(Un)making Southeast Asia’s Illiberal Order: Anti-Geopolitics and the Authoritarian Turn
Time & LocationSession 6
Thu 11:00–12:30 Room 1.102
- Sabina Lawreniuk Royal Holloway, University of London
- Bridget Welsh National Taiwan University
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- Legal Geographies of Authoritarian Neoliberalism: Garment Worker Struggles and Cambodia’s Law on Trade Unions Sabina Lawreniuk Royal Holloway, University of London
In January 2014, a general strike called in the ongoing ferment of a contested general election outcome brought one million workers on to the streets of Cambodia in support of wage rises in the garment sector. Dispersed using lethal force, the longer-term response of state authorities to the growing threat of workers’ increasingly vocal dissent was the passing of the Law on Trade Unions in 2016. According to the International Trade Union Council, the coupling of the state’s physical intimidation with the legal violence welded by the new law creates a civil society environment for workers that now ranks among the ‘most hostile’ in the region. In this paper, I draw from interviews with trade union groups and an ethnographic study of a 3-month factory live-in demonstration to elaborate the contentious legal geographies of the rise of authoritarian neoliberalism in Cambodia through a study of the Law on Trade Unions. I show, on the one hand, how the Law on Trade Unions extends existing rule by law strategies, as part of an attempt to insulate the state from the social and political conflict that arises from worker discontent over the contradictions of Cambodia’s uneven neoliberal development. However, this strengthening of the state simultaneously engenders its growing fragility as it becomes the increasingly direct target of worker frustrations no longer contained within disciplining trade union channels. Thus, in highlighting the entanglements of everyday activism and state efforts to contain dissent, the paper illustrates the contradictions that underpin the entrenchment of Cambodia’s authoritarian populist regime.
- Market Citizenship Schemes and Poor People’s Politics in Manila, Jakarta and Phnom Penh Caroline Hughes University of Notre Dame
Programs to assist the urban poor in South East Asia promote an ideal of market citizenship as an adaptation to the financialization and gentrification of urban space. Such schemes offer real benefits to poor people – assistance for relocation as an alternative to forced expropriation, or cash transfers in situations of dire poverty, for example. However, such schemes also set out explicitly to remake relationships within poor communities, between the poor and the middle class, between the poor and political elites. Research into poor people’s movements in three South East Asian cities suggests that such schemes are rarely rejected outright, precisely because they offer real short-term benefits. Rather they meet with highly contextualized strategies of negotiation, determined by local specificities. In particular, existing (although constantly transforming) political relations between the poor and their political representatives are disruptive for market citizenship schemes. This paper examines the fortunes of market citizenship programs in the field of informal settler relocation, against the backdrop of rising populist politics in three cities. It concludes that ideals of market citizenship built into donor programs are manipulated or subverted in different ways by the poor, with different outcomes for the poor and for urban politics across the three cities, as they intrude into political relationships that reflect particular historical trajectories and contemporary political economies.
- Networked Spaces of Hope: Social Media and Grassroots Politics in Southeast Asia Merlyna Lim Carleton University
Social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, and devices such as smartphones have increasingly played a critical role in facilitating and mobilizing collective actions, activism, and social movements all over the world, including Southeast Asia, for both progressive and regressive causes. Simultaneously, the very same technologies have also been utilized by states and public authorities for their own benefits, including to control public opinions and repress dissents. Moving away from assessing the presumed democratic potentials of social media, in this presentation, I explore complex and contradictory relationships between social media and politics and offer an in-depth understanding of how state and society relations, power, and politics are contested and exercised on, with, and through social media. Drawing on (snapshots) of case studies from the region, particularly from Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, I specifically analyze the roles of social media platforms as they were utilized and appropriated by grassroots activists in the pursuit of justice and counter-hegemonic project. My research reveals that the technology did not transform individual citizens into politically active citizens and social media are limited in their capacity to diffuse old and traditional (ethno-religious) political groupings. However, by appropriating social media in their pursuit of ‘justice’ politics, grassroots activists have opened new possibilities for participation and engagement in politics and expand the space for people’s agency in shaping the future of politics in the nation, and the region.
- Resisting with the State: Agrarian Struggles for Land in Post-Socialist Laos Miles Kenney-Lazar National University of Singapore
Over the past 15 years, the government of the (post-)socialist Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR or Laos) has conceded more than one million hectares of “state” land – an area equivalent to five percent of the country’s territory – to capitalists for resource extraction and commodity production projects, such as mining, hydropower, logging, and agricultural plantations. The allocated land ostensibly owned by the state is in fact customarily used, occupied, and managed by Lao peasants and indigenous peoples for generations. Thus, its violent expropriation at the behest of corporate actors has displaced rural people from the lands, forests, and rivers that constitute their means of subsistence and production. Facing a coercive and repressive authoritarian state apparatus that jails its citizens for political activity perceived as regime-threatening, Lao peasants have resorted to creative political strategies of contestation that I refer to as resisting with rather than against the state. “Resisting with the state” does not suggest that peasant and state interests and goals are aligned (this could not be further from the truth as the state is expropriating peasant land on behalf of foreign capital), but that peasants are working within the hegemonic power relations of the state to protect access to important lands. Employing data from 20 months of ethnographic field research in Laos, I show how different groups of eastern Savannakhet province near the Vietnam border have sought to protect agricultural and forest lands from expropriation by a Chinese paper-pulp company planting eucalyptus and acacia trees and a Vietnamese rubber enterprise.
- Succeeding in Failures: Philippine Party-List Electoral Quests and the “People's Agenda” Rolando Talampas University of the Philippines, Diliman
The February 1986 Philippine People Power Revolution at EDSA* overthrew the 20-year rule of Ferdinand Marcos built on the basis of “constitutional authoritarianism”. It gave those who fought for democratic restoration hopes for greater people’s participation in state affairs but vestiges of strongman politics have continued to reside in local and national affairs.
As the failure of sought after political and economic reforms has continued to fuel mass disenchantment and sympathies for the fight for people’s agenda, leaders of people’s organizations have organized party-list groups to throw their hats into the electoral fray, hoping against hope that small reforms may come their way. But party-list groups from the genuinely marginalized sectors and classes, with or without elections, mount campaigns to educate the public, enjoin them into actual mobilizations, and serve notice that the spirit of EDSA 1986 could not be wished away even with the resurgence of populist authoritarianism in very recent years.
By focusing on the analyses by the party-list groups of the national and local political and economic situations and relating these with the ‘people’s agenda” in the midst of right-wing populist authoritarianism, this paper argues that a protracted stalemate could possibly incubate a pre-EDSA 1986-like scenario but not a bloodless one.
The ‘disturbing phenomenon’ of ‘illiberal democracy’ (Zakaria 1997:42) – where nominal elections are held but the rule of law is to a greater or lesser extent suspended – is on the rise, not just in Southeast Asia but across the globe. From Poland to the Philippines, Brazil to Burma, the broad international sweep of these trends (e.g. Hangmann and Reyntjens 2016; Gonzales 2016; Chang, Zhu and Pak 2007) has provoked suggestions both within the academic literature and popular discourse that we are now witnessing a ‘global authoritarian turn’ (Handel and Dayan 2017).
The scale of this shift is certainly troublesome and warrants careful scrutiny of more general antecedents. Nevertheless, the globalist language that has come to pervade the debate is unhelpful, presenting a totalising reading of authoritarian expansion as a process of top-down and often North- South diffusion. In this reading, the influence of local geographies, histories and people for ushering, provoking, and refusing the trajectory of authoritarian change is erased.
In defiance of this eviscerating imaginary, this panel welcomes contributions that tell alternative stories of the authoritarian turn, situated in the struggles of the subaltern and their resistance to practices of illiberal statecraft. We invite critical reflections on the ‘anti-geopolitics’ of the authoritarian turn, drawing on Routledge’s conceptualisation of counter-hegemonic skirmishes waged from outside the traditional positions and locations associated with geopolitics: that is, beyond sites of political, economic, and cultural power and prestige.
Indeed, beneath representations of Southeast as a subcontinent of smiles, yielding to the strictures of authoritarian control, is an inured history of rebellion from below. This history resonates today in the struggles of Cambodia’s garment workers, Thai land rights activism, and Malaysian women’s campaigns for political representation, among countless others; all waged in the face of state hostility or outright repression. This panel will examine these grassroots challenges, elaborating a ‘geopolitics from below’ that presents contemporary political change in Southeast Asia from the perspective of those engaged in resistance to the authoritarian state.