What’s going on in Bangkok?

I recently took a trip to Bangkok to experience the protests going on in Thailand firsthand as well as to gain a better perspective on what the root cause of this seemingly spontaneous act of disorder in such an otherwise peaceful country is. I can say that I came away with both fresh insight into modern Thai society as well as a host of new questions about what is going on in Bangkok.

Thaksin Sunawatra: Shadow Prime Minister in Exile

The immediately recognizable root of the conflict seems to stem from the influence that Thaksin Shinawatra, the self-exiled previous prime minister of Thailand, still wields over the government of Thailand through the proxy of his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, the current PM of the country. Mr. Shinawatra, a Thai business tycoon turned politician who was overthrown in a 2006 coup, still has a great deal of popular support amongst the rural population of Thailand, where he is credited for lifting many out of poverty over the course of his term in office.

One of many protest signs lining the street of Bangkok at the moment
One of many protest signs lining the street of Bangkok at the moment

So why all the uproar over a man who was not only the first Thai prime minister to win comfortable reelection in 2005, but who has also been exiled from Thailand for over 7 years? The short answer is that people aren’t buying this exile. Though many throughout Thailand believe that Mr. Shinawatra brought a great deal of progress to Thai society, the charges of large scale corruption that have been leveled against him since his overthrow as prime minister are astounding. In 2008, he was sentenced to two years incarceration in absentia over a corrupt land deal in which he and his wife acquired state real estate at a third of its estimated price during his tenure as PM.

This is not the first time Bangkok has experienced these sorts of protests (the most recent ones in 2008 being even more severe), but they all seem to link back to the influence of Thaksin Shinawatra, a figure who has, in some parts of rural Thailand, become even more revered than the Thai king himself. Ms. Shinawatra’s party, the Pheu Thai party, holds an insurmountable majority in the Thai government due to its overwhelming popular support in rural Thailand even as many protestors in Bangkok accuse her of using her family’s personal wealth and prestige to subvert Thai politics for the Shinawatra’s own personal gain.

The Battle in the Streets of Bangkok

Protests are now occurring in major areas of Bangkok

Despite the sensationalization of a few isolated incidents by much of the Western media, the protests in Thailand seem to be mostly non-violent albeit significantly disruptive. The interesting thing about the protests, however, is that they are not directly protesting the Pheu Thai government, but rather the special election itself that has been called by PM Shinawatra. In an attempt to legitimize her party’s control over the government, a special election was held this past weekend which the Pheu Thai overwhelmingly won. The protestors, mostly consisting of middle-class Bangkokers dissatisfied with the levels of corruption they perceive to be going on in the government, are protesting the election itself, claiming the results to be undemocratic on the principle that the Pheu Thai party commands the preponderance of political power in Thailand.

Though many government offices have been blockaded and a few people have been injured in the resulting clashes between armed protestors and security forces, Ms. Shinawatra and her government seem to be clinging to power, as tenuous as that power may seem. Indeed, the slogan touted by the “yellow shirts” (the name the protestors have adopted to align themselves with the ever-popular monarchy), “Shutdown Bangkok, Restart Thailand”, seems not to have played out as tourists continue to flock to the city and major services continue to operate as usual. For now, it seems, the political scene in Thailand will continue to revolve around a single name: Shinawatra.


Eye in the Sky

China recently announced a new air defense identification zone (ADIZ), an area of airspace which it now declares to be under its exclusive right to regulate and patrol. The new ADIZ, which encompasses the controversial Diaoyu islands that under currently under ownership dispute, is an aerial analog of China’s maritime assertive in the South China Sea and the next step in China’s expansion of what it considers to be its zone of control in East Asia.

The identification of a new zone of strategic control is potentially disruptive of the already fragile balance of power in the East Asian region. China had demanded that all non-commercial flights passing through the zone identify themselves to China air authority. Japan, the other major power in the region, has already instructed its airlines to ignore the new protocol, and South Korea announced the creation of its own air defense zone, which overlaps the one that China now claims.

All of this seems to be indicative of a wider foreign policy objective that the Chinese government has been describing as a process of territorial reacquisition. From the Xinjiang and Tibet areas of western China to the Diaoyu islands and South China Sea (and even to Taiwan), Beijing claims that these sort of territorial expansion does not constitute a new Chinese manifest destiny, but is rather a reclamation of the territories stolen from it during its “Century of Humiliation”.

And then there were 22

This week, the government of the African nation of Gambia announced that it would immediately end all ties with the Republic of China (also known as Taiwan) and withdraw its embassy from the Taiwanese capital city of Taipei. This surreptitious end of formal linkage with Gambia brings the number of countries that recognize the sovereignty of Taiwan down to 22 in total.

While the government of China in Beijing denies having any discussions regarding the establishment of diplomatic relations between their government and current administration of Gambian president Yahya Jammeh prior to Tuesday’s announcement, Gambia is already looking to establish diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China and is beginning preliminary negotiations with Beijing. Gambia’s president has stated that he believes opening diplomatic ties with the PRC will be a crucial step towards his “Vision 2020” for the development of Gambia, and that although Gambia has been a strong supporter of Taiwan for the past 18 years, cutting off relations with the island nation is necessary for the national interests of Gambia.

Gambia is the first country to renounce recognition of Taiwan since the beginning of the Ma presidential administration in 2008. The remaining countries recognizing the Republic of China consist mostly of small island nations or struggling Central American economies and none of the top global powers officially recognize the sovereignty of Taiwan. Despite an agreement between the Ma administration and the Chinese government in Beijing not to poach each other’s allies, nearly all of the countries formerly recognizing the Republic of China have shifted their diplomatic preference to China, a trend highly indicative of the growing political power concurrent with China’s meteoric economic growth.

The Taiwanese government believes that the suspension of ties between their country and Gambia almost certainly came as a personal decision of President Jammeh, a notorious erratic ruler who earlier this year announced that Gambia would also leave the Commonwealth. Though it has not specified the exact amount, the Ma government has confirmed that in January of this year the Jammeh government made a financial request in excess of $10 million USD, a demand inconsistent with the Ma administration’s “flexible diplomacy” policy which aims to retain all of Taiwan’s remaining allies at the lowest possible cost to fragile Taiwanese economic interests.

The ending of ties with Gambia, though perhaps not posing a serious economic or political problem to Taiwan in the near future, is certainly part of an alarming trend which sees the PRC growing in international influence and the list of allies of the Taiwanese government becoming smaller and smaller. Though the Ma administration is often criticized for being too acquiescent to Beijing, the territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the continuing negotiation of free trade agreements between Taiwan and other East Asian nations sees Taipei struggling to hold its own against the further encroachment of China upon its sovereignty.

The rapid economic growth in China is bringing with it a concurrent growth in military capability and an aggressive expansion of its foreign policy, all with the stated goal in mind of eventual reunification with Taiwan. Taiwan, which was ceded to the Japanese empire in 1911 in the Treaty of Shimonoseki, is currently ruled by the Guomindang (or Nationalist) party, a political party originating in mainland China and exiled to Taiwan after losing the Chinese Civil War. Although governed independently, Taiwan is still claimed by the People’s Republic of China and the government in Taipei is declared a rouge provincial government with no legitimate sovereignty. Although the situation has been relatively stable since the election of Ma Ying-jeou as the Taiwanese president in 2008, tensions continue to exist on both sides of the Taiwan Strait as China seeks to further isolate Taiwan diplomatically in preparation for an eventual reunification.

Russia Takes the Lead


A press conference in which US Secretary of State John Kerry opened up the possibility of the United States backing down from their threat of military invasion of Syria if Assad agrees to surrender his stockpile of chemical weapons has left the whole world scratching their head. Was this merely a slip of the tongue on the part of Kerry, a hyperbole taken as a realistic suggestion, or a calculated move by the Obama administration to save face after momentum for a strike against the Assad regime seems to have cooled off?

Enter Putin, stage left, grabbing the torch from the Americans and running with it. Why not actually approach the Assad regime with the offer to scale down rhetoric of a military strike by the West if he turns over his chemical arsenal, Russia suggests as China’s Xi Jinping emphatically nods his head in the background. Suddenly, it is Russia (not the United States) that has emerged as the cool-headed peacemaker in Syria.

It seems that the Obama administration has hamstrung itself in regards to the Syrian conflict, perhaps unwittingly but still precariously. It has lost face with the international community and now seems to carry more bark than it does bite. It has given Russia a dangerous position as the prime negotiator in the Syrian conflict, a role that the pro-Assad Putin will likely relish given Russia’s strategic interests (Syria is home to the last remaining Soviet-era Russian military base). It has signaled to the world that Americans (and Brits as well) are simply tired of the Middle East and are turning towards isolationism regardless of the atrocities being committed in the region.

Many in the Middle East will most likely breathe a sigh of relief as the prospect of an actual American-led invasion of Syria dwindles daily. In fact, a strike most likely would not have been the best solution, and I personally am wary of the United States wandering down the same rabbit-hole it did 9 years ago, undertaking an invasion of a South Asian dictatorship on uncertain suspicions of WMDs and loosely defined mission parameters with no foreseeable end and a very poor understanding of the conditions within the country. However, the most dangerous aspect about the diplomatic game being played over Syria is the resurgence of a Russian leadership in the international community and a Moscow-Beijing consensus on international public policy that seems to be gaining traction.

The fact is that the plan to dismantle Assad’s chemical arsenal is completely unrealistic. The United States is still in the midst of dismantling its own chemical weapons inventory, a project that was begun in the 1990’s and is projected to last until 2023, billions of dollars later. The plan to strip Assad of his nerve gas would require unprecedented cooperation from his regime and an opening of Syrian chemical weapons facilities to international teams of highly trained professionals who most likely would have to work for over a decade until the project was complete. While it is an admirable goal, it will certainly not put a halt to the killing in Syria.

This is most likely being done as a way for Putin to put down the flames of another American-led invasion of Asia and to consolidate his own power in international diplomacy. His recent op-ed in the NYTimes (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/12/opinion/putin-plea-for-caution-from-russia-on-syria.html?ref=opinion&_r=0) is full of high-minded talk of international cooperation and rule of law. Let the world not forget, however, that this is the same Vladimir Putin that presides over one of the most repressive and corrupt regimes in the entire world, a man who time and time again (from his earliest days as an officer in the KGB) has shown a penchant for cruelty and ruthless, and a calculating ambition that has often left innocent people dead. 

Is this the moment?

Despite a British Parliament that has now ruled out the possibility of military intervention on the part of the UK in regards to the Syrian crisis (a serious blow to the conservative government of PM David Cameron, whose own party voted against the resolutions), the United States has not decisively stated whether or not it will intervene militarily in Syria given the mounting evidence that the Assad regime has been systematically utilizing chemical weapons. President Obama stated on Thursday that the United States will act in its “best interests”, remaining vague as to what that could entail but continuing with preparations for a possible air strike against Assad.

Despite the vote undertaken by the British Parliament and the subsequent veto of the military resolution by the MPs, President Holland of France remains undeterred in his resolve to intervene militarily in Syria, stating that he would not rule out the possibility of an airstrike as early as next Tuesday. A UN chemical weapons team has arrived in rebel-held Syria and protests both for and against intervention in the conflicts have erupted throughout the area. British diplomatic families are being evacuated from Lebanon in anticipation of violent anti-Western protests in the country.

File:Syria 2004 CIA map.jpg

Though it is not clear as to the exact parameters being set by the Obama administration in regards to a possible military strike against the Assad regime, the Obama administration has characterized the possible intervention as merely as “shot across the bow”, a surgical missile strike aimed at coercing the Assad government to desist in the utilization of sarin, a deadly nerve gas which is believed to have been weaponized by the Syrian regime. The White House insisted that the strike would not be linked to its larger diplomatic goal of a transition to a post-Assad government in Syria.

The proposed strike would take place with the utilization of the four US Navy Arleigh Burke-Class destroyers stationed in the Mediterranean Sea, each of which carries 3 cruiser missiles. The heaviest fighting in the Syrian civil war is occurring in the western region of the country bordering Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan closest to the Mediterranean Sea. The fighting is particularly concentrated in the major urban areas of Damascus and Aleppo.

Syrian civil war detailed map is located in Syria

Refugees from Syria are flooding into the bordering countries of Pakistan, Jordan, and Turkey and UN estimates place the death toll at over 10,000 since the beginning of the conflict. Despite this, public support in much of the Western world for a military intervention in the country is still quite low given the recent operations undertaken by the major powers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite the substantial amount of evidence that the Assad regime has been committing major war crimes in the course of the conflict, the international governance apparatus continues to stall on a kinetic response despite much stick-brandishing towards the regime.

The Russian government, a supporter of the current Syrian regime and opposed to any military intervention in the area by outside powers, met the rejection of armed incursion by the British Parliament with applause. The issue has caused a widening rift between the already stretched Russian-American relationship.

Within the US government, concerns remain about providing assistance to the rebels involved in the conflict against Assad, fearing the presence of al-Qaeda or other terrorist organizations embedded in the Free Syria Army. Additionally, any American military action would necessarily have to take into account Iran, Syria’s major regional ally and a country with serious and longstanding hostility towards the West.

Despite these concerns, however, we may realistically see the opening salvos of an American military campaign against Assad as early as next Thursday.

From Beirut to Boston

Aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombing

I am currently taking a course on suicide terrorism taught by Professor Ami Pedahzur and as the discussion turned towards the events that occurred last week in Boston and the psychological effect that such acts of terrorism have on the American people, Prof. Pedahzur made a cogent comment that, in my opinion, seemed to warrant some further discussion. Arguing that the end goal of modern day terrorism is to inspire political change through the fear generated by random acts of violence against the target nation, the professor argued that the most effective way to deal with terrorism is to clamp down on the media coverage surrounding the attack and to effectively ignore the terrorists.

Prof. Pedahzur is an excellent academic and I certainly know far less about the study of political violence in general and suicide terrorism in particular than he does. And while I do agree with the ascertain he later made that the United States government needs to be honest in the fact that no matter how robust our security apparatus may be it is impossible to completely prevent terrorist attacks, I do not agree with his assertion that the best way to mitigate the horrifying effects of terrorist attacks is too sweep the terrorists under the rug.

It was President Reagan who most succinctly articulated the policy that has guided every US president since him, a policy that states that the United States “does not negotiate with terrorists”. I would argue, however, that this sort of hardline mentality prevents us from realizing and responding to the complexities of the situation occurring in the developing world (or the Global South as it is sometimes called), particularly in the Middle East, where public opinion about Western culture is not even close to uniform.

Graphic depiction of US military involvement in the Middle East
Graphic depiction of US military involvement in the Middle East

I would not presume to be able to write a complete explanation of all the complexities of the Islamic religion in one post, put I think it is worth noting that the religion is extremely complex and that the perspectives among Muslims differs as much as within any other social group. It is part of the mythology that the United States has created about the Middle East that Islam is synonymous with terrorism, and that all Muslims willingly follow strict shari’a law and possess an inherent hatred of the United States and all things Western.

The unfortunate fact is that the only interaction the United States seems to have with the Muslim world is in the form of extremists who see themselves as soldiers in a global jihad against modernism, a war they believe they are fighting against the United States (see the map above). The fact of the matter is that even in extremely religious countries such as Saudi Arabia or Iran, there are women who get drunk and dance on a Saturday night and homosexual couples living their lives in secret communities.

Ignoring the problems occurring in the Muslim world and the underlying social tensions which precipitate terrorists attacks against the United States is not going to solve the conflicts between the Western world and the Middle East. Far from blaming the United States for all of the region’s woes, I would advocate for a more conciliatory foreign policy that recognizes the incredible diversity of the region and seeks to improve social conditions in the region in a way that mitigates cultural misunderstanding and fosters a healthier relationship between the two peoples. This is not giving into the terrorists, imposing our own values on the Muslim world, or leaving the Middle East (and Israel for that matter) in the dust. It is about recommitting to the idea of a global order based upon common human values and a recognition of basic human rights and dignities.

Although the bombers in Boston have been identified as Chechans and have no relation to the Middle East, in the days before the identification a rampant wave of Islamophobia swept through the United States in speculation of the motives behind the attack. A Saudi Arabian student was even subject to an intense interrogation and search of his apartment, even though he was a victim of the attack and had no connection to the bombing whatsoever. It is to our detriment in this country that we have for so long ignored what is going on in the Middle East and have chosen instead to gloss a very nuanced situation over in favor of being able to easily comprehend it.

What about all the women?

The string of tragic events occurring recently to young women all over the world has prompted me to do some thinking about how a little over half of the world’s population lives. The tide of victimization of women has been rolling through the globe since the beginning of human history but the phenomenon has received a considerable amount of media attention lately due to some high profile crimes occurring in different parts of the globe, irrespective of cultural setting and illuminating the neglect with which this issue has long been treated.

Sonia Faleiro, a reporter for the New York Times who regularly contributes to their India Ink blog on South Asian issues, spoke in great detail about the rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey in December 2013 and the veil that has been casted over the plight of women and girls in India. Faleiro describes her experience as a young woman in India and how her friends encouraged her to carry knives and makeshift weapons to protect herself from assault. Pandey’s assailants brutalized her so viciously that her body was actually destroyed; she died 6 days later in a hospital. Despite this, however, the Washington Post estimates that only 26.4 percent of rapists in India are ever even charged with a crime, just a little over a fourth.

Women, however, are not just passive recipients of fast-changing global trends, particularly when it deals with outbreaks of violence. In the Arab world especially, where the often misunderstood role of women varies widely within and between communities and nations, women have taken a strong role in the wave of regime change that has swept the region in the past three years. Women in Egypt were a  powerful impetus behind the riots in Tahrir Square that eventually led to the fall of Hosni Mubarak (despite claims of widespread sexual harassment during protests). Women are currently engaged in active combat on both sides of the conflict in Syria; an estimated 5,000 women are involved in direct combat in the Syrian civil according to the New York Times.

 woman fighting in the Free Syrian Army with her husband and daughter in their home in the northern city of Aleppo. The woman, who goes by Umm Jaafar, was a hairdresser before the conflict began.
Woman fighting in the Free Syrian Army with her husband and daughter in their home in the northern city of Aleppo. The woman, who goes by Umm Jaafar, was a hairdresser before the conflict began.

Despite their major role in the international system, women still struggle to gain equal access to resources and remain unequal partners in the global economy. Last year’s UN Annual Women Report stated that food prices had soared to a three-year high and that unemployment has remained consistently high in many regions of the world. Women, who are often household managers and caretakers, are particularly susceptible to changes in the global economy due to lack of educational opportunity and job insecurity. This isn’t just a problem in the developing world, the paradigms that keep women out of qualified positions exist in the developed world as well. According to a report by McKinsey&Co on the economic position of women in America, surveys found that though women comprise 53 percent of new hires, they make up only 37 percent of managers, 26 percent of vice-presidents, and a mere 14 percent of executive committee members. Irrespective of culture or region, doors are being shut on the advancement of women in the global economy in startling numbers.

It is important to remember as our country moves closer to the point of allowing women to serve on the front line of combat in our armed forces that though our culture pretends that violence is not an issue that should involve women that women are the subjects of violence and extreme poverty every single day. Women the world over aren’t shielded from atrocities just because of their gender. In fact, women often face greater brutality than men when it comes to being victims of violence and crime. Regardless of how one feels about the various waves of feminism that have arisen over the past century, it is impossible to deny that women (who make up a little more than half of the global population) The status of the rights of women all over the globe can no longer be seen as a “soft policy” issue; it is an issue that strikes to the very core of what we are as a species.

Cyber-bombing North Korea



“We are Anonymous North Korean government is increasingly becoming a threat to peace and freedom.” – Anonymous

Yesterday, an extensive cyber attack against the North Korean government was carried out that harvested over 15k passwords to inaccessible government accounts on web servers based in North Korea and China. The most interesting fact about this operation (which is being called “Operation Free Korea”) is that is is being carried out not at the behest of the United States or any other government, but by the private hacker group which dubs itself “Anonymous”.

Anonymous, which has been held previously responsible for attacks against United States government digital infrastructure as well, demands the abdication of Kim Jong Un and the opening of North Korea to unfettered Internet access. The group has performed distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) against various North Korean websites, including official sites of the North Korean government and the state-run airline Koryo. In proof of their actions, Anonymous posted this statement containing details of six North Korean accounts. 

Cyberwarfare has emerged as a new field in traditional conflict between nations and is now apparently being used as the preferred tactic of private groups against government entitites. Stuxnet, a worm speculated to have been developed by the United States and Israel, was discovered in several Iranian nuclear facilities in June 2010 as having decimated Iranian nuclear capabilities by causing Iranian centrifuges to spin at random frequencies. The utilization of Stuxnet propelled cyberwarfare into a new realm of tactics, one in which digital strikes can do actual kinetic damage to a nation’s infrastructure.

More recently, the United States itself has fallen victim to a series of damaging cyber-attacks which have been traced back to the People’s Republic of China. In February of this year, 115 US companies (including many defense firms) claimed to have fallen victim to a number of cyber-attacks originating from a Chinese cell in Shanghai belonging to the Peoples’ Liberation Army’s 3rd Department, China’s equivalent of the National Security Agency.

Perhaps most famously, however, is Julian Assange and the WikiLeaks scandal, which in November 2010 released an enormous archive of unredacted US State Department diplomatic cables containing classified information. The leak, the biggest of its kind in history, threatened numerous American operations around the world and, according to former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, put “innocent lives in danger” and “threatened national security”.

The United States flew two B-2 bomber groups over North Korea last week and has moved destroyers closer to the Korean peninsula in an effort to deter North Korea from its current military ambitions. However, if the actions of Anonymous and various other cyber groups is any indication, actual military action may not be necessary to bring down the Korean regime from within. In our world, information (even state secrets) is not always as secure as most would believe. It is possible that with the right tactics, we may be witnessing a Korean (and dare I even say, Chinese) Spring sometime in the near future.