The Future Lies Miles from Home

By Sidel, John | New Statesman (1996), October 16, 2000 | Go to article overview

The Future Lies Miles from Home

Sidel, John, New Statesman (1996)

The study of south-east Asian politics raises questions about our own societies and about prejudice in western scholarship.

With the events of the past ten years and in the wake of the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, south-east Asia has become a region notable as much for its political uncertainties as for its economic potential. The early 1990s witnessed the consolidation of democracy in Thailand and the Philippines, and 1998 saw the downfall in Indonesia of the long-entrenched Suharto dictatorship, as well as a major challenge to the Mahathir regime in neighbouring Malaysia. The first decade of the new millennium carries the promise of continuing market reform and economic growth in Vietnam; movements against authoritarian rule in Burma, Cambodia and, perhaps, Malaysia; and a variety of new challenges -- militarist, populist, separatist, Islamist -- in the Philippines and Indonesia.

In such an exciting period, the study of south-east Asian politics in the United Kingdom has experienced considerable growth. The dramatic increase in the uptake of the subject over the past decade can be attributed to British and foreign students alike, and the UK has now emerged as the leading centre for south-east Asian studies in Europe. Academic departments in Britain, recognising the need for expertise, have recruited some of the world's most knowledgeable and respected regional specialists.

Running against the prevailing trends in political studies towards pie-in-the-sky theorising, developments in south-east Asia have demonstrated the importance of regional expertise and "local knowledge". In part, this is a question of "culture". Without an understanding of local languages and cultural reference points, how are we to understand the powerful appeal of charismatic leaders such as Megawati Sukarnoputri and President Abdurrahman Wahid in Indonesia, or of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma? Scholars familiar with these countries have shown how the political style, symbols and discourse of these popular figures draw upon and resonate with distinctively Javanese traditions of rule, in the first instance, and Burmese Buddhist conceptions of political legitimacy, in the second.

More generally, understanding the politics of the region requires a nuanced understanding of the historical and sociological context of each country, as well as a capacity for comparative analysis. Why has Thailand achieved much greater economic success than the Philippines? Why have essentially one-party

states remained so entrenched -- and the urban middle classes so quiescent -- in Malaysia and Singapore? Why have army generals been willing--at least, so far-to acquiesce in a process of democratisation in Indonesia, while their counterparts in Burma have put up such brutal resistance? Why has the Parti Islam se Malaysia (PAS) gained power in the states of Kelantan and Trengganu, but not elsewhere in the country, and why have militant Muslim parties fared so poorly in elections in Indonesia?

To answer these questions, a multidisciplinary approach is necessary; so is a familiarity with the regions of the country. Different political institutions encourage different kinds of "money politics" and corruption, leading to different paths of economic policy-making and industrial growth. Diverging patterns of colonial rule and transitions to independence help to explain how social protest triumphs in some countries while apparent apathy prevails elsewhere in the region. careful attention to the internal sociology of military establishments, on the one hand, or Islamic institutions of worship and learning, on the other, can illuminate the varying success of coup-plotters, juntas, militant Muslim political parties and protest movements.

To understand south-east Asia is in part to understand the interaction between local societies in the region and powerful forces emanating from elsewhere in the world. Only someone familiar with the history of colonial rule in south-east Asia can understand why Cambodia and Vietnam are the only two nation states in the region to go to war, or why political leaders in Malaysia and Singapore alone speak of a distinctive set of "Asian values" and of "Asian democracy". …

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