This week around Asia

The Donald and The Lady

This is a weekly blog by Associate Editor Ravi Velloor offering his take on events around Asia and those that affect the region. It is exclusive to The Straits Times digital edition.

This week will be remembered for speeches by two people who represent quite opposite ends of the spectrum in everything from the state of development of their nations to personal temperaments: US President Donald Trump who made his first address to the United Nations since taking charge in January, and Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi who avoided the annual trip to the UN and instead spoke from home.

Mr Trump's speech to the world underscored just who matters in his universe and that is the mostly White, working class, middle America base that sent him to office.

And this, at least initially in his speech, was the constituency he addressed, starting out with several minutes devoted to his America First policy, variants of which, he suggested, ought to be considered by other leaders in their own turf.

Not surprisingly for a Trump address, the speech was part grievance, part hostility.

He derided North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as "Rocket Man", flippantly taking the weight off several sensible points he made about Pyongyang's barbarity and cruelty.

Then, with Israeli Prime Miniser Netanyahu in the audience, nodding approvingly, Mr Trump went on to call the Obama administration's agreement with Iran one of the "worst and most one-sided" the US has ever entered into. If he has his way, it is clear, he might just abrogate that accord.

Any surprise that Iran's moderate President, Mr Hassan Rohani, whose government has kept its word on putting the lid on its nuclear programme, saw red at the remarks!

Or that North Korea's Mr Kim drew the correct lesson-that the US could not be held to its word on a solemn deal and it thus makes cold sense to protect himself with a nuclear armour.

 
 
 

Interestingly, while his Rocket Man comments and threats to destroy North Korea caught all the headlines, he made some points on Afghanistan and South-east Asia that deserved more attention.

South-east Asians might note that the speech called upon the world to "reject threats to sovereignty from the Ukraine to the South China Sea".

It went on to add: "We must uphold respect for law, respect for borders, and respect for culture, and the peaceful engagement these allow." Strong words if he meant what he said.

And that's the thing. We need to allow at least a week to pass to see if Mr Trump withdraws, or modifies, any of the remarks to reveal his true feeling.

Listening to his speech, and reading all the criticism heaped on him later, you could not help thinking that Mr Trump's speechwriter may have had his own boss in mind, when he borrowed the Elton John song title to caricature Mr Kim as Rocket Man.

The US President, we know, is not much of a weekend warrior, given his proclivity to jet off to one of his resorts between Friday and Monday. The minutiae of government, or global politics, is not something that seizes him, unlike his painfully detail-minded predecessor.

Iran's Mr Rohani wasn't inaccurate when, without naming Mr Trump directly, referred to "rogue newcomers to the world of politics".

If you know the lyrics of Rocket Man, some of them ring true for Mr Trump. Witness:

And all this science I don't understand

It's just my job five days a week

A rocket man, a rocket man.

As for the response to his speech, early in his tenure Mr Trump had seemed to suggest he was open to a dialogue with Mr Kim. He seems to have succeeded, partially.

One American satirist thought that Mr Kim might respond with his own Elton John adaptation by threatening a Goodbye Yellow-Wigged Toad.

Instead, Mr Kim, the Boy with the Nuclear Toy, likened the US leader to a "frightened dog" that barks louder and vowed to make him "pay dearly for his speech".

What of The Lady, as Ms Suu Kyi is called in her country?

Sadly, this woman, celebrated globally for her courage, shied away from appearing at the UN seeking to avoid embarrassing criticism of her own paralysis on the Rohingya matter that has brought such ill fame to Myanmar.


Rohingya refugees shelter from the rain in a camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, on Sept 17, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

Instead, she spoke in Naypyitaw to a selection of journalists and diplomats, offering a sad, and sometimes untrue, explanation of her government's handling of the Rohingya Muslims, whose exodus towards Bangladesh and elsewhere has now become a global story.

Observers noted that not once did she even utter the word "Rohingya", instead referring to them as "Muslims" of Rakhine state.

 
 
 

Ms Suu Kyi said Myanmar "does not fear international scrutiny" and that since Sept 5, "no armed clashes and no clearance operations" have taken place in the Rakhine. She also claimed that "a vast majority of the Muslims in the Rakhine state have not joined the exodus".

Following her half-hour speech, made in English, fact-checkers had a field day pointing to inaccuracies in her statements.

For instance, violence, and clearance operations, seem to have continued past the date she mentioned.

The most painful put-down of Ms Suu Kyi came from Amnesty International's Director for South-east Asia and Pacific, Mr James Gomez.

Ms Suu Kyi's speech, he said, "at times amounted to little more than a mix of untruths and victim blaming".

There was a time when Ms Suu Kyi's name looked like lighting up a pantheon that include the likes of Gandhi and Mandela, leaders who stood for a truth larger than their own nations.

After this week, however, that seems unlikely.