Turning east

Sebastian Strangio

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ASEAN heads of states at the National Convention Centre in Vientiane, Laos on 7 September 2016. Photograph : WikiCommons

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Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia

Michael Vatikiotis

Weidenfeld & Nicolson: 2017

By most accounts, the past few years have been anni horribiles for human rights and democracy in Southeast Asia. From Thailand to Indonesia to Myanmar, liberal values appear in broad retreat, and at the start of 2018, it is becoming hard to speak of any country in the region as a healthy and functional democracy. In general, Western media coverage have offered two broad explanations for this trend: the advance of Chinese power in the region, and the retreat of the United States under the “America First” presidency of Donald Trump.

Both explanations are valid, but only up to a point. China’s “march to the tropics” under Xi Jinping has plainly empowered authoritarian governments in the region, but it is hardly the root of the region’s political dysfunction. Similarly, Trump’s indifference to human rights has made life more difficult for Southeast Asian dissidents, but the assumption that the emergence of democratic freedoms in Yangon or Hanoi is simply a matter of sufficient American “leadership” betrays a wildly optimistic view of US power to shape developments (let alone attitudes) abroad.

These partial explanations are consoling, however, because they allow us to preserve the belief that history, for all its recent lurches, is basically still moving in the right direction. In that sense, they are good examples of what the American radical historian Charles Beard once described as the “devil theory” of politics and war. If one assumes that Western-style liberal democracy is the universal aspiration of humanity — something like the conventional wisdom in Europe and the United States — then its puzzling failure can be explained only by reference to malign forces that have arisen, within and without, to thwart the beneficent designs of history.

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