Democratic Underground

A Southeast Asia Diary: Post-Election Travels

December 15, 2004
By Bernard Weiner, The Crisis Papers

In the weeks after November 2, I needed desperately to turn off the political TV that had been my brain for many months, so off I headed to Southeast Asia for some R&R. (My wife was helping build houses for the poor in a Habitat for Humanity project in Thailand, and I joined her on the final day, when the keys to their new homes were presented to the families.)

I should have recognized the truth of the old cliche: ultimately you're still the same person, no matter the exotic locale. Mostly I was able to simply "be" in Asia, connecting with the Buddhist flow, but that political-analysis brain kept creeping into how I viewed my temporary new universe.

For example, here in brief summary are several things that struck that me on this voyage to Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. I'm no expert in Asian affairs - my Ph.D. dissertation focused on the origins of the Cold War - but there was no avoiding thinking about what I was seeing:

1. Oh, you poor Americans! In each of those countries, when it became clear that I was American, I would receive unsolicited commiserations about Bush's seeming election victory - from taxi drivers, guides, businessmen, journalists, monks, et al. - and questions about whether there was fraud involved. These people are well aquainted with authoritarian rule, up close and personal, benign or otherwise, and they were saddened by its resurgence in the most powerful democracy on earth.

POLLUTION AS DAILY REALITY

2. Toxicity as a way of life. In these Asian countries (and others I'd heard about from friends: Vietnam, Taiwan, and, especially, China), the air and water are extremely polluted. The societies and government are in such a hurry to reach first-world status that they are compacting the worst excesses of the industrial revolution into mere decades. They are so anxious to move from feudalism to 21st-century modernity - and are doing so within the time frame of years rather than centuries - that they're willing to accept the toxic consequences. So large cities are drowning in brown, hazy smog - not aided any by the ubiquitous, out-of-date diesel engines on trucks, buses and motorbikes - with the toxic cloud often moving out into the countryside as well; friends who visited China said they were unable to see the sun through the thick haze, even outside the big cities.

Or, another example: We were in Luang Prabang (Laos) and decided to take a boat ride up the Mekong. Earlier that morning, we had ridden bikes and walked on the paved road above the shoreline; every so often, we nearly gagged on what smelled like broken bathroom pipes. When we were in the boat, we could see the evidence: There were no broken pipes; the toilets simply led to massive neighborhood sewage discharges over the cliff directly into the river.

This pattern was repeated in Siem Reap (Cambodia) and elsewhere, with what appeared to be light blue flags in the trees where that raw sewage had entered the rivers. When we drew closer, we would see that the "flags" really were the popular plastic bags that people used for garbage; those were swept over the sides and down toward the river as well. When the water level was high, the bags would flow with the current; but when the river levels were low, the bags would wave where they'd first been caught: in the branches of the trees.

In Cambodia, our Angkor Wat guide took us on a boat ride on Tonle Sap (Great Lake), where an entire community of desperately poor fishermen and their families lived in floating huts; the water-village also contained a floating church, a floating hospital, a floating fish market, etc. Despite the constant discharge of raw sewage into the tributary, we saw children swimming outside their boats, adults drinking directly from the stream, people bathing in the filthy water.

These are poor countries. Do they simply not have the tax base and money to build the sewage-treatment plants that would be required to protect their populations? Or do they simply not care? Unclear. Whatever, protecting public health (and public water, and public air) is not a priority. The race to industrialize, capitalize, is where it's at.

3. Class mixing. In the U.S., social classes in the large cities usually are separated geographically. The rich sections of town are over there, the poor sections are elsewhere ("the wrong side of the tracks"). The first thing I saw from my hotel balcony in Bangkok was the class-mix, also reproduced in Chiang Mai up north, and in other countries, as well: right next door to large homes of the wealthy were decrepit, corrugated-roof shacks of the poor.

The political impact of this is unknown. Are the wealthy made more humble, seeing their poor neighbors daily (and remembering that they may have come from this class as well)? Are the poor more jealous, forced to view their neighbors' wealth every day; does this proximity to wealth give them more incentive for trying to break out of their lower-class? Not clear.

THE CULTURAL PULL, EAST & WEST

4. The universal culture. When in Southern Europe a few years ago, even in out-of-the-way villages in Crete, I was amazed at how a seemingly universal (U.S-dominated) Western culture had taken hold everywhere. TV, advertising, clothing, music, billboards, cell-phones, internet cafes, etc. - all seemed cut from the same mold. Ethnic and national differences are a bit more prominent in Southeast Asia, but that same Western-style culture is exercising its strong pull on populations as well, in much the same ways.

I had to transit back to California via Hong Kong. The first sounds to hit my ears as I exited the plane at Hong Kong International Airport were Muzacked Christmas carols, and a ticket agent was wearing a Santa suit.

5. Demand for the dollar. All the countries I visited were poor, though Thailand seemed a bit better off. A good deal of the commerce was carried out in U.S. dollar denominations. (Many countries may choose to go Euro if the dollar continues to fall.) In Laos, still run by an ostensible Communist government, the local "kip" was so worthless that citizens had to carry around huge, rubber-banded bundles of that currency just to buy the most inexpensive foodstuffs; everyone preferred to deal with U.S. dollars.

In Luang Prabang, for example, the huge crafts bazaar that dominates much of main street each evening works almost exclusively in dollars. Hand-calculators are everywhere. Since most of the local artisans speak no foreign language, they do the calulations on their little machines and then show you the amount in dollars. Despite the fact that the gorgeous merchandise - scarves, quilts, carvings, paintings, etc. - is dirt cheap, the Western tourists often "bargain" the price still lower.

6. The genocide generation. No country seemed sadder, or poorer, than Cambodia. This is a broken society, plundered by outsiders in the years following the devastating insanity of Pol Pot's genocidal policies. An estimated two million citizens - mainly the intelligentsia, bureaucratic technocrats, teachers, doctors, lawyers, the middle class, etc. - were wiped out by the Khmer Rouge in the "killing fields" of Cambodia. Virtually every institution, every family, was victimized. Until Cambodia can get its economic machine running again to the point of rebuilding that middle-class and that human infrastructure of leadership and knowledge - and that doesn't seem like a genuine possibility for a long, long time in the future - it is at the mercy of outside forces.

For example, I was astounded to learn that its signature cultural treasure, Angkor Wat - the tourist attraction that brings hundreds of thousands of visitors to Cambodia every year - is run by a Vietnamese oil/hotel conglomerate. All over Asia, huge foreign and multinational corporations own much of the real estate, big hotels, office buildings, etc., with the cash profits flowing out of the country, and many of the locals reduced to low-paying service jobs.

The country is so poor that it is dependent on foreign charity to keep it going, even minimally. Much of the restoration work at Angkor Wat, for example, is financed by Japanese or Dutch or French or German groups or companies. Many rural communities have to wait to get their public wells until some outside group sends the $400+ to get the project started. Very sad.

You visit Angkor Wat and hear the guides talk with such cultural pride of the grand Khmer culture that dominated much of Southeast Asia for many hundreds of years - many of the most impressive temples were built from the 9th to the 13th centuries - and then you see what life is like for so many Cambodians today. The contrast is telling.

WHY SO LITTLE FERMENT?

7. Where's the revolution? So, given the poverty in these countries, and their humiliated status in the modern world, I kept wondering: where's the revolutionary impulse?

In Thailand, a constitutional monarchy, one answer provided was the popularity of their beloved King, and Queen; over many decades of rule by this enlightened pair, a true citizen/monarch bond has been established that tends to dilute dissent.

Another answer constantly given me was that the Buddhist philosophy that dominates these Southeast Asian countries vitiates impulses toward revolution. I'm not sure exactly why this is so, but whatever the reasons, the prevailing Buddhist way of thinking tends to lead to a quietist acceptance of the status quo.

It even leads to curious political responses to violence. For example, there is an extremist wing of militant Islam active in the far southern provinces of Thailand; recently, the police rounded up hundreds suspected in bombings and piled them on top of each other in the back of military trucks. More than 75 were suffocated to death during the transport to jail, and the government took great political heat from Muslims in Thailand and from outside the country.

The Thai goverment's response to try to calm the situation - in addition to an official investigation of the tragedy - was to airdrop millions of citizen-made origami peace-birds over the troubled south, to remind everyone of the need for tolerance and accomodation. It remains to be seen if this extraordinary, non-confrontational gesture will have a saluatory effect on the situation.

8. Wars never end. There are hundreds of thousands of still-active landmines all over Southeast Asia, especially in the border areas, some put there by local tribes and governments during civil wars, a good many dropped from U.S. planes during the Vietnam War 35+ years ago. The Americans released clusters of these small mines in a manner designed to scatter them widely over huge expanses of jungle; many of these mines, as a result of natural weathering, landslides, etc., are now buried a meter or two under the ground.

One sees many children and adults with missing limbs; at the Elephant Conservation Center near Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand - where we went to learn how to become apprentice "mahouts," riding and training elephants - we saw several huge pachyderms, which often roam or work the forests, with legs damaged badly by such mines. They are cared for lovingly by the elephant-hospital attendants.

I heard from a German engineer that a friend of his - who has been employed for 30 years locating and removing mines from the border area between Thailand and Burma - estimated that, at the present rate, it would take 1000 years just to clear the area of all mines. The war crime that is landmine implantation staggers the soul with its cruelty to civilians and animals. Does anybody care?

WE SEE IT THERE BUT NOT HERE

9. Election fraud. While in my Bangkok hotel room, I couldn't help grimacing when I saw the footage on CNN of hundreds of thousands of protestors on the streets of Kiev, demanding that the rigged election there be overturned. And it will be. Meanwhile, back in the United States, the mass media - which proudly carries stories denouncing the Ukraine election fraud - are essentially silent about our own electoral anomalies. Unless a miracle occurs, a Bush victory will be certified in early January and he'll take the oath of office several weeks later, the result of massive vote suppression, voter intimidation, and most likely (judging from the clear statistical evidence) manipulation of the ballot tallies.

Clearly, one society cares about electoral integrity, the other doesn't. And in America, largely because the out-of-power party has abdicated its role as a true opposition, we'll likely have to suffer four more years of greed unleashed, imperial wars launched, repression increased, privatization of more and more social programs, humongous debts incurred, probably a large economic recession or even depression - and all because we didn't fight hard enough to guarantee honest elections.

And if we don't do something major before the next midterm election - such as temporarily going to a paper ballot, tallied by hand, while at the same time demanding a verifiable paper trail for touch-screen computer-voting machines - we may well find ourselves unable ever to have a truly honest, fair election and will see fraudulent Republican victories for many decades to come.

10. Shocks to the system. As I write this, back at home in San Francisco, I'm still in the throes of jet lag, still waking up at odd hours, still halfway in Southeast Asia mentally. Coming back to the realities of political life in America has been more shocking than I thought.

Our society, so lethargic and accepting of the worst kind of electoral and information manipulation, is in for seismic shocks over the next four years, as the parties re-align themselves internally to try to deal with the worst of what's about to come down. We may not poison opposition leaders, as they do in Ukraine, but our institutions, our mass media, our moral sense of our country are increasingly poisoned each day by a mindset that seems to care only for immediate gratification and the amassing of power - and money.

Unless we can find a way out of this morass, and help awaken more and more of our fellow citizens to the reality of what's going on and its terrible long-term consequences to our body politic - and alter the electoral system accordingly that is so inviting to corruption and manipulation - we will be doomed to endless repetitions of Bush&Co. scenarios. Too horrible to imagine.

Organize, organize, organize.

Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. has taught government and international relations at various universities, worked as a writer/editor with the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently co-edits The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org).

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