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Day January 3, 2018

Report From Southeast Asia


We asked our Southeast Asia Correspondent to consider the possible similarities between events in the broad south Asian area today and the great ferment that took place in Eastern Europe in the years before the October Revolution in 1917. This is his report.

–The Editors

I just passed through Vietnam. There are big strikes from time to time, and even some very militant, but I only know what I read.

I’m mostly limited to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) so I never see anything in terms of struggle. Saigon is devoid of that, but it is developing quickly in terms of growth. The center of the city now looks infinitely better than nyc with tree-lined parks and beautiful marble sidewalks with a new sidewalk being constructed underneath. It is filled with Gucci, Prada, and Versace shops, and massive shopping malls that sell everything from Godiva chocolate to half million–dollar Maserati cars. Some stuff you can’t make up. There’s a high-end gourmet French restaurant called “Le bourgeois” around the corner from City Hall that flies the hammer and sickle.

I’ve been to the impoverished south and Mekong Delta where the ethnic Khmer are, but it, like most of Cambodia, looks desolate and hopeless.

I haven’t been to the central highlands or the north, where apparently a lot of things happen. A lot of the factories are an hour out of Ho Chi Minh City.

On the other hand, I passed yet another big demo in Cambodia on the way out of there. It was at the same place the big strike wave of 2012–13 ended when special police shot up a bunch of people. This demonstration was over unpaid bonuses, but it might mean an end to the fear that issued out of that crackdown.

Unfortunately, I have not seen anything that indicates any move beyond temporary economic struggles in Cambodia at all since 2013. There’s no workers’ movement or anything in Cambodia, but there are constant strikes and protests. A lot of isolated fights break out all over the country: land fights, strikes, environmental fights, etc. The only time they are ever united in any way recently was after the 2013 election when the opposition went into the streets to a limited degree and tried to gather all the various forces into a catalyst to put themselves in power after they lost the election.

I could be missing something in terms of potentials of the workers. Apparently the rulers are scared. They (including the Prime Minister) do speeches to groups of factory workers almost every day. Whether they want to criticize the (now disbanded) opposition or cheer China for its support, they do it in front of mostly female garment factory workers. And the reforms are coming too: they are opening public transport for factory workers, introducing social healthcare for them, creating a pension system, and now the latest move is to require each factory to build a clinic inside for the workers. Of course this could also just be good marketing. Unable to compete with the slave wages in Myanmar, Bangladesh, etc., Cambodia has long promoted their factories as being superior to sweatshops in the region. This appeals to liberal consumers and those in charge of aid in the West. The Cambodian rulers, who are in power in thanks to the un, are experts at satisfying foreign donors in words while doing something else in deeds.

I know next to nothing about India. Bangladesh strikes seem to get pretty militant with occupations, attacks on managers, etc., but that seems to be more of a cultural thing. Every election there are huge violent demos, plus there are always violent brothel raids, honor killings, kidnappings, etc. That’s not present in places like Cambodia or Vietnam.

There’s no real movement in Thailand at all after Thaksin sold out the red shirts and the military took over, except for some isolated “propaganda of the deed” actions and (so-far) empty calls from renegade red shirt leaders in exile.

The main “movement” in Myanmar at the moment is the ongoing Buddhist-nationalist pogrom against the Rohingya.

How does any of this compare to the run up to the October Revolution and associated wave of uprisings? I’m no expert on Europe pre-1917, but I seem to recall that there were big social democratic parties, people reading and discussing documents like the Communist Manifesto, big public meetings, the Second International, socialist and radical émigrés connecting across borders, strike waves stretching across borders, people singing “The Internationale” in multiple languages, workers flying red flags at strikes, people recognizing themselves as workers and as part of an exploited working class.

I see none of that at all in Southeast Asia. What I see is only occasional outbursts of industrial action. Sadly, immense national animosity is much more prevalent than any socialist or even more general working class consciousness, which is totally absent.

I could be wrong, and indeed I hope I am.