With the ASEAN Economic Community set to launch in 2015, it’s not surprising to see a heightened level of uncertainty, concern, and even apprehension about what this enhanced sphere of regional integration will mean for Southeast Asian nations.
Holding this backdrop firmly in mind, the 3rd Annual International Conference on International Relations and Development (ICIRD) recently commenced at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, on August 22-23, 2013. This year’s timely theme, “Beyond Borders: Building a Regional Commons in SE Asia,” showcased established voices, civil society organizations, and a new generation of scholars rising to the challenges of this historical moment. Over forty panels traversed diverse but interrelated topics from environmental justice and human rights, to sustainable economic growth.
While few would deny the problems of development in Asia as they have manifested so far (e.g., environmental degradation, growing income disparity, and resettlement), finding a consensus on a way forward proves much more difficult. As Dr. Siriporn Wajjwalku (Assoc. Prof., Thammasat University) noted with some urgency in the opening remarks, “2015 for us in the region is approaching… It’s extremely important for us to think about the commons and go beyond the borders that we are facing now.”
Dialogue and discussion are a good place to start. Thus Dr. Carl Middleton (Lect., Chulalongkorn University), a member of the ICIRD Executive Committee that organized the event, proclaimed the conference “a success in that there was plenty of sharing of knowledge, experience and ideas amongst the participants, and a wide range of examples of the commons and how they support peoples well-being and create public space were discussed.”
Reflecting the current state of contestation between modes of development, a number of critical themes can be sifted from ICIRD. The sheer amount of information presented at the conference necessitates turning this into two-part article. This first one draws mainly from the two keynote speeches to discuss broad “big picture” questions about the regional context (perhaps obvious to some, but with interesting perspectives worth pointing out), while the second will delve more deeply into the idea of the commons.
With the keynotes speeches as guides, two overarching background themes from ICIRD 2013 are: 1) the “right approach” for a more globally and regionally integrated SE Asia and 2) the role of China.
1. What is the right approach for Southeast Asia in negotiating forces of regional and global integration?
The first talk of the opening day illuminated the defining question at the heart of ICIRD: given the diversity, history, and complexities of the region, what does a uniquely Southeast Asian approach to the forces of regional and global integration look like?
The keynote speech delivered by Dr. Jan Nederveen Pieterse (Mellichamp Prof., UC Santa Barbara) sketched a plurality of approaches to globalization, from maximum globalization to anti-globalization (conjuring up images of the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle) and “fifty shades of global grey” in between. Advocating for a nuanced “in-between approach” that is simultaneously pragmatic, autonomous, and willing to engage global markets, he argued that matching this with democratic principles could prove an effective way of “negotiating globalization.”
A robust debate ensued after this first round was fired. The Western-centrism of this ideologically-loaded approach — with its insistent coupling of democracy and development, a product of historically Western thought — was immediately pointed out by Dr. Victor Savage (Assoc. Prof., National University of Singapore). My personal inclination finds the notion of an Eastern vs. Western dichotomy somewhat problematic in its grossly homogenizing generalizations. However, Dr. Savage’s critique understandably evokes the specter of modernization theory and its teleological conception of the one right path to development — most famously exemplified by the Washington Consensus. That historical background cannot be extricated from the larger context of SE Asia, nor can its recent colonial past, and the discussion speaks to the deeply felt difficulties of defining even such a ubiquitous term as development, let alone identifying a suitable approach for its pursuit.
The need for this kind of debate is obvious and critical. In other words, “there is,” as Dr. Middleton described to me, “a vast diversity of existing and potentially existing commons that offer the possibility for alternative models of development beyond state-led or market-led development alone, and it would be very worth while to explore these avenues for fairer, more sustainable and happiness-focused models of development.” More on the commons in the next post, but for now, this brings us to…
2. What about the role of China?
One of the reasons behind the imperative search for a Southeast Asian response to the forces of globalization is — to no one’s surprise — the (very visible) elephant in the room: China’s own rise and its growing role in the region, driven by its hunt for natural resources and new markets. This theme surfaced over and over again, most notably in concerns over Chinese investments in hydropower projects in the region. But the theme was also given an interesting analytic twist in the keynote speech by Dr. Yos Santasombat (Prof., Chiang Mai University).
Dr. Santasombat’s talk kicked off the second day by describing China’s “civilizing mission” (or “neoliberalism with Chinese characteristics,” as one participant wryly noted), illustrated by the proliferation of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in the Mekong. Building on David Harvey’s by-now classic definition of neoliberalism as a process of “accumulation by dispossession,” he meticulously examined the complex neoliberal logic behind the Golden Triangle SEZ (GTSEZ) in Laos.
With the creation of this and other SEZs, formerly isolated areas near the Chinese borders are opened up for rapid development, such as for flashy casinos and resorts catering to Chinese tourists who are unable to legally gamble inside Mainland China (aside from Macau). With SEZ arrangements, developing Mekong countries are essentially “renting out border areas for foreign direct investment with unlimited access to natural resources,” while negatively impacting the livelihoods of local communities. It is, according to Dr. Santasombat, a form of “new colonialism.”
New construction projects are obvious from the large, gilded resorts, but the adverse impacts on local villagers are less visible to tourists. In the case of the Golden Triangle SEZ, villagers were involuntarily relocated into living units that allegedly suffered from cracks in the walls and roof leaks even before their arrival. The organic farming pilot project slated to help villagers never took off, due to limited demand for the vegetables, and the tuktuks provided for villagers to make extra income by transporting tourists also remain rarely used for that purpose, as the resorts maintain their own special transportation for guests. For villagers, life is characterized by abeyance and suspension: caught between deep reluctance to be part of this new capitalist world, but powerless to break free.
Yet I think one should be cautious of the temptation to broadly generalize China as a single, monolithic actor and assume a wholesale collusion between the government and Chinese firms. Rather, there are always complex networks of dynamic actors, responding to different motivations. In this case, one might counter with the Chinese government’s decision to shut down Golden City SEZ in Boten, Laos, another border casino town, citing problems with crime (as detailed in a 2011 Forbes article). Some wonderful and haunting pictures of the casinos of Golden City, Golden Triangle, and elsewhere can be seen here. Additionally, Dr. Philip Hirsch (Prof., University of Sydney) reminded the audience that the Chinese are far from the lone players in the region, as Thai, Japanese, and Australian investment is involved as well.
Nonetheless, the immense value of Dr. Santasombat’s approach lies in teasing out the hidden battle among narratives and ideologies underlying this regional development and, more broadly, the relationship between China and the Mekong countries. It makes a lot of sense to question how the narrative of an “alternative modernity” enticingly proffered by China may also effectively legitimize the appropriation of human and natural resources. How have “narratives of poverty, drugs and backwardness” (already perpetuated within popular imagination) been further promoted to justify development, not only in the GTSEZ but elsewhere?
In partial response to this, the question of resistance in the face of neoliberal dispossession came up in the rich discussion afterwards. For one, Philippine MP Walden Bello argued that Lao activist Sombath Somphone was recently disappeared because he “represented the self-empowerment of communities” against the forces of displacement. Another participant brought up examples of community-based resistance in West Bengal, Mexico and Peru. Similar sentiments were echoed in other panels at ICIRD as well.
The search for alternative paths to development and the preservation of the commons will be explored in the second part of this series.