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Joshua Kurlantzick

Joshua Kurlantzick is fellow for South-East Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Indonesia since Suharto

Joshua Kurlantzick, 3 March 2011

In the late 1990s it seemed quite possible that Indonesia was going to disintegrate, to become a South-East Asian version of Pakistan or Nigeria. The collapse of the long-lasting dictatorship of Suharto in 1998, together with the Asian financial crisis, battered Indonesia’s economy and released the cork that had kept contained religious, ethnic, class and other divisions in this very...

In Burma

Joshua Kurlantzick, 19 August 2010

The Rangoon headquarters of the National League for Democracy, Burma’s main opposition group and the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, isn’t very impressive. In front of the simple squat structure, a fading red sign tells visitors – and military intelligence, always lurking – where they are. Inside, men in their seventies and eighties, dressed in the traditional longyi...

Thailand

Joshua Kurlantzick, 25 March 2010

In 2008, Thailand had more than 14 million visitors – neighbouring Cambodia had two million – and tourism was the country’s biggest source of foreign exchange. Sleepy islands like Koh Samui and Koh Chang are fishing for tourists where once they fished for sea bass; even the smallest Thai towns seem to have boutique hotels offering wi-fi and fancy coffee. Now, however, the number of tourists visiting Thailand is beginning to level out and even to drop, perhaps because they have noticed what many Western governments, focused on the situations in Pakistan, Iraq and North Korea, have ignored: Thailand, once known as one of the most stable democracies in Asia, is in political and economic crisis. The scale and speed of the meltdown have been staggering.

Cambodia

Joshua Kurlantzick, 6 August 2009

Cambodia, now 15 years removed from civil war, remains a shattered country. Poverty is on a par with many failed African states, there is widespread malnourishment, and at night packs of beggars, many maimed from the war, gather outside restaurants and bars to plead for small change. These things don’t happen in neighbouring Vietnam or Thailand.

Not that you’d ever know about the...

China goes into reverse

Joshua Kurlantzick, 26 March 2009

The riot started, last December, in the wake of a simple pay dispute at a small Chinese factory that manufactured cheap suitcases. Orders had been dropping, and the factory closed down without warning, leaving wages unpaid. The workers started to smash up the factory, and looked for managers to attack. The police arrived on the scene, and attempted to restrain the workers by locking them...

Aung San Suu Kyi and the Burmese Crisis

Joshua Kurlantzick, 18 October 2007

For the first time in nearly twenty years, Burma has burst into open protest against the military junta, captivating the world with its ‘saffron revolution’. Across the country, monks have led massive demonstrations, joined by civil servants, prominent cultural figures and tens of thousands of ordinary people. Throngs of red-robed monks have marched through the streets of Rangoon,...

China in Africa

Joshua Kurlantzick, 5 July 2007

Earlier this year, the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, went on a 12-day tour of Africa. In Zambia he announced that China would build an economic co-operation zone in the country that would attract $800 million of investment. Zambia’s former president, Kenneth Kaunda, received him personally, and the Chinese president delivered his usual speech: ‘China is happy to have Zambia as a...

From The Blog
31 January 2012

During two decades spent mostly under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi was a symbol of democratic resistance at home and abroad: she won the Nobel Peace Prize and inspired her compatriots to continue struggling against the regime. But because she was essentially kept out of politics by the government, she rarely had to behave like a politician. Since she had so little freedom to act, she was nearly impossible to criticise: I never met anyone in Burma with a bad word to say about her. In the past year, however, freed from house arrest, running for parliament in the upcoming by-elections and working closely with the government of President Thein Sein, Suu Kyi has become a politician again, losing some of her iconic status and no longer above criticism.

From The Blog
5 December 2011

Hillary Clinton’s visit to Burma, the first by such a senior US official in five decades, received front-page coverage in most American newspapers, and around the world. Images of the secretary of state meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi and sitting down with President Thein Sein made it look as if Clinton’s visit would prove a monumental event in US-Burma relations, and in Burma’s political trajectory. Coverage of Clinton’s visit in Burma itself, however, was relatively muted. In the main state-run newspaper, the New Light of Myanmar, it merited only a brief mention, while the concurrent visit from the president of Belarus and his wife was given broad coverage. At the airport in Naypyidaw Clinton was met by only a small welcome party, while the Belorussian delegation got a huge one. The generals have a long, deep friendship with Belarus, and still mistrust the US. But the disparity also highlights a point that few in the Clinton delegation would have admitted: Burma may indeed be changing, but the reforms have little to do with the US, its policies or its secretary of state.

From The Blog
13 October 2011

Until very recently, the reforms brought in by Burma’s civilian government, elected last November in polls that were neither free nor fair, seemed worth treating with scepticism. Only a month ago, I pointed out that Burmese governments had instituted limited reforms before, in the 1990s and early 2000s, only to crack down on any dissent after getting what they wanted – foreign investment or membership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The new president, Thein Sein, seemed like a reformer, but surely his power was limited: Senior General Than Shwe, the longtime military ruler, still lurked in the background, and the ranks below Thein Sein were filled with hardliners. Most notably, according to many reports, the vice-president, Tin Aung Myint Oo, is committed to blocking any real reforms. And the government has plenty to gain this time, too: the possible leadership of Asean in 2014, as well as rapprochement with the West, which might boost foreign investment and allow Burma to become less dependent on China. Still, even sceptics are starting to believe that this time the changes may be for real.

From The Blog
13 September 2011

Since Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in Burma last November, she has travelled the country, drawing large crowds in Bagan in July, launched plans to revitalise the National League for Democracy, and even appeared in the domestic media for the first time in years. She has also been talking with Burma’s new president, Thein Sein.

From The Blog
15 July 2011

Last weekend, tens of thousands of protesters gathered in the centre of Kuala Lumpur to demand clean and free elections. Malaysia’s ruling coalition, which has dominated the country since independence, has a history of fraud, intimidation and other thuggery at the polls. The Bersih rallies (Bersih, meaning 'clean', is the nickname for the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections) were non-violent, but the government struck back with brutal force. The police attacked the demonstrators with batons, water cannon and tear gas, killing at least one and putting many in hospital, including the leader of the political opposition, Anwar Ibrahim, who was photographed with obvious wounds to his head and legs. More than 1500 people were arrested.

From The Blog
28 June 2011

Over the past two weeks, a series of bombs have hit major cities in Burma, including Rangoon, Mandalay and Naypyidaw, the purpose-built city in the centre of the country where the regime moved its capital six years ago. Even by Burma’s standards, Naypyidaw is a heavily policed city. A bombing there requires significant planning and, probably, some co-ordination with sympathetic police and soldiers. No one has claimed responsibility for the bombings, which wounded at least two people (any numbers coming out of Burma are notoriously unreliable), but they are the latest sign of a rapidly deteriorating political situation in parts of the country.

From The Blog
17 June 2011

For some time now, China has been growing increasingly aggressive toward its neighbours. This newly confident foreign policy, a shift from a decade of charming other nations in Asia, has been most evident in Beijing’s demands that other nations recognise its sovereignty over most of the South China Sea. In recent weeks, Beijing has insisted that Vietnam stop exploring for oil in the waters and delivered a blunt warning to any outside powers – i.e. the United States – not to intervene in any disputes over the Sea. Chinese vessels have cut the cables on Vietnamese ships, and China has stepped up its seizures of Vietnamese and Philippine boats, in a major breach of maritime protocol.

From The Blog
2 June 2011

Over the past two years, royalists in Thailand have filed hundreds of charges of lèse majesté against their political opponents. As many as 100,00 websites have been banned for insulting the king and the royal family. The country, once hailed as a beacon of democracy for the region, is now ranked 153 out of 178 in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, just above Belarus.

From The Blog
18 November 2010

In all the excitement at Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, too little attention has been paid to the question of why the junta let her out of house arrest. Regime officials say that she had come to the end of her term and so, by law, they could not hold her any more. But that explanation won’t do: in Burma, the ‘law’ is whatever the junta says it is, and the regime has on numerous occasions over the past twenty years come up with new trumped-up charges to keep Suu Kyi locked up.

From The Blog
9 November 2010

The election in Burma largely conformed to predictions. Condemned by outsiders, it was to some extent ignored by many in the country: turnout was reportedly low. The US, Britain, Australia and other industrialised democracies decried the junta’s apparent vote-rigging, slanted electoral rules and refusal to let the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi out of house arrest before the polls. There are suggestions in Burma now that she will be released within weeks, though the terms of that release remain unclear. Most major human rights organisations have also focused on the unfairness of the election and the impact of the rigged vote on Burmese politics. Meanwhile, in northeast and eastern Burma, a potential catastrophe is unfolding.

From The Blog
22 September 2010

Over the past two weeks, a dispute between Japan and China over a series of islands claimed by both countries has spiralled into a major diplomatic incident. In response to the Japanese coastguard’s seizure of a Chinese fishing boat following a collision near the islands, Beijing has cut off high-level diplomatic talks with Japan. In both countries, nationalist protestors have taken to the streets. The dispute is part of an ominous trend.

From The Blog
18 June 2010

After cancelling Obama’s planned visit to Indonesia this month so he could stay in America and handle the BP oil spill, the White House moved quickly to tamp down any concerns that the cancellation, which is the third time the president has nixed a trip to Indonesia, would hurt bilateral relations. A spokesman told reporters that Obama had called the Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, to express his regret, and other White House officials suggested in private that Yudhoyono and other senior Indonesians understood the magnitude of the oil spill and held no grudge.

From The Blog
17 May 2010

Most media coverage of the showdown in Bangkok has focused on the increasingly tough tactics of the security forces. On Thursday, a sniper shot and fatally wounded Khattiya Sawasdiphol, a rogue general who’d allied himself with the red shirts, while he was talking to a reporter. Following that shooting, security forces fired live rounds at some groups of protesters (who at times shot back with their own weapons). At least ten people were killed and scores wounded. Yet the army’s show of force is evidence of serious underlying weaknesses.

From The Blog
26 April 2010

As the situation in Bangkok worsens, why hasn’t King Bhumibhol Adulyadej stepped in to mediate between the protestors and government? During ‘Black May’ in 1992, after the army fired on demonstrators and killed at least fifty people, the king called the protest leader, Chamlong Srimuang, and the military dictator, Suchinda Kraprayoon, to his palace. Shortly afterwards Kraprayoon resigned, paving the way for elections. The semi-official explanation for the 82-year-old king’s absence this time around is his ill-health. He’s hardly left the hospital in months, though officials are cagey about what’s wrong with him. And he is well enough to have received the prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, at his hospital wing. More likely, the king has realised that if he tried to intervene this time around, the demonstrators wouldn’t listen to him.

From The Blog
13 April 2010

The situation in Thailand is rapidly deteriorating. This past weekend, fighting between protestors and the security forces killed at least 20 people and wounded hundreds, leaving parts of Bangkok, including a prominent tourist area, strewn with shell casings and blood. Thailand has witnessed its share of unrest and protest – major demonstrations in 1973, 1976, 1992, 2006 and 2008 – but most Thais have always assumed it could be contained: the country, which had avoided being colonised, destroyed by the Second World War, ravaged by the Indochina wars or wrecked by civil conflict, would always find some last-minute solution to a crisis. ‘That’s the Thai way,’ a friend in Bangkok told me. ‘We’ll always figure something out.’

From The Blog
17 March 2010

The anti-government protests in Bangkok, which have drawn at least 100,000 red-shirted protestors from across rural Thailand, have attracted a lot of attention from the global media. This is in large part down to the gore: demonstrators have been donating litres of their blood to be poured on government buildings. The United States government, however, Thailand’s longtime foreign patron and ally, has said almost nothing about the red demonstrations. During a brief visit to the country shortly before the current protests, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell issued a bland statement:

From The Blog
25 January 2010

The recent spate of attacks on churches in Malaysia, following a court ruling allowing Christians to use the word ‘Allah’ for their god, has surprised many outsiders who thought the country was relatively tolerant. But for decades, even as Malaysia’s government portrayed the country as a racially harmonious society, non-Malays have quietly chafed at discrimination against them. Following race riots in 1969, the government launched an affirmative action initiative known as the New Economic Policy. It was intended to redistribute wealth from ethnic Chinese, who make up about 25 per cent of the population but historically ran much of the country’s business, to ethnic Malays, who comprise about 65 per cent. Most of the rest of the population are ethnic Indians.

From The Blog
15 January 2010

In the 1960s and 1970s many thousands of people fled Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Countries like Thailand may not have welcomed the refugees with open arms, but they did let them stay. In the late 1980s Thailand also allowed tens of thousands of Burmese refugees to set up more or less permanent camps along the border. That relatively humane policy seems to have vanished. The deportation last month of 4000 Hmong refugees from Thailand back to Laos is part of a broader story. Cambodia recently sent a group of Uighurs back to China, where they are almost sure to face trial, torture and long prison terms.

From The Blog
30 December 2009

Laos is run by a regime every bit as repressive as the Burmese junta, but it somehow gets a free pass from outsiders. At least Burma has political parties – Laos has none apart from the ruling Communists. On the few occasions when Lao activists have tried to hold rallies, they have been quickly arrested and disappeared. This week, Thailand began forcibly repatriating 4000 ethnic Hmong who had fled Laos during and immediately after the Vietnam War. The Hmong are likely to face harassment or arrest on their return, both because of their role during the Vietnam War – many of them fought alongside US forces against the Vietnamese and Lao Communists – and because of longstanding racism. The Thai government admits that it fears for the safety of some of the Hmong it is deporting.

From The Blog
17 December 2009

Among the dead in last month’s massacre in the southern Philippines island of Mindanao, in which gunmen killed more than 57 people known to be supporters of a prominent politician, were nearly 30 journalists. It was the largest killing of reporters in recent history. This was one of the reasons the massacre made the headlines; but it wasn’t otherwise so unusual.

From The Blog
7 December 2009

Seems like déjà vu all over again in Malaysia. The opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, who was sentenced to jail in 2000 for sodomy (it’s a crime in Malaysia), once more faces similar charges. As before, Anwar, a former leader of the governing coalition who turned to the opposition, claims he’s been set up by the ruling party, which has dominated Malaysian politics (not to mention the police force and judiciary) since independence. He has a point. Several of the people who, in the previous case, had claimed to have had sex with him later recanted their confessions, and the DNA evidence seemed likely to have been fabricated. This time, an independent medical report has found that the man who claimed to have had sex with Anwar was never sodomised. Not that the police have anything to fear. In another recent high-profile case, a journalist who had reported allegations of corruption supposedly fell to his death from a skyscraper while in custody. A forensic report by a Thai scientist not affiliated with the Malaysian government concluded that the man had been beaten severely before he ‘fell’.

From The Blog
19 November 2009

During his first visit to China, Barack Obama reportedly addressed a range of contentious issues with his hosts, in private: Iran, North Korea, climate change, the yuan and its impact on the global financial crisis. But, whether in public or in private, the US president tiptoed very lightly when talking about China’s human rights record. At a town hall meeting in Shanghai with young Chinese, Obama deflected the chance to criticise Beijing’s censorship of the internet, for example, talking only about universal rights in the vaguest terms. At a scripted ‘press conference’ – neither he nor the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, actually took any questions – Obama walked the same line, telling Hu that the US is committed to universal rights, but refusing to mention any of China’s specific failings. This is part of a new US strategy towards repressive regimes.

From The Blog
16 November 2009

Obama’s foreign policy rests on the idea that the world has entered an era in which major powers can work together on such issues as climate change and trade, and that nations can always find some common ground. Arriving in Tokyo, the president emphasised his shared roots with many Asians, and suggested that a new era of co-operation in the region is around the corner. ‘I am an American president who was born in Hawaii and lived in Indonesia as a boy,’ Obama said, calling himself ‘America’s first Pacific president’. But across Asia, that common ground will be hard to find.

From The Blog
9 November 2009

During his trip to Asia this month, Barack Obama is visiting China, Japan, Singapore and South Korea. All four are critical to US policy in the region – three Northeast Asian economic powerhouses and Singapore, which has the closest relationship toWashington of any country in Southeast Asia. And yet Obama is skipping the largest nation in Southeast Asia, Indonesia. That’s a mistake. The White House wants to demonstrate that, after eight years of the Bush administration ignoring Southeast Asia, Washington is once again focusing on the region. On Capitol Hill, too, lawmakers seem eager to establish that the US is not willing simply to cede Southeast Asia to China, which has made enormous gains in the region while America was distracted.

From The Blog
19 October 2009

Over the past two months, the United States, which for more than a decade has isolated the Burmese junta, appears to have dramatically shifted its policy towards the regime. After a comprehensive internal policy review, the Obama administration announced that it would engage with Burma more directly, though it would also (for now) maintain sanctions on the regime. In a sign of thawing relations, the Burmese foreign minister, Nyan Win, went to Washington in September – a rare visit for a senior junta leader.

From The Blog
14 October 2009

Typhoons Ketsana and Parma, which struck the Philippines, Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia in recent weeks, have killed at least 650 people and made hundreds of thousands homeless. The total cost of the damage is likely to be more than $1 billion. Over the past decade the toll of natural disasters in the region seems to have skyrocketed: the 2004 tsunami killed more than 220,000 people in Indonesia, Thailand, India and Burma; in 2008, Cyclone Nargis killed more than 140,000. Climate change has something to do with it. But so has another man-made blunder: throughout Southeast Asia, governments from Vietnam to Thailand to Indonesia to China have favoured a strategy of economic growth at any cost.

From The Blog
12 October 2009

Last week, Sondhi Limthongkul became leader of Thailand’s New Politics Party. Sondhi, a former media mogul, is one of the men behind the ongoing demonstrations that precipitated the military coup overthrowing Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006, and which since then have given the military and the judiciary a pretext to bar Thaksin’s proxies from holding office.

From The Blog
14 September 2009

At the time of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, history seemed firmly on the side of the demonstrators. The Soviet Union was on the verge of cracking apart, and soon after its fall most other one-party states would collapse as well. Many in the Square, and most outside observers, assumed the Communist Party of China would soon take its place in the dustbin. Beijing’s leaders certainly feared so: as revealed in books like The Tiananmen Papers and Zhao Ziyang’s memoir Prisoner of the State, Deng Xiaoping knew that the Party could well collapse. Even after the regime crushed the Tiananmen protests, the idea persisted that the Communist Party could not possibly survive. ‘China remains on the wrong side of history,’ Bill Clinton said in 1998. Two years later, he warned that the Party’s attempts to control the internet in China would be like ‘trying to nail Jell-O to the wall’. And yet, sixty years after its founding, the Communist Party has done just that – defied history and nailed the Jell-O down.

From The Blog
28 August 2009

When the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, years of civil war had destroyed the country’s infrastructure. Constant political turmoil, dating back to the late 19th century and the collapse of the Chinese Empire, had torn apart China’s intellectual class, and driven millions out of the country. The Communist Party promised a period of peace and stability. Many in the West feared that China would come to dominate Asia, and possibly the world. Those fears only grew after the Korean War. It wasn’t to be. Mao Zedong’s disastrous economic and social policies, from the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution, not only killed millions but upended China’s social order far more than the chaos of the early 20th century. Only in the past three decades has China begun to fulfil the potential promised in 1949.

From The Blog
18 August 2009

With Senator Jim Webb's return from Burma, policymakers in Washington who want greater engagement with the junta have begun considering their next steps. One South-East Asian diplomat I spoke with suggested Burma's neighbours would try to broker informal, higher-level contacts between American and Burmese defence officials. Webb said that the time had come for the US to abandon sanctions against Burma and pursue greater contacts with the regime. But what these urbane policymakers don't understand is that Burma's junta, seemingly so backward, can easily play them for fools. Over the decades, the junta has mastered the art of appearing to make concessions to the international community and reaping the rewards without making any real changes.

From The Blog
17 August 2009

Over the weekend, Jim Webb, the senior senator from Virginia, flew to the isolated Burmese capital of Naypyidaw for a rare sit-down with the head of the junta, Than Shwe. Webb, the outspoken head of the East Asia and the Pacific subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, went, in theory, to negotiate the release of John Yettaw, the American who was sentenced to seven years in prison for swimming to the house of the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. And he apparently got what he came for: the junta agreed to let Yettaw leave on Webb’s plane.

From The Blog
14 August 2009

When the Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was sentenced to a new term of house arrest this week the international community responded with shock and anger. The US government condemned the sentence, which a court handed down ostensibly because Suu Kyi allowed a deranged American tourist to rest in her house after he swam across a lake to see her. He was given seven years in prison. Inside Burma, the verdict seemed to cause little stir, though a heightened military presence in major cities helped keep the population quiet. The military junta had launched the absurd trial – Yettaw was able to reach Suu Kyi’s house even though it is probably the most guarded in all of Burma – in order to prevent the opposition leader from taking part in national elections scheduled for next year.

From The Blog
9 July 2009

The protests spiralled quickly out of control, but the ethnic tensions in the west China region of Xinjiang are not new, and this unrest has been brewing for years. Unlike the Tibetans, the Uighurs – a Muslim, Turkic people – have no global spokesperson capable of bringing their cause to the attention of the West. But like Tibet, Xinjiang once laid claim to being its own nation, and Uighurs have harboured separatist ambitions since the founding of the People’s Republic. As I found during a number of visits to the region over the past decade, Uighurs and Chinese in Xinjiang have almost no interaction with each other.

Letter

Trouble in Burma

19 August 2010

Joshua Kurlantzick writes: Elliott Prasse-Freeman seems to be out of touch with developments in Burma. Not only are some of the ethnic minority armies still powerful, but the junta has recently upped the stakes, issuing them with an ultimatum – not for the first time – to join its border guard. The most powerful ethnic army, the United Wa State Army, has refused – also not for the...

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