- The Changing Dynamics of Southeast Asian Politics
Jörn Dosch, a reader at the University of Leeds and frequent visitor to Southeast Asia, declares in the opening sentences of his publication that Southeast Asia is usually written about from either the point of view of domestic politics or from the standpoint of the region's international relations. Dosch's volume seeks to "bring these two perspectives together in an attempt to arrive at a more comprehensive and holistic understanding of the region's political dynamics" (p. ix). In order achieve this the author pursues the following through individual chapters: the impact of democracy (in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand) on foreign policy formation; terrorism and separatist conflict; cooperation in the Mekong; decentralization and democratization in Cambodia; and regionalism in ASEAN and wider East Asia.
There are several themes that are worth entering into a fuller discussion with. First, Dosch's treatment of democracy in Southeast Asia quite rightly judges that political change in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand has made a "far reaching impact" on the way foreign policy is constructed (in short, these government's must now consult internal voices [p. 66]). The aforementioned chapter on Cambodia is entitled "Decentralizing Cambodia: The International Hijacking of National Politics", which alerts the reader to the central finding of this section that the West/OECD has externally driven what Dosch dubs a "D&D program" (decentralization and democratization) which is "not rooted" in Cambodian society: "democracy in Cambodia has to be seen as the project of the international donor community" (p. 160). (Earlier the author has posited that the "non-democratic" states of Southeast Asia are Burma, Laos and Vietnam, [p. 15].). This raises the question as to how Dosch might classify all the various states of Southeast Asia, and whether the author has considered the issue of a continuum of political practice that exists in Southeast Asia between the polar opposites of authoritarian and democratic rule. For a book that aims to square domestic politics with international politics, this volume gives the impression that democratization in Southeast Asia (where it exists) is one fundamentally driven by external actors. Where this happens, and returning to Dosch's example of Cambodia, externally planted versions of democratic development are likely to enjoy little more than shallow legitimacy. However, strong domestic demands for political change have been seen in several Southeast Asian countries, resulting in relatively more durable (but still fragile) representative systems. The point might be made more forcefully and [End Page 389] systematically that there are limits to what the international community can realistically achieve on this front without a receptive domestic audience, and indeed, that political change, where it occurs, is far from dependent on Western/OECD cajoling.
Second, the author takes issue with what he terms the "Al-Qaidaization" of Southeast Asia, and by this he means the conflation of local separatist conflicts with the problem of international Islamic terrorism. Dosch makes the apposite point that conflicts in southern Thailand, southern Philippines and Aceh are the result of local grievances that stretch all the way back to colonial times, and offers sensible explanations in each case. Dosch also claims that "discussion of the insurgency hotspots in Southeast Asia under the header of the global 'war on terror' has emerged as a popular discourse" (p. 14). It has to be asked just how "popular" this discourse is. For example, none of the leading separatist groups in the case study regions selected currently appear on the U.S. State Department's list of international terrorist entities — something not noted in Dosch's references to U.S. foreign policy. Dosch does point to a handful of scholars who have made explicit connections between the aforementioned conflicts and al-Qaida, but is there really an enormous groundswell of opinion that confuses the two? Furthermore, the author has also set aside the important cases of Papua and East Timor, two cases, taken together with Aceh, that explain official and public anxiety in Indonesia. There is a wider discussion to be had on...