Review of “Blood and Silk” from the South China Morning Post

Book review – Blood & Silk: Power & Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia offers a bleak prognosis for region’s future

 By Salil Tripathi

Author Michael Vatikiotis’ love of the region shines through in his examination of its leaders and long-oppressed people, but he is unsure whether those in power are able to take the necessary steps to prevent further spilling of blood.

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 September, 2017,

In 1993, American journalist Stan Sesser wrote a book about Southeast Asia titled The Lands of Charm and Cruelty. He revealed what makes the region attractive to travellers and journalists (hence the charm), as well as the deep, unresolved conflicts within, many of which are exceptionally brutal (hence the cruelty).

Southeast Asia is breathtakingly beautiful, its people are smiling, hospitable and energetic, and its culture rich. But it also conceals stories of unparalleled violence, and its political structures have remained stunted, preventing the region’s creativity from blooming.

This incongruence is not outwardly visible. You have to peel back the layers and see beyond the shadow puppetry to get closer to the truth.

Michael Vatikiotis, my former colleague at the Far Eastern Economic Review (who would later become its editor), is uniquely qualified to make sense of that complex region. He first went to Southeast Asia as a student, then became a journalist, and is now a senior official at an organisation that brings together conflicting parties to build peace.

Vatikiotis offers a lucid portrait of this fascinating region by bringing together a student’s sense of wonder and curiosity, a journalist’s scepticism and diligence in making sense of the reality, and a peacemaker’s compassion for the vulnerable. Fluent in Thai and Bahasa Indonesia, Vatikiotis has lived in Bangkok, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, and has developed a profound understanding of Southeast Asia. He knows the region’s political and business elite and has formed deep bonds with people from all walks of life.

In Blood & Silk – his account of his decades of fascination with the region – his love and commitment to Southeast Asia shine through. It offers important insights about what makes these lands of charm and cruelty what they are, and raises serious questions about what lies ahead.

Vatikiotis has decided to write what is often deliberately left unsaid in a region where public discourse shuns conflict, where “face” is important, and where aphorisms are expressed to say what cannot be spoken directly.

A Cambodian proverb helps him explain the cycles of violence: when the water is high, the fish eat the ants; when the water is low, the ants eat the fish. He also cites another metaphor used in Southeast Asia (and elsewhere) about the pragmatism of the common folk: when elephants fight, stay out of the long grass.

The book is timely. Three tectonic political shifts are changing the way politics and business have functioned in Southeast Asia. The rise of China has brought fresh investment to the region and forced other countries to reconsider the balance of power. The waning American interest in the region raises concerns about security as well as trade: Southeast Asian nations have thrived in the past because of the US security umbrella and open American markets for their exports. And the growth of militant Islam troubles not only Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, but can cause repercussions beyond.

Persisting inequality has kept many of the region’s inhabitants poor, and Vatikiotis fears some of the dispossessed may fall prey to demagoguery. The coexistence of extreme wealth and dire poverty, he notes, is not sustainable. When times turn sour, it can give rise to divisive identity politics. Vatikiotis points out the hounding of former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaha Purnama, also known as Ahok, who is Christian and Chinese and now jailed on blasphemy charges; he also highlights Buddhist intolerance, most visible in the persecution of the Rohingyas in Myanmar.

The institution the region relies on – the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) – has just turned 50. It is a remarkably durable institution. Formed to bring together non-communist Asian states during the Vietnam war, it found a fresh raison d’être during the Cambodian crisis and has grown to include a country with first world economic indicators (Singapore) and countries clearly in the lower income group (such as Laos and Myanmar).

As Vatikiotis notes, there are governments in Southeast Asia that are run by leaders whose mandate is questioned (Thailand and Malaysia); who are maverick (Philippines); whose writ doesn’t run large and who insists on making all decisions (Myanmar); and who insist on being called “Glorious Supreme Prime Minister and Powerful Commander” (Cambodia).

He astutely points out where power resides in the region and how it is wielded, as well as how those who have power have prevented any reckoning of the violence of the past. He repeatedly returns to unhealed wounds of the massacres of Indonesia, and isn’t sanguine about the impact of violence today in the Philippines

He laments how some leaders who promised economic salvation for all ended up leaving their countries with their own families enriched, citing the examples of Suharto of Indonesia, Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia, and Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand.

Can the region’s long-oppressed people rise against the powerful? Vatikiotis recognises the weakness of human rights institutions in the region, but nonetheless sees hope in civil society: “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 centre,” he writes.

Vatikiotis’ prognosis is bleak. The entities he would like to counter extremism or violence are not strong enough, and foreign interest in the region is declining. For the land to retain its charm and remain draped in silk, its leaders will have to take steps to prevent further spilling of blood and account for past cruelties. It is not an easy task, but Vatikiotis is right to ask.

http://www.scmp.com/culture/books/article/2109603/book-review-blood-and-silk-power-and-conflict-modern-southeast-asia

Memoirs of a Mediator

Review of “Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia” by Humphrey Hawksley  published in August 2017 in “Asian Affairs”

Humphrey Hawksley on an insightful and very personal portrait of the politics and players shaping South East Asia’s future

One perception of South East Asia is of cityscapes lined with glass-fronted skyscrapers, sun-drenched beaches and busy factories feeding the global supply chain while wealth spreads through communities under the paradigm of an Asian tiger. There is another view, however, bravely told by Michael Vatikiotis, of a region that has been fought over and trampled by outside powers for centuries and is bracing itself for another Cold War-style conflict. South East Asia is a nut between the arms of a giant geopolitical nutcracker, he graphically argues when laying out his backdrop for Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern South East Asia.

Two elements merge in Vatikiotis’ convincing thesis. One is that South East Asia is becoming a front-line testing ground in the rivalry between the United States and China. The disputed South China Sea, now probably the world’s most strategic waterway, remains far from being resolved.  The other is that the ten countries of this region have not yet formed a robust enough bloc with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to dilute China’s growing influence. Compared to swathes of the Middle East and Africa, South East Asia has made remarkable progress over the past half century. But China has moved faster, raising questions as to what will happen next.

From here, Vatikiotis takes us into the heart of this region. His anecdotes are compelling, his analysis revealing and his writing draws you in towards a ‘land perpetually wet, densely overgrown and always hot and humid… on calm, turquoise sea glistening in sunlight.’  But once there, weak government, corruption and conflict become enduring themes as he asks how South East Asia’s 626 million people with their $2.4 trillion economy, their rich diversity of religion, culture and ethnicity, manage to cope with such chronically poor governance and persistent inequality.

Poverty may have halved in the last fifteen years, but forty per cent of Indonesia’s 250 million people live on less than two dollars a day. South East Asian leaders have brandished symbols of wise munificent leadership, but enriched their families and brooked no dissent, leaving anger and conflict in their wake.

Vatikiotis arrived in South East Asia in 1979 enveloped in the adventurism and confidence of youth. Over the years his work as a journalist chiselled down his self-confessed idealism to carve out the picture he paints for us now. More is drawn from his current job as a mediator with a conflict resolution organisation, The Centre of Humanitarian Dialogue, and it is with this eye that Vatikiotis gives us his prediction of what the region might become over the next half century.

South East Asia is no stranger to being a theatre of war for others, a place where in Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and other countries, aspirations of independence clashed with opposing forces of communism and democracy.

Cambodia’s Killing Fields from the 1970s are well-chronicled with war crime trials still going on today. Indonesia’s anti-communist killings of half a million or more in the 1960s, have drawn a dimmer spotlight, mainly because Western governments tacitly endorsed the massacres and Indonesia has not yet openly come to terms with what happened.

Vatikiotis, the mediator, tells how he sat in on meetings where Indonesia decided, because historical divisions remained unresolved, it would not issue an apology. The reopening of old wounds would be too dangerous. The military was still angry with the communists for killing its general. Muslim gangs carried out many of the killings. There is the ethnic Chinese factor and, concludes Vatikiotis, a ‘stunning absence of compassion for those murdered by powerful people’.

Throughout South East Asia, history has been swept under the carpet, leaving the already corrupt and fractured institutions a long way from being robust enough to handle the type of violent divisions that might erupt. This flaw has led to a fear of social change.

Beijing is skilled at exploiting such vulnerabilities with a record of fomenting uprisings while offering financial inducements. More recently, it has shown its hand in hard power with its claims to the South China Sea, a Monroe Doctrine-style message to the US, or any other government, not to meddle in China’s backyard.

Add into this mix the influence of Middle East-inspired extreme Islam, already impacting Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, and the region is taking on a very different shape from what it was in the late 20th century.  Vatikiotis compares its future more closely to the era before the 1500s and the arrival of European powers.

He envisages the weakening of the nation states and the emergence of ‘smaller autonomous entities’ relying on trade with China carried along roads and railways built by China. He cites special autonomy agreements already given to Indonesia’s Aceh province, Mindanao in the southern Philippines and gives us detailed accounts of his own attempt to forge a settlement for the conflict in southern Thailand. In this respect, the US has been short-sighted, argues Vatikiotis, giving the example of Washington’s reluctance to deal with the military government in Thailand, thus allowing China to step into the vacuum.

Had this current cycle of global power shift taken another fifty years, South East Asia might have been strong enough to put up more of a united front. But we are where we are and it is now up to the Western democracies and the ten individual countries to decide what, if anything, to do about it.

Given its rich tapestry of insight, Blood and Silk could have delivered us a tighter conclusion. It ends not with a big vision, but with a thought about corruption in Cambodia. Earlier observations might have made a more fitting ending to this superbly drawn assessment, a jolt of reality to offset the shopping malls and glass towers, that this is a region where leaders have promised their people happiness and prosperity and left them divided and deprived.

Financial Times review of “Blood and Silk” – 8th July 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

By Victor Mallet

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.

I half expected Vatikiotis to be optimistic. Southeast Asia, after all, embraces 10 increasingly prosperous economies that have for the most part comprehensively
outpaced their postcolonial equivalents in Africa since the 1960s; even the laggards such as Myanmar and Laos have recently started to catch up. And, unlike their counterparts in the Middle East, the predominantly Muslim nations of Indonesia and Malaysia are known for religious tolerance and a syncretic culture that has absorbed influences from Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Confucianism as well as the Islam of the Arabian peninsula.

Yet Vatikiotis makes a bleak assessment of Southeast Asia’s prospects. He speaks
several of the region’s languages, and after studying, working and travelling in the region as a journalist and peace mediator (between insurgents and governments) for more than three decades, he builds a strong case for his grim conclusions. The problem is not that the author is unaware of what is good about Southeast Asia — including kindness to strangers, humour, inclusiveness and flexibility — but rather that he sees these very qualities being eclipsed by a mixture of old fashioned tyranny and baneful new influences from abroad.
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 Pollyannaish
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.”

Those are strong words. But the periodic waves of democratic optimism that followed first decolonisation and then the overthrow of dictators in countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia have undoubtedly given way to ripples of concern about the future.

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 from economic growth both before and after Asia’s financial crisis. Just as populism has been fuelled by resentment over inequality in Trump’s America, in Brexit Britain and in oligarchical Hong Kong, so the 40 per cent of Indonesians clustered around a poverty earnings line of $2 a day are easy prey for demagogues. It is true that prosperity has also swollen the ranks of Asia’s middle class, but this aspiring and increasingly educated bourgeoisie is governed by the same set of authoritarian leaders and their coterie of tycoons. “This is not a sustainable paradox,” the author writes. It sounds like a recipe for revolution.

The second reason is the erosion of tolerance and the rise of identity politics,
whether the issue is religion or ethnicity. Vatikiotis cites figures showing that 1.6m Asians have died in “subnational” conflicts (in other words, in wars within states and not between them) since 1947; more died in such conflicts in Asia in the decade to 2008 than in all other conflicts elsewhere in the world combined.
As for religion, the increasing influence of extremist Sunni interpretations of Islam over the past 30 years is startlingly visible in the dress codes and religiosity of the Muslims who make up 40 per cent of the region’s population — and in the vilification and recent jailing for blasphemy of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the once popular Christian and ethnic Chinese governor of Jakarta better known as Ahok.
Buddhist extremism and intolerance is on the rise, too. Like Christians in the Middle East, religious minorities are fleeing persecution in the countries of their birth and seeking refuge with coreligionists. Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingyas, for example, have been heading to Bangladesh and Malaysia.

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.
Blood and Silk is not a dry sociopolitical analysis. Vatikiotis has an eye for quirky
detail, whether it be the Thai crown prince’s pet poodle commissioned as an air force officer and dressed in uniform, or the self important Muslim separatist from southern Thailand who prayed with Osama bin Laden in Khartoum but found the terrorist mastermind uninspiring and unimpressive.

In the end, though, the outlook is menacing. Indonesia risks “the kind of ethnic and religious sectarian strife we see in the Middle East today”. Malaysians are dismayed by “the slow disintegration of the multiracial compact”. In Thailand, there is “little prospect of the military willingly giving up power”. The Philippines remains “a prisoner of oligarchy”. Even Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar has disappointed her liberal supporters. We can hope that Vatikiotis is wrong, but I fear he is not.

Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia, by Michael
Vatikiotis, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, RRP£20, 352 pages

Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia

blood and Silk cover8.indd
A powerful examination of the conflicts in Southeast Asia that risk destabilising its remarkable development.

Thought-provoking and eye-opening, BLOOD AND SILK is an accessible, personal look at modern Southeast Asia, written by one of the region’s most experienced outside observers.

This is a first-hand account of what it’s like to sit at the table with deadly Thai Muslim insurgents, mediate between warring clans in the Southern Philippines and console the victims of political violence in Indonesia – all in an effort to negotiate peace, and understand the reasons behind endemic violence.

Peering beyond brand new shopping malls and shiny glass towers in Bangkok and Jakarta, Michael Vatikiotis probes the heart of modern Southeast Asia. Why are the region’s richest countries such as Malaysia riddled with corruption? Why do Myanmar, Thailand and the Philippines harbour unresolved violent insurgencies? How do deepening religious divisions in Indonesia and Malaysia and China’s growing influence affect the region and the rest of the world?

Vatikiotis tells the story of modern Southeast Asia using vivid portraits of the personalities who pull the strings, mixed with revealing analysis that is underpinned by decades of experience in the countries involved, from their silk-sheathed salons to blood-spattered streets. The result is a fascinating study of the dynamics of power and conflict in one of the world’s fastest growing regions.

@jagowriter

  • Other details
  • ISBN: 9781474602006
  • Publication date: 08 Jun 2017
  • Page count: 352
  • Imprint: W&N

https://www.orionbooks.co.uk/books/detail.page?isbn=9781474602006

blood and Silk cover8.indd

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https://www.amazon.com/Blood-Silk-Conflict-Modern-Southeast-ebook/dp/B01MCSTU15/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1494984695&sr=8-1&keywords=Michael+Vatikiotis

Digging up the Past

Former Dutch rulers launch an inquiry into the violence that gave birth to Indonesia

In a world where liberal notions of truth and justice seem to be in headlong retreat, one small European country’s efforts to address war crimes allegedly committed long ago offers a ray of hope for victims of conflict and the battered idea of transitional justice: the Netherlands has taken the extraordinary step of launching a belated inquiry into the armed struggle that transformed the Dutch East Indies into the republic of Indonesia seventy years ago.

Indonesia’s revolution was a short, scrappy affair. After declaring independence on the front lawn of a city bungalow in Jakarta on 17 August 1945, the new republic’s leadership bickered over the best way to defeat the Dutch, while its fledgling army, a rag tag mob of brigands and idealists, skirmished with colonial forces clinging to empire. Indonesian narratives of this brief era of struggle are surprisingly sparse – snatches of autobiography, a lot of fiery poetry, and a few novels. Serious historical accounts were mainly written by foreigners.

Much or all of this fractured history may now be revised with serious implications not just for what is considered the truth, but also for the consequence of some of the period’s worst violence. The Dutch government, in a controversial move both in Indonesia and the Netherlands, has launched an inquiry into the events of the period spanning 1945-50.

The decision taken by the government last December involves renowned academic institutes in the Netherlands and will draw on a wide range of sources, including a call for the public both in Indonesia and the Netherlands to come forward with recollections, photographs and documents. Seldom, if ever, has a former colonial power taken so open an approach to delving into the violent past.

The revelations will have repercussions not only in the Netherlands; the Indonesian side was also responsible for violence – much of it targeting Indonesians. A revolt by leftist leaders in 1948 against the fledgling republican government was brutally put down in Madiun, East Java. The Dutch inquiry will open old wounds and could bring forth demands for justice and compensation on both sides.

One reason it took so long for the inquiry to happen was the resistance of veterans from the Dutch forces that invaded Indonesia after the Japanese defeat in 1945. For years afterwards, the Dutch government insisted there was nothing to be ashamed of. But after more than seventy years, and with very few of the veterans still around, that position is changing. ‘The question therefore arises,’ notes the academic coalition running the inquiry, ‘as to whether the stance taken by the government in 1969, namely “that the armed forces as a whole acted correctly in Indonesia” can still be defended.’

And not just the Dutch military forces. The inquiry will focus initially on the murky period immediately after the Japanese surrender in August 1945 and before the main military force sent by the Dutch to re-take Indonesia arrived in early 1946. Known in Indonesian as ‘bersiap’, (the preparation), it was time of repercussions on all sides after four hard years of Japanese occupation. It was in this period of a few months, the inquiry team notes, that: ‘many thousands of Europeans, Indo-Europeans, as well as Chinese and Indonesians accused of collaborating with the Dutch colonial rule, became the victims of widespread and brutal violence, perpetrated by organised and unorganised Indonesian militant groups.’

This will be acutely sensitive in Indonesia, where victim-hood lies deeply buried because of the absence of legal protection, either for the victims or their persecutors. Transitional justice efforts have mostly fallen on stony ground in the post-1998 reform era. Questions surrounding culpability for the deaths of around half a million Indonesians in a witch hunt against members of the Indonesian Communist Party after 1965 have dogged democratically elected governments over the past decade.

Despite promises of an investigation and apology, nothing has been done. Last year a group of Indonesian activists convened a ‘People’s Tribunal’ in The Hague where a panel of independent judges ruled that the killings amounted to genocide and that some Western governments were implicated as well. Former Indonesian Attorney General Marzuki Darusman believes that the Dutch inquiry could be cathartic. ‘Such a format of getting to the truth of what happened after 1945 could be a way of resolving nearer past issues such as what happened in 1965’, he said.

The Dutch government by contrast has shown a remarkable willingness to subject its security forces to scrutiny and prosecution. In 2014, a Dutch court ruled that Dutch soldiers who were members of a UN peace-keeping force in Bosnia-Hercegovina were culpable for the deaths of 300 Bosniaks who in July 1995 had sought shelter from Serbian forces in Srebrenica but were surrendered by the Dutch into Serbian hands then killed, along with almost 5,000 others, mostly women and children.

The Dutch inquiry into the Indonesian revolution perhaps has a wider significance, for it comes at a time of concern about the erosion of international norms and values in a world of fading idealism, rising populist nationalism, and decaying global cooperation. It is quite possible that an inquiry led by liberal academics half a world away from where their countrymen used violent means in the defence of empire could mean a whole lot more than spending three million Euros of Dutch public money on the closure of an ugly chapter of history: it could help keep alive the promise of justice for millions of other victims of war crimes around the world.

First published in New Mandala on 27 April 2017

Digging up the Dutch colonial past

Trump

Triumph of Trump: such an easy headline. But one for some that recalls the arrogant populists who heralded the fascist order in Europe in the 1930s. Even if that’s underestimating the correcting power of Congress and the courts, Americans still woke up to a President who has lit a flaming brazier of hatred.

There’s a hole where my optimism used to be. It is sickening to see the media’s frenzied efforts to put lipstick on a pig, and now turn viciously on the candidate they lionized as the anti-Trump. People told the media they wanted change and didn’t trust Hillary Clinton, but these views were carefully filtered to the point where they didn’t sound credible. Meanwhile, the coffee-steeped coiffed commentariat spoke to one another in a vacuum and scrambled to explain how badly they misread the signs.

And now, reality dawns: A cavalcade of international tyrants and thugs throng to congratulate Trump; the short-sighted, narrow minded little Englanders who are engineering Brexit are crowing and preparing their hosanas for the high priest of isolationist jingoism.

Only Germany, now the world’s leading (only?) liberal society, made plain its disdain and disregard. And there’s always what’s left of the French Left. The headline in Liberation: American Psycho

Appropriate my Ass!

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“I write fiction to escape the bonds of cultural constraint, and use fictional characters and situations to bore more deeply into the cultures I have inhabited and studied for the past thirty years.”

I have followed with interest the lively debate on cultural appropriation triggered by Lionel Shriver’s address at the Brisbane Writers Festival in September. Shriver’s strident defence of freely assuming other identities for the purpose of writing fiction unleashed a storm of protest from those who regard the boundaries of race, religion and gender as ring-fenced – ‘look-but-don’t-touch’, as she put it.

Should writers be afraid of what Shriver calls ‘a larger climate of super-sensitivity, giving rise to proliferating prohibitions supposedly in the interest of social justice that constrain fiction writers’?  If we consider the larger body of modern classical writing in the 20th century, they certainly have not. Should André Malraux have worried about portraying the tortured life of the Chinese assassin Chen in revolutionary Shanghai in his 1933 classic Man’s Fate?  When Joseph Conrad wove an adventure story around James Wait, a West Indian sailor in Nigger of the Narcissus, this was not regarded as cultural misappropriation, but as a brilliant work of fictional realism – despite the unfortunate title. Both Conrad and Malraux, to take but two examples, used their writing to bring what were then remote and different parts of the world alive in the minds of their readers, narrowing yawning cultural chasms by revealing the essential humanity of their subjects.

Similarly, I write fiction to escape the bonds of cultural constraint, and use fictional characters and situations to bore more deeply into the cultures I have inhabited and studied for the past thirty years. As a writer born in the West who has published two novels set in Indonesia and many short stories set in Southeast Asia, I have written from cultural perspectives that are plainly not my own, assumed identities for my characters that are clearly not Western, and told stories that have no bearing on the world in which I was raised in the United States and England. I did all of this without permission.

I hope my stories are at least in part transcendent, provide a form of escapism, yet also stir thematically the ideals of freedom and social justice. Most readers have told me the stories – set in remote islands, villages and cities as well as courts and palaces across Southeast Asia – offer a way to understand these various cultures and societies, and highlight the struggles within them. No one has yet wondered if my novel The Painter of Lost Souls – about a Javanese painter who becomes entangled in the struggle between secular expression and Islamic dogma – was a story I had any right to tell: I am neither a Muslim nor a painter. Likewise, no one has yet questioned my right, in Spice Garden, to narrate through the eyes of a Muslim trader and a Catholic priest the story of violent religious conflict in the Moluccan islands.

My own identity is somewhat blurred. I grew up a white male in an orthodox Anglo-Saxon setting but with my family’s origins steeped in the colonial context of the Levant. I suppose I could have ended up writing exclusively about the taunts and bullying I experienced in British schools because of my foreign name. Born in the US and brought up in Britain, I might have become obsessed with the strong sense that I would never quite be considered either an Englishman or an American. Lacking the multi-lingual skills my parents acquired from their upbringing in cosmopolitan Palestine and Egypt, I could not even take refuge in the land of my ancestors. As a passive Christian with antecedents who were both Jews and Muslims, religion for me became a basket of contradictions.

Dwelling on these issues as a writer would have made me feel more alienated, not less; and also highlight my inauthenticity in any of these areas. I therefore found security in a context so profoundly foreign that, like the migrant arriving in a place of refuge, I appropriated it as my home. This allowed me to put some distance between that and my own insecurity as I grew up in an intolerant society: it gave me a sense of perspective on how much more fortunate I actually was and made me a more useful person. As a result, I believe culture can and should be appropriated – because it makes for a less combustible society.

We live in an iconoclastic age where everything is questioned and the norms and values we once respected are being up-ended.  Much has been written about how this stems from the frustration of those who feel shut out, abandoned and let down by globalisation. It is hard to disagree with this as a generalisation, but there’s a more insidious impulse. For in a world where everyone has a voice, where millions of people in just a few seconds can read the tiniest brain-fart, there is a frantic, existential desire to stand out and be noticed. It seems to me that part of the problem is that indignant displays of prejudice and outrage easily grab and gain attention in an era when the megaphone has been replaced by instantly broadcast social media. As a result, boundaries proliferate: no-go areas emerge, differentiation becomes packaged and commoditized, tragedy and misfortune become trajectories to wealth and fame.

Perhaps a story I wrote some years ago about the behaviour of the elderly Thai-Chinese residents of a retirement home in Bangkok could earn me multiple levels of opprobrium in the modern context. My description of the impact of modern urban growth on traditional family values might be seen today as encroaching on the privacy of the elderly and impugning the tradition of filial piety.

The writer struggling to rise above conflict and cut through human confusion is often victimized, either for not taking sides or for telling inconvenient truths. Albert Camus once said that writing is ‘a means of stirring the greatest number of people by offering them a privileged picture of common joys and sufferings’. I strongly agree with Lionel Shriver that ‘even if novels and short stories only do so by creating an illusion, fiction helps to fell the exasperating barriers between us, and for a short while allows us to behold the astonishing reality of other people.’ Who has the right to decree that culture and gender must be fenced-off areas? Shouldn’t any serious writing be allowed to trespass aggressively, so long as people’s identities are respected? Isn’t it more fraught to proscribe or deny such voices? To put my response in another, more inappropriate way: Appropriate my ass!

First published in Asia Literary Review, 18th October 2016

Hard Power Prevails in Southeast Asia

So far, 2016 has been a terrible year for advocates of democracy and human rights in Southeast Asia. The military has tightened its grip on power in Thailand, a draconian security law is back in force in Malaysia, Cambodia is entering a vicious vortex of political violence, and in the Philippines a popular strongman president has turned a blind eye to the killing of hundreds of suspected criminals since he was elected in May.

Admittedly, set against the rise of populist demagogues demanding law and order at the expense of freedom and rights elsewhere in the world, Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar and Joko Widodo in Indonesia could be seen as exemplary models of leadership in emerging democracies. Yet as they consolidate power, both leaders have revealed a troubling insensitivity to human rights concerns and a tendency to accommodate vested interests.

What this tells us is that we cannot take for granted the trajectory of political development in the region. The concentration of power and the protection of narrow elite interests remains a prevailing consideration of government, no matter how they were elected.

Of course, this is precisely the reason legions of voters in Europe and the U.S. have become disillusioned and are rejecting established parties and their leaders. The challenge for the people of Southeast Asia is that it is hard to register their concerns: freedom of expression and popular sovereignty remain bridled and constrained.

Although social media widely broadcasts calls for change and accountability, these demands mostly fall like spent bullets on the tough armour that strong, overly centralized states have adapted to modern democratic norms.

Eroding democratic space

On Aug. 7, millions of Thai voters will be offered a chance to vote for a new constitution they know next to nothing about because the military government has all but banned campaigning and open debate about a draft charter that dilutes rights and allows for individuals to rise to political office without being elected. Even if voters reject the constitution, which is doubtful given voter apathy and ignorance, the military is set to remain in power with the freedom to simply write its own set of rules.

The articulate and popular Cambodian activist Kem Ley was a vocal critic of corruption and cronyism in his country: in mid-July, he as gunned down as he drank his morning coffee in the middle of Phnom Penh. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is facing a growing chorus for change after more than 30 years in power. More than 100,000 people thronged to Kem Lay’s funeral in the capital. But rather than yield to change, Hun Sen, it is feared, will use intimidation and violence to cling to power.

Malaysia is perhaps the most glaring example of the troubled politics that is eroding democratic space in the region. Prime Minister Najib Razak came to power in 2009 promising reforms of the authoritarian clamps on freedom in the country; he also vowed to forge a “One Malaysia” out of the country’s divided racial and religious communities. But when his legitimacy was called into question after revelations that billions of dollars were misused or went missing from a development fund he managed, Najib veered sharply off the path of reform and began shoring up his position using the tools of despotism and division.

A tough new security law that comes into force in August allows Malaysians to be detained without charge on the word of a police inspector, and for the government to suspend all basic rights in designated security zones, ostensibly to combat terrorism. Yet the government itself has provided a conducive environment for the incubation of violent extremism by supporting a conservative Islamic agenda in a bid to undermine and divide the opposition.

To be sure, there has been measurable democratic progress in Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines. People in these countries freely chose their leaders and broadly approve of the policies they are pursuing. Outwardly, Widodo in Indonesia and Rodrigo “Rody” Duterte in the Philippines have projected their close links with the people, reflecting their wishes for more humble, hardworking leadership that addresses popular concerns about tackling corruption and running a government for all.

But the reality is that those who go up against the entrenched self-interest of established oligarchy in Southeast Asia either have to accommodate these interests or face removal at the hand of undemocratic forces.

So it was with Thaksin Shinawatra, the first popularly-elected prime minister of Thailand, who devised policies to deliver social and financial security to millions of Thais living in poor rural areas. But this great leveling exercise, much-needed in a country where the top 10% of families control more than 50% of the wealth, upset the rich elites who control the vast majority of wealth and are mostly clustered in Bangkok around a conservative palace establishment. So Thaksin was removed.

After two military coups and a succession of unelected governments over the past decade, Thaksin remains wildly popular in rural north and northeastern Thailand, and his political party wins every reasonably fair election, yet he is barred from returning to the country and democracy has been suspended.

Will the same fate befall Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar, where the powerful military has retreated from the political arena but still holds the constitutional keys that would allow her to assume full executive power? Can Duterte continue insisting that he is listening to the “murmurings of the people” if he depends on the largesse and political clout of powerful oligarchs to stay in power?

Judging from the trajectory of Widodo’s presidency over the past two years, it is hard to stay the course as a populist leader without succumbing to vested interests and sliding on reforms.

The small city mayor who campaigned on a platform of clean, hard working government faced the reality of power in Indonesia almost as soon as he was elected. On his watch so far, the once powerful anti-corruption agency has been cowed, a coterie of conservative former generals stack key positions in his cabinet, and ministers determined to pursue investor-friendly reforms have been removed and replaced with people more amenable to vested interests.

The path of reform in Indonesia is littered with trade-offs that well-meaning leaders like Widodo and his predecessor Bambang Yudhoyono were forced to make with conservatives in order to survive. Most glaring of all was Widodo’s appointment to a powerful cabinet position in July of retired General Wiranto. A former armed forces commander under President Soeharto, a United Nations tribunal indicted Wiranto for crimes against humanity after he presided over the deaths of as many as 2,000 civilians in East Timor when the Indonesian army withdrew in 1999.

Gaping void

The inability of elected leaders to execute the changes voters want speaks to the gaping void between popular aspirations and the political reality that persists in Southeast Asia. Social and economic empowerment and the remarkable penetration of social media in the region has nevertheless opened people’s eyes to the folly of leaders governing using archaic practices designed to sustain the power and privilege of the few.

What is missing is an effective platform for mobilizing these forces for change and then rallying together at election time. Regressive governments of this region can rely on societies that are still divided by class, race and religion. They harness crude nationalism and jingoism to keep the international community at bay. The answer is for people in these countries to seize the initiative and forge popular movements that unite weak progressive civil society groups and enlightened political actors. This has started happening in Thailand, but has a long way to go in Malaysia.

In Myanmar last November, voters demonstrated the power of the ballot box in demanding change. Cambodians are likely to do the same in local elections next year. There is hope, but the price will be high as those wielding hard power will not go without a fight.

First published in Asia Nikkei Review, 1 August 2016

The World Gone Mad

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Many baby boomers like me probably feel the same way: the world wasn’t quite the way it is now back in the 1980s when we launched our soaring careers.Sure, there was war, injustice and the perpetual folly of man. We battled apartheid, inequality and hunger, and then cheered the end of the Cold War and therefore the end of history. Violent extremism when it first intruded on our comfortable global existence seemed manageable, containable. That’s why we went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. We elected Obama and got Osama: Bham!

What were we thinking? Not far enough ahead, apparently. Comes ISIS with its cost-effective brand of terror – anyone with a grudge, a smartphone and a weapon wreaking havoc in random places on random people. Come the reckless demagogues supported by legions of the neglected and resentful, building walls and stockpiling hate and weapons to keep out others, shaking all our assumptions about the seamless world of free trade and open borders.

Emerging from this vortex of evil and hatred ghastly ghouls, once only the imagined characters of DC and Marvel comics populate the headlines with unimaginable deeds supported by blatant lies and tyranny. What they consider inconvenient details, we once called norms and values.

And so, nearing the end of our careers, the world we thought we were making a better place, the values we struggled to strengthen, the future we assumed we were building for our children – all that seems the biggest lie of all. ‘You see madness, as you know, is like gravity,’ quips the Joker, one of the comic world’s finest villains: ‘All it takes is a little push!’

Thoughts on Brexit

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When I arrived in London as a migrant from the United States in 1966, racial prejudice and inequality was prevalent even in the school playground where someone with a foreign name was taunted and called a ‘wog’. The England I left as a professional journalist in the mid-1980s was at last shedding bigotry and prejudice as British society adjusted to the new global norms of freely moving people and equal opportunity.

On recent visits back to the UK, I have been impressed by the remarkable accommodation of diversity and recognition of difference. Whether it’s the Bulgarian property agent, the Polish plumber or the Czech bus driver; England at the start of the second millennium embraced – even celebrated – pluralism, and left behind the obstinate small mindedness that used to mean no one bothered asking how my Greek name was pronounced properly.

Suddenly all that progress seems like a fanciful dream. Brexit heralds the return of the cold hard stares at foreigners and ‘why-don’t-you-go-back-to-your-own-country’ taunts I vividly recall as a teenager growing up among ‘snowcem’-clad semi-detached homes and vinyl-roofed Ford Granadas in the North London suburbs.

For all the talk of independence day, this is no return to the mythical Arthurian realm, British pluck and a ploughman’s lunch; it’s the victory of the lager louts. The referendum showed plainly enough that a great mass of people don’t share the aspirations of comfy armchair internationalists and globally mobile professionals; they feel locked out of the Shard, the Gherkin, and other symbols of Global London.

So break out the woad, pan along those austere white cliffs, hide the muesli and quinoa. If the long forgotten satirical magazine Punch was still publishing, the Brexit cover might depict a red-faced John Bull, his slobbering bull dog straining at the leash and lunging for a plate of roast beef swimming in gravy.

Bye bye ‘Cool Britannia’: Welcome to Little England!