Friday, January 26, 2007

Change is what matters after Davos

The Jakarta Post

Opinion News - Thursday, February 01, 2007

Thang D. Nguyen, Jakarta

As world leaders from the business community, governments and civil society arrived in Davos for the World Economic Forum's (WEF) annual meeting this year, they did not see as much snow in this Swiss ski resort as they had in previous years.

Elsewhere across the world, weather patterns have been, and still are, more than unusual. In Boston, for instance, the temperature in December climbed to 20 degrees Celsius. Last Christmas, it snowed in Sydney. It also rained in Vietnam this month.

This is why climate change is a key topic on the agenda of the WEF's meeting this year, which takes place from Jan. 24-28. Under the theme The Shifting Power Equation, this year's meeting also focuses on other challenges, namely the Middle East crisis and world energy power.

And the list of world leaders who are in Davos this year is as impressive as ever, ranging from Prime Minister Tony Blair to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, DELL Corporation founder Michael Dell and U2 singer-cum-activist Bono.

As usual, participants in this year's meeting will get to rub shoulders with these shakers and movers over cocktails and dinners -- having paid a handsome fee of 30,000 Swiss francs (about US$24,000) each to get in.

As usual, these leaders will deliver keynote addresses or speak in plenary sessions -- offering solutions with which to solve the world's greatest challenges.

As usual, these leaders will get the most and best media coverage during their (usually brief) stays in Davos.

But what happens after Davos? Is the world better, or is it actually worse? Will there be any concrete change or action on the issues that are discussed so passionately in the WEF's Congress Hall in Davos?

Getting positive answers to these questions is the ultimate challenge for the WEF, which sees itself as an international organization that is "committed to improving the state of the world".

Among other things, the WEF has been, and still is, criticized as a prestigious talk shop where there are only talks, but no action.

This criticism seems, however, unfair for several reasons. For one thing, some of the challenges discussed at Davos are just too new and complex -- even for the experts.

Take the Asian bird flu for instance. And while there has been no cure for it, there is a threat that it could be transmitted from human to human.

Furthermore, it is hard to overcome the challenges discussed in Davos when some key players do not bother coming.

A case in point is the U.S. government delegation, which includes the trade representative Susan Schwab (no relation to WEF founder Klaus Schwab), Senator Joseph Biden and Senator John McCain.

While it is important to have Schwab in Davos for talks on reviving the failed Doha Round of the World Trade Organization negotiations, the U.S. delegation this year is inadequate and disappointing.

To be sure, President George W. Bush was busy preparing for his State of the Union Address on Jan. 23, but he could have sent a senior government official like the Secretary of State or an official with the Department of Defense to explain his new policy toward the war in Iraq, which looks increasingly like a second Vietnam War and for which he has requested some 23,000 more U.S. troops.

Bush could have sent also the most senior official in charge of the environment to talk about what the U.S. can and should do about climate change.

After all, the U.S. is the biggest producer of carbon dioxide, the key substance that causes global warming, or climate change. And yet, the Bush administration continues to refuse to sign the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

Finally, while the WEF can bring world leaders together, what they do or don't do after they leave Davos is beyond its control. This is like the old saying that "you can take a horse to water, but you can't force it to drink".

The writer is a former Manager for Asia at the World Economic Forum (WEF). More of his work can be read at This is a personal view.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

2006: A Year of Living Dangerously for Southeast Asia

By Thang D. Nguyen

JAKARTA—For Southeast Asia, 2006 was a year of living dangerously.

Indeed, a quick glance at each of the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) shows that while a few countries showed economic growth and political stability in 2006, others continued to be marred with political turmoil, corruption, poverty, disintegration, terrorism, and disasters—both natural and man-made.

For Indonesia, an ASEAN's leader and its largest member, 2006 was a relatively good year in security terms. For one thing, Jakarta has made peace with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and ended a three-decade war between the two. Most notably, on the eve of the two-year anniversary of the Asian Tsunami, which destroyed Aceh, the province ran peaceful and democratic elections.

Furthermore, the Indonesian government managed to arrest and put in jail a number of terrorists who launched the Bali bombings of 2003 and 2005; the J.W. Marriott Jakarta Hotel blast in 2003; and the bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta in 2004.

Nevertheless, the US and other critics have considered these verdicts to be lenient, particularly the recent release and vindication of Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, who is said to be the spiritual leader of the al Qada-linked \nJemaah Islamiyah (JI) , which was responsible for these attacks.

And exactly two years after the Asian Tsunami of 26 December 2004, the province of Aceh, northern Sumatra, was devastated again, this time with floods and landslides. The difference between this tragedy and the Tsunami is that the latter was natural while the former was man-made.

The cause of these floods and landslides, according to experts, was deforestation. A study by Greenomics, a non-governmental organization focusing on mining and forestry, found that affected areas contributed about 36 percent of timber to the reconstruction of Aceh and Nias, which had been hit hard by the Tsunami and earthquakes. \n The rest of the deforestation, the study said, was for farming and plantations.

To be sure, the Indonesian government had been warned about this tragedy. Last January, the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI) sent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) letter pointing out
To be sure, the Indonesian government had been warned about this tragedy. Last January, the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI) sent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) letter pointing out disaster-prone spots in Aceh. Unfortunately, the warning was not heeded.

"The floods and landslides were not natural disasters, but the fruits [sic] of daredevil negligence," WALHI disaster manager Sofyan told The Jakarta Post.

On the economic font, Indonesia's performance was unimpressive, particularly with increased poverty, inflation, and unemployment.

According to a World Bank study last November, Indonesia's poverty rate has reached 17.7 percent. Likewise, a survey by the TNS group found that 32 percent of respondents reported they are worse off because of increased transportation, food, and other costs of living.

And despite his polished international image, President Susilo is being criticized for failing to deliver his campaign premises on corruption, legal reform, and economic growth.

As for Thailand, ASEAN's second-largest member, 2006 was a year of turmoil. On 19 September, a military coup overthrew the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Sinawatra. The causes of the event were increasing pubic discontent of his dictatorship, corruption, and abuse of power. Even though it was bloodless, the coup has been dubbed a setback for Thailand's democracy.

What is more, just a few days before Christmas, the Thai baht was overvalued and put at a 9-year high against the US dollar and, as consequently, the Bank of Thailand had to issue a capital control to limit the flow of foreign currency out of economy.

While this was a temporary crisis that did not influence other countries, it sent a chilling reminder to Asia and the international investor community of the Asian financial crisis of 1997, which started out with in Thailand and contaminated other Asian economies.

More importantly, however, the coup leaders have failed to keep the nation secure until new elections, which are set for 2007. On New Year's Eve, a series of eight bombs went off in various locations in Bangkok, killing three and wounding 38 persons, including nine foreigners.

While it's unclear who was behind these attacks, Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont told reporters that "briefs from various intelligence agencies, based on evidence available, show that they [the blasts] came from groups that have lost political powers."

In the Philippines, ASEAN's third-largest member, weakened political leadership and terrorism continued to hinder the country's security and damaged ASEAN's image.

Last December, Manila was to host ASEAN's annual meeting in the city of Cebu, but called it off at the last minute, citing bad weather as the cause. But, alas, it was not the weather that shut down the event. For one thing, there was a terrorist threat in the area based on an Australian intelligence report.

Furthermore, the ASEAN summit was to take place at a heightened point in Manila as President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was under attack and, therefore, planning to call for an amendment of the Philippine constitution as a way to linger in power.

Amid criticism of the ASEAN non-summit, the Philippines announced that the event would take place in January 2007.

In Myanmar, the junta regime continued to defy both ASEAN's and international pressure to release democratic leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. In doing so, the junta leadership has damaged ASEAN's image as a powerless organization.

And three years after his retirement, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad turned around and launched a verbal attack on his hand-picked successor, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi. While Mahathir's attacks were acrimonious as usual, they did not seem to damage the soft-spoken Badawi. On the contrary, critics have now dubbed Mahathir a man with post-power syndrome. Despite this personal problem, Malaysia fared relatively well in security and economic terms.

As for Brunei, Laos, and Cambodia, 2006 was an uneventful event; these countries are usually quiet, by nature.

The last two members of ASEAN, Singapore and Vietnam, fared very well in 2006. Tiny Singapore, under the new leadership of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, posted positive economic growth.

Unlike the Philippines, Vietnam hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit successfully last December and was the fastest-growing economy in the whole ASEAN. With its new membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and political stability, Vietnam looks set to do well in 2007.

As ASEAN welcomed 2007, it is reminded of formidable challenges that its members have to deal with domestically, such as terrorism, disintegration, and poverty. As a group, ASEAN has to work much hearder to mend its already-damaged image; otherwise, it will be taken only as a talkshop--no more, no less.

The writer is a Jakarta-based columnist. His writing can be read at

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Domestic Politics Caused Terror in Thailand

By Thang D. Nguyen

JAKARTA-2007 looks like it will be another year of living dangerously for Thailand. On New Year's Eve, a series of six bombs went off in Bangkok, killing three and injuring 38 persons, including nine foreigners.

These blasts were the latest political development following a coup last September when Thai military leaders, who called themselves the Council for National Security (CNS), ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Sinawatra and took over the government.

As bloodless as it was, the September coup was, to be sure, a setback for Thailand's democracy and damaged the Thai economy, particularly the tourism industry-which has been, and will be, a sine qua non for Southeast Asia's second-largest economy.

To make matters worse, stock plunged by 15 percent after the Bank of Thailand (BoT) imposed capital control on 18 December as a way to curb the Thai baht's strength as it was overvalued against the US dollar, hurting exporters.

Shortly after the Bangkok blasts, Thai military-installed Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont was quick to say that "briefs from various intelligence agencies, based on evidence available, show that they [the blasts] came from groups that have lost political powers."

On his part, former Prime Minister Thaksin Sinawatra denied any involvement in the blasts.

"I strongly condemn this act and I swear that I never ever think of hurting the people and destroying the country's credibility for my own political gain," the toppled premier two in a letter from China.

Thaksin also suspected that Islamic separatists in southern Thailand, where they had been waging a bloody insurgency for the past three years, were behind the New Year's Eve blasts.

As expected, the CNS ruled out this possibility.

"The bandits and terrorist groups in southern Thailand had no links or connections to the bombs in Bangkok," Gen. Saprang Kanlayanamitr, a member of the CNS, told reporters.

While it's unclear who was-or were-behind the Bangkok blasts, one thing is certain: The cause was Thailand's domestic politics.

Unlike the Sept. 11 attacks, the London bombing in 2005, or the numerous bombings in Indonesia's resort island Bali and its capital Jakarta from 2002 to 2005, the targets were not foreigners, or foreign premises.

In other words, these attacks were directed at the Bush Administration, its unilateral foreign policy, and its allies, namelthe UK and Australia.

Rather, the target in the Bangkok blasts was the Thai junta who seized power after the September coup.

Whoever they may be, the perpetrators New Year's Eve bombs achieved their goal of discrediting the military-installed, interim government of Thailand.

And while the death toll and injury from the Bangkok blasts were not as serious as they could be, the political implications, of the event are significant.

For one thing, the blasts heightened Thailand's political instability. To be sure, Thailand is no stranger to military coups. And, of course, Muslim-majority southern Thailand has experienced deadly attacks, including bombs, from insurgent groups.

But, it was the first time the capital city of Bangkok was the site for such an attack, and this means the level of Thailand's instability is at its peak.

Second, the impact of this event on the embattled Thai economy is immense.

"Bangkok has changed overnight. People started to worry about their security and will keep money in their pocket," James Davison, vice-president for international business development at giant retail Central Group, told AFP.

Third, whoever was behind the Bangkok blasts, the message sent to the junta government was that managing Thailand is far more difficult than taking it by force.

"They [military leaders] are beginning to wake up to quite how difficult the task they have set themselves is, if you fling out a political leader who has support of 55 percent of the country," Chris Baker, a political analyst and Thaksin biographer, told AP.

It will take quite some time to find out--if ever--who were responsible for the New Year's Eve attacks.

Meanwhile, it is certain that 2007 will be a challenging one for Thailand.

For one thing, the junta government has to come up with security measures to ensure security for both Thais and foreigners, including tourists. On the economic front, this also means restoring investor confidence in the Thai economy.

Otherwise, capital flights will continue and tourists will stay away from Thailand.

What is more, whether Thaksin loyalists or southern Muslim separatists were behind the Bangkok blasts, the junta government has to find away to deal with them properly to ensure peace and security for the whole
kingdom of Thailand.

For now, it is interesting to see if the revered Thai monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, will do something--if any--to help his nation through this tough time.

In the past, King Bhumibol, whose position commands the ultimate authority in Thailand, has intervened in Thai politics when the nation was in trouble. If the king does not, this time, who can?

The writer is Jakarta-based columnist, whose writing can be read at He is also the editor of an upcoming book on Thailand.