You were in Hong Kong at the beginning of the whole Snowden affair. You describe the tone of barroom conversations among journalists at the time in a recent article in The Diplomat. What were most journalists expecting to happen in this situation? Did his smooth departure for Moscow come as a surprise?
Opinions were harshly divided over what would come next, where he would go, whether he should remain and how Hong Kong would handle it. In the end he opted for Russia and simply flew out, which did not surprise me. This undermined his argument that he was a proud American acting in the best interests of humanity. At the end of the day Snowden was like Jane Fonda arriving in Hanoi back in 1972 – misguided, arrogant and a little bit tragic.
What was the prevailing opinion among ordinary Hong Kong citizens and expats about his presence, particularly in light of what he represented for Beijing-Washington relations?Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Hong Kong has had a long history of intrigue and Cold War double-dealing which has largely dissipated since 1997, when the British handed the territory over to Chinese rule. Having Snowden in the backyard reminded ordinary Hong Kongers of the city’s enduring strategic importance as a gateway to China, as a regional media center and as an attractive destination for free thinkers and I think they liked that.
Beijing-Washington relations were confined more to the U.S.-based media, with Americans claiming China had overridden the territory’s independence and rule of law. But this had a hollow ring. If the boot was on the other foot, can you imagine the Americans simply handing over a Russian who had arrived in Puerto Rico with state secrets and looking for a friendly U.S. government agent?
Have you spent time in any of the smog-filled parts of Southeast Asia in recent days – or at another such time in the past? If so, what is it like on the ground and what are people saying regarding regional governments’ role in it?
I have seen, smelled and tasted the haze many times over many years. It is every bit as bad as the unwanted publicity surrounding it. There should be no argument. This is caused by the relentless burning off of forests in Sumatra and elsewhere by large palm oil companies, who are backed by sovereign wealth funds and regional governments – especially Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
The fact that these governments are yelling about this now is childish and not convincing. It happens every year and the damage caused is on a global scale and is accelerating global warming. These companies should be sued for damages. Asthmatics would have a strong case for a class action suit.
I don’t want to be shrill, but a case could probably be mounted before the International Criminal Court. One can only imagine that the right to breathe clean air is a human right and in Southeast Asia this has been denied.
In the past you have written about saving Malaysia’s rain forests, corrupt logging corporations and more. What are the links between the ongoing forest fires and some of the other issues you’ve written about in the past?
It’s all inter-related. What’s happening now with the haze is the result of the political and corporate cultures which constantly overlap with the shots called by the region’s wealthiest families who control the companies and the political parties. The separation of powers is a concept barely understood and greed is overwhelming as such the haze will continue to re-occur for years to come. There’s 20 million hectares of peat in Indonesia alone and it’s up to 20 meters deep. Scientists expect this to be gone by 2040 but imagine the legacy. The legacy will be the carbon dioxide that you and I will be breathing — Indonesian peat bogs contain 50 billion tons of carbon.
Another major issue that is coming up in Southeast Asia these days is anti-Muslim violence in Burma and its victims, such as the Rohingyas who have become a giant refugee community. Before political change swept Burma in recent years, was the Buddhist-Muslim tension as widespread as today? Have you observed it first hand?
Buddhist-Muslim tensions have shocked everybody. I have my own sources in Sittwe where much of the trouble has been reported. There had not been any real problems reported between the religions during recent decades and it seems to have spread with Burma’s attempts to come in from the cold.
Nevertheless, Buddhist militancy is not new despite popular stereotypes to the contrary and those responsible for the violence should be tried as common criminals. That does not seem to be happening.
Many of your articles take a critical stance towards the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In light of all these issues (except Snowden), do you think its ten member nations tend to hurt more than help issues that spill across national borders? If so, do you see any indication that the grouping is gradually becoming more cohesive with time?
It has actually become less cohesive – the insurgency in Sabah mounted by Filipino mercenaries earlier this year is a prime example. ASEAN was designed to counter communism amid U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War in the 1960s. The original members – Singapore, Malaysia, The Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand – were Cold War allies and found common ground on defense, foreign relations, finance and trade. People had a right to vote and practice their religion.
However, those values have been challenged since Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and, to a lesser extent, Brunei were admitted. The policy of non-interference in a neighbor’s internal affairs means issues fester. This resulted in a border war between Cambodia and Thailand over Preah Vihear in 2008 and the rest of ASEAN could do little.
ASEAN’s role has primarily been reduced to just trade and whether or not this can succeed will depend on the introduction of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) by the end of 2015. If the AEC takes hold then perhaps a more cohesive region in terms of politics with a social conscience will emerge. If that can be achieved it might find a bit more modern day relevance.