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How Myanmar's presidency will be won (part 3)

by Rhys Thompson

In my previous posts, I discussed using the Presidential Electoral College (PEC) as a way of observing lobbying efforts leading up to the 2015 Myanmar elections, while also examining the challenges of winning the support of Myanmar's military, the Tatmadaw. In this post, I examine the issues facing candidates trying to win the support of the civilian contingent of the PEC. 

According to the 2008 constitution, one-third of the PEC is comprised of military MPs. This leaves two-thirds of the PEC comprised of civilians. The exact make-up will be unknown until after the elections, but based on the 2010 elections and 2012 by-elections, some assumptions can be made. 

Lower House of the Myanmar parliament. (Wikipedia.)

Short of a boycott, the National League for Democracy (NLD) is well placed to win a significant number of seats, which should give it prominent representation in the PEC. But this is also assuming the elections are free and fair and that the PEC is an accurate reflection of parliament's composition.

Former military and government officials, including members of the Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP), are also likely to figure strongly in this civilian MP group. With the recent rejection of the proportional representation system for the 2015 elections, ethnic groups are less likely to have such an influential representation, meaning that the PEC should largely consist of MPs from the first two parties.

Aung San Suu Kyi remains a popular candidate and will likely have the support of her party, the NLD, as well as other pro-democracy parties. This may extend to a few ethnic groups, even though some are reportedly not very supportive of her. 

But as noted in previous posts, Aung San Suu Kyi is ineligible for the presidency and recent comments by parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann seem to confirm this will not change until after 2015. This raises questions about what Aung San Suu Kyi will do, and who the NLD will support. The NLD has no clear succession plan and it is difficult to see Aung San Suu Kyi endorsing another NLD candidate for president, as it would mean nominating someone to a higher position than her who would likely be viewed publicly as her puppet. 

In September, Reuters reported that the NLD would support the Shwe Mann, but the party was quick to deny this. However, a recent report claimed that Aung San Suu Kyi had since accepted she will not attain the presidency and is seeking Shwe Mann's assistance to become the next speaker in parliament. But this has not yet been confirmed.

Nonetheless, Aung San Suu Kyi and Shwe Mann have seemingly developed a close relationship, almost appearing to be working together towards a shared goal of reform in Myanmar. However, it is more likely that each saw the value in the other's support bases (Aung San Suu Kyi's being the NLD and Shwe Mann's being the USDP), and both were using the other to further their own goals. If the report is true, this could give Shwe Mann considerable support in the new parliament and the PEC.

But Shwe Mann also faces some reputational issues. Before the 2010 elections, several observers predicted Shwe Mann would be appointed president, but he was overlooked for U Thein Sein. This, some speculated, was because Thein Sein was the 'cleanest' of the generals and the best face for the new government. Shwe Mann had reportedly used his position to further his family's private business interests; they of course denied this. Despite Aung San Suu Kyi's apparent acceptance of the Myanmar businessmen formerly known as 'cronies', does the NLD want to support a candidate that the military may not have considered 'clean enough' the first time around?

Yet such a past may reassure other former officials who exploited their connections and who may end up as MPs for other parties. After all, it would be difficult for Shwe Mann to target such activities without his own coming to light. 

However, the NLD may not actually trust Shwe Mann and his recent announcement seems to have irritated some NLD members. If the NLD, and especially Aung San Suu Kyi, view him as part of the process that bars her from being eligible, they may choose to support and make deals with another candidate. 

Supporting Tatmadaw commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing would likely earn the NLD significant political capital with the armed forces and may improve its ability to influence it. Moreover, Aung San Suu Kyi has rarely criticised Min Aung Hlaing. 

It is also difficult to predict which way the USDP will swing, but Thein Sein stands out as a formidable contender. His reputation as a reformer and his leadership in the political transition is also more likely to earn him broader public support than Shwe Mann or Min Aung Hlaing. While the military's influence in the USDP is unknown, it could probably swing votes if it wanted to.

Separately, if Thein Sein can secure national ceasefire agreements, this may earn additional support from ethnic political parties as well as pro-democracy groups. Conversely, continued fighting is unlikely to help Min Aung Hlaing's support in the ethnic groups.

By contrast, NLD may not be inclined to support U Thein Sein. There have been reports of a rift between Aung San Suu Kyi and Thein Sein for some time and she has publicly leveled criticisms at him, while generally avoiding the other two identified contenders. However, if Thein Sein agreed to serve again, but not for a full term, this may not matter. He may receive enough support to serve a few years before handing over to another favourable candidate.


2014 in review: Leon Berkelmans and Stephen Grenville on the global economy

by Sam Roggeveen

Is this the year the shine came off Abenomics? That's my opening gambit to the Lowy Institute's Leon Berkelmans and Stephen Grenville in this end of year chat.

There's also lots of talk on China's growth, the Indian election, European stagnation, Thomas Piketty and Angus Deaton.


2014 in review: Jenny Hayward-Jones and Mark Tamsitt on the Pacific Islands region

by Sam Roggeveen

Fiji grabbed all the headlines in the Pacific Islands region this year, as you will hear from Lowy Institute experts Jenny Hayward-Jones and Mark Tamsitt in the podcast below. There was not only a successful election but also a reset in relations with Australia and visits by Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi.

Listen too for Jenny and Mark's thoughts on the Solomon Islands election, and an extraordinary fact about PNG, which is due to record the highest GDP growth of any nation in the world, and is also one of only three countries to fail to meet any of the UN's Millennium Development Goals. The other two? North Korea and Zimbabwe.


Lowy Institute's books of the year 2014, part 5

by guest blogger – blank

As we approach Christmas, we offer selections from Lowy Institute staff and Interpreter contributors for the best book they have read this year. Part 1, 2, 3 and 4.

The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide, by Gary J Bass. Selected by Ric Smith, a former Secretary of the Department of Defence and a Lowy Institute Nonresident Fellow.

Gary Bass's The Blood Telegram is an instructive read. It reminds us of what its sub-title describes as 'A Forgotten Genocide' — the killing of some 300,000 Bengalis and the displacement of some 10 million people from East Pakistan in 1971 — and of the folly of US policy at the time.

Clever as they were in creating the opening to China, Nixon and Kissinger placed the US on the wrong side (both morally and in realpolitik) of the 1971 conflict, allowing themselves to become hostage to Pakistan's inept military regime and contributing to Indian mistrust of the US, with enduring consequences.

The book's title refers to the cable sent by the US Consul General in Dakha, Archer Blood, which questioned American policy, a courageous 'policy dissent' missive which cost him his career. Blood would have been more comfortable with Australia's policy, so different was it from that of the US.

Separatist Conflict in Indonesia: The Long-Distance Politics of the Acehnese Diaspora, by Antje Missbach. Selected by Peter McCawley, Visiting Fellow with the Indonesia Project at the Australian National University.

All politics is local, and local conflicts are a serious problem in many parts of Asia. In the Philippines, peace still eludes negotiators in Mindanao; in Thailand, conflict continues to cause problems in the south; in Myanmar, the bitter disputes with numerous ethnic groups all around its borders have imposed a huge cost on the nation; and it is probably only a matter of time before problems flare up again in Papua to create difficulties for both Indonesia and Australia.

So I found Antje Missbach's good book on separatist conflict in Aceh useful for several reasons.

First, Missbach thoughtfully explores the factors that helped fuel conflict in Aceh for almost 30 years up to 2005. Understanding these issues helps us understand local conflicts in other parts of Indonesia too, and provides lessons to guide policy in responding to future local conflicts. Second, quite a few of the lessons from Aceh are relevant for understanding regional conflicts in other parts of Asia. The local politics of the conflict in Aceh were complex. There were marked divisions within the Acehnese resistance groups, and the influence of the tiny Acehnese diaspora in Sweden was remarkably important. 

It is clear that for some local conflicts, at least, external support is a powerful factor that provides encouragement to local combatants to continue their fight. It is not surprising that in Papua, the Free Papua Movement values support from activists in Australia.

River of Smoke, by Amitav Ghosh. Selected by Philippa Brant, a Research Associate at the Lowy Institute.

I love historical fiction, or novels set in certain periods that tell stories through great characters. So I was rapt to discover Amitav Ghosh's Ibis trilogy a couple of years ago.

The novels are set during the height of the 19th century opium trade. The first, Sea of Poppies, is primarily based in India. Earlier this year I read the second, River of Smoke. It takes us to Canton China and the chaos and charm of the foreign enclave, 'Fanqui-town'. The novel centres around Bahram Modi, an independent Indian businessmen in a trade dominated by the British. The cast of characters and their different tongues brings to life the clash of cultures and class at a pivotal moment in Chinese history.


North Korea on the big screen

by Robert E Kelly


You may have heard about a new comedy movie about North Korea. In The Interview, two American journalists are recruited by the CIA to assassinate Kim Jong-Un, who is portrayed as an obese, cigar-chomping playboy (which is likely not far from the truth). In response, it appears North Korea has hacked Sony Studios. After the hackers made threats against cinemas showing the movie, Sony pulled the planned Christmas release.

This North Korean reaction is not too surprising. As a neo-patrimonial sun-king cult, it cannot easily tolerate mockery of a leadership it suggests is semi-divine. It is also increasingly clear from Northern cyber-attacks on South Korean institutions that North Korea is ramping up in this area. Indeed, cyber, with its unclear rules for what constitutes aggression, is an ideal twilight space for North Korea to operate in.

Last month I wrote here about the South Korean film industry and its geopolitical penchant to plot around over-the-top American villains. Antagonists are often from the North, unsurprisingly, but usually the Northern and Southern characters discover their shared Korean brotherhood as the film unfolds. Together they then rally against the real enemy, a role often conveniently filled by the Yanks. But this month I thought I would look at portrayals of the North in South Korean and American film in the run-up The Interview (which unfortunately does not look very good; its pre-release Rotten Tomatoes score is just 50%).

North Korea in South Korean cinema

This is a huge topic. Not surprisingly, North Korea is a constant, lurking background for much Korean film, but I thought I would focus here on a few major geopolitical films in the last two decades. The overwhelming emphasis, contrary to US portrayals of evil North Korea, is on the DPRK as a tragically divided brother of the same family. The heartbreak of national division is regularly (and rightfully) mined for deep emotional impact on the viewer, as films on civil wars (such as Gettysburg) often do. For readers with little knowledge of Korean film but interest in North-South issues, the following are worth your time:

1. Brotherhood of War (2004). This is the biggest and the best of the recent South Korean films on national division. It portrays the Korean War with disturbingly graphic yet credible violence, and demonstrates just how confused loyalties became. While the North is the aggressor, Southern atrocities and poor leadership are shown as well. Such honesty is rare in South Korean film and a major mark in favour of the movie.

Two brothers are shown landing on different sides of the conflict. Although this is a fairly transparent metaphor to show the division of Korea, it does reflect the reality that national division in the 1940s split some families (although not nearly as many as you see in the movies). In the midst of extraordinary carnage and waste, the two brothers eventually face each other on the battlefield. While much of the plot and characters are cliché, and the film clearly rips off Saving Private Ryan, it is still the best Korean War film I have seen. It conveys confusion, heartache, and sheer horror, without the silly North Korean comic book villains that mar so much Western film.

2. JSA: Joint Security Area (2000). Another strong film that investigates the pain of national division, with an extremely poignant ending shot. Two border guards from the South and two from the North (rather improbably) strike up a friendship across the Demilitarized Zone. This leads to much metaphorical line-crossing, intermingling, and references to one another as 'brother.' Again, it is fairly emotionally cliché but powerful nonetheless, and I find that Koreans I have watched it with are quite moved by the interaction and inevitable tragedy that ends it. Once again, the North and South are cast as tragically and inexplicably opposed brothers of the same family. Ideology is scarcely mentioned.

3. Shiri (1999). This is a mix of Mata Hari and James Bond: a beautiful female North Korean agent infiltrates Southern intelligence, launching plots that could provoke a war. Her romantic involvement with a Southerner again serves to blend the two Koreas and stress their unity against a tragic geopolitical backdrop. And again, no mention is made that, by the period in which the film story occurs, persistent national division was almost exclusively the fault of persistent, post-Cold War Northern intransigence. While I did not find this particularly good, it was a big hit in South Korea and fueled a wave of inter-Korean movies in the 2000s.

4. 71: Into the Fire (2010). Yet another sad film about the brutality and awfulness of the 1950 war. Based on a true story, a group of Southern students fights to defend their high school against the Northern invasion. Rare for Southern film, the North is portrayed harshly as aggressive imperialists.

US films on North Korea

In contrast to South Korea's marked seriousness and constant tragic emphasis, US film almost exclusively uses North Korea as a punch-line or preposterously powerful comic-book villain. Aliens, Nazis, and post-Soviet Russian gangsters have been used as villains in movies so many times that I guess we need new ones. But the Chinese movie market is too big and too censored to allow Beijing to be alienated with believable stories about Sino-US competition (a shame, that). So instead we get North Korean villains standing in. They are 'Asian' enough to give a hint of China without actually provoking the wrath of its censors:

5. Team America: World Police (2004). Probably the best 'portrayal' of North Korea in American film, because it is a hysterical lampoon that does not take itself seriously like the others below. It's very funny, although don't overlook the ethical issues of laughing about the worst country on earth.

6. Homefront (video game), (2011). This is not a movie, but it does seem to have a launched (below) a bizarre entertainment sub-genre of North Korean invasions of the US. Here is where the US entertainment industry goes off the rails and abjures serious treatment to South Korean filmmakers. Homefront is basically a video-game re-make of the film Red Dawn (1984), in which a group of good-looking young American resistance fighters wage a guerilla conflict against a Soviet invasion of the continental US.

That film has become a campy pseudo-classic of the Cold War, but the game update simply flies over the edge in asking players to believe that North Korea re-unifies Korea, absorbs Japan and then Southeast Asia. These resources in turn fuel its invasion of the US west coast. Hah! There are so many leaps of logic that the whole thing just falls apart. But there are always enough idiot fan-boys to suggest it 'might actually happen, dude!!' And it sold well enough that the Norks will try again to invade America in next year's sequel.

7. Red Dawn (remake), (2012). This film is simultaneously a re-make of the 1984 original and a rip-off of the game just mentioned (demonstrating yet again how bereft Hollywood is of ideas). It is awful, lacking even the camp fun of the game and film. Hot young models in tight-fighting clothes fire rockets and automatic weapons at Korean-Americans with bad accents. Yawn.

More interestingly though, this film was the first major casualty of Chinese geopolitical-cinematic pressure on Hollywood. The original version had contemporary China substitute for the earlier Soviet role as American invader. This far more credible (and potentially exciting) premise was dropped under pressure from Beijing, in exchange for the preposterous notion that North Korea has the resources to launch a trans-Pacific invasion of America. Whatever...

8. Olympus has Fallen, (2013). Yet a third 'North Korea invades America' premise in as many years. Does that mean something? Are Americans obsessed with North Korea, with being invaded, or have we just run out of bad guys? This film's premise is 'Die Hard in the White House': a lone American hero battles Nork agents who take over the White House. Once again, it's laughably ridiculous, but the White House take-over sequence is actually pretty exciting.

9. Die Another Day (2002). And what would such a list be without a Bond film and a super-villain so ridiculous – and with such fluent English! – that it makes Team America look like sophisticated international relations analysis. But if you really feel compelled to scrape the bottom of the barrel of direct-to-video, try this.

So there's so fun geopolitical entertainment for you to relax with over the holidays! Merry Christmas!


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