Tag Archives: Thailand

A world ablaze – but different fuels


A bane of modern military studies [let’s eschew “science”] is the concept of counter-insurgency – the idea that indigenous revolts around the world can be analyzed with “the scientific method” and a set of general principles if implemented could cure the problem. Common sense tells us that the essence of any dissidence/armed insurrection is its particularity, its basis in specific local conditions. They differ not only in geography but in the characteristics of individual societies. So, yes, the army should not steal the peasants’ chickens is a good maxim – but such bromides do not go far to tell you how to prevent civil war.

At the moment, we have one bitter internecine war in Syria, and three incipient revolts between two or more elements in Ukraine, Venezuela and Thailand. Other conflicts, even messier to define, are growing in the Central African Republic and Nigeria.

The question, of course, is whether there anything that connects all these conflicts? And, if so, what if anything can be done to lessen tension and conflict?


The ambivalence between Ukraine and Russia is as old as the two peoples. In fact, it was from centers in what is now Ukraine that Christianity spread to the Great Russians and where they even got their name.  More recently, Ukrainians have suffered disproportionately in the Soviet Union – a bitter irony, often at the hands of ethnic Ukrainian members of the Communist hierarchy. Stalin’s man-made famine of the 1930s followed on to the horrors of those of World War I when the engineer Herbert Hoover first emerged on the world scene. But a flame of Ukrainian identity survived, expressing itself at the height of Soviet repression in such small protests as citizens of Ukraine’s western metropolis, the old Hapsburg city of Lviv [Lvov, Lemberg] unofficially using “our time” [Central European] rather than Moscow’s time zone to express their identification with the West..

So it is no wonder that [Ras] Putin, the new Russian dictator seeking to restore Soviet glory has intrigued in a state once called in the two World Wars “a figment of the imagination of the German general staff”. Whatever the outcome of fast-moving events, Putin has the most to gain or lose – aside from the Ukrainians themselves. Ras – who has said publicly that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe of the bloody 20th century — is gambling. By his direct intervention, he either hopes to bring Ukraine again under Moscow hegemony, or failing that, to destroy its unity as a cautionary tale for other former Soviet “republics” holding on to their fragile independence.

But for the moment, the anti-Soviet forces have gained the upper hand in Kiev and he faces a choice of backing the ultra-corrupt Russophile Viktor Yanukovych as he attempts to cling to power, apparently setting up shop in Russian-speaking and industrial eastern Ukraine. Or Ras could wait to see if Pres. Barack Obama and the European Union will do the necessary to back their friends in Kiev. Or, unlikely, Putin retreats, taking his licks and admitting a disastrous defeat. That result could escalate Moscow’s growing economic difficulties with its almost total dependence on fossil fuel exports, undercut by the growing impact of America’s shale revolution on world prices.


As ghastly as is Basher al Assad and his Iranian backers’ war on Syrian civilians – matching the ugly trial run Nazi and Fascist aircraft waged on Spanish Republicans in that prelude to World War II – geopolitically its importance lies elsewhere. Every day that al Assad’s regime survives, U.S. interests and those of its allies suffer: there is an intensification of the influence and control of radical jihadists in the opposition to Assad, and the growing influence of the Tehran mullahs not only in Damascus but in neighboring Lebanon and even among formerly rabidly Sunni Hamas jihadists in Gaza.

Continued Syrian fighting risks the stability of both Israel and Jordan, the major two outright allies along with Saudi Arabia. The growing perception of Iranian strength is posing an increasing dilemma for the Gulf Arab sheikdoms and even the military in Egypt: whether they knuckle under to Iranian Mideast hegemony or go nuclear themselves. For long ago it became apparent that despite public pronouncements, the Obama Administration is prepared to settle for a supposedly nuanced arrangement whereby Tehran has the capability of weapons of mass destruction but does not “weaponize”. That for a country which for 17 years was able to disguise its uranium enrichment from UN regulators of the non-proliferation treaty it had signed.


With its long history of repressive regimes since independence from Spain almost 200 years ago, Caracas again is saddled with new oppression. But this time its incompetence matches any effort to tyrannize a divided opposition. With one of the world’s largest petroleum reserves, Pres. Nicolás Maduro has taken the country further toward bankruptcy, in no small part because of the largesse he has continued from his predecessor, Hugo Chavez. Chavez’ populist policies built a constituency among the nation’s poor until his death in 2013 and among leftist regimes around the continent.

Now Maduro, with his constant malapropisms, almost a caricature of Chavez, relies increasingly on Raul Castro’s Cuba and its secret police tactics, including Cuban “advisors”, against rising opposition. The cost in oil for the Castro dictatorship some observers reckon as much as $13 billion a year. Other discounts go to the leftist, and above all anti-American regimes, notably the Sandinista retreads in Nicaragua.


The old contest between Bangkok’s Sino-Thai elite and the more ethnic Thai rurals, especially those in the poorer northeast, has come unhinged in the rapid economic and international integration of the once isolated nation that never became a European colony.. Ironically, the rural areas – which once got some taste of social and economic upward mobility through the frequent encroachment of the military on the political process – have now been seduced with long-awaited social services. Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist handing out new entitlements while he used his connections for building an enormous personal fortune, is a fugitive from corruption charges. Nevertheless, from Dubai or wherever he has been running the country through his political machine with his sister as prime minister to the consternation of the old elite. [It is another irony that Shinawatra is, himself, only first generation Sino-Thai which he has never tried to hide.]

The elite, increasingly supported by students and Bangkok’s middle class, are now turning to the possibility of some sort of indirect rule rather than Shinawatra’s popular mandate. The crisis is deepening, beginning to affect Thailand’s tourism — $26.7 billion in 1013, up 20% over the year before. Street rioting has already canceled out an estimated 900,000 visitors in the next six months and their $1.6 billion. Violence would eventually cut into the steady low of foreign investment – Thailand’s auto industry dominates Southeast Asia, ninth largest in the world.

Solutions for half a century to periodic blowups have come from the intervention of the military, now more reluctant than ever before to jeopardize its $5.3 billion budget by bloodying its hands. Thailand’s sainted 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyade, despite his close associations with the elite, has spent much of the last year in hospital. The final arbiter in past political crises, he is coming to the end of a 68-year reign with the succession somewhat clouded by a scandal-prone crown prince.

Needless to say, the U.S. did not create any of these crises. But whatever the failings of the Obama Administration and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s endless peregrinations and John Kerry’s pledges of endurance, there is a growing worldwide perception that American power is retreating in the face of a poorly functioning domestic economy, a curtailment of military expenditures, and an Obama policy that attempts to “lead from behind”.Syria” has become the arch symbol of Obama’s indecisiveness. That carries over to a growing belief in a general withdrawal from the U.S.’ preeminent post-World War II leadership of free societies. With Obama’s threats and “red lines” increasingly ignored, an ominous vacuum in virtually all regions of the world invites chaos if not worse.



The Asia scrum

Rather suddenly there is a welter of developments turning Asia’s dozen-odd countries into a cat’s cradle of conflicting interests – some new — that could lead to war.

Central, of course, is “a rising” China. The Chinese, themselves, have given up the phrase “a peaceful rising”. That was a promise that the new boy on the block would not repeat a united Germany’s late arrival as a strong player in Europe, setting off two world wars. Now almost daily aggressive rhetoric in official Chinese media is matched by extravagant territorial claims against its neighbors in northeast and southeast Asia coupled with a rapid naval buildup. Infringement of the cease fire lines in the Himalayas accompanies temporary military thrusts against Indian forces.

China’s only ally in the region, North Korea – dependent on Beijing aid for its very existence – has turned even more enigmatic. A highly publicized – unusual in such frequent eruptions – purging of its No. 2 leader is inexplicable even to the experts. Its tightly controlled media showed Jang Song Thaek being yanked off to prison. Then the uncle by marriage to the 31-year-old Kim Job-Un, third member of the Kim dynasty, was summarily executed.

One side effect has been both official media in China and North Korea accusing each other of perfidy; Jang was close to Chinese official and business interests. Yet there is no sign that they are not still wedded in their opposition to Japan and the U.S. These events have written a death notice for Washington’s continuing hope that Beijing could and would intervene to halt North Korea’s expanding weapons of mass destruction program. And the Obama Administration, like its predecessors has no answer to the conundrum of the continuing Pyongyang blackmail for additional aid as an incentive to halt its weapons program.

On the other side of the East [or Japan] Sea, most of which Beijing now claims as a restricted area, Japan’s extremely popular Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has defiantly defended Tokyo’s longstanding claim to sovereignty of disputed rocks between its Islands and the Mainland. His attempt to restore Japan’s economy, dawdling for a decade, has been accompanied by a campaign to regain a sense of national purpose. His strategy includes breaking through the virtual monopoly of the leftwing mainstream media not excluding the government radio and the Communist Nikyoso teachers union. Visiting Japan’s shrine to its fallen war dead was part and parcel of that cultural offensive. But because of the enshrinement there of World War II war criminals, it was looked on askance [and for propaganda] by Beijing and South Korea.

Obvious self-interest is being flaunted for political advantage: Beijing threatens to impose economic strictures on Tokyo. Seoul has refused needed Japanese ammunition for its UN Peacekeeping Force under attack in South Sudan. In a period of rapidly declining GDP and attempts at reform, Beijing can ill afford to abandon its heavy reliance on Japan for China assembly for third Japanese markets. Furthermore, Beijing has always looked to Tokyo not only for investment but for technological and management know-how, reflected in Japan being China’s No. 1 supplier in their $334 billion trade [2012]. Seoul’s collaboration with Japan, including such recent joint naval exercises, is essential for any effective counter to China’s power sponsored by the U.S. in Asia.

Abe, anticipating that Beijing despite all the talk of reform will not be able to boost its domestic consumption, long the holy grail of Japanese and Western business, is encouraging Japanese business to look elsewhere. Already Japanese direct investment into China plunged by nearly 37% in the first nine months of 2013, to only $6.5 billion, in part because of the outlook for Chinese markets. Alternatively Japanese investment in Southeast Asia’s four major economies ­— Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines —­ surged by over 120% to almost $7.9 billion.

Tokyo is moving quickly to exploit the new opening in Burma through its traditional special relationship there, Not least it cultivates opposition leader Suu Kyi, whose father, one of the martyred leaders of the independence struggle, was a Japanese protégé. Tokyo has written off more than $5 billion in debt for the reforming generals, and offered new infrastructure loans. Completing the circle, Tokyo has just announced $3 billion for Burma’s long-suffering minorities in off and revolt against the central government since independence.

Japan’s attempt to move away from China toward South Asia has its geopolitical aspects as well: a recent joint naval exercise with Indian forces off that country’s coast, a first, backs up its attempt to encourage an export led investment in the other Asian giant. It is part of a growing Japanese military, integration with its U.S. ally, and projection of its power and prestige overseas.

Radical shifts are taking place elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Thailand’s feud between an urban Sino-Thai Establishment – including avid supporters of the King and Queen – and rural voters is escalating. Rioting with upcoming elections – which the opposition threatens to boycott – have already dampened continued rapid expansion of tourism which accounts for over 7% of Thailand’s economy. And it could threaten foreign investment which has made region’s leading automobile industry a cog in the growing worldwide car assembly network.

Eighty-six-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej is ill and apparently unable, especially given his closest followers’ involvement, to make his usual intervention to calm political waters. And the Thai military, which many hoped had been ruled out of a new democratic, booming society, now have hinted they will lapse back into their old coup habit as they did in 2008 if street violence continues. Meanwhile, no one is paying much attention to a growing insurgency in Thailand’s Malay provinces on its southern border. That augurs badly for the region with Malaysia’s own increasingly Islamicist Malays moving toward conflict with its Chinese and Indian minorities, and more radical politicians arising in the more isolated states on Thailand’s border.

Indonesia, largely ignored despite its fourth largest population in the world nearing 250 million – almost a third under 14 — has temporarily staved off a balance of payments crisis. But its meager 3.6% increase in gross national product in 2013 is not what is required for one of the world’s most resource endowed countries with a generally docile and hardworking population. Highly dependent on a few mineral and agricultural specialty exports, Indonesia has been hard hit by the downturn in the world commodity prices. Despite large oil and gas potential, one of the founders of the Organization of Petroleum Export Countries [OPEC] became a net importer in 2009. Corruption, protectionism and fluctuating economic and fiscal policies have discouraged foreign investment and technological transfer. Despite conventional wisdom that Islam in Indonesia is moderate and catholic, incorporating large elements of its pagan and Hindu past, the world’s largest Muslim nation has always had a virulent jihadist movement. Indonesian authorities have been less than prescient in cracking down on it. In a deteriorating economy, it could become a major factor in the worldwide Islamicist terrorist network.

It was into this rapidly moving miasma that Sec. of State Hillary Clinton just two years ago announced the Obama Administration’s “pivot”, a turn from concentration on the Middle East to focus on Asia. But to continue Clinton’s metaphor, a pivot is a “central point, pin, or shaft on which a mechanism turns or oscillates”. It could well be that in the world of diplomacy – and geopolitical strategy — one does not reveal the fulcrum. The U.S. has every reason to hope and even pretend that the growing aggressive rhetoric and behavior of Communist China is not the central issue in Asia for the foreseeable future. But to ignore that threat publicly is not to make it central to the strategy shift which was so loudly proclaimed.

Yet, particularly in its relations with Japan, since 1950 the keystone of American strategy in Asia, the Obama Administration appears not to have a China policy beyond associating itself rhetorically with China’s neighbors resisting Beijing’s encroachment. It may be just as well that U.S.-Japanese military integration under an expanded Mutual Defense Treaty is moving rapidly ahead on autopilot. For despite Tokyo’s continued public espousal of close relations, the coolness between Abe’s Tokyo and Obama’s Washington are an open secret. The strong – by the exotic standards of formal diplomatese – of Washington denunciation of Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine [“disappointing”] — was a shock in Tokyo despite an earlier warning. Washington’s refusal to take a direct hand in smoothing relations between its two most important bilateral allies in Asia, Japan and South Korea, has been …disappointing in Tokyo and elsewhere. That is particularly true since U.S.diplomats [and retired Foreign Service Officers] and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel have publicly espoused mediation between Japan and China.

The Washington-sponsored Trans Pacific Partnership, an ambitious attempt to create a vast new common market including 40% of U.S. trade, all North America and some hangers-on, is stagnating, in part because of inattention from the Administration’s leaders. And it is no secret that excluding China from the TPP – even if there were not substantial justification given its unfair trading practices – is presumably a part of the pivot.

But shaking off the Middle East, even with repeated attempts at “leading from behind”, is certainly not conclusive. This weekend’s crisis in Iraq and Washington’s promise to intervene short of boots on the ground shows how hard it will be to disentangle the U.S. from primary concentration on the area. Sec. of State John Kerry’s persistent – if unrealistic – devotion of enormous time and energy toward a breakthrough in Israel-Palestinian relations, too, points in another direction

The U.S. President is scheduled for a swing through Asia in April. It remains to be seen whether the Administration will publicly try to tidy up its “pivot’ with new initiatives.

.Until then the “pivot” is flapping in the growing East winds of change.




Riding the golden tiger

Back in the late 40s when Thailand was more whimsical and less bloody, there was a curious hijacking. Cargoes of gold frequently flew through Krungtep [the Thai capital] for sale in China. There hyper-inflation – more potent than Communist arms — was toppling the Nationalists. The economic meltdown was the last straw for Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s fragile regime which had stood alone for so long before Pearl Harbor.

Washington’s refusal to make a $500 million gold loan helped clinch Chiang’s fate. General U.S. war debt fatigue, Kuomintang corrupt reputation and a Congress faced with a wartime economy being restructured brought the decision. But we now know it stemmed, too, from Treasury officials with too close connections to the Soviets and budding Communist power in China.

Still, gold in a steady stream cascaded into the Chinese private sector. Shadowy international gold merchants were satisfying Chinese savers’ quest for security in a world coming apart. Little did they know within less than a decade, Mao Tse-tung’s bloody “land reform” would not only snatch their gold but his programs eventually would cost as many as 70 million lives of those who could not flee to Taiwan or beyond.

But in those heady days international trade was recovering from World War II. Early intercontinental flights, with no nonstops nor even night flying, carried the gold across South Asia. When it arrived at its last stopover at dusk, it was unloaded at Don Muang airport, convoyed into the Bank of Thailand, then brought back the next morning, reloaded to go on to Hong Kong.

One evening in May 1948, a multi-million dollar [1948 dollars!] shipment disappeared. The mystery was never solved. With occasional bars turning up, rumors had it that the gold had been stolen by Thai police guards or the army or airport officials — or maybe just ordinary ever-present k’moi [robbers]. As the last rumors died away, it was said, never with confirmation, that Lloyds, the insurers, had done a deal, splitting the difference with the thieves.

That old gold piracy comes to mind in mid-summer 2010 as Beijing announces “liberalization” of gold sales.

Like most of Beijing’s policy announcements, the message must be taken with more than a grain of salt. The new Chinese regulations come at a time when Western gold fever, at least temporarily, had died down a bit. “Gold bugs” have now concluded that, counterintuitively, central banks are not rushing into gold as a hedge against the declining dollar and the debt-ridden Euro. There is even a rumor the Reserve Bank of India mortgaged last November’s 200-ton purchase from the International Monetary Fund to “the world’s central banker”, the Bank for International Settlements, for currencies to fight its roaring 10% inflation. Nor is there any hint China is boosting bullion reserves despite Beijing’s steady public skepticism of the Obama Administration’s dollar strategies.

But popular gold demand in China has grown in 2010. China doesn’t officially disclose gold imports. However, total volume traded the first six months on the Shanghai Gold Exchange jumped 59% from a year earlier. China’s already has the world’s sixth largest hoard at 1,054 tons.

The usual suspects – gold promoters and participants in China’s boom — have welcomed the new regulations as part of China’s promised liberalization. That echoes Beijing’s rhetoric — if little action — its response to pressure from its trading partners to curb its unprecedented dollars accumulation resulting from currency manipulation and export subsidies.

Now the People’s Bank said it would “actively push infrastructure for gold trading and reserves to fend off disasters”. Underlining the announcement, five other government entities countersigned, saying “the need to perfect foreign exchange policies in the gold market is clear.”  But the government also hinted at more bullion taxes and dropped is earlier partial endorsement of gold as investment.

What seems more than likely is that operating again in omnipresent corruption, Beijing is battening down the hatches with what are, in reality, new controls, attempting to prevent a stampede by savers into gold. What with growing suspicion of its debt-ridden banks and investors shying away from the Shanghai stocks casino, gold fever increasingly has gripped those Chinese who can’t get their funds out of the country through massive export/import manipulation. Total 2009 consumer demand for gold – mostly for jewelry, a traditional Asian way of saving — grew 7 percent to more than $14 billion, 11% of global demand. China now has become the world’s second largest customer after India as well as the No. 1 producer. Its hoard is the world’s sixth largest at 1,054 tons.

Simultaneously Chinese spindoctors argue that gold is not all that useful. Why then does Beijing announce expansion of its own market? The big four state-owned banks will be permitted trading in gold bars. Qualified foreign gold suppliers may be allowed into the Shanghai market. Plans for investment in foreign bullion are on the docket. All this looks like Beijing’s familiar way of attempting control in finance and manufacturing through government fiat.

No doubt Beijing remembers those old frantic post-war years. But Confucius say: he who rides back of tiger may end up inside belly.


Snarls in “The land of Smiles”

The last time I saw my old friend, she had finally given up on her magazine dedicated to what we used to call “upcountry” householders. She lamented the passing of “paradise”, a Thailand she and I had known in the late 1940s when I was a young reporter for a local Bangkok English-language newspaper. “Rice in the paddy and shrimp in the klong [canal]” and all is right with the world went the old saying.

“Modernity” with all its problems had come to the devoutly Buddhist land, preindustrial but with abundant resources. Rites of passage once required young men to spend months in the wat [temple] with their begging bowls. Every morning my friend along with most housewives seeking to “make merit” toward a future existence through charity were at their doorstep dishing out rice and Thai curries to them.

But now the klongs in sea level Bangkok are filled – originally by a corrupt French contractor which produced continual flooding. The stench of diesel replaces cardamom drifting from night markets with the world’s most exotic menu. One might have eaten in Yawarat, sarcastically called “Chinatown”. For since cheap ocean passage after the opening of Suez in the mid-19th century with British and French maritime expansion, Bangkok was a Sino-Thai city, flooded with South China immigrants.

Modernization was, of course, beneficial. Health standards improved. The arid northeast no longer survived by sending migrants to the capital. In recent years, investors saw Thailand as Southeast Asia’s auto manufacturing center. Not only No. 1 rice exporter, worldwide housewives snapped up Thai processed delicacies. And Thailand is destination for sophisticated European tourists, replacing the 60s backpackers who came for pot and sex.

But all this is threatened by a social breakdown. Coming for several decades, it reached crescendo in 2006 with the fall of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Ironically, the billionaire politician was brought down by his neighbors, the Singaporeans. Mentor Minister Lee Kuan Yew who styles himself leader of a squeaky-clean regime does not follow the old adage admonishing Caesar’s wife to be above suspicion. For it was his daughter-in-law’s Singapore sovereign fund, Temasek, who blew up Mr. Thaksin

Temasek, moving away from funding of Singapore’s manufacturing base — eroded in no small part by China – has gone farther afield. In Bangkok, Mrs. Ho Ching, Lee’s son, the Prime Minister’s wife, negotiated an under-the-table $2 billion plus deal for Mr. Thaksin’s telecommunications empire. It was acquired through government, his detractors say. When he escaped taxation on the deal, it was too much for Bangkok’s Sino-Thai professional elite, fed up with unlimited corruption. They supported a military takeover. When Mr. Thaksin won another election, he was ousted again.

But Mr. Thaksin had long since won the hearts and minds of the rural population through a populist program including medical services. Gone is the old division of labor – Bangkok Sino-Thai families dominating the bureaucracy but rural ethnic Thai arriving at higher echelons through the military. [Mr. Thaksin, unlike yesteryear’s Sino-Thai, makes no bones about his Chinese origins, even going on a traditional kowtow to South China to his grandfather’s grave]

Out of office but not out of money – even though a court recently seized $1.5 billion, about half his formal Thai holdings – Mr. Thaksin has been feeding his supporters from exile. His Red Shirts followers and their Yellow Shirts opponents – far too reminiscent of Germany on the eve of Hitler’s takeover – threaten law and order. The beloved but aging King Phumipol Aduldet is increasingly powerless to play his traditional referee role.

During the Vietnam War a prominent Thai general told me his country could successfully continue to assimilate the Chinese immigration if the U.S. assured regional security. But now, not only is there a threat in the south where Muslim Malay ethnics link with internationalist jihadists, but Chinese no longer arrive only by sea and air .More and more the Chinese export juggernaut is plowing into Thailand’s markets – with trade growing 20% annually. Politically, the old isolation along the northern border with southern China disappears as Beijing pushes communications and development south along the Mekong River.

Continuing destructive domestic violence – billions in tourism have already been lost after 38 countries issued travel warnings – could spell disaster.

The Thais have a caution in Burma next door. There military thugs for decades have squandered human and raw materials resources. Burma’s repressive regime is Beijing’s ally to whom it supplies weapons and a market for oil. And Washington is no longer Southeast Asia’s Big Brother. The U.S., certainly under an Obama Administration preoccupied with domestic troubles and two wars in the Middle East, seeks accommodation with Burma as with other old antagonists.

Thailand, like so much of the rest of the world, is now adrift in a welter of conflicting domestic and world currents. Long gone are the days of the national leitmotiv “mai pen rai”, “[never mind], it is not important”.




Back from Thailand, by the way!  Did the world go mad while I was gone?


Ye Olde Crabb sez:

Just a bit more so.

Did you ever see that marvelous old movie, “Mr. Deeds goes to town?” During a courtroom scene, two old ladies, sisters, testify on Mr. Deeds’ sanity. One says she thinks Mr. Deeds is “pixilated”. The judge asks her for a definition of “pixilated”, and she admits that she thinks that everyone is pixilated except she and her sister, and sometimes she worries about her sister.

Ye Olde Crabb