Thailand

The Obama administration deserves credit for the successes produced so far by its “pivot to Asia”, from the encouragement of political reform in Myanmar, to the creation of a permanent Marines base in Australia, to the initiation of joint military exercises with the Philippines.

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“Even the Costa Ricans have health insurance for all their people.” That was Howard Dean’s old line, when he was talking about all the countries that had universal health care.

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Today, Yingluck Shinawatra, a 44-year-old businesswoman, was selected as Thailand’s first female prime minister. The new leader faces a delicate balancing act. In recent years, Thailand has witnessed violent strife, and Yingluck will have to answer to both the country’s military elite and her activist supporters, who seek to bring the military to account for its role in suppressing recent protests. It’s a tall order for any political leader, but observers will be watching Yingluck especially closely, since she’s a political novice (her background is in business).

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On Sunday, in the first national elections in four years, Thailand’s voters decisively backed the populist Puea Thai Party, delivering an apparently crushing blow to Thailand’s establishment—urban elites, the military, and the powerful royal family. The establishment had backed the Democrat Party, which took power in the wake of a palace-backed coup in 2006 that deposed Puea Thai’s predecessor, another party run by business tycoon and then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the first Thai politician to truly court the votes of the poor.

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As the revolt that started this past winter in Tunisia spread to Egypt, Libya, and beyond, dissidents the world over were looking to the Middle East for inspiration. In China, online activists inspired by the Arab Spring called for a “jasmine revolution.” In Singapore, one of the quietest countries in the world, opposition members called for an “orchid evolution” in the run-up to this month’s national elections. Perhaps as a result, those watching from the West have been positively triumphalist in their predictions.

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For about half the picture, the hero of The Bridge on the River Kwai is a British Colonel (Alec Guiness) whose depth of courage and sense of duty is at once touching, magnificent, and comic. Part of the success of The Bridge is that its courageous hero is shown from all angles, in all kinds of mirrors. He is strong, stubborn, fallible, maniacal, silly, and wise; and in the end he is pathetic, noble, and foolish. It is as the picture progresses that you become increasingly aware of the complexity—the pathos, the foolishness, the nobility—of the Colonel’s actions.

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Compared to most of its Asian neighbors, Japan seems like a very different society. Unlike in Bangkok or Rangoon or Jakarta, schedules run on time in Japanese cities, and essential services, from street cleaning to tax collection, work effectively. Though it slipped this year from the second largest to the third largest economy in the world, Japan remains, on a per capita basis, far wealthier than China, and, despite years of economic stagnation, its manufacturing firms remain among the best in the world.

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Disastrous

Chiang Mai, Thailand—Burma’s political isolation doesn’t make it immune from nature. Thursday’s major earthquake, of 6.8 magnitude, struck the northeast of the country, in Shan State. Preliminary reports put the death toll at more than 150, and there are reports of widespread destruction of buildings, bridges, and roads, including 250 houses and Buddhist monasteries destroyed. Given the rugged terrain and poor communication resources, it may be some time before the real human and material toll is known.

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Over the next few months, the dedicated Reagan fan will have numerous opportunities to celebrate the fortieth president. There are tributes at a NASCAR race in California in late March and at Chicago’s Wrigley Field in early August. The Gipper’s hometown— Dixon, Illinois—will host a “Dutch” ice cream social in September; Washington will throw a gala in May, and London will unveil a statue on July 4.

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The Escape Artist

How Timothy Geithner survived.

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