Paris Peace Accords 23 Oct. 1991

Friday, July 14, 2017

Southeast Asia enters the danger zone

Inequality and toxic identity politics haunt Michael Vatikiotis’s portrait of a region often celebrated for its dynamism

Alluring and fraught with danger: Southeast Asia is both of these, as the title of Michael Vatikiotis’s Blood and Silk suggests. This region of 600m people, contested by a rising China and a declining US, also remains hugely important to the rest of the world. It was in Thailand that the Asian financial crisis erupted 20 years ago this July with the crash devaluation of the baht, and it is through the Strait of Malacca that the world sends about $6,000bn of its trade and a quarter of its seaborne oil each year....

Where democracy has arrived — as it did in Cambodia under the auspices of the UN in 1993 — it has in several cases quickly been subverted or demolished. Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander now supported by China, has ruled Cambodia with only a brief interruption for nearly four decades and, like an ancient Khmer king, has a retinue of hundreds of ministers and secretaries of state and a 5,000-strong bodyguard. Last year, he ordered his citizens to refer to him as “Glorious Supreme Prime Minister and Powerful Commander”.

Vatikiotis writes that many of his Southeast Asian friends regard the future with apprehension. “I notice a distinct contrast between Pollyanna-ish Westerners all agog over the glitz and growth in the region, predicting its glorious future, and anxious Southeast Asians, rich and poor, who harbour worries of lurking catastrophe.”

Vatikiotis identifies three main reasons for his forebodings and those of his interlocutors. First, inequality — and the selfishness of the business-political elites that have benefited disproportionately....

The second reason is the erosion of tolerance and the rise of identity politics, whether the issue is religion or ethnicity....

Third and last, there are those outside forces: not only the intolerant, well-financed Islamism of the Gulf but also the rise of China as the latest imperialist superpower insensitive to the needs or wishes of its putative client states.

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