Monday, December 29, 2008

A CIVIL CLASH OF IDEAS

Samuel Huntington: An Appreciation
(as published in the Bangkok Post, December 30, 2008)

By: PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM

Published: 30/12/2008 at 12:00 AM

Studying the Clash of Civilisations in a seminar with Samuel Huntington shortly after his influential 1996 book was published was an exercise in trying to detect an underlying order on a slippery and sometimes outright uncooperative reality. As such, there was lots of argument and debate, but the clashing was never less than civil. The soft-spoken professor would put forward strident ideas with an impish grin until someone in the small seminar, usually from somewhere far from Harvard, would disagree. The professor would listen attentively, take notes and continue the discussion.

What I would like to say as an appreciation of Sam Huntington, who passed away on December 24, is that he was an excellent teacher, not because he taught at Harvard for half a century and wrote many books but because he was such a good listener. No matter how senior he was or supremely knowledgeable about world politics before his students were even born, he was willing to consider new ideas, to discuss and digest them, if only to fine-tune his arguments with inclusions and counter-arguments.

We spent many an afternoon in his office arguing the pros and cons of what to some seemed like a cookie-cutter view of the world. When he advocated expanding Nato right up to the borders of Russia, I strongly disagreed, citing his own arguments about the natural boundaries between civilisations, Western and Orthodox in this case, urging him to view the problem as it might appear to the Russians.

We had similar disagreements about China, Japan and Thailand. Why is Japan a civilisation in its own right, while Korea or Vietnam or Thailand are not? What about rifts within civilisations, clashes among Muslims or Hindus or Christians responsible for heartbreak comparable to the "bloody borders" between civilisations?

The professor never got defensive, it seemed he never stopped grinning. He would hear you out, all the while jotting your ideas on his notepad, and he would incorporate some of it in what he had to say next.

His most famous book, like any book, is composed of words frozen in time. It is easy to disagree with many passages in a think-piece as provocative as Clash, perhaps even disagree with the book's entire premise, but what the snapshot of the printed work fails to capture is the restless mind in motion of the author, a good scholar and teacher, who continued to work on ideas put forward in the text with sufficient humility to let go of things that really didn't work and build on things that did.

That's not to say the seminal issues about culture, identity and the future of mankind raised in Clash were settled any easier in discussion than in the final draft of a book.

This was driven home to me a few years later when I was teaching at Chulalongkorn University and co-hosted a discussion with Dr Surin Pitsuwan at a lecture hall packed with dozens of ambassadors, some from countries in conflict.

"What's your take on the Clash of Civilisations?" I asked.

"Let's not get into that now," the former foreign minister, in semi-retirement at the time, said good-naturedly. "We'll never get to the end of it."

Dr Surin, who holds a degree from Harvard, is no stranger to Professor Huntington's ideas, but as a Thai Muslim who had been educated in America and served as foreign minister of a predominantly Buddhist country, his life is an affirmation of cross-cultural negotiation and peace-building. One might say the very concept of civilisational clash is an affront to the kind of civilisation synthesis that has characterised his own remarkable career, from AFS exchange student to secretary-general of Asean.

An armchair analyst and a roving diplomat not only experience the world in significantly different ways, but by need talk about it differently. For one, setting the terms of intellectual debate with bold pronouncements and startling new paradigms is the height of achievement, while minding one's words and finding common ground is the lifeblood of the other.

Professor Huntington's insights and prejudices have travelled far considering their roots are hard to separate from a cloistered intellectual life centered around Harvard Square with summers in Martha's Vineyard. The "culture" of Huntington's world is not only indelibly American, but echoes peculiar Boston-area values of conservatism and tradition; a quilt-work of distinct neighborhoods distinguished by economic class and ethnic origin.

Cambridge, Massachusetts, with a population of about 100,000, has racial demographics typical of America as a whole mapped into a jigsaw puzzle of rich and poor neighbourhoods, ethnic clustering and tight-knit enclaves. Might not half a century in such an environment have led Mr Huntington to see the larger, largely imagined world in similarly bundled terms?

An American expatriate writer in Thailand once pointed out that one enjoyed greater access to the world media in Bangkok than in Boston, especially in terms of cable television and newspapers. Boston is indeed parochial and insular in contrast to Bangkok - a messy, overflowing, dynamic, tolerant and cosmopolitan city if there ever was one - and one suspects that if a book on the clash of civilisations were to be written in the heart of Bangkok it would be a differently book, lacking the conceptual quilt of discreet cultures so prominent in Clash of Civilisations.

The true value of Clash, an oft-cited work translated into dozens of languages is not to be found so much in the book itself as in the quality of discussion prompted by its tentative and sometimes over-reaching text, itself an expansion of an article knocking down claims made by Francis Fukuyama regarding the "end of history". Despite its arbitrary appointment of civilisation zones, reminiscent of the bizarre world-map in the board game of Risk, Clash is a compelling corrective to the supposed triumph and centrality of Western ideals.

Huntington's ideas shaped discussion, and continue to shape discussion, not because he nailed the argument but because he raised it.

It takes only a glance at the day's headlines to realise that culture and identity continue to unite and divide the world in unpredictable ways, and borders are often the scene for conflict, because culture can be a font of inclusive harmony, or exclusive antipathy, depending on where you stand and how you look at it.

pc

Thursday, December 18, 2008

HEED THE POOR TO HEAL THE NATION

(first published as "Heed the poor as democracy starts from the ground up" in the Bangkok Post, December 17, 2008)


Thailand has taken a small but significant step on the road to normalcy after a long period of instability and intense factional struggle.

Newly selected Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva certainly has his work cut out for him, but he brings to the job a mannered civility that has been sorely lacking in recent Bangkok dust-ups. As such, his elite overseas education is both asset and liability depending on which Western values he draws from; will it be a cool, condescending noblesse oblige or democracy in the more egalitarian sense of the word, recognizing the equal rights and equal worth of all citizens?

After seeing the country immobilized with invective, wobbling close to the brink, moderate, common sense voices are needed to restore balance and order; if they succeed, things will start looking better than they have for a long time.

Abhisit, like US president-elect Barack Obama, strikes a public pose that is rare in the rough and tumble world of politics. From the personal one might infer potential political strengths; a calm, collected and humble leader is just what a rife-torn country needs to reach out across the political divide and reduce the bitter factionalism that has almost made the country ungovernable.

Abhisit, again like Obama, is youthful, well-spoken and well-educated, but has a modest record in terms of accomplishment outside of academia and remains untried. Yet at this critical juncture in history, when the global economy teeters, when massive unemployment looms and communal tensions flare, new leaders are not granted much of a grace period; they must learn to ride in the saddle.

Both men face challenges that would be daunting to even the most seasoned politico, which might explain why both men find themselves surrounded by seasoned politicos, not all of whom are savory or deserving of emulation.

But as the example of Abraham Lincoln shows, sometimes a leader has no choice but to embrace rivals. Lincoln was one of a kind and very much a product of his era, not unlike his accomplished Thai contemporary King Mongkut. But even a century and a half later, lessons can be drawn from the life of great men whose passion for justice helped end slavery in both America and Siam.

As illustrated in Doris Goodwin's "Team of Rivals," a popular book which has had a marked influence on Obama team-building, Lincoln pulled it off because he was humble when necessary but never lost sight of his humanitarian mission and steadfast political values. The humility with which "Honest Abe" listened to his erstwhile rivals had a great healing effect and the strategy is applicable even to those born of the silver spoon.

An unexpected but so far efficacious example of embracing a rival has already been accomplished in Thailand with the unusual case of Abhisit foe-turned-ally Newin Chidchob. If the energies of rural power broker of mixed repute can be tapped for the common good, if a meaningful partnership can develop that is not about sharing the spoils but sharing the burden, then the differences, not just between urban and rural rivals but between the city and countryside can effectively be bridged.

Everyone's life story has something to teach; the challenge for the urbane Abhisit is to encourage the better impulses of homespun, self-made men such as Newin, without compromising core civic values.

Newin has already offered some sage advice. "If the Democrats can perform in a way that wins over the hearts of the people in Isan," the Buriram politico reportedly told his new allies, "the people there will soon forget Thaksin."

While observing grass-roots campaigning in rural Isan during the run-up to Thaksin's first big electoral victory, I noticed village women folk clamoring for Abhisit's poster, asking for copies at every stop. When I enquired about this they said they liked him because he was "handsome," and considered his local proxy to be a decent man, but would vote instead for Thaksin's local proxy because he was wealthier and more in a position to "influence" things.

This is not a question of voter ignorance in Isan, it's the way democracy, an imperfect but generally worthwhile system, works. Voting for someone based on looks or because of a perceived ability to deliver the goods is not the height of intellectual sophistication, but it can be found everywhere; physical charm was vital to the success of both John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama, and Ronald Reagan and both Bush Sr. and Jr. all racked in votes on promises of handouts in the form of tax cuts.

Thai author Khamsing Srinawk wrote incisively about the cavalier vote-buying techniques of politicians trawling impoverished Isan nearly half a century ago, citing the gift of one rubber slipper, and the promise of a second one to be delivered upon a certain electoral result. In Thailand's chronically impoverished Northeast, the vulnerability of poor and marginalized people hasn't changed much since. People take what they can today because, in their experience, the generosity of those who seek to rule in their name is contingent and doesn't last for long.

Thai politics has never been short of strange alliances, and unexpected twists and turns are the norm, but the polarity has now reversed for the better. Still it will take much forbearance to restore confidence in the country, not just on the part of investors and tourists but among the divided populace itself.

If Abhisit wants to heal the deep-rooted political malaise facing the nation he would do well to devote himself to the needs of the most down-trodden, for true democracy starts at the ground up.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

OBAMA IS FULL OF HOT AIR


Yes we can . . . what, Mr. Obama?

By PHILIP J. CUNNINGHAM

Special to The Japan Times
KYOTO — America appears to have been swept up in a feel-good moment. But as much as U.S. President-elect Barack Obama appeals to me as a public speaker and wordsmith, as much as I appreciate his candid, inclusive style as an antidote to everything redolent of President George W. Bush, as thrilled as I am for black Americans, who have proudly claimed the mulatto son of a Kansas mother and Kenyan father as one of their own — and by his precedent feel empowered by his victory — I don't think the feel-good moment has arrived, or if it has, it is cruelly illusory.
That Obama gives good speeches is a given, his acceptance speech stands as one of the best ever, good enough to rouse even jaded political commentators to goose bumps. Good enough to drive people to tears, not just Americans but even foreigners. I watched the acceptance speech with a classroom full of Japanese students and by the time the 16-minute speech had ended, a good number of students were crying.
"Wow. What did you think of that speech?" I asked. "I wish we had a leader like that," said one. "It's so powerful when he says 'Yes We Can'!" chimed another. "I am so moved, he is kind to everyone," said a third.
And despite misgivings rooted in a media analyst's appreciation for Obama's truly awesome and awesomely manipulative gift for language, I too was almost speechless after hearing his speech. It was such a sterling performance, so brilliantly crafted and so naturally read from two strategically placed Teleprompters that it seemed like he was talking from his heart to his closest friends.
Barring a few tired, over-worn cliches about Wall Street and Main Street, barring the braggadocio of American exceptionalism and the incantatory, quasi-religious refrain "Yes We Can," Obama's speech was a speech for the ages, down to the touching review of a century of history as imagined through the eyes of a 106-year-old voter, taking us back to "before there were cars on the road and planes in the sky" to the moon landing all the way on to the promise he made to his kids, that a puppy would be accompanying them to the White House.
Finding time to embrace erstwhile bitter rivals John McCain and Sarah Palin, finding time to include everyone who didn't vote for him in his mandate to be the president of one and all, he seemed a man incapable of having enemies.
And therein lies the problem. Obama wants to play nice, and to do that in a contentious, demanding job, he needs to surround himself with people who are not so nice. This became immediately obvious with his first and most important political pick, Rahm Emanuel for White House chief of staff.
Emanuel, with his impressive resume as Washington insider, Clinton White House retread, wealthy investment banker and a harsh reputation as a political enforcer, is not only more Wall Street than Main Street, but rather akin to one of those hard-core Republican political operatives like Karl Rove or Newt Gingrich who Democrats so love to hate.
Politely described in the mainstream press as "aggressive" or "Rahmbo" or "obnoxious" or "combative," the kind of guy who the New York Times reported as having shoved a steak knife into a restaurant table while expressing anger about political enemies, Emanuel can be as infuriating and bloodcurdling as Obama is inclusive and charming.
While still serving in the Clinton White House, Rahm Emanuel gave a talk to a seminar I attended at Harvard. When challenged on matters of policy or ethics, even in a friendly small group discussion over sherry and canapes, he would leap forward at those who dared to question him, clenching his fists with a menacing physicality that was either comical or intimidating depending on how much you liked to fight.
American voters fed up with the old Washington politics, suffering and anxious for absolution and release after eight years of heartache and disappointment, elected the ultimate anti-Bush only to get an anti-Obama appointed into the most strategic White House office slot, second to the president.
Proximity to an ax-man is not likely to alter Obama's almost magical poise and good-humored equilibrium, but it will influence policy and raises judgment questions almost as serious as McCain's lapse of judgment in choosing the ditzy Palin as his running mate.
What further deepens the disappointment with the man who promises to bring peace to a wounded world is his right-hand man's hawkish identification with rightwing Israeli politics. Emanuel did a stint with the Israeli military during the first Gulf War — a confusing gesture if not a sign of mixed allegiance.
More generally, Emanuel's hawkish, take-no-prisoners approach to politics promises not only to confound hopes for a more equitable and balanced White House, but also serves to keep war with Iran on the table.
For those who followed the flowering of Obama's foreign policy thinking over the last few months rather than getting distracted with his effusive flowery rhetoric, it's no secret that he is not only not antiwar but actively considering military escalations that even old battle-ax Bush was hesitant to make in tinderbox locations like Pakistan.
The brilliance of Obama's speaking style lies in his ability to fire up sentimental notions of unity while evading matters of substance. In this sense he is both a better and worse speaker than his speech-giving teacher, Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
From what I've seen on TV and YouTube, including "controversial" material that was used against Wright by Republican political operatives, I like the preacher's style and forthright substance, even if I can't agree with all of it. I like his dramatics, his vivid hand gestures, his ability to fire up an audience, his passion for his people.
Obama, who was exposed to virtually no such talk in Indonesia and little such talk in Hawaii, chose an effective mentor and exceeded his mentor in talking the talk, while toning it down and fine-tuning it for respectability and political correctness.
In short, if this was truly a victory for African-Americans, we'd see more Wrights than Rahms at Obama's side in the White House, but that's not going to happen anytime soon.
In the meantime, I hope Obama starts to show some real insight and originality in picking the rest of his administration, because America, saddled with twin disasters of a failed military policy and a failed economic policy, cannot afford to have the same old hawks and investment bankers peddling the same old wine in a new bottle.
Philip J. Cunningham is a professor of media studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto.
The Japan Times: Thursday, Nov. 13, 2008

Friday, November 7, 2008

YES WE CAN WHAT?

By Philip J Cunningham

(published in the Japan Times, November 13, 2008)


America appears to be swept up in a feel-good moment, but as much as Barack Obama wows people as a public speaker and wordsmith, as much as his candid, inclusive style represents an antidote to everything rotten redolent of George W. Bush, as thrilling as it is for black Americans, who have proudly claimed the mulatto son of a Kansas mother and Kenyan father as one of their own, and by his precedent feel empowered by his victory, the feel-good moment has not yet arrived, or if it has, it is cruelly illusory.

That Obama gives good speeches is a given, his acceptance speech stands as one of the best ever, good enough to rouse even jaded political commentators to goose bumps. Good enough to drive people to tears, not just Americans but even foreigners. I watched the acceptance speech in Kyoto with a classroom full of Japanese students and by the time the 16-minute speech had ended, a good number of students were crying.

“Wow. What did you think of that speech?” I asked.

“I wish we had a leader like that,” said one.
“It’s so powerful when he says ‘Yes We Can’!” chimed another.
“I am so moved, he is kind to everyone,” answered a third.

And despite misgivings rooted in a media analyst’s appreciation for Obama’s truly awesome and awesomely manipulative gift for language, I too was almost speechless after hearing his speech. It was such a sterling performance, so brilliantly crafted and so naturally read from two strategically placed teleprompters that it seemed like he was talking from his heart to his closest friends.

Barring a few tired, over-worn clichés about Wall Street and Main Street, barring the braggadocio of American exceptionalism and the incantatory, quasi-religious refrain “Yes We Can,” Obama’s speech was a speech for the ages, down to the touching review of a century of history as imagined through the eyes of a 106 year old voter, taking us back to “before there were cars on the road and planes in the sky” to the moon landing all the way on to the promise he made to his kids, that a puppy would be accompanying them to the White House.

Finding time to embrace erstwhile bitter rivals John McCain and Sarah Palin, finding time to include every one who didn’t vote for him in his mandate to be the president of one and all, he seemed a man incapable of having enemies.

And therein lies the problem. Obama wants to play nice, and to do that in a contentious, demanding job, he needs to surround himself with people who are not so nice. This became immediately obvious with his first and most important political pick, Rahm Emanuel for White House Chief of Staff.

Emanuel, with his impressive resume as Washington insider, Clinton White House retread, wealthy investment banker, and a harsh reputation as a political enforcer, is not only more Wall Street than Main Street, but rather akin to one of those hard-core Republican political operatives like Karl Rove or Newt Gingrich who Democrats so love to hate.

Politely described in the mainstream press as “aggressive” or “Rahmbo” or “obnoxious” or “combative,” the kind of guy who the New York Times reported as having shoved a steak knife into a restaurant table while expressing anger about political enemies, Emanuel can be as infuriating and blood-curdling as Barack Obama is inclusive and charming.

While still serving in the Clinton White House, Rahm Emanuel gave a talk to a seminar I attended at Harvard. When challenged on matters of policy or ethics, even in a friendly small group discussion over sherry and canapés, he would leap forward at those who dared to question him, clenching his fists with a menacing physicality that was either comical or intimidating depending on how much you liked to fight.

But that’s just personality; it’s the old hawkish ideas he espouses that are troubling. American voters, fed up with the old Washington politics, suffering and anxious for absolution and release after eight years of heartache and disappointment, elected the ultimate anti-Bush only to get an anti-Obama appointed into the most strategic White House office slot, second to the President.

Proximity to an ax-man is not likely to alter President-elect Obama’s almost magical poise and good-humored equilibrium, but it will influence policy and raise judgment questions almost as serious as John McCain’s lapse of judgment in choosing the ditzy Sarah Palin as his running mate.

What further deepens the disappointment with the man who promises to bring peace to a wounded world is his right-hand-man’s hawkish identification with right-wing Israeli politics –Emanuel did a stint with the Israeli military during the first Gulf War—a gung-ho gesture if not a sign of confused allegiance. More generally, Emanuel’s hawkish foreign policy views and his take-no-prisoners approach to domestic foes promises not only to confound hopes for a more equitable and balanced worldview in the White House, but also serves to keep political strife and war on the table. For those who followed the flowering of Obama’s foreign policy thinking over the last few months rather than getting distracted with his flowery, seductively-scented rhetoric, it’s no secret that he is not only not anti-war but actively considering military escalations that even old battle-ax Bush was hesitant to make in tinderbox locations like Pakistan.

The brilliance of Obama’s speaking style lies in his ability to fire up sentimental notions of unity while evading matters of substance. In this sense he is both a better and worse speaker than his speech-giving teacher, Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

From what I’ve seen on TV and You-tube, including “controversial” material that was used against Wright by Republican political operatives, I was impressed by the preacher’s style and forthright substance; you know where he stands even if you can’t agree with all of it. I like his dramatics, his vivid hand gestures, his ability to fire up an audience, his passion for his people. Barack Obama, who was exposed to virtually no such talk in Indonesia and little such talk in Hawaii, chose an effective inner-city mentor and eventually exceeded his mentor in talking the talk of the street and the pulpit, while toning it down and fine-tuning it for political viability and political correctness.

In short, if this was truly a victory for African-Americans, we’d see more Wrights than Rahms at Obama’s side in the White House, but that’s not going to happen any time soon.

In the meantime, I hope Obama starts to show some real insight and originality in picking the rest of his administration, --please no more Clinton retreads like Richard Holbrooke or Robert Rubin-- because America, saddled with twin disasters of a failed military policy and a failed economic policy, cannot afford to have the same old hawks and same old investment bankers peddling the same old wine in a new bottle labeled “Yes We Can.”


pc

Sunday, September 21, 2008

MADE IN THE SHADE OF NO TOWERS

(as published in the Bangkok Post)

US FINANCIAL CRISIS

A meltdown 'in the shadow of no towers'
PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM


The Bush years will be remembered for many definitive events, but perhaps none so grave as the two black Septembers that now bookend his presidency.

First there was the September 2001 attack from without that the Bush administration was warned about but failed to thwart, busy as he was gathering sagebrush and playing cowboy on his ranch. Even forgiving that lapse, malicious plans were hastily laid that very month for an unprovoked attack on Iraq. Sense of vigilante justice aroused and seemingly out of control, Mr Bush went on to attack the wrong country. A million lives later, including some 5,000 American dead, 50,000 wounded for life, the war rages on. Civil liberties diminished, US prestige was at an all time low. A trillion dollars down the drain.

Then there was the collapse from within, again in September, again Wall Street a ground zero. And what is the response of those most responsible for the mess? What is the response from the extremely rich who made the economy unravel due to unmitigated greed empowered with lax oversight, deregulation and cronyism?

Do what we say or else.

We are told with frightening effect that the world's biggest economy was within a few days of collapse. If true, it is reminiscent of the bureaucratic sclerosis and insider mismanagement that led to the demise of the Soviet Union. We are told that the $85 billion rescue package bailing out AIG, plus $200 billion more for Fanny Mac and Fanny Mae, are mere band-aids, not enough to do the job. What's that horrendous sucking sound? On top of all that, another $700 billion of tax money going down the drain?

Twin mega-disasters on the watch of one man. One in his first September as president, the other in his last. The first took down the Twin Towers, the second disaster took place, to borrow a phrase from ace illustrator Art Spiegelman, "in the shadow of no towers".

The Bush administration is nothing if not nervy. They have the nerve to ask taxpayers to foot a questionable trillion-dollar bailout of Wall Street on top of a questionable trillion-dollar war.

That's asking a lot, especially when the asking is being done by "deciders" with no sense of shame or accountability.

Would it be too much to ask for the Bush administration to show some accountability for its mistakes and resign en masse?

What ever happened to honour? Whither responsibility?

It's about time ordinary Americans got wise to being conned. In this time of crisis, Republicans are taking care of business as usual, taking care of the big guys at the expense of the small, and spouting noisy populist rhetoric while quietly maintaining their affluent base. The Democrats are only marginally better, expressing the hope that a modicum of relief might be directed at ordinary people losing their homes, wondering if there might be some upper limit to the multi-million bonuses the wizards of the financial world pilfer to reward themselves.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, a Bush appointee of Nixon-era Pentagon and White House vintage, says no. No time to think about ordinary Joes, even while acknowledging the country desperately needs their help. "It pains me tremendously to have the American taxpayer put in this position," says Mr Paulson, former aide to John Erlichman, asking for a trillion dollars in exchange for a three-page proposal.

In demanding, without due diligence and democratic process such an astronomical sum, in demanding further that it come not from the reckless, profligate gamblers who caused the problem but from the hard-earned money of ordinary working Americans, in demanding market discipline below without throwing struggling families as much as a few breadcrumbs as top Democrats are demanding, Mr Paulson shows himself to be icily on par with Messrs Rumsfeld, Cheney and other Nixon-era appointees of George Walker Bush.

After bluffing and boasting his way into a taxpayer-supported war against Iraq to the tune of a trillion dollars, Mr Bush sometimes claims to feel the pain, at least when addressing teary-eyed widows and fatherless children, though his mind is unwavering, his faulty positions non-negotiable. His jogging speeds are down but his golf game is good.

"We need this to be clean and quick," says Mr Paulson, echoing Mr Rumsfeld, the man with a simplistic plan for a little war on the Euphrates.

Why should we believe any of these slicks in suits? Why should we believe these tricky dicks in high office? Why should we trust any appointee in an administration of truth evaders and unapologetic greed? Their track record is abysmal, their stubborn selfishness legendary. They plunder national wealth; send other people's kids to war, green light torture, arbitrary arrest and surveillance, yet demand get-out-of-jail-free cards. Quick to put themselves above the law and beyond the reach of subpoenas - they want what they want on their terms. Is there only one solution to the financial crisis? The Bush administration says give us the money or else, once again using fear to win trust.Oh no, you don't. Not you. Not again. There's got to be a better way.

Philip J Cunningham is a freelance political commentator.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

SAMAK FALLS FROM GRACE

Thailand Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, who showed no sign of bowing to the popular protest and intense media criticism mounted against him in the past few weeks, was eventually tripped up by a technicality and forced to resign.

To see a divisive and controversial leader step down on a technical charge related to pocketing modest cooking show fees is less than satisfactory and raises questions about the sense of proportion and even-handedness of the judicial process. On the other hand, even Samak and his supporters saw in the technicality a face-saving ploy that would allow him to immediately be re-nominated by his party and resume his position as prime minister afresh after an interim of a few days, perhaps after demonstrators had finally dispersed.

But while intense protests culminating in the PAD takeover of the ceremonial Government House, combined sporadic student protests, and continued pressure from the opposition might have been something the overly-confident Samak was uniquely gifted to ignore, his party could not ignore accumulating social pressures, civic strife and the deleterious effect the political standoff was having on the economy.

Thaksin Shinawatra, the unusually wealthy and unusually influential former prime minister now in the UK, was said to support Samak's re-instatement as prime minister according to Thai newspaper reports. But in a sure sign that Thaksin's stock has dropped significantly ever since he skipped bail and absconded to Britain, his nominee did not get the nod.

So Samak was, in the end, felled not by his opponents but by members of his own party who could no longer muster up the enthusiasm to support a divisive figure in the face of widespread opposition.

In this indirect sense, the protests and chorus of voices calling for Samak to step down had a positive effect, not so much to remove the unpopular prime minister, which was said to be the main goal of the protests, but to make it harder for him to be re-appointed.

So far the PAD has not yet shown the wisdom to let well enough alone, clean up the grounds of Government House and go home. Instead, the protests continue, rain or shine, creating solidarity and resentment, with a momentum of their own. But to what end? Where do things go from here?

Only time will tell, and time is running short.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

TIME FOR THAI PM TO STEP ASIDE

BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM (Bangkok Post, September 4, 2008)

The time has come, Mister Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, to step down for the good of your country. I say this not as a supporter of the righteous protestors who demand you resign, they have much to answer for themselves, nor out of malice towards you. I am an admirer of your plucky style, as much as I am critic of your sometimes prejudiced words.

You are proud and sometimes virulent in your nationalism, so I will not advise you to look at my country, America, with its very own very flawed version of democracy, as a model. But you might look to Asia for inspiration.

Not to Burma, the least democratic of your Asian neighbors, certainly not to paramount dictator Than Shwe. Although you reportedly admire the cruel and vain Burmese dictator because of his apparent devotion to Buddhist ritual, we have come to understand that sort of incendiary comment as Samak-speak, a trademark random comment that manages to shock and enrage, rock the boat and assault the intellect, only to fall harmlessly by the wayside because you are not taken seriously as an intellectual. Yet your silver tongue has the power to inspire and incite and you have built a solid career on this talent.

We only met once, when you were running for mayor. I was impressed that a man of your fame and stature would visit the predictably unsympathetic venue of the Bangkok Foreign Correspondent’s Club at all, but the fact that you did so completely on your own, no aides, no assistants, no personal secretary, not even a driver, truly impressed. You just walked in and started talking.

On the other hand you disappointed when you summarily dismissed the topic of your involvement in the bloody crackdown of October 6, 1976 by turning the question on the questioner, who happened to be me.

“You, when you come to Thailand?” you challenged, as if a foreigner who had the temerity to ask such a question could be ridiculed for relatively recent arrival in the country.
“In the year 2514, khrap,” I answered in Thai. Stating the year 1971, when I first arrived as an exchange student, bought a rare interlude of silence from the silver tongue.
“You been here long time, you speak Thai well.” ("Phut thai taekchan", was the exact phrase I believe)
“Aren’t you ashamed of October 6?”
“No.”

And that was that. I still admire your pluck and tenacity and accept that, for whatever reason, talking with you about October 6 is not going to be constructive. Similar journalistic exchanges took place in the past year upon your ascension to Prime Minister. I could only note with wistful nostalgia your deft ability for turning questions back on the questioner.

But enough of that: there’s too much going on in the present to dwell in the past.

You are between a rock and a hard place, Mister Prime Minister. For inspiration, I suggest you look to the most democratic of your Asian neighbors, Japan.

You, a prime minister hanging in by a thread, were scheduled to fly to Tokyo and meet Japan’s prime minister, also hanging in by a thread. That meeting was of course cancelled because of unrest in Bangkok, but in the interim, your Japanese interlocutor resigned.

You have political karma that enables and inhibits you.

Since Thailand’s Government House has been occupied by your political opponents, an understandably annoying development that might have caused a less confident leader to resort to more extreme measures, you have been uncharacteristically calm, almost unruffled in your public response. Despite your unwillingness to talk about it, the shadow of October 6 does hang over you, in the positive sense that you want nothing of the sort to happen again.

There’s less bravado and more nuance in your recent presentation of self as prime minister, suggesting a swift, self-corrective learning curve. Under ordinary circumstances you might grow into the role, though it could also be argued you reached the natural peak of your abilities as a mayor and should be content with that.

The necessary humility and willingness to compromise, inherent to being an effective prime minister at a delicate time such as this, does not mix well with your brash, populist style, nor that of your ambitious patron-in-exile, Thaksin Shinawatra.

Japan’s Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, a political blueblood and veteran party stalwart of considerable skill, knew better than to fight the inevitable. When it became clear to him that he could not serve his country as he might like to because of unfavorable deadlocks, logjams and impasses in his own party and Japan’s parliament as a whole, he quietly resigned.

“Sorry for causing so much trouble with this abrupt announcement,” said Mr. Fukuda, stepping down with grace and good manners that have characterized his career.

Each person has his or her own style and no one would expect you, Mr. Samak, to follow the mild-mannered Mr. Fukuda to the word. But there are lessons that can be drawn from the Japanese cultural penchant for humility and dignified resignation in the face of intractable difficulty.

Sometimes the best way forward is to step aside.

pc

Monday, August 11, 2008

PERSONAL BEST FROM THE WORST EVER

By PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM




BEIJING While China has been dazzling the world with its economic prowess and Olympic pyrotechnics, a very unpopular US president has quietly dazzled his Asian hosts with uncharacteristically diplomatic behavior.

It may be a case of too little too late, but nuanced diplomacy from a man best known for his swagger and war-mongering comes as a counter-intuitive surprise. Has the self-styled cowboy president finally learned to walk the walk and talk the talk of diplomacy? Can small gestures of humanity from the poster boy of a generally inhumane administration reverse the self-inflicted decline of American values at this late hour?

Consistently courteous, even going out of his way to make a show of compassion, and speak in favor of peace, President Bush in recent days has given us a glimpse of what his administration might have been like had he been more like his father, had he not, in some kind of weird Oedipal rage, stacked the deck in favor of Dick Cheney and the neo-cons.

In recent days Bush Junior, sometimes with Bush Senior standing at his side, has spoken up in favor of core American values such as free press, religion and assembly with his usual degree of certitude but without the haughty neo-con triumphalism that threatened to make freedom, as in freedom fries, an empty Orwellian word.

After seven years of belligerent posturing and mangling of the English language, Bush shows up in Asia relaxed, affable, almost reasonable. It’s as if he never truly wanted to be president in the first place and is relieved to see light at the end of the tunnel.

Going to South Korea, as he did, at a time when incipient anti-Americanism threatens to explode takes a certain degree of political courage, as did his initially unpopular decision to attend the Beijing Olympics. Putting Thailand on his itinerary was an important diplomatic gesture to an old friend and ally of whom much has been demanded as an outpost in the war on terror but for whom little compassion has been evident since the economic crisis of 1997.

So when 9-11 came around and the US tried to paint the world into two camps, "with us or against us." Prime Minister Thaksin’s response was loaded with a kind of passive-aggressive ambiguity. “We’re neutral.”

The mere visit of a US president can't change all that but there are signs of healing, no where more evident than in the photo-op of President Bush gently embracing a sick child at Father Joe Maier's mission for the poor in the slums of Bangkok.

While the sight of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej and President Bush conferring is enough to cause a university cynic to take umbrage, wondering how two decidedly second-tier intellects could actually become national leaders, one might also extract something positive from that fact that two legal, if not fully competent, representatives of two friendly peoples are offering a toast to continued Thai-American amity.

Since arriving here in Beijing, his performance has soared. He has deftly balanced pressures from home to speak out on human rights while not unduly offending the Olympic hosts, who also happen to be legal representatives, fully competent or otherwise, of the most populous nation on earth.

Chastising China on human rights from a podium in Bangkok may have sounded like something of a pot shot, and Chinese authorities immediately feigned indignation with a mild boiler-plate denunciation of his denunciation, but his hosts were clearly pleased that he got most of that out of his system before arriving at Beijing Airport.

Commandeering the spanking new Westin Hotel for the traveling White House, which just happens to be across the street from the brand-new US embassy where Clark Randt, an old buddy serves as ambassador, Bush quickly set an amicable tone for a visit that, in media terms at least, has been hard to distinguish from a family vacation, albeit, that of an extremely privileged family.

What sports fan wouldn’t envy the magic pass to any Olympic event that strikes his fancy, with VIP seats and brisk motorcade access via emptied streets guaranteed? Bush attended the opening ceremony, much to the pleasure of his hosts, along with his family and old, doddering Henry Kissinger in tow. At the founding ceremony for the new embassy he exchanged quips with his father, who he had briefly resided with at the American mission in Beijing in 1975, and spoke with credibility about how China has changed for the better since then.

Bush Senior seems to have finally instilled some understated Yankee restraint in a quasi-rebellious son prone to fits of Texas bragging, the productive result being a more nuanced China policy than the anti-China Cheney cabal would ever be capable of.

The presence of Russia's paramount leader, not to mention 80 other heads of state in Beijing, offered the American president a rare opportunity for personal diplomacy, most especially with the man whose soulful Russian eyes he once gushingly approved of.

Vladimir Putin's impatient, pale countenance at the stunning opening ceremony held at the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing reflected pressures other than the oppressive heat --his country was exchanging bloody strikes with Georgia as he sat through the interminable introductions in French, English and Chinese of sweaty athletic delegations from 204 countries.

The message Bush had for Putin in the days that followed was simple; so simple one wishes Bush could have heeded the same advice on Iraq: make peace not war.

The family vacation trope continued to tickle the news media regardless of political tensions mounting behind the scenes. There’s something about faraway Beijing, where the hospitality for visiting heads of state is first-class, that appeals to presidents unpopular at home. That it imparted a second life and legacy for Nixon’s career cannot be disputed. Bill and Hillary Clinton famously spent a full week in China in 1998, visibly reluctant to face the heat back home due to the minor but memorably salacious Lewinsky scandal then creeping into US headlines.

In tourist mode, Laura Bush got to wander around an empty Forbidden City, a stunning privilege I can vouch for as I once had rare access to the same locale while in the employ of Bernardo Bertolucci during the filming of “The Last Emperor.” Meanwhile the president, who can’t be bothered with reading the first draft of history in newspapers, let alone thick tomes, remains admirably active for a man of his age and elected instead to hit the biking trails for some exercise.

The light-hearted tone of the Bush visit continued, mixed with soft-spoken prods on human rights mixed and respectful comments about China finding its own way. The US president found himself in a decidedly less-than-presidential dilemma at the beach volleyball venue at Chaoyang Park when a sexy bikini-clad US athlete invited him to smack her backside. It’s best left to the reader to surmise what Bush's immediate predecessor might have done with such an invitation while noting that Bush handled the crisis-in-opportunity well, patting the sportswoman high on the back like he does with Putin, Hu Jintao and everyone else he wants to establish alpha-male status with.

All in all, a compelling performance from a man whose historical legacy hovers near “worst ever”, a man who conned a frightened nation into war while blithely ignoring the worst natural disaster in recent US history, a man who trampled on US human rights and racked up credible charges of war criminality in his treatment of foreign enemies.

If only he could make the first seven years of his presidency go away, he’d be on track to re-invigorating US-Asia relations. Where was George W the diplomat when the world needed him most?

Sunday, August 3, 2008

BEIJING OLYMPICS: THE APPEAL OF A FORBIDDEN CITY



by Philip J Cunningham

Beijing August 3, 2008


“Where’s the Forbidden City?” a blonde-haired woman asks at an Olympic information kiosk. The Beijing volunteers sporting blue and white T-shirts take so long to come up with an answer that I am almost tempted to intervene.

“Forbidden City? You’re in it!”

Beijing, under strict watch and privileged as the capital to begin with, has become a bit more forbidding than usual with all the Olympic rules, regulations and tight security precautions. The clean, spruced up streets have become further rarified by sending hundreds of thousands of rural workers back to the provinces while restricting the number of foreign tourist with new visa regulations. For those of us privileged enough to be here, there are still boxes within boxes to negotiate, as the city is carved up into forbidden zones of privilege to accommodate the Olympics in impeccable style.

There’s the vermillion walled grand palace once occupied by the purple and yellow clad Qing emperors of course, known to most Chinese as “gu-gong”, but even that sweeping architectural monument is dwarfed by the sheer number of forbidden zones in the modern city. There are vast walled compounds for leaders, party officials, military, police, diplomats, foreign residents, and now, for the time being at least, strictly guarded zones related to the Olympics which go beyond the Olympic Village to include dozens of major hotels, and college campuses.

Even Tiananmen Square, that once open and unbounded plaza located smack in front of the entrance gate to the feudal Forbidden City, putting old China in symbolic counterpoint to the egalitarian promise of the new China, is now reduced to a heavily guarded, fenced-in site with limited access.

If the people of China sometimes grumble or shrug their shoulders about being "put out" by playing host to the world, their discomfort is mitigated by a shared cultural imperative to do the right thing when “having company.”

That’s not to say that treating guests differently from locals is not without its awkward moments. When I arrived in China by boat from Japan in July, disembarkation was delayed an hour by due to a safety check. Far more discomforting than the muggy heat was the announcement that travelers had to line up by nationality.

As an American I was directed to the head of the line, followed by Japanese, followed by the majority of passengers who were Chinese. The intent may have been Olympic-style courtesy in name of international harmony, but it created a sense of unease instead, especially for families of mixed nationality.

It reminded me of China in the early eighties when Chinese and foreigners lived side by side in parallel worlds, moving with apparent freedom but never intersecting, like bishops of opposite color on a chessboard.

What is it about China then and now, that makes being forced to inhabit a no-Chinese zone the highest honor that can be bestowed on foreigner who ostensibly wants to see China and rub shoulders with its people?

At Tianjin train station, the segregation was strictly economic, the “soft” waiting rooms of the sort once reserved for foreigners and VIPs now available for a fee. From that modest enclave we were whisked to Beijing on a sleek Chinese bullet train named Harmony only to encounter intense chaos at Beijing Station due to a taxi-queue monopoly and the sealing off of the subway entrance, explained by exasperated locals as an Olympic-related move to inhibit the flow of provincial arrivals.

Is it a triumph of traditional hospitality or a failure of confidence that a city be cordoned off for the “convenience” of guests?

The customary street-life of the Beijing neighborhood where I’ve lived on and off for twenty years has been oddly subdued in recent days. The habitual sidewalk vendors, beggars, buskers, DVD touts and lookers-on have vanished without a trace, replaced by a trickle of foot traffic watched over by police and security guards resting under red and yellow umbrellas sporting the “I’m Lovin’ It” logo. The best café and best restaurant in the area had to halt business, fenced off inside a sterile zone created for the American delegation, but the adjacent fast food joint remains open.

Even if members of the American delegation were to step beyond the comfort zone created expressly for them to grab a burger or perhaps take a walk for a taste of quotidian life, they might find it hard to appreciate that what they see and don’t see is a direct result of their presence.

The American footprint on campus and the surrounding neighborhood is so heavy it has altered the topography.

Twenty-two years earlier I had been assigned “foreign” housing on the same campus, but being a student of Chinese history I bristled at the idea that I live in a habitat created for foreigners. It took a letter of introduction from the widow of a former PLA war hero to secure a place outside of foreign-designated zone, and even that “breakout” put me in an anomalous situation. I dined and bathed in shabby communal splendor with local students, but was under curfew and close watch in the “Inside Guesthouse.”

Over time I’ve come to appreciate that this leafy campus is not just about students but is also the de facto public park for the neighborhood, a place where old timers take walks, kids frolic in front of library where the Mao statue used to stand and joggers enjoy free run of the tracks.

No more, at least not until the Olympics are over. Campus is under a kind of double lock-down, outsiders can’t get in and insiders are denied freedom of movement within. Resident families are carded at every gate and uniformed guards are posted every hundred steps along the leafy campus thoroughfare. Outside nearly every building or sports ground an American is likely to use, temporary tents house X-ray machines and inspection teams. The Inside Guest House was razed, replaced by a modern amenity center for American athletes. The twin campus running tracks are wrapped in opaque blue shrouding.

The uncanny stillness at the normally bustling East Gate of campus brings to mind Brandenburg Gate in the days when Berlin’s main thoroughfare was divided by a wall, only now, in the spirit of openness, economy and flexibility, vermillion walls and stone turrets have been replaced unsightly wire fences of the sort used to keep North Korean refugees from scaling embassy walls.

Security concerns are real and athletes intent on being the best in the world require privacy in habitats that are familiar and convenient.

So, if it’s inconvenient it is mostly understandable, though some of the rules, such as bans on outdoor parties, kite flying and nightlife are at best only tenuously linked to the welfare of visiting guests.

Athletes and foreign dignitaries, including the US president, will also move inside narrow sterile zones within wrapped in forbidden zones, seeing Beijing without seeing Beijing.

It is a testament to how much China has and hasn't changed in the last quarter of a century that forbidden zones abound and access remains defined by status.

Although the foreigner-only Friendship Stores and Friendship Hotels are dinosaurs of a by-gone era, new elite comfort zones create a modern equivalent of the same, based more on money than passport.

Today’s draconian rules are resented but not resisted because of the unspoken compact that things will loosen up again when the honored guests leave. But in a city as status-driven as Beijing, forbidden zones have an innate appeal. Even after the shrouds, facades and temporary fencing come down, one wonders if the playing fields that count the most will ever be level.

pc

Saturday, July 5, 2008

AUGUST MOON OVER BEIJING

BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM


With all the political and natural upheavals that have taken place during the countdown to the Beijing Olympics, the August 8 opening date has an air of inevitability about it, being both a deadline and zero hour for a new era.

The prominence of the start date is not just a matter of feverish anticipation of a long (all too long?) hoped for event, but it has practical ramifications as well. Hotel prices will jump up astronomically during this period, automotive traffic flow will be forcefully controlled and curtailed, security commandos will descend upon the city and newly erected gates and walls will guard Olympic venues. The tightening up is both instinctive and unprecedented; China takes the honor of hosting the world of sports, and all it represents, with ultimate seriousness, so much so, that what was supposed to be a step forward to increased openness is looking more and more like a step backward to increased control.

The threat of terror may be trumped up, but the threat of terrible embarrassment is real, as spoilsport activists would like to steal a bit of the Olympic spotlight. Guarding against the latter in the name of the former, nervous state officials at airports and visa offices impose temporary clamps on traffic into the country.

The countdown continues. Dozens of giant construction projects, from subterranean train lines to twisted glass towers, get manic, last minute love and attention, hoping to meet the big deadline, hoping to finish finishing touches in time for the big event.

China boosters and China detractors alike are counting down to in uncanny unison, because the big day in the world of sports is D-Day for demonstrators as well.

Adding to the buildup of tension, the summer Olympics don’t open on just any old summer day, but a precisely selected one, said to be an auspicious date.

Much has been said about the lucky number eight and the Beijing Olympics, which will open at eight minutes past eight on the eighth day of the eighth month of 2008.

In staging so elaborate an event where so many things could go so, so wrong, it’s somehow understandable that traditional superstitions be conjured up to steady the unsure hand of the host. To align a start time with lucky digits is not without cultural cachet, in many parts of Asia, 88888 would be the vanity license plate or vanity cell-phone number to kill for, easy to remember, and lucky, if you are prone to believe such things.

Beijing requested an August 8 start date after the IOC scheduled the 2008 Olympics to open on July 25. The official argument in favor of the postponement was the possibility of cooler weather, but numerology seems to have played a supporting role.

Once August 8 was officially anointed, number-crunching numerologists came up with various nonsensical permutations with putative meaning, only serving to heighten anticipation of the big day.

The calendar by which the Olympics are officially scheduled is of course the Western-imported Gregorian calendar, not the age-old Chinese one, which is a shame in a way, for choosing a date according to the lunar calendar makes more sense.

In Chinese calendar terms, the Beijing Olympics commence in the seventh month, not a big deal number wise (unless one is rolling dice) but significant nonetheless as it comes on the date of a half moon. The date is also the cusp of Lunar Autumn, a correspondence which can't have gone unnoticed, if only in hopes of getting, fingers crossed, some cooler weather.

But more striking in visual terms is the rise of the August moon.

The original start date was a waning moon, which would put the games, in the two weeks following July 25, under the darkest stage of the lunar cycle.

In contrast, the start date of August 8 coincides with optimal lunar illumination, the brightest fortnight of the lunar cycle, commencing with a half moon that blossoms to full moon during the height of the games.

While doing research for a memoir on the Tiananmen demonstrations of 1989, I was struck by how closely events on the ground back then hewed to the lunar calendar, even if most of us who were there were not consciously aware of it at the time.

The 1989 protests picked up speed during the new moon of May Fourth, waxing almost unstoppably as the moon brightened, then faltered and stalled out as the moon began to withdraw. The waxing gibbous moon presided over the joyful and peaceful demonstrations of mid-May, the waning gibbous moon saw martial law put into effect, while the night of June 3-4 was the darkest of the month, the night of no moon.

The rise of the full moon over Tiananmen marked the lyrical and literal apogee of the peaceful protests in May 1989 which saw the citizens of Beijing flock to Tiananmen Square a million strong under a bright clear sky in celebration of what they hoped would be a brilliant new chapter of Chinese history.

One need not be convinced that lunar tides play a role in human hearts to see such a correspondence as something more than coincidence. Military strategists, from the time of Sun Zi and Sun Bin to the age of sneak attacks and stealth bombing, pay attention to lunar illumination, carefully selecting attack dates that provide needed illumination or require the cover of darkness. The June 6, 1944 Allied invasion of Normandy involved careful calibration of both optimal moonlight and counter-intuitive use of moon-related tides.

On the brighter side, there is a common, if not universal, human impulse to commune with the heavens by taking a walk on a moonlit evening.

Just as the mild weather of spring is more conducive to mass demonstrations than frigid mid-winter, so too is the full moon an attractor to those who gather out of doors at night, be they nature lovers, romantic lovers or those who find comfort and inspiration in the visual company of our nearest celestial neighbor.

Keeping the moon in mind, one can better appreciate the extreme lengths to which Beijing has gone in order to put the Olympics in the best possible light.

pc

Friday, June 20, 2008

NYT GETS IT WRONG, AGAIN

NYT GETS IT WRONG, AGAIN

(long version published in Hyoron as Burma and the Gray Lady)

BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM

Nobody likes to apologize, not individuals, not institutions, not governments, not even the gray lady known as the New York Times. Oh, the NYT is quick to make micro-apologies, a misspelled name here, a typo there, and every once in a while a Jayson Blair is cause for contrition, but when it comes to really big stuff, at the editorial level at least, they are as unrepentant and opaque as some of the face-conscious Asian regimes they so readily criticize. So to understand the recent turnaround in NYT coverage of Burma, we have to do some reading between the lines. First compare the tone of the following NYT editorials in May with the tone of a very different sort of reported piece written in June. The NYT-owned International Herald Tribune served as an ice-breaker of sorts for a bit of contrition.

May 14, 2008 "Shame on the Junta."
"After Cyclone Nargis devastated Myanmar, killing tens of thousands of people, the world rushed to offer help. Most governments would be grateful. Not this one. A week and a half later, the country’s ruling generals are still blocking large-scale foreign aid. That negligence could lead to the death of tens of thousands more."


May 21, 2008" "More Shame on the Junta"
"There is no end to the criminal behavior of Myanmar’s generals. Nearly three weeks after Cyclone Nargis killed more than 100,000 people, the junta’s refusal to open the country to international help is condemning many more thousands to malnutrition, disease and, unless something is done quickly, death.


June 17, 2008 "In Myanmar, Surprising Recovery" (International Herald Tribune)

June 18, 2008 "Burmese endure in spite of junta, Aid Workers Say" (NYT version of IHT article)
"Now doctors and aid workers returning from remote areas of the delta are offering a less pessimistic picture of the human cost of the delay in reaching survivors. They say they have seen no signs of starvation or widespread outbreaks of disease…the number of lives lost specifically because of the junta’s slow response to the disaster appears to have been smaller than expected."


WHAT??? NO STARVATION? NO WIDESPREAD OUTBREAKS OF DISEASE? LOSSES SMALLER THAN THE NYT PREDICTED?

The NYT very much lives up to the New York City-centric view of the world famously depicted on a cover of The New Yorker in which mid-town Manhattan looms larger than the rest of the world combined, Asia but a frilly fringe on the edge of the map.

It should not be surprising that the NYT gazes upon a foreign and sometimes unfriendly world with hometown pride, but their pro-home team provincialism sometimes gets in the way of the news.

For those ensconced in the New York office, they tend to see the world as local opinion leaders would have them see it, and of course newspapers in other countries do the precise same thing. The US bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade is a case in point, the American media, NYT included, uniformly described it as “accidental” (without evidence either way) and the Chinese media uniformly described it as “intentional.”

And the truth is still up for grabs. The possibility that it was a stupid accident is supported by subsequent reckless and negligent behavior by the US military in Iraq, but the Iraq war also teaches that very stupid actions can also be purposeful.

The best answer I could get from someone close to the source of power on what really happened with the stealth bombing of the Chinese embassy was a former White House advisor who researched the matter and concluded, “shit happens.”

The point is, nationalism is always at play in the news. It’s hard for the editors of even a fine newspaper to get sufficiently outside of themselves to see what they are doing wrong. And all the more difficult for the NYT to seriously reflect on how they might have contributed to war and destruction by championing, from the comfort of their mid-Manhattan offices, the imposition of values abroad that sound oh, so noble, when put into type and printed, but almost invariably get translated and misconstrued into cruel, condescending action when applied to a situation abroad.

That the NYT should bring idiosyncratic, familial, habitual and value-laden views to the ideally objective job of news-gathering is understandable; all newspapers are subjective and selective in what they choose to report and how they choose to report it. But the NYT is also the premier newspaper of the world's sole reigning superpower, a power which has at its disposal the most awesome, far-reaching global and interventionist military machine on the planet.

When the NYT harps on about so-called humanitarian intervention and so-called human rights, lives are apt to be changed but not always for the better. People take notice, but not without trepidation.

First, a small but conspicuous example of the latter. The NYT trampled on the human rights and dignity of Chinese-American scientist Wen Ho Lee, trying him in the court of media and pronouncing him all but guilty, even though his case was thrown out of US court. A reporter friend who visited Lee at his Los Alamos home one morning soon after the NYT started running with the story recalls the scientist's shock upon discovering he was in the news, implicitly characterized as a spy for China. Ideologically driven accusations turned his life upside down; so much for human rights.

Not too long ago, Judith Miller and other "star" NYT reporters echoed and amplified the drumbeat to war coming out of the White House and the office of the Vice-President. As a result, the NYT lent considerable credibility to the contentious and fact-challenged consensus for war.

So what's Burma to think when the world's most influential newspaper laces its factual coverage of a terrible cyclone with the impatient drumbeat for some kind of humanitarian intervention?

The government of Burma (or the "Myanmar junta" according to the NYT style sheet) may indeed be bad news but making bad news worse than it is is not good journalism.

First, a linguistic digression. "Burma" is a perfectly good English word with a long rich history; it’s used by the British press and some US news outlets. The NYT has a history of both haughty politesse (Pol Pot, the joke goes, is called Mr. Pot in the Times) and they got a lot of mileage by being among the first in the US to go from "Peking" to "Beijing", not without confusion, though, as this was assumed to be a name change while in fact it was just an orthography change, a new way of rendering in English the name for a city whose name was unchanged during the period in question. So, okay, NYT stylists, call it Myanmar if you want, but when you do so, you deprive the place of rich, nuanced associations (Burmese Days, the "cleaner, greener" land on the road to Mandalay, the Burma of U Nu and U Thant and Aung San and his daughter Suu Kyi. In its place, you impose the awkward word Myanmar, which, as with the case of Mr. Pot’s Kampuchea instead of Cambodia, you invoke a year zero mentality, a new name and a blank slate on which to project the imagination.

As for the word "junta," well, it’s just the NYT way of winking at the reader and saying, it’s a bad government. No room for subtlety there.

The New York Times, to its credit, has a good tradition of fact-collecting and thus its interventionist and jingoistic tendencies are less egregious than they might be otherwise. For an example of what happens when warped provincial American values reign supreme, one only has to look at Fox News and CNN, two influential American news sources that focus on and adulate the personalities of their own "news" stars in a triumph of style over substance, a victory of innuendo and attitude over news.

In comparison, NYT editorials, which enjoy a high degree of resonance with NYT news articles and vice-versa, are usually idealistic and issue-driven. NYT news and NYT editorial opining are rarely as far apart and disconnected as the schizophrenic voices at the Wall Street Journal, where it has been necessary to erect a firewall to separate reality-based news reporting from right-wing editorial ravings.

Thus traces of the "shame on the junta" attitude of the NYT editors can be detected in much of the NYT's coverage from Bangkok and Rangoon, most apparent in headlines and narrative frame, but also in the kind of reportage that is being called for in the field.

To put it another way, a handful of people at the New York Times have incredible influence on news narratives that shape the way many Americans see the world. Given this awesome power, it does not seem fair to victims on the ground that the powerful and free US media should be in harmony with, if not actual concert with, US government mouthpieces. Yet that is precisely what happened when the NYT chose to play the interventionist card in concert with interventionist voices in the Bush administration, with the result that powerful media voices ganged up on Burma when it was down and out.

To make blatant frontal attacks on a government which, like it or not, represents decent people suffering from natural disaster, is not very shrewd politics. And it is the height of insensitivity, if not incendiary, to make hints about regime change before the floodwaters have even receded.

And let’s suppose things had played out just a bit differently, that the presence of US ships offshore Burma led to a military confrontation, which then led to a humanitarian "rescue" through invasion. And suppose that invasion went wrong and gets all bloody because some Burmese don’t want to be colonized and things start to get violent like in Iraq. How ungrateful!

And then the information trickles out that the pretext was wrong, that delays in accepting US aid on the part of the Burmese government had not caused people to die in droves and that the local relief effort had been better than outsiders expected.

What then? Apologize and pull out? Or dig in to validate the lives lost to date? Or perhaps an endless occupation of Burma to stabilize gains, secure natural resources and introduce US-style governance?

Because the US is so powerful, minor shifts in US popular willingness to intervene or not intervene in a place like Burma can have life and death consequences for countless vulnerable people on both sides of the planet. Thus it is incumbent on a powerful information provider like the New York Times to be both circumspect and maintain a healthy distance from the powers that be in Washington. (like they did in the old days with the Pentagon Papers)

But that was then. Last month, when it came to covering Burma in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, the NYT took a triumphalist US stance; the tone of its coverage was animated by extreme pique and imperialistic impatience almost from the start.

There are indications, from the pages of the Times itself, that it willingly adopted the US government line, taking a page from the USAID playbook, as indicated in this May 9, 2008 NYT-featured "Quotation of the Day" by Henrietta H. Fore, the Bush-appointed administrator of the United States Agency for International Development:

"It's a race for time, a race to save lives."

The pressure was on, almost from day one, to put pressure on the Burmese government to open up to US aid or else you were allowing people to die. The upfront humanitarian motive was clearly to save lives --all but the most cold-hearted politicians care about that-- and rapidity of response does make a difference in disasters, as the US learned bitterly from the Bush administration’s clay footed response to the Katrina disaster, but there were political motives lurking in the background as well.

Much of the early NYT reporting on the natural disaster in "Myanmar" was, in terms of style and often in substance, infused with condescension, revealed by clues like USAID quotes and the routine use of the word “junta.”

It was further asserted that “unimaginable” things were happening in “Myanmar”, and given a blank slate with no first-hand reports, it's pretty easy for the imagination to run wild, as it did in some speculative reporting on alleged Chinese massacres in Tibet. Reading the Times day after day, the reader might easily conclude the worst because "Myanmar" is synonymous with “please invade me." The country is poor, backward, repressed, brainwashed, and the citizens are completely helpless, thus the necessity of outside help.

The main media talking point about Burma, that it needed outside help and it needed it right away, was further refined by US government organs such as USAID and the White House to mean not just any old help, but US government help with assessment teams and other pre-conditions. But government positions, when shrewdly expressed, leave as much unsaid as said. The narcissistic US media helped fill in the gaps.

There followed an inundation of reports crafted to help us to hate "Myanmar", which is shorthand for the ruling clique in charge, and to feel a burning need for change. Early evidence that Burma was indeed getting aid from the outside did not change this hegemonic narrative. How could aid from (communist) China and (poor, backward) Southeast Asia possibly do the job? Savvy Americans know the UN is slow if not hopeless, so guess what? The Burmese people need US intervention; they need it now and cannot possibly manage without it.

That’s sounds like Fox News on a good day or CNN on a bad one. So why did the independent-minded NYT allow a USAID spokesperson to set the tone of coverage? After all, the USAID is hardly a neutral player, not that the "junta-obsessed" NYT seemed to notice.

In fact, USAID has a long history of association with the CIA (USAID was described by former CIA agent Philip Agee as a "CIA tool") and even if the organization has excised most of the ghosts of its counterinsurgency past, might it not be fairly described as a tool of the current White House?

And of course Laura Bush, the non-political White House wife who was granted a public relations concession to Myanmar as a cause celebre, was all over the airwaves condemning her pet country while singing praise of US prowess within 48 hours of the cyclone striking land.

(see Huffington Post: “Laura Bush Discusses Jenna's Wedding During Myanmar Press Conference")

Laura Bush, when she managed to stay on message, made a point that was immediately picked up on by the US media: the “junta” must quickly accept US aid.

The tone set by the First Lady was aped by the lesser stars of the US journalistic universe, such as CNN, which given the antics of television news and surreptitious attempts to videotape in border areas of Burma, took the words “must quickly accept US aid” to mean, the junta "must quickly accept CNN." And of course this all backfired; CNN broke news etiquette by becoming the focus of its own reportage, (a rambling sequence by a CNN reporter breathlessly sneaking down a hotel staircase with his handycam pointing every which way while he stealthily evaded Burmese security personnel real and imagined comes to mind)

CNN produced the opposite of the intended effect, guaranteeing delayed entry due to its cat-and-mouse games with the admittedly irritable Burmese authorities who ended up tightening rules on visas and, as CNN pointed out, wasting time in pursuit of foreigners in violation of the law.

Compared to that, the Gray Lady’s coverage was relatively sober, but she too tapped her old toe to the tune of Laura Bush in an inimitable NYT kind of way.

Looking through the voluminous number of reports filed on Burma in the NYT archives for May and June 2008, certain patterns emerge. For the better part of six weeks the NYT coverage is animated by an impatient, pro-US government narrative arch. But the tone starts to change midstream and by late June it has gone from "Unimaginable Tragedy if Myanmar Delays Aid," to a mea culpa of sorts, with the revelation on June 18 that the delay in aid was not a big deal.

It's partly a story of improved reporting due to improved access, something journalism-shy countries like China and Burma need to better understand. The earliest stories lack telling detail, they sound as if they were assembled from wire services and phone calls in an air-conditioned condo in Bangkok and indeed they probably were, as Seth Mydans did not have immediate access to the country he was writing reams about.

But Mydans was soon joined by others, some on the ground inside Burma, as NYT coverage of the cyclone swelled during May.

What follows are the headlines of that period. It is worth pointing out that headlines are rarely chosen by writers, and in some cases even go against the grain of what writers are trying to say, but generally the texts alluded to below are in harmony with their headlines.

"Myanmar Reels as Cyclone Toll Hits Thousands"
“Bodies Flow Into Delta Area Of Myanmar,
"Myanmar Votes as Rulers Keep Tight Grip on Aid."
“When Burmese Offer a Hand, Rulers Slap It”
“U.N. Leader Tells Myanmar's Regime There's 'No More Time to Lose'”
“Myanmar Government Still Blocking Large-Scale Relief; Death Toll Rises Again”
“Aid Groups Say Some Myanmar Food Aid Is Stolen or Diverted by the Military”
“U.S. Frustrated by Myanmar Military Junta's Limits on Aid in Wake of Cyclone”
“Myanmar's Children Face New Risks, Aid Groups Say”


By May 18, the pressure to "do" something was full bore; nothing heightens reader anxiety and sense of urgency like the plight of children. But then, the reporting style shifts, adopting an increasingly cynical tone, looking for victimizers instead of victims.

“2 Weeks After Cyclone, Burmese Leader Pays First Visit to Refugees”

“Myanmar Camps for Survivors Seem to Be for Headlines Only”
“Myanmar Junta Begins Evicting Cyclone Victims From Shelters”
“Gates Accuses Myanmar of 'Criminal Neglect' Over Aid”


After a month of emotional grandstanding and angry accusations, the coverage becomes muted by a sense of US resignation, a world-weary sense of letting go.

“Myanmar: Navy Aid Ships To Leave”

The pro-interventionist mood and pique at lack of access more or less concludes with an an Op-ed from Madeleine Albright who opines that assertive humanitarian intervention is good (she did it in Kosovo) but the politics of Iraq war have weakened US ability to continue doing same with any credibility.

The NYT coverage wasn’t all a one-way street though, the reporters are too good for that. Two or three weeks into the crisis, the NYT editorial line invoking US politics of urgency was challenged by a counter-current, a new narrative coming in from reporters and aid workers in the field.

“More Help Trickles In as U.N. Chief Visits Myanmar”
“In Cyclone Relief, Monks Succeed Where Generals Falter”


By June, the idea that Burma might just be capable of pulling itself up by its own bootstraps starts to kicks in and gains strength, culminating in the June 18 piece suggesting that maybe Burma did okay without US aid after all.

The June 18 non-mea culpa mea culpa states there was no starvation nor widespread evidence of disease, and notes that observers in the field were less pessimistic than expected.

“Those who survived were not likely to need urgent medical attention, doctors say. “We saw very, very few serious injuries,” said Frank Smithuis, manager of the substantial mission of Doctors Without Borders in Myanmar. “You were dead or you were in O.K. shape.”

As if to explain why they got it wrong for so long, the June 18th piece also includes this irrelevant, almost comical piece of information, comparing floods to earthquakes. “But those who survived were not likely to be injured in the aftermath by falling rocks or collapsing buildings, as often happens during natural disasters, like the earthquake in China."

Didn’t they know it wasn’t an earthquake from day one? Did it take NYT analysts six weeks to determine it unlikely for there to be many injuries from falling rocks in the pancake flat, muddy Irrawaddy Delta?

Kudos to the informal US ambassador in Rangoon for helping clear up smoke made by earlier US government remarks.

Shari Villarosa, “the highest-ranking United States diplomat in Myanmar, formerly Burma” is quoted as saying “I’m not getting the sense that there have been a lot of deaths as a result of the delay.”

The next few lines represent quite a change of tone for the Times, not only is Myanmar referenced as Burma, but the junta is twice referred to as “government” rather than junta. Words really do make a difference.

"The United States has accused the military government of “criminal neglect” in its handling of the disaster caused by the cyclone…But relief workers say the debate over access for foreigners and the refusal of the government to allow in military helicopters and ships from the United States, France and Britain overshadowed a substantial relief operation carried out mainly by Burmese citizens and monks."

Pro-US pique is not entirely absent from the apology implicit in the June 18 report, nor is it ever explained why USAID should figure so prominently in NYT thinking about Burma.

“Myanmar’s government says it issued 815 visas for foreign aid workers and medical personnel in the month after the cyclone. But some aid workers were never allowed in, including the disaster response team from the United States Agency for International Development.”

But in the end, the June 18 article succeeds because it quotes identifiable people in the field. It's called journalism, and it contributes most concretely to the turnaround in NYT coverage, as can be seen in this uplifting note towards the end.

“It’s been overwhelmingly impressive what local organizations, medical groups and some businessmen have done,” said Ruth Bradley Jones, second secretary in the British Embassy in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. “They are the true heroes of the relief effort.”

pc

Monday, June 16, 2008

TURNING TABLES

BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM

On June 9, 2008, Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich stood up on the floor of the US Congress to read 35 Articles of Impeachment against President George W. Bush.

Given House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's clout and the correspondingly muted reaction from fellow lawmakers, --Pelosi has made it repeatedly clear impeachment is "not on the table" —it might appear that Kucinich stands alone.

Would that it were not so, for America’s inability to come to terms with its own wrongdoing continues to disappoint a dispirited world.

The US was once widely admired for its democratic spirit, expressed not so much in word as in deed. The US was once a beacon of freedom, not in the junk-food sense of the "Freedom Fries" served up under reigning president George W. Bush, but by quiet example, offering refuge and amnesty to people from the world over.

The example of the American Revolution, the Bill of Rights and a far-sighted Constitution have been a source of inspiration to oppressed peoples at home and abroad for over two centuries.

What happened?

Incessant and inhuman warring abroad has led to creeping fascism and a dimunition of human rights at home. Contemptuous disregard for national sovereignty, habeas corpus, old-fashioned decency, and just about anything that gets in the way of the commander in chief is threatening to destroy the values enshrined by the US Constitution.

Some of the problems are systemic, but exacerbated by individual megalomania and greed A dysfunctional military-industrial complex, uncannily predicted by President Dwight D. Eisenhower back in the 1950's, has become a sordid reality today thanks to Bush/Cheney administration’s patronage of Halliburton and other war-profiteers who coolly rake in profits from a cruel and unnecessary war.

Other problems stem from idealism itself, wrecks along the bumpy and pot-holed road paved with good intentions. Bombing or otherwise coercing people to be free and democratic makes a mockery of idealism.

Is it too late to impeach? It won't be easy, it will distract from the "feel-good" politics of hope that the Democratic Party strategists want to employ in the upcoming election, but America, as a whole, has not earned its feel-good moment yet.

For America is stuck in a deadend war whose architects and executors are as unapologetic as hardened criminals. Bush has lowered the bar of law so low he acts as if the law applies only to the little guys, human rights only to foreign adversaries.

That John McCain is a hawk is a given, he basically promises more of the same, though he could break with Bush to salvage his candidacy.

But why has Democratic nominee Barack Obama grown so much more hawkish when he didn’t start out that way?

Who’s doing the advising in the Obama camp when the arguably most charming politician to come along in a generation makes slavish promises to Israeli hardliners that he can't possibly keep, while issuing a veiled threat to go to war with Iran, parroting the belligerent "all options are on the table" talk of Bush Jr?

Perhaps it has something to do with wanting to be taken seriously, it also reflects the nature of advice given. The mainstream media, for example, always has time for hawks like Henry Kissinger, and even retired generals reading from script, but dismisses as frivolous Congressional peace advocates such as Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul.

Timidity and tunnel vision are expected of serious presidential advisors too. As former Obama advisor Samantha Powers and former mentor Reverend Wright learned the hard way, speaking candidly results in not being taken seriously.

UCLA political scientist Richard Baum, formerly a China factotum in the administration of George Bush Sr, made a show of quitting as advisor to Hillary Clinton over remarks she made last month about possibly boycotting the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. His dissent was a rare kerfuffle for a would-be presidential advisor. But where was his outrage about Hillary’s support for the war in Iraq and her far more egregious fear-mongering on Iran? Not within purview?

The compartmentalization of subordinates is useful to diffuse responsibility and avoid tough moral questions, especially as “serious” candidates are pressed to show a cold-hearted willingness to kill foreigners in the name of American ideals.

Democratic Party kingmaker Nancy Pelosi set the rules of engagement, loyally echoed by both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama during their long battle for party supremacy; impeachment is off the table, invasion of Iran is on.

This formula needs to be reversed, the tables turned.

The US must turn its angry, interventionist gaze within, the revolution to re-establish the values that Americans claim as a birthright must begin at home. To begin to heal, to achieve closure, let alone hope for atonement, war criminals must be taken to task for a gratuitous war.

Before Guantanamo prison is closed down forever, perhaps the men who justified torture as policy would like to spend a bit of time familiarizing themselves with the facility from the inside, orange jumpsuits optional.

To make amends, the US has to demonstrate that no one is above the law, especially those with the power to put fellow citizens in harm’s way.

Granting amnesty to the powerful while ruthlessly imprisoning the poor –America has more people behind bars than any other country— establishes a precedent bad for human rights everywhere.

If the unwarranted invasion of sovereign nations is to be kept on the table while fixing faults at home is not, then America's precipitous and rocky detour from the democratic road will reach a point of no return.

pc

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

CHINA LIGHTS A PATH FOR BURMA

Philip J Cunningham

Tragic events can galvanise a nation in a way that brings out the best in people.

When the event is on the scale of the Sichuan earthquake, and the nation is China, individual acts of heroism and generosity multiplied by hundreds of millions creates an atmosphere that is transformative and inspirational.

Tragic events can also bring out the worst in a nation, as can be seen in the parallel tragedy of the cyclone in Burma, where government ineptitude, greed and paranoiac self-preservation have stifled domestic relief efforts at home while refusing or bottlenecking humanitarian aid from abroad.

China and Burma share the stigma of being Asian countries with political systems seen as antithetical to Western values. Even savvy critics mistakenly assume that China has the kind of commanding influence over Burma that the United States has over, let's say, Iraq.

China, to its credit and detriment, avoids the sort of active intervention that US flag-wavers favour. But China's ideological consistency on non-intervention, whatever its merits, grows less convincing as China grows.

Growing economic clout embeds and engages China in a global economic order while heating up the hunt for scarce natural resources. Complete neutrality is not an option.

The sheer scale and volume of China's manufacture and trade impacts life across the four seas in myriad ways, raising the spectre of economic invasion and financial intervention, not to mention the detrimental effects of trade in weapons and other things bad for human health.

Long before it became the factory floor for the world, long before it became a prime lender to a cash-starved America, long before it had the reach to score oil deals in Sudan and Iran, China was castigated for not being open enough, global enough and capitalist enough.

China was subject to stinging derision for its appalling poverty within recent memory. Though larger in scale, it once bore a resemblance to the Burma of today: isolated and ingrown,
destitute and inept.

In contrast, half a century ago Burma, with its booming rice exports, inspirational Buddhism, bilingual education and British infrastructure, was in a far better situation than abysmally poor China, which was still in recovery from the convulsive destruction of war, revolution and other man-made disasters.

But China has leapt forward, greatly beyond even Mao's wildest dreams, and the world is still adjusting to this unexpected pre-eminence.

China, too, is adjusting. The ruling Communist Party often seems anachronistic, unsure of itself and untrusting of its own people - witness the continual crackdowns on domestic media and information flow.

The ham-fisted handling of the Tibet riots did nothing to improve China's image at home or abroad, even if its crackdown on Tibetans was not as violent as emotional journalists and bloggers, stirred by the moral prestige of the Dalai Lama and miffed by the lack of access, would have one believe.

The anti-CNN, anti-Carrefour mood that swept across China on the coattails of the Tibet crisis had a unifying effect on Chinese popular sentiment, but was not without traces of reactionary xenophobia and Han chauvinism.

While accusations of Western media bias and careless reporting were fairly well documented, the intolerant conspiracy theories that flowed from flawed media reports were not conducive to further conversation.

Sadly, it took a natural disaster for China to snap out of its giddy, uneasy chauvinism and the shock of looking into the abyss for the Western press to snap out of its condescending sniping. The shock and horror of the tectonic shift knocked scales from the eyes, bringing out humility and humanity on all sides. China has shown its stoic, heroic side shorn of hubris; jaded China-watchers have shown an outpouring of sympathetic reporting shorn of pique and ulterior motive.

More ironically yet, it took a natural disaster in China for Burma to begin to get its own act together in dealing with devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis.

The latest TV news shows Burmese flags at half-mast, Burmese leaders making site inspections in the storm-wrecked Irrawaddy delta and a sudden improved access for foreign humanitarian aid that had been blocked too long for no good reason.

Did this all come about because the likes of First Lady Laura Bush ridiculed Burma, singing praise of US-funded Radio Free Asia even before the floodwaters receded? Did this week's improved access of aid to Burmese cyclone victims in dire need come about because hot-headed French, British and US politicos hinted at regime change and invasion?

Highly unlikely. Rather, it was China, struggling with its own mega-tragedy, who showed Burma how to do it right. Not by invoking Katrina or threatening bombs and waterborne invasion, but by making a positive example of itself.

China set a no-nonsense tone of humility conducive to getting things done; it was open to foreign assistance, open to foreign journalists, foreign medical teams and, most importantly, open to the sincere concerted efforts of ordinary Chinese to help their fellow countrymen.

It is the latter, not the nervous government officials, who are the real heroes of the relief effort; ordinary Chinese made it clear as they streamed out on the information highway and onto the muddy, broken roads of Sichuan, that they would settle for nothing less than an open and honest response.

Beijing, to its credit, picked up on the tone set by its vanguard citizens, appropriating the symbolic power of unconditional relief, magnifying the mourning of a provincial tragedy into a unifying national event.

Impatience with the callous intransigence of the Burmese government is understandable, but condescending nagging from politicians looking to score points was counter-productive.

China helped Burma to open up a bit, not by angry words or preaching or threats, but just by doing the best it could under dire circumstances.

When disaster response is as dysfunctional as it was in Burma, the inspirational nudge of a neighbour may not be enough, but China's quiet example has lit a path in the darkness, showing a possible way out.

(Originally appeared in Bangkok Post) Philip J Cunningham is a free-lance writer and political commentator