Contemporary Southeast Asia A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs

Publisher: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies; Project Muse, Johns Hopkins University Press


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Publications in this journal

  • [Show abstract] [Hide abstract]
    ABSTRACT: One key component of modern constitutions is the representative system. The often-contested codification of this system over time in democratizing political orders depends on a number of factors, such as the existing institutional setting, the power relations of important political actors, and the ideational resources, or political culture, available to the constitution drafters. This article examines the ideational resources drawn on by the members of Thailand’s 2007 Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) in debating and deciding the shape of the National Assembly’s upper house, the Senate. This is mainly done by analysing the word-by-word minutes of their meetings. The respective processes of the 1997 CDC are described more briefly in order to provide background on an area of constitutional contestation that found its latest expression in November 2013, when the Constitutional Court invalidated the National Assembly’s constitutional amendment, which would have reintroduced a fully elected Senate. The article contextualizes these developments by reference to mass protests against the “Thaksin regime” that had been organized since November 2013 by the so-called People’s Democratic Reform Council (PDRC).
    Contemporary Southeast Asia A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 01/2014; 36(1):51-76.
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    ABSTRACT: Explanations for ASEAN’s inability to more successfully influence Myanmar over the last decade have shifted from accusations that the organization does nothing to live up to its on-paper commitments to the belief that what it does is wholly ineffective. The reasons for this ineffectiveness are found in the normative and institutional architecture of ASEAN, specifically its lack of punitive sanction-based compliance mechanisms. Through focusing on ASEAN’s use of public pronouncements to express interests and desires, this article takes issue with such assertions. Specifically, ASEAN has been engaged in a strategy of rhetorical action to promote compliance with regional standards. To date it has been unsuccessful in that attempt not because of a lack of courts and commissions, but because it has been incoherent in its political strategy. At crucial moments ASEAN and its members remained more concerned with creating a unified position against external pressure than on developing a single policy towards Myanmar. This reaction fatally undermined the ability of ASEAN to influence Myanmar as it ensures the regime the continued external political cover from pressure that animated its desire to join ASEAN in 1997. This article suggests that correcting this shortcoming through the development of greater coherence is achievable within the existing ASEAN approach to managing regional affairs.
    Contemporary Southeast Asia A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 01/2012; 34(1):1-22.
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    ABSTRACT: Southeast Asia’s “miracle” growth was both rapid and relatively equitable. Much work has been done to analyse the causes of growth and the development of a capitalist class in Southeast Asia, but far less attention has been paid to understanding how lower income groups came to benefit from this process. In this book, Erik Martinez Kuhonta asks how the politics of Southeast Asian countries can account for differing outcomes in poverty reduction and equity across the region. His answer is that poverty reduction requires appropriate institutions, particularly political parties. Kuhonta provides us with an in depth comparison of the political economy of growth in Malaysia (equitable) and Thailand (less so) and a shorter extension of these findings to Vietnam (equitable) and the Philippines (less so). He argues that in the success cases the poor achieved significant institutional representation in political parties embodying a broad-based social coalition. The breadth of coalition ensured that parties were “pragmatic” in the sense that they rarely pursued poverty reduction at the expense of social stability and growth. At the same time, to secure an important rural support base, parties created institutions that penetrated the local level in rural areas. These institutional structures sustained political support and provided channels for rural concerns to be fed upwards from the local level to relatively receptive central policy-makers. In the less equitable cases, the poor were represented by civil society organizations (CSOs) but they failed to find an institutional place in the party system, which remained elite dominated, despite constitutional democracy. In both the Philippines and Thailand, elite-dominated parties in fragmented party systems tended to obtain rural support through vote-buying and patronage. CSOs were sometimes able to influence the policy agenda to overthrow particular groups of elites or affect specific policy areas but this success was not institutionalized into sustained political influence. Kuhonta argues that institutional analysis tells us more than explanations based on democratization, class alliances or the interethnic balance of power. Democracy can fail to represent the poor where they remain excluded from party systems. Different historical experiences of state formation in Southeast Asia mean that there are few examples of the archetypal European alliance between middle and working classes emerging in opposition to a traditional ruling elite, though Malaysia perhaps comes closest. While the equilibrium between Malay political power and Chinese economic power might appear to explain the structure of Malaysian politics, similar balances in Fiji or Sri Lanka (reviewed in the book’s appendix) turned out very differently. However, Kuhonta does not argue that institutions explain everything. They are a necessary, rather than sufficient, condition for pro-poor growth and institutions themselves to emerge from complex historical processes. The case studies therefore present a rich historical picture, which is a particular strength of the book. Given the relative lack of studies of inequality and poverty reduction in the literature on Southeast Asia, Kuhonta’s excellent histories should provide a widely useful resource for those interested in Southeast Asian poverty policy. Many readers will know little, for example, about agricultural extension work in Malaysia during the 1970s, the precursors to Thaksin’s 30 Baht health card scheme, or the history of attempted land reforms across the region. Kuhonta’s choice to emphasize aspects of politics and policy that are self-consciously concerned with equity and rural development is what makes this book an important contribution to scholarship on Southeast Asia. With that base to start from, it would now be interesting to re-integrate his work with the traditional emphasis on Southeast Asian patterns of economic structure and capital formation. Kuhonta’s argument emphasizes active attempts to promote equity through government policy, responding to the political influence of poorer groups. The (largely implicit but discernable) economic model in Kuhonta’s book is one in which poverty reduction takes place through support for agriculture, human capital building (health and education policy) and deliberate efforts to help rural workers make the transition to the urban economy (through skills training and affirmative action). Success would seem to rely on a successful strategy to promote relatively labour intensive growth in the formal economy but Kuhonta says relatively little about forms of industrialization (such as the...
    Contemporary Southeast Asia A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 01/2012; 34(2):300-302.
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    ABSTRACT: Lee Jones’ new book on ASEAN and the states of Southeast Asia is refreshingly iconoclastic. It tackles one of the core tenets of ASEANology that has been intellectually reinforced by the Constructivist turn in the analysis of this regional organization. The icon that Jones’ book takes aim at is the scholarly near consensus “on the absolute centrality of the non-interference principle for ASEAN states” (p. 2). A consensus that Jones’ correctly notes echoes the official rhetoric of ASEAN and its member states. There are three steps to Jones’ argument that this consensus is misplaced. First, he establishes that a range of Constructivist, Realist and English School scholars of ASEAN uphold this consensus despite their intellectual differences and debates over other aspects of the organization. Second, he establishes the case that ASEAN member states have repeatedly intervened in Southeast Asia both in the Cold War and post-Cold War periods in apparent contradiction to ASEAN’s commitment to non-interference. Where he sees other scholars of ASEAN as downplaying or ignoring these interventions, he makes them the empirical core of his argument. Third, Jones posits a theoretical explanation for when member states uphold ASEAN’s “cherished norm” of non-interference and when they violate it. He adopts the multi-variable critical political economy approach that Jones argues, for Southeast Asia, “was pioneered by scholars based at or linked with the Asia Research Centre at Murdoch University, Perth” (p. x). Befitting this social conflict approach’s Marxist roots, Jones focuses on state-capital relations in the different member states of ASEAN and the role of the state and state institutions in supporting powerful owners and managers of capital in their domestic conflicts and transnational expansion. This approach sees “state managers” in the ASEAN member states invoking the non-interference norm and its purported centrality to ASEAN as a “technology of power” to hinder external interventions in favour of domestic marginalized groups such as the people of East Timor when it was under Indonesian control and communist rebels and their sympathizers in the Philippines and Thailand. These managers violate the same norm when they perceive external threats to their states such as during the invasion of Cambodia by communist Vietnam during the Cold War or threats to foreign market access such as Western pressure on ASEAN over Myanmar’s membership. In the case of Cambodia, both in the Cold War and post-Cold War periods and Myanmar in the post-Cold War period, it has not only been ASEAN member states that Jones argues have violated this “cherished norm” of ASEAN but ASEAN itself. Jones links Myanmar’s decision to seek ASEAN membership, ASEAN’s acceptance of Myanmar and ASEAN’s subsequent pressure on the junta to reform politically all to dominant state and capital interests. The junta was interested in joining ASEAN to benefit from the protection of ASEAN’s non-interference norm while providing more economic opportunities for state-linked firms. Myanmar’s membership benefitted dominant capital interests in ASEAN states as shown by the rapid increase in Thai and Malaysian foreign investment in Myanmar. However, Western disdain at ASEAN’s acceptance of Myanmar and the importance for ASEAN member states and dominant capital interests of continued good relations with Western powers, particularly after the Asian financial crisis, strongly underpinned ASEAN pressure on Myanmar to reform politically. ASEAN, Sovereignty and Intervention in Southeast Asia is most effective at establishing the existence of this near consensus in favour of the ASEAN commitment to non-interference and this consensus’ empirical and analytical shortcomings. This definitely is a worthwhile independent contribution to the literature and our understanding of ASEAN’s development. The author repeatedly shows how the most quoted scholars of ASEAN, particularly those of a Constructivist bent, downplay examples of interventions as isolated or, counter-intuitively, as supporting the general principle of non-intervention. In the second half of the book that looks at the post-Cold War period, Jones insightfully analyses how ASEAN’s rhetorical embrace of good governance, democratization, human rights and ASEAN community building all run counter to the non-intervention principle. The selection of case studies opens the book up to criticism for contributing to another potential misplaced...
    Contemporary Southeast Asia A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 01/2012; 34(2):303-306.
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    ABSTRACT: Enemies of the People is a documentary film extraordinary in the scope of its investigation. Indeed when art becomes evidence at a tribunal, you know this is not your average documentary. The film’s title, Enemies of the People, comes from a phrase coined by Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge’s Brother Number Two (Pol Pot, who died while under house arrest in 1998, was Brother Number One), who now stands trial in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, otherwise known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. However, the context in which this phrase appears is muddled. Who are the Enemies? Who are the People? Through the magic of editing, it is not entirely clear to whom Nuon Chea refers to as enemies of the people. While it is frequently assumed that the reference is to whomever the regime killed or whose death it caused, it is probably more likely that he was referring to those people he saw as traitors to the regime — Vietnamese saboteurs, American spies, etc. — which then begs the question: were the 1.7 million people who died during the Khmer Rouge’s rule all traitors or only the ones executed at Khmer Rouge torture centres like S-21 (Tuol Sleng)? The distinction seems pedantic, but places like S-21 were for the regime’s elite or special cases needing interrogation and torture in the eyes of Angkar (the Organization). Indeed, it is not clear to whom Nuon Chea refers to necessarily as “them” and later as “criminals” when he says the following in an exchange with filmmaker Thet Sambath: Nuon Chea: Our policy was first to re-educate them to stop… Then we gave them two or three warnings to stop their treacherous activities. Next we required them to present their revolutionary personal history … and make a self-criticism. If that didn’t work … they would be expelled from the party. If they still could not be corrected … they had to be solved. These people were categorized as criminals. Criminals. Sambath: What did you do with these “criminals”? Nuon Chea: They were killed and destroyed. If we had let them live, the party line would have been hijacked. They were enemies of the people. But nevermind Nuon Chea, whom we can safely assume will be found guilty by the Khmer Rouge Tribunal sooner or later (if the Tribunal itself does not collapse from the sheer weight of its own incompetence) and who will spend the rest of his life behind bars, regardless. At its core, the film is really a case study of Pol Pot’s willing executioners. While Nuon Chea is the centrepiece, it is everyday killers — people like Suon and Khuon, low-level Khmer Rouge cadres — who really carry the film with their own confessions of how (if not why) they killed. They describe in explicit detail the murders they committed in the name of Angkar and even reminisce about the cannibalism they practised (eating the gall bladders of their victims). The “banality of evil”, to use Hannah Arendt’s phrase, is apt. Cambodia’s genocide was perpetrated by ordinary people who accepted that Angkar knew best. Enemies of the People is a documentary within a documentary. Co-director Rob Lemkin, who joined the project after Sambath had already collected an enormous amount of video material, turned the camera on Sambath, bringing the filmmaker into his own documentary. Lemkin himself comes from storied pedigree — a distant relative of Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the word “genocide” in 1943 from the root words genos (Greek for family, tribe, or race) and -cide (Latin for killing) and the father of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948. To be sure, some of the translations and transcriptions in the review copy I watched take liberties, small ones, but sufficiently frequent to become noticeable. Having written and narrated my own documentary (The End/Beginning: Cambodia, 2011, 47 minutes), this is not unheard of — we are not after all dealing with the precision of a doctoral dissertation. The number of ellipses in the quotation above by Nuon Chea should tell...
    Contemporary Southeast Asia A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 01/2012; 34(1):142-144.
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    ABSTRACT: Sarawak, formerly a British colony prior to the formation of Malaysia, has been ruled by the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition for over four decades. Although the BN’s political domination has been robust, it has never been smooth sailing, particularly in the 1960s and mid-1980s. The crises in the 1960s were resolved partly by the timely and swift interventions of the British and the core BN parties based in Peninsular Malaysia, albeit with resistance from local political parties. When a leadership crisis in the Sarawak BN erupted in mid-1980s, the coalition gained firm control over the state apparatus. This enabled the embattled Chief Minister to utilize the state’s resources to fend off opponents, rally the support of the electorate and subsequently retain control of the state. After more than two decades of relatively unchallenged rule, recent events such as the revolt of urban voters, the emergence of a strong opposition coalition and the impending resignation of Taib Mahmud — the most powerful figure in Sarawak and the longest serving Chief Minister in the country — have indicated that a change in political hegemony could be in the making. However, the most important factor that would bring about such a change, a revolt of rural voters, does not seem likely to happen in the near future.
    Contemporary Southeast Asia A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 01/2012; 34(2):274-295.
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    ABSTRACT: Based on data for actual and approved Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) from 1989–2011, this paper explores the major trends in FDI in Myanmar, focusing on changes over time in the source and sector of investment. It argues that over the last decade Myanmar’s inward FDI has become heavily concentrated in the extractive and power sectors, while investment in manufacturing, services and other secondary and tertiary sectors has been almost non-existent. This is mostly the result of a poor investment climate, including import and export regulations, a weak judicial system, currency controls and weak property rights. The paper shows that China, Hong Kong, South Korea and Thailand have been the main investors in Myanmar, while Singapore, India and Western countries invested little in the 2000s. This divergence is driven partly by the differing investment patterns of the source countries, yet also reflects commercial and geopolitical realities, sanctions and concerns over energy security. The paper then examines whether and how FDI can lead to economic development in Myanmar, and closes by discussing the importance of recent political and economic reforms for rebalancing Myanmar’s FDI.
    Contemporary Southeast Asia A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 01/2012; 34(1):23-52.
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    ABSTRACT: This article examines the link between the legitimation process of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) and its adoption of the Doi Moi (renovation) policy. It argues that socio-economic performance emerged as the single most important source of legitimacy for the CPV in the mid-1980s as its traditional sources of legitimacy were exhausted and alternative legitimation modes were largely irrelevant or ineffective. The CPV’s switch to performance-based legitimacy has had significant implications for Vietnam’s domestic politics as well as its foreign policy and has served as an essential foundation for the Party’s continued rule. At the same time, however, it has also presented the CPV with serious challenges in maintaining uninterrupted socio-economic development in the context of the country’s growing integration with the global economic system which is experiencing instability. It is in this context that nationalism, couched in terms of Vietnam’s territorial and maritime boundary claims in the South China Sea, has been revived as an additional source of legitimacy in times of economic difficulties.
    Contemporary Southeast Asia A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 01/2012; 34(2):145-172.
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    ABSTRACT: This article explores what the academic literature tells us about environmental conservation challenges in Myanmar, and what types of domestic and international mechanisms are suited to address those challenges. It begins by providing background information on rural energy use, environmental legislation, forestry, agriculture and the country’s network of protected areas. It notes, for example, that the country’s protected areas face environmental degradation caused by poverty, corruption, the expansion of agricultural land and population growth. It goes on to argue that planners in Myanmar can, however, utilize a variety of mechanisms to overcome these challenges. Policy-makers can enhance community involvement in protected areas and management schemes through ownership and engagement. They could integrate conservation efforts with income generation, provide education and awareness campaigns for those living near wildlife areas and expand the number and size of protected areas. They could, furthermore, increase penalties against illegal activities within protected areas, offer accelerated staff training and education programmes and similarly consolidate regulatory authority for environmental conservation. Even those outside of Myanmar can prevent environmental destruction. International planners could implement ecosystem payments schemes, involve Myanmar more concretely in the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) process, an international agreement launched in 2012, and expand Myanmar’s participation in [End Page 217] the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Lastly, they could advocate international bans on exports of illegal products and strengthen capacity building efforts in the areas of forestry, land use and agriculture.
    Contemporary Southeast Asia A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 01/2012; 34(2):217-248.
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    ABSTRACT: Pierre Lizee’s A Whole New World: Reinventing International Studies for the Post-Western World addresses a fundamental problem for international studies: how does the field remain relevant in a world that it struggles to explain? Lizee argues that the world is shifting away from a Western-centric political and economic system towards one where non-Western states and actors matter far more than in the recent past. However, the dominant theories of International Relations (IR) are woefully inadequate to explain the interests, actions and motivations of most of the states of this emerging world. The book is an analysis of the reasons for the limitations of the dominant theories in the field and is an appeal for the need to create new kinds of universal theories that can address these deficiencies. Lizee provides insightful criticisms of Realism, Liberalism, Constructivism, and the various post-structural and Marxist theories. However, the author is somewhat weaker in offering concrete suggestions for how international studies should evolve, though he does identify the key factors that any theoretical evolution must take into account. My primary criticism of the book is that it is too intent on drawing a distinction between the Western and non-Western worlds. As a result, it may concede more validity to mainstream theories than is strictly necessary. I believe that many of the criticisms that Lizee makes of mainstream IR theories can be applied to their depiction of the Western world as well as the non-Western world. Admittedly, they fit more neatly into the Western model, but they manifest many of the same limitations and encourage the same misdiagnoses and blind spots that, Lizee argues, undermine their relevance to the non-Western world. Lizee begins by noting that Realism and Liberalism, the dominant IR theories, make claims to universalism that do not reflect the reality of the non-Western world. Realism assumes that humans are rational but violent beings whose rationality impels them to create states, within which violence is controlled. Anarchy at the global level means violence remains an international problem. Liberals agree that all humans are rational and argue that they can make the choice not to use violence, particularly when they can pursue material benefits. Realist and Liberal logics are supposed to apply to all human beings. Theories such as Constructivism, Post-modernism, Marxism and post-Marxism criticize the universalist assumptions of Realism and Liberalism, but then introduce universal concepts of their own and are tainted by their focus on the “incomplete accounts of global international life” (p. 70) embodied by the two dominant theories. Lizee makes this case most clearly in reference to what he calls the “economy of violence” (p. 86). Mainstream rationalist approaches assume that human beings can choose not to resort to violence in dealing with each other. However, Lizee points out that in many non-Western states, the political institutions necessary for the exercise of choice have been destroyed, never existed or lack legitimacy. In these conditions, violence is a matter of survival and, as such, a rational course of action. This subverts the Realist assumption that there is a clear difference between violence inside and outside the state. Liberalism focuses on individual human identity and the liberating power of markets and fails to fully consider the political and economic effects of other, communal self-identities and the impact of externally-imposed economic systems. Lizee argues that the solution lies in finding new, more flexible universal concepts. Realism, for example, must understand violence as contingent on the institutional reality of a given state, rather than assuming its relationship to the state. Lizee’s book is scrupulously argued and powerfully grounded in the philosophy of IR theory. It makes its claims strongly and confidently and its central arguments are difficult to refute. The central claim that IR theory is inadequate to deal with the emerging world is not new. This is a problem that has been evident to many of us who have studied the international relations of the developing world, even as we find ourselves caught in the trap of having to constantly reference the mainstream approaches. As examples, Lizee cites books edited by Stephanie Neuman (1998) and Acharya and Johnston...
    Contemporary Southeast Asia A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 01/2012; 34(1):136-138.
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    ABSTRACT: Since the new government took power in 2011, the citizens of Myanmar have enjoyed a greater degree of freedom than at any time since the military seized power in 1962. This article explains how the recent political changes in Myanmar have come about. In so doing, it argues that the absence of a rigid paramount leader who opposes reconciliation with the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the challenges posed by serious economic problems and positive responses from Western countries and pro-democracy leaders in Myanmar have allowed liberals in the government to work together for the further liberalization of the country’s political system. However, Myanmar still has a long way to go before it can become a full-fledged democracy. There still are hardliners in both camps who are unsatisfied with the pace of reforms: hardliners in the government think that the pace of reform is too fast while hardliners in the pro-democracy movement feel that they are too slow. Both groups could still generate instability in the country, prompting a military coup. Myanmar is at the crossroads and the cooperation between all sections of society will allow the country to become a full-fledged democracy.
    Contemporary Southeast Asia A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 01/2012; 34(2):197-216.
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    ABSTRACT: Although New Zealand is a small state in the South Pacific, it has a great interest in the stability of Southeast Asia, the safety of sea lanes which pass through it and the centrality of ASEAN in the regional security architecture. However, New Zealand has limited hard power capabilities: the country’s military expenditure is extremely modest and its population and GDP are dwarfed by ASEAN as a region and by some Southeast Asian countries. What New Zealand potentially offers Southeast Asia, however, is its soft power. This article identifies five of New Zealand’s soft power assets — students, soldiers, sports, sheep and the silver-screen — and critically examines whether these constitute sufficient resources for New Zealand to engage with Southeast Asia adequately, and make a contribution to regional stability.
    Contemporary Southeast Asia A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 01/2012; 34(2):249-273.
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    ABSTRACT: One assesses this book with an inescapable sense of what might have been. As is typical of the sponsored publications of Singapore’s Editions Didier Millet, the production quality of A Life’s Work is of the highest standard. The volume features hundreds of fascinating photographs. Given the wealth of detail introduced, its prose is generally beyond reproach. The editorial and writing team, led by Nicholas Grossman and Dominic Faulder and featuring such names as Chris Baker, David Streckfuss, Porphant Ouyyanont, Paul Wedel and Joe Cummings, has clearly worked with considerable diligence and intelligence to bring this book to the reader. Much about A Life’s Work will thus give pleasure to anyone with an interest in Thailand. The volume’s largely corporate sponsors can be satisfied with the results of their investment in this project. And yet by other standards, standards amply justified by these times, this book fails, and it fails in a number of rather troubling respects. The appearance of A Life’s Work coincided with King Bhumibol’s completion of his seventh twelve-year birth cycle in December 2010. At the time of its publication, the king had been an inpatient of Siriraj Hospital for some twenty-seven months, since September 2009. His reign, dating to 1946, has seen the revival of the Thai monarchy after decades of decline, widespread respect for his work to integrate the farthest reaches of the country into the national mainstream, and a startling record of economic growth that transformed Thai society beyond recognition. Nevertheless, the king’s reign has lacked one thing: a realistic strategy for a soft landing, for a conclusion that will make possible the survival of monarchy in a country far more complex than that of the late 1940s or even the mid-1980s, and for future sovereigns very different from King Bhumibol. This book — its preparation overseen by such stalwarts of the liberal wing of what Duncan McCargo has so astutely labelled Thailand’s “network monarchy” as Anand Panyarchun, Pramote Maiklad, Sumet Tantivejkul, and Wissanu Krea-ngam — presented an excellent opportunity to promote the likelihood of that soft landing. Had A Life’s Work proved a volume that one could read rather than just peruse; had it really focused on Thailand’s monarchy, rather than just on the life of King Bhumibol; had it in fact offered the perspective promised in its subtitle; and had it more wisely taken the measure of its intended readership, the book might have served this important purpose. Instead, in its manifest failure to do any of these things, the book casts doubt on the prospect that the ninth Chakri reign will beget a tenth reign responsive to the times and their demands. A Life’s Work is divided into four sections: a brief “History of Kings” in Siam and Thailand; “The Life”, a biography of the king by twelve-year cycle; “The Work”, on his activities in the areas of health and education, on his attention to rural Thailand, and on his doctrine of “sufficiency economy”; and “The Crown”, treating such matters as the Crown Property Bureau, the Privy Council, succession and lèse majesté. Like those of a coffee-table book, the size and weight of A Life’s Work themselves suggest that it will serve as an object of display, to be casually flipped through, rather than a book that is actually read. Not least in view of the considerable research that has gone into the volume, this likelihood is a shame. Its physical form ensures, likewise, that it will have less impact than Paul Handley’s landmark work The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand’s Bhumibol Adulaydej, which A Life’s Work includes in its bibliography and to which it so obviously seeks to offer a rebuttal that is — as Thailand’s never elected former premier Anand terms it in his foreword — “factual” and “objective” (p. 11). The new book compares unfavourably with Handley’s in other ways, too. While pitched as a biography, The King Never Smiles in fact offers a brilliantly argued interpretation of the revival of monarchy in post-1945 Thailand. With great effectiveness, it puts that revival in perspective and thus...
    Contemporary Southeast Asia A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 01/2012; 34(1):128-132.
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    ABSTRACT: Much ink has been spilled in recent months regarding the American “pivot” to Asia. While there have been debates about whether the policy is anything new and whether the assurances made by a declining power are credible, this re-engagement has been broadly welcomed by regional elites. The US presence is routinely described as “positive” and “stabilizing”, and Washington is widely seen as a relatively “benign” hegemon. Why is the United States viewed in such a positive light? In Hard Interests, Soft Illusions, Natasha Hamilton-Hart tackles a question that is rarely asked, exploring the interests and beliefs that underpin Southeast Asia’s alignment with Washington. She rejects the argument that state action is driven largely by systemic pressures such as the distribution of power or balance of threats. Rather, echoing the work of Subaltern Realists, Hamilton-Hart claims that, in Southeast Asia, there are good reasons to think “the motives that drive this alignment are located at the domestic level” (p. 20). At the heart of the book are the “hard interests” of power holders and the “soft illusions” or beliefs of foreign policy-makers and practitioners. Beliefs about the positive role of the United States are not illusory, but neither can they be easily equated with “national interests”. As has been well documented, in many parts of the region the gap between elite views of Washington and popular opinion is striking. The book starts with a discussion of the material interests of those who gained power as a consequence of US actions in Southeast Asia since World War Two. In a section entitled “The political economy of alignment”, Hamilton-Hart argues, “the winners who emerged from political struggles between the 1940s and the 1960s enjoyed American support because they pursued policies that were broadly in line with American preferences for capitalist development in the region” (p. 85). The author claims that the exercise of American power in Southeast Asia served two ends for regional elites: first, it helped them defeat potential rivals and opponents; second, it allowed them to “pay off supporters and in some cases to appropriate material gains individually” (p. 18). But if the argument is grounded in political economy, the bigger claim is about the independent power of beliefs. The author argues that there is a particular alignment of material interest and ideological vision that has underpinned acceptance of American hegemony and is the condition for continued support for US “engagement” and “balancing” in the region today. The ideational basis of alignment is explored in two chapters that draw on a rich survey of the historical literature and seventy-four interviews with Southeast Asian policy-makers and practitioners. For America’s friends and partners in the region, the most common justification for viewing it as a “benign, stabilizing force” is its historical record (p. 88). Chapter Four examines the way that national histories have been written and interpreted to draw particular (largely positive) lessons about the United States and its role in the region. Three themes emerge: first, in non-Communist states, the spectre of Communism in past domestic conflicts is frequently invoked; second, external threats are described in a way that presents the United States as a protector; and finally “scant attention” is paid to the human casualties of past conflicts (p. 89). Country by country, the book examines the place of America in national narratives, from Singapore, where the Vietnam War is widely remembered (by an older generation in particular) as “buying time” for non-Communist Southeast Asia, to Vietnam, where rather than yielding the lesson the US is an “aggressive power” Hamilton-Hart argues the country’s historical experience is more “often invoked as teaching a lesson about China as an expansionist power” (p. 131). In non-Communist Southeast Asia these national histories are also frequently “sanitized”, with the human costs of past American actions — the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia, support for anti-Communist purges — largely expunged. The book then moves on to explore the foreign policy community more closely, in particular scrutinizing the way depoliticized “professional expertise” functions to favour certain beliefs on the part of elites. Here, much is made of the “epistemic environment”, the sources of information about...
    Contemporary Southeast Asia A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 01/2012; 34(2):296-299.
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    ABSTRACT: This paper examines the status of contemporary civil society in Vietnam from a process-oriented perspective. It considers civil society in light of its actions and processes rather than by its political and structural affiliations. The analysis takes as a case study the bauxite mines in the Central Highlands. The Chinese-Vietnamese joint venture between two respective state-owned enterprises (SOEs) is seeking $15 billion in investment by 2025 to take advantage of Vietnam’s huge bauxite reserves in order to process aluminum. The project has fomented unprecendented criticism from individuals within the mainstream elite of the Party, as well as environmental scientists, prominent lawyers and citizen bloggers in Vietnam. After a series of contentious policy debates and high-level reviews by various government ministries concerning the project’s sustainability, environmental as well as social impact, the Vietnamese government approved and initiated mining in early 2012. By looking at the various sites of contention, National Assembly debates, and public outcry concerning the case, this paper advances a new conceptual framework for analysing civil society in Vietnam. The bauxite controversy explictly showcases the form that civil society is taking in contemporary Vietnam. I will argue that interactions among the vacillating civil society network that encompasses both grassroots activists and reformist political leaders will guide elite-level policy in Vietnam in such a way that does not pose a direct challenge to the Party’s central authority. [End Page 173]
    Contemporary Southeast Asia A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 01/2012; 34(2):173-196.
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    ABSTRACT: Thant Myint-U’s book is essentially a travelogue. Yet readers who also expect a solid political, economic and strategic analysis of Myanmar’s relationship with China and India will not be disappointed. Indeed the author’s intricate weaving of the personal, the historical and the political both inform and captivate the audience. The book is divided into three parts: the first part is devoted to Burma/Myanmar’s turbulent modern history; the second focuses on Sino-Burmese relations both past and present; and the third examines the colonial histories and legacies of India and Myanmar. Most current affairs observers tend to characterize Myanmar-China-India dynamics only in terms of the interests of Yangon, Beijing and Delhi. But the book reveals a much more complicated relationship with a detailed analysis of how the rural provinces of China and India are important drivers in national policy planning. Indeed, as the pages turn, it becomes more obvious that the policies dictated by governments in faraway capitals are themselves governed by the need to develop their rural areas and promote cross-border trade. The very first page of the Prologue posits that since imperial times China has searched for a back-door passage to India through the lands of present-day Myanmar. Chinese policy-makers today have successfully realized the imperial plans of their forebears and are building a direct route to the Indian Ocean via Yunnan and through Myanmar. Additionally, India’s north-eastern provinces have always looked to links with northern Burma for mutual prosperity. Both countries harbour an age-old dream of connecting trade and commerce through Myanmar. But history tells us that building these trade links have taken centuries and that they are not yet complete. Colonization and World War II put the otherwise unnoticed and remote areas of Myanmar on the radar of national governments, but they also left behind a succession of armed conflicts, mostly provoked by centuries of migration, racial tensions and geopolitics. As Thant observes, present-day Myanmar’s borderlands are far from peaceful. Although ceasefires have been signed with various ethnic militias, a viable and long-term political solution is yet to be put on the table. Moreover, the northern Chin, Kachin and Shan states each have not one but many armed groups which spill over into neighbouring countries. The Chin National Front, the Kachin Independence Army, the Shan State Army-South, and the United Wa State Army have significant numbers of men under arms and still control territory where the Myanmar armed forces cannot set foot. These lands are far from the central authorities, and the government is unable to administer or promote development in such remote parts of the country. China faces a similar scenario. Its high national GDP and other economic development indicators apply mostly to the eastern coastal provinces. Unlike Myanmar, the century of internal conflict has passed for China. However, continued national progress can only be assured by equitable development. In part two of the book — “Southwestern Barbarians” — Thant explains in detail how inland provinces such as Sichuan, Guizhou, and particularly Yunnan which border Myanmar lag behind their counterparts on the eastern seaboard. According to Thant, Chinese policy-makers believe that connecting the inland provinces to the Andaman Sea through Myanmar will significantly improve trade and commerce, pushing them to higher levels of economic prosperity. In part three of the book — “The Edge of Hindustan” — the author describes a similar strategy employed by India to develop its north-eastern province of Assam by opening a direct line via north-western Myanmar to the Bay of Bengal. Assam, Thant notes, is also as far away from Delhi as Yunnan is from Beijing, only linked to the rest of the subcontinent by the “chicken neck”, a narrow area of land choked between Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. To complicate matters, unlike Yunnan, it is still a region beset with conflict. Internal conflicts and China’s increasing regional influence have led to suggestions that Delhi isolate north-eastern India from its neighbours. However, some argue that the only viable alternative to lasting peace and development would be for the government in Delhi to transform the north-east into a regional hub similar...
    Contemporary Southeast Asia A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 01/2012; 34(1):139-141.
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    ABSTRACT: India’s emergence as a potential global power with a significant security role in East Asia has lead to proposals to rethink the “mental map” of Asia. In recognition of India’s potential, a new term — the Indo-Pacific region — has been coined in the United States. But India’s claim to a strategic role in the Asia Pacific anticipates the future more than it reflects current realities. Thus a rigorous assessment of India’s intentions, strengths and limitations is timely and valuable. Brewster’s book, India as an Asia Pacific Power, makes a major contribution, in large part by sorting out the jumble of information and opinions found elsewhere. It is well-organized and serves as a good foundation for further analysis. Officials and scholars concerned with security issues in Asia, particularly those entranced with the assumption that India will help the US “hedge” against China’s rise, should read this book. In the early 1990s, India faced an economic crisis and, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, strategic isolation. India looked east to the dynamic economies of the Asia Pacific and gradually opened itself up, leading to impressive economic growth rates over the past two decades and then to influence beyond India’s borders. Brewster explains how Indian foreign and security policy adjusted and evolved. New Delhi has not articulated a grand strategy. Brewster argues that Indian strategic thinking is dominated first by fears of Chinese dominance in East Asia and intrusion into South Asia and the Indian Ocean and, second, by India’s search for Great Power status. At the heart of the Indian dilemma is how to play a major role in the Asian balance of power in cooperation with others concerned about China’s growing power, without compromising a cherished legacy. The legacy that continues to shape the mindset of India’s elite is “strategic autonomy”, the “holy grail” of Indian foreign policy even today. The dominant power in South Asia, India also inherited an assumption that it was destined to be a Great Power. In the Indian mind, Great Power status is apparently incompatible with lasting commitments to other states. Maintaining India’s room for manuoever has often taken precedence over pursuing India’s strategic interests. Thus the enduring appeal of the idea that India can — as it sought to do with non-alignment — sit out assumed Great Power rivalry, in this case Sino-US rivalry, or manuoever between two competitors. Indian pundits have advocated the idea of a strategic triangle among China, India and the United States. However, India’s comparative weakness and Beijing’s refusal to consider New Delhi a peer competitor, undermine the utility of this concept. The gap between India’s self-ascribed status and its actual role has narrowed, but not been closed. At the same time, a maritime perspective has emerged to challenge old assumptions. India’s growing dependence on sea borne trade and imported energy are driving Indian strategic thinking in new directions. Nonetheless, traditionalists have a hard time accepting the argument that India’s future lies not on the plains of the Punjab, but at sea. Finally, elites believe India deserves a natural sphere of influence in the Indian Ocean, perhaps extending into Southeast Asia, though thinking about such a sphere of influence remains hazy. New Delhi has played its weak hand pragmatically, and with some success. It has scratched the itch for status through a “peer” relationship with Japan, though substantial Japanese investment in India has not followed on the heels of Japanese economic assistance. It has sought and received inclusion in ASEAN-centred East Asian regional arrangements, despite India’s minimal commitment to ASEAN. India’s greatest success has been to convince the US to bet on India, essentially trading current American accomodation of Indian goals for India’s presumed assistance in implementing US policies in the future. With Beijing the trick has been to manage increasingly complex rivalry in such a way as to maximize India’s status and influence, without allowing the relationship to slip towards overt antagonism. To its potential Asian partners seeking to adjust to China’s rise, Indian policy thus often appears hollow, more concerned with status than...
    Contemporary Southeast Asia A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 01/2012; 34(1):133-135.
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    ABSTRACT: In Indonesia, democratic transition has led to the ascendance of business in the political arena. A growing number of entrepreneurs-turned-politicians have captured the power of office, taking over positions which had previously been held by bureaucratic elites. In the existing literature, the ascendance of politically assertive business, often through democratization, is associated with the emergence of a less interventionist state. However, despite the expectation that post-Soeharto Indonesia would embark on a swift process of change towards a regulatory form of state, the patrimonial features of the Indonesian state continue to display more fundamental continuity. This article presents an alternative framework through which to better understand changing state-business relations in Indonesia. The article argues that the fall of the Soeharto regime in Indonesia has had the effect of facilitating the transformation of the patrimonial state: from a patrimonial administrative state to a patrimonial oligarchic state. Democratization has changed the old hierarchy of state-business relations over the distribution of patronage. In post-Soeharto Indonesia, business elites are no longer dependent on bureaucratic elites, as the former now enjoys direct access to state resources.
    Contemporary Southeast Asia A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 01/2012; 34(1):80-100.
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    ABSTRACT: Myanmar’s police forces have received little attention over the years, but they have always played a critical role in the country’s administration and national security. Since the 1962 military coup, the national police force has been overshadowed by the armed forces, but it has continued to evolve and grow. It is now larger and more powerful than at any time in the country’s history, and is considered a key instrument of reform and control by the hybrid civilian-military government which was inaugurated in Naypyidaw in March 2011. This article aims to provide an introduction to this neglected subject. It sketches the historical development of the police as an institution from the beginning of the colonial period to the present day. It then outlines the current structure and organization of the Myanmar Police Force (MPF). This is followed by a discussion of eight broad themes that have characterized policing in Myanmar over the past 185 years. Finally, the article looks at some of the challenges facing the MPF and its likely future under the new government.
    Contemporary Southeast Asia A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 01/2012; 34(1):53-79.
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    ABSTRACT: At a time when there is much debate about the respective roles and strengths of China and the United States in Asia, a new book discussing the extent to which China is in a position to exercise control over Asia’s freshwater resources focuses attention on the quip attributed to Mark Twain that “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over.” It is not necessary to take Twain’s quip to its logical conclusion to accept the important role that freshwater plays in international relations. And this is so despite the fact that, overall, it is arguable whether too much emphasis is placed on the negative aspects of disputes arising from the existence of the many trans-boundary rivers in the world. Indeed, research on 263 trans-boundary rivers carried out by Oregon State University some years ago concluded that there was much more cooperation than conflict in their management. But the same research concluded that conflict did arise in particular circumstances, notably in acutely dry regions of the world (for a summary of this research see <>). Nevertheless, in South and continental Southeast Asia, and despite the notable instance of the Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan, factors other than climate have resulted in a failure to achieve successful approaches to problems arising from the existence of trans-boundary rivers. As will be apparent to some readers of this review, the present writer’s principal concern is with the management, or rather lack of it, of the Mekong as an international river that passes through or by no fewer than six countries — China, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam and to a lesser extent with developments on the Salween which flows out of China into Myanmar. In this book Brahma Chellaney undertakes the much more ambitious task of looking at international rivers on a pan-Asian basis. Written with a fine sense for acerbic commentary on the political misjudgements of his own country’s politicians, including in relation to the Indus Waters Treaty — “Nehru’s long seventeen years in office stood out for not learning from mistakes and continuing to operate on ingenuous premises” (p. 79) — the key fact that pervades his book is the extent to which China’s administration of Tibet means that it has the capability to control all the major rivers flowing from that region into South and Southeast Asia. As the author puts it, “the Tibetan Plateau is Asia’s ‘Water Tower’” (p. 97), the location of the sources of the Yangtze, the Mekong, the Salween and, most importantly the Brahmaputra, which flows into both India and Bangladesh. By its dam-building programme on the Mekong, China has already shown the extent to which it has no intention of treating that river as other than a natural resource over which it has unlimited sovereignty. Beyond this fact, and, to quote Brahma Chellaney (p. 130): “The Chinese hydroengineering projects on the plateau [including consideration to diverting water to northern China from the Brahmaputra] have a direct bearing on the quantity and quality of riverwater flows to southern and southeastern Asian countries” and “China has already damned every major river on the Tibetan Plateau — including the Mekong, the Salween, the Brahmaputra, the Yangtze, the Yellow, the Indus, the Sutlej, the Shweli and the Karnali.” Chellaney’s conclusion that China’s activities in Tibet pose the threat of interstate water conflict (p. 297) may seem extreme, and very clearly reflects concerns linked to Indian interests. But what has already happened with the Mekong is a salutary qualification to any suggestion that he is overstating the potential consequences of Chinese actions and intentions. In the Mekong’s case it is not even necessary to attribute malign intentions to China’s actions in building its dams to acknowledge their long-term threat to the river’s existing flow pattern and its capacity to act as a vital resource for food and agriculture for the wider region. So far, the downstream Mekong countries have not been prepared to challenge China’s actions given their relative strengths. But can the same be said about India in the future? For the moment, all that can...
    Contemporary Southeast Asia A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 01/2012; 34(2):307-308.

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