Politics of the ASEAN Summit–Pay Attention to the Details


May 11, 2017

North Korea and South China Sea and the Politics of the ASEAN Summit–Pay Attention to the Details

by Dr. Munir Majid@www.thestar.com.my

Image result for munir majid

ASEAN leaders should begin to give stronger leadership and get into some details. They cannot be making platitudinous statements again and again. They cannot continue to spend time over prepared drafts which are becoming like an old record. They cannot be rushing from one meeting to another on a tight schedule prepared by the officials which gives them little time for true contemplation. They cannot be rushing home as soon as the ceremonies are over – and only start dealing with the regional issues at the next summit. ASEAN leaders must give ASEAN quality time.–Munir Majid

THE Chairman’s statement at the end of the 30th ASEAN Summit in Manila was at its clearest on concern over rising tension in the Korean Peninsula. With respect to other parts of the long statement, the world was treated to the usual prevarication on the South China Sea issue and sanguine satisfaction with progress in the ASEAN community pillars as well as its other integration projects.

ASEAN leaders, without qualification, identified North Korea’s belligerence and roguish behaviour as having caused the threat to peace, even if they called for restraint to preserve it.

The fact that China has a 1961 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance with North Korea, which technically obliges Beijing to come to Pyongyang’s defence in the event of an attack on North Korean territory, did not deter ASEAN from insinuating Kim Jong-Un has been asking for it with his comic and infantile antics.

Of course, China is nowadays not as close to North Korea as “lip and teeth”, which was how Mao Zedong put it in 1961, but still…

Image result for trump and duterte

Thus it was that the Chair of ASEAN for this year, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte had this telephone conversation with United States President Donald Trump when he expressed the regional grouping’s concern as well as hope for restraint in the Korean Peninsula, and got invited to meet his opposite number – some would say his political double – in Washington.

The fact that Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha also was invited in a separate call to come to Washington gives the impression that these invitations are for ASEAN countries with whom the US has formal defence arrangements.

According to the Philippines media, Duterte will not be going. But if he does, it is to be hoped he will carry the ASEAN card with him as well.

And if Duterte brought his common law wife along, there is no doubt it would sit well with Trump. Both revel in the unconventional.

Certainly Duterte has had no cause to call Trump the “son of a whore” just as Trump does not find particular offence in Duterte’s anti-drug warfare in the Philippines.

If they came to discuss the South China Sea issue, however, it would be interesting to see who would outdo the other in double-talk.

For ASEAN there would be great interest in whether the South China Sea would be discussed and what kind of representation Duterte would make. He could only make a representation on behalf of the Philippines, if he could make clear what exactly is Manila’s position.

Duterte’s South China Sea opacity – or more accurately obfuscation – might actually endear him to Trump who is a master of the art. So it could be expected there would be some good coming out of a meeting between the two Presidents, particularly for Duterte and the Philippines.

While Trump has been sitting in Washington like some kind of emperor of a Middle Kingdom with all these foreign leaders coming to pay homage, the solution to the South China Sea disputes and China’s claims, however, lies in Beijing.

So in the Chairman’s statement after the 30th ASEAN Summit in Manila, there was a safe distance between paragraph 7, where there was reference to full respect for legal and diplomatic processes in the settlement of disputes, and the section on the South China Sea (paragraphs 120 to 121) where there was absolutely no such reference, of course.

There was not a squeak on the ruling devastating to China by the Law of the Sea Arbitration Tribunal last July.

Instead, the leaders trotted out the usual asinine hope for a Code of Conduct by the middle of the year which has been long overdue since the Declaration of Conduct of 2002. And even tried to celebrate the imminence of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) which has been in existence in many places.

It is as if, right on cue, they have no idea how to move forward. ASEAN leaders must stop this charade. If they do not want to cross China – a perfectly understandable predisposition – they should at least come up with ideas on how to found a long-term cooperative solution. Why has ASEAN always got to wait on China?

There are many ideas out there on how to convert the South China Sea from an area of contention to a zone of cooperation. One involves turning the Spratlys into an International Marine Peace Park.

More than the undoubted oil reserves, the South China Sea is a huge source of fish for the entire region. About two billion people depend on it for their protein, and a not inconsiderable number for their livelihood. Over 12% of total world annual fish catch comes from the South China Sea (valued at US$21.8bil).

With all their talk about a people-centric ASEAN, should not the leaders get their officials and experts to look into making a proposal which would turn the South China Sea into a zone of cooperation to sustain the harvest of fish? Even Israel and Jordan could do so – under the 1994 peace agreement which created the Red Sea Marine Peace Park in the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea.

In a new e-book, Justice Antonio T. Carpio of the Philippines notes: “The eggs and larvae that spawn in the Spratlys are carried by currents to the coasts of China, Vietnam, Luzon, Palawan, Malaysia, Brunei, Natuna Islands as well as the Sulu Sea. The Spratlys are the breeding ground for fish in the South China Sea.”

ASEAN leaders should begin to give stronger leadership and get into some details. They cannot be making platitudinous statements again and again. They cannot continue to spend time over prepared drafts which are becoming like an old record. They cannot be rushing from one meeting to another on a tight schedule prepared by the officials which gives them little time for true contemplation. They cannot be rushing home as soon as the ceremonies are over – and only start dealing with the regional issues at the next summit. ASEAN leaders must give ASEAN quality time.

Apart from clear concern over the tension in the Korean Peninsula, there was again too much self-satisfaction in the chairman’s statement of the 30th ASEAN Summit. On strengthening the secretariat and ASEAN organs, for instance, the leaders were happy with the progress made by the High Level Task Force. But exactly what progress and in which direction? They did not say.

On the study to update the ASEAN Charter, they agreeably noted the direction from Ministers “for a precise and cautious approach taking into account the views and positions of all Member States.” Does this mean no change in the ASEAN Charter for the next five years? Ten years?

Even on the tension in the Korean Peninsula, they did not make any specific suggestion on what could be done. Another attempt to revive the six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear programme that first started in 2003? Play tough and kick North Korea out of the 27-member ASEAN Regional Forum which North Korea had joined in 2000?

With so many matters covered in such general terms, the Chairman’s statement at the end of ASEAN Summits is becoming more and more superficial. ASEAN leaders must give clear leads with some details on one or more of the issues to show they are on top of them and wish to see a meaningful end result.

Book Review: Scholarship and Engagement in SEA


April 26, 2017

BOOK REVIEW

Image result for Scholarship and Engagement in Southeast Asia

Oscar Salemink, editor, Scholarship and Engagement in Southeast Asia, (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Press, 2016)

Reviewed by Andrew Alan Johnson

http://www.newmandala.org/book-review/review-of-scholarship-and-engagement-in-mainland-southeast-asia/

Thailand, for all its political stops and starts — or perhaps because of this — has unparalleled publically-engaged academics. Nidthi Eoseewong, Charnvit Kasetsiri, Thanet Aphornsuvan and many others relate academia to public life, pushing forward public discussion in a way that is enviable from a country (the USA, in my case) where scholarship is too often treated like either a business serving students or as a collection of irrelevant exotica.

Image result for Scholarship and Engagement in Southeast AsiaAchan Chayan Vaddhanaphuti of Chiang Mai University

Of Thailand’s public intellectuals, Chayan Vaddhanaphuti of Chiang Mai University looms large. Over the course of his career, Achan Chayan has worked to advocate for minority rights (risking death threats and accusations of treason) as well as building networks across Southeast Asian academic institutions. He exemplifies the best qualities of a Thai public intellectual, and thus it is no surprise that the essays in the liber amicorum, Scholarship and Engagement in Mainland Southeast Asia, edited by Oscar Salemink, are ringing with fond memories and praise for Achan Chayan across generations of scholars. Indeed, it is telling that even non-Thai-speaking scholars refer to Chayan as “Achan,” the Thai term somehow capturing this sense of Chayan’s public role in ways that “Professor” nowadays fails to.

Image result for Scholarship and Engagement in Southeast Asia

My engagement with Achan Chayan came 10 years ago, when I was a graduate student doing field research in Chiang Mai. Like the best of mentors, Chayan, rather than imposing his own idea of what was important about my project, helped me think critically about my own work in multiple ways. As Michael Herzfeld remarks in his conclusion to Scholarship and Engagement, it was only later, after having completed my book, that I realised the depth of Chayan’s inspiration.

Overall, the volume is well put together, although a few essays ramble, and could have used another pass to refine and sharpen their general points. The book’s three sub-sections, too, are awkwardly titled. For example, “Politics, Activism, and Cross-Border Politics in the Greater Mekong Subregion” is the second, and “Scholarly Activism in the Greater Mekong Subregion” the third. These sections roughly correspond to an overview of Chayan’s work, its impact upon historical and anthropological work, and the thorny issues surrounding policy and minorities.

Charles Keyes opens the volume with the first section’s solo chapter: a brief biography of Chayan’s work and its impact upon Thailand and Thai studies. In an era when most work on ethnic minority issues was done by foreigners, and in the face of pressure from official state organs, Chayan pursued a principle of “speak[ing] truth to power” (p 17), pushing for a vision of Northern Thailand as a multi-ethnic and environmentally sustainable society with links across the region. It was a work that, as Keyes notes, was not without risk, and his chapter empahsises the personal commitment that Chayan gave to his causes.

In the second section, Olivier Evrard gives an example of socially-engaged history of the sort inspired by Chayan. Looking at French and Siamese records, Evrard charts the changing status of Khmu migrant labourers in the early 20th century. At first, these workers were governed by treaties between Luang Prabang and Chiang Mai, but as colonisation set in (external in the case of Laos, internal in the case of Siam), old relationships and networks became something else from the viewpoint of the central state: labor recruiters became traffickers, and migrant teak workers turned into a threat.

Evrard reminds us that migrants, as a category, are in fact created by state policy. This theme of the mismatch between detailed awareness of local situations and top-down policy returns in Christopher Joll’s chapter on Thai policy-makers’ essentialist understandings of the conflict in the South as compared with a multi-causal approach of the sort emphasised in Chayan’s work.

Shigeharu Tanabe’s chapter also deals with the issue of social engagement, looking at Northern Thai Buddhist meditation practices aimed at extinguishing the self that nonetheless provide a vehicle for addressing social problems and resisting political repression. It’s a welcome rebuttal to too-simplistic characterisations of Buddhist meditation as entirely inwardly-focused (Tanabe takes a well-placed jab at Deleuze here) and shows how practice, especially in the Northern kuba tradition, can be focused on social as well as personal transformation.

Katherine Bowie’s chapter takes a very different turn to more historically-focused studies, focusing instead upon her own experience of engaged scholarship in the 1970s. In an account reminiscent of classic anthropological fieldwork memoirs (see Powdermaker 1966; Levi-Strauss 1955,;Descola 1996), she describes a problematic introduction into a post-military coup Northern Thai field site and the tangled web of village politics that she encountered. As she attempted to assist in the organisation of a mat-weavers’ cooperative, class and other tensions within the community came to the fore in ways that were productive both for her scholarship as well as – eventually — the mat weavers themselves.

In the final major section, contributors address the thorny ground of development interventions, which too often avoid a deep engagement with local civil societies. Rosalia Sciortino, the former Regional Director for the Rockefeller Foundation (among others), effectively shows that theory is not divorced from practice even on the development side. This was particularly so during the 1990s when new technocratic interventions (the sort of thing dreamed up in TED Talks or Thomas Friedman columns) based around quick solutions and neoliberal integration came to replace civil society-based, locally-informed ones.

This philosophy of intervention oddly recalls those from the 1950s that fetishised the power of Western scientific knowledge to divine all of the solutions to the developing world’s problems. Similarly, in Ronald Renard’s contribution, we also see the fallout from a move in policy away from community-based solutions. He looks at the end of opium eradication projects in the isolated Wa region of Myanmar that emphasisedthe social origins of opium cultivation and addiction solutions focused on improving conditions for farmers, and the rise of a new, top-down approach that focuses upon law enforcement.

Building upon this connection between the assumptions of international (and national) organisations about local communities, Oscar Salemink’s own contribution to the volume examines the issues surrounding Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) in Vietnam. Salemink argues that the discourse of ICH in Vietnam creates certain possibilities and limits others, giving ethnic minorities a space within the state but limiting their role (and, interestingly, forcing the state to promote practices that they had just a few years before denounced).

But this also applies to scholars — in a state where open opposition is unproductive or impossible, Salemink argues that scholars are forced to work within the limits of state discourses. In Myanmar, however, Mandy Sadan shows how both state and resistant approaches carry their own risks. State discourses that present minority studies as “traditional” and (Kachin) minority studies dominated by the Baptist Church and ethnonationalism both fail. As a corrective, Sadan advocates for an as-yet unrealised middle ground along the lines of Chayan’s Regional Center for Social Science and Sustainable Development (RCSD) for the highlands of Myanmar.

Overall, these essays are largely productive in looking at the history and potentiality of engaged scholarship on (for the most part) ethnic minority issues in mainland Southeast Asia, a note driven home by Michael Herzfeld’s excellently-written conclusion. Some essays (Evrard, Tanabe, Saelmink) are useful additions to the scholarly field in their own right. Others (Sciortino, Sadan) are interesting insights into the deeply hierarchical nature of national and international interventions, and some (Joll, Keyes, Bowie) reflect implicitly or directly upon Achan Chayan’s own profound impact on scholarship in Southeast Asia. In addition to the topical focus of each chapter, the book will be of use to those studying activism, development, or fieldwork ethics in the region and beyond.

Andrew Alan Johnson is Assistant Professor at Yale-NUS College

 

Thailand: The New King and Politics


April 24, 2017

Thailand: The New King and Politics

by Pavin Chachavalpongpun

http://www.newmandala.org/kingdom-fear-favour/

Image result for New King of Thailand

How is the new monarch of Thailand, Maha Vajiralongkorn, ruling his kingdom since the death of his father, the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej?

FEAR.

The overwhelming success of Bhumibol’s reign has evidently become an entrapment for Vajiralongkorn, who has failed to follow in the footsteps of his much-revered father. Vajiralongkorn is the mirror image of Bhumibol. Based on this assessment, some analysts have expected Vajiralongkorn to be a ‘weak king’, precisely because of his lack of moral authority, divinity and popularity once enjoyed by Bhumibol.

Bhumibol’s moral authority was made a sacred instrument that underpinned his effective reign for seven decades. It legitimised his political position, so as to place it above what were perceived to be ill elements, including ‘dirty’ politics and ‘corrupt’ politicians. Members of the network monarchy had worked indefatigably to ensure the strengthening of his moral authority, through vigorous glorification programs in the media and national education, about the devoted king who strove for his people’s better livelihood. It was his moral authority which was partly exploited to justify the use of the lese-majeste law.

Now that Bhumibol has passed from the scene, a critical question emerges: how has Vajiralongkorn forged new alliances and eliminated enemies and critics in order to consolidate his reign?

Without his own charisma, or baramee, Vajiralongkorn has exercised fear to command those serving him instead of trusting or convincing them to work for him based on love and respect, as argued by a recent article of Claudio Sopranzetti. Vajiralongkorn has used fear to build order, perhaps similar to the way in which mafias, or chaophos, operate their empire.

Vajiralongkorn reigns as a monarch whose authority is based upon fear, and as one who cares little about people around him. Fear is a tool to threaten his subordinates and drive them to the edge to keep them compliant and docile. He has kept his subordinates in line with unnecessary, yet rigid, rules, from professing a cropped haircut style to a tough fitness regime. But such rules possibly reflect Vajiralongkorn’s own state of fear. He does not know who will betray him at the end of the day. His intimidating image is his only source of personal power — but he also realises how fragile it could be.

Even prior to the death of Bhumibol, Vajiralongkorn relied on fear for his own rearrangement of power. He allowed a faction under his control to purge another perceived to be disloyal to him. The cases of Suriyan Sucharitpolwong, or Moh Yong, Police Major Prakrom Warunprapha, and Major General Phisitsak Seniwongse na Ayutthaya — all of whom worked for Vajiralongkorn, most visibly in the ‘Bike for Mum’ project —   reiterated that death could become a reward for those who breached his trust. Each of these individuals were given a nickname. For example, Phisitsak was called by Vajiralongkorn, Mister Heng Rayah (เฮง ระย้า), although exactly why he was named as such remained unknown.

Image result for Thailand's Politics of FearThai Army Chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha calls the shots in Thailand

Within Vajiralongkorn’s palace, Dhaveevatthana, a prison was built. The Ministry of Justice, during the Yingluck administration, announced on 27 March 2013 that a 60 square metre plot of land within Dhaveevathana was allocated for the building of what is now called the Bhudha Monthon Temporary Prison. This ‘temporary’ prison has been legalised, potentially allowing the king to detain anyone under its roof legally. Adjacent to the prison is a crematorium. Major General Phisitsak died inside the prison and was cremated there too.

His former consort, Srirasmi, has been put under house arrest in a Rachaburi house, shaved and dressed as a nun. Her family members and relatives were imprisoned on dubious charges. Pongpat Chayaphan, a former Royal Thai Police officer who was the head of the country’s Central Investigation Bureau, was convicted in 2015 from profiting from a gambling den, violating a forestry-related law, and money laundering. Srirasmi is his niece. Earlier in 2014, Police General Akrawut Limrat, a close aide to Pongpat, was also found dead following a mysterious fall from a building.

Vajiralongkorn’s estranged sons, Juthavachara, Vacharaesorn, Chakriwat and Vatcharawee — who live in exile in the United States with their mother Sujarinee Vivacharawongse, née Yuvathida Polpraserth — have been banned from coming home. These extreme punitive measures reiterated the fact that fear once again functions as a controlling device over his subjects, even those with royal blood.

Image result for Juthavachara, Vacharaesorn, Chakriwat and Vatcharawee — who live in exile in the United States with their mother Sujarinee Vivacharawongse, née Yuvadhida Polpraserth

Vajiralongkorn also reorganised the Privy Council, appointing new faces from the Queen’s Guard, to entrench his alliance with the junta. He has also let General Prem Tinsulanonda remain in his position of President of the Privy Council, arguably, as part of using fear to keep his enemy close to him, so that Prem could be closely monitored and work under his direct command. And recently, he punished one of his close confidants, Police General Jumpol Manmai, a former deputy national police chief, labelling him as the extremely evil official so as to justify the humiliation caused to him. Jumpol was arrested and imprisoned. His head was shaved, like Moh Yong and Prakrom, and was sent to undergo a military training within the Dhaweevattana Palace. Like Pongpat, he was found guilty of forest encroachment.

Meanwhile, some have been promoted, some demoted. Speedy promotions in the military and the police were enjoyed by the king’s new favourites. Those irritating him were thrown out — but before that, they were humiliated on the pages of the newspapers. Vajiralongkorn purged the entire Vajarodaya clan, one of the most prominent families of palace officials serving under Bhumibol. Disathorn Vajarodaya was stripped of his power in the palace, forced to re-enter a military training at the age of 53, and is now working as a house maid who serves drinks to guests of the new king. Meanwhile, Suthida Vajiralongkorn na Ayutthaya, a former Thai Airways air crew, was promoted to the rank of a general. She is currently the number one mistress of Vajiralongkorn. But the life of Suthida is not without competition. Colonel Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi, aka Koi, who is a nurse, is reportedly becoming his number one favourite. A video clip of Vajiralongkorn and Koi, both wearing skimpy crop tops barely covering fake tattoo wandering a Munich mall, was viral on the Internet.

In the political domain, Vajiralongkorn directly meddled in the drafting of the new constitution, requesting an amendment to boost royal powers. The changes included removing the need for him to appoint a regent when he travels overseas. More importantly, a clause that gave power to the constitutional court and other institutions in the event of an unforeseen crisis was removed. But by removing it, the king’s political role was significantly reinforced.

Because of his direct interference in Thai political affairs, it is naïve to assume that Vajiralongkorn is simply a mad king, clueless about running his kingdom. His meddling has unveiled his desire to solidify his power at this critical juncture in politics, forging ties with his allies while deposing his enemies and critics through brutal means.

Fear — for one’s own freedom, or one’s own personal safety — is a key weapon of Vajiralongkorn’s in keeping elites around him in line, alongside the longstanding use of the lese-majeste law to curb public discontentment against him. For instance, the military government chose to punish Jatupat ‘Phai’ Boonpattararaksa for sharing a BBC article on the biography of Vajiralongkorn, underscoring the use of fear to warn the public to stay away from his private life. Jatupat is the only person to be imprisoned for sharing the article.

On the eve of the recent Songkran holidays, the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society released an announcement to forbid the public from following, befriending and sharing content of three critics of the monarchy: myself, the exiled historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul, and former reporter Andrew MacGregor Marshall. Fear has now been ulitised at a national level, in cyberspace, to frighten ordinary social media users. In failing to obey the royal prerogatives, some could be jailed, like Jatupat.

But fear can fall away. Overused and frequently exploited, fear will eventually loose its spell. Exactly how long Vajiralongkorn will continue to count on fear to build up his power remains uncertain. What is certain today is the fact that Thailand is no longer a smiling country. It is a country in deep anxiety.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

 

Big Challenge for Asian Modernization


March 30, 2017

Cultural-Intellectual Reinvigoration: Big Challenge for Asian Modernization

by Michael Heng Siam-Heng (received by e-mail with thanks)

Image result for The Asian Century

Asia has been experiencing an economic revival since the 1960s, first Japan, then the Four Little Dragons, the Asian Tigers and now China and India. With Asian economies doing relatively well against the background of global recession, many Asians hope that the 21st century would be the Asian Century. But what kind of Asian Century?

How would Asians like this period of their history to be understood and remembered in centuries ahead?  It could be a period of impressive economic growth but also known for its environmental degradation, crimes, corruption, social disparities, religious extremism, and social conflicts. Or it could be a period that draws on the best of human achievements and advances them.  The second case would contribute immensely to a new global civilization characterized by peace, social justice, cultural brilliance, technological advancement, and sustainable economic growth.

I will dwell on four points.  First, on what basis can we argue for an Asian cultural-intellectual rejuvenation? Second, is such a historical project necessary? Third, three challenges facing us. Fourth, being in Malaysia, I will briefly touch on roles that can be played by this country.

Conceptual Basis for an Asian Cultural Rejuvenation

History tells us that radical economic and social transformations are often accompanied by intellectual ferment and cultural effervescence. The transformations generate social dislocations that challenge existing cultural norms, ideas, and social institutions.  The problems are serious and they engage the best brains of the time. In attempts to solve the issues, these best and brightest draw on their intellectual heritage, learn from other sources, cross-fertilise them and creatively synthesize them to produce original thoughts.

Examples are Ancient Greece, the Spring-Autumn-Warring period of China, the Islamic golden age, and the Maurya and the Gupta period of India. The most recent experience is the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, which produced giants in the fields of philosophy, natural sciences, social sciences, fine arts, music, architecture, and literature. We all know at least a dozen of such names.  These European thinkers or cultural giants acted as a positive force during that critical period, functioning both as a social conscience and as sources of forward-looking ideas. Their works have shaped the character of modern European civilization and continue to exert an influence on our thinking and cultures even until today.

The Need for the Historical Project

Image result for deng xiaoping

Deng Xiao Peng–China’s Great Modernizer–Pragmatist

Ever since Asia suffered defeat and humiliation in its encounters with Western imperial powers, Asian leaders slowly realized the crucial importance of reform and modernization in order to face the onslaught. Country after country began to borrow ideas from the West, not all of which were positive, as we see in the case of Japanese imperialistic aggression.

By the end of the 19th century, Japan, through its  Meiji Restoration (明治維新), was the most successful in modernizing its military and economy, fulfilling its national agenda of being both powerful and wealthy. Once powerful, Japan began to behave aggressively, turning Korea into its colony, seizing large tracts of Chinese territories and occupying Southeast Asia. It was a military adventure which ended in total defeat at the closure of WWII.  To use a  simple metaphor, modernization is like the flight of a bird.  It requires two wings to function in a harmonious manner.  Being wealthy economically and strong militarily is one wing.  The other wing is sound cultural-intellectual development.

Fast forward into early 21st century, Asia has regained much of its share of global economy.  Statistics provided by the IMF, the World Bank and transnational banks testify to this shift of economic power from the West.

To the ordinary public, this shift is visible, in the form of improved standards of living, and the new physical landscape.  The most visible is the super-tall buildings – architectural icons of modernity.  Of the ten tallest buildings in the world, 8 are in Asia, 2 in the USA.

Image result for Malaysia's Twin Towers
Image result for Asia's Social Ills

In contrast to the modern landscape in Asian cities, Asia has a string of disturbing social ills.  There is dysfunctional culture exhibited by the people at the top running the show.  State infrastructure projects are awarded to friends and relatives rather than to the most competent.  Newspapers are full of examples of practices that reflect mindsets that are out of sync with the demands of a modern economy. In societies where there are modern economic and legal institutions, many of these institutions lack integrity and independence.

Even in a modern economy and society operating efficiently, we need something more.  Again using the example of Japan.  It is the most modern Asian country. Yet its modernization is confined to the fields of economy, technology, and life styles. It has not undergone a philosophical development based on a foundation of critical rationality and humanism. The Japanese nation as whole has not been able to come to terms with its atrocities during World War II.

 Three Major Challenges

Asians face three major challenges at this juncture of their history, namely (a) drawing on their own cultural resources and rejuvenating them, (b) learning from others, and (c) learning from each other.

The first challenge can be formulated as: how and what Asians can draw from their own cultural and intellectual resources in the process of dealing with new problems.

With an open and inquisitive mind, old ideas take on new meanings and interpretations in the context of new social problems. If a new interpretation provides an effective way in solving problems, the new solution is likely to find easier acceptance because it is framed in language familiar to the people. A sense of continuity is useful in coping with change.

Interestingly, there is often a link between the old and the new. Even a new philosophy is dependent on the intellectual achievements of the preceding centuries and millennia.  A scholar of the European Enlightenment observes that “enlightenment philosophy simply fell heir to the heritage of those [preceding] centuries. It ordered, sifted, developed and clarified this heritage rather than contributed and gave currency to new and original ideas.  Yet in spite of its dependence with respect to content, the Enlightenment produced a completely original form of philosophical thought.”  In other words, old beliefs can put on modern attires and assume modern colours. The result is a new idea.

This sounds rather straightforward. But it is not so if we observe carefully around us.  Hardcore conservatives prefer a literal and rigid interpretation of their traditions, all the more so if these are written. There is also the fear that in rejuvenating local culture and tradition to cope with the demands of a modern economy, the local culture and tradition may disappear, and that future generations will become culturally rootless.  Another problem is what to select from the past.

I believe that the proper attitude is to embrace change, and to see culture as something living, tradition as living tradition.  They are products of their times, and they will change with the demands of the time.

The second challenge is how and what to learn from others. To the extent that there are similarities in the issues involved in the transition from pre-modern societies to modern societies, we should learn from others’ experiences, both positive and negative. To quote the Indian philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan : “Similar experiences engender in men’s minds similar views”. Since the West has a longer history of modernization, Asia can certainly learn from them.

Image result for Learn from Others

Again like the first challenge, learning from others is not easy. Some believe that it is very difficult, or even impossible, to transplant ideas, values, and institutions that have sprouted and developed in a different culture and a different set of historical conditions.

Take the case of China’s difficult journey of learning after defeat at the hands of Japan in 1895. While the Chinese leadership welcomed the adoption of obviously more advanced technologies from the West, they had difficulties embracing the Western ideas and value system. The problem is less acute today but is not over.

What happened in China a century ago is happening in West Asia. The common belief was that “Eastern” culture of spirituality was superior to “Western” culture of materialism.  There is a fear that the spirit of local heritage and culture was threatened with destruction by the importation of western ideas and values.

Adoption and adaption of foreign ideas to local conditions is a long drawn out process, which requires creativity, flexibility, and openness. Though the process is complex, it has happened in history, in Southeast Asia, elsewhere in Asia, and Europe.

Evidence in history support the claim that we can borrow ideas that originated in a very different historical context, and adapt them to serve local needs or even improve upon them in the process of creative synthesis. Let me list briefly three examples. First example: Southeast Asia was able to adopt religious beliefs, ways of life, and institutions from India, China, the Middle East, and Europe. These influences from distant lands had originated in settings that were alien to Southeast Asia. Second example is Europe’s absorption of bureaucracy from China. Combining it with check and balance by civic society, the Western practice is more efficient and less prone to corruption, offering useful lessons for China. This is a vivid illustration of the Chinese saying, 青出于蓝而胜于蓝, or the pupil excelling the master. Third example: Buddhism was introduced to China, a country with a profoundly different culture. After centuries of acclimatization, we have a synthesis of the two cultural traditions known as “Chan” in Chinese and “Zen” in Japanese.

The sensible attitude of learning is to be open-minded and rational rather than be influenced by emotion and sentiments. We must be curious and humble while at the same be meticulous, critical and independent minded. Just as Asians should not feel a sense of superiority in being a source of Western modernization, they should not feel a sense of inferiority in borrowing from the West.  Learning from the findings of others can only increase the range of possible solutions.

The above two challenges are related. It is difficult to learn from foreign sources and adopt their useful elements if we are not culturally and intellectually confident. With confidence in our own cultural heritage, we are at ease to critically appreciate the achievements of others. And cultural confidence can only stem from a deep and critical understanding of our own cultural roots, to the extent of discarding outdated ideas and practices of our own traditions.

he third challenge is for Asians to know much more of each other’s history, intellectual achievements, and cultural traditions.  Though language may present a barrier, most Asian intellectuals use English as the second language which renders exchange of ideas possible. What holds them back is their attitude.  Asians tend to know more about Australasia, Europe and America than their Asian neighbours.  

Given the guarded attitude many Asians have regarding learning from the West, they have less misgivings regarding learning from each other. They can benefit from sharing their experiences in modernization.  In fact, Japan’s path of rapid economic development has provided valuable insights to Southeast Asia and later on China and India. This pattern of economic development is described as the Flying Geese, with Japan as the leading goose. In coping with the broader social and cultural issues arising from modernization, the Middle Eastern countries are more likely to consult the experiences of Malaysia and Indonesia than those from the West.

As a concrete project of mutual learning and co-operation among Asian countries, they can compile a set of books – the Great Books of the East, containing the cream of Eastern intellectual achievements. It is a doable project.  It serves as a platform for top scholars of Asian countries to work together, creating as a byproduct a network Asian intellectuals of similar interests.  It would produce a convenient reference work for libraries all over the world.  It world form a key component of common body of knowledge for serious minded global citizens.

Another concrete project is traditional medicine.  Asia is the home of traditional Chinese medicine, traditional Indian medicine, and traditional Middle Eastern medicine. It represents distilled knowledge accumulated over many centuries of medical practice, often under poor material conditions. It is thus evidence-based.  However, critics of traditional medicine often claim that it is not scientific because its research method departs from that of western medicine. Its theory needs a modern set of vocabulary and updated to take into account new medical findings. We can think of a productive sharing and conversation among the three streams of Asian traditional medicine. This is an area for active collaboration of Asian countries that can boost the cultural and intellectual confidence of Asia, while making concrete and valuable contributions to healthcare in the whole world.

Malaysia as the Italy of the Asian Mediterranean(Venice)

Image result for Malaysia

Malaysia is unwilling to tap its rich diversity due to myopic Malay-centered leadership and  corruption–Bodoh Sombong

Cultural and intellectual rejuvenation is often a synthesis and product of the cross-fertilization of cultures and ideas.  Its birthplace is located at the cross-roads of diverse cultures and intellectual currents. For example, Italy, widely regarded as the birthplace of the European Renaissance, was an important meeting point of different cultures and intellectual traditions in the Mediterranean.

Malaysia can have an important role in such a historical process. Here, the four major currents of world civilizations (Chinese, Indian, Islamic and Western) are co-existing as mainstreams of social life. They represent invaluable resources. Southeast Asia is a region with a multi-layered sedimentation of diverse cultures. It is a vibrant, peaceful and forward-looking region when we compare it to other regions with similar historical background. If we borrow the language of the European Renaissance, Southeast Asia may be seen as a kind of Mediterranean region in the cultural revival of Asia and Malaysia can aspire to be the Italy of Asia (Venice).

Reinventing prevalent social-cultural practices is quite common in societies undergoing structural changes.  It is part of the efforts of a society to refine and refurbish the inner resources of their societies. It is through such processes of renewal that societies try to overcome internal stagnation and meet external challenges.

The process touches societies profoundly, involving ideas, values, morality, belief systems, culture, and institutions. It requires us to revisit our concepts of goodness, truth, and beauty.  The blossoming of culture represents the sublimation of the human spirit, the enrichment of human experience and the nurturing of human nature towards goodness. It is a project with both social and spiritual dimensions. It is a project with a historical soul.

Economic resurgence in itself does not guarantee a corresponding intellectual ferment and cultural effervescence. There are formidable obstacles in the long journey. First, Asian intellectuals may not rise to the call. Second, there is lack of freedom and internalized self-censorship that originates from a culture of fear. Third, there is no critical mass of thinkers to stimulate each other. Fourth, there are as yet no powerful social groups willing to adopt and champion new philosophies developed by their people.

The rise of Asia may thus be conceived of as an opportunity for an Asian cultural revival, which may or may not happen. Much depends on how Asians will make use of the opportunity. Will they translate the opportunity into a mission, and turn it into a reality?

The project of an Asian cultural rejuvenation is an ambitious undertaking.  It is likely to last for several generations. It has no walls and borders. Contributions from all corners of the world are warmly welcome. Though the stage is in Asia, the cast and audience are global.   This opens up a new arena of international cooperation for all those who aspire to contribute to the long term well-being of humanity.  As co-operation and competition with the West can be expanded to include friendly co-operation and competition in the field of ideas, this new arena could well be an alternative to the geopolitical rivalry between an emerging China and a US in decline.

Let us imagine that East Asia or South Asia could provide a case of cultural revival together with economic modernization.  It would be an attractive alternative to the current Western model for the Middle East. It may offer new insights and solutions for solving the whole array of social, economic and political problems there.

If and when Asian cultural and intellectual reinvigoration does happen in its full glory, it will lift Asian civilization to a higher level. In so doing, it will contribute to the cultural resources of the world and indeed to a richer modern civilization.  It will also impart a more profound and enduring meaning to the term Asian Century.

This is the text of the author’s public lecture delivered at the Sungei Long Campus of Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman on  March 17, 2017.

Congratulations to the People of Thailand


December 3, 2016

Congratulations to the People of Thailand

by AFP

Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn becomes Rama X of Thailand’s Chakri Dynasty, but will not formally be crowned until after his father’s cremation, which is expected next year.

King-Rama

Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn became the King of Thailand late Thursday, opening a new chapter for the powerful monarchy in a country still mourning the death of his father.

The 64-year-old Prince inherits one of the world’s richest monarchies as well as a politically febrile nation, 50 days after King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s death.

After weeks of complex palace protocols the Prince was invited by the head of the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) to ascend the throne in an event broadcast on all Thai television channels.

“I agree to accept the wishes of the late King… for the benefit of the entire Thai people,” said Vajiralongkorn, wearing an official white tunic decorated with medals and a pink sash.

The sombre, ritual-heavy ceremony at his Bangkok palace was attended by the Chief of the NLA, junta leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha, and the powerful 96-year-old head of the privy council, Prem Tinsulanonda.

Red-jacketed courtiers looked on as a palace staff member, shuffling on his knees, presented the new King with a microphone through which he delivered his few words of acceptance.

Image result for New King of Thailand

His Majesty King Vajiralongkorn then prostrated himself, hands pressed together in respect, to a small shrine topped by a picture of his father and mother —Her Majesty Queen Sirikit Kitiyakara.

He becomes Rama X of Thailand’s Chakri dynasty, but will not formally be crowned until after his father’s cremation, which is expected next year.

Bhumibol’s reign, which ended on October 13, spanned a tumultuous period of Thai history pockmarked by a communist insurgency, coups and street protests.

Image result for New King of Thailand

It also saw breakneck development which has resulted in a huge wealth disparity between a Bangkok-centric elite and the rural poor.To many Thais, Bhumibol was the only consistent force in a politically combustible country, his image burnished by ritual and shielded by a harsh royal defamation law.

The United States offered its congratulations to the new King, saying it looked forward to strengthening ties with Thailand. “We offer our best wishes to his majesty and all of the Thai people,” the State Department said.

“His father, King Bhumibol, ruled the Kingdom of Thailand with vision and compassion for 70 years and was a great friend of the United States. The United States and Thailand enjoy a longstanding, strong, and multifaceted bilateral relationship, and we look forward to deepening that relationship and strengthening the bonds between our two countries and peoples going forward.”

Into the limelight

Monks chanted blessings at Buddhist temples to mark the new monarch’s ascension — an era-defining moment for most Thais who for seven decades knew only Bhumibol as their King.

His Majesty Vajiralongkorn does not yet enjoy the same level of popularity.He spends much of his time outside of the public eye, particularly in southern Germany where he owns property.

He has had three high-profile divorces, while a recent police corruption scandal linked to the family of his previous wife allowed the public a rare glimpse of palace affairs.

Thursday’s ascension ends a period of uncertainty since Bhumibol’s death prompted by the Prince’s request to delay his official proclamation so he could mourn with the Thai people.

Thailand’s constitutional monarchy has limited formal powers but it draws the loyalty of much of the kingdom’s business elite as well as a military that dominates politics through its regular coups.

Analysts say  His Majesty King Vajiralongkorn, untested until now, will have to manage competing military cliques.

In a brief televised address after the ceremony, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha, who as army chief led the 2014 coup, praised the new King “as the head of the Thai state and heart of the Thai people.”

The Thai monarchy is protected from criticism by one of the world’s strictest lese majeste laws, carrying up to 15 years in jail for every charge of defaming the King, Queen, heir or regent.

That law makes open discussion about the Royal Family’s role all but impossible inside the Kingdom and means all media based inside the country routinely self-censor. Convictions for so-called “112” offences — named after its criminal code — have skyrocketed since the Generals seized power in 2014.

Experts say most have targeted the junta’s political opponents, many of whom support the toppled civilian government of Yingluck Shinawatra.

The emergence of Yingluck’s brother Thaksin in 2001, a vote-winning billionaire seen by many of the rural poor as their champion, prompted the recent round of political conflict. The army and royalist establishment have toppled two governments led by the siblings, accusing them of nepotism and corruption.

 

His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s Legacy


October 15, 2016

His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s Legacy

by Nicholas Farrelly

http://www.newmandala.org

Image result for His Majesty King of Thailand

The 70-year reign of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej started and ended inauspiciously. It was a family tragedy that unexpectedly brought Bhumibol to the throne. He went on to become the world’s longest serving monarch but, in death, his formidable legacy is deeply tarnished by the ambitions of those who fought hardest to defend him.

In 1946, the untimely and mysterious death of his older brother, King Ananda Mahidol, catapulted the young Prince Bhumibol into a role for which he was unprepared. King Ananda died violently in Bangkok’s Grand Palace. He was found in bed with a pistol shot to the head. To this day, nobody knows who pulled the trigger. Forensic reports suggest that neither suicide nor an accident were likely. Whispered speculation about regicide has continued ever since.

Many like to believe that shadowy figures outside the palace were responsible. There is also the deeply disturbing possibility—unthinkable for most Thais—that Ananda’s death was an inside job. Some commentators have wondered if Bhumibol, who was the last person to see King Ananda alive, would ever cast any light on the mystery. He never did, and any knowledge he had of the tragic event is now probably gone forever.

Bhumibol was born in the United States and spent much of his early life attending school and university in Switzerland. Even after becoming king, he returned to Switzerland for another five years of education, jazz music, fast cars and European high-society. He returned full-time to Thailand in 1951, aged 23 and speaking imperfect Thai.

Few would have expected this highly westernised young man to become Thailand’s longest reigning king and a potent symbol of the Thai nation. In fact, early in his reign, there was diplomatic chatter that Bhumibol was easily controlled by scheming politicians within the government. In 1932 a revolution had bought about an end to the absolute monarchy and by the time Bhumibol became king Thai royalty had lost much of its former prestige and power. Some of the old palace hardliners would have preferred a more formidable figure on the throne.

It was an unremarkable beginning, but King Bhumibol gradually grew in stature as a role in modern Thai politics was constructed for him. The palace became a useful symbol around which Thailand’s ruling military strongmen could build the ideological infrastructure of national unity. In those years, royal endorsement and conservative credentials were far more important for Thai governments than electoral legitimacy.

Surrounded by loyal establishment figures, Bhumibol was manoeuvred into the public consciousness as a diligent and compassionate king and as the embodiment of Thai values. In those crucial years, the monarchy grew to become Thailand’s premier institution. It was not long before Thailand’s once tentative king was making globetrotting trips, meeting with international leaders and showing off his glamorous queen.

At home, national unity was a pressing concern. In the 1960s and 1970s, Thailand was besieged by the communist advances in Indochina. Within Thailand’s borders, communist insurgents mounted a persistent campaign against the government. Nullifying these opponents, and winning over the hearts and minds of the Thai people, became a top priority for both the government and the palace.

As Cold War anxieties climaxed, Bhumibol supported a strong American presence in Thailand. From its bases in the kingdom, US forces bombed Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. In Thailand, Bhumibol sponsored the establishment of paramilitary organisations, and became the patron of the Border Patrol Police and other guardians of the realm. He also set up a series of rural development centres in the poorest and most remote areas of the country.

Image result for His Majesty King of Thailand and His People

He argued, quite rightly, that social and economic development would make Thailand’s rural poor less vulnerable to leftist indoctrination. Some of the most iconic images of Bhumibol’s reign come from his visits to rural villages, where he dispensed development resources and agronomic wisdom to his grateful peasant subjects.

Thailand’s status as a linchpin in the anti-communist fight, paved the way for an economic boom and the enmeshment of Bhumibol in global power politics. The defeat of local communist forces in the early 1980s was directly linked, in many Thai minds, with the king’s devotion to his kingdom. Following the spectacular economic growth and semi-democracy of the 1980s, the last three decades of Bhumibol’s life were accompanied by constant reference to his newly democratic public persona.

Image result for His Majesty King of Thailand and His People

His adoration by the Thai public was stoked by a constant diet of positive press coverage about him and his family. Bhumibol’s status grew as international organisations flocked to honour Asia’s modern monarch with a welter of awards and honorary degrees.

His greatest public relations triumph came in 1992, following a massacre of unarmed protesters by army units on the streets of Bangkok. In a nationally televised display of royal authority, Bhumibol called the protest leader and the Prime Minister to his palace. As they knelt before him, he commanded that they settle their differences peacefully. This is the king that many people in Thailand will want to remember: powerful, wise and rescuing the nation in a moment of crisis.

This image served the king well in the years that followed. In an emerging but still fractious democracy, Bhumibol was seen as the ideal national arbiter if things got out of control. His homespun “sufficiency economy” philosophy provided Thais with moral reassurance during the Asian economic crisis of 1997. The king was capitalising on the charisma that he had accumulated during the earlier decades of his reign.

But Bhumibol’s health began to falter and fade at the same time as new political challenges were emerging in his kingdom. Modernisation, consumerism, mass education and the Internet were starting to unravel the established political order. In these turbulent times, Bhumibol was very poorly served by his energetic backers.

In September 2006 the Thai military overthrew the elected government of billionaire businessman Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin was an immensely popular political leader and his populist economic policies dwarfed the benevolence of the king. Thaksin had cashed in on Thailand’s lust for modernity and many felt that his unprecedented electoral power was a threat to Bhumibol’s traditional royal authority.

The king’s closest supporters were instrumental in engineering the move against Thaksin. The coup-makers were obliged to infuse their actions with royal mystique. When the tanks took to the streets of Bangkok, yellow ribbons were tied around their gun barrels. Yellow is King Bhumibol’s colour. After the putsch, one of the king’s Privy Councillors, and a military veteran of the fight against communism, was appointed as Prime Minister. The unelected government actively promoted Bhumibol’s “sufficiency economy” philosophy as an antidote to the brash commercialism of Thaksin.

What Bhumibol thought about the enthusiastic use of his royal brand by a military government that had destroyed Thailand’s constitution is not known. What is known is that he made no attempt to distance himself from it. For the first time, the Thai public had a clear view that the palace was a player in partisan politics and, what’s more, had contributed to the overthrow of a government that had been elected three times.

Image result for Crown Prince of Thailand and His People

There was worse to come for Thailand’s monarchy. In the post-coup election of December 2007, a new Thaksin-aligned government was elected, effectively undoing the work of the coup-makers. Powerful sections of the Bangkok elite could not accept this result. They mounted a series of increasingly belligerent street protests, swathed in royal yellow, to bring down another elected government.

Carrying portraits of the royal family everywhere they went, the “yellow-shirt” protestors occupied government house, blockaded the parliament and, in their ultimate act of national vandalism, closed down Bangkok’s international airport. Despite the damage to Thailand’s economy and international reputation the security forces refused to move against them. There was speculation that the protesters had friends in very high places.

Eventually the pro-Thaksin government fell, and a much more royal-friendly administration lead by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva took its place. Throughout the months of yellow-shirt chaos, neither the king nor his advisors did anything to call off those who were campaigning under the royal banner for the forcible overthrow of his majesty’s elected government.

That government eventually fell at an election, replaced by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawtra. Her opponents in royalist and militarist circles insisted on undermining her grasp on a democratic mandate. It was no great surprise when her prime ministership ended in May 2014 with yet another army coup.

The current government in Bangkok, headed by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, took charge specifically so that top military and palace figures could control the kingdom in the sensitive hours, days, weeks and months after Bhumibol’s passing. Under these conditions it is clear to analysts, both within Thailand and internationally, just how little Bhumibol’s reign contributed to democratic consolidation.

Despite these troubled times, King Bhumibol’s record of virtuous good works, combined with the formidable royal publicity machine, means that he is still held in great regard by a large proportion of the Thai population. His image hangs in houses throughout the kingdom – from elaborate mansions in Bangkok to bamboo huts in the far-flung hills of Thailand’s north. His death will generate deep sadness and a long period of mourning.

Those who publically depart from the acceptable script of royal virtue risk being charged under Thailand’s punitive criminal code. There is a real fear in Thailand about discussing royal matters. In his later years, Bhumibol expressed discomfort about the abuse of laws that protected him, but he never openly called for their reform or repeal.

The reverence for the late king is very real. But the active repression of free speech means that there is no room in Thai public life for any other sentiment.

Image result for Crown Prince of Thailand and His People

Perhaps there may be stirrings of new sentiments when the new king takes the throne. Bhumibol’s son, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, is expected to be the new king, although his elevation is a delicate and contentious matter. Vajiralongkorn has a chequered private life and a reputation for hot headedness. He is a magnet for salacious rumour and colourful internet imagery. He is much less popular than his younger sister, the unmarried Princess Sirindhorn, who is popularly referred to as Princess Angel.

Much planning has gone into what happens next, but Bhumibol’s death may still loose forces that will energise a new round of political turmoil. No wonder the Thai stock market is jittery and investors are calling in their risk assessors.

King Bhumibol was the dominant political and cultural figure in Thailand for as long as most people can remember. He reigned over a newly-prosperous and internationally respected kingdom, and found a place in the hearts and minds of his subjects. But in late moments of reflection he may have regretted that his country became so ill prepared for mature leadership transitions and that his own charisma had been so regularly mobilised against the political wishes of the Thai people.

Dr Nicholas Farrelly is the co-founder of New Mandala.