Martin Khor looks back at the East Asian Financial Crisis 1997


July 5, 2017

Martin Khor looks back at the East Asian Financial Crisis 1997

http://www.thestar.com.my

It is useful to reflect on whether lessons have been learnt and if the countries are vulnerable to new crises.

IT’S been 20 years since the Asian financial crisis struck in July 1997. Since then, there has been an even bigger global financial crisis, starting in 2008. Will there be another crisis?

The Asian crisis began when speculators brought down the Thai baht. Within months, the currencies of Indonesia, South Korea and Malaysia were also affected. The East Asian Miracle turned into an Asian Financial Nightmare.

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Despite the affected countries receiving only praise before the crisis, weaknesses had built up, including current account deficits, low foreign reserves and high external debt.

In particular, the countries had recently liberalised their financial system in line with international advice. This enabled local private companies to freely borrow from abroad, mainly in US dollars. Companies and banks in Korea, Indonesia and Thailand had in each country rapidly accumulated over a hundred billion dollars of external loans. This was the Achilles heel that led their countries to crisis.

These weaknesses made the countries ripe for speculators to bet against their currencies. When the governments used up their reserves in a vain attempt to stem the currency fall, three of the countries ran out of foreign exchange.

They went to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for bailout loans that carried draconian conditions that worsened their economic situation. Malaysia was fortunate. It did not seek IMF loans. The foreign reserves had become dangerously low but were just about adequate. If the ringgit had fallen a bit further, the danger line would have been breached.

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Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamed and Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin introduced selective capital controls and pegged the Ringgit at RM3.80 to USD1.00.

 

After a year of self-imposed austerity measures, Malaysia dramatically switched course and introduced a set of unorthodox policies.These included pegging the ringgit to the dollar, selective capital controls to prevent short-term funds from exiting, lowering interest rates, increasing government spending and rescuing failing companies and banks.

This was the opposite of orthodoxy and the IMF policies (The Washington Consensus). The global establishment predicted the sure collapse of the Malaysian economy. But surprisingly, the economy recovered even faster and with fewer losses than the other countries. Today, the Malaysian measures are often cited as a successful anti-crisis strategy.

The IMF itself has changed a little. It now includes some capital controls as part of legitimate policy measures.

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The Asian countries, vowing never to go to the IMF again, built up strong current account surpluses and foreign reserves to protect against bad years and keep off speculators. The economies recovered, but never back to the spectacular 7% to 10% pre-crisis growth rates.

Then in 2008, the global financial crisis erupted with the United States as its epicentre. The tip of the iceberg was the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the massive loans given out to non-credit-worthy house-buyers.

The underlying cause was the deregulation of US finance and the freedom with which financial institutions could devise all kinds of manipulative schemes and “financial products” to draw in unsuspecting customers. They made billions of dollars but the house of cards came tumbling down.

To fight the crisis, the US, under President Barack Obama, embarked first on expanding government spending and then on financial policies of near-zero interest rates and “quantitative easing”, with the Federal Reserve pumping trillions of dollars into the US banks.

It was hoped the cheap credit would get consumers and businesses to spend and lift the economy. But instead, a significant portion of the trillions went via investors into speculative activities, including abroad to emerging economies.

Europe, on the verge of recession, followed the US with near zero interest rates and large quantitative easing, with limited results.

The US-Europe financial crisis affected Asian countries in a limited way through declines in export growth and commodity prices. The large foreign reserves built up after the Asian crisis, plus the current account surplus situation, acted as buffers against external debt problems and kept speculators at bay.

Just as important, hundreds of billions of funds from the US and Europe poured into Asia yearly in search of higher yields. These massive capital inflows helped to boost Asian countries’ growth, but could cause their own problems.

First, they led to asset bubbles or rapid price increases of houses and the stock markets, and the bubbles may burst when they are over-ripe.

Second, many of the portfolio investors are short-term funds looking for quick profit, and they can be expected to leave when conditions change.

Third, the countries receiving capital inflows become vulnerable to financial volatility and economic instability.

If and when investors pull some or a lot of their money out, there may be price declines, inadequate replenishment of bonds, and a fall in the levels of currency and foreign reserves.

A few countries may face a new financial crisis. A new vulnerability in many emerging economies is the rapid build-up of external debt in the form of bonds denominated in the local currency.

The Asian crisis two decades ago taught that over-borrowing in foreign currency can create difficulties in debt repayment should the local currency level fall.

To avoid this, many countries sold bonds denominated in the local currency to foreign investors. However, if the bonds held by foreigners are large in value, the country will still be vulnerable to the effects of a withdrawal.

As an example, almost half of Malaysian government securities, denominated in ringgit, are held by foreigners.

Though the country does not face the risk of having to pay more in ringgit if there is a fall in the local currency, it may have other difficulties if foreigners withdraw their bonds.

What is the state of the world economy, what are the chances of a new financial crisis, and how would the Asian countries like Malaysia fare? These are big and relevant questions to ponder 20 years after the start of the Asian crisis and nine years after the global crisis.

 

Martin Khor (director@southcentre.org) is executive director of the South Centre. The views expressed here are entirely his own.
Read more at http://www.thestar.com.my/opinion/columnists/global-trends/2017/07/03/the-asian-financial-crisis-20-years-later-it-is-useful-to-reflect-on-whether-lessons-have-been-lear/#EEkW3MiZXu87cFZM.99

Thailand: Lese Majeste losing its magic


June 29, 2017

Thailand: Lese Majeste losing its magic

by Pavin Chachavalpongpun, Kyoto University

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2017/06/28/lese-majeste-losing-its-magic/

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Following the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej in October 2016 and the enthronement of his unpopular son, now King Vajiralongkorn (pic above), the Thai Palace has continued to work intimately with its traditional ally — the military — to strengthen the position of the monarchy in politics during this volatile transitional period.

In the past months, Vajiralongkorn has vigorously intervened in the political domain. He ordered the amendment of the constitution to increase his power and to more easily facilitate his frequent visits overseas. The junta enthusiastically granted Vajiralongkorn’s wishes, and saw an opportunity to exploit the monarchy for its own political advantage.

 

The new king spends most of his time in the outskirts of Munich. Yearning for a quiet life in Germany, Vajiralongkorn soon discovered the aggression and intrusion of the European media. He has been constantly hounded by the paparazzi. On at least two occasions, images of him and his mistress in skinny tank tops revealing massive fake tattoos on their bodies emerged on the internet and appeared on the cover of a German tabloid.

These photos and video clips undoubtedly damaged the reputation of the newly crowned monarch and shook the political stance of the junta. It prompted the military government to introduce drastic solutions to stop the proliferation of the video clip and photos — threatening to block access to Facebook in Thailand and banning prominent critics of the monarchy.

Accordingly, the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society issued an order in April this year prohibiting Thais from contacting three critics of the monarchy — historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul, ex-journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall and me. Thais were told not to befriend or follow us on Facebook, as well as not to click ‘Like’ or share our content online. Those violating the order could be charged with lèse majesté, a crime of injury to royalty punishable by 3 to 15 years in prison.

Shortly after the issuance of the order on 3 May, six Thais were arrested and charged with lèse majesté. Among them were university Professor Saran Samantarat and well-known lawyer Prawet Prapanukul. The lèse majesté law, as defined by Article 112 of the Criminal Code, has consistently been employed to attack enemies of the royal institution. This pattern of repression over the years has become normalised as a vicious device used to undermine opponents.

But overusing the law could be counterproductive to the military government and the monarchy itself. The sharp increase in lèse majesté cases indicates that the law might have lost its royal magic. It also suggests the rise of anti-monarchy sentiment among some Thais. More than 100 Thais are currently doing jail time on lèse majesté charges.

Vajiralongkorn has been on the throne for only 6 months, but his short reign has already seen the highest numbers of lèse majesté cases and the harshest punishment against violators of this law. Two weeks ago, a Thai court delivered a 70-year sentence to a Thai man accused of making a fake Facebook page and repeatedly offending the monarchy. He admitted his guilt and his sentence was reduced to 35 years.

The junta is relentlessly searching for ways to intimidate the public regarding any negative comments about the new king. Cyberspace has since become a primary battlefield, with the monarchy and the junta both hoping to win the war using the lèse majesté law as their desperate weapon.

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The His Majesty King Bhumibol was highly revered. He was charismatic, divine and enjoyed moral authority.

Of course, they are bound to lose. Under King Bhumibol, lèse majesté was used in a limited manner, at least prior to the 2006 coup that overthrew Thaksin Shinawatra. After 2006, the use of lèse majesté was more widespread, visibly becoming a political instrument against critics of the monarchy.

Bhumibol was highly revered. He was charismatic, divine and enjoyed moral authority. Royalists exploited those qualities of Bhumibol to justify cases of lèse majesté and harsh punishments against violators.

But Vajiralongkorn is not Bhumibol. Vajiralongkorn’s lack of charisma, divinity and moral authority makes the lèse majesté law less authoritative. As the new king behaves badly, the law becomes less sacred.

The military and royalists have arrived at a political deadlock. They are stuck with Vajiralongkorn. In the short term, there might be some attempts on the King’s part to construct a new public image, for example through a campaign like ‘Bike for Mom’. But such images of a supposedly engaging monarch stand in stark contrast with other darker portrayals of Vajiralongkorn — as a king inclined toward violence, an eccentric lifestyle and erratic moods.

It is too late for the palace to remake Vajiralongkorn’s personality. It is too late for the military and the royalists to refrain from using the lèse majesté law to defend the status of the monarchy. And it is too late to prevent Thais from talking openly about their king today.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is Associate Professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University.

Mutual Respect– The Foundation for Better Cambodia-Thailand Relations


June 15, 2017

Mutual Respect–The Foundation for Better Cambodia-Thailand Relations

by Kimkong Heng

http://ippreview.com/index.php/Blog/single/id/467.html

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The relations between Cambodia and Thailand can be appropriately labelled as a love-hate relationship, given the long history of bilateral ties between the two neighboring countries. However, racial hatred, arguably, seems to have prevailed among many, if not most, of the people of both countries, at least during the three-year Cambodian-Thai border dispute that started in July 2008 over the territory surrounding the 11th century Preah Vihear Temple (known as Phra Viharn in Thailand). The deep hatred and open hostility should come as no surprise if one examines the ancient and modern history of the relations between the two countries.

However, given their current political, economic and diplomatic relations, both countries can enhance their generally troubled relationship through a reciprocal exchange of mutual respect. There are many possibilities ranging from government-to-government initiatives to people-to-people connectivity programs to cultivate and nurture mutual respect, understanding, and tolerance between the people of both nations. Only when a sense of mutual respect is prevalent among Cambodian and Thai people, can harmonious bilateral relations between the two neighbors be maintained and strengthened.

From the Cambodian historical perspective, Thailand was a major threat to Cambodia’s land, although it is less of a threat compared to its Vietnamese counterpart to the present-day Cambodia. Every Cambodian, young and old, knows that Thailand was Cambodia’s traditional enemy and that Cambodia was the victim of devastating Thai (called Siam by most Cambodians) attacks on numerous occasions. There were two infamous invasions of Cambodia by the Siamese. One was the Siamese invasion of Angkor in 1431 and another was the invasion of Longvek, an ancient Cambodian capital (now located in Kampong Chhnang province), in 1593. The collapse of both ancient Khmer cities marked the downward trajectory of the Khmer Empire which was already in decline from the 13th to the 19th centuries, a historical period which saw Cambodia’s vast territory lost to Thailand and Vietnam until Cambodia became a French colony in 1863 under King Norodom’s reign.

Under the French, Cambodia-Thailand relations seemed to have been restored and improved, with a number of treaties signed between Siam and France, on Cambodia’s behalf. Following Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953, however, Cambodia-Thailand relations deteriorated when Thailand in 1954 occupied Preah Vihear by force. Cambodia then responded to the Thai invasion by bringing a legal case against Thailand before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1959. The ICJ in 1962 ruled that Cambodia was the rightful owner of Preah Vihear Temple. Relations between both countries could not be worse at that time.

Three decades later, after Cambodia’s UN-sponsored national election in 1993, the two neighbors began to establish good relations with each other. However, their seemingly good relationship was brief and fragile. In 2003, a violent riot broke out after a Thai actress was reported to have awkwardly claimed that Angkor Wat should be returned to Thailand. The incident saw the bilateral relations between the two neighbors descend to the worst possible level, once again. When their bilateral ties later seemed to normalize and improve, both governments again broke off their diplomatic relations. This was a result of Thai troops being stationed in a disputed area of land adjacent to the Preah Vihear Temple after the temple was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2008. Thailand’s troop deployment invited Cambodia to do the same, which led to a series of fierce border clashes and skirmishes between 2008 and 2011, despite several talks and meetings between the two governments.

As close neighbors and ASEAN members, the two countries could not need each other more in terms of trade, national security, strategic cooperation, and cultural and human exchange.

With ASEAN mediation (although no effective action was taken), domestic political developments in both countries, and the ICJ Judgment on Cambodia’s request for a reinterpretation of the 1962 judgment in November 2013, the Cambodian-Thai border conflict was resolved, and bilateral relations improved. Two years later Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Thai counterpart, Prayuth Chan-ocha, signed a series of agreements aimed at cementing bilateral ties between both countries. They agreed to develop border facilities, manage migrant labor, and triple their current trade volume to USD 15 billion by 2020.

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Thailand must respect Cambodia’s Sovereignty over Preah Vihear Temple

Nevertheless, a resurgence of nationalism in both countries, often manipulated by politicians, is likely to impact their bilateral relations. As Kimly Ngoun has noted, many issues such as the historical legacy of hostility and mistrust, different constructions of history by Cambodian and Thai elites, and political propaganda about national territory and sovereignty, remain to be addressed, otherwise future conflict between Cambodia and Thailand is inevitable.

All things considered, genuine and mutual respect between the people of both nations should be cultivated and nurtured. In addition to efforts at the institutional and governmental levels to salvage the troubled relationship between the two countries, individuals have crucial roles to play. As argued in another article, Cambodian youth have played a pivotal role in shaping Cambodia’s relations with Vietnam. And Thailand should not be an exception. Cambodian people, particularly the younger generation, therefore, should not dwell on their dark history; instead, they should use lessons from history to help them make informed and impartial judgments when dealing with issues concerning Thailand and its people. They should, moreover, focus on developing themselves by engaging in different forms of personal and professional development. Only when each and every Cambodian is more educated, pragmatic, open-minded, and culturally competent, will Cambodia be more competitive and well-received in its neighboring countries’ eyes and on the international stage.

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Thus, everyone, both Cambodians and Thais, have a vital role to play in improving and fostering good relations between the two old rivals. In this regard, Cambodian people must learn to embrace the culture, values, and aspirations of their Thai counterparts, although those Thai cultural aspects, as claimed by Cambodians, originally derived from Khmer culture. This cultural acceptance must be a collective effort requiring mutual respect. The Thai side must also pursue the same initiative — respecting Cambodian culture, values, and aspirations despite having very similar cultural identity and practices.

There are a myriad of options and actions which can be taken to promote this free and frank exchange of mutual respect. One option both governments have pursued but will still requires their serious attention is to improve border facilities and security to enhance trade, tourism, and mobility. This of course implies the demarcation of both land and maritime borders. With more development projects geared towards areas along the Cambodian-Thai border, chances are high for citizens of both countries to interact economically, culturally, and socially, leading to better mutual understanding and trust.

New initiatives for cultural and educational exchanges or projects involving youth engagement and interactions, such as study exchange programs and youth group camping, should be further encouraged and implemented. Moreover, initiatives to enhance business and investment and to improve deep institutional ties and physical infrastructure links between Cambodia and Thailand are essential because, in their absence, people-to-people links would be difficult, if not impossible. The mutual exchange of respect and understanding must therefore be fostered at all levels, although the emphasis should be targeted at the grassroots level by fully engaging individuals and the youth of both countries.

The cultivation of mutual respect among the people of Cambodia and Thailand is clearly a prerequisite for the long-term healthy relationship between the two former enemies. As close neighbors and ASEAN members, the two countries could not need each other more in terms of trade, national security, strategic cooperation, and cultural and human exchange. To instill respect for one another, people of both nationalities must learn to be more outward-looking yet less self-important in their perceptions of their neighboring counterparts. It is probably wise for them to remember an old Khmer saying which goes, “In times of trouble, a good neighbor is better than a faraway relative.” Good neighbors must show one another mutual respect.

*Kimkong Heng is Assistant Dean at the School of Graduate Studies and a researcher with Techo Sen School of Government and International Relations in the University of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

 

Remembering Anthropologist Joel S. Kahn


June 6, 2017

Remembering Anthropologist Joel S. Kahn

http://www.newmandala.org/remembering-joel-s-kahn/

 

Joel S. Kahn passed away after a long illness on 1 May, 2017.

Joel had a remarkable career, one marked by an enduring commitment to anthropology, Southeast Asian studies, and comparative social sciences. In recognition of his achievements, Joel was elected a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia in 1995.

Foremost in our minds, though, remains his commitment to the nurturing of young scholars in the field. His considered advice and counsel, dispensed with wisdom and farsightedness, marked his impact on students. As a supervisor he was the calm captain steering PhDs, sometimes at the risk of going astray, back on course to successful completion. Joel’s generosity of ideas and professional support continued beyond our PhDs, as Joel maintained close intellectual and personal ties with many of his former postgraduates.

Joel received his own PhD in Social Anthropology from the London School of Economics and Political Science in 1974. He taught briefly at Goldsmith’s College, London from 1972-1974, and at University College London from 1974 to 1986, before moving to Australia to take up the Chair of Anthropology at Monash University from 1986 to 1992. He was appointed Professor of Anthropology at La Trobe University in 1992, a post he held until his retirement in 2007.

As an anthropologist he was always ‘at home’ in multiple places and his fieldwork took him to Indonesia and Malaysia often. In Southeast Asia he found academic collaborators and students to work with him, making lasting friendships and leaving intellectual legacies. In addition, Joel held a number of visiting positions, including Professor of Anthropology at the University of Sussex (1998-2000), Visiting Professor, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore (2004), Visiting Professor in the Department of Sociology and William Lim Siew Wai Fellow in Cultural Studies, National University of Singapore (2010), as well at Humboldt University, Berlin, and Universitas Gadjah Mada, Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

Anthropology can be a solitary endeavor and Joel was blessed to have found a partner in life and academic pursuits in Maila Stivens. From the early work amongst the Minangkabau in Sumatra to later work in urban Malaysia, they managed to work together, travel together, and remain together.

 

After his retirement, Joel was appointed Emeritus Professor of La Trobe University and Honorary Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne from 2011-2016.

He never stopped working, or pursuing the great questions of our time. Joel’s scholarship was marked by a critical, comparative approach to modernity. An abiding concern in his work was the need to apply a critical and comparative approach to the analysis of the social and cultural constitution of modernity. Joel did not spare anthropology and modern social theory from his critical gaze; emblematic of his writing is an appreciation of how anthropology is implicated in the culture of modernity and its exclusionary dynamics. His critique of universalising logics, concepts and rights was a hallmark of his work. This lead on to further endeavors to make room for alternative worldviews, be they based on class, race or cultural differences.

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These themes are apparent across the spectrum of Joel’s writings and were a uniting thread across the breadth of interests apparent in his monographs. In general, Joel’s writing can be grouped under the following themes: critical, comparative studies of class and economy (Minangkabau Social Formations: Indonesian Peasants and the World Economy, Cambridge University Press (1980)); the anthropology of modernism and modernity (Constituting the Minangkabau: Peasants, Culture and Modernity in Colonial Indonesia, Berg (1993); Culture, Multiculture, Postculture, Sage (1995); Modernity and Exclusion, Sage (2001)); cosmopolitanism and nationalism (Other Malays: Nationalism and Cosmopolitanism in the Malay World, Asian Studies Association of Australia in association with Singapore University Press, NIAS Press and University of Hawaii Press) (2006)) and modernity and religion (Asia, Modernity, and the Pursuit of the Sacred: Gnostics, Scholars, Mystics, and Reformers, Palgrave (2015)).

Joel helped shape a path forward for anthropology to be critical and situated firmly within its ethnographic field, putting the onus on anthropologists to engage seriously with their interlocutors in an intercultural field or interstitial space we create together. His call for a cosmopolitan anthropology has been heeded and anthropology continues to push the boundaries of what that can mean. Many of Joel’s writings on this subject have had a profound impact on Southeast Asianists and projects to rediscover cosmopolitan histories in times of heightened national and exclusionary discourses. His focus on the quotidian rather than elite cosmopolitanism also redirects how anthropologists in the region have thought about identity and multiculturalism. More importantly, it drew attention to the long history and continued ability of ordinary people to transgress state sanctioned identities.

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Joel was a prolific writer. In addition to publishing 60 journal articles and book chapters, he wrote six sole-authored monographs and edited six books, including (with J.R. Llobera) The Anthropology of Pre Capitalist Societies, Macmillan (1981); (with F. Loh) Fragmented Vision: Culture and Politics in Contemporary Malaysia, Allen and Unwin (Asian Studies Association of Australia series), US edition, University of Hawaii Press (1992); and Southeast Asian Identities: Culture and the Politics of Representation in Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (jointly published with Taurus, UK and St Martins Press, USA) (1998).

 

Joel has left a rich and deeply textured set of writings that will continue to resonate and provide insight in the future. His profound knowledge of anthropology, social theory and popular culture gave rise to Joel’s singular ability to see their entanglement in the social and historical processes of modernity both here in the global North as well as the global South.

Joel’s former postgraduates and colleagues will miss his generosity, support, and intellectual acuity. Our lives, too, will be duller without his sense of humour and keen, wry observations on life. Our deepest sympathy go to Joel’s wife and fellow anthropologist, Maila Stivens, as well as to their daughters, Sophie and Jess. Joel cherished his family and, in recent years, the addition of two young grandchildren brought him great joy.

Pictures reprinted with kind permission of Maila Stivens

Dr Gerhard Hoffstaedter is Senior Research Fellow (DECRA) at the University of Queensland.

Dr Wendy Mee is Senior Lecturer and Convenor of Sociology at La Trobe University.

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

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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…

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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

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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