World War II in Southeast Asia in colour


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As those with direct memories of World War II pass away our collective memory of that time is increasingly shaped by the available photos.

These photos are usually of poor quality and are almost always in black and white.

As such, it is easy to forget that the war was conducted in vivid colour.

Thanks to the great website here, some of their colour pictures bring the conflict in the Pacific Theatre (and thus the Southeast Asian region) to historical life.

There are hundreds of pages and tens of thousands of pictures, so feel free to search for better examples than the ones that follow.

I will leave you with some images of the Japanese forces in what is now Indonesia here, and two pictures from the fall of Singapore here and here.

I will gladly update this post with other relevant links that readers can offer.


Some regional fieldwork insights


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For those readers seeking some diversity from my own opinions, over the next few weeks I anticipate some posts from a guest blogger.

Nadia, the pseudonym for a Muslim student studying International Relations at a leading university, will offer some insights from her imminent Southeast Asian travels. Here are her introductory thoughts.

I will soon be in my favourite Southeast Asian country, Thailand.

On this trip I plan to visit Thailand not just to enjoy its crowded markets and delicious food, but rather to seek answers for complicated questions.

Over a month I will be meeting government officials, NGOs and engaging with the community to discuss issues such as public administration, workers rights and ethnic minorities. I am looking forward to hearing the direct testimony of the people we are going to meet, and see how they view these issues.

Different sensitivities may restrict me from sharing every story, however I will do my best to bring you with me as as much as I can”.

I look forward to her contributions over the coming days.

State v Religion in Indonesia


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The contest between state power and religious freedom is, for those unfamiliar with the expression, as old as the hills.

The struggle between those forces is enlivened significantly when it involves an emerging democracy and a major religion undergoing a crisis of identity.

Indonesia today is a case study of those pressures, and as the story here indicates the Indonesian state has just made its latest move.

The stakes are very high. The Indonesian government seeks a very narrow path between more suicide bombings like the recent Surabaya attacks here and the sort of protests that emerged here.

I wouldn’t anticipate the issue being resolved any time soon. Western democracies are still arguing about where the lines should be drawn after centuries of heated debate and often bloody conflict.

Furthermore, any “peace” achieved between the state and religion isn’t necessarily healthy. Peace in this context requires a dominance of either cold authoritarianism or theocratic privilege.

Indonesia deserves better than that, so I sincerely hope their bloodless struggle lasts indefinitely.

Indonesia and…India?


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An intriguing story here suggesting that the next move in great game is taking place in Southeast Asia.

In summary the assertion is that Indonesia and India are tentatively coming together in a strategic partnership to act as a counterweight to China’s rising power.

If true, and I have no reason to doubt the story or the logic, this shift is geopolitical history unfolding in front of us.

Fake life


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In my previous I spent a few moments reflecting on life in Southeast Asia.

In the spirit of journalistic balance I thought I should spend similar time introducing fake life.

The topic draws on the marvellous work of Agan Harahap described in greater detail here.

For those readers not inclined to click the link, Agan’s artistry centres on deliberately falsifying the historic record by doctoring news photos.

Part of me marvels at his humor and audacity, but I do wonder if his stated intention of getting people to be less accepting of fake news will actually have the opposite effect. He is, after all is said and done, simply creating more fake news and thus fake life, which is possibly the last thing Indonesia needs right now.

Anyway, I encourage you to read the linked story and make it all the way to the end, where the fake photo of Chef Gordon Ramsey being arrested for possessing MSG nearly had me rolling on the floor with laughter.

Elections and democracy in Southeast Asia


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Those who know their modern Indonesian history will remember well that it is 20 years this week since Suharto’s regime came crashing down.

Few anticipated that in the wake of Suharto that Indonesian democracy would do as well (relatively speaking) as it has.

Furthermore, across the region democracy remains in a pretty sorry state in comparison. That’s a troubling assertion given the cracks appearing in Indonesia’s democratic fabric.

But the relationship between Indonesia and democracy has always been tense and tenuous, so perhaps that’s just characteristic of regional democracy too.

As the article in The Economist here points out, the region’s democratic weaknesses can’t easily be attributed to a lack of elections.

Indonesia and Thailand both have big elections (in size and significance respectively) coming over the horizon, so there will be no shortage of electoral excitement in the next year or so.

As for meaningful democratic advances that go with those elections…hmmm, well, maybe yes…or maybe not.

Update – After posting the above I was guided to an insightful analysis by Ed Aspinall here. I am confident in suggesting we make broadly similar claims in our respective texts, although for those interested his is a much richer and thoughtful piece of writing.



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I recently asked a dear friend what my next post here should focus on. The reply came to me as a single word – “life”.

Where to start in the context of Southeast Asia, and how to address a concept as vast and as nebulous as life itself?

Perhaps, in the same way that the topic is a single word, the response could also be in single words.

In that vein I remembered Thomas Fuller’s thoughts in the New York Times article here, where he presented life in Southeast Asia through the single word prism of impunity.

Looking at that article again there is still little I disagree with, although the Southeast Asian world he describes has moved on somewhat.

Is impunity still an apt in describing Southeast Asia? Absolutely…but also maybe not universally. Impunity continues to exist in the region, although recent events in Malaysia have shown how far and how quickly political certainties can shift.

Even so, for many Southeast Asians impunity is clearly limited to the earthly world. Many tens of millions of Southeast Asians believe their lives to be subject to the whims of spirits. These spirits usually exist in both this life and the next, so achieving impunity from their wrath requires great dedication. This dedication can be seen in countless mosques, temples, shrines, churches and rituals often unique to the region.

And so, like any half decent political scientist, in the contest between the concepts of legal and political impunity and extreme vulnerability to the whim of spirits I find myself drawn to the concept of power.

Life in Southeast Asia is, to my mind, often a contest of power. To paraphrase the words of Chairman Mao “power comes from the barrel of a gun”, but I wonder if life in Southeast Asia is shaped just as much by spirit power that acts with impunity.

Curiously visitors and locals experience this power differently. A visiting outsider may consider themselves as having impunity against (at least local) sprits, but are aware that they have a life changing vulnerability to other expressions of power. In contrast a local resident may experience and exercise power very differently in the life they enjoy, live or simply endure.

Most fascinating perhaps is to witness how this power relevancy in life switches as Southeast Asians become foreigners and foreigners become Southeast Asians through the magic of migration. Notably too, tourism seems impotent to offer all but an alluring taste of this possible reversal of power for a fragment of their life.

And so that is my take on life in Southeast Asia. I suggest just four words, namely impunity, vulnerability, spirits and power can capture life in the region.

Could any reader capture Southeast Asia in three words? Attempts are welcome.

UPDATE – At the top of this post I referred to a ‘dear friend”. Such is her personality that “dear” should be replaced with “brilliant, wise, funny, adorable, amazing and lovely”. I hope she can forgive me for my initial oversight 😉


The first farmers in Southeast Asia migrated from China…


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…some 4,500 years ago according to the story here.

Now you know, although I cannot imagine easily that centuries of cumulative academic study can be accurately condensed into a single short news item.

Interesting conclusion though. I will post again on this topic later.