Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia

By Bertil Lintner 28 July 2017

Southeast Asia is undoubtedly one of the world’s economically fastest growing regions and the home of sophisticated cultures – but it’s also where decades-long ethnic and political rebels are still active. And despite the economic progress, most of the Southeast Asian countries are moving towards authoritarianism rather than democracy or, at least, a more pluralistic rule. Michael Vatikiotis examines these contradictions and conundrums in his most recent book, which is appropriately named Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia. Vatikiotis has lived the region for three decades; he knows the area well and speaks Thai and Indonesian. He is also a former editor of the now defunct Hong Kong weekly Far Eastern Economic Review and now works as a conflict mediator for the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.

He mentions Singapore as a typical example of development models that defy Western concepts of the-rise-of-the-middle-class-leads-automatically-to-a-more-democratic-form-of-government: “Singapore is indisputably the region’s most advanced economy; it has the highest income per capita, the best health indicators, and the biggest concentration of smartphones on the planet.” Yet, there is little popular participation in government, no vibrant press and dissidents are dealt with harshly.

In much poorer Cambodia, the UN spent billions of dollars to introduce democracy in 1993. But as soon as elections were held, a new authoritarian regime headed by yet another strongman, Hun Sen, emerged and many of those opposed to his rule either went quiet or fled the country.

Thailand, a promising democracy in the 1990s, has experienced what many believed belonged to the past: two military coups, the first in 2006 and then again in 2014. In Myanmar, pro-democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, won a spectacular election victory in November 2015, leading to the country’s first civilian government since 1962. But when Vatikiotis met government officials six months later, they answered his questions with “all matters will be decided by the State Counselor” (Vatikiotis refers incorrectly to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s new title as de facto head of state as “State Councilor,” but that is a minor mistake.)

With Laos and Vietnam under strict one-party rule and Brunei an absolute monarchy, that leaves only Indonesia and the Philippines as actual democracies in Southeast Asia – but the new president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has told the world to mind its own business when he masterminded a violent campaign against alleged drug dealers, resulting in extrajudicial executions of thousands. And the country’s economy remains dominated by the rule of a traditional oligarchy while millions are living in slums and abject poverty.

In Vatikiotis’ view, the main problem is that rather than address deteriorating social conditions and income inequalities that have come with economic expansion, “Southeast Asian governments have become prone to conservative impulses serving the ends of power.” And with China as the rising and the United States as the declining world power, it is hard to argue that democracy is the way forward. In civil society, religious extremism – manifested by militant Islam in Indonesia and Malaysia, and radical Buddhist movements in Myanmar – and intolerance in general are on the rise in the region.

Blood and Silk is not a dry academic study of social conflicts or the political and economic impact of China in Southeast Asia. It is well written and explains the origins of conflicts in the region as well as how those have impacted today’s politics. But his analysis of the reason for the tragic fate of Myanmar is questionable. Like many other Western analysts before him, he seems to believe that the abolition of the old monarchy by the British in the late 19th century forebode the disaster that came after independence in 1962: “Myanmar without the monarchy was pretty much a ship at sea without a captain or cultural anchor. The result is a country still dominated by a 400,000-strong army.”

The French kept the traditional royal rulers of Indochina in nominal power throughout colonial rule, but, once independent, that did not prevent those countries from being plunged into bloody civil wars. On the other hand, Japan deposed Emperor Sunjong when Korea was turned into a colony in 1910 – and South Korea today is an economic powerhouse as well as a thriving democracy. A more plausible explanation for Myanmar’s inability to become a functioning national entity is the fact that the country, with its present borders, is a colonial creation bringing together peoples and ethnic groups with little in common, and even centuries of conflicts with the Burman kings that predate British rule.

Vatikiotis also makes the unfortunate mistake of saying that 100,000 ethnic Kachin had by the end of 2016 “fled into neighboring China.” While some refugees did take refuge on the Chinese side of the border when the conflict escalated in 2011, they were soon pushed back into Myanmar by the Chinese and remain in makeshift camps in rebel-held territory or near government-controlled towns in Kachin State. China, evidently, feels that it can do whatever it wants in the region, or as Vatikiotis aptly quotes Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi as saying: “China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that’s just a fact.”

Despite some minor flaws, this is a book worth reading for anyone interested in the politics of modern Southeast Asia. Leaders such as Suharto in Indonesia, Mahathir Mohamad in Malaysia and Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand “promised their people happiness and prosperity but in the end left them divided and deprived…they enriched their families and brooked no dissent. They left anger and conflict in their wake.” Sounds like a grim conclusion of the situation in Southeast Asia. But there is also hope, according to Vatikiotis, and it rests with Southeast Asia’s historically resilient civil societies: “The slow response of government to grievances and use of divide-and-rule tactics to undermine opposition will force communities and groups to look after themselves and defy the powerful center.”