Southeast Asia’s middle classes and the spectre of authoritarianism


April 12, 2018

Southeast Asia’s middle classes and the spectre of authoritarianism

A survey by Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living in ASEAN (HILL ASEAN) found that the middle class has been expanding rapidly in  ASEAN countries, including Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

In 1848, Karl Marx opened his manifesto with an eloquent sentence: “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism.” One hundred and seventy years later, Laos,Cambodia, and Vietnam are among the fastest growing economies of twenty-first century capitalism and the Chinese Communist Party plans to abandon the post-Mao doctrine of putting its assembly above any individual leader. Communism, which once materialised so prominently in East Asia, is little more than a faded ghost, haunting no one. Yet another spectre has taken its place in Asia—the spectre of authoritarianism.

Whether in terms of China’s attempts to establish a life-long chairmanship, Philippine’s systematic dismissal of habeas corpus or—as my work Owners of the Map analyses—Thailand’s new forms of constitutional dictatorship, a new wind of authoritarianism is blowing over East Asia. Contrary to existing theories of the “end of history” or of “democratic transition” this wind does not waft against the wish of the middle classes, but rather with their support, and it is not a temporary breeze, destined to died out, but rather a stable wind, one that carries forward an alternative system of governance.

Much has been written on this trend as the result of geo-political, military, and economic push and pull between the patronage of the United States and that of China. These explanations, while important, miss a central element evident to anyone who spends time with office managers, business executives, and traditional elites in Thailand: the growing popularity of authoritarian ideology among local middle class, a popularity that finds its roots in the shifting local meaning of words like corruption, good governance, and rule of law.

During the last decade, the understanding of corruption among Thai middle classes underwent a radical transformation. Corruption today does no longer refer to someone misusing public office for private gain. The word’s semantic universe has expanded to include three major components. Firstly, a traditional understanding of corruption as taking advantage of your position to steal money or gain. Secondly, an idea of moral corruption, related to the intrinsic immoral nature of one’s personality. And, thirdly, a vision of electoral corruption that reframes any redistributive policy favouring the working masses as a form of vote-buying. Under these new meanings, elections themselves become a corrupt practice, one that favours populist leaders who, through policies, gain popular support without necessarily producing “good governance.”

The discourse of good governance itself has become central to Thai middle classes’ ideological flirtations with authoritarianism. This mantra entered the country after the 1997 economic crisis, pushed by the IMF and the World Bank. These institutions understood the concept as a technocratic category, one that mostly meant efficient and transparent governance. In Thailand, however, the concept was translated by conservative political ideologues as thammarat, the governance of Dhamma, transforming good governance into righteous governance, a governance that does not rely on electoral support but rather on alignment with the monarch, the thammaraja.

While these semantic shifts in ideological categories may take local forms, they do not occur in an international vacuum. Previous authoritarian phases in Thailand—particularly the period between 1945 and 1992—had been supported, both economically and ideologically, by the United States and its anti-communist rhetoric. Since the 2014 coup, the junta has been looking to China for similar patronage.

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Cambodia is experiencing a rising middle class which has fueled a boom in smart phone access, now the primary access point for the internet.Young Cambodians today are speaking English fluently. Photo/Ian Taylor

The alignment between the two governments has not just been the result of real politic and shifting international alliances but also rooted in parallel claims about the rule of law and corruption. In 2002, the 16th Chinese Communist Party Congress endorsed a new rhetoric of legalism, as a more efficient system to deal with equal and fair participation. Political scientist Pan Wei, in a famous article that took the shape of a political manifesto for legalism stated that “rule of law directly answers the most urgent need of Chinese society—curbing corruption in times of market economy. Electoral competition for government offices is not an effective way of curbing corruption; it could well lead to the concentration of power in the hands of elected leaders.”

The middle class president

Jokowi’s developmentalist democracy goes beyond a simplistic personal attribute or set of beliefs: it is inherent to his class status.

 

 

 

 

 

While not as sophisticated as Professor Pan, and not with the same ability to govern as the Chinese Communist Party, the system emerging in Thailand since the 2014 coup looks quite similar: a legalistic system in which non-elected officers create and enforce the law, above and beyond the electoral will of their population. The Thai transition from a polity in which people make the rules through elected parliamentarians to one in which the rules are imposed from above for the people and parliament to follow, has been legitimised on a basic principle: the superiority of unelected “good people” over elected politicians in preventing corruption and establishing good governance.

It would be easy to dismiss these changes has temporary push backs. Yet, my work argues, something deeper is changing around Southeast Asia, something that we will not see or understand unless we stop working under preset theories of democratic transition and we engage ethnographically with the shifting landscapes of class alliances, everyday ideologies, and forms of governance. These transformations, in fact, are particularly resistant to quantitative analysis and questionnaires. Often they do not imply the emergence of new terminologies or ideological concepts but rather the re-signification of words like corruption, good governance or rule of law. It is only when we spend long stretch of time with people and participates to their lives that these new meanings emerge.

The risk of failing to see these transformations is a familiar one to people in the US: becoming aware of the emergence of a new political and social order when it is too late to do anything about it.

This post first appeared at the University of California Press blog.

Mekong River’s Fate : Major Challenges and Opportunities


April 6, 2018

Mekong River’s Fate : Major Challenges and Opportunities for Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam

https://www.asiasentinel.com/econ-business/mekong-river-fate-cambodia/

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Prime Minister Hun Sen at the Third Summit of the Mekong River Commission in Siem Reap on April 5, 2018. Facebook

The Prime Ministers of the low-lying countries through which the Mekong River runs – Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam – have been meeting this week to attempt to reach agreement on strategies to address major challenges and opportunities facing the river’s huge basin, now and into the future, overshadowed by China, which clearly intends to exert greater influence over the river and its riparians, according to critics.

It is questionable whether any of the four, who began the meeting on April 4, demonstrate any real commitment to health of the river, which is vital to the wellbeing of 60 million people whose ancestors have for centuries relied on it for their livelihoods as well as for transport, water for cooking, irrigation, cleaning, and sanitation.

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Over the past two decades, most of the four countries’ leaders have instead demonstrated a willingness to build more dams on the river because population pressures and the burgeoning thirst for additional hydropower across Southeast Asia. There is little doubt that the character of the river, Southeast Asia’s largest, is under intense stress.

The main aim of this week’s meeting, at Siem Reap in Cambodia, is a discussion of the Mekong River Council Study, a massive 3,600-page attempt to assess the impacts of mainstream hydro projects begun in 2011. The analysis includes hydropower, irrigation, agriculture and land use, transportation, domestic and industrial water use, flood protection and includes climate change. It is described as an “an integrated, cross-sectoral, comprehensive and state-of-the-art study supporting sustainable development in the Mekong Basin.”

Unfortunately, the study findings conclude that the series of 11 large hydropower dams on the lower mainstream of the river and the 120 tributary dams planned by 2040 pose a serious threat to the ecological health and economic vitality of the region.

 

“Major detrimental impacts resulting from current hydropower plans will in turn produce massive trade-offs between water, energy and food,”according to International Rivers, a Berkeley, Calif-based NGO dedicated to protection and preservation of the world’s rivers,  which has dealt exhaustively with the council study. “Predicted impacts include, by 2040; a 30-40 percent decrease in Mekong fisheries — a loss of about 1 million tonnes per year and a staggering 97 percent reduction in the sediment load reaching the Mekong Delta. These impacts are expected to result in a drastic reduction in food security and agricultural productivity, alongside increased poverty levels and heightened climate vulnerability in much of the Lower Mekong Basin.”

Not only are fish populations expected to fall, the study suggests that there will be drastic changes in fish species with  migratory “white fish” species predicted to disappear entirely from Thailand and Laos and being pushed to the brink in Cambodia. Invasive species are expected to take their place, putting pressure on ecosystems.

To date, decisions on hydropower projects have been made by member country governments on a project-by-project basis, without regard to basin-wide impacts. The lower Mekong governments meeting at Siem Reap “must now ensure that the findings of the Council Study meaningfully inform decisions on future projects,” according to International Rivers.

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The 3rd Mekong River Commission (MRC) Leaders Summit in Siem Reap hosted by Cambodia’s  Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen.

Certainly, the stakes on the river have increased. The unsettling tendency of the Chinese government to throw its weight around in the lower Mekong basin as well as its frenetic dam-building in the upper reaches, in addition to development on the mainstream of the lower delta are of rising concern. Climate change is becoming an issue as is private funding, particularly by Thai interests, of dams in Laos.

“Beijing has continued to support those countries that are determined to develop dams on the river at any cost,” according to  Mervyn Piesse, Research Manager, Global Food and Water Crises Research Program for Future Directions International, an Australian research institute. “China provides funds, materials and labor for dam construction in Laos and Cambodia. While both countries see hydroelectric dams as an integral component of their economic development, Laos plans to graduate from least-developed country status mainly by exporting surplus hydroelectricity to its neighbours. China has been willing to help fund those ambitions, as it believes that it will help to further its interests across greater South-East Asia.”

One major issue is the so-called “run-of-river” concept, generally applied to hydropower projects that have only a small reservoir or no reservoir for storing water in contrast to mega-dams that store vast amounts of water and cost billions of dollars to build. The idea is to create sustainable hydro energy while minimizing the impact on the surrounding environment and nearby communities.

The “ROR” dams are theoretically able to harness the energy potential efficiently and without a major environmental impact. Without large reservoirs, they eliminate methane and carbon dioxide emissions caused by the decomposition of organic matter in conventional reservoirs.

Proponents argue that because proposed Mekong dams have limited storage capacity, the hydrological impacts will be minimal, as they allow a ‘natural’ flow of water through the dam, thus aiding the movement downstream of sediment and allowing for the migration of fish .

But, according to International Rivers, “focusing on the overall amount of water passing through a dam does not take into account impacts on flow patterns, including increased water levels during dry season and decreased levels during wet season. The ways in which dams alter seasonal flow patterns has severe adverse implications for downstream ecosystems and agricultural systems that are built around the seasonal flood pulse.”

ROR dams can have equally harmful impacts as conventional facilities, International Rivers says, “particularly on ecosystems and communities downstream. Some of these impacts are inherent; others depend on how a dam is operated. Unfortunately, the impacts of ROR dams tend to be overlooked and understudied, an oversight in part due to the assumption that ROR are less destructive than traditional dams.”

The NGO has published a fact sheet entitled ‘Swindling the Mekong: Run-of-River Hydro’ seeking to address what it calls some of the misconceptions that surround ROR dams, and examines specific case studies in the Mekong Basin.