Old habits die hard as the East changes

Sebastien Berger
23 Jun 07

The old man in Gucci shades stepped forward slowly, carefully placing his four-legged cane on the ground.

“Buy some lychees for the foreigner,” he ordered his daughter, at a roadside stall in the countryside of western Cambodia. This correspondent had never been given fresh fruit by a genocidal geriatric before but Nuon Chea , Brother Number Two to Pol Pot and a man with the blood of up to two million people on his hands, did exactly that.

It felt surreal, as does the tortured progress of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge tribunal, set up to try the likes of Nuon Chea but beset by delays, even after the government spent years in negotiations, seeking to avoid embarrassing the many former Khmers Rouge in its upper ranks.

In the meantime there is no accounting for the victims, their relatives or history, while memories fade and potential defendants die.

It is a stark demonstration of Asian pragmatism over principle, and one that the people have no choice but to accept – Cambodia is ruled by Hun Sen, a strongman who has crushed dissent and co-opted the remains of the political opposition.

Similar states of affairs exist behind the palm-lined beaches and growing economies of the region. Of the other countries of south-east Asia, two – Burma and Thailand – are under military rule, two are Communist dictatorships, two are de facto one-party states, ruled by the same organisation since independence, and one is an absolute Islamic monarchy.

Only three – Indonesia, the Philippines, and East Timor – hold competitive, if sometimes flawed, elections.

Where democracy is a recent innovation, it can be inspiring. In the tsunami-devastated Indonesian province of Aceh queues of people lined up to elect a former separatist as governor, just along the road from a mass grave containing 46,718 bodies.

Elsewhere, though, quiet acceptance of the status quo is the general rule. In his book East and West, Chris Patten decried the concept of “Asian values” – the idea that Oriental societies are somehow different – and argued for the universality of human rights.

It is an admirable, idealist position, but in practice reality interferes. For the most part the nations of south-east Asia have gone from monarchies, to colonies, to autocracies. There has been no opportunity for a democratic tradition to develop, and deference to authority, whether familial, social, or political, is ingrained from birth, as it has been for centuries.

Even in Thailand, long seen as a beacon for democracy in the region, the culture of obedience is such that when the old elite asserted themselves over the elected prime minister in a palace-backed military coup last year it was hugely popular.

As one Thai woman put it: “The army belongs to the king, and the king belongs to Thailand, so it’s okay.”

Outside poverty-stricken basket-cases like Burma and Laos, increasing material comforts have allowed the authorities to establish a trade-off with political liberty, with Singapore and Vietnam as the prime examples.

At the celebrations for the Crown Prince of Brunei’s wedding, one citizen explained: “Who needs democracy when the sultan gives us everything?”

And with face and status all-important in many societies, such as Thailand, the opportunity to buy international brand names matters more to some than the nature of their government.

Instead it is left to a few brave souls to carry the torch for greater freedoms than the right to buy a Louis Vuitton bag.

Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi is renowned as the world’s only imprisoned Nobel laureate, but there are unsung heroes too – Chee Soon Juan, Singapore’s most outspoken politician and an occasional resident of the city-state’s prison, or Thich Quang Do, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who lives under “pagoda arrest” in Ho Chi Minh City for daring to defy the Communist regime.

Wearing simple brown robes, he is probably the most impressive person I have ever met – and secret police followed me, blatantly obviously, from his temple.

“They put me into prison, they can put me under house arrest, they can do anything they like, but I am not afraid,” he said. “You can stifle one man for his whole life, or you can stifle a group of people for some time, but you cannot stifle the whole people all the time.” I hope he is right