Some authors capture a time and place effortlessly. They draw upon aspects of popular culture and spin them into a literary tale that is more powerful and longer-lasting than the milieu from which they sprang. Veeraporn Nitiprapha is such a writer. But as her work has only appeared in Thai, she has been beyond the reach of most of the world.
One cliché that the author has taken aim at recently for the Thai reading public is the Thai soap opera. For context, one of the most viewed television series in Thailand these days is Club Friday—a series in its tenth season, which follows characters as they swim their way through counter-currents of romance, infidelity, and Buddhist karma. Into this media landscape, Veeraporn has published her artful and lyrical novel The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth. This is the first book-length translation of Veeraporn’s fiction in English. The novel is a poetic and surrealistic reimagining of the Thai romance, where the main characters are lost between unrequited desires and fantastical dreams that are realer than their everyday lives.
To say this is not to downplay the importance of pre-WWII literature in Taiwan—far from it as the thoughtful and picturesque short stories of Lōa Hô (Lai Ho) evidence. Rather, when fiction from Taiwan is translated into English, these stories often reflect the contemporary social world where individuals both thrive and struggle in a nation that is not quite recognized as a state on the international stage. What little Taiwanese fiction is translated into English tends to be from the post-war period.
Lōa Hô’s life spans the period between the start of the First Sino-Japanese War (1894) and the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1945). This middle period of Japanese occupation of Taiwan during the 1920s−1930s is the setting for all of Lōa Hô’s stories. Lōa Hô’s willingness to compose more in Taiwanese vernacular as he matured as a writer ended up preserving a unique perspective for later generations.
Pathways that Changed Myanmar by Matthew Mullen is an interesting addition to this landscape of recent works on Myanmar’s transition. In many ways, this publication is able to explore and provide invaluable data on dimensions of regime transition that these other accounts have generally glossed over in their analyses. In other ways, however, Mullen’s explanation for change seems to tackle more than is necessary and is, in general, not a very focused work—one that is theoretically a mess of ideas without any stable or coherent direction.
*Review of Pathways that Changed Myanmarby Matthew Mullen originally published in NewBooks.Asiaby T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit of Khin Shwe, chairman of Zaykabar Company, at the top of this re-post goes to Soe Zeya Tun of Reuters, found in the article “In Myanmar on Cusp of Change, Former Junta ‘Crony’ Sees Business As Usual” by Hnin Yadana Zaw and Antoni Slodkowski. Why use this image at the top of this review? Because it explains more about the changing dynamic of Myanmar’s “transition” than any wishful thinking by us milksop academics (in which I include myself).
Processes of mixed migration beyond the reified “refugee-migrant binary” of migration studies are an empirical reality along the Myanmar-Thailand border. Utilizing a survey of 3,874 mobile individuals from Myanmar in Thailand as a case study, this paper examines the impact of past experiences of migrants on the likelihood that any one of them will reside inside a refugee camp instead of outside of one in Thailand. A dataset is constructed that specifically intersects “refugee” communities with “labor migrant” communities in order to measure the importance of factors of socioeconomic, self-identity, past persecution, and social network considerations. Though indicators like religion, ethnicity, and the fear to return are salient in the likelihood of living inside a camp, family location is the strongest single predictor variable for whether or not an individual from Myanmar will inhabit a refugee camp. Future research may benefit by researching across migrant communities normally considered disparate.
Human mobility across the 2107-km border that separates the national states of Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand is a complex affair. From a macro perspective, vast disparities in economic wealth, political governance, and social conditions be- tween the two countries for the last half-century have materialized in a movement that is primarily mono-directional—from Myanmar to Thailand. From a micro perspective, the mobile identity of individuals who move has conceptually fallen under categories as varied as refugee, labor migrant, émigré, student activist, family member, escapee, soldier, political prisoner, worker, ethnic fighter, and others. Furthermore, the social scientific argumentation as to the what, when, where, why, and how of this mobility from Myanmar to Thailand has encapsulated, at one time or another, all those traditional binaries of migration studies such as push-pull, forced-voluntary, structural-agential, political-economic, national-international, and so on. There are valid reasons to justify one identity, one concept, or one chain of events over another depending on the argument at hand. Yet, there should be one point upon which all can agree to begin this article in the realm of factuality. Regardless of what we call them or why they are there—today, more individuals from Myanmar can be found in Thailand than vice versa.
This article aims is to revisit one of those binaries of migration studies. Specifically, the refugee-migrant binary will be challenged by an exploration of factors that lead to an individual residing inside or outside a refugee camp. The dependent variable under study here is mobile location after crossing an international border.
This study is done in light of recent work that emphasizes the “mixed flows” or “mixed migration” nature of contemporary movements across borders. Utilizing the Myanmar-Thailand border as a case study, the main argument is that both the mobile self-identity and the mobile location of individuals who are normally called “refugees” and individuals who are normally called “labor migrants” intersect in complex ways beyond that normally argued by the refugee-migrant binary. What it means to be a refugee and to be a labor migrant are not mutually exclusive. These creatures of the lawyer’s, the humanitarian’s, and the social scientist’s—indeed, of the politician’s—imagination overlap in important ways. There are unquestionably good legal, humanitarian, policy, and ethical reasons to make a clear distinction between a “refugee” and a “labor migrant” at times. But in those cases where some overlap in identity and causal backdrop are observable, the researcher has an obligation to explore the empirical evidence as to just how they overlap in order to better theorize and, if possible, test claims about human mobility in a field of reality.
Rather than look at those cases where the refugee or the labor migrant fit some uncontested role, this article seeks to explore the exact opposite. More can be learnt by exploring a case where… [click here to continue to read full text]
Moscow’s Red Square and Bangkok’s Imperial Queen’s Park wouldn’t seem to have much in common but for the main characters in Anatoly Kurchatkin’s enjoyable and fascinating novel Tsunami, translated by Arch Tait from the original Russian, there is much that unites these disparate locales.
Early in the story, the Russian protagonist Radislav and his female companion at that moment, a child of the Soviet-era aristocracy, are walking past one of Bangkok’s royal parks when they chance upon a group of people practicing a “ballet of a kind he had never seen before.” Radislav admits to his friend Nellie, “I don’t feel I’m in a faraway foreign country. I feel this is where I belong.” The response is quick:
“Of course you do,” Nellie replied briskly. “We are an imperial people. Citizens of the former Soviet Union. For us Asian faces are part of our family. The whole world is our home. I’m speaking from experience. It doesn’t matter where you travel, everywhere feels like home.”
Kurchatkin’s entertaining use of dialogue both keeps the story moving along and imbues an additional psychological depth to the musings of the Russian and Thai characters. The reader might be reminded of other great Russian writers who centered philosophical insights not in the actions or events of the plot, but in the mouths of the characters themselves. The more vocal the characters are, the more wisdom there is to be gleaned from their chatty interactions. Sometimes these discussions are on heavier topics, while other dialogue is more lighthearted.
For example, in one scene, Radislav and Nellie are being chaperoned by their Thai friend Tony, when Tony learns of a lovers’ spat between the two Russians:
“Ah, I expect Rad just doesn’t like the fact that I’m European,” Nellie responded.
Tony, taking his hands off the wheel, and turning to face her periodically, protested.
“No, Nellie, you are not European. I would say you are a Thai woman. You only look European, but inside you are Thai.”
“Well, in that case Rad doesn’t like the fact that I’m a Thai,” she persisted.
Tony’s unfailing smile showed signs of reproach.
“Rad, what you have done to Nellie?” he asked. “I think you have made her sad.”
Rad was left with no option but to respond.
“Nellie is a Russian woman, Tony, and a Russian woman is probably a mixture of European and Thai. It is a dangerous mixture.” He had wanted to say “explosive” but did not know the word in English.
*Review of Tsuami by Anatoly Kurchatkin originally published in Asian Review of Booksby T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit of Thai memorial stamps of 2014 Tsunami for this re-post goes to Mark Jochim and his A Stamp A Day blog. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons license.
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The crisis of recent months between the majority Buddhist Burmese and minority Islamic group calling themselves Rohingya serves as a reminder that Myanmar (Burma) is not a unified country in the sense of one nation, one state. The central government’s overreaction to an increase in Islamic radicalization in some rural areas by the brutal expulsion of 600,000-plus souls across the border into Bangladesh—though violent and tragic—should not be mistaken as unique in Myanmar’s history.
Stretching back at least seventy years to Myanmar’s independence in 1948, the various conflicts between the majority ethnic Burman along the central Irrawaddy valley down to the delta and the hundred or so different ethnolinguistic groups that populate the republic’s borders with Bangladesh, India, China, Laos, and Thailand attest even more vividly to disunity. The response to the Rohingya crisis is not without precedent. Wave the compass in the direction of northeast Myanmar and another ferocious struggle comes into purview between the central government and the Kachin peoples. Despite valid steps toward democratization—maybe less valid toward political liberalization—these types of communal conflicts have never not been an empirical reality for independent Myanmar. This cruel misalignment between majority-versus-minority aspiration is well documented both inside and outside Myanmar.
Liberalism Lite: Is Singapore a Liberal Democracy or a Social Democracy?
Amos Yee, a nineteen-year-old Singaporean citizen, was granted political asylum in the United States at the end of September 2017. A video blogger and occasional provocateur, Yee found himself jailed in the city-state for two months in 2015 and two weeks in 2016. Yee has produced video segments in which, by his own admission, he has “bash[ed] the Singapore government” on one ideological point or another. The videos that have caused, not merely condemnation, but arrest have been diatribes against religion. An avowed non-believer, Yee has poked fun at the most popular faiths in Singapore, including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. One memorable video shows the young Yee “humping the Koran” in protest against some of the text’s more violent strictures.
Arguing that Yee had a “well-founded fear” of political persecution if returned to Singapore, his attorneys successfully made the case to the US Board of Immigration Appeals that he be granted political asylum. For the US, a precocious rant on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram is blasé stuff these days—not to mention squarely protected under the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Any modern liberal democratic regime worth its name would have shrugged off the teenager’s online activity.
Though some of us tetchier adults might murmur that Yee’s commentary was in poor taste, those acts all fit squarely within the freedoms outlined within political liberalism. Yet, what might have been passed over for another teenager exploring and commenting on his understanding of the world about him ended up being considered an affront to the political harmony of Singapore. For the regime, the youth’s commentary on religion, society and politics was enough to place him under state detention.
Amos Yee’s recent turmoil may be a useful test case for deciphering Singaporean political society beyond the usual liberal, and somewhat lazy, critique that the city-state is “authoritarian.” To say that Singapore is not a liberal democracy—that Singapore is patently illiberal on some axiomatic elements of modernity—is easy enough. What is more challenging is to describe clearly the Singaporean regime, whilst not ignoring or belittling the fact that an absolute majority of Singaporeans over the last half century have continued to approve of a government that nakedly “disavows” classical liberalism.
Singapore has not always been against liberalism. Indeed, those liberal components that do survive within Singapore, particularly in how the island trades and communicates with the rest of the world, can be traced backed to its colonial history since 1819 as an important trading depot under the British. After independence in 1963, the island merged with Malaya to form Malaysia, only to opt out of the newly formed country a couple of years later to go it alone. The 1950s–60s brought unemployment between 10 and 12 per cent, along with threats of civil unrest, an attack by the Indonesian military and forced reintegration into Malaysia ever looming.
During these coeval exigencies, the People’s Action Party (PAP) was formed in 1954 with Lee Kuan Yew in a leadership role. The PAP consolidated earlier wins at the ballot box in the 1950s by gaining over 80 per cent of the vote in 1968. With varying, though continued, PAP success, Lee Kuan Yew held the prime minister’s office until 1990, embarking on a modernisation that propelled the city-state into becoming one of the highest GDP per capita nations in the twenty-first century. Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP were always practical in their modernisation plans, never fearing to be openly dismissive of political liberalism whenever it went against policy. Fifty years later, the PAP still reigns. For many liberal commenters today, Singapore is a “de facto one party-state” with the PAP as continued steward of illiberal governance.
Chua Beng Huat’s Liberalism Disavowed: Communitarianism and State Capitalism in Singapore is an informative and nuanced publication on this question of liberalism’s place in contemporary Singapore. The publication serves as a useful text on both the city-state’s peculiar politics and the nature of liberalism itself as it is actualised—or rejected—in the modern world.
Most fascinatingly, Chua’s exposition of what he terms the Singaporean regime’s commitment to “communitarianism” may lead one to reconsider the meaning of “social” in “social democracy.” After reading this book, one may even be tempted to argue that Singapore is—because of its rejection of many liberal tenets—not just a wayward example, but rather the best and purest example, of social democracy in the contemporary era… [click here to continue to read full text]