A Southeast Asia Diary: Post-Election
December 15, 2004
By Bernard Weiner, The
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
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smog - not aided any by the ubiquitous, out-of-date diesel engines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
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
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
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
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
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