Sunday, 30 November 2014

The Plight of Myanmar's Rohingya People

In recent years, Myanmar has begun to open up and embark on a laudable path towards democracy. Despite this trajectory, however, another disturbing narrative exists which is increasingly coming to the world’s attention. The plight of the Muslim minority Rohingya people is one of systematic repression teetering on genocide. In 1982 a law was passed denying citizenship to the Rohingya people, who now live in camps or cordoned off villages. Widespread hostility towards the Rohingya and government repression of the group threatens to escalate to systematic violence if relations deteriorate.

Widespread prejudices persist against the Rohingya, who are seen as foreigners by the Buddhist majority. Many believe the Rohingya to be interlopers from Bangladesh who followed British troops into Myanmar in the 1800s. This notion legitimizes those continuing to deny the Rohingya people citizenship and equal rights. The Rohingya are a small minority group, yet are not recognized as one of Myanmar’s 134 ethnic groups. The danger for these people is that continuing anti-Rohingya sentiments in the population could lead to a genocide. There have already been instances of anti-Rohingya violence which have resulted in dozens of deaths.

Myanmar, with its Buddhist majority, comprised part of British India bordering Muslim-majority Bangladesh. People moved fluidly within the common imperial political structure, but the establishment of modern borders caused many groups to be isolated from one another. Today, the danger for the Rohingya is that their perceived status as outsiders and parasites on Burmese society leads to similar rhetoric found in areas ravished by genocide.

For instance, in Rwanda, Tutsis were often labelled foreigners in the country, brought in by imperial powers and lacking legitimate historical or social ties to Rwanda. Such rhetoric facilitated the Rwandan genocide as Tutsis were easily portrayed as sub-human outsiders. Similarly the mass slaughter of Muslim Bosnians at Srebrenica in 1995 was facilitated by views of Muslims as foreign, relics of Ottoman imperial control over the Balkans, and therefore legitimate targets.

The situation in Myanmar is more akin to Bosnia than Rwanda due to the fact that identities are constructed around ethno-religious ties. However, the Rohingya’s plight is also unique because, despite the ethnic pluralism in the country, the Rohingya remain non-citizens due to Buddhists’ fears about Muslim influence on Burmese culture and society. In this case, religious strife – already a dangerous factor – has been linked to ethnic identities, as most Muslims in Myanmar are Rohingya. Whereas religious identity is fluid, ethnic identity is permanent, and herein lies the greatest threat to the Rohingya.

By conflating the two identities Burmese Buddhists come to view the Rohingya as not only different in degree, but also in kind. Their otherness is in turn fundamentally tied to their very existence as people, which denies the possibility of change or compromise, for how can one compromise elements at the very defining core of one’s being? Historically when large segments of society reach this conclusion about a minority, the potential for ethnic cleansing and genocide drastically increases. The international community is beholden to ensure such actions do not transpire in Myanmar.

This piece was originally written for STAND Canada

Friday, 14 November 2014

Managing Emissions from the Middle Kingdom to the Midwest: The China-U.S. Climate Deal

An important step in countering global climate change was reached this week as China and the United States agreed to cooperate on reducing emissions. Beijing and Washington are the two largest polluters, which magnifies the importance of the aforementioned deal. Previous efforts to cut emissions have been stymied by alternating Chinese or American intransigence, yet this latest bilateral pact appears promising. Specifically, China has pledged to see its emissions peak around 2030, thereafter declining, as well as committing itself to generating twenty percent of its energy from renewable sources. The United States promised to reduce emissions between twenty-six and twenty-eight percent from 2005 levels by 2025.

The scale of these promises has caused many to both laud and critique the deal, with proponents stressing the progressive scope of these bilateral commitments, and skeptics arguing that either more can be done, or that the stated goals are not enforceable. Li Shuo, a researcher for Greenpeace East Asia voiced his approval of the plan, yet called on both countries to do more, stating that the China-U.S. deal “should be the floor on which [both countries] work, rather than a ceiling.” Furthermore, while both Xi Jinping and President Obama have praised the deal, local politicians in both countries have raised concerns.

Xi Jinping & Obama in Beijing
Image Credit:

In America, the newly emboldened Republican opposition is concerned over the perceived untrustworthy nature of Chinese government. Republicans argue that Beijing cannot be trusted to fulfill its half of the bargain, and that American efforts to reduce emissions would merely hurt the economy. This view is not entirely unjustified, as recently the Chinese government blocked U.S. embassy Beijing air pollution data from popular websites and apps used by many Chinese in the polluted metropolis. The exclusion of American data forces the populace to rely solely on official Chinese data, seen as less accurate and often displaying lower pollution levels. This data blockage coincided with the signing of the emissions deal, and can be seen as part of China's efforts to showcase Beijing in a good light whenever the international spotlight is focused on the national capital.

Republicans are also concerned about the impact of the deal on the U.S. economy. House Speaker John Boehner characterized the China-U.S. emissions deal as “jobs crushing”. Similarly, incoming Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell expressed doubts over the pact. McConnell represents Kentucky, a coal rich state, and successfully campaigned for re-election as an opponent of Obama's supposed “war on coal”. Moreover, Senator Jim Inhofe, the incoming chairman of the Senate committee on the environment and public works is a professed climate change denier. Inhofe has also stated that “it's hollow and unbelievable for China to claim it will shift twenty percent of its energy to non-fossil fuels by 2030.”

It is interesting to note that while American politicians view GDP growth and jobs as inexorably linked, recently Chinese Premier Li Keqiang stated that “China cares more about jobs and livelihoods than the GDP target.” While the reality in China is more complex than this, this statement remains important because it disconnects notions of well-being from economic growth. While hundreds of millions of Chinese have been lifted out of poverty by Beijing's economic policies, there is growing dissatisfaction over pollution related issues. The Chinese government is highly pragmatic and intent on maintaining stability; citizen unrest due to pollution is taken seriously by Beijing.

Congressional Leaders: John Boehner (left) and Mitch McConnell
Image Credit:

In China many regional and provincial leaders are also worried that the emphasis on the environment will impact GDP growth. Given the single party nature of the Chinese system and the stated acknowledgment by the central government of the problem of pollution, Chinese politicians do not espouse anti-climate change views. In China the concern amongst Chinese officials is due to the fact that efforts to reduce emissions slow down GDP growth. This is particularly important because the promotion prospects of regional and provincial officials are highly tied to meeting GDP growth figures. While Beijing may want to lessen emissions it still overwhelmingly grades officials on economic matters: local bureaucrats are caught in the middle.

While China hawks like Sen. Inhofe put little stock in Chinese promises, it is important to note the actions which Beijing is taking to counter pollution. In 2013 China generated 9.8% of its energy through renewable means, with non-fossil fuel energy production slated for 15% by 2020. Moreover Shandong province is adding air quality as a criterion to the evaluation process of local officials. Similarly Gansu province is reassessing its evaluation process to focus less on economic expansion. The central government is keenly aware of the costs associated with unchecked growth. Since 2004 China has funded the Green GDP project which tracks the impact of environmental damage on national growth. A 2006 report showed that 338,000 premature deaths across 600 cities were attributable to pollution. The project has tracked the environmental cost of development, which stood at $83.51 billion in 2004 and $251.21 billion in 2010, or 3.5% of GDP.

Image Credit: Alicia Parlapiano

Despite the misgivings of domestic politicians, individuals at the federal level in both China and the United States are seeking to move closer on climate issues. According to Sun Zhe, head of the Centre for U.S.-China Relations at Tsinghua University, “the bilateral relationship is mature enough that we understand even if we don't have political trust for another five to ten years, we need to live and work together. That's a new way of thinking by Chinese leaders.” Similarily, it is important for American leaders to realize that they cannot continue to perpetuate a self-fulfilling prophecy in which they refuse to implement policy because they prematurely accuse others of non-fulfillment. This merely dissuades China of the opinion that America is a credible partner, thereby leading Beijing to not participate in initial bilateral proposals. This in turn only retroactively validates the aforementioned obstructionists.

Congressional resistance to the climate deal has important repercussions because it undermines Chinese efforts to style itself as a responsible partner in Asia. The Chinese government certainly considers the deal important, with Xinhua quoting Frederic Hauge, (president of Bellona Foundation, a Norwegian think tank) claiming that “probably this is greater than the Kyoto Protocol.” For the Chinese this statement has a double meaning. The explicit message is that this new deal could overshadow the oft cited Kyoto Protocol, demonstrating the importance of dealing with China. The second message is that by overshadowing Kyoto, China is overshadowing the accomplishments of Japan, long an environmental advocate and touchstone for the U.S. when Washington wishes to deal with Asia.

The environmental front offers an opportunity for Beijing to present a positive image of itself and increase its profile in the West. By championing environmentalism the government can make an effort to make itself more accountable, diffuse popular unrest, and score points with the West without touching on human rights issues. China-hawks in Congress claim China is not accountable, yet by blocking environmental legislation, the same people are blocking a means for Chinese civil society to foster accountability and citizen participation in domestic policy. Moreover, if China is encouraged by American actions to partake in environmental pacts, this allows Washington - given the transnational nature of pollution - a very rare opportunity to critique and influence Chinese domestic policy without allegations of foreign meddling.

An abridged version of this article was written for Sharnoff's Global Views

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Land of the Unsettling Sun: Japan's Slide into Revisionism under Shinzo Abe

In recent years Japan has been stepping up its efforts to break out of two decades of economic and political stagnation characterized by negligible growth, deflation, and successive short-lived governments. With the election of Shinzo Abe in 2012 the government has made a determined effort to reform the Japanese economy, as well as shift the nation's political culture. Whereas Japan has maintained a pacifist outlook since WWII, in recent years the conservative government has sought to chart a more assertive course. Japan has increased it's defense spending and procurement, and the government has made it clear it wishes to review Article Nine, the pacifist clause in Japan's post-war constitution. Abe's efforts to revitalize Japan have also seen efforts to alter the country's relation with its wartime history. The government touts the image of a strong Japan, in the process downplaying war crimes and reinforcing the notion of Japan as a victim.

Far-right revisionist views, once the purview of fringe elements, have gained legitimacy as the government either tacitly consent to, or openly espouses similar ideas in public. Recently the minister for national law enforcement - Eriko Yamatani - was photographed with a prominent member of the far-right online activist group, Zaitokukai. The government did not comment on the incident, yet such groups are often tolerated, undoubtedly because they act as proxies for the government, extolling similar revisionist views. This loose coalition of online groups, known collectively as Net Right, are drawing substantial support from younger citizens who have grown up in a stagnating Japan, unable to find previously common employment-for-life, and tired of Japan being portrayed as a villain by the United States and China (among others), when both do not acknowledge their own war crimes.

Far-right activists at the Yasukuni Shrine

In recent weeks Net Right activists have harassed a small village in northern Hokkaido where residents have, after years of research, uncovered the graves of eighty Korean laborers press-ganged into constructing a military airport in the area. The village of Sarufutsu has been inundated by calls accusing locals of being traitors following village efforts to build a monument in honour of the Koreans. Far-right activists also threatened a boycott of the local shallot industry, prompting the mayor to halt construction of the memorial.  A similar backlash saw the local government in Nagasaki delay permission for the construction of a memorial to Korean laborers killed in the atomic bomb blast. Mainstream historians estimate that some 700,000 Koreans were press-ganged into service by the Imperial military, yet the far-right denies these claims, stating that the Koreans voluntarily aided Japan.

These actions of the far-right have been legitimized because the Abe government has also embraced a similar revisionist stance. Despite recent efforts to improve relations with China, Abe still continues the tradition of visiting the Yasukuni Shrine which houses Japan's war dead, including war criminals. This year Abe sent an offering but did not attend in person; however, almost two hundred other officials attended in person. This yearly visit has led to an annual condemnation from China and South Korea, repeatedly damaging relations. Alongside the issue of Korean workers, the plight of former Korean (and other nationalities) sex-slaves, euphemistically called 'comfort-women' has been a serious issue in Japanese-Korean relations. Many thousands of women from occupied territories were forced into prostitution by the Japanese army during WWII. No official apology has ever been issued by Japan. In 2007, during Abe's first prime-ministership, he stated that there was no evidence that these women were coerced to work for the military.

Since 2012, the Abe government has made further steps to revise Japanese history. Recently the government removed a document from 1995 posted on the government website which called for compensation for former comfort women. Moreover, two months ago the government was given an unfortunate boost after the Japanese newspaper of record, Asahi Shimbun, issued a front page retraction of its series of articles about comfort women. An investigation into the sole source behind the stories – a soldier who claimed to have been involved in capturing said women – found his claims to be fabricated. This scandal greatly aided the revisionist position, whose proponents, including the government now hold aloft this incident as proof of comfort women related falsehoods. In the aftermath of this scandal, the Japanese government asked the UN to partially rescind a 1996 report on comfort women. The author refused citing the testimonies of hundreds of women, and the fact that she had not consulted the now discredited Asahi Shimbun source.

Comfot Women Memorial, Glendale California
Image Credit: Tetsuya Mizuno (AP)

While the Asahi Shimbun scandal benefited the government, the fact that the story was printed at all irks the regime. The government has been attempting to alter the way the media talks about the country's wartime legacy. Abe has filled the oversight committee of the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) with like-minded individuals. An internal NHK memo shows that the corporation has been instructed not to use the words 'coerce', 'sex slaves' or 'prostitutes' when talking about comfort women. Moreover, the government has for a long time been pushing for the Nanjing Massacre (which saw the imperial army kill 50,000-300,000 people in 1937) to be referred to as the 'Nanjing Incident.'

This lingering issue is one of the chief impediments to Japanese-Korean accord, and is part of a larger Japanese refusal to officially apologize for its wartime activities in Asia. The cool state of bilateral relations is apparent in the fact that both Abe and his Korean counterpart Park Geun-hye have been office since 2012, but have yet to meet. In response to the Japanese government's actions, Noh Kwang-il, spokesperson for the South Korean Foreign Ministry stated that; “however hard the Japanese government tries to distort the true nature of the comfort women issue and play down or hide past wrongdoings, it will never be able to whitewash history."

Kishi as Prime Minister: Jan. 25th 1960
Image Credit: Time

Abe's efforts to 'whitewash' Japan's wartime history is not a new phenomenon, yet the prominence of such efforts within government policy is a new development. It is important to note that many Japanese are fully aware of their country's misdeeds, and notable Japanese academics have called for official apologies. The key to understanding the government's position on WWII is the fact that following the war, the United States took a very pragmatic stance vis-à-vis Japan. The U.S. did not abolish the monarchy, even retaining Hirohito has Emperor. Furthermore many wartime bureaucrats were pardoned in order to quickly rebuild Japan as an anti-communist bulwark. Interestingly, Abe's grandfather was Nobusuke Kishi, a class A war crimes suspect who has briefly detained, but later released, in large part due to his anti-communist sentiments. Kishi later served as prime minister from 1957-1960.

American pragmatism in dealing with the Imperial regime was mirrored by an independent Japan post-1952 in which development and reconstruction were prioritized over societal introspection. The Japanese legacy in WWII is split into two parts, that of Japan's fight against the Americans, and Japan's campaigns on the Asian mainland, where some twenty million people died. The latter was fought out of sight of the Japanese populace, complicated by the fact that Japan's actions in (primarily) China have become a vehicle for political maneuvering, with Beijing playing the history card to discredit Japan. Over the years Japan has become tired of being asked to apologize by China, which due to its own human rights violations forfeits any moral high-ground in the eyes of the Japanese. Consequently the legitimate need for redress is buried and discredited by contemporary political machinations.

Conversely Japan's war with the United States dominates the public consciousness, because only the U.S. managed to defeat Japan: China may have eventually ousted Japan from the mainland, but could not have forced Japan to unconditional surrender. Japan remains the only nation to have been attacked by nuclear weapons, and it is this legacy that dominates the Japanese psyche. Japan is tired of being portrayed as the sole purveyor of evil in the war. Pearl Harbor is defining moment in American history and justification for all subsequent actions against Japan. The death toll from Pearl Harbor was (only) some 2400 people, almost all military personnel. 

Japan lost between 124,000-246,000 (overwhelmingly civilians) people in the two atomic bomb attacks alone; more than the U.S. lost in the whole Pacific war (approx. 111,000). Victor's justice sees these attacks written off as necessity and Japan's actions as war crimes, something which Japan strongly disagrees with. The emphasis on its war with America, and de-emphasis on actions in Asia has led to Japan conflating its sense of victim-hood vis-à-vis the Americans and its memories of empire in Asia. This has resulted in an across-the-board resistance to accusations of Japanese war crimes by powerful countries which themselves do not adequately address their own actions.

Originally written for Sharnoff's Global Views

For further reading see The Role of Historiography in Sino-Japanese Relations: The Nanjing Massacre

Saturday, 25 October 2014

China Seeks Improved Ties with Vietnam, Fears U.S. Alignment

During the summer of 2014, Sino-Vietnamese relations teetered on utter collapse as Hanoi reacted strongly to the placement of a Chinese oil rig and accompanying naval escort in waters claimed by Vietnam. Tensions escalated as naval and civilian vessels from both countries repeatedly sought to hamper each other, sparking fears over a possible maritime skirmish. Following anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam and the later withdrawal of the Chinese oil rig, relations between Hanoi and Beijing have remained cool. In recent weeks there has been an increased emphasis, primarily by the Chinese government, to improve its relations with Vietnam. China wants to prevent undue conflict in the the South China Sea over the myriad islands, reefs, and outcroppings which are claimed by various countries.

China is sending its top envoy, state councillor Yang Jiechi to Vietnam on Monday October 27th to talk with his Vietnamese counterpart, Phnom Binh Minh. In comparison to Yang's previous Vietnam visit in June, when he accused Hanoi of 'hyping up' the oil rig dispute and undermining bilateral relations, on Monday Yang is expected to deliver a starkly different message. Yang's trip is an effort by China to ease tensions over the South China Sea and to move forward on creating a jointly agreed upon code of conduct for state actions in the area. Yang's visit comes after earlier bilateral meetings in October which were held in Beijing. On October 17th Defence Minister Chang Wanquan and his Vietnamese counterpart Phung Quang Thanh agreed to resolve maritime disputes responsibly and to resume military ties. On the same day Chinese vice-president Li Yuanchao met with a high-ranking, sixteen member, Vietnamese military delegation.

Chang Wanquan (L) and Phung Quang Thanh in Beijing
Image Credit: Xinhua

An important element in increasing relations is the recent agreement on a Memorandum of Understanding, which seeks to establish direct technical communication lines (hot lines) between both countries' defence ministries. This is important because during the 2014 summer oil rig crisis, Vietnam sought to establish a hotline in order to manage the situation, yet was unsuccessful. In light of events this summer, both sides have acknowledged that a miscalculation or accident in the South China Sea could quickly get out of hand. Moreover, in contrast to previous statements by Vietnam, General Thanh downplayed existing territorial disputes, likening war of words to a family spat, and emphasizing the recent improvement in bilateral relations.

It is important to note that Vietnam still has serious reservations about Chinese actions in the South China Sea, specifically the Paracel and Spratly Islands which both countries claim. While Beijing appears to be making an effort to repair relations in the wake of the oil rig crisis, the government continues to pursue an extensive construction program in the region. Specifically China is utilizing dredging vessels to reclaim land in effort to build outposts, fuel depots, and even sophisticated air bases. In response foreign ministry spokesperson Pham Thu Hang stated that China's move to build a military airstrip in the Spratly's was “illegal and void without Vietnam's permission.” Furthermore, this month saw the completion of the Paracel's largest airport by China. In addition to this newly constructed outpost, Beijing has seven other construction projects in the region, five of which have been initiated by the new Xi government

China's Plans for South Johnson Reef
Image Credit: China State Shipbuilding Corporation

China's recent emphasis on neighbourliness is interesting because it comes on the heals of greater ties between Vietnam and the United States, as well as other regional powers such as India and Japan, both of which have stepped up their defence relations with Hanoi. Beijing has sought to dissuade Vietnam from looking afar for partners (read U.S.), with China's Central Military Commission vice-chairman Fan Changlong stating that “It's impossible for neighbouring countries to move...It is in the interest of both China and Vietnam to get along with each other and to handle differences appropriately.” The key factor which seems to have spurred China's new charm offensive is the partial lifting of the United State's forty year arms embargo on Vietnam, as well as other American efforts to create an “implicit military partnership.”

For decades the Vietnamese government has followed a policy known as the “Three Nos” (no military alliances, no foreign bases in Vietnam, and no reliance on others when fighting other countries) with respect to defence planning. In recent years this doctrine has been undermined as the rise of China has seen that country pull far ahead in terms of defence spending, procurement and technological sophistication. Hanoi is now seriously reconsidering the “Three Nos” because recent Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea can only be checked by the U.S naval power. In order to preserve the status quo, Vietnam needs to forge close ties with Washington, especially with regard to maritime defence and joint patrolling of the South China Sea.

Competing Claims in the South China Sea
Image Credit: The Economist

Vietnam remains a one party state, a fact which has caused pause in Washington when reconsidering bilateral military ties, yet a friendly Vietnam, along the lines of Thailand or the Philippines, is increasingly a strategic priority. The irony is palpable, as Vietnam is increasingly drawn to Washington, its former enemy, to counter China, Hanoi's former Vietnam War supporter. Despite the legacy of Vietnam War era cooperation, Vietnam has historically viewed China as a colonial power, having fought a series of wars throughout ancient history against successive Chinese dynasties. Vietnam's last clash with China was the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979 following Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. The three week war resulted in almost 100,000 causalities.

Both great powers currying for favour in Vietnam have a bloody legacy in the country, and this makes considerations of alignment more complicated for the Vietnamese government. Geographical proximity and cultural similarities could see Vietnam follow a path akin to that of Belarus and Russia. Conversely fears over living next to an emerging superpower could see Vietnam and the United States move towards greater military cooperation in order to check China. This process could take a similar path to that of American cooperation with Poland, Romania and other ex-Soviet satellite states in countering Russian influence in Eastern Europe.

This article was originally written for Sharnoff's Global Views

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Has ISIS reached Southeast Asia? Philippine Terrorist Group Abu Sayyaf Pledges Allegiance

The conquest of large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria by ISIS has seen the group become a household name, as the international community organizes to counter the terrorist group. ISIS has attracted thousands of Iraqis and Syrians, as well as foreign jihadis, to its cause. The group has garnered international sympathy from radical Islamists, with governments fearing the emergence of a global terrorist network which utterly dwarfs Al-Qaeda's power and reach circa 2001. Many fear the rise of satellite groups aligned with ISIS in various hotspots around the globe. Such concerns would initially appear to be justified in part by the recent declaration of allegiance by Philippine terrorist group Abu Sayyaf to ISIS.

The Philippine group is a radical Islamist group which has been active since the early 1990s, based in the southern province of Basilan and Sulu. The group's ultimate aim is the secession of these regions from the Philippines and the creations of an Islamic theocracy. Abu Sayyaf is one of the smaller terrorist groups in the southern Philippines - estimates as to the group's size range from some three hundred individuals to under a hundred. Until recently Abu Sayyaf along with the larger and better known Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) were fighting the Philippine government, yet on January 25th 2014 both sides agreed to a peace deal. This deal will see the creation of a Muslim autonomous region (Bangsamoro) in the southern Philippines in return for the disarming of MILF, reduction of local militias, removal of heavy government troop presence and creation of common police force.

Abu Sayyaf Fighter Display German Hostages

This peace deal was opposed by the more radical Abu Sayyaf, which did not attend the peace negotiations, nor ceased their campaign of violence. During the summer the group raided a Malaysian fish farm and ambushed civilians celebrating Eid Al-Fitr in late July. The group also claims responsibility for the 2004 SuperFerry 14 bombing which killed 116 people. Last week's announcement of ISIS allegiance came in a video which also included a ransom demand for two German tourists. Abu Sayyaf has demanded a ransom of $5.6 million as well as the end of Germany's support for the American led campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Germany's foreign ministry spokesperson refused to concede to these demands, stating that such acts were “not an appropriate way to influence [Germany's] policy in Syria and Iraq.” Hostage taking is a common tactic employed by Abu Sayyaf which over the years has been involved in the prominent kidnappings of around 100 people; some of whom have been beheaded.

MILF negotiator Mohagher Iqbal (left) and government
negotiator Marvic Leonen (right) signing peace deal in Manila
Photo Credit:

In response to this latest act by Abu Sayyaf, the Philippine government has firmly denied that ISIS is operating by proxy in the country. Speaking for the government, Lt. Col. Roman Zagala acknowledged that there are certainly ISIS sympathizers within the group, yet there exists no concrete connection between the two groups. In contrast to ISIS's unity of vision and ideological commitment, Abu Sayyaf has in recent years become more of a for-profit criminal organization than an ideologically Islamic group. Terrorism expert Joseph Franco has described Abu Sayyaf's pledge to join ISIS as “a publicity stunt. [Abu Sayyaf] is known for its clever use of media and propaganda. Latching unto the ISIS brand is an attempt to prop up its flagging reputation.” 

Photo Credit:

With the conclusion of the aforementioned peace deal, continuing to fight risks a loss of legitimacy, and Abu Sayyaf is seen by many as a withering organization. The diminished status of Abu Sayyaf is driven home by the de-escalation of American anti-terrorism efforts in the country. Since 1992 the United States has stationed 500 commandos in the Philippines to aid the government in its fight against Muslim separatists. Despite Abu Sayyaf's posturing, Washington announced in July that it is disbanding the Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines.

The frivolous connotations of the term 'publicity stunt' seems at first anachronistic when associated with terrorists, yet it is a very important point. Many people are misled by the '-ism' in 'terrorism' into viewing it akin to other -isms i.e. ideologies. Terrorism is a tactic and many groups have used it for a myriad of reasons. These disparate groups have also been keenly aware of branding. The same phenomenon behind disparate groups rallying behind the ISIS banner was behind groups claiming allegiance to Al-Qaeda in the 1990s and 2000s. The ISIS brand is the latest viral sensation sweeping our interconnected world, fully embodying its dual meanings: murderous and memetic.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Establishing 'Correct Views': Beijing's Response to Uighur Violence & Identity

While the West and the world's media attention has been focused on the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, China has been gripped by a wave of violence perpetuated by homegrown Muslim terrorists. Last week fifty people were killed (including forty suspected assailants) and more injured as multiple explosions shook Luntai County, Xinjiang. In the past eighteen months, over 300 people have been killed by aggressors with links to Xinjiang, the autonomous region in western China. Xinjiang is home to the Uighurs, a minority numbering some ten million, scattered across China's far western expanse and bordering several Central Asian countries. The Uighurs are a Turko-Islamic people who long lived on the periphery of Qing China, in an atmosphere of semi-independence as a tributary state to Beijing. Following the fall of imperial China in 1912, Xinjiang enjoyed de facto independence during the mid to late 1940s as the East Turkestan Republic, before being reincorporated into the People's Republic of China in 1949.

Uighur Unrest tops Beijing's Domestic Security Concerns

The Han dominated central government in Beijing has long viewed Xinjiang as a restive frontier, inhabited by troublesome minorities who refuse to assimilate and adopt the majoritarian norms promoted by the government. This tension has increased in recent decades for several reasons. Firstly, Central Asian nations each inhabited by Turkic peoples which emerged on to the world stage after the collapse of the Soviet Union, spurred similar separatist sentiments in Xinjiang. More recently the rapid industrialization of China and corresponding need for resources has seen large scale Han migration (actively encouraged by Beijing) into Xinjiang, lured by construction, resource extraction and defence related projects. This demographic pressure combined with Beijing's emphasis on a Han-dominated, unified national identity has led to the increasing marginalization of the Uighurs. Unequal access to jobs, government services as well as prejudicial sentiments within the migrant Han population has also led to growing discontent and radicalization.

Photo Credit: Wall Street Journal
The explosions in Luntai County are merely the latest in a recent upsurge in Uighur/Xinjiang linked violence. In March a knife attack in the southern city of Kunming left twenty-nine dead and 143 injured. Two months later in May 2014, Uighur extremists detonated explosives in and drove off-road vehicles through a crowded market in Xinjiang's capital Urumqi, killing thirty-nine and injuring more than ninety. In response the government executed thirteen individuals linked to Xinjiang attacks in June, and on September 24th executed eight others implicated in five separate acts, including suicide car crashes in Tiananmen Square which killed the attackers and two tourists.

Even moderate Uighur voices are falling victim of Beijing's crackdown, which has been paying extra attention to Xinjiang since the 2009 Urumqi uprising which left hundreds dead and injured. On September 17th the Urumqi Intermediate People's Court began the trial of Uighur activist Ilham Tohti, who has been accused of separatism. Tohti is a moderate Uighur voice, who while advocating to the Uighur cause has repeatedly sought to mend Han-Uighur relations by campaigning against ethnic intolerance and anti-Han sentiments within the Uighur community. Tohti ran afoul of the central government after creating Uighurbiz in 2006, a Chinese language website fostering Han-Uighur understanding. Tohti has repeatedly been subject to house arrest, and only four days after his trial began, on September 21st was sentenced to life in prison.

Moderate Man, Harsh Sentence: Ilham Tohti Recieves Life in Prison
Photo Credit: AFP

Alongside a predictable security crackdown in the region, Beijing has increasingly been implementing policies which seek to undermine Uighur identity, and which many critics characterize as efforts to “Sinify the Uighurs.” These efforts tout the promotion of secularism and community (read Han) values, by delegitimizing Uighur values, often surrounding Islamic pratices. For instance, during his incarceration, Tohti went on a ten day hunger strike because the guards refused to give him halal food. Such actions are in line with Beijing's larger goal of stamping out the Muslim identities of Uighurs. The government has recently banned young Uighur from growing beards or wearing Muslim garb. Similarly in April 2014, Shayar County introduced a program which offers rewards to people who informed the local government about individuals under the age of 18 who are suspected of growing a beard or attending a mosque.

Recently President Xi Jinping suggested that more Uighurs should be moved to Han dominated areas for education and employment. Furthermore, in recent weeks, Chinese officials in Xinjiang have begun offering various incentives to encourage Han-Uighur intermarriage. Cherchen County in southern Xinjiang is offering 10,000 renminbi ($1600) a year for five years to Han who marry one of China's fifty-five minorities. The government is also offering inter-married couples priority consideration for housing and government jobs, as well as up to $3200 a year in health benefits. Moreover the government is also promising free K-12 education for children of mixed parentage, and tuition subsidies for technical school or university. Cherchen County director, Yasen Nasi’er, said that inter-ethnic marriages were “an important step in the harmonious integration and development of all ethnicities.” Yasen went on to characterize such marriages as positive energy contributing to the realization of the “Chinese Dream,” a concept popularized by President Xi Jinping.

The Chinese Dream: Xi Meets Uighur Community Leaders in Urumqi

These restriction have been put in place because the central government sees the expression of Uighur identity as a threat. The position of Uighurs as Turkic Muslim non-Mandarin speakers who agitate against the status quo undermines the efforts of Beijing to mold a unified modern Chinese identity. The government is pushing strongly to instil the image of 21st century China as Mandarin, Han and secular. These efforts are driven by the desire to prevent another Tibet situation in Xinjiang and other minority areas. Specifically, this means preventing the establishment of a robust non-Han identity which challenges the official discourse emanating from Beijing.

Beijing Fears Spillover: Uighur protesters in Ankara, 2012
Photo Credit: Reuters

At a meeting discussing recent Uighur violence, Xi called on the government to "establish correct views about the motherland and the nation" among China's minorities. The greatest fear for the central government is an internationalization of the Uighur cause. The proliferation of international sympathies for Tibetan independence haunt the Chinese leadership. Consequently their chief priority is preventing the situation in Xinjiang from attracting foreign attention and creating unrest, either from the West, but more importantly from pan-Turkic sympathizes and the greater Muslim world.

Monday, 8 September 2014

The Last Lama? The Dalai Lama on China and Not Wanting a Successor

Following their victory over the Kuomintang Nationalists in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sought to re-establish direct control over the traditional periphery of Qing China. Areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang had, following the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, drifted out of Beijing's orbit, achieving de facto independence. In 1950 the People's Liberation Army (PLA) retook Tibet for the new central government in Beijing. This move led to ethnic and religious conflict as tensions rose between the Buddhist Tibetans and the Han dominated, officially atheist CCP government. At the centre of Tibetan resistance was the centuries old link between the people and Tibetan Buddhism, as personified by the Dalai Lama. The 14th and current Dalai Lama resisted the Chinese occupation of Tibet, yet following a failed uprising was forced to flee to India in 1959.

Coronation of the Dalai Lama, March 17th 1950
Photo Credit:

The Tibetan government in exile still resides in India as does a large Tibetan diaspora. Since 1959 the Dalai Lama has become globally renowned, earning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 – much to the chagrin of Beijing – especially given the timing of the award which was most likely heavily influenced by China's actions during the Tiananmen Square protests in the same year. Having defied every leader of modern China since Mao, the Dalai Lama has in sense become China's Castro: an initially threatening, later perennially just out of reach, half-century old thorn-in-the-side, frustratingly enjoying international support, and achieving mythic levels of intransigence thanks primarily to China's hyperbolic rhetoric. Just switch out Beijing for Washington, and you have the Castro regime: both even came to international attention in 1959.

Amusing digressions aside, the Dalai Lama continues to head China's dissident list, with Beijing regularly exercising pressure at the international level to inhibit his movements and counter his popularity. If not acceding to China's 'One China' rule is the paramount deal breaker when engaging with the regime in Beijing; a 'One Tibet' – not parlaying with the Dalai Lama – rule is not far behind. While countries such as the United States publicly embrace the Dalai Lama at regular intervals whenever they need to tweak China' nose, smaller nations with less geo-political clout often cannot. For instance, on September 4th South Africa denied the Dalai Lama a visa to visit the country. This was the third such denial in five years, with this most recent refusal preventing the Dalai Lama from attending the 14th world summit of Nobel Peace Prize laureates. The level of irony inherent in South Africa's actions is almost farcical, especially given the recent passing of Nelson Mandela: the country's own Nobel Prize winning leader who fought for an oppressed people, and was repeatedly denied entry into various countries.

The Dalai Lama Arrives in India
Photo Credit: Indian Defence Review

While the actions of the South African government seem arbitrary, Pretoria has more to lose from angering China than from being a hypocrite. South Africa is China's largest trade partner in Africa, with trade increasing by thirty-two percent since 2012, reaching $25 billion in 2013.  Furthermore, while trade with South Africa only equals four percent of China's trade with the EU, China is South Africa's biggest export and import partner, comprising 14.5 and 14.9 percent of Pretoria's trade, respectively. Consequently, South Africa needs to placate China via acts such as denying entry to the Dalai Lama; a move that did not go unnoticed. According to Xinhua, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang stated that China “greatly appreciates” South Africa's efforts, in preventing access to a dangerous separatist.

Interestingly, Xinhua goes on to state that the Dalai was simply prevented from attending a meeting in South Africa. By excluding any mention of the nature of said meeting – an assemblage of Peace Prize winners – Xinhua seeks to erode any moral high ground that the Dalai Lama could occupy as a result of South Africa's actions. Excising mention of the Nobel Peace Prize firstly seek to downplay the international recognition of the Tibetan cause, and secondly sow confusion and suspicion among Xinhua's readership as to the nature and intent of said meeting.

China's efforts to curtail the Dalai Lama's freedom of movement and international support is premised on the assertion that he embodies a dangerous separatist movement as well as heading a government in exile. Not only is the Dalai Lama not the head of the government, having fostered the creation of a democratic regime in exile since the 1960s, he also officially devolved himself from the political leadership in 2011, claiming the time for a new leader. Paradoxically it is the Chinese government that has become the chief voice emphasizing the importance of the Dalai Lama on the world stage.

No Successor Needed, Position of Dalai Lama has Served Its Purpose
Photo Credit: Die Welt am Sonntag

While he is revered and respected by many Tibetans and non-Tibetans alike, efforts to re-establish Tibetan self-rule are focused on achieving democratic, not theocratic governance. The Dalai Lama himself acknowledges this and in a recent interview in German newspaper Die Welt am Sonntag, stated that he does not wish for a successor. Officially retired since 2011, the Dalai Lama stated that he did not want officials to appoint a successor after his death, arguing that the 450 year old tradition had served its purpose. Furthermore, during the interview he highlighted the large and effective network of Buddhist monks and scholars, stating that Tibetan Buddhism was not dependent on or dictated by one person. This statement is primarily a simple acknowledgment of the work of the Tibetan community, as well as characteristic humility, yet it also sends a strong message to China that the struggle over Tibet does not start or end with the Dalai Lama.

Xi Jinping Speaks in Paris, March 2014

The seventy-nine year old Lama also expressed his firm belief that he will eventually be able to return to Tibet. According to assessments of the Dalai Lama's health, doctors have stated that he will likely live to be one hundred, with the Dalai Lama himself stating that in his dreams he sees himself dying at the age of 113. Such potential longevity adds two to three decades onto the Dalai Lama's perspective, in turn making him confident about not only his chances of returning to Tibet, but of China's gradual democratization. If such a perspective seems naïve, one need only look at the difference that 20-30 years has already made in China with regards to civil society and personal freedoms. The Dalai Lama told Die Welt am Sonntag that China must and will democratize as it can no longer choose isolation nor inoculate itself against globalizing influences.

Interestingly, despite continuing opposition from Beijing, the Dalai Lama expressed his admiration for current Chinese President Xi Jinping, citing Xi's efforts to continue along the path of Hu Jintao's harmonious society, as well as his anti-corruption stance which has caused Xi to make many enemies among the CCP's old guard. Lastly, the Dalai Lama argued that he sees these actions as indicative of China's progress toward slowly becoming more open and inclusive; a view buttressed by Xi's March 2014 statement in Paris crediting Buddhism with playing an important part in the development of Chinese civilization.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Tokyo Courts the Tiger: Why Japan Needs India

Recently, Japan has been increasingly emphasizing its ties with India, efforts which have been highlighted by newly elected Indian Prime Minister Modi's recent trip to Japan. This was Modi's first major foreign visit since assuming office, and he was lauded for his efforts by Cabinet upon his return. This renewed engagement with India is in large part due to Tokyo's efforts to engage with Asian countries to at least implicitly, if not overtly hedge against China. Modi reaffirmed the importance of cooperation with Tokyo, by stating that "the 21st century belongs to Asia...but how the 21st century will be depends on how strong India-Japan ties are." Currently both sides appear to be cementing said ties, with Japan agreeing to $35 billion in investment in India over the next five years. 

Prime Minister Modi (left), meets with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Japan.
Photo Credit: Reuters

India represents a great economic opportunity for Japanese business, but it is India's potential as a bulwark against China that most entices Japan. China represents a serious concern for the Japanese government, as tensions have remained high due to unsettled disputes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. The clashes over these islands have bolstered Shinzo Abe's conservative government and its efforts to increase defence spending and reinterpret the country's pacifist constitution. Despite the measure of security afforded by the U.S.-Japan Mutual Defence Treaty, the United States has a complicated relationship with Beijing, with increasing Sino-American economic ties stoking Japanese abandonment fears. Japan's ties to the United States in turn stokes Chinese paranoia concerning American hegemony in Asia, as well as accusations of foreign meddling. Japan needs to diversify its foreign relations portfolio, and a promising candidate for regional cooperation is India.

In some ways India is the default partner for Japan in Asia, as it constitutes one of the few approachable large powers. Japan and Russia have yet to sign a peace treaty from WWII due to a territorial dispute over the Kurile Islands, and in any case Japan's treaty with America dissuades Moscow from seeing Tokyo as a strategic ally. Japan has strong ties with Taiwan, yet Taipei does not have the geo-political latitude to meaningfully confront China. South Korea is an economic power and a democracy, yet Seoul and Tokyo are fighting over exclusive economic zones and ownership over Dokdo/Takeshima island. South Korea also needs to keep China in a good mood in return for Beijing's cooperation in dealing with North Korea. Indonesia has the demographic but not (yet) the economic or political clout to be an effective ally, and while the rest of ASEAN worries about China's ambitions in the South China Sea, it lacks cohesion and cannot risk openly defying Beijing to any serious degree.

Photo Credit: Wall Street Journal

India's democratic government, in a region which normally abounds with authoritarian regimes, makes it a palatable partner for the Japanese public. India has the demographic power to rival China, and the economic and military potential to be a superpower. Indian natural resources pair well with Japanese foreign direct investment and technological prowess. Moreover, India also has territorial disputes with China, and even fought a war in the 1960s over the borders of Tibet. By supporting India's growing military might, Japan benefits from Beijing's divided attention and resources. Similarly, cooperation with Japan allows India to counter Chinese support for Pakistan and Myanmar, which can be seen as part of Chinese efforts at Indian containment.

Perhaps most importantly is the strategic location of India and specifically its navy which is perfectly positioned to protect the trade routes and sea lanes of communication (SLOC) upon which Japan relies. The vast majority of Japan's oil and gas crosses the Indian Ocean and is funneled through the Straits of Malacca and past the Chinese coast. The naval arms race in between Japan and China is in part to develop the blue water capabilities to patrol and potentially shut down these vital SLOCs. During Modi's trip “the two prime ministers...affirmed their shared commitment to maritime security, freedom of navigation and overflight, civil aviation safety, unimpeded lawful commerce, and the peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law. 

SLOCs - The Lifeblood of Japan
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

References to unimpeded commerce and navigation are clear indicators of Japan's concern over SLOCs. Moreover, the inclusion of freedom of overflight is important as this represents an obvious rebuke to China. Specifically this statement implicitly chastises China's unilateral efforts to impose air defence identification zones over contested areas in the East and South China Seas. Similarly the call to abide by international dispute resolution norms is not empty rhetoric, but a move to show China that other major players in Asia also view territorial disputes as solely the purview of international law. This runs counter to the common Chinese tactic of seeking to resolve territorial disputes bilaterally, efforts which invariably – given the scale of Beijing's economic and military resources – positions China as the dominant partner in negotiations.

Japan seeks to develop Indian naval capability to patrol the Indian Ocean, while simultaneously supporting current American patrolling of the SLOCs. India can be seen as a potential insurance policy for Japan to hedge against potential American unwillingness to confront China in the event of a Sino-Japanese trade war. Japan is seeking Indian cooperation at the international level by instituting common geo-political norms, an aim shared by New Delhi as both prime ministers announced the future creation of two-plus-two talks between their respective foreign and defence ministers. To this end Japan has also agreed to regular defence exchanges as well as bilateral maritime drills, with both countries directing officials to set up working level talks on defence equipment procurement and technology cooperation

Monday, 25 August 2014

Indonesian Supreme Court Rejects Prabowo Appeal, Clears Way for Jokowi Presidency

The fall of the Suharto government in 1998 following the Asian Financial Crisis brought an end to decades of authoritarian military governments. Over the past 16 years, Indonesia has been slowly transforming into an emerging democracy, yet political dynasticism, aloof elites, corruption and nepotism still abound. The July 9th Indonesian presidential election saw Joko Widodo (popularly known as 'Jokowi') running on an anti-corruption, economic reform platform, and buoyed by his man-of-the-people image, defeat Prabawo Subianto garnering 53% to Prabawo's 46.8%. Despite some commentators declaring the victory as definitive; Jokowi won by eight million votes out of a popular vote of some 180 million, making it the smallest margin of victory in any Indonesian presidential election. This fact appears to be of significant importance, yet efforts to put any stock in this state of affairs must be tempered by the knowledge that during the Suharto years elections were still held with Suharto winning 63.8% in 1973 and running unopposed in elections in 1978, 1983, 1988, 1993, and 1998. Consequently there are few contenders for Indonesia's narrowest electoral victory margin.

This margin of victory did however cause Prabowo to challenge the election results; appealing to the Supreme Court, claiming widespread electoral fraud affecting twenty-one million votes and fifty-two thousand polling stations. Such a challenge is not uncommon with similiar actions having become a common course of action in previous elections, in part as a face-saving mechanism. Despite the frequency of these appeals, the Supreme Court has never overturned the result of a presidential election, with Prabowo's appeal encountering a similar fate. The nine judges of the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the appeal, stating in their verdict which took over four hours for the court to read, that Prabowo had not proffered any credible evidence of electoral fraud. Prabowo's concerns were not completely unfounded as election officials had in some cases opened ballot boxes early, a fact which the Court acknowledged, yet ruled had been done in a transparent manner. The Court's decision cannot be appealed and while Prabowo camp accepts the appeals it has stated that it considers the decision a miscarriage of justice.

Images of Prabowo (left) and Jokowi stare out at a passing woman
Photo Credit:

Given the lack of Supreme Court precedence in overturning election results, the Court's rejection of the appeal was widely expected, especially since prior to the Court's decision the General Elections Commission as well as independent election observers had dismissed Prabowo'sclaims. Despite such widespread rejection of the claim, following the public broadcast of the Court's decisions, supporters of Prabowo clashed with riot police outside of the Supreme Court. Some pro-Prabowo protestors attempted to storm the razor wire fence surrounding the court and several trucks were rammed against barricades. Thousands of riot police had been deployed around the Court as a precaution and responded to these actions with tear gas, quickly dispersing the crowds. Aside from isolated incidents, the majority of protests were non-violent, with only a few individuals injured and the arrest of four others, as parts of Jakarta were put under lock-down

Going forward Jokowi, as a political outsider, and now as president-elect will have to consolidate his legitimacy among the political elite. Despite winning the election, Jokowi is faced with an opposition coalition that backed Prabowo holding the majority of seats in the House of Representatives. Jokowi's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle is largest in the House with twenty percent of seats, yet the Prabowo coalition holds sixty-eight percent of the remainingseats. However, these coalition partners are pragmatic and since Prabowo has lost his appeal, cracks are emerging in the coalition. In a bid to prevent infighting and create a functioning government, Jokowi has stated that he will welcome coalition parties to his side, reserving some seats for them in his government

Prabowo Supports Protest Decision Outside Supreme Court in Jakarta
Photo Credit:

The election of Jokowi is important because in many ways it signifies a new era in Indonesia politics. Despite Suharto's departure in 1998, the political class has continued to be dominated by elites tied to previous autocratic regimes. Suharto era technocrats and career politicians still control much of the power in Indonesia, with political dynasticism a creeping issue. For instance from 2001-2004 Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Sukarno, Indonesia's first president and pre-Suharto autocrat presided over a mediocre presidency. Prabowo himself is Suharto's son-in-law and was a special forces commando and later general during his father-in-law's reign. Prabowo's background, combined with accusations of human rights violations during his military career and his aloof public image all have contributed to Jokowi's victory. Furthermore, while the Court's decisions is in line with precedence, it may also be part of a greater move away from politicians with links to Suharto, politicians who since 1998 have done little to tackle corruption.

The lack of dynamism and accessibility in the Indonesian political class should not fool observers into thinking that Jokowi has been elected by default or as the lesser of two evils. Jokowi enjoys widespread popularity across the country, with many citing his humble demeanour and accessible public image as key points in his favour. In contrast to established political elites, Jokowi was born and raised in a slum in the mid-sized city of Solo, eventually training himself as a carpenter before entering politics in 2005. Since then his rise has been meteoric, having been twice elected mayor of his hometown, and later becoming Governor of Jakarta in 2012. The same year Jokowi won third place in the World Mayor Prize: an award that is given to politicians who have revitalized their cities. During his time in office Jokowi did not draw on his mayoral salary, built free housing for slum dwellers, upgraded transit infrastructure and according to the Supreme Court “turned a crime ridden city into a regional centre for arts and culture which has started to attract international tourism. His campaign against corruption earned him the reputation of being the most honest politician in Indonesia."

Even with such an accomplished record, Jokowi will face many challenges once he is sworn in as president in October. Foremost amongst these are corruption, bad infrastructure such as a lack of drainage systems which sees many cities in Indonesia regularly flood, and finding funds for the budget. A key problem in the Indonesian budget is that long running energy subsidies are draining the state of vital funds to the tune of $31.3billion dollars. This amounts to eighteen percen tof the budget or three times the total infrastructure budget. Previous attempts to reduce or eliminate these subsidies have caused widespread protests, yet the system which is inefficient, needs to be drastically changed. This is especially pressing given the wide economic disparity in the country. Funds which are flowing into energy subsidies need to be redirected towards healthcare, housing and education for despite being a G20 country, Indonesia still has over one hundred million people living at or below two dollars a day