A Southeast Asia Diary: Post-Election Travels
By Bernard Weiner
Co-Editor, "The Crisis Papers."
December 14, 2004
In the weeks after November 2, I needed desperately to turn off the
political TV that had been my brain for many months, so off I headed to
Southeast Asia for some R&R. (My wife was helping build houses for the poor
in a Habitat for Humanity project in Thailand, and I joined her on the final
day, when the keys to their new homes were presented to the families.)
I should have recognized the truth of the old cliché: ultimately you're
still the same person, no matter the exotic locale. Mostly I was able to
simply "be" in Asia, connecting with the Buddhist flow, but that
political-analysis brain kept creeping into how I viewed my temporary new
For example, here in brief summary are several things that struck that me on
this voyage to Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. I'm no expert in Asian affairs
-- my Ph.D. dissertation focused on the origins of the Cold War -- but there
was no avoiding thinking about what I was seeing:
1. OH, YOU POOR AMERICANS! In each of those countries, when it became clear
that I was American, I would receive unsolicited commiserations about Bush's
seeming election victory -- from taxi drivers, guides, businessmen,
journalists, monks, et al. -- and questions about whether there was fraud
involved. These people are well acquainted with authoritarian rule, up close
and personal, benign or otherwise, and they were saddened by its resurgence
in the most powerful democracy on earth.
POLLUTION AS DAILY REALITY
2. TOXICITY AS A WAY OF LIFE. In these Asian countries (and others I'd heard
about from friends: Vietnam, Taiwan, and, especially, China), the air and
water are extremely polluted. The societies and government are in such a
hurry to reach first-world status that they are compacting the worst
excesses of the industrial revolution into mere decades. They are so anxious
to move from feudalism to 21st-century modernity -- and are doing so within
the time frame of years rather than centuries -- that they're willing to
accept the toxic consequences. So large cities are drowning in brown, hazy
smog -- not aided any by the ubiquitous, out-of-date diesel engines on
trucks, buses and motorbikes -- with the toxic cloud often moving out into
the countryside as well; friends who visited China said they were unable to
see the sun through the thick haze, even outside the big cities.
Or, another example: We were in Luang Prabang (Laos) and decided to take a
boat ride up the Mekong. Earlier that morning, we had ridden bikes and
walked on the paved road above the shoreline; every so often, we nearly
gagged on what smelled like broken bathroom pipes. When we were in the boat,
we could see the evidence: There were no broken pipes; the toilets simply
led to massive neighborhood sewage discharges over the cliff directly into
This pattern was repeated in Siem Reap (Cambodia) and elsewhere, with what
appeared to be light blue flags in the trees where that raw sewage had
entered the rivers. When we drew closer, we would see that the "flags"
really were the popular plastic bags that people used for garbage; those
were swept over the sides and down toward the river as well. When the water
level was high, the bags would flow with the current; but when the river
levels were low, the bags would wave where they'd first been caught: in the
branches of the trees.
In Cambodia, our Angkor Wat guide took us on a boat ride on Tonle Sap (Great
Lake), where an entire community of desperately poor fishermen and their
families lived in floating huts; the water-village also contained a floating
church, a floating hospital, a floating fish market, etc. Despite the
constant discharge of raw sewage into the tributary, we saw children
swimming outside their boats, adults drinking directly from the stream,
people bathing in the filthy water.
These are poor countries. Do they simply not have the tax base and money to
build the sewage-treatment plants that would be required to protect their
populations? Or do they simply not care? Unclear. Whatever, protecting
public health (and public water, and public air) is not a priority. The race
to industrialize, capitalize, is where it's at.
3. CLASS MIXING. In the U.S., social classes in the large cities usually are
separated geographically. The rich sections of town are over there, the poor
sections are elsewhere ("the wrong side of the tracks"). The first thing I
saw from my hotel balcony in Bangkok was the class-mix, also reproduced in
Chiang Mai up north, and in other countries, as well: right next door to
large homes of the wealthy were decrepit, corrugated-roof shacks of the
The political impact of this is unknown. Are the wealthy made more humble,
seeing their poor neighbors daily (and remembering that they may have come
from this class as well)? Are the poor more jealous, forced to view their
neighbors' wealth every day; does this proximity to wealth give them more
incentive for trying to break out of their lower-class? Not clear.
THE CULTURAL PULL, EAST&WEST
4. THE UNIVERSAL CULTURE. When in Southern Europe a few years ago, even in
out-of-the-way villages in Crete, I was amazed at how a seemingly universal
(U.S-dominated) Western culture had taken hold everywhere. TV, advertising,
clothing, music, billboards, cell-phones, internet cafes, etc. -- all seemed
cut from the same mold. Ethnic and national differences are a bit more
prominent in Southeast Asia, but that same Western-style culture is
exercising its strong pull on populations as well, in much the same ways.
I had to transit back to California via Hong Kong. The first sounds to hit
my ears as I exited the plane at Hong Kong International Airport were
Muzacked Christmas carols, and a ticket agent was wearing a Santa suit.
5. DEMAND FOR THE DOLLAR. All the countries I visited were poor, though
Thailand seemed a bit better off. A good deal of the commerce was carried
out in U.S. dollar denominations. (Many countries may choose to go Euro if
the dollar continues to fall.) In Laos, still run by an ostensible Communist
government, the local "kip" was so worthless that citizens had to carry
around huge, rubber-banded bundles of that currency just to buy the most
inexpensive foodstuffs; everyone preferred to deal with U.S. dollars.
In Luang Prabang, for example, the huge crafts bazaar that dominates much of
main street each evening works almost exclusively in dollars.
Hand-calculators are everywhere. Since most of the local artisans speak no
foreign language, they do the calulations on their little machines and then
show you the amount in dollars. Despite the fact that the gorgeous
merchandise -- scarves, quilts, carvings, paintings, etc. -- is dirt cheap,
the Western tourists often "bargain" the price still lower.
6. THE GENOCIDE GENERATION. No country seemed sadder, or poorer, than
Cambodia. This is a broken society, plundered by outsiders in the years
following the devastating insanity of Pol Pot's genocidal policies. An
estimated two million citizens -- mainly the intelligentsia, bureaucratic
technocrats, teachers, doctors, lawyers, the middle class, etc. -- were
wiped out by the Khmer Rouge in the "killing fields" of Cambodia. Virtually
every institution, every family, was victimized. Until Cambodia can get its
economic machine running again to the point of rebuilding that middle-class
and that human infrastructure of leadership and knowledge -- and that
doesn't seem like a genuine possibility for a long, long time in the future
-- it is at the mercy of outside forces.
For example, I was astounded to learn that its signature cultural treasure,
Angkor Wat -- the tourist attraction that brings hundreds of thousands of
visitors to Cambodia every year -- is run by a Vietnamese oil/hotel
conglomerate. All over Asia, huge foreign and multinational corporations own
much of the real estate, big hotels, office buildings, etc., with the cash
profits flowing out of the country, and many of the locals reduced to
low-paying service jobs.
The country is so poor that it is dependent on foreign charity to keep it
going, even minimally. Much of the restoration work at Angkor Wat, for
example, is financed by Japanese or Dutch or French or German groups or
companies. Many rural communities have to wait to get their public wells
until some outside group sends the $400+ to get the project started. Very
You visit Angkor Wat and hear the guides talk with such cultural pride of
the grand Khmer culture that dominated much of Southeast Asia for many
hundreds of years -- many of the most impressive temples were built from the
9th to the 13th centuries -- and then you see what life is like for so many
Cambodians today. The contrast is telling.
WHY SO LITTLE FERMENT?
7. WHERE'S THE REVOLUTION? So, given the poverty in these countries, and
their humiliated status in the modern world, I kept wondering: where's the
In Thailand, a constitutional monarchy, one answer provided was the
popularity of their beloved King, and Queen; over many decades of rule by
this enlightened pair, a true citizen/monarch bond has been established that
tends to dilute dissent.
Another answer constantly given me was that the Buddhist philosophy that
dominates these Southeast Asian countries vitiates impulses toward
revolution. I'm not sure exactly why this is so, but whatever the reasons,
the prevailing Buddhist way of thinking tends to lead to a quietist
acceptance of the status quo.
It even leads to curious political responses to violence. For example, there
is an extremist wing of militant Islam active in the far southern provinces
of Thailand; recently, the police rounded up hundreds suspected in bombings
and piled them on top of each other in the back of military trucks. More
than 75 were suffocated to death during the transport to jail, and the
government took great political heat from Muslims in Thailand and from
outside the country.
The Thai goverment's response to try to calm the situation -- in addition to
an official investigation of the tragedy -- was to airdrop millions of
citizen-made origami peace-birds over the troubled south, to remind everyone
of the need for tolerance and accomodation. It remains to be seen if this
extraordinary, non-confrontational gesture will have a saluatory effect on
8. WARS NEVER END. There are hundreds of thousands of still-active landmines
all over Southeast Asia, especially in the border areas, some put there by
local tribes and governments during civil wars, a good many dropped from
U.S. planes during the Vietnam War 35+ years ago. The Americans released
clusters of these small mines in a manner designed to scatter them widely
over huge expanses of jungle; many of these mines, as a result of natural
weathering, landslides, etc., are now buried a meter or two under the
One sees many children and adults with missing limbs; at the Elephant
Conservation Center near Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand -- where we went to
learn how to become apprentice "mahouts," riding and training elephants --
we saw several huge pachyderms, which often roam or work the forests, with
legs damaged badly by such mines. They are cared for lovingly by the
I heard from a German engineer that a friend of his -- who has been employed
for 30 years locating and removing mines from the border area between
Thailand and Burma -- estimated that, at the present rate, it would take
1000 years just to clear the area of all mines. The war crime that is
landmine implantation staggers the soul with its cruelty to civilians and
animals. Does anybody care?
WE SEE IT THERE BUT NOT HERE
9. ELECTION FRAUD. While in my Bangkok hotel room, I couldn't help grimacing
when I saw the footage on CNN of hundreds of thousands of protestors on the
streets of Kiev, demanding that the rigged election there be overturned. And
it will be. Meanwhile, back in the United States, the mass media -- which
proudly carries stories denouncing the Ukraine election fraud -- are
essentially silent about our own electoral anomalies. Unless a miracle
occurs, a Bush victory will be certified in early January and he'll take the
oath of office several weeks later, the result of massive vote suppression,
voter intimidation, and most likely (judging from the clear statistical
evidence) manipulation of the ballot tallies.
Clearly, one society cares about electoral integrity, the other doesn't. And
in America, largely because the out-of-power party has abdicated its role as
a true opposition, we'll likely have to suffer four more years of greed
unleashed, imperial wars launched, repression increased, privatization of
more and more social programs, humongous debts incurred, probably a large
economic recession or even depression -- and all because we didn't fight
hard enough to guarantee honest elections.
And if we don't do something major before the next midterm election -- such
as temporarily going to a paper ballot, tallied by hand, while at the same
time demanding a verifiable paper trail for touch-screen computer-voting
machines -- we may well find ourselves unable ever to have a truly honest,
fair election and will see fraudulent Republican victories for many decades
10. SHOCKS TO THE SYSTEM. As I write this, back at home in San Francisco,
I'm still in the throes of jet lag, still waking up at odd hours, still
halfway in Southeast Asia mentally. Coming back to the realities of
political life in America has been more shocking than I thought.
Our society, so lethargic and accepting of the worst kind of electoral and
information manipulation, is in for seismic shocks over the next four years,
as the parties re-align themselves internally to try to deal with the worst
of what's about to come down. We may not poison opposition leaders, as they
do in Ukraine, but our institutions, our mass media, our moral sense of our
country are increasingly poisoned each day by a mindset that seems to care
only for immediate gratification and the amassing of power -- and money.
Unless we can find a way out of this morass, and help awaken more and more
of our fellow citizens to the reality of what's going on and its terrible
long-term consequences to our body politic -- and alter the electoral system
accordingly that is so inviting to corruption and manipulation -- we will be
doomed to endless repetitions of Bush&Co. scenarios. Too horrible to
Organize, organize, organize.
Copyright 2004, by Bernard Weiner