Southeast Asia 2019

Southeast Asia 2019



Congested Roads?

Tiphaine Mallégol

18 June 2019

The Bangkok-based Institute for Research on Contemporary Southeast Asia (Irasec) is mobilizing some 20 researchers and experts from all disciplinary and academic backgrounds to decode the news of the 11 countries of the region and their political, social and environmental developments.

Twelve years after its launch, the 2019 edition of l’Asie du Sud-Est constitutes more than ever a valuable tool for analyzing economic and strategic issues, remaining a major scientific publication, unique in French language, providing once again the keys to understand the challenges that drive international relations.

Indeed, the collection makes it possible to follow major contemporary issues of around 640 million inhabitants, to understand dynamics of regional integration and links with the rest of the world. Southeast Asia (Myanmar, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor-Leste, Vietnam) – economic, cultural and religious crossroads –  offers a unique space for articulating diversity on the long run.

Claire Tran and Christine Cabasset, co-directors of the book, introduce the subject with “the challenges of sustainable development”. They correlate environmental, especially climatic issues, the demographic issue, “urban walking” and “debt traps,” i.e. the inability of countries to repay Chinese investments threatening them by the loss of some of their sovereignty over infrastructure and strategic cities.

This introduction also highlights the reconfiguration of regional balances, the sustain of democracies and connected civil societies particularly mobilized on corruption issues and environmental scandals, where the challenge of a 4.0 revolution would then become the cornerstone of a true sustainable development.

The thematic files address five topics discussed at the regional level: demographic dynamics, large cities urbanization forms and processes, development model of export processing zones, new silk roads and Chinese investments, as well as situational analysis of capital punishment. These articles, both relevant and extensive, deal with topics that have been in the news in recent months.

Bruno Jetin tackles for instance a tricky subject of contemporary political science by raising the issue of new silk roads (NSR) and Chinese investments: a win-win situation? The author explains that the initiative launched by President Xi Jinping in 2013 marks a turning point in relations between China and the rest of the world and that after this period of announcement, the host countries discover that Chinese projects are not always to their advantage and create a debt that is difficult to repay. He declines the examples of different countries such as Sri Lanka, forced to grant China the ownership of a number of infrastructures, “warning signal for many countries”, and concludes that the NSR are entering a second phase during which China will have to prove that these agreements are profitable for all the countries concerned and not only for the Middle Kingdom.

“Thursday, April 18, Irasec presented to the Alliance française the 2019 edition of its annual publication L’Asie du Sud-Est, Achievements, Challenges and Perspectives. The launch was opened by Alliance française Director Pascale Fabre, French Ambassador to Thailand Jacques Lapouge and Irasec Director Claire Tran. More than 70 people participated in the debate led by journalist Carol Isoux with 4 of the 18 authors of the book.”

Another study by Guillaume-Vincent Simon “The death penalty in Southeast Asia: from abolitionism?” provides valuable insights into this part of the world that seems “impervious to the abolitionism and inflexible regarding the application of the death penalty”. According to him, it is clear that nothing would be done to allow the public forming an opinion because of a lack of access to objective information and public debate. Furthermore, the religious factor would have no influence on this subject.

The analysis by country illustrates a year full of political news since several elections took place in the region in 2018. In Thailand, Stéphane Rennesson insists on the desire of the population for a democratic consultation. This would be confirmed by a multiplication of new political parties and the engagement of civil society at the “village level” in opposition to the hierarchical character of the state. In Vietnam, Claire Tran emphasizes a strengthening of the Communist Party and this sentence of the new president “Never the party was so corrupt.” In Timor-Leste, Christine Cabasset speaks of a kind of violence in the political debate. In Indonesia, Gabriel Facal notes a tension on the religious fact.

The work is punctuated, as in previous books, by “Frozen pictures” and fascinating “Portraits.” Let us highlight the cliché of air pollution in Bangkok that illustrates a challenge noted by authorities for the first time: “a time bomb regarding public health and a tourist foil.

We have carefully read two portraits: Yin Myo Su, Burmese eco-responsible businesswoman committed to socially and economically sustainable development and the defense of  women’s rights, and Me Nâm, “Mother mushroom”, blogger and activist for the environment and human rights.

New in this edition: Key indicators and graphical representations, including the age pyramids by country, which enable readers to have a quick overview on the regime and the demographic history over nearly a century. This perspective gives a picture of the past, present and future of a population, traces their essential trends, highlighting important regional contrasts and presenting the significant sociopolitical particularities that have marked their history. A very appreciable visual synthesis that illustrates the phenomenon of aging populations, one of the major challenges that Thailand will have to face according to Stéphane Rennesson. Thailand cannot be apprehended without placing this country in the geopolitical context of the region. This book is one of the most relevant and exhaustive work to understand the current situation, its particularities, constraints and perspectives.


  • Available at Carnets d’Asie bookstore, in Bangkok and Phnom Penh.

NB: We could not deal with these topics without thinking of Arnaud Dubus, who has collaborated with Irasec on several previous books and whose death has deeply moved Latitudes’ team. Arnaud had joined the French embassy as a press officer for a few months after having worked as a journalist for many years in Thailand. He was a recognized expert on the Southeast Asian region, and specially Thailand, whose language he mastered. He was respected for his professionalism, his rigor, his knowledge and the quality of his analyzes. The team joins the grief of her family and loved ones, to whom it expresses its sincere condolences.

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