I was fortunate to have spent the past year working in Phnom Penh. Cambodia is a raw, untamed land with beautiful sights but also shocking poverty. I’m no stranger to living in the region but, for my money, there is nothing more amazing in the world than driving through the rural countryside of Southeast Asia looking out on the tamarind, fan palm, and plum palm trees while watching the never ending cascade of rice paddies roll by. But this beauty is, of course, tempered by reality for most of the peasants working the very fields against such a breathtaking backdrop. It’s a dichotomy that may be hard to adjust to.
When traveling to neighboring countries, however, one gets the sense that the region is thriving. I visited Bangkok in late October for the first time in nearly four years and, based on the skyline, thought I was back in New York. Downtown Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) is similarly developed. Indonesia is a member of the G-20, and Singapore’s GDP per capita is ranked 3rd in the world according to the International Monetary Fund.
Asia was the focus of U.S. President Barack Obama’s attention during the past year, announcing a “pivot” towards the continent in what many analysts and observers see as an American response to a rising China. Some, including the Eurasia Group president and noted commentator Ian Bremmer, have called the pivot to Asia the “Obama Doctrine.” While that may be jumping the gun, especially since President Obama is only halfway done with his time in office, that fact is that the future of great power relations will likely occur between the West and Asian actors.
Not to diminish the importance of, say, the Mideast peace process, the civil war in Syria, or Iran’s nuclear ambitions (all located on the greater Asian continent if you want to be pedantic), but, to borrow a term from Zbigniew Brzezinski, the 21st century’s “grand chessboard” will almost certainly be between the U.S. and China. One only needs to look at the diverging opinions at the United Nations on the three aforementioned issues to see this game being played out to a certain extent already. And Southeast Asia should be a capable proxy in this new showdown.
Cambodia was the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for 2012 and I was able to attend two regional conferences. The issue which dominated the forums was the row in the South China Sea which does not appear to be any closer to a resolution now after the diplomatic fireworks of the past year. It is clear that Cambodia, recipient of a great deal of soft loans from the People’s Republic, was coerced by China and used its position in ASEAN this year to promote Beijing’s interests vis-à-vis the Spratly Islands which are claimed by three other ASEAN members (the Philippines, Vietnam, and Brunei) plus Taiwan.
Next year, the chairmanship of the regional organization passes to Brunei, which will likely use its status to propagate the position of the ASEAN members in dispute which call for an international resolution, rather than negotiating one-on-one with China; Beijing prefers to have bilateral agreements with the parties to the conflict.
Elsewhere, considering the amount of hatred directed at her family by the opposition, it is impressive that Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has maintained her position for this long. Longevity is a fickle attribute in the political arena in Southeast Asia. It seems that if any given political leader can survive beyond the first year or two without being overthrown, imprisoned, exiled, or killed, they might very well stick around and maintain their grip on power for decades. Becoming the first female premier in her country’s history, Yingluck rode the coattails of her brother Thaksin to Government House in July 2011. She has been unable to quell violence in the restive south, and she has failed to reconcile the country’s divided electorate. She remains the darling of the poor, rural majority however, and recently survived a “no-confidence” vote just after welcoming President Barack Obama on the heels of an ASEAN summit. There have been ebbs and flows of organized protests from the elitist opposition but to this point, nothing substantially out of the ordinary for Thai politics has manifested.
And without doubt one of the biggest stories in the region, if not the world, occurred in Myanmar which held historic by-elections on the first of April. In those elections, the country’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi was ushered into Parliament after her party, the National League for Democracy, scored major victories.
If someone would have told me two years ago that the president of Burma, one of the most impoverished and isolated places on Earth, would be in consideration for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 I would have had quite a guffaw. But that is the reality now after Thein Sein’s liberalization of his country’s political system. In addition to the election, trade unions were allowed to form and political prisoners were released. It has been a stunning turnaround for a regime which former U.S. President George W. Bush as recently as 2007 called one of the world’s most “brutal” in a speech at the United Nations. Economic sanctions have been lifted, and investors are already queuing up to get a piece of this untouched nation.
However, the elections held early this year were never a threat to Mr. Sein’s power, and he will doubtless ensure that reforms proceed at a pace he is comfortable with. Furthermore, with ethnic violence raging between Buddhists and Muslims in various pockets of the country, Burma is not out of the woods yet.
Finally, in Cambodia, 2012 marked a year of incredible persecution of a wide array of actors: journalists, environmentalists, poor villagers, and opposition activists. At a recent ASEAN conference, Hun Sen, who has been in charged for more than two decades, casually remarked to journalists that he envisaged staying in that position for another 30 years. Despite his ruling Cambodia People’s Party securing the majority of votes in local elections this year, this war scared country cannot be considered a democracy under anyone’s definition. Corruption is rampant, as I experienced first hand, and the local media is controlled by the regime.
In Vietnam to the east, and Thailand to the west, construction is booming and cranes can be seen erecting new buildings across major cities. In Phnom Penh, the one crane that visitors can see has been stationary for the past ten months because the company constructing the would be skyscraper ran out of money, according to a “Deputy Prime Minister.” When following up on this story a few weeks back, I attempted to attribute the quote from this “Deputy Prime Minister” and was told by a government spokesman, “That might be difficult, because there are about six of them.”
Thanks for reading, and have a Happy Holidays!
Photo: General Electric