Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Time to Close Thailand’s Camps for Burmese Refugees?

MAE LA REFUGEE CAMP, THAILAND—Trees give way to primitive wooden homes in the rolling hills approaching Mae La refugee camp on Thailand’s border with Burma.  The largest camp in Thailand, Mae La, holds 50,000 refugees. 

Three years ago Burma’s ruling generals yielded authority to a nominally civilian leadership and initiated a series of ceasefires with various ethnic groups.  The resulting peace is real but imperfect. 

Today there are as many as 150,000 refugees in ten Thai camps.  Overcrowded Mae La was established three decades ago when many assumed that their stay would be short.

Residents are barred from even leaving the camps without official permission.  Education is difficult.  People’s lives, futures, and dreams are all confined by fences and armed guards.

Perhaps worse, sustenance is provided and work prohibited.  This has discouraged independence, enterprise, and entrepreneurship. 

With the changes in Burma serious discussions about closing the camps have begun.  In July Thailand’s military junta declared its objective to repatriate all refugees by 2015.

Mae La refugees I talked to wanted to return, but worried about security.  NGOs observe that a national political settlement has yet to be implemented.   

Congress Quietly Passes Ukraine Bill

While Washington focused yesterday on the prospect of yet another government shutdown, both House and Senate quickly and quietly passed bills which increase sanctions on Russia and authorize the sale of defensive arms to Ukraine.  S.2828 passed mid-afternoon by voice vote, while H.R. 5859 was passed without objection at 10:25pm last night, on a largely empty House floor. Indeed, the House resolution had been introduced only that day, giving members no time to review or debate the merits of a bill which has major foreign policy implications.

The bill requires the imposition of further sanctions on Russia, particularly on Rosboronexport, Russia’s main weapons exporter, as well as increasing licensing requirements for the sale of oil extraction technology to Russia. Any Russian company exporting weapons to Syria is also liable for sanctions. In addition, the bill contained a contingency, requiring the President to sanction Gazprom in the event that it interferes with the delivery of gas supplies to NATO members or to Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. The bill also takes aim at Russia more broadly, directing the President to hold Russia accountable for its violations of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and to consider whether it remains in U.S. interests to remain a party to this treaty.

Significantly, the bill authorizes the president to make available defensive weapons, services and training to Ukraine, including anti-tank weapons, crew weapons and ammunition, counter-artillery radar, tactical troop-operated surveillance drones, and command and communications equipment. It  also includes additional aid for Ukraine, earmarked to help Ukraine loosen its reliance on Russian energy, and strengthen civil society. Other funds go to increasing Russian-language broadcasting in Eastern Europe by Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, in order to ‘counter Russian propaganda.’

Brennan, Torture and the Accountability Vacuum

Yesterday, CIA Director John Brennan delivered his public response to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. Rather than use the opportunity to fully acknowledge and accept the report’s findings and implications, Brennan offered a vigorous defense of the CIA, invoking the emotional trauma suffered by the country to help justify subsequent his agency actions.

Indeed, there were numerous, credible, and very worrisome reports about a second and third wave of major attacks against the United States,” Brennan said. “And while we grieved, honored our dead, tended to our injured, and embarked on the long process of recovery, we feared more blows from an enemy we couldn’t see … and an evil we couldn’t fathom.

“This is the backdrop against which the Agency was directed by President Bush to carry out a program to detain terrorist suspects around the world.

“In many respects, the program was uncharted territory for the CIA, and we were not prepared. We had little experience housing detainees, and precious few of our officers were trained interrogators. But the President authorized the effort six days after 9/11, and it was our job to carry it out.” (emphasis added)

But as the Senate report makes clear (p. 11), President Bush’s covert action Memorandum of Notification (MON, the formal authorization for the rendition and detention program) “made no mention of interrogations or interrogation techniques.” Thus, the initiative for the interrogations—including techniques involving torture under international and U.S. law—originated within the CIA. And as the Senate report lays out repeatedly—using the CIA’s own internal documents—agency personnel, and particularly its attorneys, knew very well that what they were proposing almost certainly violated U.S. and international law.

KGB’s Old Lubyanka Headquarters Glowers at New Russia

MOSCOW—Red Square is one of the world’s most iconic locales. Even during the worst of the U.S.S.R. the square was more symbolic than threatening. 

Very different, however, is Lubyanka, just a short walk away. 

In the late 19th century 15 insurance companies congregated on Great Lubyanka Street.  The Rossia agency, one of Russia’s largest, completed its office building in 1900. 

But in 1917 the Bolsheviks seized power.  They took the Rossia building for the new secret police, known as the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage, or Cheka.

The first Cheka head was Felix Dzerzhinsky.  He conducted the infamous “Red Terror,” what he called a “fight to the finish” against the Bolsheviks’ political opponents. 

After his death in 1926 Grand Lubyanka Street was renamed Dzerzhinsky Street.  A great statue of Dzerzhinsky, weighing 15 tons, was erected in a circle in front of the Cheka headquarters. 

After the KGB was dissolved the building went to the Border Guard Service, later absorbed by the Federal Security Service (FSB), responsible for foreign intelligence. Today Lubyanka looks non-threatening, a yellowish color and architectural style less severe than the harshly grandiose Stalinist architecture seen throughout the city.

The KGB faced its greatest challenge in the Gorbachev era.  Demands for reform raced beyond Mikhail Gorbachev’s and the KGB’s control.  In August 1991 KGB head Vladimir Kryuchkov helped plan the coup against Gorbachev. 

After the coup’s collapse a crowd gathered in front of Lubyanka and attempted to pull down the Dzerzhinsky monument.  City officials used a crane to finish the job.

Journalist Yevgenia Albats wrote:  “If either Gorbachev or [Boris] Yeltsin had been bold enough to dismantle the KGB during the autumn of 1991, he would have met little resistance.”  However, these two reformers attempted to fix rather than eliminate the agency.

And the KGB effectively ended up taking over Russia.  Yeltsin named Chekists, or members of the “siloviki” (or power agents), to important government positions, most importantly Vladimir Putin, who headed the FSB and then became prime minister—and Yeltsin’s successor as president when the latter resigned.

COP-Out: Political Storyboarding in Peru

The 20th annual “Conference of the Parties” to the UN’s 1992 climate treaty (“COP-20”) is in its second week in Lima, Peru and the news is the same as from pretty much every other one.

You don’t need a calendar to know when these are coming up, as the media are flooded with global warming horror stories every November. This year’s version is that West Antarctic glaciers are shedding a “Mount Everest” of ice every year. That really does raise sea level—about 2/100 of an inch per year. As we noted here, that reality probably wouldn’t have made a headline anywhere.

The meetings are also preceded by some great climate policy “breakthrough.” This year’s was the president’s announcement that China, for the first time, was committed to capping its emissions by 2030. They did no such thing; they said they “intend” to level their emissions off “around” 2030. People “intend” to do a lot of things that don’t happen.

During the first week of these two-day meetings, developing nations coalesce around the notion the developed world (read: United States) must pay them $100 billion per year in perpetuity in order for them to even think about capping their emissions. It’s happened in at least the last five COPs.

In the second week, the UN announces, dolefully, that the conference is deadlocked, usually because the developing world has chosen not to commit economic suicide. Just yesterday, India announced that it simply wasn’t going to reduce its emissions at the expense of development.

Then an American savior descends. In Bali, in 2007, it was Al Gore. In 2009, Barack Obama arrived and barged into one of the developing nation caucuses, only to be asked politely to leave. This week it will be Secretary of State John Kerry, who earned his pre-meeting bones by announcing that climate change is the greatest threat in the world.

I guess nuclear war isn’t so bad after all.

As the deadlock will continue, the UN will announce that the meeting is going to go overtime, beyond its scheduled Friday end. Sometime on the weekend—and usually just in time to get to the Sunday morning newsy shows—Secretary Kerry will announce a breakthrough, the meeting will adjourn, and everyone will go home to begin the cycle anew until next December’s COP-21 in Paris, where a historic agreement will be inked.

Actually, there was something a little different in Lima this year: Given all the travel and its relative distance from Eurasia, COP-20 set the all-time record for carbon dioxide emissions associated with these annual gabfests.

Myanmar Reforms Slip Into Reverse: How to Save Burma’s Democracy

WALLAY, BURMA—When foreign dignitaries visit Myanmar, still known as Burma in much of the West, they don’t walk the rural hills over which the central government and ethnic groups such as the Karen fought for; for decades. Like isolated Wallay village.

Wallay gets none of the attention of bustling Rangoon or the empty capital of Naypyitaw. Yet the fact that I could visit without risking being shot may be the most important evidence of change in Burma. For three years the Burmese army and Karen National Liberation Army have observed a ceasefire. For the first time in decades Karen children are growing up with the hope of a peaceful future.

The global face of what Burma could become remains Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the heroic Nobel Laureate who won the last truly free election in 1990—which was promptly voided by the military junta. The fact that she is free after years of house arrest demonstrates the country’s progress. The fact that she is barred from running for president next year, a race she almost certainly would win, illustrates the challenges remaining for Burma’s transformation.

The British colony gained its independence after World War II. The country’s short-lived democracy was terminated by General Ne Win in 1962. The paranoid junta relentlessly waged war on the Burmese people.

Then the military made a dramatic U-turn, four years ago publicly stepping back from power. Political prisoners were released, media restrictions were relaxed, and Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, was allowed to register.

The U.S. and Europe lifted economic sanctions and exchanged official visits. Unfortunately, however, in recent months the reform process appears to have gone into neutral, if not reverse.

While most of the military battles in the east are over, occasional clashes still occur. None of the 14 ceasefires so far reached has been converted into a permanent peace. While investment is sprouting in some rebel-held areas, most communities, like Wallay, are waiting for certain peace and sustained progress.

Of equal concern, Rakhine State has been torn by sectarian violence, exacerbated by the security forces. At least 200 Muslims Rohingyas have been killed and perhaps 140,000 mostly Rohingyas displaced.

Political reform also remains incomplete. Particularly serious has been the reversal of media freedom and imprisonment of journalists. Khin Ohmar, with Burma Partnership, a civil society network, cited “surveillance, scrutiny, threats and intimidation.”

Washington’s Taiwan Headache Returns

As if the United States didn’t already have enough foreign policy worries, a dangerous issue that has been mercifully quiescent over the past five years shows signs of reviving.  Taiwan’s governing Kuomintang Party (KMT) and its conciliatory policy toward Beijing suffered a brutal defeat in elections for local offices on November 29.  Indeed, the extent of the KMT’s rout made the losses the Democratic Party experienced in U.S. midterm congressional elections look like a mild rebuke.  The setback was so severe that President Ma Ying-jeou promptly resigned as party chairman.  Although that decision does not change Ma’s role as head of the government, it does reflect his rapidly declining political influence.

As I discuss in an article over at The National Interest Online, growing domestic political turbulence in Taiwan is not just a matter of academic interest to the United States.  Under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, Washington is obligated to assist Taipei’s efforts to maintain an effective defense.  Another provision of the TRA obliges U.S. leaders to regard any coercive moves Beijing might take against the island as a serious threat to the peace of East Asia.

During the presidencies of Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian from the mid 1990s to 2008, Beijing reacted badly to efforts by those leaders to convert Taiwan’s low-key, de facto independence into something more formal and far reaching.  As a result, periodic crises erupted between Beijing and Washington.  U.S. officials seemed relieved when voters elected the milder, more conciliatory Ma as Chen’s successor.  That political change also seemed to reflect concern on the part of a majority of Taiwanese that Chen and his explicitly pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had pushed matters to a dangerous level in testing Beijing’s forbearance.

But just as Chen may have overreached and forfeited domestic support by too aggressively promoting a pro-independence agenda, his successor appears to have drifted too far in the other direction.  Domestic sentiment for taking a stronger stance toward the mainland on a range of issues has been building for at least the past two years.  Public discontent exploded in March 2014 in response to a new trade deal between Taipei and Beijing, which opponents argued would give China far too much influence over Taiwan’s economy.  Those disorders culminated with an occupation of Taiwan’s legislature, accompanied by massive street demonstrations that persisted for weeks.  The November election results confirmed the extent of the public’s discontent.

Perhaps reflecting the shift in public sentiment toward Beijing, even Ma’s government began to adopt a more assertive stance on security issues, despite pursuing enhanced economic ties.  Taipei’s decision in the fall of 2014 to spend $2.5 billion on upgraded anti-missile systems reflected a renewed seriousness about protecting Taiwan’s security and deterring Beijing from contemplating aggression.

China’s reaction to the November election results was quick and emphatic.  Chinese media outlets cautioned the victorious DPP against interpreting the election outcome as a mandate for more hard-line positions on cross-strait issues.  Even more ominous, Retired General Liu Jingsong, the former president of the influential Chinese Academy of Military Sciences, warned that the Taiwan issue “will not remain unresolved for a long time.”  Moreover, Chinese officials “will not abandon the possibility of using force” to determine the island’s political status.  Indeed, he emphasized that it remained an option “to resolve the issue by military means, if necessary.” That is a noticeably different tone from Deng Xiaoping’s statement in the late 1970s that there was no urgency to deal with the Taiwan issue—that it could even go on for a century without posing a serious problem.

A key question now is whether Beijing will tolerate even a mildly less cooperative Taiwan.  Chinese leaders have based their hopes on the belief that greater cross-strait economic relations would erode Taiwanese enthusiasm for any form of independence.  That does not appear to have happened.  Opinion polls indicate meager support for reunification with the mainland—even if it included guarantees of a high degree of political autonomy.

But the adoption of a confrontational stance on Beijing’s part regarding Taiwan would quickly reignite that issue as a source of animosity in U.S.-China relations.  The Obama years have already seen a worrisome rise in bilateral tensions.  The announced U.S. “pivot” or “rebalancing” of U.S. forces to East Asia has intensified Beijing’s suspicions about Washington’s motives.  Sharp differences regarding territorial issues in the South China and East China seas have also been a persistent source of friction.  The slumbering Taiwan issue is now poised to join that list of worrisome flashpoints.