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May 24, 2014


In Southeast Asia we see the usual mixed bag. In some places, e.g. Thailand, things are getting worse. In some, e.g. Myanmar, things are getting better -- sometimes surprisingly quickly. And in still others, e.g. the Philippines, things are getting better, apparently without much of anyone outside noticing.

But the other thing going on is that all of the Southeast Asian countries bordering the South China Sea are finding themselves with a similar problem. China apparently has decided that it can use any excuse, no matter how problematic, to expand its territory. The Chinese behavior doesn't, quite, equal Mr Putin's claim that he gets to invade any place with a significant Russian population if the mood strikes him. But its use of any bit of ancient history which might be convenient reminds one of the behavior of the Americans and Europeans of the 18th and 19th centuries: anything that they can get away with is acceptable.

There might be a way that the Chinese could more strongly have pushed their neighbors into the arms of the United States. But one is rather at a loss to imagine what it might be.

WJ is right about China, so far as I can tell. I'm less sure about how much "better" things are getting in the Philippines. For a contrary view (albeit a year old) see Jillian Keenan's piece in The Atlantic. And what is in a sense even more worrying is the current whitewashing of Ferdinand Marcos, presumably leading up to a presidential challenge by his son "Bongbong." I love the country, but its leaders do manage to screw up almost everything they can.

As for the "stability" of Burma/Myanmar, another lovely country with a tradition of dodgy leadership, one advantage it seems to have is that none of its own citizens - outside the affected population - seem to be objecting to the virtual genocide of its Muslims currently going on. Maybe the Buddhist majority approves of this or doesn't care; maybe they're too intimidated by decades of harsh military rule to believe that they now have the right to protest. But they seem to be silent, while the Rohingya are dying, and the government won't even allow them medical aid.

In Thailand, OTOH, decades of relatively mild military rule, mixed with recent democracy, has meant that EVERYONE seems to know that they have the right to protest - and exercises it. Such are the joys of a free(-er) society!

I agree with dr ngo's observations, and and wanted to add some points of my own.

The first is that there are elections next year and some Buddhist clergy, who have their own constituencies, are responsible for inflaming passions. Last year, we had a young male teacher, really sweet kid, who was genuinely interested in the learner autonomy and development activities we were doing and when I got back, he friended me on facebook. Unfortunately, over the last year, he's begun posting news stories about Wirathu (who has been termed 'the Burmese Bin Ladin') and how he is protecting the people of Myanmar. He (the kid) didn't come to the training, but what precisely would I have said to him to have him change his mind? Multiply that by the thousands, people who may grasp at the chance to raise their own self-esteem by attaching themselves to a cause like that and you begin to see the problem.

But these sorts of sectarian disputes depend on historical twists and turns, and there are many of them here. First of all, when the British colonized Burma, they elevated the so-called 'martial tribes' while undercutting the Bamar majority. This was because Burma was an empire and was only colonized after losing two wars with the British empire. So in order to control their colony, they elevated the minorities. Thus, the rebuilding of Burma has often been to reemphasize that Bamar majority, of which the injustices suffered by the Rohingya should be seen as an effect.

The Rohingya's origin is not altogether clear, but there were probably in the Arakan state and were subsumed into the Burman empire in the late 1700s, which put the Burmese in contact (and conflict) with the British East Asian Company, so as the 'last toy gathered', the notion of granting more autonomy to the area is not going to happen.

Additionally, Burma is a huge country with very poor transportation, making it much easier for movement and news to be restricted.

One might ask where Aung San Suu Kyi. She is now the leader of the NDL, the largest opposition party, which is long standing and very top down. I had dinner with an MP from a smaller opposition party and we talked about how challenging it was to try and move reform forward as part of the process, and yet deal with something like the Rohingya issue.

A further wrinkle is that the Burmese government officially moved the capital from Yangon to Nay Pyi Daw in 2006, a city to be built 200 km away from Yangon. While there are a lot of reasons floated as to why they did this, what it does do is help isolate the elements of government from the people.

So some are quiet because they are cowed, others are quiet because they don't feel the Rohingya are actually Burmese, while others are trying to get there and help, (the NPO I'm working with sends trainers) but they can be kept out because the area can be labeled as a conflict area (as can several other areas)


I do not understand the reference to Viet Nam. Could you expand on that? Thanks.

in a nutshell:

After I picked up the handgun, I brought it back to my room and felt a new sense of power. I was now armed. Who’s the alpha male now, bitches

BobbyP: LJ,

I do not understand the reference to Viet Nam. Could you expand on that?


In the absence of a reply from LJ - presumably having more important things to do than hang around the internet for the moment - let me surmise that he's referring to the very very high tension at the moment between Vietnam and China. These are triggered by conflicts in the South China Sea, where China is building an oil rig in waters claimed by VN, but draw into centuries - nay, millennia - of distrust and dislike between the neighbors. Vietnamese are not just protesting and talking about boycotts of Chinese goods, they are burning down Chinese-owned factories, and both PRC & Taiwan are starting to prepare to evacuate their nationals in a hurry, if it comes to that. (The Vietnamese don't necessarily bother to distinguish PRC nationals from Taiwanese from local-born Chinese.) It's an interesting situation, as in the supposed ancient Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times." LJ may have much to tell us when he comes out on the other side.

thanks for the backup from dr ngo, that was what I was referring to. ( see here and here) It was and continues to be a Big Deal here in Asia, but I've got no personal stories about it, just reading the paper and watching the news as I was getting ready to go to Myanmar.

I do know that there are a lot of Chinese everywhere and if something pisses someone off, they make a very convenient target for crowd ire. Also, whenever you have a public protest in a country like China or Vietnam (or almost any other) the question is always 'jumped or shoved'.

I've also been reading a lot about China's push into Africa. I have had several students who have been in the Japan equivalent of the Peace Corps and have been posted to Africa, so their stories have had me reading about what is going on quite a bit. If it interests you, you may want to check out http://www.chinaafricaproject.com/

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