Southeast Asia 2018 : Ways &Waves

Southeast Asia 2018 : Ways &Waves


Southeast Asia 2018 :

Ways &Waves

Arnaud Dubus

20 September 2018

Eleven years after it was founded, the Southeast Asia volume published each year by the Research Institute on Contemporary Southeast Asia (IRASEC) has earned its stripes. Containing a collection of thematic articles on the region, it has become an essential reference work. Here’s why.

Annual works that cover the region in english, such as the “annual report” from the institute of southeast asian studies (ISEAS) in Singapore, do not commonly cover all of the countries in the area. “Southeast Asia 2018,” the latest in the series published by IRASEC, is decidedly a good one. To start with, the thematic dossiers are both relevant and thorough and about topics that have been at the heart of regional news in recent months.

The contribution of Abigaël Pesses, anthropologist and IRASEC deputy director, on the relationship between the Internet and democracy, which gives an overview of the general issue – Does the Internet strengthen or weaken democratic mechanisms? – before focusing on case studies in Thailand and Vietnam, is especially welcome.

Her conclusion could almost appear to be a paradox: in Vietnam – a one- party state where politics cannot be discussed – the Internet has helped expand the space for debate; in Thailand, which has been alternating between periods of semi-democracy and military rule for almost a century, the Internet has allowed not only for the “mapping and neutralizing of networks of political dissidents” but also for the “control of online speech and imposition of hierarchical precedence and obedience codes,” codes loved by the kingdom’s elite.

Another fascinating study is the one on the connections between populism and democracy in Southeast Asia written by Eugénie Mérieau, a professor in the Political Science Department at the University of Göttingen. Eugénie Mérieau, whose doctoral thesis on the role of the Constitutional Court of Thailand is a key element to understanding the country’s current political development, relies on the examples of Filipino Presidents Joseph Estrada and Rodrigo Duterte and former Prime Minister of Thailand Thaksin Shinawatra to analyze what is sometimes described as “corruption of democracy.”

According to her, populism – an ambiguous term – can become a threat to democracy when the traditional elite feel like their interests are threatened and respond in an authoritarian manner, as was the case in the Philippines in 2001 and in Thailand in 2006 and 2014.

However, depending on the context, this “populism” can also be seen as a means to “correct” a democratic system incapable of addressing the most marginalized groups in the population, not to mention the neoliberal concerns of the middle classes.

The latter topic partially overlaps with the passionate and very thorough chapter by economist Bruno Jetin on the middle classes in Southeast Asia.

Bruno Jetin, an expert on the region and an associate professor at Universiti Brunei Darussalam’s Institute of Asian Studies, tackles a cliché in political science: that the rise of the middle classes in a society, triggered by an improvement in economic conditions, would invariably lead to the democratization of that society.

The economist first delicately characterizes the various layers of the poor and middle classes in several Southeast Asian countries. On this basis, after studying the examples in Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia, he reaches an enlightening twofold conclusion: in Southeast Asia, rather than demanding democratization, the wealthy middle classes generally support authoritarianism, whereas the poorest constituents support the establishment of democratic institutions.

“Southeast Asia shows that capitalism can thrive without democracy and that authoritarianism can be a sustainable form of government,” notes the economist.

Among the chapters reviewing the countries in the region, the one on Vietnam, written by historian and IRASEC director Claire Thi-Liên Tran, stands out due to its thoroughness in terms of both the politics and the economics of the country. From the rise of the blogosphere to internal operations within the government and party to the rise of environmental issues and the South China Sea dispute, Claire Tran reviews all the questions affecting this developing nation of 100 million people, which, with its young population and economic dynamism, worries Thailand, crippled by the control exercised by the military and having a tendency to rest on its already somewhat withered laurels.

Finally, anthropologist Stéphane Rennesson, author of an outstanding work on the behind-the-scenes of Muay Thai, wrote the chapter about the Kingdom. He brilliantly brings to mind the complex relationships between the new king, Rama X, the military regime, the bureaucracy, and the Sangha (the monastic community) and provides valuable indications on the type of monarch Rama X wishes to be. These are the key issues facing Thailand in the coming years, a country in transition where, as Antonio Gramsci said, the old dies and the new is not (yet) born.

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