The reason for the elation, for those so quick to forget or too hip to care, is that the world’s bravest man, Edward Snowden, was given his freedom and mobility back after many nail-biting weeks reprising the ordeal of Tom Hank’s stranded traveler in Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal.
After evading arrest or worse by skipping Honolulu and Hong Kong, then hanging out in Moscow’s plane terminal, legally considered not part of Russian territory, Snowden’s been granted a year’s respite in Russia.
Yeah right, you may scoff, and first prize was two years in Venezuela. But bottle the cynicism and instead applaud Vladimir Putin’s decision to thumb his nose at Barack Obama and give a furlough to America’s most wanted bean-spiller.
Snowden, for those who have been cultivating cobwebs in Starbucks for the past six months, is the young Booz & Co. consultant who tipped off humankind that the United States has been spying on, well, humankind.
Every email, every phone call, every log-in, every photo taken each time you use an ATM—all e-things personal and private have been treated as fair game by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), with its British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) getting its own helpings of the snoop feast.
Apart from making one feel really important to have the world’s most powerful nation taking a special interest in one’s messaging and surfing, the revelations via London’s The Guardian and recently the Amazon.comed Washington Post have stirred libertarians and civil rights groups who actually believe that one can and should keep personal things private on the Internet.
As a result of exposing this clandestine “megadata” surveillance, Snowden has been labeled a traitor and threatened with a fate worse than the Spanish Inquisition. Luckily, aided by like-minded citizens, he escaped to Moscow via Hong Kong, where he remained in the airport until a few weeks ago when he was allowed to step on Russian soil.
What he revealed is shocking and sickening. Quite simply, if you make a phone call, send an email or surf the web, especially if your electronic signals happen to go through cables, circuits and contraptions in the U.S. of A., the NSA has a nifty program called PRISM to monitor your stream of consciousness online.
Anyone who does anything that upsets Uncle Sam, it is but a matter of nanoseconds for all his or her phone calls, emails and other details to be pulled up and put through the NSA wringer. And if choice words like jihad, Osama, Iran or hijack get repeated a lot, then the denizens of Darkest DC really start sniffing.
They will find something incriminating, perhaps those emails you wrote about Noynoy’s girlfriends, or the calls you made from Bottoms in Burgos Street, or those oddly fumed cigarettes you inhaled outside the Casa de Armas.
The material can be leaked and the poor soul will realise what Gloria Arroyo, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Anwar Ibrahim, Princess Diana and myriad others whose underwear drawers have been ransacked and hung out to dry, feel like.
But let us recycle dirty linen another time. Rather we are here to laud Braveheart Snowden and focus on a potential scoop that, if my eccentric but well-connected source proves prescient, is almost as staggering as the NSA dirt he let out.
The man who broke the PRISM may be coming to Southeast Asia, most likely to Cambodia, Laos or Vietnam. With luck, he may even run into the NSA’s biggest customer, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, when Washington’s top gun goes alliance-building and China-baiting in KL, Jakarta, Brunei Darussalam, and Manila this week.
That’s the scuttlebutt hereabouts. So please take a deep breath and remember you read it first in this illustrious organ, not those other limp ones.
How and why is he coming? you may ask. Well, the how is easy. There are daily nonstop Aeroflot-Russian Airlines flights from Moscow to Ho Chi Minh City and it’s only $450 one way.
Snowden may choose to stay in America’s old warmongering grounds of two score ago, or move on. Just a short hop, skip and a jump, and he could be sampling the bistros of Hoi An and chilling out with the bikinis on the white sands of nearby China Beach.
Alternatively, it’s only $15 on the bus from HCMC to Fugitive Central: the all-welcoming metropolis of Phnom Penh, where the boss salutes the Yellow Stars on Red Sky, not the Stars and Stripes.
Either way, Snowden should have no problem. After all, Russia has few more compliant vassals than Cambodia and Vietnam, so forget passport and visa irritants; the man will be in like Flynn.
Before you know it, he could be lighting a cigar with fellow fugitives ranging from Russian property tycoons and exiled Thai Prime Ministers to alleged descendants of the Romanovs.
Why let him in just when America’s defense chief is calling? That’s also not so hard to answer. As regards Phnom Penh, for example, just review the West’s snidey reaction, epitomised by the U.S., to Cambodia’s recent, peacefully conducted, multiparty general election.
Then recall some of the earlier guff from those who gave us torture at Guantanamo—you know, the chastisement about Hun Sen repatriating Uighurs and supporting Beijing over the South China Sea and so on.
As for the Hanoi regime, it is getting rather tired of these constant bashings by the State Department over its human rights abuses and jailing of bloggers, academics and journalists. After all, Washington’s supposed do-gooders were slow to wag the finger at Egypt’s crackdown on Islamists until Cairo’s body count hit triple digits.
Southeast Asia’s autocrats feel, with some justification, that it’s time for some push back at the superpower that still plays diplomacy by the adage, “He’s a cruel tyrant, but he’s our cruel tyrant.”
And why not? If someone across the Pacific stiffs you relentlessly despite knowing little of your backyard from the other side of the planet, it’s nice when you can respond with a good poke in the vitals. And that’s what letting Snowden in just when Chuck with a Big Stick calls, will do.
Hopefully, the asylum seeker will then emulate his fellow leakmeister, Julian Assange, who plans to run for a senate seat in the coming Australian election. If the Wikileaks whiz wins, it will give Snowden a nice incentive. Once Hanoi or Phnom Penh has granted him honorary citizenship, Snowden can fill up the membership forms at the ruling Vietnam Communist Party or the Cambodian People’s Party, and run for office under the VCP or CPP banner.
The cleancut Snowden will be a tremendous poster boy in either country – and an incomparable bargaining chip.
Why, he may even decide to move over to Boracay. And what a great boost for tourism that would be. Everyone would want to try to catch a glimpse of the year’s greatest hero. And those who shake hands, take shots, and otherwise show delight and deference to the region’s newest celeb, they get the singular honor of becoming lunch fare at the NSA. Bon appetit!
Roger Mitton is a Southeast Asia regional consultant and a former senior correspondent for Asiaweek magazine and The Straits Times of Singapore.