Legacy of Engagement in Southeast Asia

Legacy of Engagement in Southeast Asia

Author(s): Ann Marie  Murphy and Bridget Welsh (eds)

ISBN: 978-981-230-770-5

Publisher: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies

Year: 2008

Price: $110.90

Reviewed by Zornitza Grekova, PhD Candidate, Sofia University, Bulgaria

This remarkable book contains essays written in the memory of John “Jack” Bresnan, fellow of the Ford Foundation and close friend of the Southeast Asian countries. His lifelong engagement with Southeast Asia has brought about new dimensions of the knowledge about this region in the USA. One of the main advantages of this volume is that through the authors’ contributions it reflects Bresnan’s commitment. It contains the viewpoint of both academicians and practitioners and reflects the development of Southeast Asia since 1945. The book through different themes it explores trances the transitions, the sources and the consequences of regime changes, the linkage between historical legacy and contemporary situation, the economic development and regional community building.

As it is mentioned in the volume itself the interested reader can rarely find a book that describes thoroughly and at the same time in details the history, economics, politics and other aspects as of Southeast Asia as region, as of the major countries within it (in this case – Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines). One good exception of this practice is the series published by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore but that one deals only with contemporary issues.

The volume is divided in three main parts. The first one (A Region Transformed: Development, Democracy and Reform in Southeast Asia, pp. 29-178) is devoted to the so puzzling question of the region’s transition and regimes’ changes. The first essay (pp. 29-71; actually the second in number when counting the introduction) gives an inspiring overview of the region’s transition speaking of three periods – the years after gaining the independence through the early 1960s. The author made the conclusion that “decolonization, or rather the struggle for independence, took three distinct forms” (p. 34) – violent conflicts, negotiated independence, and arguably colonial disinterest and thus shows one of the really strong points of Bridget Welsh contribution, her ability to summarise in an analytical way an extensive amount of detailed information and to draw a precise and clear picture of the discussed situation. Frederick Z. Brown in his interesting contribution focuses on “Vietnam’s Transformations: War, Development and Reform” (pp. 72-112) linking the process of development with historical legacy of warfare. The essay also shows how the situation in Vietnam influences, and sometimes is responsible of, the development or the lack of development in the whole Indochina region. As it is mentioned by the author the “essay looks at Vietnam’s continuing transformation in three areas” (p. 73) – economics, internal politics, and foreign policy, and makes the note that these three areas could not be dealt with separately. The author gives an objective viewpoint of the complicated relations between Vietnam and the Great Powers after 1945 and examines the interconnectedness between Vietnamese internal politics and external influences. The development of Vietnam is shown through its major historical drawbacks – the war with France followed by the war with the USA and interstate conflicts in Indochina after 1978. David G. Timberman’s chapter “The Philippines’ Underperformance in Comparative Perspective: Past Divergence …Future Convergence?” (pp. 113-150) focuses on “Southeast Asia’s “odd man out”” (p. 113) as it is often judged that the Philippines have been less successful than the other states in the region. It is mentioned that this country lacks not only proper economic development but also strong democratic values. The late Hadi Soesastro (1945-2010) made an insightful contribution to this volume through his detailed study of the transition of the Indonesian economy and its development. Soesastro links his research about Indonesian economic transition with Bresnan’s writings (p. 151) and shows that this study requires an in-depth knowledge of all aspects of the Indonesian society. A really strong point is the author’s impressive ability to give a clear picture of prolonged and highly controversial historical events and to link them with the present situation he is focusing on. The article is worth reading by all those that are interested in the economic history and current economic situation in Indonesia.

The second part (Transforming Relationships: International Aid, NGOs and Actors in Southeast Asia, pp. 181-246) looks at the devotion of and the interrelation between the role of diverse state and non-state actors and the development of Southeast Asia. As primary examples the role of the Ford Foundation, the Japanese ODAs and various sources of international aid are studied. The first chapter in this part is “The Ford Foundation in Southeast Asia: Continuity and Change” by Peter F. Geithner. The reader learns from it about the history of Ford Foundation and its impact on the development of Southeast Asia through the years. It makes Bresnan’s commitment to this far region obvious to the general public and the major challenges that he and the Foundation faced when working with different political activists.

Another important impulse for the economic development of Southeast Asia is given by the Japan’s official development assistance (ODA) that represents the main subject of Hugh Patrick’s “The Transformative Role of Japan’s Official Development Assistance: An Economic Partnership with Southeast Asia” (pp. 195-215). Annette Clear has devoted her article on the subject of “International Aid and Political Change in Southeast Asia” (pp. 216-246). As it can be assumed by the title, the paper examines the interconnectedness between international aid available to the Southeast Asian countries and the political changes that occurred there. An interesting example is given by the situation in Indonesia where international donors decided to foster political changes only after the fall of Soeharto but did not play any role in his downfall. The essay further specialises on the question of East Timor’s independence and the role played by the UN (as it “provides an excellent prism to observe the interplay of donor strategies”, p. 221), NGOs and several bilateral donors. East Timor’s development until the mid-1990s was tightly linked with the problem of the civil-military relations and the military reform in Indonesia. Here it is useful to mention that an occurring idea within the whole book is that Indonesia faced a great transformation after the fall of Soeharto that shaped not only the country but also the region and the framework of the foreign relations within and with the region. A valuable point is the overview of the different states’ positions on East Timor’s independence (USA, Japan, and the Netherlands) and the overestimated role of international aid in the political transition process.

“Relationships Transformed” (pp. 249-386) is the name of the third part which has for its focal points the relations between Southeast Asia and the main external actors on the political scene, namely, USA, China, and the relations within Southeast Asia that have shaped and transformed its identity. Ann Mary Murphy’s contribution deals with “United States Relations with Southeast Asia: the Legacy of Policy Changes” (pp. 249-280). The author gives an account of US involvement in Southeast Asia during the Cold War era and explains the logic of containment strategy as well as the dynamics of US – Southeast Asia interests. The chapter concludes with a discussion of contemporary issues of crucial importance for the future of Southeast Asian countries such as the consequences of Asian Financial crisis, the global war on terror and the dynamics of US-China relations. Michael R. Chamber’s article “The evolving relationships between China and Southeast Asia” (pp. 281 – 310) discusses the emergence of China as a regional and global power and the dynamics of Southeast Asian countries’ relations with PRC since 1950s. Unlike the predominance of security-driven agenda during the Cold War, China promotes during the 1990s its vision of “a good neighbour that desires shared peace and prosperity” (p. 292). This results in mutually beneficial relations between PRC and the states in the discussed region. The eleventh chapter of this volume proposes to its readers the personal reflection of Edward Masters concerning the often ambiguous relations between the Unites States and Indonesia (pp. 311-349). The biggest advantage of the paper is that it represents author’s perspective on important events he was involved in. For the historians and researchers his narrative of the time of his first posting to Jakarta (during his post he witnessed the 30rd September 1965 events when a coup d’état against Sukarno failed and resulted in traumatic bloodshed) will be more than intriguing and inspiring in terms of pure eye-witness account. Later on he describes the situation in Southeast Asia during the 1970s and in particular the dynamics of US-Indonesian relations during Soeharto era. In conclusion he analyses the development of contemporary US-Indonesian relations during the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

The last two chapters examine regional tendencies and not state development. Donald E. Weatherbee devotes his paper to “ASEAN’s Identity Crisis”, evoking the great divergence between the states in the region and their quest for a common identity through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Weatherbee’s analysis’ starting point is the newly adopted ASEAN Charter that “is conceived of as a kind of constitution for an ASEAN Community” (p. 352) and “is supposed to codify ASEAN norms, rules, and values” (ibid.). The author concludes that the Charter speaks more of a national than of a regional identity. The reason for the failure of regional identity building he seeks in the misconceptions that have its origins in the different overlapping organisations created in this region. As ASEAN has always been the main driving force behind the regional cooperation and integration, it is important to see how it could promote the sense of regional belonging. The last chapter “Encounters in Southeast Asia: 1957-2007” represents the personal encounters of Theodore Friend with Southeast Asia that have shaped his perception and have influenced his research on Indonesia. Through his experience he sketches the development of Southeast Asian countries and speaks about “Encounters and confrontations” (pp. 374-376), “Of Vision and blindness” (pp. 377-380), and “Soft Power and Restrained Example” (pp. 380-381)

The book may be recommended for specialists and academics, as for those who have general interest in Southeast Asian affairs. It can be easily read and understood even by the general public as all articles are clearly written, well organised and structured, with solid methodological and detailed historical background.  Moreover, this volume will contribute to the contemporary ongoing scientific discussions about the rationale behind the Southeast Asian politics, its linkage with the world affairs and the role played by strong individuals (as John “Jack” Bresnan) in the destinies of countries, regions, and societies.

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