards political openness, and that will be left to his successors in 2018 (the time Raul resigns, as he will be 87 years old afterwards).

Obama’s visits to the country: zero

 

 

IRAN

iran

Population: 80 million, GDP (nominal): 400-500 billion US$ (2014)

Pros: the nuclear deal, eventually achieved two weeks ago, was another highlighted achievement that Obama had achieved in his administration after over 6 years of uneasy numerous processes of negotiation, together with European Union, IAEA, China, and Russia. The deal itself will require Iran to highly limit (but not completely freeze) the nuclear program, obligate the country to open up for inspections by IAEA, as well as provide progress reports, up for international joint reviews, for a period of 10 years. While the accord was achieved ‘not with trust, but through verification’, the deal will enable the gradual lifting of economic sanctions that have crippled the country for almost one decade, potentially adding an annual oil revenue of more than 100 billion US$ that Tehran critically needs to support the long-term development. Still, a complete normalization of US-Iran relations will not be expected in a short term period, somehow.

Cons: There remains this question of regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, two long-time arch-enemies, in Middle East. The two countries have played proxy wars and conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, and in numerous other Shia-Sunni conflicts across the region. Unlike the two countries above, Tehran plays a powerful influence in Middle East. It continues to retain support to Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus (and most recently, a new law has been signed in Tehran to authorize 1 billion US$ of financial support to the beleaguered country annually), while the civil war in Yemen, despite the truce, has not led to a full pause. There remains doubt, also, of what will happen once the deal expires in 2025; such uncertainty will have a major implication on global geopolitics in the decades to come, especially when one expects Iran to be economically and politically in even stronger position than now. An Iran-Saudi rapprochement, possibly brokered by Washington, will have to be attempted in a few years to come to prevent a larger regional conflict to take place.

Obama’s visits to the country: zero

 

As much as these efforts have resulted in significantly positive impacts on US relations with the world in the second decade of 21st century, these deals also carry Obama’s name in a huge stake in the long-term future. What if the direction becomes worse rather than better? There is too much one can hardly speculate, even in the 10 years of time; this also carries an important question, furthermore, of what the future US presidents will relate to these countries in a post-Obama setting. Will the presidents maintain the ‘diplomacy-first’ strategy, or will the stance become much harder and more hawkish? In such situations of fixed uncertainties, wisdom will be the sole guidance one has to employ to understand the problems, and proactively solve them. For all the flaws that have occurred, at least, engagement is the continuous form of remedy in international relations that Obama has exercised (so far).

 

 

 

 

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2014: year in review (by countries, part 2)

2014

 

This is the continuation of previous post I published yesterday. Here are a few more countries under the spotlight this year:

 

Iraq – this country has long been notoriously associated with sectarian strife, the failed US invasions, and right now, a seemingly new synonym is ironically added into once was an influential power in Middle East a millennium ago: ISIS. Since its advent in the middle of this year, this organization, led by a former CIA informant (ha!), has committed numerous atrocities against religious and ethnic minorities across much of the country, most notably Christians and Yazidis. Excluding their poor public-relations exercise by means of decapitation, which, as horrendous as it seems, still continues to entice thousands of foreigners across the whole world to join this movement.

With the Iraqi Army still in partial disarray due to internal conflicts, who else remains in charge of limiting ISIS’s movements? Big kudos to Peshmerga, the army for Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous region in northern Iraq. While the Army’s offensive has been largely limited (and some even escape), the Peshmerga fighters remain fiercely committed to defending their region, and more generally, the country as a whole, despite the frequent fracas between Baghdad and Erbil (capital of Iraqi Kurdistan) in regard to oil production sharing contracts.

Iran – it has been an uneasy year for President Hassan Rouhani, as nuclear deals with Western countries remain largely in limbo. But one piece of slightly good news abounds: Iran has, for the first time since Ahmadinejad era, achieved positive economic growth, albeit small compared to most emerging markets. With GDP growth estimated at 2%, no matter how small it is, Iran is expected to move slowly into better direction in the years to come.

The big concern that matters, as of my opinion, is the limited freedom of expression that prevails.

Israel / Palestine – “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Gandhi’s quote resonates very obviously in terms of how these two countries relate to each other. A few Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered, followed by a retaliation by which a Palestinian child was done so in similar manner. And huge conflicts, due in part to deep scars that remain in both governments, reverberated again, as history has taught. More than 2,000 Palestinian civilians were killed during an offensive by Israeli military in August this year. But is Israel the sole culprit in this conflict? What about Hamas, notoriously known for exploiting civilian places like schools and hospitals to launch unending attacks to Israel? With now Israel dominated by hard-line Zionists, and Palestine partially under control of hard-line leaders as well, the doors towards negotiation and dialogues will not be achievable in the near future.

A piece of good news that remains largely overlooked in this conflict zone: start-ups, mostly in software development and creative products, in both countries are flourishing, and more European countries are recognizing Palestine as a sovereign state.

Japan – Shinzo Abe was reelected as Prime Minister of Japan in a somewhat risky bet he placed in this year’s general election, as his Abenomics was showing failure. In short term, his quantitative easing policy has pumped over trillions of dollars into the market, therefore stimulating exports growth, abundant cash, as well as inflation, the word first time appearing in the news after more than 20 years experiencing continuous periods of deflation. Nonetheless, with Abe’s introduction of consumption tax at 8%, this deals a catastrophic blow for his ambitious initiative intended to revive Japanese economic miracle. With GDP contracting this quarter, the country unofficially enters its recession again. Even his ‘Womenomics’ program, aimed to increase female participation in leadership seats across Japan’s corporations and organizations into 30%, will be hardly achievable in this decade.

In 2015, challenges will not be even easier for Abe, as a whole range of issues will soon face his administration. Revision of US-drafted post-war constitution has attracted massive opposition from largely Japanese public, still traumatized by the deadly repercussions of World War II, even though Japan will never become a militarist power again, given the country’s increasing demographic pressure. His plans to restart nuclear power plants, ratify the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), pass national secrecy laws, and handle Japan’s fragile relations with China similarly encounter big resistance from much of the Japanese population as well. 2014-2018 will not be a smooth path for Abe, were he to continue his tenure.

Libya – the country remains largely fractured three years after Muammar Qaddafi was overthrown and brutally murdered by opposition forces in a NATO-led civil war that destroyed Libya in 2011. Some militants have previously formed their own ‘governorate’ in the country’s eastern part, only to face another armed resistance from other fighters, while several ISIS sympathizers have begun to infiltrate the country’s security. Even with Libya’s riches stored abroad (the country’s sovereign wealth fund reaches a staggering amount of 120 billion US$, but mostly in bank accounts in Switzerland, notorious for their secrecy laws), the money can hardly be used for Libyan public, given that much of the money remains under control of Qaddafi’s relatives, many of whom had escaped abroad (except for his son, Saif al-Islam, who may possibly face death sentence).

Malaysia – 2014 is the most disastrous year for the country’s aviation industry, as three airliners belonging to its most reliable carriers, Malaysia Airlines and Air Asia, perished this year. The most puzzling of which was Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, a scheduled flight between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing that ended up nowhere. After almost 10 months of investigation, involving hundreds of rescue ships and even war ships from more than 27 countries, not even the slightest trace of the plane can be found. The plane was presumed, as by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, to have ‘ended up somewhere in Indian Ocean’. This makes the search efforts even riskier, given that much of Indian Ocean’s terrains remain largely unmapped, some of which may have depth over 6,000 meters. Four months after this tragedy, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 again became a tragedy, as pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine mistook it as ‘Ukrainian military transport plane’ and shot it down. 239 people in MH370 had never been found, while 298 people in MH17 were instantly killed by the missile launched by the separatists.

And this Sunday, Air Asia, long notable as Asia’s largest low-cost carrier with great safety records, faced its first major crisis with the disappearance of its plane in Air Asia Flight QZ 8501, flying from Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city, to Singapore. 162 passengers and crew were inside the plane, which remains missing as of this hour.

However, other than aviation disasters, Malaysia faces another major issue in regard to the country’s increasing authoritarian rule, as Najib’s administration restarted decades-old sedition laws, used only during British colonial rule, to detain political opponents without prior permission from judiciary powers, including Anwar Ibrahim, the most outspoken. The country also faces ethnic and religious tumults, as Christians are no longer allowed to use ‘Allah’ in their sermons, and more pro-Malay policies at the expense of Chinese and Indian minorities, many of whom have increasingly emigrated abroad.

Myanmar – the country doesn’t experience much progress in democratic transition, as one-fourth of the national parliament remains solely reserved for military. Even the constitution itself requires a law to be approved by more than three-fourths of the entire members, something which can be easily aborted by the powerful military members.

How the country handles its ethnic minorities will remain a concern to be observed in 2015 and years to come, most commonly illustrated by the country’s failure to relate with Muslim Rohingya minorities, many of whom have fled abroad to avoid persecution by ultra-nationalist Buddhists.

One thing almost for sure: in next year’s 2015 election, there is large probability Aung San Suu Kyi will not become the country’s president, given many of the current constitution’s limitations.

Nigeria – Africa’s most populated country faces its major crisis when Boko Haram, an Islamist movement affiliated with Al-Qaeda in northern Nigeria, kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls, sparking an international campaign to free them. However, the kidnapping itself is not the mere problem the Goodluck Jonathan’s administration is being faced with. Continuous suicide-bomb attacks have killed over thousands of civilians in many parts across the country, prompting military operations to capture those involved.

Nonetheless, there remains some good news that is worthy of international attention. The country, given its proximity to Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, was once thought as a potential ‘bomb’ for Ebola epidemic to turn itself into a pandemic, given the country’s population that now reaches 170 million, as well as high density, low sanitation, acute poverty, and little awareness about cleanliness. However, within months, less than two dozens of cases took place across the whole country, with the number of mortality countable by fingers. This is something seemingly impossible for many experts, but Nigeria, given the national unity in facing this crisis, has proven to the world that no matter how problematic things seem to be, they can resolve it successfully.

And Nigeria’s GDP has for the first time surpassed that of South Africa, therefore becoming Africa’s largest economy. While oil and gas revenues remain the largest source for government budget (and often corrupted), Nigerian economy has been more diversified in recent years.

North Korea – other than the Kim-Obama fracas about naughty comedy ‘The Interview’ and the subsequent Sony hacking attacks that follow (which may possibly be conducted by third parties using North Korean IP addresses), the country is not as isolated as people perceive anymore. Over hundred thousands of Chinese tourists are now visiting North Korea every year, followed by a large flow of cash from China, its principal ally, largely driven by informal economy that the country is mostly depending upon. As economy has collapsed, majority of the North Koreans have now turned into either smuggling or small trade, and the country’s unofficial currencies are either US dollar, euro, or Chinese yuan (South Korean won is not allowed).

The purge, and eventual execution, of Jang Song-thaek remains a proof, however, that Kim Jong-un can be as ruthless as his grandfather and father were (Jang was his uncle, and a sort of ‘intermediary’ between North Korea and China in terms of economic, trade, and investment relations).

 

(wait for part 3)

 

Myanmar’s crony capitalists

cronyism in myanmar

 

 

Firstly, we have to acknowledge that Myanmar has opened up since 2011 with the reforms it is undergoing through. The government, led by Thein Sein, has initiated the release of a few hundred political prisoners – most notably, the country’s icon of democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi – and even allowed the opposition a substantial number of parliamentary seats in election. Economic growth has, step by step, shown signs of booming, with foreign investors – not only China’s behemoth corporations – putting forward billions of dollars in this new emerging market. Commercial sales and other trading activities are rapidly growing, largely thanks to the domino’s effect the opening up has engendered.

Nevertheless, the upcoming challenges Myanmar is facing, as a consequence of its previous decades-old military junta rule, remain huge challenges, and given the opening up that occurs, will even be more insurmountable. Internal instability, as shown by the military’s continuing battles against ethnic insurgents, continues. Religious violence has reached a new level of extremes, as displayed by ongoing Buddhist-Rohingya conflicts. Despite loosening rigidity in parliament – opposition is now offered seats there, bulk of the major political and governmental bodies remain under military control.

And now, a new economic problem: the strengthening of its crony capitalists.

A handful of individuals, having been the junta’s main partners in economic development, continue to dominate Burmese economy, and thanks to the opening up, become even stronger as their main role increases: being the joint partners for foreign investors. Despite the flourishing economic boom now taking place in the country, income inequality becomes another point of concern; it is feared that the growth will mostly benefit the cronies, and without further reforms in economic structure, such problem will pose a threat to the country’s uneasy stability in the future.

Watch the slide show, displaying the obvious signs of Myanmar’s cronyism, at Al Jazeera.

A blogger’s hope for religious tolerance in Myanmar

myanmar

 

 

A Burmese blogger spins the yarn about her utter disappointment – and her personal aspiration – in the religious crisis penetrating bulk of Myanmar’s territories, particularly Buddhist-Muslim conflicts which have seen lives taken off throughout months.

 

I’m a Buddhist. I’m a Burmese living in Myanmar. But I just don’t have anything against the Muslims living in Myanmar. They have been living in Myanmar for so many years, just like the Chinese Myanmars. They are our neighbours, they are our co-workers, they are our classmates, they are our friends. What’s wrong with that? They worship their religion. We worship our religion. What’s wrong with that? The fundamental of all religions is based on peace. There are good people in Buddhists. There are bad people in Buddhists. Likewise, there will be good people and bad people in Christians, Muslims, or Hindus, or any other religions. There are only two kinds of people for me: good people and bad people. Why can’t people get the simplicity of that logic?

You don’t have to prosecute another religion just so that your own religion will grow. What kind of religion would it be if you had to use violence and bloodshed just to uphold it? Nobody can destroy the God that you have kept in your heart. You just have to follow what your religion has teach and try to be a good person, who doesn’t have to survive at the sake of others. That’s what I firmly believe, as a Buddhist. I am not praying 24 hours a day, but I try my best to have a good heart, and try my best to follow Buddha’s teachings. Lord Buddha has never said that we would have to make people suffer for the propagation of Buddhism.

 

Read the full article here.