Discover more from Bundle of Contradictions
COVID-19 runs rampant in Indonesia, ASEAN's Rorschach test in Myanmar, the long struggle in Hong Kong and the women who changed war reporting
It’s been a few months since I sent my last missive but the contradictions of everyday life have got in the way of my contemplation of the contradictions of international relations. Thanks for bearing with me. Sydney’s lockdown has, sadly, given me some extra time to pull together this update.
COVID-19 runs rampant in Indonesia
Since the pandemic began, epidemiologists and the wider community of Indonesia watchers feared that Southeast Asia’s biggest nation would be hit by a big wave. Sadly, it’s now happening. I’ve heard many desperate stories from friends in Indonesia and am thinking of everyone there in these difficult times.
Dicky Budiman, an Indonesian epidemiologist and outspoken critic of the government’s handling of the pandemic, explains what’s gone wrong in this podcast.
Indonesia was always in a vulnerable position because of its high population density (esp in Java), under-funded and over-stretched health system, widespread inequality and government coordination challenges. After an extended initial period of denial about the risks of COVID-19, President Joko Widodo’s response has been to focus on vaccines and reject demands from medical experts for lockdowns and strict health protocols.
Despite the surge in cases and deaths in recent weeks, as the Delta variant has spread, Jokowi is staying the course, continuing to argue that lockdowns would damage the economy. On the one hand, he’s right that for the vast numbers of Indonesians working in the informal sector, a lockdown would be disastrous because they can’t work from home as a driver or construction worker. On the other hand, the economy, which is in recession for the first time since 1998, won’t truly recover until the pandemic is brought under control.
But rather than hammering out these issues with a broad range of experts, Jokowi seems to be governing from gut, as is his style. The result looks bleak and the real extent of the problem is likely to be much worse than the official numbers, given that Indonesia still has one of the world’s lowest testing rates: 46 tests per 1,000 people compared to 124 in the Philippines and 420 in Malaysia. Jessica Washington, one of the few foreign correspondents left in Indonesia, had a strong report for Al Jazeera on the personal toll Indonesians are facing.
Even as the crisis deepens, there’s been minimal critical media coverage within Indonesia and very little political pushback. Members of Jokowi’s big-tent coalition seem more concerned with jockeying for the 2024 presidential election, and talk of a possible Jokowi third-term. And it would be bitterly ironic if a crisis exacerbated by the government’s poor handling were to be used as a justification for extending Jokowi’s term in office. For now, as so often in Indonesia, the government is relying on its people to be resilient and forgiving.
ASEAN’s Rorschach test in Myanmar
Many political analysts have argued that the ongoing political crisis in Myanmar is an unprecedented test of the credibility of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. I suspect it’s more of a Rorschach test that measures your pre-existing perceptions and expectations about the organisation.
If you believe ASEAN's stated commitments to human rights, the rule of law and regional integration, then you’re likely to be very disappointed by its failure to make any headway on the already very limited five-point consensus agreed at the special Jakarta summit (PDF here) in April.
But if you are more skeptical (or realistic?) about ASEAN, it’s not at all surprising that it prefers indecision to explicit division and prevarication to problem-solving (the key is often “agreeing to disagree”).
Could we really expect two military regimes (Myanmar and Thailand), two Communist dictatorships (Laos and Vietnam), one personalised dictatorship (Cambodia), an absolute monarchy (Brunei), two flawed democracies (Singapore and Malaysia), and two illiberal democracies (Indonesia and the Philippines) to pursue tougher measures against one of their own over a coup and crackdown?
My friend Evan Laksmana has made a good case for why ASEAN should do the right thing in Myanmar, which isn’t the same as expecting it to.
I suspect that the mild steps taken by ASEAN in April were driven more by embarrassment at the scale of the Tatmadaw’s killings at that time than by a real willingness or enthusiasm to intervene. Several Southeast Asian diplomats I’ve spoken to privately, including from the democracies, believe that the Tatmadaw is likely to be in power for some time to come so they don’t want to burn their bridges.
The sad truth is that many realists in Canberra, Washington, New Delhi, Tokyo and Beijing are making similar calculations, even while the US, UK and the Europeans continue to ratchet up sanctions. Although these governments have all argued that ASEAN must lead efforts to find solutions to the crisis in Myanmar, they know that ASEAN member-states have little leverage and political will with which to intervene. But it suits them to palm the problem off onto ASEAN.
Giving evidence to a parliamentary inquiry in Canberra, I and my colleague Hervé Lemahieu argued that the best chance for outside intervention is if the US and other Western partners can work with Japan, India and China, as well as ASEAN member-states to lean on the Tatmadaw in their own different ways. That does look like a tall order in our fractious world. But if the US and China are to live up to Anthony Blinken’s call to be “collaborative” when they can, Myanmar would be a good place to start.
Ultimately, Southeast Asia would almost certainly be in worse shape if it didn’t have ASEAN. It remains indispensable but inadequate. The CIA was on the money (for once) in 1973 when it predicted that ASEAN “will probably never develop into a well-integrated or cohesive unit” but can “still fill an important role in articulating shared local interests vis-a-vis outside power groups”.
The flame of resistance in Hong Kong
I’d like to end on a happy note but, if you haven’t guessed already, I’m no Panglossian. I’ll try my best though for the sake of my own sanity. Even as Hong Kong’s last pro-democracy newspaper is shut down, ever more Hong Kongers flee their home, and Hong Kong literally becomes a police state, I was somehow heartened by this conversation with former Hong Kong Legislative Councillor Ted Hui (listen to podcast here).
At first glance, Ted’s story is not very uplifting. Facing nine separate politically motivated prosecutions, the democratic activist fled Hong Kong for good in December, after persuading a judge to return his passport on the pretence that he was conducting a parliamentary visit to Denmark. He later made his way to Australia to set up his life in permanent exile, with the Hong Kong authorities vowing to pursue him overseas.
In these difficult circumstances, Ted remained a passionate yet thoughtful proponent of his cause, talking with honesty but not defeatism about the scale of the challenge facing Hong Kong’s democracy movement.
As he spoke about the inter-generational nature of the struggle to come, I was reminded of my youth as the child of a refugee from Communist Czechoslovakia. The hard-drinking, heavy-smoking exiled Czech dissidents who gathered around our suburban London dinner table when I was a boy were embittered by decades of struggle (one of them wrote a book with the suitably depressing title, After the Spring Came Winter). But by keeping the flame of resistance burning, they helped light the way when the Communist dictatorships eventually collapsed.
Must-read book: You Don’t Belong Here
As an undergraduate fascinated by Vietnam and journalism, I devoured the memoirs and assorted scribblings of the many famous men who reported on the American-led war there. But, to my shame, I was not aware of the transformative role played by several pioneering female war correspondents.
Elizabeth Becker’s new book You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War is an illuminating corrective and a great, and necessarily jarring, read.
The three women she profiles - Frances FitzGerald, Catherine Leroy and Kate Webb - had to defy sexist slights, unwanted advances and open hostility on their way to the frontlines. They saw, experienced and reported incredible and harrowing things. And their work took a heavy toll on them in different ways. But their stories are inspiring.
I spoke to Elizabeth, a former war correspondent in Cambodia, about the book and her own experiences in this podcast.
Thanks for reading to the end.
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