October 10, 2012
Naughty Numbers: Power In Southeast Asia*
Numbers have played an important role in Southeast Asia. States’ use of numbers in particular has had a significant impact on politics and society. It is important to recognise that numbers can have political utility, especially when presented in manner that creates a dichotomous division. In this piece we will explore a range of issues in which numbers are used by government to exercise their control over their citizens.
The classification of the population into two distinct segments, or ‘binaries’, for example the educated vs. the uneducated or indigenous vs. migrant. Governments can effectively influence the ways in which citizens view themselves and others as well as the way in which policy is constructed and implemented.
State-owned transport companies may classify three classes of passenger seating, with first class being the most expensive. This form of classification decides who should enjoy what commodities and services, and may encourage those who cannot afford first class to work harder. The numbers actually reflects social stratification, the division of citizens into two groups of people within the society, such as the tertiary- educated or the academic elites and the non-tertiary educated or non-academic elites, stressing the group which wields power.
These binaries are used by states to legitimise their power over people, in effect they allow for a subjective definitions of good and bad depending on the agenda of individual regimes. Binaries fail to provide a nuanced view of the issue at hand. Their use dichotomises respondents into the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, providing a distinct black-and-white distinction, when many issues are in fact coloured grey. This ambiguity can lead to political chaos. Thailand’s political conflict has been a prime example of a binary between red and yellow shirts.
A historical yet still very relevant example of binary in Southeast Asia is the concept of Zomia addressed by James Scott, in which Upland and Lowland populations are socially, politically and economically organised in very different ways. Official government data collection reduces issues of identity to a group of binaries, through creating silence as a means of social control. As an example, the choice between male and female in official data can silence the voices of those who identify outside of the gender binary. In turn, this can lead to a silencing of gender queer issues in political (and social) discourse.
Similar to use of the binaries, censuses and government statistics are important tools of the government in consolidating and exercising power. Censuses are used by governments to categorise, report on and reflect their populations. The resulting statistics — whether they reflect taxation, candidates for military service, religion or gender binaries — can be analysed or manipulated by governments to consolidate their power and monopolise their agenda setting capabilities.
A Southeast Asian example of this use of census can be seen in the omission of Animism as a religious category in the Burmese government census. This not only excludes those who practice such beliefs but also reduces the significance and legitimacy of Animism as a belief system.
Government statistics are used to assist the regime in determining what aspects of the state are faring badly or well. For instance, governments may try to identify what aspects of rural life are not doing so well and attempt to fix them. On the other hand, a government may try to manipulate statistics to keep itself in power. An important example is the Suharto government’s use of economic statistics to attract foreign direct investment and attract greater trust from the public.
Government statistics are also used during elections to bring the public’s attention to key issues (e.g. government debt). As we can understand from a government’s use of census and official statistics, numbers provide great access to the lives and thoughts of its citizens, which can subsequently be used to consolidate and expand the government’s own power.
There are other ways in which numbers are used. In Southeast Asia, dates represent a variety of powerful social constructs, in particular, those surrounding religious practice. The widespread nature of superstitious beliefs means that both the population and the state draw on auspicious dates to time significant political activity. For the Burmese military junta, the timing of the shift the capital from Yangon to Napyidaw was made at 6:37am on Novermber 6, 2005, a date that was considered astrologically auspicious.
Another example of political activity centred on auspicious dates can be seen in Thailand. Thailand has a history marred by political coups, both failed and successful. This has radically altered the Thai political landscape by creating conditions for rebellion. In particular, this has been seen in the successful coups of 1991 and 2006). The assumption of auspicious dates in relation to political rebellion imbues resistant forces with the confidence to execute a coup. Along with confidence within the rebellion, the auspicious dates also lead to confidence from the population. Thereby, the wide acceptance of auspicious dates allowed for successful coups where many had been previously attempted.
Auspicious dates are of significance within Southeast Asia because of their use in political activity. Such dates are utilised not only by ruling powers but also by resistant forces. — New Mandala
* This is a collectively written post prepared in class today by a group of nine students in the Southeast Asian Landscapes of Power course at the Australian National University, Canberra.