Michael Vatikiotis concerned about rising intolerance in Southeast Asia

Michael Vatikiotis concerned about rising intolerance in Southeast Asia

17 June 2018

Luke Foddy and Gabriella Samuels

The “advance of intolerance,” is among the biggest threats facing Southeast Asia today, one of the world’s leading commentators on the region told an Asia House audience this week.

Michael Vatikiotis, author of the acclaimed Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia, expressed concerns about a “reduction in the space for pluralism, tolerance, and diversity,” in the region.

Rising nationalism and religious fundamentalism threaten the harmonious coexistence of Southeast Asia’s diverse societies, he said, adding that “the glue that held them together is now coming apart.”

The diplomat and former journalist was in conversation with author Lionel Shriver – with whom he says he shares “a mutual anxiety about the future.” Speaking at an Asia House Arts and Learning event focusing on the rise of Asia, Vatikiotis and Shriver shared a thought-provoking discussion touching on several themes, from the recent US-North Korea summit to the growing influence of China.

But it was Southeast Asia – where Vatikiotis has worked and lived for more than 30 years – where he chose to start, with opening remarks on the political situation in the region.

Invoking the recent Islamist terror attacks against Christian churches in Indonesia, Vatikiotis painted a worrying picture of a shift towards nationalism, fundamentalism and intolerance. The elections in Malaysia were tainted by xenophobic rhetoric, while the marginalisation and persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar highlights the region’s enduring propensity for conflict – a key theme in his book.

Another theme is the seemingly endless cycle of blooming democracies which then erode into despotic, corrupt regimes. “The trajectory has always been one of rise and fall” of democracy, he said, confessing that this bitter cycle he has left him “angry and frustrated.”

Perversely, it is perhaps Southeast Asia’s remarkable economic success in recent decades that is now driving these darker forces. Vatikiotis explained that not everyone has benefited from globalisation and the region’s economic rise. “Rapid growth has created poverty, and people take refuge in something else.”

This includes extreme interpretations of religion, which he says are on the rise – including fundamental Islam, Buddhism and Christianity. “Piety is a problem,” he said.

This is something Shriver, author of successful novels We Need to Talk About Kevin and The Mandibles, explored with an intriguing tangent into Western societies, where religion has tracked a declining trend. She contended that other constructs have emerged to satisfy a need for fervour; that “religion has been replaced by a far-left ideology that is also extremely narrow.”

For Shriver, who has faced criticism from some quarters for her own views on diversity, there are comparisons to be found between religious extremism and the emerging ideology she describes. The author identified “a fervour” within extreme liberalism “that I understand with fundamentalist religion.”

The rise of Southeast Asian fundamentalism is generally underreported in the media, Vatikiotis opined. He warned of fertile ground for more extremist, intolerant movements, highlighting Myanmar as an example. “If ever there was a crucible for violent jihad, it’s there,” he said, in reference to the mistreatment of the country’s Muslim minority.

Yet there are other winds of change blowing in the region, to borrow a phrase from Blood and Silk. Key among them is China.

Vatikiotis dedicates the final chapters of his book to China’s rise and increasing influence, and Shriver was keen to dive deeper into this issue. Can China be excluded from Asia’s sense of ascendancy?

“You can’t leave out China,” Vatikiotis said, “it’s part of that feeling.” But Beijing is seen as both an opportunity and a threat within Asia.

“China has become the most important source of cash for infrastructure in Southeast Asia, and Southeast Asia needs more infrastructure,” he said. But Beijing’s influence is also causing anxiety, with Vatikiotis highlighting current tensions in Australia, where concerns of Chinese political influence has created an environment that the author describes as having a “McCarthyist tinge.”

Shriver asked how the world will change as China’s influence increases. Vatikiotis was broadly optimistic.

“There’s a common refrain that ‘China is not part of the rules based order.’ But I think China probably wants to be part of future conversation on the rules based order.”

As China’s global leadership role increases, it will come to appreciate the costs, both economically and politically, of balancing global interests.

“As they do so they will realise it’s not all fun and games,” Shriver contributed. “It costs money.”

“Yes, and do you know what that leads to? Rules and order,” Vatikiotis replied, saying it will be in China’s interest to have an established, stable global system.

A lively discussion with the audience saw Shriver and Vatikiotis debate Asia’s mixed relationship with democracy, the role of China and the US as “the world’s policeman,” and the importance of language in Asian diplomacy. And what about the surprise election result in Malaysia? Does that make Vatikiotis question his thesis that there is little prospect of democratic progress in Southeast Asia?

He confessed, in the immediate glow of Mahathir’s historic victory, that he wondered whether his assertions in Blood and Silk had been conveyed too forcefully. But that anxiety has passed.

“Yes, there was lots of pious and sombre declarations of ‘how we’re going to reform,’” Vatikitois said. “But the culture of power hasn’t changed.”

Despite his concerns, Vatikiotis does believe that Asia has the potential to undergo a “transition” to more open and democratic norm. But this is threatened by the socio-economic and geopolitical factors that he and Shriver so expertly discussed. Change is happening, Vatikiotis said. “But it won’t be as smooth as silk.”