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Asia Unbound

CFR experts give their take on the cutting-edge issues emerging in Asia today.

Is Cambodia’s King a Prisoner in his Castle?

by Joshua Kurlantzick Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Cambodia's King Norodom Sihamoni greets officials on the first day of the annual water festival along the Tonle Sap river in Phnom Penh November 20, 2010.

Cambodia's King Norodom Sihamoni greets officials on the first day of the annual water festival along the Tonle Sap river in Phnom Penh November 20, 2010. (Chor Sokunthea/Courtesy Reuters)

The Associated Press this week has a fascinating article about King Norodom Sihamoni of Cambodia, the country’s head of state and one of the few remaining Buddhist monarchs. It alleges that, as Prime Minister Hun Sen has centralized all authority around himself, Sihamoni has become little more than a prisoner in his own palace, able to exert no influence and longing to return to the Czech Republic, where he spent much of his life.

Although the outlines of Hun Sen’s growing authoritarianism are by now well known–check out the country reports on Cambodia by Freedom House or Human Rights Watch–this piece offers a wealth of detail on how Hun Sen, a rugged survivor of decades of politics, has managed to sideline basically the only other powerful institution left in Cambodia.

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Can the U.S. and India Cooperate in Central Asia?

by Evan A. Feigenbaum Sunday, May 29, 2011

Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev and India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh inspect the guard of honor during their meeting in Astana April 16, 2011. Courtesy Reuters/Mukhtar Kholdorbekov.

As the U.S. moves toward military withdrawal from Afghanistan, will its commitment to continental Asia slide too?

My latest “DC Diary” column in India’s leading financial daily, the Business Standard, argues that the question is important to both the United States and India. It matters to Washington because Americans have other interests in Central Asia, quite apart from prosecuting the war. It matters to India because Central Asian governments will have fewer strategic options if the U.S. simply fades away.

Here’s the central reality: U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will mean a reduced footprint in Central Asia. But the United States certainly doesn’t have to disappear. And the U.S. and India, too, have some shared strategic interests, not least in facilitating the reconnection of Central Asia to the world economy.

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Henry Kissinger’s On China

by Elizabeth C. Economy Thursday, May 26, 2011
Chinese President Jiang Zemin talks to former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at a luncheon address to U.S. business groups in New York October 23, 1995.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin talks to former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at a luncheon address to U.S. business groups in New York October 23, 1995. (Jim Bourg / Courtesy Reuters)

A month or so ago, a publicist for Henry Kissinger’s new book On China sent along an advance copy for me to review on Asia Unbound.  Since the book runs over 500 pages, it took me a while to find the time to sit down and plow through it.  In the meantime, some excellent reviews by Jonathan Spence and the Economist, as well as a fascinating interview between Kissinger and Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal, have been published that bear reading.

After picking up and putting down the book several times over the past few days, what struck me most were not the amusing anecdotes and insights—and there were certainly some to be found—but rather the very narrow lens through which Mr. Kissinger views China. The result is that he illuminates one aspect of the country exceedingly well, but obfuscates easily as much in the process. Read more »

CFR Interview with President Yudhoyono

by Joshua Kurlantzick Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono attends a session at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos January 28, 2011.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono attends a session at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos January 28, 2011. (Vincent Kessler/Courtesy Reuters)

Along with a group of U.S. editors  taking part in a trip to Indonesia, CFR.org senior staff writer Jayshree Bajoria interviewed Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. As I noted in a recent post, despite pushing significant reforms and overseeing strong economic growth, Yudhoyono finds his popularity outstripped by that of the former dictator Suharto, largely because the Indonesian public is simply realizing that democratization can be painful and messy. In the interview, SBY reflects on these challenges, and offers his insights about the pain of reforms.

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The Return of Suharto?

by Joshua Kurlantzick Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Hutomo "Tommy" Mandala Putra, the son of former Indonesian president Suharto, arrives at the Attorney General's office in Jakarta August 16, 2007.

Hutomo "Tommy" Mandala Putra, the son of former Indonesian president Suharto, arrives at the Attorney General's office in Jakarta August 16, 2007. (Dadang Tri/Courtesy Reuters)

As Asia Sentinel notes today, longtime Indonesian dictator Suharto’s son, “Tommy,” recently won an absurd libel verdict against the magazine of national airline Garuda. In the magazine, an article called Tommy a convicted murderer–a true charge, given that he was convicted nine years ago of ordering the killing of a Supreme Court justice. Nonetheless, the court ordered Garuda magazine to run a full-page apology to Tommy for having allegedly besmirched his reputation.

The Tommy Suharto ruling is one of several signs that the Suharto family still wields enormous power in the country, reflected by the court’s obvious fear of Tommy. The family and its allies still allegedly control enormous sums of wealth, and many Suharto allies are positioning themselves for powerful roles in the next presidential administration.

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The Truth about the Three Gorges Dam

by Elizabeth C. Economy Tuesday, May 24, 2011
A worker clears floating garbage on the Yangtze River near the Three Gorges Dam in Yichang, Hubei province on August 1, 2010.

A worker clears floating garbage on the Yangtze River near the Three Gorges Dam in Yichang, Hubei province on August 1, 2010. (China Daily Information Group/Courtesy Reuters)

It has only taken ninety years, but China’s leaders have finally admitted that the Three Gorges Dam is a disaster.  With Wen Jiabao at the helm, the State Council noted last week that there were “urgent problems” concerning the relocation effort, the environment and disaster prevention that would now require an infusion of US$23 billion on top of the $45 billion spent already.

Despite high-level support for the project since Sun Yat-sen first proposed it in 1919, the dam has had serious critics within China all along. One of China’s earliest and most renowned environmental activists, Dai Qing, published the book Yangtze! Yangtze! in 1989, which explored the engineering and social costs of the proposed dam. The book was a hit among Tiananmen Square protestors, and Dai spent a year in prison for her truth-telling. In 1992, when the dam came up for a vote in the National People’s Congress, an unprecedented one-third of the delegates voted against the plan.

Once the construction began in 1994, the problems mounted.  Read more »

How Democratic is Thailand’s Democratic Opposition?

by Joshua Kurlantzick Monday, May 23, 2011
Yingluck Shinawatra is welcomed by her supporters during an election campaign in Chiang Mai province

Yingluck Shinawatra is welcomed by her supporters during an election campaign in Chiang Mai province. (Dario Pignatelli/Courtesy Reuters)

In the run up to Thailand’s national elections, the opposition Puea Thai Party has repeatedly argued that it is more democratic and more reflective of popular opinion in the country. In some respects, they may be right; current polling suggests Puea Thai is going to win at least a sizeable plurality.

Yet the selection of Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s younger sister, as the party’s prime minister candidate, is a sign that Puea Thai is hardly as democratic as it seems. Siam Voices has an excellent analysis of this dichotomy. Yingluck is in many ways the most inexperienced prime ministerial candidate in modern Thai history; she has a decent record as a businesswoman and solid academic credentials, but she has no political background, and up until now expressed virtually no political ideas or opinions. Even now, in fact, Yingluck, though a decent speaker, basically just mouths platitudes and simplistic slogans, or simply says that she will be the puppet of Thaksin’s ideas.

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Chinese responses to the International Strategy for Cyberspace

by Adam Segal Monday, May 23, 2011
Secretary Clinton at Release of Cyber Strategy

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton addresses the White House Launch of the International Strategy for Cyberspace in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on May 16, 2011. (Lawrence Jackson/Courtesy White House)

A week after the United States released its International Strategy for Cyberspace, it is possible to gauge some Chinese responses. Not surprisingly, there was a relatively high degree of skepticism about U.S. intentions. Chinese concerns revolved around three issues:

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A Human Rights Envoy to Assess North Korea’s Food Situation

by Scott A. Snyder Friday, May 20, 2011
U.S. special envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues Robert King (L) and South Korea's top nuclear negotiator Wi Sung-lac talk at Wi's office in Seoul February 8, 2011

U.S. special envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues Robert King (L) and South Korea's top nuclear negotiator Wi Sung-lac talk at Wi's office in Seoul February 8, 2011 (Truth Leem/Courtesy Reuters)

At a State Department briefing earlier this week, the spokesman stated that U.S. Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea Ambassador Robert King may be tasked to lead a food assessment mission to North Korea. This announcement comes following a round of consultations led by Ambassador Stephen Bosworth last week in South Korea to manage differences on the issue, since United States sees food assistance as an issue separate from politics while the South Korean government sees food assistance as a form of leverage by which to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table. The consultations resulted in begrudging South Korean government support (or at least the absence of objections to) the U.S. decision to send an assessment team to North Korea. Read more »

Bangkok’s Bloodshed: One Year On

by Joshua Kurlantzick Friday, May 20, 2011
Anti-government ''red shirt'' protesters wear hats with pictures of toppled premier Thaksin Shinawatra as they pray during a rally at Ratchaprasong intersection at Bangkok's shopping district May 19, 2011. Thousands of "red shirt" protesters staged a rally on Thursday to mark the one-year anniversary of Thailand's worst political violence that ended on May 19 last year.

Anti-government ''red shirt'' protesters wear hats with pictures of toppled premier Thaksin Shinawatra as they pray during a rally at Ratchaprasong intersection at Bangkok's shopping district May 19, 2011. Thousands of "red shirt" protesters staged a rally on Thursday to mark the one-year anniversary of Thailand's worst political violence that ended on May 19 last year. (Damir Sagolj/Courtesy Reuters)

One year ago this week, the standoff in Bangkok between the red shirted protestors and the security forces ended in the worst violence in Thailand in at least two decades, with more than eighty people killed, hundreds injured, and even more locked up in jail. A year later, unfortunately, very little has changed. As Human Rights Watch documents in an excellent new report, the most important aspect of reconciliation, some kind of justice for the perpetrators of the violence, has been almost completely absent. Not only human rights groups, but also Thailand’s Department of Special Investigations found that soldiers shot innocent victims, as the Associated Press documents. Yet only the perpetrators of violence from the red shirt side have faced prosecution. To be sure, the red shirts’ armed “men in black” committed serious crimes and should be punished, but so did the security forces.

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