Mention South-East Asia to an outsider and we’re pretty sure that the first thing that would spring to their mind is tourism. Rice paddies and sandy beaches. Ancient wat and temples as old as time in some regions, towering skyscrapers and sprawling markets in others. A region rich in culture and resources.
And in a sense, they’re right. But as locals know, there’s a lot more to this part of the world than what you see on tourist brochures. For despite being blessed with an abundance of life, many South-East Asian nations have been affected by conflict and injustice.
This contradiction is examined in Blood And Silk: Power And Conflict In Modern Southeast Asia (Weidenfeld & Nicolson/Orion). The latest book by author, journalist, and diplomat Michael Vatikiotis takes an intimate – and often critical! – look at South-East Asia, the author’s analysis of the region underscored by the more than 30 years he has lived and worked in the countries involved.
“One reason I was driven to do the book was my concern for the very high levels of conflict that continue to exist in South-East Asia despite the remarkable achievements of growth and prosperity.
“I think this is the central paradox of the region,” Vatikiotis, 60, says in a recent telephone interview.
“It’s a remarkably prosperous place, which has come a very long way, and yet conflict is still very present. Both on the ground, in terms of the armed conflicts that have existed in South-East Asia for decades, and also the political conflicts that hold up transitions to democracy.”
Blood And Silk takes a compelling look at the dynamics of power and conflict in one of the world’s most diverse and densely populated regions. The book takes a wide scope of the region’s troubled history, touching on events as varied as the 2010 Red Shirt protests in Thailand, the fall of the Indonesian president Suharto in 1998, the ongoing persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar, and much more.
And yes, there are even parts commenting on increasing religious fundamentalism in Malaysia, and the 1MDB saga.
“Since the mid-1980s, there have been three military coups in Thailand, violent army crackdowns on popular protests in Myanmar and Cambodia, outbreaks of civil unrest and religious or ethnic violence in Indonesia, detentions and arrests of opposition politicians in Malaysia, legal action taken against critics of the government in Singapore, and two popular protest movements interspersed by failed military coups in the Philippines,” Vatikiotis writes in the book.
“That’s rather a lot of upheaval for a region of half a billion souls within a single generation.”
Interspersed between all these accounts of historical events, however, are Vatikiotis’ colourful anecdotes of his time in the region. These include an eye-opening experience at the coronation of a Javanese prince and a tense meeting involving the relatives of those killed during a violent Thai uprising.
“I thought it might be useful if I reflected on my almost four decades in South-East Asia, first as a student, then as a journalist, and then finally working as a mediator, to capture what I think were the salient aspects of power and conflict. And in a personal way, not in a very academic way,” the author says.
A seasoned hand
Originally from Indiana, the United States, with family origins in the Middle East, Vatikiotis has worked in South-East Asia since 1987, living in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. A former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review magazine, he is a regular contributor to broadcasters Al-Jazeera and the BBC, and frequently writes opinion pieces for international and local newspapers in the region.
He is now based in Singapore, where he serves as the Asia Regional Director of the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.
Vatikiotis has written several nonfiction works, including Indonesian Politics Under Suharto (1993), and Political Change In Southeast Asia: Trimming The Banyan Tree (1997). His other works include the novels The Spice Garden (2004) and The Painter Of Lost Souls (2012).
In Blood And Silk, Vatikiotis first regales his readers with a brief background on South-East Asian nations before examining the roles of those in power. According to him, understanding the role of monarchs and princes, both past and present, is one of the keys to understanding how power is wielded in contemporary South-East Asia.
Another chapter, “Delusions Of Democracy”, examines how democracy has struggled to flourish in the region, with supposedly progressive steps towards fair governance constantly affected by social tension, political interference, or building instability. This results in a lukewarm state Vatikiotis memorably calls “demi-democracy”.
Is demi-democracy, however, better than no democracy at all?
“It’s an interesting question. Is demi-democracy perhaps more suited to the region, with it’s sensitive balances of race and religion? I find it difficult to answer the question because I think the answer is ‘it depends’,” Vatikiotis says.
“Indonesia, for example, has shown in the last 20 years, to have moved towards a very vibrant form of democracy. But that has also brought problems, such as prejudice, and politicians exploiting divisions. So maybe it wasn’t such a good thing? I don’t think it’s for me to answer that question.”
Other chapters explore, among other things, South-East Asian corruption and financial improprieties, and the increasingly important role of China in relations between nations in this part of the world.
One of the most emotionally-harrowing parts of Vatikiotis’s book, in this writer’s opinion, is the chapter titled “Bygones Be Gone”, which examines how seemingly easy it is for the powerful in this part of the world to brush aside crimes committed in their pasts.
Another chapter tackles the changing dynamics of religion in the region – Vatikiotis feels religion is more fractured in South-East Asia nowadays.
“South-East Asia has had a long tradition of relatively easy-going coexistence between religions and culture. I think it’s why it has been such a stable and prosperous place for many hundreds of years. So when you see religious divides form lines of conflict, it’s very worrying. I don’t think there’s ever been a time in South-East Asian history that’s been like this before,” Vatikiotis says.
Hope for the future
As is appropriate for a book on power and conflict, Blood And Silk has a rather bleak tone. Nevertheless, the author certainly does not rule out change for the better in the future.
“There’s the hope that communities will, with the help of technology and development, start to take priorities into their own hands. Start to exist more or less autonomously, and the effects of the centralised state will become less and less.
“People will have mobility and a high level of prosperity, and start to depend on the state less. I think that’s the way out,” Vatikiotis says.
One thing that has held back the people of South-East Asia, in his opinion, is the lack of development of local tertiary education.
“There’s no evidence that the state or the elites are learning the error of their ways. Those dynamics never seem to change.
“But I think society will soon move on. I think it’s slowly strengthening. Technology will allow people to be more independent,” the author says.
“There are tremendous movements of people in South-East Asia. They don’t have to be bound to one particular place anymore. And that is the hope for the future.”
Main image above is a detail from Rigobert Bonne’s drawing of a c. 1770 map of South-East Asia and the East Indies, published in Jean Lattre’s 1776 issue of the Atlas Moderne. Photo: Public domain
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