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Southeast Asia Summer Reading

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August 12, 2015

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Summer is winding down. In the Washington area, the brick oven heat of late July and early August is giving way to that late August feeling of merely living in a sauna. School forms are due. And it is time to review the Southeast Asia books I had a chance to read this summer.

The Rebel of Rangoon: A Tale of Defiance and Deliverance in Burma by Delphine Schrank

The product of years of reporting in Myanmar before and after the country’s nascent political transition, The Rebel of Rangoon, by former Washington Post reporter Delphine Schrank, sometimes buries that insightful reporting beneath mounds of purple prose. Trying to imbue a literary character to the book, the author overwrites many passages. Still, The Rebel of Rangoon weaves a compelling story of a group of younger democracy activists, their battle against the military regime, and their struggles with each other and with older leaders of the National League for Democracy. The book uses their stories to compellingly show outsiders to Myanmar that the fight for democracy is not just the story of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Demokrasi: Indonesia in the Twenty-First Century by Hamish McDonald

In Demokrasi, McDonald, a longtime Asia correspondent for Australian publications and the author of a previous book on Suharto-era Indonesia, provides a thorough but concise recounting of the transition from Suharto’s rule to Indonesia today, a country with highly decentralized politics, a vibrant media, and lingering challenges including religious intolerance, weak institutions, and high inequality. Though he praises Indonesia’s transition to democracy, and is especially kind to former president B.J. Habibie, McDonald is skeptical that Indonesia can maintain its current high growth rates over the long term. He spends much of the book counting up the environmental costs of the Indonesian economy’s reliance on resources extraction, the distortions caused by monopolies in many sectors, the growth of the informal sector, the continuing drain on the economy of endemic corruption, and the enduring appeal of Sukarno-style protectionism to the current generation of Indonesian leaders. Ultimately, Demokrasi is probably the most accessible account of Indonesia’s political transition available in English.

China’s Disruptors: How Alibaba, Xiaomi, Tencent, and Other Companies are Changing the Rules of Business by Edward Tse

Although China’s Disruptors is not specifically about Southeast Asia, it offers valuable insight into the direction of the Chinese economy, and thus how China’s economic model might influence other countries in the region. Tse, a longtime management consultant in China, argues that China’s private sector is far more innovative and dynamic than it is given credit for in accounts of the country, which often portray Chinese firms as merely pirates or as producers in manufacturing chains controlled by foreign firms. Many accounts also portray the Chinese private sector as one that remains boxed in---essentially kept out of certain sectors given over to massive state enterprises, and subject to new regulations produced by an authoritarian government. Tse argues that China’s private sector is actually increasingly free; young entrepreneurs have more access to capital and freedom to launch their companies, no matter the sector. Even in heavily state dominated sectors like banking and telecommunications, he writes, the private sector is making inroads, and the pace of start-ups and failures in the Chinese economy is much greater than outsiders admit. Notably, however, he does not disdain the state’s role in promoting entrepreneurship and helping Chinese firms innovate, over decades of growth, though he argues that the private sector is now responsible for most of the growth in urban China. He is optimistic that China’s private sector will become even more dynamic, though the book was produced before the current stock market slide, the devaluation of the yuan, and the possibility of Beijing reverting to much larger intervention in the economy. Still, Beijing’s recent reported plans to make Chinese state enterprises more like their dynamic Singaporean cousins, with mergers of poorly performing state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and the withdrawal of direct government control of many SOE’s business operations, is a hopeful sign of SOE reform and the dynamic future Tse imagines.

Brothers in Arms: Chinese Aid to the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979 by Andrew Mertha

Although China’s role in backing the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power is no secret, this book is the first to thoroughly reveal how Beijing’s decision-makers interacted with the Khmer Rouge, and how Beijing made decisions about its paranoid, often crazy ally. Brothers in Arms shows in detail how China aided the Khmer Rouge, but it also reveals the how China’s leaders became increasingly alienated from the Khmer Rouge leadership as the decade wore on, even as Beijing remained convinced it had no choice but to maintain support for Phnom Penh. As a result, China’s influence over the Khmer Rouge was waning by the end of the 1970s, as the Khmer Rouge leadership turned on itself and immolated the country.

Mertha argues that, far from being a client state of China, the Khmer Rouge under Cambodia often acted in the opposite manner of China’s desired outcomes. Beijing ultimately derived little from its relationship with Cambodia at the time, Mertha concludes. Still, since China did not halt its assistance to Phnom Penh even as its relations with the Khmer Rouge leaders frayed, Mertha concludes that Beijing is responsible, if indirectly, for the killings that consumed Cambodian society. Although I had read most of the literature, in English, about the Khmer Rouge period, the Khmer Rouge, and the Indochina War, Brothers in Arms still contained revelations to me on nearly every page.

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