I collaborate with evildoers by mattsteinglass
February 5, 2010, 1:14 pm
Filed under: Burma

I’m drinking a rosé from Myanmar. And it tastes goooood.

By “evildoers” obviously I refer to people who make or drink rosé.


World’s youngest Vietnam veteran swims to Suu Kyi by mattsteinglass
May 28, 2009, 8:32 am
Filed under: Burma, Vietnam

The Telegraph reports:

During a three-hour appearance at a court in Rangoon, John Yettaw, 53, a Vietnam veteran, said that he had a vision in which the Nobel laureate and pro-democracy leader was assassinated by terrorists and he had wanted to warn her and the government.

The last US troops left South Vietnam in 1973, 36 years ago. If John Yettaw is 53 now, he would have been 17 then. What’s the deal?

…Some specifics on just how many US military were left in Vietnam in 1973, from Joseph Treaster in the NY Times, March 30, 1973, “Last US Forces Out of Vietnam” (paywalled):

The last American troops left South Vietnam today, leaving behind an unfinished war that has deeply scarred this country and the United States…


…Remaining after the final jet transport lifted off from Tan Son Nhut air base at 5:53 PM were about 800 Americans on the truce observation force who will leave tomorrow and Saturday. A contingent of 159 Marine guards and about 50 military attaches also stayed behind.

It seems highly likely that either John Yettaw is older than 53, or he did not serve in Vietnam.

NK nuke freaks out ASEM by mattsteinglass
May 26, 2009, 12:24 pm
Filed under: Asia, Burma, Korea, Vietnam

45 chief diplomats from all over Europe and Asia had just gathered in Hanoi for the ASEM Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Monday morning when the news came through that North Korea had detonated its second nuclear bomb.

ASEM meetings, like most Asian multilateral diplomatic gatherings, are generally pretty soporific affairs. (Not that European, African or American summits are exactly free-for-alls of creative thinking and provocative debate. But it’s a difference of degree.) Nothing is said which might conceivably offend the sensibilities of any of the countries involved. Let’s put it this way: the country that generally says the most outrageous and provocative stuff at an Asian diplomatic summit is Japan. That may give you an idea of how mild-mannered the tone usually is.

This morning was about as close as an Asian multilateral meeting gets to a general freak-out. Everyone had expected the  main action to focus on Myanmar. By re-trying Aung San Suu Kyi over a bizarre Boy Scouting escapade gone wrong, Myanmar had managed to bring things to a point where everyone, even its ASEAN neighbors, felt compelled to issue a note of clear if modest disapproval. The lead, of course, would be taken by the EU nations to whom the rest of the world generally subcontracts its moral-disapproval duties these days. But this time it seemed a fair number of Asian nations might be expected to follow along.

And so at about 11:15 am, in the nearly empty marble halls of Hanoi’s three-year-old National Convention Center, Myanmar’s Foreign Minister Nyan Win and his aides went into a meeting with two EU Foreign Ministers, Jan Kohout of the Czech Republic and Carl Bildt of Sweden. The EU handles such affairs via what it call its “troika”: a representative of the European Commission, a representative of the country holding the rotating EU presidency (currently the Czechs), and a representative of the country on deck to take over the presidency next year (Sweden).

By the time they came out an hour later, everyone was talking about the North Korean nuclear test.

A party of Burmese diplomats confronts the press in a fashion similar to a school of herrings confronting dolphins: they turn in unison and break for open water, silently and as quickly as possible — in this case, the elevators. The Burmese were followed by Kohout, a tall, stocky guy who stopped in front of the TV cameras and began answering questions from his own national press, in Czech. Most of the press thus gravitated to the towering, cranelike figure of Carl Bildt. Bildt is a sober and imposing presence with the Scandinavian diplomat’s talent for saying rather obvious and unobjectionable things in emphatic and forceful tones — the righteous common sense of a Calvinist preacher.


Myanmar FM Nyan Win flees from reporters at ASEM

Myanmar FM Nyan Win flees from reporters at ASEM



Bildt said his government, on behalf of the EU, had called for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi in order to create the proper atmosphere for Myanmar’s upcoming elections next year. “What is necessary for those elections is to have an inclusive dialogue with all political forces in the country. That is the necessary precondition for the stability that I think everyone is seeking for the country to be able to move forward,” Bildt said. “And for that to be possible, there must of course be freedom for the different political forces.”

Who could possibly disagree with such a common-sense statement of democratic principles? But what makes these situations slightly surreal is that no one in their right mind, Mr. Bildt included, could possibly expect that the Burmese government has any interest in guaranteeing “freedom for the different political forces.” Such freedom is not really conceivable in a Burmese context. In fact, across most of East Asia, from Singapore to Vietnam to China, the idea that political action should be allowed to take place in a protected sphere free of government interference or fear of retribution is nonsense. It’s not just that governments don’t permit such freedom; it’s that for the most part culture and society do not expect such freedom, do not consider it a priority or even understand how it is supposed to work. The spectacle presented is of an experienced, intelligent European diplomat calling in clear and common-sense terms for the respect of human rights that everyone knows do not exist, in a regime that has no interest in introducing them.

The sense of surreality grew some hours later, when Japan called an unscheduled press conference to announce that it was seeking a forceful response to the North Korean nuclear test. Japanese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Kazuo Kodama rushed in, out of breath, to announce that Japan would…push for ASEM to issue a separate statement on the test. The nuclear test was a “threat to the peace and stability…of the global community.” And that was about it. What did he think the North Koreans were aiming for? What strategy could the international community use to bring them around? Kodama had not a word on this.

And yet for all that, one senses that these repeated invocations of common-sense points — testing nuclear weapons violates the nuclear nonproliferation regime and threatens world security; repressing the political opposition makes it impossible to carry out legitimate elections — are slowly having an effect. What’s clear at this ASEM meeting is that Myanmar and North Korea, especially the latter, have gradually succeeded in alienating even their close neighbors. They have been able to flout the disapproval of the “international community” when that community meant only the democratic first world. But as they increasingly embarrass and provoke even their developing-country neighbors, they are starting to find that there are real limits to what they can do. Thai PM Abhisit Vejjajiva’s statement disapproving of Suu Kyi’s detention counted for ten times as much as any statement to the same effect by the US or the UK. And the very fact that ASEM’s agenda has been derailed by these unexpected embarrassments from North Korea and Myanmar is perhaps the most powerful reason to expect a change in attitudes. Asian governments don’t like human rights issues because they mess up the agenda, spoil the atmosphere, and interfere with efforts to keep the economy humming. North Korea and Myanmar, increasingly, are messing up the Asian agenda, spoiling the atmosphere, and interfering with efforts to keep the economy humming. And that’s why bodies like ASEM are gradually becoming more forceful in denouncing their misbehavior.

Weird American gets Suu Kyi put on trial again by mattsteinglass
May 14, 2009, 12:35 pm
Filed under: Burma

Honestly, was this really necessary?

Further reflection: When someone says “American”, what do you think of? If you said “Well-meaning but pointless interventions that nobody asked for, with unintended catastrophic consequences that really should have been anticipated by any reasonably intelligent person,” you agreed with 73% of our worldwide audience!

Lame duck appoints Burma envoy by mattsteinglass
November 11, 2008, 12:20 pm
Filed under: Burma, United States

AFP reports that on his way out of town, George W. Bush has decided to leave a legacy in Burma by appointing Michael Green to a new special envoy post.

If confirmed by the US Senate, Green “will serve as our main interlocutor with other countries and organizations as we attempt to help the Burmese people,” said US National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe.

Green, who has served as senior director for Asian Affairs on Bush’s national security council, is currently an associate professor at Georgetown University and holds the Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington.

The post was created by the US Congress with an eye on increasing pressure on the military junta that rules Myanmar.

This may at first glance suggest a neo-con maneuver to put personnel in place to pursue a Bush-era foreign policy into the next administration, but in fact it’s probably not so partisan. True, Green is definitely on the hawkish side of the democracy promotion issue, and he’s for a stronger stance of backing Japan against China. He’s written that the US should demand more concessions from North Korea on the Japanese abductee issue before taking Pyongyang off the state sponsors of terrorism list. In a piece published in late 2007, he took the unusual position that “democracy promotion, which is languishing in the Iraq and Middle East context…has quietly been a success story in Asia.” (Larry Diamond and most of those looking at Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Cambodia at that point — to say nothing of Vietnam, China, Laos and Burma — were drawing the opposite conclusion. When you add in Indonesia and Malaysia, the picture is at best mixed.)

Still, Green is no John Bolton, and reading his and Derek Mitchell’s November 2007 piece in Foreign Affairs on the Burma question is revealing. Green clearly wants to take some kind of tougher, more dramatic line against the SPDC, something that will move the situation past the ugly stalemate it’s been in for over 15 years now. “A decade later,” he writes, “the verdict is in: neither sanctions nor constructive engagement has worked. If anything, Burma has evolved from being an antidemocratic embarrassment and humanitarian disaster to being a serious threat to the security of its neighbors. But despite the mounting danger, many in the United States and the international community are still mired in the old sanctions-versus-engagement battle.” But Green knows East Asia, he understands the reality on the ground, and he’s not about to make ludicrous policy recommendations that have no chance of succeeding. So what does he come up with? Weak tea:

All parties with a stake in its resolution need to adjust their positions and start coordinating their approach to the problem. Although this may seem like an unlikely proposition, it has more potential today than ever before. Burma’s neighbors are beginning to recognize that unconditional engagement has failed. All that is needed now is for the United States to acknowledge that merely reinforcing its strategy of isolation and the existing sanctions regime will not achieve the desired results either. Such a reappraisal would then allow all concerned parties to build an international consensus with the dual aim of creating new incentives for the SPDC to reform and increasing the price it will pay if it fails to change its ways.

Green winds up calling for all the concerned parties to construct a road map to reform in Burma. And this is about as far as a serious area expert with certain neo-connish tendencies can go on the Burma issue. Burma is not Serbia, and ASEAN is not the EU, let alone NATO. The fact is, there’s very little the US or anyone can do about Burma except try to keep our hands clean and wait for the SPDC’s senior leadership to die. In Southeast Asia, our tea, whether Democratic or Republican, is weak, and there is little anyone can do to change that.

Update: To be clear about what I wrote above, I don’t think Green is a “neocon and hawk”; from what I’ve read that seems much too harsh a description. Rather, I think just what I said: he wants a clearer US shift towards Japan where there are conflicts between Japan and China, he wants a North Korea policy that is less conciliatory and takes Japanese abductee concerns more seriously, he wants a stronger democracy-promotion agenda, and he wants some kind of strong action to push Burma towards human rights reforms. I’d characterize these as “neo-connish tendencies”. I think he’s wrong, and outside the mainstream, when he argues that democracy promotion is a big success in Asia, and I think he’s misguided to claim that Burma’s neighbors now clearly recognize that the repressiveness of the regime has become a regional security threat and requires group action. I think their discomfort with Burma, while real, is much more modest, and their aversion to interfering in a neighbor’s internal politics far outweighs that discomfort. And I am not really “disappointed” with the US’s weakness; I just think it’s telling that the limits of US and European power in SE Asia are so obvious that even someone like Green who greatly desires strong action on Burma is unable to come up with anything more dramatic than a call for a coordinated road map towards progress.

Whoops, diplomacy really is mo’ better than war by mattsteinglass
May 19, 2008, 11:18 pm
Filed under: Burma | Tags:

Now that Andrew Sullivan has linked to my post on how it might have kind of been good if it were ’98 and humanitarian intervention in some form were still on the table in Burma, things in the actual world have taken place which tempt me to take it all back. Burma has announced it’s going to accept foreign relief aid and actual foreign relief personnel, albeit it only, for the moment, from other ASEAN countries. So it looks like the gathering drumbeat of diplomatic pressure and press condemnation over the past 10 days has actually done its job, in a fashion rather similar to the way things worked in the ’90s.

I see no very strong reason why it would be vastly better to have Western aid agencies and personnel involved in Burmese relief efforts, rather than ASEAN ; no doubt ASEAN countries lack some material capacities and expertise, but just how great do we really think MSF or UNHCR are? This seems like a very big first step, and in general if the blueprint for Burmese reform is gradual pressure to accept advice from Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, that sounds very promising indeed.

But as the sole remaining superpower, we can freeze time like that guy on “Heroes” and save everyone by mattsteinglass
May 19, 2008, 7:17 pm
Filed under: Burma | Tags:

Robert Farley’s take on why the Burma invade-em-to-save-em concept is dumb is that these things take time, and, as DC’s greatest band ever put it, “Time is something you don’t have”:

It is simply not within the capability of the international community to carry out an invasion as humanitarian operation within the time frame dictated by this crisis.

I agree and have nothing to add. Except that George Packer is a great man and a great writer, and it pains me to disagree so strongly with him on this point. Oh, and also, that he doesn’t appear to have sufficiently thought through the consequences of this point:

It’s also possible, though it seems unlikely to me, that Burmese military units would be ordered to engage the foreigners. Shots might be fired, people might be killed. No one knows what will happen if British sailors and American airmen arrive on soggy Burmese soil.

I think this dramatically understates just how bad it would be if a humanitarian intervention in Burma ended up turning a hurricane-wrecked famine-plagued emergency zone into a hurricane-wrecked famine-plagued war zone.