Jonah Blank

Articles in The Atlantic

The Strange Thai Insurgents Who Like Sorcery and Get High on Cough Syrup

You probably haven't heard of the Pattani revolt. The affected parts of souther Thailand lie less than 400 miles from the holiday-makters' utopia of Phuket, but the world of beaches and the world of bombs don't exist in the same universe.

The story of the Pattani uprising is one of blood and magic, of outrageous characters living in the 21st century but simultaneously in the 16th.  It is a tale of a revolutionary movement with an impenetrable cell structure, seeking the restoration of a long-dead sultanate, in the name of an ethnic identity that none of its champions can convincingly describe.   It reveals a great deal about radical Islam— or perhaps nothing whatsoever.  Most of all, it is a cautionary lesson for anyone claiming to understand such grand notions as “Islamist terrorism” or “globalized jihad”: If all politics is local, perhaps all insurgency is as well.  A sample:

"Before a cool April dawn in 2004, a hundred machete-armed guerrillas launched simultaneous attacks on eleven policy and army posts, then took refuge in the mosque. Some were high on a brew of cough syrup, Coca-Cola, and a narcotic plant called kratom.  Some were motorcyle-riding 'pilgrim bandits,' half hajji and half Hell's Angels.  Most wore amulets that they believed made them invisible to their enemies, or capable of teleportation, or invulnerable to any type of weaponry.  The talismans proved no match for the Thai army's machine-guns and rocket-propelled grenades.  The blood has been washed from the courtyard stones, but the bullet-holes in the sign at the mosque's portal remain defiantly unfilled to this day."

China’s Might Claims Another Victim— The NBA

How are the world's best basketball players (and the executives who profit from them) getting dunked on by the Beijing Cadres?  A case-study in how China uses its economic leverage to force companies and nations to observe toe the party line on Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet.   A sample:

"China has produced only a single NBA megastar: Yao Ming, the Rockets’ center from 2002 to 2011. So when the Beijing bosses decided to send a message to all global corporations in all types of business, they picked the highest-profile target they could find. The head of the Chinese Basketball Association that severed ties with the Rockets at once? A 7-foot-6-inch executive by the name of Yao Ming."

What Malaysia Can Teach America’s Aging Leadership

At the last US Democratic debate, three septuagenarian challengers vied for the chance to take on a septuagenarian president.  Or, as the 94-year-old prime minister of Malaysia might say: A whippersnapper.  What lessons can the world's oldest national leader have for Americans choosing between candidates who are a bit long in the tooth?   A sample:

"Lesson One: Follow an incumbent whose failures would make anyone look good. Najib Razak, Dr. M.’s immediate predecessor, first got in trouble in a rather gothic way: A Mongolian model, translator, and mistress of Najib’s top aide was reportedly blackmailing her lover for a share of the kickbacks he’d received from the purchase of two French submarines; she was murdered, and her body was disposed of by high explosives.  Not a good look for the prime minister, but (many voters shrugged) politics is like that.  A few years later, another scandal became public: This one featured 12,000 pieces of jewelry, 500 handbags, Britney Spears popping out of a birthday cake, and a Hollywood blockbuster about corrupt Wall Street con-artistry— bankrolled itself by corrupt Wall Street con-artisty.  Since this was a financial scandal, it necessarily involved Goldman Sachs.  And it bilked the taxpayers out of $4.5 billion."

How the (Once) Most Corrupt Country in the World got Clean(er)

For decades in Indonesia, the corruption had been like the humidity: Always there.  On Transparency International’s initial listing of nations’ perceived corruption in 1995, Indonesia ranked dead-worst. Last year, it clocked in at 89 out of 180: The first time it ever broke into the top half of the chart.  Hardly Finland—but no longer Angola.  What lessons does Indonesia have for the rest of us?  A  sample:

"When longtime dictator Suharto fell from power in 1998, he left a legacy of corruption that permeated every level of society. He is estimated to have pilfered $15-$35 billion during his three decades in power—earning the title of world’s most corrupt leader, and leaving zealous treasury-looters like Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko ($5 billion) far in the dust. His example filtered down from ministers doling out project funds in gilded offices to traffic-cops hustling payoffs on dusty street-corners...

"In America today, very few high-ranking officials are ever jailed. An occasional Congressman-- out of 435 serving at any time-- may wind up in Club Fed, but only if he's both exceptionally venal and exceptionally careless. Anyone higher up the food chain can reasonably expect to receive nothing more than a fine and probation. This is not because American politics are unusually clean -- indeed, the US ranks only 22nd on Transparency International's index. It would be hard to argue that the current US Administration has been a paragon of righteousness..."

India Just Put Democracy at Risk Across South Asia

If you didn’t notice that Prime Minister Narendra Modi just changed the status of the restive Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, I understand. On August 5, his government introduced legislation to abrogate Article 370, and even Article 35A, and—see, I’ve lost you already. But don’t let jargon and legalese distract you: This may be the most important event in an enormously volatile part of the world since the end of the last century.   A sample:

"Democracy is not a set of principles carved in stone. It is a living idea that changes over time. In ancient Athens, it excluded both women and ethnic minorities; in not-so-ancient America, much the same. Majoritarianism and institutional protection of minorities often stand in tension. Which of these principles will win out in each of the world’s democracies remains very much an open question...

"The voices most conspicuously absent in the debate on Kashmir have been those of the Kashmiris themselves.   Once the telecommunications ban is lifted, they will start to speak.  But will it even matter?  Under a majoritarian view of democracy, they’ve already been voted down: The combined votes of every single Muslim in undivided Jammu and Kashmir number about 10 million—compared with some 230 million votes logged nationwide for the BJP, running on a platform of enacting the status-change it just implemented."

Weaponizing Religion in the Biggest Election on Earth

Religions change—that’s as timeless as time. But the transformation currently underway in Hinduism may be more extreme than any in modern history. It has much in common with similar changes taking place in Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity: Why are so many radical Islamists poorly-versed in the Qur’an? How can Buddhist monks sworn to nonviolence lead pogroms in Myanmar and Sri Lanka? Why do evangelical Christians care so much about issues never mentioned by Jesus (abortion, homosexuality), and so little about those he preached constantly (comforting the afflicted, afflicting the comfortable)? The answer is not always hypocrisy. For many today, religion is becoming less a matter of what you believe, or even what you do, than who you are.   A sample:

"Said a shop-assistant named Yogis Dubey, outside the polling-station at Gurudham Chauraha, 'Kashi ko saaf benaiya!' ('he made Varanasi clean!').  The streets of India’s holiest city are, in fact, thick with the excrement of goats, sheep, dogs, pigs, water-buffaloes, and herds of auspicious cattle.  But that’s not really the point: Hindutva is not about that your eyes tell you, it’s about what your heart tells you.  It’s not about what you see, it’s about how you see yourself.  How you see your identity, your brand, your place in the world.  Understand this, and you can better understand the changes underway in India.  Understand this, and you can better understand the changes underway far closer to home."