Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia

Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia

Blood and Silk is an erudite romp through Southeast Asia’s modern political and economic history in the hands of experienced regional hand Michael Vatikiotis.

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Coming to the region as a student, then working as a journalist for the now-defunct Far Eastern Economic Review before editing its pages from Hong Kong, Vatikiotis closely followed events in the region. He then returned to base himself in Singapore and work as a conflict mediator around Southeast Asia, keeping him well placed as an outside observer for the past four decades.

A blend of memoir and history, Vatikiotis’ book takes us on “a journey in search of explanation. It takes us through the historical origins of state and society, the formative influences on modern nationhood and in turn how this has affected contemporary political trends and generated chronically high levels of popular struggle and violent conflict.”

The history covered here stretches back to colonial times (and earlier), and while this is interesting, the book is strongest when it comes to examining and putting into context the most recent political developments in the region: The 1 MBD and Najib Razak corruption scandal, the accusations of blasphemy against Ahok (though not his conviction, which happened too recently) and the 2016 referendum in Thailand are all teased out and assessed.

For those with more than a passing knowledge of Southeast Asia, Blood and Silk is thick with analysis and details they may not have known. Did you know, for instance, that when the Americans fled Saigon in 1975, property prices dropped drastically in Bangkok because Thais feared an imminent Communist invasion? This meant that Thais “sold land at rock-bottom prices to the city’s Sikh community, which led to an explosion of condominium and retail development”. Meanwhile in Jakarta today, a study has shown “someone with a bachelor’s degree from a local university has the literacy equivalence of a Greek or a Dane who completed only lower secondary school”. I too did not realise many of Thaksin Shinawatra’s early advisors were former radical leftist students of the 1970s who had fled to the jungle after the 1976 Thammasat University crackdown; nor had it occurred to me that the ICC has yet to open investigations or prosecutions into any case from Asia.

Vatikiotis makes a good argument for the hypothesis that the impunity pervading the region is why “[w]e see the same repetitive transmission of unaddressed grievance down through generations fuelling violence in other parts of the region, notably in Thailand.” “For all the contortions one can make to justify forgetting the past," he writes, "what remains is the harsh injustice of impunity.”

It does feel a little like the memoir aspect restricts the book being a more generalised modern Southeast Asian history. Probably because of where Vatikiotis has worked and focused, the book feels weighted more heavily towards Indonesia and Malaysia, closely followed by Thailand, Myanmar and the Philippines. Cambodia and Singapore do rate mentions, but Vietnam is only briefly touched upon, while Brunei and Laos barely rate coverage here at all. It’s a slightly uneven approach narratively, though probably reasonable considering the weight at which each country punches on the global stage. Still, sometimes the smaller the country, the more fascinating the politics, even if not representative. Laos always seems to be relegated sideshow status and Brunei highly unexamined in the popular press, too.

The portraits of people Vatikiotis meets over the years—Slamet Bratanata, Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Charoen Pokphand CEO Dhanin Chearavanont and naturally a cluster of taxi drivers—are a strong point, and we wished there had been more of these. The occasional vignette reveals some of the conflict mediation sessions he has been involved with, such as between the Red and Yellow shirts in Thailand, but we were also thirsty for far more details here. There’s a palpable sense of restraint in Vatikiotis describing his own experiences over the years in Southeast Asia; this is quite a different style to Elizabeth Pisani's light touch in Indonesia Etc.

The outlook for Southeast Asia is not good, Vatikiotis predicts. First, he concludes, selfishness of elites in Southeast Asia shows no sign of letting up, and the endless subjugation of the rights of all to elite’s continued access to wealth is reflected in a failure to address the roots of conflict and inequality in life for ordinary Southeast Asian citizens. Second, identity politics is on the rise, possibly creating fertile ground for violent extremism, speeded along by persistent economic inequality. Third, Southeast Asia is seeing the spread of Islamic dogma thanks to a contest between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with China’s influence burgeoning as powers such as the United States see to balance this, potentially turning the region into a “cauldron of superpower rivalry”.

If you’re a newcomer to the region, Blood and Silk is a great primer to some of the key challenges facing this part of the world and Vatikiotis does an admirable job pulling various strands together to weave a coherent analysis. At the same time, we think it pays to remain aware of the incredible diversity within Southeast Asia; though ASEAN is becoming increasingly a political and economic grouping rather than a convenient conflict-prevention one, be wary of treating it as a monolith. The government of Laos is a world away from the government in Singapore, which is a completely different beast to the government in Vietnam—and so on. To jump in the deep end and start to explore the politics of the region though, Blood and Silk is essential reading.

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