Predictions for the future of Southeast Asia on the whole follow two different narratives. On the one hand, ASEAN is celebrating its 40th anniversary, and forty years of interstate peace along with it. The region’s economy is growing at breakneck speed, led by countries like Vietnam and the Philippines. Yet, on the other hand, news reports are filled with stories about scandal and crisis, from Malaysia’s continuing 1MDB scandal, Rodrigo Duterte’s extrajudicial drug war, or the ethnic strife in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
In his newest book Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia, Michael Vatikiotis, former managing editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review and currently Asia Director for a conflict resolution NGO, gives a personal and accessible examination of the region’s politics. Vatikiotis has spent several decades reporting on and from the region, and can therefore compare countries today to what they were decades prior, teasing out the connections between then and now.
Blood and Silk is a counterpoint to more positive views of the region, such as Kishore Mahbubani’s The ASEAN Miracle, which point to Southeast Asia’s record of economic development, interstate peace and (compared to other developing regions) stable governance. In contrast, Vatikiotis looks inside Southeast Asian countries to find continued corruption and oppression, growing internal violence, and rising intolerance, to focus on
the Indonesian farmer who falls pretty to creditors and climate change; the Cambodian teenager enslaved on a Thai fishing boat; the Muslim Rohingya migrant from Myanmar starving and beaten, then left for dead in a ditch by human traffickers along the Thai-Myanmar border.
Vatikiotis does not contradict positive views of Southeast Asia, but rather shows that Southeast Asia’s has a long way to go before ensuring widespread prosperity and safety for its people.
Vatikiotis mixes seasoned analysis with his personal career experiences, creating a work accessible to those without any prior knowledge of Southeast Asia or its various countries. Blood and Silk discusses both ancient and modern history, religious dynamics, ethnic conflict, superpower politics, and democratization, among many other topics.
One thing Vatikiotis highlights in Blood and Silk is the instability of Southeast Asian democracies. Southeast Asia used to be seen, along with Eastern Europe, as fertile ground for new democracies. Public protests had helped to topple Marcos in the Philippines and Suharto in Indonesia. Thailand would later resist a military coup. And Vietnam, while not democratizing, was opening its economy to the outside world.
Yet as Vatikiotis explains,
if the 1990s was a decade of reform and political transformation in Southeast Asia, then the first two decades of the twenty-first century have seen disappointing dividends.
The mayor Governor of Jakarta was recently ousted from office after being accused of blasphemy. Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte was elected in a populist reaction against a corrupt and ineffective government, yet his most prominent policy—cracking down on the drug trade—has inflicted violence on poor Filipino communities. Malaysia’s government has restarted enforcement of its national security laws as a response to its growing corruption scandals.
And none have backslid as much as Thailand, whose military has intervened several times in the past decade, starting with the ousting of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Most notably, most Thais supported the new constitution which preserves a prominent place in the civilian political sphere for the military.
Another expectation that has been contradicted was a belief that, as these countries modernized and developed, they would become increasingly secular, multiethnic and cosmopolitan. Yet Vatikiotis noticed that, as countries opened and democratized, religious identities were playing a more central role: Vatikiotis notes that religious spaces open to him the 1980s were increasingly closed to non-believers in the following decades. Politicized Islam is rising in both Malaysia and Indonesia, while Buddhism has emerged as a potent (and, with the Rohingya issue, deadly) political movement in Myanmar.
Vatikiotis points to the lack of either democratic institutions or democratic culture in Southeast Asia as the culprit. Without them, democracies are prone to be co-opted by elites, or used to fuel corrupt systems of patronage, as populations do not act to monitor or punish governments for bad behavior. Vatikiotis specifically cites his experience in Indonesia, writing that
I consistently found [Indonesians to be] to be profoundly disinterested in some of the basic elements of a functioning democracy, such as who represents them in the national parliament…. Not one of those I met during the 2004, 2009, and 2014 campaigns cared about their local member of the legislature, because it was assumed these politicians were all selected and then elected on the basis of money and patronage, and … their votes were bought and sold.
This is a theory that has emerged in works like Joshua Kurlantzick’s Democracy in Retreat, and Blood and Silk provides more empirical evidence that the standard way we understand democracy—namely, as elections—misses much about what makes a good democracy.
Much of Blood and Silk can be pessimistic, as Vatikiotis gives numerous stories of oppression, violence and corruption. Any forward progress is fleeting: as Vatikiotis describes how new corrupt politicians replace the old ones, or how nostalgia for the simpler times of dictatorship take hold in Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, it’s hard not to think of the lyric from The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again: “meet the new boss, same as the old bass.”
But interestingly in Blood and Silk’s final chapter, Vatikiotis takes a cautiously optimistic view of how things might develop in the region. He does not believe that states will improve: governments will continue to be dominated by wealthy elites, and that internal tension and violence (whether by states or domestic populations) will likely increase.
However, he predicts that local communities, rather than buckle in the face of state governments, will instead begin to look after their own affairs. They, rather than national governments, will take responsibility for the well-being of their populations and pushing back against extortion.
Vatikiotis connects this to what Southeast Asia looked like before it was colonized by Western European empires. Before the colonial era, Vatikiotis argues that Southeast Asia was much more loosely organized: allegiances and loyalties were complicated and confused, and borders were extremely porous. It was only in the colonial era that firm borders began to be put in place, and only in the postcolonial era that states strove to be unified, centralized and fully sovereign.
It’s an interesting idea, and perhaps one motivated by hope as much as empirical analysis. But it is a more positive spin on the concept of the “failed state”. After all, if the state is doing so poorly, as Vatikiotis argues, perhaps its weakening wouldn’t be so bad?