Friday 21 July 2017

Blood and Silk: guest post by Michael Vatikiotis

Journalist and international negotiator Michael Vatikiotis has worked for publications and organisations as various as the Bangkok Post and the BBC World Service. He is also a former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review. He is currently based in Singapore where he is the Asia regional director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.

Michael’s new book, Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia, explores the dynamics of power and conflict in one of the world's fastest growing regions. It peers beyond brand new shopping malls and shiny glass towers in cities such as Bangkok and Jakarta, to probe the heart of modern Southeast Asia. Why is Malaysia, one of the region's richest countries, riddled with corruption? Why do Myanmar, Thailand and the Philippines harbour unresolved violent insurgencies? How do deepening religious divisions in Indonesia and Malaysia affect the region and the rest of the world? What about China's growing influence?

Throughout Blood and Silk Michael offers vivid portraits of the personalities who pull the strings in Southeast Asia. His analysis is always underpinned by his decades of experience in the countries involved.

So, over to Michael…

I have been asked why Blood and Silk is so bleak about the state of politics and society in Southeast Asia.  In this very personal take on the dynamics of power and conflict in the region, I have identified the perpetual selfishness of urban ruling elites, their reluctance to share the fruits of growth and development, resolve chronic conflicts, and resistance to accountability as exerting a considerable drag on social and political progress.

“The gun is never far removed from the political arena in Southeast Asia,” I write. “For a part of the world that has made so much social and material progress, that regularly tops charts of economic growth and investment, why do so many countries of the region plumb the bottom of international indices measuring freedom and good government? Why does the region continue to struggle with democratic transition?”

I feel strongly after living and working in Southeast Asia for almost four decades that there should have been more progress along several tracks: mostly uninterrupted economic growth since the 1980s should have delivered a more even distribution of wealth and better education; progressively more democratic systems of government should have accelerated social mobility and eased access to justice.

Across the region there is undisputedly rapid economic growth and a great measure of prosperity.  In most of the larger cities of Southeast Asia, I pass through shiny new airports, ride brand new mass transit systems and wander through marble and glass clad shopping malls.

But in the course of my professional career, as a journalist and a peace mediator, I have not had to wander too far before encountering chronic suffering and disappointment.

The book is a journey through Southeast Asia exploring the social and political landscape as I have seen it as a writer and practitioner.  I ask why after almost half a century of peace and stability does a state of demi-democracy still plague the more developed countries?  Why is there so much violent conflict on the margins? And why have so few of the victims of these conflicts - across Myanmar, Southern Thailand, parts of Indonesia and the Southern Philippines - been able to secure some form of closure or compensation for their suffering?

More profoundly, I worry about something I never thought I would experience in Southeast Asia, a land of almost boundless colour and diversity.  We take for granted the easy ability of Southeast Asians of different faiths and ethnic identities to mix and mingle; the region encompasses one of the world’s most ethnically and religiously diverse societies.  Yet this kaleidoscopic pluralism is threatened.

In Indonesia, the Muslim majority is increasingly infected by militantly conservative strains of Islam that has resulted in non-Muslims fearing that their constitutional rights may not be protected – especially after a popular Christian Chinese Jakarta governor ended up in jail for blasphemy.  In Myanmar, more than a million Muslim Rohingya remain stateless despite a progressive democratic transition that has lifted the yoke of military rule in the country.

In many instances, these trends have reversed gains made over the last two decades in terms of freedom and justice.  Indonesia has just passed a sweeping new law banning mass organisations that threaten national unity, ostensibly to crack down on Islamic extremism.  Facing pressure from the international community over the treatment of Rohingya, the democratically elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi has restricted access to Rakhine State and refused to cooperate with a United Nations fact-finding mission.  

Much of this surprising reluctance to address conflict and grievance, I argue, can be attributed to the virulent sovereignty of relatively new states which emerged bruised from long periods of colonial rule. But I insist that Southeast Asia can and should rise above the kind of chronic impunity and repression so evident in war-plagued parts of the Middle East or Africa.

I am sure many readers will think this glass half-empty view of Southeast Asia neglects the many remarkable achievements in terms of growth and development over the period I have enjoyed living in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and now Singapore.

But an overly optimistic analysis leaves the many people I have met over the decades who have struggled and suffered behind. Indonesia’s greatest writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer, whom I knew, never revised his view that the country which he loved so dearly, and which treated him so badly, was a disappointment, “a nation of coolies.”  

For It is important to recognise the dangers of Muslim clerics who rail against Muslim dog-owners in Malaysia; or the absurd notion that Thais who suspect the army doesn’t want to give up power are somehow "not Thai". For all of Southeast Asia’s undeniable material progress, there is a sense of exhaustion among my friends with the blatant abuse of power that erodes or stunts civic institutions and perpetually unimaginative leadership that allows intolerance and prejudice to thrive. One of my Malaysian friends describes this feeling as an “optimism deficit”.

Details: Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in hardback, paperback and eBook, priced in local currencies.