The Southeast Asia Conundrum

There was a curious occurrence at the ACHR (Asian Coalition for Housing Rights) conference in Bangkok last month. It all started innocently enough. There were over a hundred delegates from various parts of Asia. They came from Mongolia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Nepal, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, India, Pakistan, China, Fiji, and Thailand.

Representatives from the each country went up to the podium to speak; the language of the presentation was English; and everyone understood what was being said. Some delegates who did not speak English were given a translator. The procedure went on quite smoothly. But then at the middle of the session, we got into smaller working groups; divided according to regions such as East Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia.

The South Asia group started to discuss things – in English - with great fluidity; they were arguing on the various philosophies of how to provide housing for the poor in the region; they compared different schools of thought on the subject. The East and Central Asian group – China and Mongolia – was more reserve, but there seemed to be a quiet understanding between the two countries as manifested by their occasional nods of heads.

When it came to the Southeast Asian group, however, problems began to crop up soon after one of the delegates opened his mouth. He is from Vietnam and was not fluent in English; his translator could translate what he said to English but that was only half of the story. Most delegates in the Southeast Asia group did not understand English well enough to discuss things philosophically, so they need a second translator who understood their languages as well as English.

Half an hour later, every Southeast Asian delegate had an earphone hooked up to the second translators who could understand English and their respective languages. The second translators, in turn, had an earphone hooked up to the first translator who translated what the speaker was saying to English. It required a full minute to move the phrase “It is great to be speaking here amongst friends with common issues and problems” across from the original Vietnamese to English and finally to Indonesian, for example. Several of us found this exercise to be quite amusing. But a closer look at history reveals something rather Machiavellian about this whole comedy.

Why should the countries Southeast Asia be considered as a region; a genre; something to be studied together and developed together in the first place? Why not lump Russia, North America, and Greenland together and called it NASIA (North Asia Icecap Alliance)? If anything, the degree of arbitrariness is not so drastically different. Iraq, for instance, was not a country until the British lumped bits and pieces of warring sects together under the good governance of the Commonwealth. The arbitrary lumping of small states and sects together was a high art then – it was the true marksmanship of colonial rule. The lumping of discreet countries into sub-regions exudes the same air of arbitrariness; or rather, the same “good design” as in the creation of the colonial countries.

Fifty years have passed since the last Viceroy dragged his cane across the streets of Asia, and yet today many scholars still cling to this phantom sub-regional structure. If there had been any historic common ground among the Asian nations; it was in trade and migration. All Southeast Asian nations had ancient trade relations with China and India; and yet both China and India is not in the equation when it comes to Southeast Asian regional meetings. It is usually the American-European moderators that run the show. In terms of population, there is a large number of Chinese living in Thailand, Burma, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia; there is also an equally large numbers of Indians living in these countries. Culturally speaking, the so-called Southeast Asian nations would find their common ties – their regional ecological balance – only when the two mammoth of China and India are, once again, allowed to roam freely in the new Pangaea.

Regions, as we know now, are divided according to the flow of resources. Predatory countries – the NATO or the G8 - are lumped together like a pack of wolf; and the countries of prey are lump together into herds. The herds need not speak to one another, but the predators must be able to communicate well with one another. A thousand years ago the nations of Thais, Laos, Vietnamese and Cambodian didn’t even exist, but the people in that region could communicate with to one another without much difficulty; and the Indian were busy talking to the Chinese in the language of mathematics. It was only after 200 years of Western colonization that these countries became increasingly reticent – if not outright hostile - about communicating with one another.

A clear illustration of these shrewd attempts to divide and conquer could be seen in the French and British colonies. During the colonial era - even within the same country – migration from the countryside to urban areas was restricted (Mike Davis, Planet of Slums, 2006, pp 51-53). This was done so as to ensure that the subjugated masses would not mingle and formed solidarity with one another especially in the urban slums, where surveillance was next to impossible. Stopping the masses at the rural check points was much easier than clearing an entire ghetto and sealing it with a Hussmannian boulevard.

Unfortunately for the Imperialists, a few of their subjects – such as Ho Chi Minh, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, Preedee Banomyong, and Prince Souphanouvong – managed to go abroad and formed solidarity right in the heart of their Empire, Paris. Some – like Mohandas K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru - went to London and Cambridge. These young men would soon forged social revolutions in their own countries; cutting across all regional lines and boundaries. There would emerge a new ‘region’ in Asia - consisting of China, India, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and even some African countries - that would leave the old colonial subdivision in ruins. The 1955 Third World conference in Bandung, organized by Zhou Enlai and Jawaharlal Nehru, was a brave attempt to cut across this old sub-regional paradigm. Delegates from the newly independent countries of Africa and Asia were invited to attend; and they did, despite the failed attempt by the CIA to explode the aircraft carrying the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai.

“On the night of April 11, 1955, the chartered Air-India flight was carrying a minor delegation of Chinese and East Europeans from Hong Kong to Indonesia to attend the Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung. Around 7 p.m., at 18,000 feet, a time bomb detonated in the wheel bay of the starboard wing, blowing a hole in the No.3 fuel tank. The crew heard the explosion, the fire-warning light for the baggage compartment came on, and horrified passengers watched the fire travel up the wing. The captain shut off the right inboard engine, fearing it would catch fire, leaving the other three engines running. The crew sent out three distress signals giving their position over the Natuna Islands before the radio went dead.

Before the radio failed, the Jakarta control tower asked if Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was aboard. The answer was no, but the question must have bewildered the crew. Unknown to them, Zhou was the very reason they were now fighting for their lives.” (Wendell L. Minnick, “Target: Zhou Enlai,” The Far Eastern Economic Review, 13 July 1995, pp 54-55.)

The cold war had unleashed an entirely new set of paradigms against the old colonial traditions. One of the most notorious was the “polar missile map” of the 1950s. The KGB and the Pentagon were perhaps the first to do away with the Mercator map. They have produced a map that showed how close the US and Russia was when viewed from the polar region. It was particularly useful from the perspective of nuclear missiles since they would most likely to favor the shortest path to their targets.

“Before the cold war, no one thought of these two countries as being near each other. From almost anywhere in the United States, Russia seemed almost inconceivably remote. Viewed from across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, Europe and Japan were far away, and Russia was beyond them. But that’s not the path that bombers and missiles take. A B-52 taking off from North Dakota would have fly only 5,000 miles to reach targets in the Soviet Union. An ICBM launched in Siberia on a polar trajectory would be over American territory in thirty minutes. Looked at over the North Pole, the Soviet Union and the United States are neighbors…Suddenly this became the correct way of seeing the world. Accepting this new projection became a test of intellectual seriousness.” (Paul Bracken, Fire in the East, 1999, p. 13)

Despite of all these changes, the old academia and the ‘Orientalist’ scholars - lingering in the University grounds - would remain faithful to the old genre of colonial maps and subdivision (East, West, Central, South, and Southeast Asia). East Asian Studies, South Asian Studies, and Southeast Asian studies still lure unwitting students to their past glories.

The core ACHR organizers – most notably Somsook - had been contemplating changes to this old sub-regional paradigm for years.

Somsook Boonyabancha – like Nehru’s daughter, Indira – is a punctual and charismatic woman who commands many loyal supporters. At 3:00 AM the night before the final meeting, she had come to realize something important; she got up and quickly typed up the new organizational chart for ACHR from her bedroom. She appeared the next morning with a renewed sense of freshness – despite having slept for 3 hours the night before. She called for a vote on whether to continue to have the organization divided into Asian sub-regional groups or not.

After some anticipation, the voting result came in favor of the elimination the old sub-regional groups within ACHR’s committee. Instead, the committee of ACHR will consists of a loose collection of 9 active nations that have actively participated with ACHR in the past. These nations are Nepal, Cambodia, Laos, Mongolia, India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam. China has recently becomes more involved with ACHR; the Chinese organizers have just hosted a meeting in Nanjing on the issue of "Communities as Key Actors in Disaster Rehabilitation."

At the end of the meeting, a delegate from Sri Lanka stood up in the middle of the conference room; bursting in tears.

“I would like to thank Somsook and all the delegates for joining us. In addition, I would like to make it public that during my very difficult times in the hospital, Somsook had called to give me support. It was wonderful….it was just wonderful!”

Although his speech - on how Somsook had helped him out during his leg operation - had nothing to do with the housing issues so being discussed, it did show that a new paradigm and allegiance has been formed. He appreciated the fact that ACHR is now moving in a new direction.

A Maoist government official from Nepal smiled quietly; then he stood up and said “Please consider holding your next meeting in Nepal, we’d be glad to make arrangement for you.”