Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia.

AuthorWesley, Michael
PositionBook review

Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia. By Michael Vatikiotis. London: Weidenfield & Nicholson, 2017. Softcover: 336pp.

Southeast Asia has long been a paradox in modern geopolitics. A region home to over 600 million people, some of the world's most dynamic economies, and the crucial straits linking the Pacific and Indian Oceans, it somehow manages to evade serious and sustained scrutiny in the foreign ministries of the Great Powers, newspapers and major strategic journals of the twenty-first century. The world's eyes tend to gravitate towards Southeast Asia's two giant neighbours China and India, or further afield to the Middle East. And when attention does fleetingly fall on Southeast Asia, it tends to drift away soon after, satisfied with tired bromides about the region's stability and developmental focus.

Blood and Silk, the most recent book of long-time Southeast Asia resident and journalist Michael Vatikiotis, is a welcome tonic for this widespread myopia about Southeast Asia. Engagingly-written, doggedly honest and acutely analytical, Blood and Silk seeks to introduce readers to the deep complexities and often overlooked injustices and challenges that characterize this complex region. At the outset, Vatikiotis observes, "one of the first things I have learned about the part of Asia I have called home for the past 30 years is to be wary of explanations. To get too comfortable with explaining a certain trend or phenomena is to forget the exception lurking around the corner, to mistake change for continuity, and to assume that something discovered is a new phenomenon" (p. 11).

Vatikiotis seeks to convey the fingertips experience of a lifetime of journalism in the countries of Southeast Asia by presenting a gritty, realist and deeply humanist account of the region. Blood and Silk is a meditation on "the interplay of power, privilege and violent conflict" (p. 11) that rarely makes the news either within or beyond Southeast Asia. There are separate chapters on the history and persistence of powerful and charismatic leaders in the region; on the structural dominance and selfishness of elites and the suffering of the poor and powerless; on the impunity of the powerful; on the shortcomings of moments of liberalization and the workings of democracy; and on corruption, ethnic conflicts, the rise of identity politics and extremist Islam. Each chapter interweaves history, analysis and personal anecdote, artfully drawing the...

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