Cambodia’s most illustrious looter

On March 30th, the New York Times carried a lengthy article on the role of two respected US scholars in the looting of Cambodian antiquities. It is an interesting story but arguably one far more interesting is that of Cambodia’s most illustrious looter – André Malraux – told by Steven Boswell in his highly acclaimed alternative guide to Phnom Penh, King Norodom’s Head.

André Malraux Dined Here

He did indeed, here (Map 2, #41) where KFC has one of its several Phnom Penh outlets, though it’s doubtful Malraux feasted on Col. Sanders’ fried fowl or a Zinger Burger. The future World War II resistance hero, acclaimed writer, and de Gaulle’s minister of culture was confined with his wife Clara for several months in 1923–24 to the hotel which once occupied this building following their arrest for the theft of sculptures from Banteay Srey temple twenty-five kilometers northeast of Angkor.

They had been married only ten months when André lost virtually all of Clara’s dowry and inheritance betting on the stock market, notably on a Mexican silver mining company. To replenish their empty bank accounts, André devised the idea of looting Cambodian temples of Buddhas and Shivas and selling them to American collectors. In a Paris library they came across an article on the wonders of the Banteay Srey ruins, which had only been “found” in 1914 and had since been neglected. André was even able to get documentation from the Colonial Office, saying he was on an official archaeological mission.

Together with Louis Chevasson, André’s pal since school days, the Malraux sailed from Marseille in October 1923 aboard the steamship Angkor, appropriately enough. Following visits to Saigon and Hanoi, where they learned that all antiquities from both discovered and undiscovered temples in Siem Reap had to be left in situ, the trio arrived in Phnom Penh in December. The men were suitably decked out in white linen suits, black string ties, and cork pith helmets. Shortly thereafter they embarked on a riverboat for Siem Reap with a servant named Xa and wooden chests labeled “Chemical products” to carry home the loot.

In Siem Reap, the trio hired oxcarts and, trying to remain inconspicuous while slashing through vegetation, made their way to the pink sandstone temple of Banteay Srey. Using crowbars, chisels, and wedges, they pried loose seven slabs of stone carved with bas-reliefs of apsara and devata (female celestial beings), then lowered them with winches into the chests and onto the carts. The chests were then taken back to Siem Reap and loaded onto a boat for the trip downriver.

But their expedition had not gone unnoticed. In Phnom Penh, George Groslier, director of the Albert Sarraut Museum (today the National Museum) had become suspicious of the trio’s motivations. Groslier reported that Malraux seemed to have an antiquarian’s interest in Khmer art, notably in the heads of Angkor era statues of mysterious provenance on sale at a Paris antique dealer at fabulous prices. In Siem Reap, a French functionary named Crémazy welcomed the Malraux and Chevasson and even took them on a tour of Angkor Wat. But Crémazy had been alerted – perhaps by Groslier – to the Malraux’s dubious claims of being nothing more than archaeological scholars exploring the region and studying the relationship between ancient Khmer and Siamese art. Rather than warning them, Crémazy had them shadowed and he subsequently informed his superiors in Phnom Penh of the results.

When the riverboat reached Kompong Chhnang, the police and Groslier were waiting. After prying open the chests, they charged the three with possession of stolen antiquities. Under police escort, the Malraux and Chevasson proceeded downriver to Phnom Penh. They arrived in the city on Christmas Eve and were allowed to spend the rest of the night in their cabins. “What am I going to tell Maman?” Clara asked herself.

The next morning the three thieves were placed under house arrest at the Grand Hôtel, just across the street from the landing stage, where today one can dine on Kentucky fried wings and thighs. They were allowed to come and go during the day but had to remain within the confines of the city.

The Grand Hôtel at that time was owned and run by a Greek named Nicolas Manolis, and in fact it was commonly referred to as the Hôtel Manolis. The Grand was an establishment of limited comfort, but nonetheless in 1923 it was the city’s best hostelry. As Clara wrote in her memoirs, “Our room with whitewashed walls was large, furnished with an expansive bed enveloped in its mosquito net and with a round table of dirty wood; it was one of the better rooms in the best hotel of Phnom Penh: we were to spend four months there.”

For New Year’s Eve the next week, a military band played while colonial administrators, military officers, settlers, and their spouses danced and sipped champagne. Clara in a black dress and André in a white tuxedo made a fashionable entrance exactly at midnight, just as the band was launching into Auld Lang Syne. The colonials seemed to keep a certain distance from them, doubtless aware of their reputation as adventurers cum looters.

They passed the days reading books from the city’s library and newspapers from their hotel. Clara came down with dengue fever. Her mother wrote urging her to divorce André. The Malraux soon ran out of funds, and they owed the hotel three months’ room rent. They had to give up pastries and cigarettes, and André had to do without alcohol (Clara didn’t drink). It was clear that one of them needed to return to France to raise money for their defense.

Clara devised a secret plan. She feigned suicide from an overdose of sleeping pills, dissolving the tablets in a washbasin. André, unaware, entered the room and saw his collapsed spouse and the empty tubes of pills. He shouted for help. A stretcher arrived, and two light-footed bearers carried Clara to the hospital. As it was a charity hospital, André was able to move into his wife’s ward free of charge. But the fake suicide attempt did not result in her release from Phnom Penh. Still at the hospital, Clara now went on a hunger strike, surviving only on orange juice. Her weight fell to a skeletal thirty-six kilos.

Either due to her condition or the presumption that Clara was just a faithful wife following her husband, the judge dropped the charges against her. They had spent over three months at the Grand and another three at the hospital. Clara would now return to France to sell their Picasso and raise further funding for her husband’s defense. Her father-in-law sent money for a return boat ticket as well as some pocket money, which she gave to her “companion,” as she continually refers to André in her memoirs, though whether he used it to pay his bill at the Grand is uncertain.

Clara was en route home when the two-day trial began. Still claiming to be a scholar of antiquities, André pleaded innocent, his rationale being that Banteay Srey had not yet officially been listed as a historic site. The prosecution accused Malraux of being an enemy of France (their secret dossier on him labeled André as a Bolshevik sympathizer and his wife as a Jew of German extraction). On July 21, Judge Jodin sentenced André, as leader of the “official mission,” to three years in prison, Chevasson to eighteen months. France would keep the stolen sculptures. The case now went to the appellate court in Saigon. Malraux and Chevasson left Phnom Penh and the Grand Hôtel for that city.

In France, Clara received the backing of illustrious literary and artistic figures, including the writers André Gide and André Maurois, who wrote articles and signed petitions in support of Malraux. In October, the appellate court levied a one-year sentence for André and three months for Chevasson, but the judge then suspended the punishments, thereby sparing the two even one day in jail. Perhaps the judge was swayed by the defense lawyer’s claim that the pair’s theft of antiquities was no different from what governors and other officials had been doing since the early days of the protectorate (not to mention the scholars and artists who carted off statuary on a much greater scale and which can be seen today, for example, in the Musée Guimet in Paris). Nonetheless, André was incensed by the verdict, still proclaiming his innocence, and he filed an additional appeal. Malraux and Chevasson soon departed for France. As for the appeal, it was never addressed in court. The Supreme Court of Appeal in Paris voided the verdict on a technicality and sent the case back to the Saigon court, where it seems to have just faded away.

However, from their stay at the charity hospital, from their walks in the “native” parts of the city, and from their perception of the bias of the protectorate’s judiciary, the Malraux had discovered the misery of the common people and the “cruel injustice” of France’s colonial system. This would lead André and Clara to return to Saigon and write for a local newspaper, supporting the rights of the Vietnamese and publicizing colonial abuse.

In 1930 André published The Royal Way, a fictional rendition loosely based on his Cambodian adventures, though sans a Clara character. André Malraux went on to great literary and political fame, but he never apologized for the thievery he had committed in Cambodia, and to this day he remains Cambodia’s most illustrious looter.

(Chapter continues with discussion on various hotels.)

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Reality and consequences of elite rule in Cambodia

The long rule of Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party in Cambodia is occasionally in the international spotlight. Attention tends to be paid to the political situation, an arena well covered in Michael Sullivan’s Cambodia Votes, a study of electoral politics in Cambodia soon to be published by NIAS Press.

However, for a detailed description of the reality of elite rule in Cambodia and its consequences for ordinary people, Andrew Cock’s recently published account of the destruction of Cambodia’s once rich forestlands is superb. Here is an extract from the preface to Governing Cambodia’s Forests and a sample of some of the many colour maps and illustrations in the book.


Mapping spirit forest areas, Prey Lang Forest, northwestern Kratie Province, 2006. Chut Wutty, kneeling top right, was director of the NGO ‘Natural Resources Protection Group’. He led and encouraged communities to protest against logging and plantation schemes prior to his murder in 2012. (Photo: Eva Galabru)

For Cambodia, at the time of the signing of the [Paris peace accords] on 23 October 1991, forest areas were considered to be one of the most valuable resources available for exploitation so as to contribute to economic development. Since then, a significant proportion of Cambodia’s forest areas have been heavily degraded, depleted of much of their commercial timber and are no longer as rich a repository of wildlife and other types of forest products. They have become the targets for conversion to plantations such as rubber and eucalyptus, often by the same entities that bear much of the responsibility for the earlier period of rapacious logging.

Cambodia_1973   Cambodia_2014

Based on satellite images obtained from the United States Geological Survey, the book reproduces maps prepared by the Phnom Penh-based organization, Open Development Cambodia, that track Cambodia’s forest cover from 1973 to 2014. Here are the first and last maps. The 2004 map overstates Cambodia’s remaining natural forest cover as tree plantations (rubber, eucalyptus, etc.) are included in the category ‘mixed forests’.

Few Cambodians have benefited from the exploitation of forest resources. Indeed, for many, income from the sale of forest products has declined, access to and availability of forest resources has decreased, and intimidation or worse by armed guards working for logging and plantation companies has become a too frequent ordeal. Yet no consensus exists over how Cambodia’s forest resources and forested lands should be exploited and who should benefit from the exploitation. What constitutes the biggest threat to Cambodia’s forests: the logging and plantation companies granted concessions by the political elite, or villagers undertaking ‘slash and burn’ farming? Who should benefit from Cambodia’s forests: the government and through it the ‘nation’ as a whole, or those people living in and around forest areas? For more than two decades these questions have been debated.

This book is about the role of the ruling elite in the utilization of Cambodia’s forests, and in particular how the elite interacted with and harnessed the policy reform agenda promoted by Western aid donors. Released from the constraints of Vietnamese dominion, or exile along the Thai border or more distant countries, Cambodia’s competing elites weighed imperatives of party, faction, family and broader society against the influences of international pressures (as articulated through the programs and platforms of multilateral and bilateral donors and, to a lesser extent, NGOs). These included pressures associated with agendas for reform concerning how Cambodia’s forests should legitimately be used.

Public discussion, to the extent there was any, centred on issues such as how much of Cambodia should be set aside as protected areas, and whether forest concessions or community forests should be the dominant mode of forest exploitation. However, this discussion concealed patterns of governance set within an institutional framework that blurred the distinction between what was state property and what was private. There were no institutions – a functioning judiciary, independent state bureaucracy, autonomous legislature – capable of ensuring that laws against corruption and promoting the management of state property would be deployed so that state assets were used for public benefit. The inability of institutions to further some notion of the public good applied in the most acute sense to Cambodia’s forests and the lands on which they grew, which in the eyes of politicians, state officials, the police and the military were viewed as freely available for the cutting, clearing and selling.

The origin of this study was an interest in the reconstruction of states whose political and economic institutions had been corroded by civil and/or international conflict. In particular, I was interested in how norms of appropriate state practice spread throughout the international system. This concern led to a more focused investigation of how norms of appropriate forestry practice have been promoted in forest-rich developing countries and how these conceptions of appropriate practice meshed with the agendas of political elites. In particular, I was interested in examining how foreign aid might best be utilized as an instrument for the preservation of tropical forests. I came to believe that the examination of the use of foreign aid in the promotion of forestry reform in the Cambodian context might have some practical applicability for the promotion of forestry reform in other parts of the tropics.

However, the longer I spent in Cambodia and the more I gained access to the deliberations of the donor community and NGOs and observed their dialogue with the Cambodian government, the more I came to question the degree of leverage the donor community exerts over decision making by government officials. I also found myself puzzled as to the direction in which the dynamics of interaction between aid donors and government officials channels patterns of governance. Often there was a formal acceptance by the government of donor reform prescriptions but limited substantive change in practice. In the face of donor pressure on a particular forest related issue, state officials often seemed to seek out an alternative strategy to circumvent the blockage of a policy or practice that they, or their political masters, had already decided upon. Patterns of stone-walling, partial deflection and partial adoption that were manifestations of this external–internal interaction were broadly recognized by external actors. Indeed they seemed to be accounted for in the structuring of aid programs. At base, reform promoting external actors seemed to be primarily interested in ensuring that Cambodia’s integration into the regional and global economy was advanced, no matter how the politics of policy reform played out at any particular moment. As for the ruling elite, what seemed to concern them were signs of domestic dissent and particularly signs of unrest or dissatisfaction from rural communities. The reactions to these pressures were swifter and more substantive than the elite’s responses were to external pressures for reform. Internally directed responses ranged from instructions for policy change, and attempts to target community leaders to quell their activities, to the labelling of NGOs or vocal communities as ‘political’ – an accusation that in Cambodia implies an almost treasonous intent. With this in mind, the particular focus of this book is on how the elite interacted with the externally promoted policy reform agenda in the pursuit of their strategies of rule.

The ideas developed in the book were significantly influenced by my employment as a forestry policy advisor at the NGO Forum on Cambodia between 2000 and 2004. That position provided a very privileged vantage point from which to participate in and observe the actions of the Cambodian government, the internal discussions of the donor community, the dialogue between donors, NGOs and government, and the interaction between forest dependent communities and their government from the most senior level down to the level of village chiefs and commune officials. But in undertaking this inquiry, my employment as a forestry advisor has raised a number of difficulties. In particular, it brought to the forefront the question of how well the involvement of a researcher in a political process mixes with the analysis of that process. There are certainly both advantages and disadvantages. One of the key advantages is the deepened understanding that can come from being a participant rather than a more removed observer or periodic visitor to a country. The disadvantages include the mundane (rarely having time to organize information according to a neat research plan) and that involvement generates biases and interests that colour perceptions of issues and the way they are analysed. Observations risk becoming politicized in a way that clouds their objectivity and judgement.

Whenever sources have permitted, I have aspired to analyse the underlying dynamics of events through a reconstruction of debates over the use of Cambodia’s forests. I have also tried to keep within view the attempts by ordinary citizens to resist, in their own local areas, the forces driving the extraction of timber and the conversion of forest areas. It is these people on whom hope of tropical forest preservation overwhelmingly rests. The continued marginalization of these people will doom one of the earth’s most valuable natural resources.

The story is ongoing, with the external and internal drivers of agrarian change intensifying pressure on forest areas, and particularly the few remaining stands of old-growth forests. While a potential countervailing factor may be the emergent global interest in forest conservation as a means of mitigating climate change, it is likely that decisions related to the expansion of rubber plantations and other agro-industrial crops will lead to the permanent transformation of the forested landscape in which Khmer civilization first arose. Cambodia will be poorer culturally, socially and perhaps even economically due to the loss of its forest endowment and the dislocation of the forest dwelling communities that have for generations lived in these areas.

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India’s hesitations about the Shanghai Cooperation Organization

Last Friday (26/2/16), the Russian news agency TASS announced a memorandum on India’s joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is expected to be signed at a SCO summit in Tashkent in June.


This move has been a long time coming. One reason is China, which was unenthusiastic about Indian participation even just as an observer (it finally agreed in 2005). However, since then India has also vacillated on applying for SCO membership.

The dynamics and nuances of this situation is covered in an interesting text by Swaran Singh – India and the SCO: Better Late Than Never – published in The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Eurasian Geopolitics: New Directions, Perspectives, and Challenges, edited by Michael Fredholm. Here are a couple of excerpts from that text.

Apart from its rapid progress, visibility, and Asian genre, the sub-structures that were to make India particularly interested in the SCO included its Regional Anti-Terrorism Center (RATS). The RATS was set up as a permanent organ of the SCO at its Tashkent summit of June 2004. Located at Tashkent, it serves as a secretariat to promote cooperation amongst member states to fight against the three evils of terrorism, separatism, and extremism. By April 2006, the RATS had begun to expand its domain to include in its plans initiatives like fighting cross-border drug crimes. By October 2007, the SCO had signed agreements with the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) of ex-Soviet republics to further broaden its regional cooperation paradigm and include issues like security, crime, and drug-trafficking. These two organizations have since chalked out detailed plans in these fields. As a result, though the SCO has repeatedly clarified that it does not expect itself to emerge as a military block, it now holds regular joint military exercises amongst its members and is often viewed as a counter to the eastward expansion of NATO. All this is what makes the SCO attractive to New Delhi, though this does not explain India’s lukewarm engagement with this forum. This chapter makes an attempt to explore and examine further this engagement.


Why Is India So Reluctant?

Prima facie, in spite of a fair amount of sustained engagement, India has not been enthusiastic about the SCO meetings. At the bilateral level, however, in addition to India’s traditionally close friend the Soviet Union and now the Russian Federation, it has also evolved a close engagement with the Central Asian republics, especially Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. Even with China, India has sustained intense economic and diplomatic engagements, though these have seen fluctuations from time to time.

India’s pursuit of SCO membership has not been as aggressive or as sustained as has that of other aspirant contenders like Belarus, Iran, or Pakistan. This lukewarm approach of India is often explained by the following factors:

  • First and foremost, India remains cautious because of its preoccupation with autonomy, ensuring that it does not get into any binding relationship that may circumscribe its future policy options. The fact that scholars in west have viewed the SCO as parallel to NATO makes India wary.
  • Second, India’s continuous rivalry with Pakistan and China’s close ties with Pakistan act against India’s desire to show an interest in joining the SCO. India does not wish to compete with Pakistan for SCO membership. This is also likely to increase the SCO’s influence on India–Pakistan ties.
  • Third, the SCO has been especially sceptical of U.S. overtures to be part of SCO initiatives. But western experts criticize the SCO for being an exclusivist economic, if not military, forum. Given India’s growing closeness to the United States, India would not like to be seen siding with forums trying to exclude the United States.
  • Fourth, China – which has been the main force behind the evolution of the SCO – remains wary of allowing India any influence in the region whatsoever, especially when it comes to the SCO. This is partly driven by India’s rising stature and its long-standing close ties with Moscow.
  • And last but not the least, and in more practical terms, lack of easy and direct access for India to the Eurasian landmass is also often cited as something that discourages Indian initiatives. India has to access the Central Asian republics through the troubled states of Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Iran, which makes matters complicated.

At the same time, however, the SCO provides India with an effective model and platform of Asian multilateralism, which has been making rather visible contributions towards ensuring peace and stability in the Eurasian region and also has been facilitating rapid development across various sectors across regions. Given India’s growing interest in the gas and oil of the Central Asian republics, India is normally represented at the SCO summits by India’s petroleum ministers, and improvements in relations with several Central Asian republics have opened new avenues in other sectors as well. As an exception to this rule, India was represented by India’s Prime Minister at the Yekaterinburg SCO summit of May 2009 and, in his speeches, Dr Manmohan Singh underlined the need for evolving innovative means to strengthen people-to-people contacts and exchanges of business delegations to expand bilateral trade, investments, and technology transfers. The June 2010, June 2011, and June 2012 summits were attended by India’s foreign minister, who gave signals about a certain upgrading of India’s participation.

Given the SCO’s unique selling point being its attempt to evolve innovative strategies for energy security and countering terrorism, India also sees a special role for itself in making an important “value addition” to the SCO’s functioning and to its evolving vision and initiatives. India also sees for itself several new opportunities in helping the Central Asian republics in their agriculture sector, pharmaceuticals, and food security, as well as in building material infrastructure and social capital in the region. Similarly, the Central Asian republics can offer India much needed energy resources like oil, gas, and uranium, and there is scope for cooperation in such resource exploration. At the multilateral level, the SCO provides India with opportunities for regular deliberations with several of Asia’s major powers who are now either members or observers of this important Asian forum. Given that most of the SCO observers are “regional powers with claims to global status … will undoubtedly turn the SCO into a major regional organization to be reckoned with.” But there remain serious challenges in realizing some of these multiple visions, and the historical baggage of the China and India equation remains a most difficult hurdle in achieving this amalgamation of thought and action.

Swaran Singh, ‘India and the SCO: Better Late Than Never’, in From The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Eurasian Geopolitics: New Directions, Perspectives, and Challenges, edited by Michael Fredholm, pp. 162–63 and pp. 167–69.

© NIAS Press 2013 (2016)

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Bird-droppings – not for local consumption

The Guardian reports that new laws are being implemented in the Maldives to restrict the local publication and distribution of material supposedly offensive to Islam. (Some observers see other motives by the new, increasingly authoritarian government.)

When we were contacted about this by the Guardian, suddenly it all made sense why we have had great difficulties getting a rather lovely collection of folk tales of the Maldives by Xavier Romero-Frias made available inside the country. In every case there has been friendly interest by a potential local agent followed up by silence, stubborn silence.

Yes, among the 80 stories are scary tales about witches, shape-changers and demons. But the lead role in most of the stories definitely goes to the natural world of the Maldives, a rich, fabulous but fragile environment that attracts hordes of well-heeled tourists each year and for a while made the country the poster-child of the global-warming movement.

One has to wonder how unIslamic these stories are, as seen in one of them below.


9. The Sandbank of the Seabirds

Once upon a time, on a certain atoll there was a large sandbank. It was in a privileged location, far away from the large islands inhabited by humans, which were barely visible in the horizon. Food was abundant there. The turquoise-blue lagoon close-by was teeming with schools of silvery fish. During low tide, a huge number of small crabs, sea worms and other animals found themselves exposed on the dry coral reef. Hence, a large number of seabirds felt safe there and used to breed and find rest on its white sands. One day, shortly before sunset, a Koveli bird flew to it and asked for permission from the seabirds to stay overnight with them. They didn’t seem very happy, so he pleaded, “Birds, let me stay! I have been flying from one island to the other and I am very tired. I cannot fly any longer and I might fall into the sea and die. If you let me stay, I will not bother you and I promise I will leave tomorrow before sunrise.”

The birds could see he was exhausted and felt sorry for him, so they allowed the newcomer to stay. The Koveli bird looked for a dry place well above the waterline, settled comfortably there, and immediately fell asleep.

Later in the night, under the starry sky, the oldest seabird made sure that the Koveli was sleeping and then went to the far end of the sandbank. There he gathered the other seabirds around him and spoke thus. “I didn’t say anything before because I know you birds are very foolish and wouldn’t have paid attention to my words anyway. However, I am telling you that you made a big error by allowing that land bird to sleep here among us. I am sure that something bad will happen because of him.”

The other birds were annoyed. One of them confronted the old seabird. “The Koveli was tired. He had nowhere else to go. We did a good thing!” The old bird just said, “One day you will know I was right.” After that he went to sleep. Soon all the other birds fell asleep too.

At dawn, the Koveli, refreshed after a good night’s rest, flew away towards his destination. The seabirds mocked the old bird, saying, “You are always worrying too much. You see, nothing happened.”

But, unnoticed by the other birds, the intruder had left traces on the sandbank. His droppings carried seeds from berries he had eaten. Well lodged in the sand above the waterline, the steady wind covered them with a layer of fine sand. After the first rains, those seeds germinated and a pale-green bush began to grow.

Months passed and the old bird, pointing at the big bush told the other birds, “Look! Before, this never happened. Soon there will be many bushes on our sandbank and we will have to move away.” The other birds didn’t worry. Since it was providing some shade when it was sunny and shelter in windy weather, they thought the bush was all right. They murmured, “Old bird is always grumbling.” Soon berries fallen from that bush sprouted. As time went by the whole surface of the sandbank not reached by the tides was covered by lush, green vegetation.

One day a fisherman landed on the sandbank with his small sailboat and inspected it. Back on his island he wrote a letter to the atoll chief asking for the right to use the new islet. As soon as the atoll chief granted him permission the man decided to plant coconut trees on it.

Thus, a few days later the man went to the sandbank in the morning carrying small coconut palms and planted them among the bushes. He also planted other kinds of trees that grow well in poor soil and provide wood and shade. During the following months he used to go occasionally to see how his trees were doing.

Years passed and the palm trees produced coconuts. Then the fisherman built a hut and dug a well in the middle of the island. Now the man went often to the islet with his wife and children. He used to harvest coconuts while the woman looked for firewood. The children loved to scare the seabirds and looked for their eggs to eat. Their father caught a seabird every now and then and brought it home with its legs tied and its wingtips cut.

Finally, one night in the faint starlight, the old seabird gathered his few and battered surviving companions at the tip of the island. He was now almost blind and crippled with age and spoke gravely, “I warned you but you didn’t heed my words. Now this island is not a safe place for us. It doesn’t belong to us anymore. I told you long ago something bad would happen. Now we will have to leave.”

And when dawn came, all the birds, giving a last, sorrowful look at the island they had lost, flew away in search of a safer place to settle.

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Hong Kong – more than meets the eye

The current protests rocking Hong Kong are often portrayed in terms of freedom-loving locals defying the authoritarian initiatives of far-away Beijing. The big issue is said to be how much say the people of Hong Kong have on who is elected to rule them as Chief Executive of the HKSAR (Special Autonomous Region). As the BBC reports, “The pro-democracy protesters are angry at China for limiting their choice in Hong Kong’s 2017 leadership elections.”

But how accurate is this picture?

As recounted in a NIAS Press study published last year (Negotiating Autonomy in Greater China, edited by Ray Yep), the issue is far more complex than the franchise and goes way beyond the parochial concerns of Hong Kong’s citizenry. True, much of the volume deals with the situation in Hong Kong, exploring both the colonial period and how the HKSAR has evolved since the 1997 handover. Here, it especially focuses on issues of autonomy in its various forms (political, institutional, judicial, economic, etc.). However, the quite different situation in nearby Macau is also analysed, so too the failed attempts by the PRC to peacefully absorb both Tibet and Taiwan.

And not least all of these cases are considered in the light of the evolution of local government throughout the PRC, exploring for instance how much freedom of manoeuvre local leaders have in their interaction with provincial superiors and distant masters in Beijing.

The result is an insightful study offering a somewhat different – and nuanced – assessment of local autonomy not only in Hong Kong but also throughout the PRC.

Something of the flavour of this approach is evident in the opening pages of Ray Yep’s introduction, the first part of which is reproduced below (with footnotes omitted).


Sixteen years after the founding of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) in 1997, few would concur with the doomsday argument regarding “the death of Hong Kong” advanced by Fortune magazine in 1995. There have been ups and downs in economic conditions and the territory has experienced a succession of demonstrations and mass protests, especially under the Tung Chee Hwa administration between 1997 and 2005. Yet, it is a gross exaggeration to describe the trajectory of Hong Kong in the last 15 years as a degeneration into political purgatory. Its capacity to bounce back from adversity has confirmed the vitality of the economic fundamentals of the territory, and despite the rising volume of altercation and dissent on the political scene, which has occasionally erupted into a mass protest of colossal proportions, as in the case of the 1 July demonstration in 2003, stability has never been under serious threat. Hong Kong remains as one of the safest cities in the world, with law and order showing no sign of decay since 1997, while its public finances are embarrassed by a colossal reserve of 600 billion HKD at a time when many governments in the developed world are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. The government is certainly subject to growing criticism and the new administration under Leung Chun Ying has been under unabated challenges since he took office in July 2012; yet the rising pressure is ironically a testament to the vibrancy of civil society and freedom of expression in the territory. On the basis of these developments, it may be harsh to blame the optimists who need no encouragement to jump on the bandwagon of praising the success of the “one country, two systems” formula. Such optimism is, however, at best only partially substantiated. Certainly, the post-handover arrangement was designed to maintain effective governance in Hong Kong after 1997, but ultimately it is a platform for the exercise of sovereignty over the territory. An assessment without the dimension of central and local interaction after 1997 simply renders itself irrelevant in any understanding of the validity of the “one country, two systems” model.

The crux of the matter is the issue of autonomy. While most commentators agree that Beijing observed a high degree of self-restraint in not meddling in the domestic affairs of Hong Kong in the immediate aftermath of the handover, the 1 July demonstration in 2003 appears to have been the turning point. For many, the “resignation” of the hugely unpopular Tung Chee Hwa heralded a more proactive approach by the Central People’s Government of the People’s Republic of China in handling Hong Kong. Measures of economic support and further integration coincided with the establishment of a new top-level body overseeing Hong Kong affairs, with a Politburo member, Zeng Qinghong, installed as the tsar of Hong Kong policy, and the rising visibility of officials of the Central Government’s Liaison Office on the local scene. The local community is apparently ill at ease with the “encroachment” of the Central Government. Casual comments on Hong Kong affairs by Chinese officials and cross-border infrastructure development can now easily trigger a public outcry against “pressure from Beijing”. Public fury over allegations of Beijing’s intervention in the Chief Executive election in March 2012, which resulted in the victory of Leung Chun Ying, is a testament to the common concern for the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy among the local population.

Is the autonomy bestowed upon the HKSAR being compromised? Or, more importantly, how can we assess the state of the autonomy we are enjoying? A formalistic or textual approach is one option, as our entitlements have already been enshrined in the constitutional document that is the Basic Law. Put in this light, any deviation from the relevant stipulations in this authoritative document is incontestable evidence of the infringement of the autonomy of the HKSAR. Yet, this formalistic approach is missing an essential point. Such a jaundiced view confines the analysis to the regulative aspect of the constitution only. Institution, according to North (1990), is a set of rules that is intended to make interaction possible by reducing ambiguity and conflict. Central to these rules is a formal component endorsed by an authoritative body that states explicitly commonly agreed standards and procedure, obligations for all concerned parties, penalties for non-compliance, and a mechanism for enforcement. Nevertheless, these formal rules are effective in guiding action and shaping behaviour only when they are seen as legitimate. This alerts us to the importance of the informal aspect in a constitution. Scott (1995 & 2008) further elaborates this aspect and highlights the relevance of the normative and cultural and cognitive aspects of the element of informality. The former refers to the expectations of stakeholders whereas the latter includes accepted beliefs and values shared among concerned parties. These tacit conventions are the result of repeated interaction among members of the community and affect the way they rationalize, justify and explain interactions among themselves. Put simply, it is probably more difficult to enforce rules that people cannot make sense of and find inconsistent with their values. In other words, these informal aspects can extend, elaborate and modify formal rules and redefine the constraints imposed by institutions.

Seen in this light, the autonomy of Hong Kong can also be conceived of as a process of continuous negotiation. While the Basic Law prescribes the parameters for engagement between the Central People’s Government and the HKSAR Government and the jurisdictional boundary of the latter, the flexibility of these limits is subject to decision by the former through its power to make, unmake and interpret the Basic Law. On paper, on the issue of autonomy, as pointed out by Miners, the Basic Law is generous in spirit as it simply formalizes in the post-1997 legal arrangements many conventions that regulated the relationship between London and the colony of Hong Kong. The constitutional document that was drafted on the basis of the Joint Declaration signed by the British and Chinese governments promises a high degree of autonomy in social and economic aspects. The Hong Kong administration is for example allowed to maintain its own currency, custom control and budgetary autonomy after 1997. Acceptance of the Central Government’s involvement in local affairs or “resistance” by the subordinate government is, however, not solely defined by legal constraints, but also by political perceptions of the concerned parties. Subservience by the local government is hardly preordained by the formal status of subordination prescribed in the statutory document. Hong Kong has a long history of pursuing its own path, and the colonial governors were rarely deterred by the superior status of the sovereign power when they found London’s initiatives were inconvenient or unviable from their point of view. Bickers’s work reveals that the Foreign Office was greatly irritated by Hong Kong’s pursuit of local diplomacy with the Guomindang Government between 1917 and 1927, which was in direct defiance of London’s instruction that Hong Kong should communicate with China only through the Legation in Beijing or the Consulate at Canton. Miners’s case study of the abolition of the mui tsai system, a disguised form of slavery, revealed how the local administration could defuse and resist the pressures and efforts of two foreign secretaries and the British parliament. The inhumane practice was only abolished, almost three decades later, in 1941, when a new Governor, Caldecott, lent his support to London’s initiatives. In a similar vein, Grantham’s success in persuading the British cabinet to abandon the grand plan of political reforms in the colony in the 1950s is another example of Hong Kong’s insubordination. Even local governments on the Mainland show no less enthusiasm in pursuing their parochial interests despite the unitary arrangements of the People’s Republic of China. Emboldened by the decentralization process in the reform era, various studies have demonstrated the innovativeness and robustness of local administrations in defending their positions against central initiatives when they find their interests at stake.

In short, a formalistic approach is hardly sufficient for understanding local autonomy. The exercise of autonomy is, in fact, a product of the political process of mutual learning by the sovereign and the periphery. Propriety of action and response from both sides is not judged simply on the basis of formal legal permissibility, but is also deciphered with reference to experience in previous encounters. Earlier exchanges and responses to interaction create institutional memory, protocols for action and, most important of all, limits to legitimate expectations. And it is these these “soft” elements that ultimately justify the elasticity of the formal boundary, and thus define the permissibility of central intervention and local resistance. Yet, here lies the challenge for understanding the autonomy of the HKSAR. The “one country, two systems” model is an institutional innovation without precedent. For both the HKSAR and the Central People’s Government, the new framework, through mutual adjustment and adaptation, is still in the process of being made. Nevertheless, it does not mean that they have no reference points for interaction. Their parallel experiences in handling the central and local relationship, that is, the exchange between the colonial administration of Hong Kong and the British sovereign power before 1997, and the interaction between the national government and its subordinate units in China since 1949, can, however, serve as a good basis for evaluating the interaction between the HKSAR and the Central People’s Government after 1997.

These comparisons in temporal and spatial terms allow us to understand, firstly, the logic and concerns of Beijing in handling local initiatives and insubordination, and, secondly, the expectations and strategy of Hong Kong in pursuing its provincial agenda. The accounts included in this book are not simply stories of subordination or conflict. They are rather narratives of adaptation, negotiation and accommodation between the sovereign state and the local administration. The tacit knowledge about handling the interaction uncovered in these historical episodes and contemporary accounts is thus crucial to our comprehension of the ongoing process of defining the autonomy of Hong Kong after the reunification.

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Good cronies?

In recent days we have heard a few sniggers about U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry staying in Naypyidaw in a hotel owned by U Zaw Zaw, one of Myanmar’s crony capitalists still on the U.S. sanctions list. Excuses have been offered but one question has not been generally aired. Is there any point continuing to blacklist a group of tycoons for their close ties with a military junta that has long since departed the scene?

In any case, the picture of Myanmar’s crony capitalists is hardly black and white. A nuanced evaluation is offered by a new book just published by NIAS Press, Burma/Myanmar – Where Now? which one Burma specialist has judged to be ‘the handbook on Burma, at least for now’. (Recognising that over time its contents will be overtaken by events, editor Flemming Ytzen has launched a complementary website that documents new developments in many of the issues covered by the volume. The site is under construction right now but already worth visiting.)

The cronies get a lot of coverage in the volume, not least because of their political influence and economic power plus their key role as intermediaries between Myanmar and the outside world. However, as Marie Ditlevsen writes, there is also a more benevolent side to their activities.

Often said to be one of Myanmar’s leading crony capitalists is the business tycoon Tay Za who not only has a wide range of economic interests but also controls one of the country’s top football clubs (photo courtesy The Irrawaddy)

Often said to be one of Myanmar’s leading crony capitalists is the business tycoon Tay Za who not only has a wide range of economic interests but also controls one of the country’s top football clubs (photo courtesy The Irrawaddy)

While the cronies may have contributed to the impoverishment of the general population under the military rule, some of them have also used their wealth to establish development aid projects and companies that have become economically beneficial for the population in general. For example, when Cyclone Nargis struck the Delta region, Tay Za helped fund some of the relief work while the well-known Zaw Zaw set up the Ayeyarwady Foundation to support the victims of the disaster. Later, Zaw Zaw also supported the building of schools in various parts of the country. Some people believe that such altruism merely attempts to improve reputations from being ‘bad’ to ‘good’ cronies (and thus removed from sanctions lists), just as their support for the democratic movements is calculated from what is beneficial to their own future business.

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Between marriage and a hard place

Vietnam has been transformed over the past quarter of a century by massive industrialization and urbanization that followed macro-economic reforms introduced from the late 1980s. In a new study just published by NIAS Press, Catherine Earl explores the social consequences of this change by delving into the lives and aspirations of young women graduates who have come to Ho Chi Minh City in search of success in the city’s growing graduate labour market. They are part of Vietnam’s new middle class, an educated and affluent segment of society growing with the rapid urbanization of Vietnam’s major cities. This rich, person-centred ethnography argues that the country’s mega-urban Southeast region enables young women to realize aspirations for betterment almost unimaginable to earlier generations – so long as they remain single.

But here there is a problem, as the author recounts.

Thanks to Leo Laksi for this impromptu wedding photo

Thanks to Leo Laksi for this impromptu wedding photo

Despite their achievements in education, their careers and lifestyles, marriage and family continue to be central to middle-class Vietnamese women’s identities. Indeed marriage is virtually a universal expectation in Vietnam and most Vietnamese women are married by forty. Historically marriage offered Vietnamese middle-class girls a chance to improve their lot in life, or at least maintain their existing social position. But in twenty-first century Vietnam, marriage offers less opportunity for aspirational women to achieve mobility when compared with other strategies such as education and salaried employment.

Educated women in Vietnam face difficulties finding suitable marriage partners. This may be due to a number of reasons ranging from having a higher level of education or a higher salary than a man, being over thirty, being regarded as too independent, or having expectations that could not be met. For new middle-class women, unlike career, marriage does not necessarily provide future security but may involve a loss of newly acquired social, economic and gender status. Remaining single can provide women with relative autonomy and a high degree of economic independence even with unstable employment in a highly competitive urban job market. Even so, a woman who fails to marry or fails to produce a child in Vietnam suffers stigma. It would be rare for a stigmatized person, who experiences direct social exclusion, to successfully achieve social mobility within the zone of influence of Vietnamese cultural expectations.


The desire to marry among new middle-class women in Vietnam is strong. Despite achieving relatively higher social status through education and employment, educated young women have the lower social status of ‘perpetual minors’ because they remain unmarried.


For Vietnamese, marriage remains as an important step to adulthood. [Two respondents in the study] Hạnh and Liên were among those who felt the pressure to marry. For a single woman in Ho Chi Minh City, to remain alone and be ‘left on the shelf’ (ế chồng) did not become a serious concern until she was over thirty. After thirty, there was a risk that singlehood might become permanent. That risk created pressure on single women who made attempts to avoid exposure to family scrutiny. Some new middle-class women skipped family Tết celebrations by taking a tour of Bangkok or Singapore over the new year holiday. Others limited visits to their natal families if they had vacation time or a busy schedule at work.

At Tết, educated urbanized women like Hạnh avoided the more conservative women in their villages in order to evade their questions. During one of my visit to her village over Tết, Hạnh used me to distract her aunts and divert their attention away from herself and her unmarried status. Hạnh also invited me to join her on a customary visit to her former primary school teacher. The teacher had retired soon after teaching Hạnh, so by the time her younger sister Cúc had started school, there was a new, younger teacher. Unlike Cúc’s teacher, Hạnh’s teacher was not interested in her students’ career successes. She wagged her finger and scolded Hạnh for failing to start a family. Hạnh was made to feel the pressure to marry more acutely than Cúc as she was older. While Hạnh and other professional women have fulfilled the educational expectations of their parents, they have not been able to fulfil their own expectations for marriage and children.

Like Hạnh, Liên rarely reunited with her former classmates. I accompanied Liên the second time her entire class had met after their graduation to a wedding party held in the evening at the glamorous Hotel Continental, an icon of French colonial Saigon. The bride was a former classmate of Liên. Liên knew that some of the men in the class had already married, but she was one of those who had missed parties and other reunions because she had been abroad studying.

Entering the Hotel Continental was like entering another world. Two billboard-sized portraits of bridal couples standing on opposite sides of the lobby made it easy for Liên to recognize which banquet room her friend’s wedding party would be held in. Next to their portrait, the couple was standing with their families welcoming their guests. Although Liên did not say so, the bride’s family was obviously prosperous and relatives had returned from the US to attend the wedding.

In the banquet room, Liên and I sat with her former classmates. Having brought partners but not children, they pulled up chairs to cram the expanded group around two tables. Like the bride, the classmates were also obviously well-off: economics graduates, managers and directors. They spoke amongst themselves in a lingua franca of technological Business English and Vietnamese, comparing the latest models of mobile phone and flight times between Singapore, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City.

Their conversation was briefly interrupted by the arrival of the bride at our table. She showed photographs taken that morning at the formal marriage ceremony, where she had worn the first of three hired dresses, a slim-fitting áo dài traditional dress that, instead of being the conventional red of wedding garments, was a fashionable hot pink. She circulated the room serving drinks and thanking guests, until the formalities began. The speeches and singing did not fully interrupt the conversations at the guests’ tables. After the cake was cut, Liên quietly asked me to join her outside for some fresh air. She suggested I bring my camera to appreciate how beautiful the city could be at night. I was surprised, because she knew I had seen the city at night scores of times. When the others noticed us leaving, Liên gestured towards me and the camera she was holding. She told them I wanted to take a photograph in front of the hotel. We left directly without stopping to greet people at their tables as we passed.

Outside, the warm evening air was a relief after the chill of the air-conditioning. Despite her smile, Liên was upset. We took several photographs, taking turns to pose for the camera. Liên attempted to hide what she felt. She had found out for certain that she was the last unmarried person in her class, a fact she had not expected. At the time, I failed to grasp the significance of this for Liên. She usually relied on her education and employment as an explanation for her temporarily delayed marriage. However, with all her classmates and peers having already established a career and been married, her single status now seemed to be becoming permanent, at least in their eyes. She did not regard herself in these terms; she did not want to remain alone.

Liên was feeling trapped by social pressures to conform to cultural traditions of conventional family life. I was reminded of Liên’s concerns the night I moved into her house, when our first conversation had become uncomfortable and Liên’s eyes had flashed at me as she explained the freedoms that – as a foreigner – she perceived I had, and which – as a Vietnamese – she perceived she lacked. Her present concerns were not with legal rights to gender equality in the workplace, nor with sexual harassment at work, but with issues of love. She was concerned about the freedom to choose a partner, or a series of partners, for love even against the family’s wishes and about the freedom to have a child, or many children, with or without a husband, or one permanent partner. Her time studying abroad had opened her eyes to the possibility that a woman might juggle a career, a relationship and a family. On this issue, she considered most of Vietnam – even Ho Chi Minh City – to be lagging behind.

For other educated urban women in Liên’s position, reasserted tradition in the role of a dutiful daughter can only last for so long before relatives and neighbours begin to wonder what is wrong. Was an unmarried woman in her mid-thirties too self-centred to marry? Was there some other problem? Why had she not met a man? For years, indeed since the end of high school, Liên had been introduced to potential suitors, men whom her relatives, classmates, colleagues, friends, neighbours – or whoever made the introduction – had assessed to be ideal. But none of these men had been suitable. At the time, none of them had seemed able to fulfil the right needs and this had not been a problem. Now, there was the possibility of never finding a husband and never having the joys of family life or the responsibilities of housework and childcare. Remaining single would mean not having to compromise to suit his needs or those of anyone else. Remaining single would mean being an aunt, but not a mother. Remaining single would cement her career and lifestyle as more important than family life. Remaining single would mean no longer waiting for love.

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