Blood and Silk- book review

Southeast Asia is a region that’s often linked with travel and economic growth, but Blood and Silk- Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia takes readers on a different tour covering political, religious, and social turmoil. Despite the optimistic economic forecasts and the sunny image of countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia as places to travel, eat and party; the region is beset with significant problems that can threaten to unravel significantly in the future.

Author Michael Vatikiotis, a mediator and a former editor of the Far East Economic Review with decades of experience in SE Asia, has written a compelling book about these political and religious tensions as well as societal cleavages. From the ongoing military junta rule in Thailand to corrupt and feudal politics in Philippines to gradual radicalization of Islam in Indonesia and Malaysia, almost all countries in SE Asia suffer serious problems.

The book first looks at how power is manifested throughout the region, whether through military junta rule or democratically elected governments. This is the more fascinating part of the book as Vatikiotis delves into the politics of countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand to provide a more in-depth look at how those countries are run. We get detailed riveting and sometimes bloody accounts of riots, insurrections, coups, and insurgencies, some of which was hardly covered by international media.

Vatikiotis makes a really interesting point about the issue with pluralism in countries like Myanmar and Malaysia. These countries have several ethnic groups who live alongside each other but only really mix in “the marketplace in buying and selling,” according to a former British colonial officer. This was perpetuated by the colonizing British to their benefit and the result was enforced racial division and political conflict after independence. Personally I think this is true in a broader sense when looking at many Asian countries, but I won’t digress. For Myanmar and its Rohingya crisis (in which the Rohingya minority have been killed and forced out by the Burmese army, a move that is actually popular within the country), Vatikiotis sees this as a factor.

The second and final part of the book looks at the conflicts in various countries. However, while making very sound points, this part is more academic and rhetorical than the first part, which makes it less interesting. There are interesting chapters on the growing role of China as a partner and threat, as well as Islamic fundamentalism which has afflicted politics, such as the downfall of Jakarta’s then-mayor in 2017 on blasphemy charges for allegedly insulting Islam, and caused terrorist attacks such as in Indonesia and Thailand.

Vatikiotis believes that while Southeast Asia has undoubtedly prospered economically, at some point this will be inadequate to cover up the socioeconomic and political problems and conflicts. Ultimately, Blood and Silk is a forceful piece of work that provides readers a more in-depth look into a very fascinating region that is not as idyllic as it sometimes appears.

Goodbye (and good riddance) to 2017

With days left until the end of 2017, it is with a lot of disappointment that I look back at this year and a lot of concern to the new year.
The world is no less messed up than it was at the beginning of the year, and as if to underscore the point, December saw several major tragedies including a deadly train crash in the US, a massive mall fire in the Philippines, a tragic gym fire in South Korea, a mass shooting in an Egyptian church, as well as terrible fires in New York and Mumbai just this week.

The American president continued to make a mess, while the UK struggled to come to terms with its Brexit decision. There is already more than enough written about the US president and his antics online and in print, so there’s no need to mention him further here. China under Xi sees itself as the world’s true superpower, though cracks appeared in its facade, most notably with its recent forced eviction of tens of thousands of its poorest people from Beijing. As China seems to get stronger, its economic debt problems might worsen next year while its technology-enhanced grip on society and information shows no sign of abating. Also, it has kept up a belligerent approach towards Taiwan, with a Chinese diplomat warning China would invade Taiwan if any US naval ship was to visit, and ramping up military drills around Taiwan and claiming this would become normal in the future. However, China has faced pushback from countries like Australia and New Zealand about its illicit activities overseas, as well as increased resistance to its nebulous Belt and Road “project.”

The Rohingya tragedy stunned the world when over 600,000 Rohingya were forced to flee Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh after a military campaign to destroy their settlements and kill Rohingya. It is a massive disappointment given how far the country had come from its authoritarian past in just a few years, and Aung San Suu Kyi went from a symbol of hope to one of disappointment and complicity to what many saw as genocide.

But beyond human rights and the continued political theater of the US and Europe, one of the biggest developments in the West was a backlash against technology as people started to realize that not everything related to technology was positive. Not only does technology not solve everything, it can make things worse as with the proliferation of fake news and propaganda on social media. And worse yet is that the growing use of technology such as smartphones can have a detrimental and addictive effect on people. Major tech executives and insiders have spoken out about the dangers of tech and social media, going so far as to ban their own kids from using it. The growing glorification of tech in the past few years has seen tech entrepreneurs acclaimed as superstars, obscene amounts of money thrown into all kinds of start-ups, and “hip” companies acclaimed as vital disruptors of “staid” industries.

The other big development in the West was a stunning wave of sexual harassment cases that started with movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and grew to include directors, actors, chefs, comedians, tech executives, politicians, and even a former US president. It seemed like every day brought some new story about a different famous person, even those who were previously admired or liked a lot, being accused of serious sexual harassment behavior.

Hong Kong saw the selection in March of a new Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, who became the first woman to lead HK. But it also saw political farce in its legislation as four pro-democracy legislators were expelled from office for supposed problems when taking their oaths, as spurious a reason to eject elected lawmakers from office there is. Beijing continued to tighten its grip on HK and erode the “One Country, Two Systems” that enforces HK’s distinct status, including approving joint checkpoints (mainland officials will be stationed inside the station and mainland law will apply to those parts, thus violating HK’s mini constitution) at HK’s new high-speed rail station and openly urging HK to accept that it is “part of red China.”

Taiwan saw a few serious protests during the year as the ruling DPP, under president Tsai Ing-wen, found it a little rocky when they implemented or backtracked on some tough measures relating to labour hours and wages and pensions. Internationally Taiwan continued to be bullied by China, which besides increasing military flights near Taiwan and making belligerent statements, lured Panama away to leave Taiwan’ official allies at 20.

There are several other major tragedies elsewhere, such as Yemen and Syria (where civil war has raged since 2011), though at least ISIS has been defeated and in Europe the refugee crisis has improved from 2016. North Korea, with its childish madman leader, has kept on ramping up tensions, making nuclear war a growing, significant concern. This post is already quite long and I don’t want to keep going on about terrible events in 2017.

But while it might appear that a lot of this world is falling apart or in danger of doing so, maybe this is a necessary period of turbulence before serious improvement (politically, economic, cultural, etc) can occur.

With all that in mind, let’s look forward to the new year. Surely, 2018 can’t be worse, right?

Myanmar’s Rohingya tragedy and the traveler’s dilemma

The world has seen a lot of horrific events this year. The Syrian civil war is still going on, Yemen is being torn apart as millions of its people face starvation, and deadly terrorist attacks have taken place from the US to France to Somalia. Closer to home, here in Asia, the expulsion of the Rohingya minority from Myanmar has been a terrible tragedy. Over 550,000 Rohingya have been forced to flee their homes and hundreds were killed by their own country’s military, in August and September, ending up in crowded refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh. As a result, the UN has condemned Myanmar for ethnic cleansing, and many countries have also criticized it. Myanmar leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s aura as a human rights icon has also been shredded. While the situation has calmed down a bit, the fact is over 550,000 Rohingya are trapped in Bangladesh refugee camps and unable to return to Myanmar.

Myanmar has become a rising star on the world travel scene in the past few years as it has opened up to the world and shed its authoritarianism. I went there myself a couple of years ago. I thought that its opening up politically and economically was a very positive development, especially the fact that it allowed democratic parliamentary elections to be held just years after. But sadly, its democratization has not prevented the violent actions against the Rohingya.

There are no sanctions against going to Myanmar and the conflict is in Rakhine state, on the country’s western border away from Yangon and the main tourist attractions. But the actions of the military, which used to govern the country and still retain a lot of control, in killing and forcing out the Rohingya should put a stop to Myanmar’s image as an idyllic and tranquil travel destination for the time being. Travelers should consider whether they want to visit a country that is engaged in widespread, targeted violence against a vulnerable subset of its own people. While some might think a distinction should be made between the country and its people, the sad fact is that a lot of Myanmar people support the campaign against the Rohingya, which is a probably factor behind Aung San Suu Kyi’s reluctance to condemn the violence.

Personally I would rather not visit a country in which the government is perpetuating large-scale acts of violence and repression against people. For the same reason, I am not too interested in visiting Xinjiang or Tibet in China, and neither would I have wanted to go to South Africa, actually a fantastic country in the current era, during apartheid. But if one were to go, I hope travelers can be aware of the Rohingya tragedy and be mindful of the government’s deliberate actions.

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority who have lived in Rakhine for supposedly hundreds of years but the Myanmar authorities see them as foreigners — Bengali migrants from Bangladesh who came over during the British colonial era. As a result, the Rohingya are virtually stateless in their own country, being unable to properly integrate into society due to being banned from getting national IDs, and using regular social services like education and medical care. The state has cracked down on Rohingya several times in the past few decades but these have worsened in the last few years. Between 2012 and 2015, violence against the Rohingya resulted in droves of them fleeing in boats to countries like Thailand and Malaysia, who rejected them initially, and photos of wretched, starved Rohingya on crowded boats filled international media.

It is also notable that regional body ASEAN, as well as China, which itself is certainly no human rights champion, and India, has not spoken out at all against Myanmar. To me, this just emphasizes the toothlessness of ASEAN and its feeble mandate for regional cooperation beyond economic trade. This is an attitude not just limited to Southeast Asia, but to much of Asia in general.

The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China- book review

China is a large, vast country with an area of 3.7 million square miles and though the majority Han make up 90% of the population, has over 50 ethnic groups. As a result, beyond the teeming megacities and factory zones, and the heavily populated Han-majority provinces, there is a lot of ethnic and societal diversity.

This is what former Sunday Telegraphy China correspondent David Eimer explores in The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China as he travels to the edges of modern China. A well-known Chinese proverb goes “The mountains are high and the emperor far away.” What this means is that in the outer reaches of the empire, the emperor is a remote figure and so is his rule. The modern equivalent of that saying is true in areas like Yunnan Province and the fringes of the Northeast. There, the government’s rule is not as firm as everywhere else in the country, and local non-Han minorities and cultures still thrive. In Tibet and Xinjiang, the very opposite is true as the full force of the regime is imposed, ranging from heavy army and police presence to repressive measures limiting or banning local religious practices and languages. Not surprisingly, these areas – Xinjiang, Tibet, Yunnan and the edges of the Northeast – are often considered exotic and fascinating to both foreigners and the Han (the dominant majority in China) Chinese. But there is also a tragic element to several of the peoples in these areas as well, as Eimer examines how these minorities like the Tibetans and Uyghurs fare after decades of Communist rule.

The situation in Tibet and Xinjiang, the most restive and repressed areas in China, is not surprisingly, rather bleak. Heavy-handed policing and harsh measures enacted against the locals have generated significant anger, the result of which can be seen now and again in the news with “terrorist” attacks in Xinjiang, which raise fears of an insurgency, no doubt played up by the government to justify their taking even harsher measures. Not only are Tibetans and Uyghurs not able to speak their language at schools or freely practice their religion, but their movements are restricted through measures like making it extremely hard to get passports, and they are unable to integrate into mainstream Chinese society.

In Yunnan, the province that has the most minority peoples in China and borders Thailand and Myanmar, a Wild-West atmosphere prevails in much of the borderlands. Here, the government practices a looser form of border control as there are several tribes who peoples live across different countries like the Tais. A thriving cross-border criminal trade exists, especially in narcotics. Eimer manages to travel across to Myanmar where he visits areas populated by minority tribes and controlled by drug armies, descendants of KMT soldiers who fled to Burma and stayed to cultivate opium.  The Northeast is more sedate, though the vast icy landscape belies the economic dominance of China compared to Russia just across the northerneastern-most border. In this area, Small ethnic groups, including the descendants of nomads, cling on while facing the obsolescence of their language and customs due to decreasing numbers, intermarriage with the Han, and modern-day integration. This is already the fate of the Manchus, a Northeast people who ruled all of China as the Qing Dynasty for over 250 years up to 1911. Interestingly, the ethnic Koreans in the Northeast provinces are allowed to have their own schools where classes are taught in their own language. There is also interaction with North Koreans across the border in the form of trade, people smuggling and marriages, but this is starting to get clamped down on by the government.

It is a book rich in travel, historical and ethnographic detail about a China so much different from the one often portrayed in more conventional travel books, whilst not shying away from illustrating the repressive rule of the Communist Party. It is also sad to ponder the fate of all the peoples mentioned in the book, many of whose cultures and languages are under threat in one way or the other. Simply put, The Emperor Far Away is about a China that is rapidly disappearing.

Myanmar travel- Mandalay

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My last travel post about Mandalay was actually about the ancient royal towns around the city, so this one is about Mandalay proper.
The city may be Myanmar’s second city and the former royal capital, but it isn’t exactly a tourist hotspot. One reason is the country has other more interesting places like the former capital Yangon (Rangoon), the ancient temples of Bagan and myriad scenic destinations like Inle Lake. Another reason is that bombing during World War II destroyed much of Mandalay’s royal palace, which was eventually rebuilt on the same site. Granted the rebuilt royal buildings probably look the same as the original and the complex itself is an incredibly large site completely surrounded by a moat, but it didn’t appeal to me so I didn’t visit.

I instead went to Mandalay Hill, one of Mandalay’s main attractions which provides great views of the city, the Irrawady river and the mountains and plains to the north and east of the city. Mandalay Hill is also supposedly where the Buddha visited over 2,000 years ago and prophesied that a city would be built at its foot. Just 790 feet, Mandalay Hill takes less than a couple of hours to climb, but since it was so damn hot and I had a driver, I took the easy way up courtesy of his car. From the parking lot, I entered a building with an escalator that went to the top. The hill has several temples on top, which is not surprising in this very religious country, at least in the Buddhist parts. There were gleaming and ornate gold stupas, statues of hideous green cartoonish ogres and a female deity Sandamukhi who supposedly cut off her own breast to offer to the Buddha as a sign of her devotion, monks, and even sleeping dogs. There were also some locals, many of whom were themselves tourists, and they were flocking around white tourists to take photos (this happens a lot in China in smaller cities too).
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Kid with thanaka (local sunscreen)-smeared face
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The ogre Sandamukhi who pledged devotion to the Buddha. I’m not sure if the dozens of little ogres behind her are her offspring.

Back on the ground, my driver, the same one who had taken me to the places around Mandalay the previous day, took me to the Kuthodaw Pagoda which features over seven hundred of white stupas, each housing a [sculpted] page of Buddhist scripture, which together made up the world’s largest book. When I went inside, I was immediately met by two female postcard vendors, which happened many times at Bagan and other places. The first one left me when I promised to see her postcards when I was leaving, but the other one didn’t quite let up so easily and followed me a bit. I walked around to take in the sights, and I bought postcards from the  first vendor as promised. As I was leaving, the second girl, who had a nice golden leaf design painted on her cheek, really got to work on her sales strategy. I tried telling her I had already bought postcards, to which she was having none of it, replying in charmingly broken English, “My friend happy, I not happy!” Whenever I tried to cut her off and say no, she’d say something like “Really? You buy from me? Please.” Usually I try to be firm with vendors who are too forward but this girl was just too much and I ended up buying postcards from her too.

I then went to Sandamuni, which also featured a giant golden stupa and countless white stupas arranged in neat rows that collectively had a dazzling effect. It resembles Kuthodaw Pagoda, though I found this one more attractive. The over 1,700 stupas (not a typo) each house a slab featuring Buddhist teachings and commentaries, a vivid example of just how seriously the Burmese, those that are Buddhist in this case, take their religion.

After Sandamuni, I stopped by a wooden teak temple and Kyauktawgyi Buddha Temple, which featured a massive hall with walls and pillars covered with green decorations. By then, I had had enough of temples and I was ready to head back. I left Mandalay later that night by overnight bus, which I had booked in advance. It was clean and spacious and I recommend it as an alternative to taking a plane or train. The journey back to Yangon was uneventful though at times, I felt a little jittery as the bus drove on the highway in near total darkness. By the time it was close to Yangon, the bus made a few stops where people got off and the emptier it got, the more apprehensive I felt about missing my stop. As it is, the final stop was the Yangon bus terminal which by then, I was relieved to reach.

That is until in my early morning drowsy (6 am) and sleep-starved state, I accepted an offer from a taxi driver who was loitering in the station and ended up getting overcharged by him (lesson: never take taxis inside stations because they always overcharge tourists). What happened is he gave me a price, then as we were driving out, several guards stopped us and asked me what the driver charged. When they heard, they immediately told me it was too high and that the driver should charge me less. “OK, OK!” said the driver, but as soon as we drove off, he turned to me and said I had to pay the original price.

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Sandamuni

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Entering Kuthodaw

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Puppets being sold by a vendor outside a temple
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One corner of the enormous moat that surrounds the (rebuilt) Royal Palace
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Kuthodaw Pagoda’s giant “book”
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Page housed inside a stupa

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Temple on top of Mandalay Hill
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Myanmar travel- the royal towns around Mandalay

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The name Mandalay is famously associated with exoticism due to Rudyard Kipling’s poem and glamour from the Las Vegas casino, but Myanmar’s second city and former royal capital unfortunately doesn’t have much of both in my opinion. What it does have is a number of varied historical sights around it, being surrounded by several old capitals (Burmese history is complex) – Inwa, Sagaing and Amarapura. These towns (the latter two) and village (the former) don’t exactly have their former prestige but they feature impressive monasteries, the world’s longest teak bridge and a pleasant hill covered with temples.

Mandalay itself does have a massive palace complex surrounded by a moat, though almost all the buildings are reproductions since most of the palace was destroyed by bombing raids during World War II, which is why I didn’t bother to visit it. Instead, I went to Mandalay Hill, which isn’t that high but has fine sweeping views of the city, the Irrawady River, and the mountains to the north and east. However, Mandalay is considered the country’s cultural hub and contains a lot of artists, craftsmen and jewelry artisans, which I didn’t have the time to check out, and which might have made me appreciate the city more. Instead, I went on a full-day tour of the three former capitals and the next day, I visited Mandalay Hill and a couple of temples in the city, before leaving at night to return to Yangon.

Mandalay is not as filled with vehicular traffic like Yangon, but it still has a lot of old, noisy motorcycles and antique buses. It also does not boast Yangon’s old colonial buildings though it seemed older and less prosperous. The neighborhood where I stayed in was a mix of decent and rundown streets and there was a Buddhist temple right behind my hotel, which always had a large number of locals sitting in the front, one of whom was my driver for my two trips.

Amarapura Sagaing, and Inwa

The first stop was to Mahagandayon monastery in the morning where the star attraction was seeing the monastery’s hundreds of monks march to the dining hall for breakfast. The monks ranged from kids to teenagers to middle-aged people and they stoically put up with tourists like me standing at the side snapping away. It sounds a little exploitative but it is a known tourist attraction and the monastery does not seem to mind.

The Burmese are a very religious people who take their Buddhism seriously which can also be seen from the large number of Buddhist temples everywhere, including hill tops. I would later learn from my driver Joker (that was seriously his name) that becoming a monk for a short time was a rite of passage for most Burmese boys, hence the number of youngsters and teenagers in the procession. Joker himself had done it for a month in his village’s monastery when he was a child.

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We then went to Sagaing and its temple-covered hill. The town was a former capital of a kingdom in the 14th century and briefly the national capital. Walking up a covered stairway that went straight to the top, and my first hike in a year since I had my foot surgery, I reached the large temple on top. There was a nice view of temples and the Irrawady River below and the large teak transport ships carrying their cargo of massive logs down towards Yangon. There was the amusing sight of locals getting excited by white tourists and rushing to take photos with them, something that still happens in China.

Inwa was the next stop. Here, my driver dropped me off by a riverside restaurant where I ate at before getting onto a boat to go across to Inwa. I initially thought Inwa was an island but instead it is a village located on the opposite side of the riverbank from which it was faster to cross by boat than by bridge, which was lower down. When I got off the boat on Inwa, I saw several horse-led carts and their drivers, the regular method of transport for tourists. I chose one and subsequently endured over an hour of a rickety horse-cart ride to Inwa’s famous landmarks – a teak monastery, the stone remains of a temple surrounded by rice patty fields and a watchtower that was the only remnant of a royal palace. The wooden village houses were just as interesting. It was a strange experience being taken around on a rocking horse cart around a rural village that was supposedly a royal capital up until the 19th century when a massive earthquake forced it to be abandoned.

While the views were fine, it wasn’t so nice seeing how the horses were treated. For instance, my driver whipped our horse every minute or so during our journey and I saw a few horses on the side of the road that were in rough shape with haggard looks, open cuts on their legs and mangy skin. Unfortunately, this was Southeast Asia and animal rights is not exactly a widespread concept.
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After I took the boat back to shore, Joker picked me up and drove me back to Amarapura to a spectacular all-white temple which is indeed named in the Lonely Planet guide, but I am unable to Google for. Finally, we went to the 1.2km U Bein bridge, the longest wooden bridge in the world and a great place to view the sunset. The bridge is supported by wooden pillars and has roofed huts and pavilions in between. I walked across the bridge, took a short stroll around the village on the other side, and came back over. I still had an hour to spare and it was just too damn hot plus I was tired from being out the whole day, so I found my driver. As we drove away from the bridge, with the river on one side and a swamp on the other side with very murky water, I was surprised to see lots of shacks. Living just minutes from one of the area’s biggest tourist attractions, those poor folk and their swamp slum were a stark reminder of the poverty in the country.

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Amarapura
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Sagaing

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Inwa
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Amarapura
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