Bush Goes Looking for Relevance, A Legacy in Asia

So George Bush is in Asia today!

Let's not pretend the top priority of the Sportsman-President's trip is anything other than Olympic spectating, but to be fair, the lame duck has scheduled a few, final days in Asia to eke out some good feelings (if not good policy) and glad hand his way out of a region that, for the most part, he's ignored for years.

That's no easy task, and Bush started readying for the mission a week ago, when he met with a group of Asian editors and tried to win them over with his charm and unique telling of things. In the 50-minute interview, he chortled about being a sportsman and a president and reassured all that the US had not sacrificed foreign policy in the Far East for its single-minded focus on the GWOT. US relations with the Far East are in fact, "strong and robust," he said.

And perhaps in relative terms they are. Bush has spent far less time making messes in Asia than in other parts of the world.

At the same time, he is far from popular in the Far East, and Bush began his three day pre-Olympics swing through the region in South Korea, where he was met by jeering from the country's mad cow fearing crowds and much tension about US beef imports.

Bush has since moved here to Thailand, the born-again democracy, where the celebration of 175 years of Thai-US relations and the President himself, have so far garnered little time or attention.

In the last few days, Bush has gotten far less press in local papers than a 14 year old boy who killed his cab driver after playing too much Grand Theft Auto and news of his visit has perhaps generated most buzz at Patpong, Bangkok's most famous red light district, where rumors of a police crackdown (on fake Prada and pirated CDs, not the ping-pong shows) have swirled for days. It was speculated that with Bush in town, Thailand would try to apple polish its way off the US' IPR priority watch list. (Patpong's counterfeit trade was full swing Monday night, though -- maybe the man really is irrelevant.)

Bush has marked Bangkok as the spot where he'll give his final foreign policy address on Asia, and while he's likely to acknowledge the anniversary and Thailand's return to democracy, the trip to Thailand is really more about its western neighbor, Burma.

It's a big week there after all -- numerologists and historians alike will be quick to point out the significance of Friday (8-8-08), which marks the 20th anniversary of the momentous 8-8-88, when university students staged an uprising for democracy.

The generals get spooked anytime the calendar shakes outs dates like that, and it is unlikely the visit of an eighth-year American president (even a lame duck one), and his meeting with Burmese activists in the region will do little to ease their nerves.

While in Bangkok, Bush plans to meet Burmese activists, while first lady, Laura -- a bit of Burma activist herself -- trips up to Mae La, the largest of the nine refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border, which are collectively home to 140,000 of Burma's ethnic peoples, some of whom have been languishing at the sites for 24 years. Since 2005, the US and several other countries have been quietly staging the world's largest resettlement effort out of the camps -- the US has agreed to resettle 60,000 Burmese by 2010.

In last week's interview, Bush commended Thailand for its "very wise and very humane" border and refugee policies, an interesting take on a situation, which just two months ago, the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants rated as one of the 10 worst for refugees around the world. (To be fair, the situation is complex, and Thailand's record falls somewhere between the two assessments.)

Betting on fate (or calendar dates) is one way to go, and Burma may be Bush's best last chance to reshape a legacy here, that while rarely discussed, is likely to be his outsourcing of the Global War on Terror and US torture techniques to Thailand.

Though it was vigorously denied by Thai and US officials at the time, it's now widely accepted that Thailand was home to the US' black cell secret prison site where CIA agents waterboarded (and videotaped it) terrorism suspects.

Hambali, the mastermind of the Bali bombing, was also captured in Thailand and whisked away in a not-exactly-by-the-books (um, rendition?) extradition by the US. He hasn't really been mentioned here again.

These incidents, as well as the close ties between Thai and US military forces have only inflamed the insurgency in Thailand's mostly Muslim deep South, where a separatist movement has carried out a grisly campaign of bombings, beheadings and civilian killing that since 2004 has claimed 3,000 lives, but little media attention.

While the conflict has deep roots, more recent links between Thailand's insurgents and al-Qaeda, JI, and even a chain of Malaysian restaurants have been drawn and refuted many times, and there is still little consensus as to who or what is behind the separatist movement.
Meanwhile, it's been reported by human rights groups and media that Thai soldiers in the deep South are using detention and torture techniques similar to those employed by the US at Abu Gharib and Guantanamo.

US policy and the Bush administration are thus, not surprisingly, loathed in the deep South. I learned (and was told) fast into my first trip to the region not to identify myself as American, an admission that invariably provokes diatribe, uncomfortable silence, or worse.

The extent of these bad feelings became most clear when I was speaking with a Muslim teen, whose mouth tightened and tone changed, when I mentioned being from the US. He was not an insurgent or even politically active, but a somewhat apathetic and totally normal 18 year-old who worked in retail and wanted a girlfriend. He gave the impression of being bored with life, but became full of fire when it came to American policy in the Middle East. He said it had led many of his friends join religious pondok schools when America had gone to war in Afghanistan. He, like many others I met, suspected the CIA was up to things in the deep South.

Thais elsewhere are considerably less expressive about the subject, and the story of the secret prison is one that is rarely mentioned outside the blogosphere. While its a story most Thais might prefer to leave back in the days of deposed prime minister (and its likely dealmaker), Thaksin Shinawatra, the inevitable examination of the US' torture policy may make this hard to do. Thaksin has proven a hard cat for the country to shake so far, and this dark aspect of Thai-US history may go that way too.