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Times Literary Supplement: Michael Vatikiotis’ “Blood and Silk”

Everyone lies to you in Thailand”, a former Bangkok resident told me at a recent gathering of Asia correspondents. When you ask a local when the next bus arrives, for example, they’re likely to tell you five minutes even if it went out of service years ago. They do it not out of malice towards foreigners – far from it, when 10 per cent of their economy is dependent on tourism – but to save face. Thai society, writes Michael Vatikiotis in Blood and Silk: Power and conflict in modern Southeast Asia, “has developed a sophisticated range of conflict-avoidance mechanisms” that “outsiders interpret as a well-developed culture of manners, but which in fact are part of the suit of armour protecting against indignity”. In case of indignity, personal or political, “a sudden, violent response is not only warranted, but expected”.

The same goes, to varying degrees, for people in Myanmar, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei, who together with Thailand constitute the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), established fifty years ago as a means of fostering development and beating back communism. It worked: not only has no member state gone red (Vietnam, capitalist in all but name, joined in 1995), many of them now boast capitals that often strike tourists as more modern than those of the West. But Vatikiotis, an American armed-conflict negotiation facilitator who first arrived in Southeast Asia as a student in the late 1970s, is no tourist, having witnessed at first hand the region’s considerable growth, and the boom of cities such as Bangkok, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, now “among the most globally connected, modern and sophisticated places in the world”. And “beneath these sleek metropolitan glass-and-steel carapaces” he perceives “an enduring and seething underbelly of unmet popular aspiration suppressed by the effective concentration of power in the hands of a privileged few”. A “smiling mask of tropical abundance”, for Vatikiotis, hides “the reality of perennial threats to stability and survival, fuelled by rising levels of social and economic inequality and a chronic absence of the institutional safeguards and legal certainty we take (or at least used to take) for granted in the West”.

After the Second World War, “Burma, Indonesia, Malaya, and the Philippines were all granted independence as fledgling democracies. Not one stayed free and democratic for long”. Then came harsh suppression of dissent, violent crackdowns on protest, military coups, stretches of martial law, and campaigns of wanton killing sparked by anti-communist paranoia. Authoritarian rule became the norm by the mid-1980s, and continues to this day, the “high modernism of the early independence era” – embodied by leaders such as Indonesia’s Sukarno, Singapore’s assiduous if sententious Lee Kuan Yew, and Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej – having been replaced with “reassertions of traditional social and cultural behaviour, more rooted in the pre-colonial Hindu-Buddhist past”. Unlike “the generation that first embarked on nation building in the 1950s”, Vatikiotis writes, “the current generation of leaders is more parochial”. They include Rodrigo Duterte, the populist President of Philippines, whose rough-edged pronouncements leave international observers aghast; Thailand’s thrice-married, crop-top-wearing sixty-five-year-old King Vajiralongkorn, who throws lavish birthday celebrations for his pet poodle (an animal who also holds high rank in the Royal Thai Air Force); and Hun Sen, the Prime Minister of Cambodia since 1985, who last year declared himself “Glorious Supreme Prime Minister and Powerful Commander”.

Read the whole thing at the Times Literary Supplement.