Japan’s ideal and less ideal victims

The brutal murders of Japanese hostages Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa at the hands of ISIS have understandably captured the interest of the Japanese nation. Opinions on the victims have ranged from the deeply sympathetic to the victim-blaming. Moreover the Japanese public seems more willing to embrace Goto as a true victim than Yukawa. These domestic sentiments are important because they touch upon a question that is inherent in every crime: why are some people given victim status and others not?

Yukawa and Goto both suffered the same tragic fate, but the domestic reactions to the hostage crisis have made it clear that similar fates do not necessarily warrant similar victim status. Goto has been described as a brave and kind-hearted person on a journalistic mission to tell the truth about the Syrian war. For a while an “I am Kenji” campaign was even gaining momentum on the internet. There was little or no doubt about Goto’s status as a legitimate victim. Yukawa, on the other hand, was viewed with much more skepticism, not to say disdain. Yukawa was characterized in Japanese media as a confused loner with a death wish, who had gone to Syria as a military contractor in order to restore meaning in his life. Although few said it aloud, many Japanese probably felt that Yukawa had taken unnecessary risks and to a certain extent “had it coming”. Needless to say, no one “was” Haruna.

The denial of victimhood in Yukawa’s case has an ugly precedent. In April 2004 five Japanese who had been abducted in Iraq while doing media and voluntary work were released and allowed to return to Japan after suffering through horrendous threats of being burned alive by their Islamist captors. However upon their return they were met by angry protestors at the airport wielding contemptuous hand-written signs, one reading “you got what you deserve!” The Japanese government even demanded that the returnees pay the 6000 USD air fare. Most of the victim bashing emphasized that, by venturing into Iraq despite governmental warnings against doing so, the victims had failed to take ‘self-responsibility’.

It might not come as a surprise that circumstances apart from the actions of the perpetrators determine whether or not victim status is granted, but is it possible to say something more specific about what these circumstances are?

In order to answer that question it is useful to look at the case of Megumi Yokota, arguably one of the most famous and undisputed victims in Japanese history.

Yokota gained nationwide and eventually worldwide fame in 2002 when late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il admitted to a Japanese Prime Ministerial delegation that Yokota was one of 13 Japanese citizens whom North Korea had abducted in the 1970s and 1980s. Megumi Yokota, or just Megumi as she is frequently referred to in otherwise formal Japan, had been only 13 years old when she was kidnapped at the shores of Niigata in 1978. The purpose of the abduction had been to have her teach North Korean spies how to “become Japanese” so that they could infiltrate Japan undetected. Moreover North Korea claimed that she had committed suicide in 1994 – a claim that the Japanese government still denies.

Megumi’s tragic story captivated the Japanese public and she quickly became the poster child of the Japanese government’s various enlightenment campaigns aimed at solving what became known as the North Korean abduction issue. Mangas and animes carrying her name and depicting her life story became popular, and Noel Paul Stookey of the American folk band Peter Paul and Mary wrote the ballad “Song for Megumi” which he performed at the Japanese Prime Minister’s Office. Furthermore, Megumi’s parents became household names as the front figures of the Association of Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea.

But why did Megumi, and not the other abductees, become the rallying point of the various abduction issue campaigns?

The answer is because she was an “ideal victim”.

Criminologist Nils Christie has argued that in most criminal cases the victim isn’t completely blameless and the offender isn’t completely culpable. However the closer one gets to these extremes the more likely it is that the injured party will be given “the complete and legitimate status of being a victim”. This is what he calls the “ideal victim”. Christie developed five criteria for the ideal victim. As we shall see, Christie’s criteria are perfectly fulfilled by Megumi Yokota.

1)      “The victim is weak. Sick, old or very young people are particularly well suited as ideal victims”. – Megumi was 13 years old at the time of her abduction. By far the youngest of all the abductees.

2)      “The victim was carrying out a respectable project”. – Megumi was on her way back home from badminton practice.

3)      “She was where she could not possibly be blamed for being”. – Megumi was walking the same path as always.

4)      “The offender was big and bad”. – The offenders were adult North Korean spies who had illegally entered Japan by boat.

5)      “The offender was unknown and in no personal relationship to her”. – See above.

Megumi is the living (hopefully) incarnation of the ideal victim. Her symbolic power has unquestionably contributed to the fact that the abduction issue has captured far more interest among the Japanese public than conventional security issues like the North Korean nuclear weapons program.

Going back to the case of ISIS victims Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa, one can argue that the only thing that substantially separates them is the second condition – “carrying out a respectable project”. It is hard to find fault with a journalist who goes to Syria reporting on the suffering of ordinary people in what is arguably the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet. Going to said crisis as a military contractor, however, is not likely seen as a “respectable project” in Japan, where anti-militarist sentiments have been strong since the end of WW2.

It is harder to say why Goto was perceived more favorably than the 2004 Iraq hostages, who also arguably were carrying out “respectable projects”. Maybe it simply boils down to the fact that Goto died and the Iraq hostages survived. However it is also possible that Goto’s legitimate victimhood was secured because his death followed the Charlie Hebdo shootings, which spurred a tremendous celebration of freedom of speech, and Goto was, after all, a symbol of free speech.

There are of course no absolute laws of human behavior, but there seems to be a general correlation between victim status and points scored on Christie’s criteria list. This probably stems from our human disposition to simplify an extremely complex world. We constantly seek simplicity, and simplicity is often found in dichotomies such as good/bad and innocent/guilty. But in order judge about innocence and guilt, we need criteria, and Christies’ criteria are probably the closest we can get to saying something general about the construction of victim status.

It is, however, important that we do not let an imperfect victim status overshadow or justify the actions of the perpetrator, as sometimes has been the case in Japan. Beheadings and abductions are not justifiable.

 

Ulv Hanssen

Ph.D. candidate in Japanese studies at Free University Berlin’s Graduate School of East Asia Studies (GEAS).

Contact: ulvhanssen@hotmail.com


Report from the streets of Bangkok

For safety reasons I am omitting my name from this account. My apologies.

I was in my house, when I heard. A friend messaged me, urging me to turn on the television, and so I did. All channels showed the same thing: Thailand’s General Prayuth Chan-ocha declared a total takeover of the country, Thailand was experiencing it’s 12th coup. A stream of announcements ensued over the next couple of hours.

This was Thursday May 22. I work in the media, so I rushed to the local TV-station to ensure I was there, before the now imposed curfew kicked in at 10 pm. A lot of other people had the same thought – everybody needed to be wherever they were going to sleep before 10, so the traffic was heavy and hectic.

I spent the night at the TV-station, occasionally being called up by journalists at home to give an update on the situation. I left for home in the early morning hours. I did go out during curfew hours, though, just a little bit. I wasn’t the only one – a few cars were cruising the otherwise empty streets. I said hello to a couple of confused tourists. But apart from that, about 11 pm in busy, buzzing Bangkok, the streets looked like this:

Bangkok 1

The next morning, it really sank in. The country was now military run, and in the daylight, a few reflections and reactions started to seep out. Cautious ones, though, due to the new, extensive censorship on media. One reporter of the English-language Bangkok-paper, The Nation, was really outspoken and critical. He used Twitter to express his anger over the sudden censorship and the coup in general.

I spent the day out and about in Bangkok. Most of the city looked normal, even more normal than it has looked for a while because the military cleared the protesters that have been camping out in the streets of Bangkok since November 2013.They’ve had a lot of demands and a specific political agenda, and has had stages and roadblocks in Bangkok for the good part of a year by now. I won’t go into that.

Up in the northern part of town, a small group of anti-coup protesters – maybe 200 – were defying the newly-imposed ban on gathering more than five people. So even though the soldiers were not present in most of the city, they were present up there: several stand-offs and minor scuffles during Friday, but luckily, nobody was hurt.

On Saturday, two days after the coup, a lot happened. A continued stream of different announcements – mainly announcing lists of people who were to report to the military – was on television all day. Late that evening, the military dissolved the Senate, and removed a not unsubstantial amount of public servants, amongst them the Chief of National Police. I started to worry, because many of the listed people, who were to report to the military, were academics and activists and journalists – critical civilians, in other words. It was not long after that the outspoken journalist from The Nation, the one who had been very critical on Twitter, was called in to report to the military.

So I think, by Sunday, the situation had become significantly more serious. Reports of large numbers of people being detained and transferred to unknown destinations were coming in now. A statement from the military declared that democracy in Thailand had “caused losses”, leaving us speculating if that meant they were not prone to re-establish democracy? The Nation’s journalist reported to military, as he was told, and it looked like this:

Bangkok 2

This picture floated social media yesterday. Unknown credit.

I heard that protesters were gathering again next to Victory Monument in Bangkok, and I decided to go up there. Overnight, the protest had grown in size – far more than 200 people were there now. I would estimate at least 1000, but it’s just a guess. Just when I arrived, I saw a lot of people running towards the soldiers that was blocking the street:

Bangkok 3

Upon reaching the ranks, people started shouting at the soldiers. (Who in many cases are young boys, and not necessarily happy with the task they are doing.) It was tense for a little while, especially when some people started throwing bananas at the soldiers.

Bangkok 4
But the situation seemed to diffuse, like it has done many times before. These scuffles happen regularly, because tensions are high. Anyway, the police were able to calm down the protesters, and the army was ordered to pull back, which they did:

Bangkok 5

After that, the anti-coup protesters decided to dissolve and meet again the next day. On my way home I heard that the Nation-journalist had been taken into custody and transferred to an unknown location. Noone has been in contact with him since that picture was taken Sunday morning, as of this writing.

The official explanation for the coup is to keep the peace. The military says it over and over – this extreme measure is to restore and keep the peace. I have a feeling that the new military leadership of Thailand has a very different definition the word “peace” than I do.

 

The author of the article has chosen to be anonymous, but is known to the In Focus editors.

Pictures are by the author, if not otherwise stated.

 


The Creeping Coup

Thailand has an impressive track-record in the department of political coups. There has, in the country’s democratic history (since 1932) been 18 more or less successful coups in Thailand.

For this reason, whenever there is political instability, Thai media and followers of Thai politics very quickly start using the word “coup”. Will there be a coup? Will the military stage a coup?

Bangkok protests at the Democracy Memorial, November 2013. Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/maxim303/11468339025/

Bangkok protests at the Democracy Memorial, November 2013. Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/maxim303/11468339025/

With the current situation in Thailand, we certainly have all the components:

An angry mob in the streets – since November 2013, anti-government protesters have camped out in the streets of Bangkok, demanding that the government step down and the entire system be reformed. That could cause a coup.

A political divide –the current government and the opposition does not agree even on the basic democratic framework. The current government aims for elections – the opposition will actively obstruct any attempt to hold an election, unless there is a reform first.  That too could cause a coup.

And lastly there is an all-round disrespect for the citizens and their right to co-decide what happens to their own country. What happens on the political scene today in Thailand is entirely a power struggle in between opposing elites. Top dog power struggles are the main ingredient in coups.

But despite all the political factors lining up we won’t have a classic coup in Thailand. Not this time.

What we MAY witness in Thailand right now is a whole new category: The Creeping Coup.

The Creeping Coup is a waiting game. Man, it’s slow!

It started all the way back in November 2013, when anti-government protesters started gathering in the streets of Bangkok, demanding the government step down. The protesters turned out to be surprisingly loud and stubborn – they put up roadblocks, built stages, erected tents everywhere, effectively shutting down most of central Bangkok.

With a capital that was largely ungovernable, and – it seemed – a never-ending stream of critical protesters pouring in from the south of Thailand, the Yingluck-government caved in and stepped down.

But it was already slowly becoming increasingly clear that that wasn’t the only thing the protesters – now formed into a form of political movement named People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) – wanted. They wanted their reform. So they stayed in the streets. And the government, excuse me, now the caretaker government, also stayed. For the next four months.

As the months went by, the numbers of the protesters dwindled. Now left with just a couple of small road-blocks, and an occupied park, the Creeping Coup went into the next phase:

In an impressive display of If-You-Can’t-Beat-Them-Join-Them, the opposition movement now started to use the very same system, they want reformed, to obtain their reform:

They started hurling lawsuits at the government. Lots of them.

The most substantial of those was the accusation of corruption within the government rice-scheme, a failed attempt to rake in additional foreign money by tampering with the global rice market. The National Anti-Corruption Committee just recently decided to impeach Yingluck Shinawatra over the issue, and the Senate will conduct thorough investigations on this matter.

Yingluck Shinawatra, Prime Minister of Thailand is captured during the session 'Women as the Way Forward' at the Annual Meeting 2012 of the World Economic Forum at the congress centre in Davos, Switzerland, January 27, 2012. Copyright by World Economic Forum

Yingluck Shinawatra, Prime Minister of Thailand is captured during the session ‘Women as the Way Forward’ at the Annual Meeting 2012 of the World Economic Forum at the congress centre in Davos, Switzerland, January 27, 2012. Copyright by World Economic Forum

 

Another recent one is the transfer of the chief of the National Security Council in 2011, Thawil Pliensri. A unanimous Constitutional Court voted caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra guilty of looking out for her own interests, when she gave the nod to the transfer, and that’s unconstitutional. She and nine ministers were ousted from government completely over the Thawil-case.

But the thing is, though, that Thailand’s different authorities are not all that impartial. The Constitutional Court, the Senate, the National Anti-Corruption Committee – these institutions are as much political players as the parties themselves are, but with the exception that they have juridical authority.

As of this writing, Thailand does not have an official government. Ten ministers, including the former Prime, have been ousted from their seats, there is no certainty how the next government will be put in place, Bangkok still has frequent mass-demonstrations AND the anti-government protesters still camp out in the streets of Bangkok, demanding their reform.

So there it is. Bit by bit, lawsuit by lawsuit, demonstration by demonstration, verdict by verdict, until there is no other way: The Creeping Coup.

Anya Palm, free-lance journalist based in Bangkok and NIAS Associate.

Palmwrtitings.com


Being a tourist in Myanmar

By Kristina Jönsson, Associate Professor
Department of Political Science, Lund University

The political changes currently seen in Myanmar (former Burma) were for most observers unthinkable only a few years ago. I am not a specialist on Burmese politics, but have over the years followed the developments in the country from a regional perspective in relation to the neighbouring Laos and Cambodia, countries I have studied more closely.

Recently I travelled in Myanmar for three weeks, not as a researcher but as a tourist on an organised trip. Although I spent my time doing touristic activities, enjoying the beautiful country and friendly people, I could not help making a few observations based on my academic background.

Men wearing longyies in Yangon

Men wearing longyies in Yangon

I was not certain what to anticipate, but my impression of the country was more positive than I thought it would be – probably because of all the negative publicity over the years. Practicalities did overall work better than expected during the tour, and my impression was that Myanmar is a country with great potentials to develop rapidly under the right circumstances. Yangon with its bustling atmosphere reminded me of Thailand, the tourist spots made me think of Cambodia and the countryside of Laos.

However, the pace of change varies. To mention a few examples, modern materialism, such as cars and smart phones have been made affordable to the non-elite after years of exorbitant prices. ATMs and the use of credit cards are spreading as international business and tourism expand. These changes co-exist with the widespread use of traditional longyies. It is impossible for foreigners to use their cell phones with a foreign subscription. Also, most of the country has yet to get electricity and the indicators for health and education are among the worst in the region.

Still, the political development is the most noteworthy change. The control over media has relaxed and political prisoners are released en masse. The by-election in 2012 was a victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD), and Aung San Suu Kyi is now a member of the parliament. President Thein Sein has even indicated support of changing the constitution in order for Aung San Suu Kyi to run for presidency (which is currently impossible because of her marriage to a foreigner).

Aung San Suu Kyi and her father, the national hero General Aung San, are highly present in everyday life through pictures and calendars, both in Yangon and in the countryside. We saw many NLD offices in the villages but only a few bureaus of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). In general, the support of the opposition seemed widespread except where the army has its bases (e.g. close to conflict areas).

Party office of National League for Democracy

Party office of National League for Democracy

The outcome of the 2015 election will be an important indicator of the real political changes. What will happen if NLD wins a landslide victory as in 1990? Will the result be accepted or will there be a backlash? Are current political changes a serious attempt to democratise the country, or just a survival strategy for the regime to achieve ‘performance legitimacy’? The top-priority of the regime is clearly stability, and what we can see so far is a strictly controlled top-down transformation. This has been going on since 2003 by implementing the seven-step roadmap towards the establishment of a ‘disciplined democracy’, including a new constitution and elections.

Many issues threaten a positive development. For instance, the issue of ethnic conflicts is still unsolved, the drug trade is apparently increasing, and communal strife between Buddhist and Muslims is increasingly violent – amply illustrated by the persecution of the Rohingyas. And even if the ‘freedom of press’ has improved, journalists have recently been arrested and there are reports of the army assaulting civilians.

Party office of Union Solidarity and Development Party

Party office of Union Solidarity and Development Party

Moreover, there is an emerging symbiosis between business and the state, supporting crony capitalism and corruption empowering a narrow oligarchy, not the least in the borderlands. Besides the extraction of natural resources, the tourist sector is booming. Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake may have difficulties coping with the influx of foreign visitors, but the prices for hotel rooms etc. are increasing, enabling lucrative business. Ordinary citizens may benefit from this development, although it is probably the elite, the army included, who make the largest profit.

The development in Myanmar may not be unlike other Southeast Asian countries that have experienced similar development trajectories. Some draw parallels to Indonesia due to historical similarities. Others make comparisons to Cambodia, where external pressure led to the introduction of democratic institutions without significantly altering the political-economic powers structures under the authoritarian rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Another issue is the effects of the political changes in Myanmar regarding regional dynamics. Myanmar used to be ‘worst in class’, but now the regime gets international praise and heads of states have been queuing for audience with President Thein Sein. From 2014 Myanmar even holds the chair of ASEAN. This development indirectly puts pressure on countries like Laos and Vietnam to introduce political reforms.

So, what are the ‘pros’ of being a tourist on an organised tour? You see a lot of the country (even if some areas are not accessible because of opium cultivation and armed conflict), you do not have to apply for permits (the guide takes care of that), and you experience comfortable hotels as well as unpretentious home-stays.

Tourist spot Bagan

Tourist spot Bagan

But perhaps this is also the ‘cons’ of being a tourist. You have a pleasant experience, but only see changes on the surface in parts of the country where people gradually are improving their lives. Those with lesser means probably will have to wait a long time for a better life, while others with the right connections rapidly can further their wealth.

Sources and further reading:

Croissant, Aurel & Kamerling, Jil (2013) Why Do Military Regimes Institutionalize? Constitution-making and Elections as Political Survival Strategy in Myanmar, Asian Journal of Political Science, 21(2): 105-125

Holliday, Ian (2010) Ethnicity and Democratization in Myanmar, Asian Journal of Political Science, 18(2): 111-128.

Jones, Lee (2013) The Political Economy of Myanmar’s Transition, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 44(1): 144-170.

Jones, Lee (2014) Explaining Myanmar’s regime transition: the periphery is central, Democratization, DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2013.863878. Published online 28 Jan 2014.

Renshaw, Catherine Shanahan (2013) Democratic Transformation and Regional Institutions: The Case of Myanmar and ASEAN, Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 32(1): 29–54.

Rieffel, Lex (2012), Myanmar on the Move: An Overview of Recent Developments, Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 31(4): 31-49.

Taylor, Robert H. (2012) Myanmar: From Army Rule to Constitutional Rule? Asian Affairs, 43(2): 221-236.

Taylor, Robert H. (2013) Myanmar’s ‘Pivot’ Toward the Shibboleth of ‘Democracy’, Asian Affairs, 44(3): 392-400.


Farming is Ugly: Reform, Friction and Bishan Commune

From 2014, Anhui Province will pilot a reform of the residential land market in China, thus integrating rural Anhui in the national housing market. On the opposite note, artist and activist Ou Ning has proposed the Bishan time money currency, intending to establish an alternative economic circuit in Bishan Village.

 

Bishan Village. A new and an old Hui-style house side by side, fronted by a very blue tele company commercial.

Bishan Village. A new and an old Hui-style house side by side, fronted by a very blue tele company commercial.

 

Bishan Village, Yi County, Anhui Province

At first sight, Bishan village doesn’t come across as a poor village; the traffic conditions are good, the small county seat is only 15 min away on electric scooter, the preferred vehicle of most villagers, and the county seat can boast of a new hospital, a new school, rows of new townhouses and apartment blocks, construction sites and smaller factories. There are similarly plenty of newly build houses in Bishan. Nevertheless, the wealth represented by these new houses, does not come from the local economy, but is almost entirely based on young people going to the city to work, sending money home, building houses they do not themselves reside in. Old people and small children constitute the actual population as most young people have left to work in the more developed urban areas. Furthermore, many families, who have migrated to the city, have had no legal way of selling the land they no longer reside on, leaving the village dotted with empty houses.

Yi County is renowned for its well-preserved Hui-style villages, and the growing reliance on tourism through the past ten years has altered the economic foundation of these villages considerably. Bishan is, however, not one of these tourist sites. Even though Hui-style remains the predominant architectural feature, the many newly build houses cause a lack of visual, rural authenticity so crucial to urban tourists. Nevertheless, Bishan has become attractive to investors, mainly within the hotel sector, who wish to take advantage of its proximity to famous tourist destinations and good traffic conditions.

In this Huizhou village on the foot of the Yellow Mountain range, artist, curator and editor Ou Ning and his colleague Zuo Jing initiated Bishan Commune in 2011; a call for a return to the countryside and a renewed relationship between urban and rural areas, countering the official line of further urbanization.

 

Ou Ning's house Buffalo Institute

Ou Ning’s house Buffalo Institute

 

A house for Bishan Commune

An old compound in traditional Hui-style in the centre of Bishan constitute the headquarters of Bishan Commune. Ou Ning bought the house in 2010 and called it Buffalo Institute. In the spring of 2013, he moved permanently to Bishan with his family (mother, younger brother, nephew, girlfriend and her son). The move indicates a significant turning point for Bishan Commune, entering a phase of action and interaction.

A constant flow of visitors, foreign and Chinese, urbanities and local villagers, pass through the house and stay for longer or shorter periods, either to work and discuss with Ou Ning, to do smaller projects like investigations of the local folk music or handicrafts, fieldwork studies of the countryside or, as many do, experience the traditional Hui-style houses in a new condition.

The house occupied by Buffalo Institute used to be the dormitory of the sent down youth during the Cultural Revolution. A story that now somehow repeats itself, albeit under very different circumstances. Buffalo Institute is a gathering space of free, independent learning and sharing and where elaborate discussions on the unfolding of Bishan Commune and the future of Bishan village continuously take place, which is also the result of Ou Ning and his family’s warm curiosity and generosity.

 

Informal land market

Ou Ning was not legally allowed to buy the house in 2010, so the proof of ownership still carries the name of the previous owner. In the countryside there are roughly three categories of land: farmland (collectively owned by the villagers), state owned land and residential land (the land your house is built on). Farmland can be expropriated and converted into state owned land and then sold or leased to developers and the like, but residential land can so far not be traded within the law. However, circumvention of state regulations unofficially sanctioned by local officials has created an informal residential land market in Bishan and Yi County making it possible for Ou Ning, Zuo Jing and others to purchase houses in Bishan. Due to the unofficial character of this residential land market and the consequential lack of real estate agents, it still requires good connections with the villagers to purchase a house, since you need introduction to the farmers who are willing to or can be persuaded to sell. Moreover, not many people dare to undertake the costs of buying a house without the necessary legal protection in case of expropriation or the like, further limiting the scope of this informal residential land market.

To address these issues, Anhui Province is from the beginning of next year piloting an official market for residential land in a selected number of counties (scmp.com), including Yi county under whose jurisdiction Bishan is placed. This pilot residential land market makes it possible for external actors to purchase or lease houses and land within Bishan village legally, something which can potentially transform the appearance and demography of Bishan once again.

 

Zhang Yu, to the left, from Young Official's Garden visit a local horseradish farmer.

Zhang Yu, to the left, from Young Official’s Garden visit a local horseradish farmer.

 

Farming is ugly

Ou Ning explains that it is often urban people of wealth who are able to buy the old houses and undertake the high costs of restoring them. Mrs. Liang, who has recently purchased a house in Bishan, expresses that she wants to convert the land in connection to her house into a flower garden, since “it is not pretty to look at cultivated farmland”.[1] This statement suggests a problematic attitude towards the rural cultural landscape.

If the further opening up of the housing land market implies an invasion of unscrupulous capital with no consideration for and appreciation of the existing rural cultural landscapes and practices, then Bishan might be on the path of a dangerous development, turning the village into an urban playground, designed to fulfill the ever-expanding needs of urban residents and tourists. When not properly integrating the rural residents in the decision making process, this kind of development tends to neglect the needs of the rural population by not creating any real job opportunities for often uneducated farmers and causing a fluctuation in housing prices and general living costs.

This is also an aspect where the presence of Bishan Commune in Bishan can be a significant factor. Bishan Commune and their like-minded continuously make an effort to influence newcomers to the area as well as local villagers and officials of the importance of preserving rural culture as a visible feature of Bishan and direct the development in a more sustainable direction. If they succeed, then Bishan might be able to change for the better, providing job opportunities that will allow young people the possibility to choose to stay in Bishan. The need of Bishan to develop economically is a stated priority of many of the local residents, who generally support expropriation of farming land, since it allows capital to enter. Ongoing discussions with the villagers on this subject, make the economical aspect a concern Bishan Commune have had to take into consideration. Even though they might not always agree with Bishan Commune on the terms of development, local villagers and officials show great support for the initiative.

 

The common space at Han Yu's Pig's Inn no. 3, which used to be an old oil station. Most of the furnitures are second hand, bought or found in the area.

The common space at Han Yu’s Pig’s Inn no. 3, which used to be an old oil station. Most of the furnitures are second hand, bought or found in the area.

 

Alternative economic circuit

As a means to establish an alternative economic circuit in Bishan, Ou Ning recently proposed the Bishan time money currency, where smaller tasks such as housekeeping at the local guesthouse Pig’s Inn or helping in the fields of Young Village Officials Garden, can be exchanged for a meal at the local hotel Tailai, books at the soon-to-open branch of the Nanjing bookstore Librairie Avant-Garde, or second hand artifacts donated to the shop Ou Ning will open at Buffalo Institute and so forth. All the Bishan time money members listed above agree to this system of exchange. Even though the system valorize labour in a manner maybe not entirely consistent with Kropotkin’s  concept of “mutual aid” advocated by Ou Ning and maybe won’t bring any direct job opportunities, it still provides an important alternative to the existing model and manages to incorporate the villagers’ concerns for some sort of economic possibilities. Furthermore, Bishan Commune can be an important marker of identification and will give Bishan a special standing in relation to the neighboring villages, providing that “something different”, which will be important when attracting the right kind of “caring” capital to the village.

The Bishan time money has yet to be put into effect, but Ou Ning expects it to be set in motion sometime around next spring. In my opinion, the most interesting aspect of the Bishan time money, is how the villagers will embrace this new system, if they will make it their own, thus creating the possibility of this alternative currency to exceed the core members and entering the village society as a whole. When asked whether Ou Ning has discussed making an independent monetary system in Bishan with the local officials, he answers: This I do first, and then I ask.

The coming years will show, how the presence of Bishan Commune in the village and the introduction of Bishan Time money combined with a reformed residential land market will affect Bishan and which direction the development will take. But to answer the question Tom Cliff asked in his introductory article on Bishan Commune: Is intention sufficient? I think it is safe to answer, that with this kind of project intention can never be sufficient. But intention is an important trigger for agency, and in Bishan Commune’s case it is an agency that is constantly reinvented and renegotiated in collaboration with local actors, thus aiming at creating new spaces of possibilities in Bishan and beyond.

Mai Corlin is enrolled as PhD fellow at Aarhus University, Department of Culture and Society, China Studies. Her project is entitled Utopian Imaginaries in Rural Reconstruction – Urban Artists in Rural China and is concerned with socially engaged art in the countryside of China.


[1] Informal conversation with Mrs. Liang, Yixian, October and November 2013.


The dice that always land on red

About a week ago, Thailand’s capital Bangkok, saw the largest demonstrations since the political turmoil that gripped the country in 2010. Back then, supporters of Thailand’s exiled former Premier, Thaksin Shinawatra, took the streets. That didn’t end well – when the smoke cleared after the demonstrations, 92 people had lost their lives and over 1000 people were badly wounded. So in these past few weeks, fear of repetition of the black days in spring 2010 has had the city on needles.  

Tuesday last week, police where hurling gas canisters at protesters to stop them from entering the Government House by force. But then everything very suddenly stopped: Thursday was the King’s Birthday, and the fighting parties decided to hold a truce out of respect for the King. 24 hours later, police were receiving flowers and hugs from the very same protesters they just fought and peace befell the city for a little while.

Anyways.

After a short intermission celebrating the King’s Birthday together, Bangkok is now gearing up for a second round of demonstrations.

Demonstration leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, has repeatedly set several deadlines for toppling the government over the course of two weeks now, and calls for Monday to be “do or die” – the Big Battle day. Monday is the day where the protesters once and for all seize control of the Government House and bring down the redshirt-movement, current Prime Minister Yingluck, big brother Thaksin, the government and everyone else affiliated with the powerful siblings.

And once again, the tension rises and the police take their place on street corners and in formations protecting government offices.  With five dead and 200 hurt last week, there is very valid concern of how things may play out now.

But actually that’s not what we need to be concerned about. There is little to do about that, other than keep calm and hope that everyone else does the same.

What we need to be concerned about is this:

There is in Thailand an elite of people with strong conservative, feudalistic values. They are high up, and they are powerful. Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban is one of them. The arch-enemies of the red-shirts – the yellow shirts – are also part of this elite. Several influential families. Parts of the Thai military, generals, decision makers, business leaders. All of them ready to fight for a complete break-down of the current system to rid it of the Shinawatra influence. Those are the people that are represented by 100.000 protesters marching around in Bangkok, taking over government offices these days.

Thaksin Shinawatra, on his side, is the leader of a movement, which has enormous power in Thailand due to a die-hard loyalty from red voters, particularly rural farmers from the North. At the same time, however, he is supported by enough money to keep voters happy and his affiliations are a spider’s web of powerful people reaching very far into the core of the system. Thaksin – or one of his affiliates – have won every single election they’ve ever participated in. If there was to be another election after these protests…they would win it once again. In short: Thaksin has effectively hijacked democracy in Thailand – he and his redshirts not afraid to put any disagreements to the vote, because they will always win.

This is what the protesters are trying to put a stop to, which is arguably a valid point. There is one problem, though: The alternative they present is even worse:

Their point is this: Because of the poor track record of voting in people who are corrupt (and always affiliated with Thaksin), the anti-government protesters argue that voting has to be suspended altogether. The electing must instead be taken care of by other means until the masses are educated enough to they know what they are doing. A minority with “higher moral standards” – presumably appointed by the King – must take care of governing the country instead.

Yup. That’s what the protesters in the street are out there fighting for. And with that fairly extreme stance, the options of what will happen next limit themselves to these three:

  1. If the government survives the current squatters’ siege, an administration with an eerily tight grip on majority – and a habit of taking corruption to a whole new level – will stay in seat.
  2. If there is an election, they will get re-elected.
  3. If the anti-protesters manage to take over, the country will then be led by an elite whose disregard for common people is so monumental they genuinely believe people are too stupid to vote.

Regardless of where the democratic dices land in Thailand this time, one thing is certain: All of these options lead to deeper divide in the nation. The split in between the redshirts and the opposition is only worsening over these re-occurring seemingly endless protests, and when the demands are so far from democracy that they are borderline unconstitutional, there is very little to work with. There has been no dialogue, no resolution, no common ground within the current political turmoil, so there is not really anything to drive the process of reconciliation forward. Well – maybe there is ONE thing: The fact that the entire country just days ago together in peace listened to the King’s annual speech in which he spoke beautifully of Thailand as a united nation of peace and prosperity.

So, Happy Birthday, King. Let’s hope Suthep and other destructive hotheads listened too.

 

By Anya Palm

Freelance journalist focusing on Southeast Asia and NIAS Associate.

www.palmwritings.com

 

 


Developing Vietnam with whom?

Restoration 2.0 for the Resurgence of Modern Vietnam

 

By Mia Ji Sørensen

”Wouldn’t you define Vietnam as a middle-income country?” I was asked this rhetorical question last week. Despite its emerging economy status, with a growth rate of approximately 7 per cent during the past two decades, it is still one of the poorest of the ‘Next 11 Countries,’ and even though Vietnam has been in vibrant development, it is now faced with stagnant economic growth. There is a lot of potential for Vietnam to move up the ladder, as it has a vast young workforce, 50 per cent of the population being younger than 26. In addition, Vietnam has gone through a gradual shift from the agricultural sector towards an industrial sector that has attracted a great amount of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). FDI has been the primary focus of many developing countries over the past decade, as most host countries have liberalised their FDI regulations. FDI has been the primary source of the buoyant economic growth in the Southeast Asian economies, and in contrast to other regions, which over the past years have experienced a decline in their FDI inflows, Southeast Asia increased by 2 per cent annually ($110 billion)[1]. Here, Singapore is the leading host destination for FDI, which also improves FDI levels in the lower-income countries in the neighbourhood such as Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia.

According to the IMF, Vietnam is defined as a lower-middle-income country (also referred to as a developing country), as its GNI per capita falls in the range between $1,026 and $4,035. Developing countries are regularly stimulated by aid from developed countries, and this is also true of Vietnam. Before the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was one of the central donors to Vietnam. After the conquest of South Vietnam in 1975, and the strain between the Chinese and the Vietnamese, the elimination of Chinese aid in 1978 compelled Hanoi to look to Moscow for economic and military assistance. This made the Soviets the largest contributors of aid, in addition to being a pivotal trade partner. But frequent occurrences of distrust between the two, in the context of Sino-Soviet contemplations, entailed that the Soviet resented their enormous aid burden in the beginning of the 1980s, as they perceived it a wasted investment. As a consequence of the Soviet experience, Vietnam is uneasy about dealing with its donors.

Developing interaction with developed countries

The European Union (EU) is by far the largest donor to Vietnam; 2013 disbursements are measured to be EUR 743 million, and the Union is also the second largest investor of FDI, surpassed only by Japan.  Nevertheless, there has been a vibrant wave of European donors shifting their relationship with Vietnam from disbursing millions of euros for Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) towards developing their respective partnerships into a more strategic manner. This goes hand in hand with more EU member states gradually phasing out donations.

In fact, during the past decade, Vietnam has conducted more than ten partnerships. Of these, four are European: Italy (2013), Germany (2011), the UK (2010) and Spain (2009). France is currently negotiating one, and two European member states have contracted sectoral partnerships that focus on climate change. Deepening relations with external partners is clearly an important aspect of Vietnamese foreign policy. The partnership agreements with the European countries should match the strategic importance in regard to the security, prosperity and international standing of Vietnam. Strategic partnerships are established to diversify the external relations of a country and for proactive integration of it into the world, by helping to develop the country and make it more resilient to external shocks. From this point of view, a partnership with real potential to create prosperity for Vietnam is the one with Germany. Germany is one of the most important EU members when it comes to economic relations, as it accounts for more than one-fourth of the overall two-way trade between the EU and Vietnam. Germany is also the second largest contributor of ODA, subsidising 8.4 per cent of overall EU grants. In 2012, the EU market became the largest export market for Vietnamese products, overtaking the United States, which had until then been the central export market ever since the trade-embargo was lifted between the two partners in 1995. It is not just because of Germany’s economic strength that Vietnam draws a great deal from this European partner. The common history of the two Germanys and the two Vietnams has connected the former DDR and North Vietnam in the framework of socialist solidarity; also, a German-Vietnamese University will be established in order to promote sustainability in the relationship between the two countries.

In April this year, a conference between Vietnam and Germany was held in Hanoi in order to discuss the process of developing a social market economy in Vietnam, utilising Germany as an example. Social Market Economy stands for an ideal compromise between two ideological ways of organising and coordinating an economy: social democracy and economic liberalism. Soziale Marktwirtshaft was an idiom introduced by former German chancellor Konrad Adenauer, and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Hanoi was thus the host of this event. Several prominent academics were invited to the conference to elaborate on the importance of reaching this ideal compromise.

Avoid the middle-income trap

In this regard, and in numerous other international gatherings between European partners and Vietnam, the Vietnamese rhetoric of what Europe can do for Vietnam focuses on avoiding the middle-income trap. The middle-income trap refers to a situation in which a middle-income country fails to transition to a high-income economy due to rising costs and declining competitiveness. A situation only a few developing economies have managed successfully, as seen in East Asia where South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore have made a transition to advanced economies. Domestic forces drove the transitions on a political and bureaucratic level for each country, albeit with different national obstacles. For Vietnam, there are several detrimental challenges; one is the correlation between growth, public governance and corruption. This is a challenge when aiming for a less closed and dynamic Vietnam, because the government maintains austere control. As the legacy of Stalinism remains, the Communist Party of Vietnam and its one-party structure largely determine the outcome of any reform and proceeding. The government maintains strong control over land ownership and enterprises of the most influential sectors, which is why the State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) remain powerful, and thus impedes private enterprises in becoming more competitive. In the current context of booming free trade agreements taking place in Asia (more than 30 were completed in the Asia Pacific in the past two decades), the SOEs and their influential presence in the Vietnamese economy is a factor crucial to the lack of sustained economic growth. As the SOEs in Vietnam are a pivotal income source for public officials, these officials are hesitant in negotiating free trade agreements.

Since the economic reform, the doi moi introduced in 1986, Vietnam has recorded impressive growth rates. Doi moi means restoration in Vietnamese and was intended to push forward a much-needed renovation process in order to reshape the regional and international agenda of the country. The Vietnamese restoration process has contributed to a successful escape from the poverty trap into the emergence of a middle-income country. Notwithstanding, there is still a long way to go; the economy is now characterised by slow growth and frail international competitiveness. For seven years, the average GDP growth rate was recorded to be 8.7 per cent (from 2000 to 2007) whereas in 2012, the growth rate has dropped to 5 per cent[2]. In the latest investment outlook conducted by The Economist (2013), Vietnam’s macroeconomic troubles have taken the shine off the country’s once strong appeal as investments and growth have a cohesive and reciprocal effect (investors are more attracted to invest in countries with a high growth vis-à-vis investments help to create growth). One of the main challenges to economic growth in Vietnam is the SOEs, and in order to continuously sustain growth, there is a demand for restructuring them.

The asymmetrical relation between private and public enterprises is a paradox because of the significant performance of the private sector in Vietnam. After the doi moi, private enterprises gained legitimacy, and their contribution to economic growth has been remarkable. According to the General Statistics Office of Vietnam, the private sector accounted for 50 per cent of the total industrial output in 1989, whereas 15 years later, this figure nearly reached 73 per cent. The private sector is also responsible for creating the majority of new jobs in this period.

By contrast, the SOEs are challenged with debt, while the public authorities, the owners of SOEs, give favourable conditions to the SOEs. The government’s mismanagement also entails a society with incomplete domestic supply chains, creating dependency on other supply chains (such as China’s) to provide the necessary components, which in turn leads to wage inflation and less attractiveness for investments. Subsequently, before we can start talking about a competitive state circumventing the middle-income trap, there are domestic obstacles that have to be dealt with by the government – obligating the public officials in showing true strength. This will require a new model of thinking within the Vietnamese government and public officials, who are rather rigid and still bound to traditional socialist ideologies.

Obviously, the German model of a social market economy seems appropriate for Vietnam because of the shared ideologies about market and state, but it will only function in practice with true political determination of adapting to it, particularly in relation to market reforms. The central idea of a social market economy is to protect the freedom of the market participants, on both the demand side and the supply side, while securing social equity. If the country is to avoid falling into the middle-income trap, there are domestic challenges that have to be solved, as there is restricted freedom for private enterprises, which creates a gap in social equity. If the officials are serious about a social market economy, one of the key responsibilities for the government is to establish a policy framework which is effective for competition. This will require openness and transparency and a serious alternative to ingrained public preferential treatment. This is the challenge in a one-party state and the process is now in a reactive phase, rather than a proactive one; hence a significant demand for change has already arisen. Ultimately, if the Vietnamese politicians and public officials want to put Vietnam in focus, overcome stagnant growth and middle-income traps, it all begins at the core of the one-party system.

What is necessary is a new doi moi, a restoration process 2.0 in order to make the essential shift from rhetorical promises to action taken to start/create a structural reform that can renovate and renew the notion of a modern Vietnam.

 

Mia Ji Sørensen,

MA Student in International Studies and Social Science, Aarhus University,

Affiliated Workplace Student at Nordic Institute of Asian Studies Political Science, University of Copenhagen

Bibliography:

 

  • Freedom House: Countries at the Crossroads 2012 freedomhouse.org
  • United Nations Conference on Trade and Development UNCTAD STAT Database
  • General Statistics Office of Vietnam (GSO)
  • East Asia Forum – Economics, Politics and Public Policy in East Asia and the Pacific: Developing Asia and the middle-income trap http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2013/08/05/developing-asia-and-the-middle-income-trap/
  • EUROSTAT Comext Statistical Database HS2,4
  • International Monetary Fond, imf.org 2013
  • The Economist Corporate Network 2013: Investing in Accelerating Asia
  • Vietnamnet.vn: article published April 26, 2013 “How many strategic partners are enough for Vietnam” by Le Hong Hiep
  • Nguyen, T.T. & Dijk, M.A. (2012). Corruption, growth and governance: private vs. state-owned firms in Vietnam. Journal of Banking and Finance 2012.
  • Kokko, A. (2011). EU and Vietnam: From a Parental to A Competitive Relationship. Retrieved from academica.edu

[1] UNCTAD: United Nations World Investment Report 2012

[2] Data and own calculations retrieved from UNCTAD 2013.


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