The New Year is a good time to make predictions and projections. Michael Vatikiotis’ “Blood and Silk – Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia” launched at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in late October does that.
The outlook for Southeast Asia, in particular Asean is grim when it comes to democracy and freedom, if one defines it according to Western norms.
“As much as Southeast Asians live for the present and easily forget the past, they are also preoccupied by the future, because it has a bearing on the wealth and fortune of their families,” writes Vatikiotis.
One might ask why? Vatikiotis tries to answer this by quoting Malaysian novelist Tash Aw.
“The past is painful, the present is easy,” says Aw. “It’s a matter of practicality: they just want to get on with their lives.”
The enigma of Southeast Asia is this: Asean has become a region of opportunity with a $2.4 trillion economy – the fifth largest economy after the US, China, Japan and India. But much of the region is plagued by a state of demi-democracy and little has been done to address the fundamental problems plaguing it.
And Vatikiotis points out that this democracy deficit cannot be explained away by the kinds of chronic war and related social dislocation afflicting troubled parts of Africa and the Middle East. On the contrary, for the past four decades Southeast Asia has been at peace and growing at a solid 6 to 8 percent per year.
Yet remarkable economic growth and much-improved social indicators have not for the most part translated in Southeast Asia into substantial political progress, defined in a broad sense as pluralistic democratic government, writes Vatikiotis.
“Nor has a constant average rate of as much as 10 percent per annum for much of the time translated into a more equitable distribution of income and wealth,” he adds.
Vatikiotis observes that while overall rates of poverty have declined across Southeast Asia, the startling reality is that the gap between rich and poor has increased at an alarming rate.
The central question in “Blood and Silk” is: why hasn’t so much capital and foreign direct investment translated the Asean region into a hub of where social or economic equality, justice and freedom thrives.
This book needs to be taken seriously and Vatikiotis’ experience in the region will speak for itself in the chapters in “Blood and Silk”. His long on-the-ground reporting experience in Southeast Asia, first for the BBC and then with the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER) – where he rose up the ranks from correspondent to editor – shows in his writing. After the FEER was shuttered, he became a conflict mediator for the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.
What then will 2018 hold for Asean, with crucial elections due to held in Cambodia and Malaysia?
“Is the fate of Southeast Asia locked in a cycle of relentless tragedy, partial recovery, then relapse?” asks Vatikiotis. He quotes an old Cambodian saying at the end: “When the water is high the fish eat the ants; when the water is low, the ants eat the fish.”
Vatikiotis reminds us that there is an ingrained forgetfulness in the region where death loses all meaning in places where people have died for no reason in large numbers.
The only way for survival for many in the region is not questioning the structure of power, but learning to operate within it. Sadly, as Vatikiotis puts it, this is a profound cultural adjustment to subjugation and repression.