The Last Gods of Indochine

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Samuel Ferrer’s The Last Gods of Indochine.

Exoticism and marketable anguish were an unavoidable trope during Hollywood superstar Angelina Jolie’s premier event last week at Angkor in Cambodia. Amidst the harrowing tales of Khmer Rouge-era suffering, cameras and lights were focused on the actress as she munched on fried “a-ping” zebra tarantulas in one corner of the Angkor temple complex. Such are the sorts of clichés that Samuel Ferrer must—and prudently does—eschew in his enjoyable historical novel The Last Gods of Indochine set in the shadows of Angkor.

The novel unfurls over two distinct and widely separated periods of the Kingdom of Cambodia’s past. The first is embodied by the protagonist Jacqueline Mouhot in her visit to Angkor during the interwar years in French Indochina. The second period is set in opposition to, and ultimately intertwined with, the 13th-century struggles of a peasant by the name of Paaku against a despotic monarch of the ancient Khmer Empire.

Jacqueline Mouhot is the granddaughter of explorer and naturalist grandfather Henri Mouhot (1826-61), whose steps she seeks to retrace after receiving an invitation by the École française d’Extrême-Orient to an opening of a temple restoration project in his honor.  Her story is a familiar one of self-discovery in foreign lands, complicated by the tragic choices she had to make as a volunteer nurse with the Anglo-French Red Cross during the Great War and her struggle to face that earlier period in her life.

The granddaughter Jacqueline and her interactions with her contemporaries in colonial Cambodia are fictional. Many of the names that appear in her travels—archeologists Louis Finot (1864-1935) and Henri Parmentier (1871-1949), curator Henri Marchal (1876-1970), and the White Russian soldier and historian Victor Goloubew (1878-1945)—are however historical. They all represent a bygone era during which to be a professional “Orientalist” did not immediately connote a problematic image of western imperialism.

The story itself is driven not so much by the adventures of Jacqueline, but rather by the preternatural connection she has with… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit of Angkor Wat for this re-post goes to the talented Randall Collis. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Caretaking Democratization

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Renaud Egreteau’s Caretaking Democratization: The Military and Political Change in Myanmar

Why have the Burmese armed forces withdrawn from direct control of the state? Why have they allowed a “hybrid” regime, with a representatively elected government, to form? What moniker does one use for this new, neither fully authoritarian, nor fully democratic, Myanmar? Indeed, what spurred the recent deepening of political liberalization and widening of democratization across the nation. And why now and not decades earlier?

These are some of the questions which imbue Renaud Egreteau’s excellent Caretaking Democratization: The Military and Political Change in Myanmar (Oxford University Press, 2016) with a saliency and urgency for those wishing to apprehend Myanmar today.

In what this reviewer considers to be the most important publication of the decade on the subject of Myanmar’s democratization, Egreteau argues that the “transition has been driven from above, by ruling Burmese elites—especially military ones—in a clear position of strength since the early 2000s.” By initiating a “well-thought-out”, “caretaking”, and “pacted” transition since 2011, “the Tatmadaw leadership merely chose to move down a notch on the scale of political intervention.” This analysis reminds us that there is more here than some naïve romanticizing of “Burma’s Spring.”

The decades of military authoritarianism are over. The sordid “military junta” as a regime type has disbanded. The current government, particularly after the 2015 general election, is the most democratically representative since independence. But, the Burmese armed forces’ praetorian commitment to political intervention—some of these guaranteed by the 2008 Constitution—demonstrates that the military will continue to have a sizable effect on future developments. Egreteau is keen to remind us that the science of comparative politics is uncertain about the endpoint to this “transition.”

The introduction and initial chapter lay out the focus of the study, one that centers the years from 2010 to 2015 as instrumental. This positions the book as an indispensable resource for comparativists and international affairs scholars in understanding early-stage democratization. Despite the particularity, and peculiarity, of this “sui generis case”, Egreteau frequently utilizes other postcolonial examples to draw out similarities and differences where relevant. Core to the argument of the “planned withdrawal” of the Burmese military from the highest reigns of governmental power were those machinations of “inter-elite negotiations” which centered upon a “pact” between three specific segments of Myanmar’s polity. This “top-down” approach included soldier-turned-civilian leaders from the ancien régime, well-known and well-liked leaders from the pro-democracy opposition—foremost amongst them, Aung Sang Suu Kyi and elites of the National League for Democracy (NLD) political party—and leaders of politicized or armed ethnic groups, particularly those who appeared open to cease-fire negotiations.

Egreteau points out that incorporating… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Tea Circle Oxford by T. F. Rhoden; image credit for the top of this re-post goes to awesome Randall Collis. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Trivialities About Me and Myself

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Yeng Pway Ngon’s Trivialities About Me and Myself

Outsider views of Singapore suffer from numerous preconceptions and generalizations, many the result of sometimes humorous foreign venting in online forums about the city-state’s overweening legal apparatus and legal codes. Yet Singapore is affluent and materially developed by any measure.

Nor is Singapore widely known as a place of literature, but that is at least in part because much of the city’s life lies behind language barriers. This perception is exacerbated by a national campaign, promoted by the city to advertise its strength as a destination for foreign investment rather than a cultural hub.

The novel Trivialities About Me and Myself by Yeng Pway Ngon does two things splendidly to disabuse these notions. First, the novel is a much-needed corrective to the usual stereotypes. The author, a winner of the Singapore Literature Prize and the Southeast Asian Writers Award as well as a prolific poetic, utilizes his work to critique the technocratic veneer of the island nation.

Second, the book employs a theme of the human condition as it intersects with modernity. Big words often used to describe Singapore’s experience of modernity—industrialization, modernization, legalization, and now financialization—do not tell us much about the personal level. Rather, this novel is about one man’s struggle with a breakneck world of change. Though the color is local, the story is global.

The author’s interpretation of the Singaporean dilemma is funneled through the protagonist Ah-hui and his struggle with the ‘Self’. This Self is a voice in Ah-hui’s head that represents one aspect of his ego. Ah-hui speaks to the Self, as if the Self were a separate being. Ah-hui and the Self argue and disagree. Sometimes Ah-hui is the victor. In these instances, an ethic of material profit and consumption wins. Sometimes the Self is the champion. This is meant to represent traditional values. In Ah-hui’s case, the Self will often prefer the exegesis of classical Chinese literature or the righteousness found in the defense of those who have been left behind in Singapore’s expanding economy.

The confrontation between Ah-hui and the Self is reflected on two levels. In as much as the Singaporean city-state moves away from Confucianism, so too does Ah-hui… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; watercolor image credit for this re-post goes to Khor Seow Hooi at The Colours of Heritage. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Without Liberalism, Democracy is Dreadful

It is quite all right to hate democracy. T. F. Rhoden dislikes democracy immensely. Without classical liberalism, he argues, it is normal to mistrust democracy in its purer form. Democracy is dreadful without the classifier “liberal” in front – because liberalism is a safeguard against democracy’s inherent decadence of rule by the people.

Without Liberalism, Democracy is Dreadful. Fortunately We Have Both

Whatever one thinks of Donald Trump’s election and Brexit, we might do well to pause briefly and consider the state of democracy as a regime type. Both elections make useful pedagogical tools. They toss into relief inherent aspects of this regime type – aspects that may appear hidden most of the time for many of us who fret over the condition of such things.

More than anything else, they should serve as a reminder that Britain and the United States are not pure democracies, but rather liberal democracies.

Democracy as Demagoguery

As long as no monarch, no military junta, no unelected revolutionary vanguard or commission impedes this process of the people in their governing body, then democracy can be said to be working well. The people – the demos – vote on some course of action, as in the EU referendum, or they vote on some individual to lead a slew of actions in the US example. For those who win at this process, then there is much at which to rejoice. For those who lose, there is even more to dread. Indeed, without some form of institutional brakes and constitutional liberties, very little can stop a demos from putting into power a “tyranny of the majority.”

Democracy in its purest forms captures the joys of a winning majority as much as it does the fears of a losing minority. The ancient Greeks knew this well. So too did many of the founders of American government. Democracy as a regime type is nothing other than a vehicle for the demagogue. A well working democracy is, in fact, demagoguery pure and simple.

One of the more humorous misadventures in the scholarly literature on political transitology and democratisation is how comparative political scientists have thought that they need to “depict a ‘new species’, a type of existing democracies that has yet to be theorised” whenever they encounter a democracy that appears wanton. When we think of democracy in this more fundamental and classical sense, democracy naturally appears less appealing to the contemporary thinker. Is it any wonder that for many of the people living under one of these truer forms of democracy, governmental rule may seem more capricious and less predictable? “Democratisation” takes on a more sobering, even sinister, meaning for those citizens who have lost at the ballot box.

Some theorists have gone out of their way to describe this uglier aspect of democracy and call it a “delegative democracy.” Yet if we could only remember that democracy always has this harsher aspect within it, one could leave out the moniker “delegative” altogether. Unchecked, unbalanced incompetence voted into power: this is democracy without liberalism.

Liberalism before Democracy

Democracy, when denuded and reaffirmed as “rule by the people”, does not in any way include… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in Democratic Audit UK by T. F. Rhoden; image credit for this re-post goes to ModDB. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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He Runs the Moon

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Wendy Brandmark’s He Runs the Moon: Tales from the Cities

Sometimes the setting of stories, the barrios and backstreets and weighty avenues of childhood remembrances, prove to be as powerful to the narrative as the protagonists themselves. He Runs The Moon: Tales From The Cities by Wendy Brandmark vibrates with an urban milieu that can be both inviting and at times meaningfully oppressive. The tales here, which flitter from Denver, Colorado, to the Bronx, New York, to Cambridge, Massachusetts, are compiled together in a highly recommended collection of short stories.

All characters sharpen their speech, experiences, and epiphanies against this metropolitan whetstone.

Witnessing how the city-body becomes an agent in its own right is pleasantly hypnotizing. In the first part of seven stories set in Denver, ‘My Red Mustang’ captures this sentiment of city-as-agent well, as the female protagonist frets over what to do with an attractive-yet-unwanted automobile beyond its time, whilst street upon street of Denver comes alive to keep her vehicle in motion for just one more traffic light. This is more than just atmospheric indulgence. These kernels of urban truth dazzle in their own way as much as they hold the logic of the plot together. ‘Irony’, another story from this initial set, as well as having one of the more humourous plotlines, also works with the city of Denver as the main character struggles with some of the sodden truths of sexual iniquity.

Many of the stories in this collection were… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Sabatoge Reviews by T. F. Rhoden; image credit for this re-post goes to Robert Cash via Wikipedia. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Death of a Monarch or an Oligarch?

At the end of a king’s long reign, it won’t just be a game of thrones that plays out in Thailand – it will be a game of gold.

The Associated Press recently published an article on the “Thai monarchy’s billions.” This makes for an important, if brief, reminder that there is more than just the power of quasi-governmental position or the power of ideology to the elite role that the late monarch held within the Thai polity.

Because the King could also readily command a power of mobilisation and could have, at least theoretically, commanded a certain power of coercion if the Thai nation were to ever actually slip into a prolonged, violent emergency, he also commanded a remarkable degree of power in terms of raw material wealth.

An extreme concentration of material wealth has political consequences. Thailand, in this regard, is no different than any other polity across the globe. What is unique about Thailand is that its wealthiest citizen also happened be the focal point of so many other bases of elite power. The late monarch was both an elite and an oligarch. And as he was arguably the top elite amidst a network of various elites, he was also the top oligarch.

Thus, as objectively and level-headed as one can be about such things, we should do well to review the state of Thailand’s oligarchy at this juncture of the late monarch’s—the late top oligarch’s—death.

As a side note on motivation for this piece, it should also be plainly stated that one does not mull over economic inequality simply for the sake of getting a pat on the back by our overly-represented, Left-leaning colleagues in academia. Nor does one do this in order to conjure up even rarer arguments for the late monarch’s well-recorded and, at times, patently undemocratic tendencies. Rather, one ought to review the late King’s material wealth as social power simply because in Thailand it is an empirical fact that money matters quite a great deal on the political stage, both locally and nationally.

With the King’s passing, what has changed about oligarchy in Thailand? What has stayed the same? Beginning with the latter, the overall structure of oligarchy has not changed within Thailand since Thursday, 13 October 2016.

There are still incredibly… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in New Mandala by T. F. Rhoden; any original credit for image/photo at the top of this post via Bloomberg. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Migrant Labor Activists Plan for the 2020 Election in Myanmar

Over two million Burmese migrants in Thailand were left out of Myanmar’s 2015 election. Will it happen again in 2020 ?

The Union Election Commission of Myanmar reported turnout at 69 percent for the historic 2015 elections within the country. Outside of the country, the story was very different. Fewer than 20,000 external voters engaged their political right at the ballot box abroad. This amounted to less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the over four million people who compose the Burmese diaspora.

“We labor migrants and refugees were simply considered not important enough by the previous Burmese government to be involved in the elections last year,” says a Bangkok-based migrant and labor rights activist from Myanmar, who wishes to stay anonymous due to her illegal status in Thailand.

Burmese migrant activists have begun meeting to plan for the next election four years away. They want a much higher rate of turnout for absentee voters for the next election.

A recent example of this foresight was an open letter from a network of migrant associations operating in Bangkok to Aung San Suu Kyi, state counselor of Myanmar. The open letter was meant to coincide with her official June 2016 visit to Thailand. Though the majority of recommendations were about more immediate concerns of migrant labor rights for Burmese citizens who make the trek to Thailand for work, the letter also included important recommendations for an extension of absentee suffrage. Migrant associations specifically requested guarantees for inclusion in future national elections.

Suu Kyi did not publicly address the absentee suffrage challenge during her visit like she did other migrant labor problems. Yet the fact that politically active Burmese in Thailand included this in their letter already demonstrates their concern with “not losing this opportunity again” for potential external votes to be counted in the next general election.

Lowering Costs for Migrants

In terms of Myanmar’s… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in The Diplomat by T. F. Rhoden; image-photo credit for this post via Channel NewsAsia. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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