Kevin W. Fogg

Islamic History in Southeast Asia


By Kevin W. Fogg, Nov 14 2016 08:34AM

While I've been out in the field on research, it has been very hard to post on the blog; many apologies for those hoping for more updates. I hope to add a few things this week to make up for lost time.

I, like so many of my countrymen (including the majority of those who voted), was surprised and perhaps even mildly disappointed about the unexpected win by Donald Trump in the American presidential elections. International commentary has largely focused on related trends in Europe. Many folks have connected the triumph of populism in the US to the triumph of nativism in the UK’s recent EU membership referendum. Former Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi has happily welcomed comparisons between his political profile and Donald Trump.

Of course while living in Southeast Asia, I have been thinking about leaders in this region who might be seen as analogous to Donald Trump. Here I put forward three possible points of comparison (in inverse order to their leap to national elections).

Over the last year, many commentators have looked at the occasionally foul-mouthed President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, as analogous to Trump’s insult-filled campaign. Duterte (somewhat like the American president-elect) enjoys insulting incumbent American president Barack Obama, American diplomatic staff, American foreign policy, and lots of other things. Both Trump and Duterte have had troubles staying on the Pope’s good side. Both men are fairly populist; both have encouraged violence in society to tackle perceived problems; and both have said problematic things about women. Recently, Duterte had a calling from God to tone down his language; it is as yet unclear if president-elect Trump will undergo a similar transformation. Another key difference: Duterte had decades of experience in government, by being the mayor of his hometown, Davao City. (Fun fact: Duterte has been open to the comparison, even while he feels he is just a “small molecule” compared to Trump.)

In the lead-up to election day, as Trump was threatening to reject the election results as rigged (if he lost), I was thinking quite a bit about Indonesian former general, party leader, and losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto. Both Prabowo and Trump have authoritarian tendencies, of course, and I think the term “Oligarchic Populism” could be applied to both. But Prabowo’s intransigent denial of the election results that saw him lose the presidency in 2014 looked to me like a model for the kind of court case and contentious public conflict that could have appeared if Trump followed through on threats to reject any losing outcome. There are also some interesting arguments to be made here about their tortured relationship with the press: certainly both know how to work the media, but Prabowo was supported in the end only by TVOne (owned by another Indonesian oligarch to whom he was politically allied) and called all other media horrendously biased, while Trump seemed to reject the whole media establishment except his personal buddies (most notably Sean Hannity). The comparison really ended on election day, though; Indonesia chose (by a narrower than expected margin) to embrace a different kind of populism in President Joko Widodo, while the American electoral college fell to Trump. There were other differences, too, though. Prabowo was famously good at controlling him temper on the political stage (although not behind the scenes, apparently)—I remember how he had even encouraged Megawati Soekarnoputri to play nice on TV when he was her running mate in 2009. Prabowo’s background in public life and military service, also, was markedly different from Trump’s media and business profile. (Another fun connection: two of Prabowo’s close political allies, Fadli Zon and Setya Novanto, claimed at a political rally in the lobby of Trump Tower in 2015 that the Indonesian people like Trump “very much.”)

The most surprising connection, for me, was made by a friend in Thailand several weeks ago, who compared Donald Trump to former prime minister and now famed persona-non-grata Thaksin Shinawatra. (Apparently colleagues at New Mandala had already made this comparisonand more in Thai politics.) In terms of personal résumé, I was struck by the similarities: big-city billionaires who appealed to rural, working-class constituencies to the consternation of other national elites and liberal urban centers. Thaksin was involved in politics longer, certainly, and was unrivalled within his popular Thai Rak Thai Party, but their rise to power was still a bit of a surprise. As many people are fearing from a Trump presidency, when in power he was accused of playing favorites, being capricious, and most dangerously using the state apparatus to benefit his own business empire. His political movement has been so strong and so controversial in Thailand that it has prompted two army coups: both the one against him in 2006 (since which time he has not come back to the country to face pending charges) and the second against his sister (and political heir) in 2014. Let us hope that a Trump presidency in America does not become so very polarizing.

So, is Donald Trump the Thaksin of America? The Prabowo of the United States? Or New York’s own Duterte? I look forward to input from others, either here or on Facebook.

By Kevin W. Fogg, Apr 29 2016 02:32PM

Last night our esteemed colleagues at the Blavatnik School of Government welcomed back an old Oxford alum, former Prime Minister of Thailand Abhisit Vejjajiva (St John's [PPE], and later Nuffield [MSc Econ]). He gave a wide-ranging and surprisingly open talk, considering he and his country live under a rather unsavory military junta, and I was very glad to attend. No surprise: his poise was really excellent, and he was clearly very charming. Perhaps this is why my Indonesian niece has been known to fawn over him (or more likely it's because he ranked highly on "hottest head of government" lists during his leadership period).

The evening generally steered clear of critiques of the military, or of his administration, or of fierce debate at all. I am afraid that I asked the most intemperate question, and this was calling out the former Prime Minister for claiming that all 10 countries of Southeast Asia have united in the ASEAN Community. (Obviously he left out Timor Leste, which was particularly ironic because the kind of political culture that he claims to want to build in the region-- liberal democratic thought, broadly speaking-- is alive and well in the country with far-and-away the highest female representation in parliament, among other good markers.) I was surprised, but not shocked, that no one brought up the critiques of Thailand's Democrat Party (or their allies in the military) being heavy-handed on protesters, when he spent so much of his time disparaging the way that his political opponents targeted his party and his person. One of the most striking statements of the whole night, and one that would make a fascinating debating proposition, was when former PM Abhisit said, "Regardless of what you think of the coup, both my colleagues in the Democrat Party and my political opponents are safer now because of it." His argument is that there are no longer fights on the street, no longer attackers hurling grenades at his house, no longer shootings at previously peaceful rallies. Interesting.

Another provocative statement was when the former PM started comparing the Thai experience to other countries abroad. He was prompted by an audience member, who noted how liberal democrats also have trouble winning at the ballot box in Israel, and how their right-wing opponents use electoral mandates to justify all kinds of excesses. (I am not quite as sure that the categories of left and right apply so cleanly in Thai politics of the last 15 years, but it is an interesting comparison.) PM Abhisit then reminded us all of the current situation in Brazil, where they seem to be setting up the kind of intractable, polar-opposite camps within the political system that Thailand has become stuck in. The lengthiest parallel was made with Egypt, where PM Abhisit saw a very similar right-wing government engaging in corruption and excesses because of an electoral mandate, a very similar coup, but where foreign powers (most notably the US) did not condemn military takeover. He contrasted this sharply with the strong American condemnations of the military junta in Thailand today.

The points above are rather controversial, but much of the night was fairly safe fare. The best line of the night was a joke he apparently stole from my former colleague Surin Pitsuwan. A young man comes into a library and asks for a copy of the constitution of Thailand. The librarian replies, "I'm sorry; we don't carry periodicals."

By Kevin W. Fogg, Apr 19 2016 05:02PM

A friend on Facebook who is based in Yogyakarta has recently been noting (complaining?) that the whole country watches and even takes sides in the forthcoming Jakarta elections. He calls this Jakarta-centrism, I think along the same lines that British people complain about the South of England or Americans decry a Northern, East Coast elite. (Perhaps on an international level we could also complain of America-centrism, with much of the world bound up watching our presidential train-wreck, despite not being part of the electorate?)

Rather than blame a bias in favor of Jakarta as a region, I would like to propose a different interpretation. I believe the governorship of Jakarta, at least in the last ten years, should be seen as a national post, rather than as a regional post.

Exhibit A: The candidates for it can come from across the country and need not have been long resident in the city. (Jokowi came straight out of Solo, Ridwan Kamil is very much Bandung-based but was bandied about as a realistic candidate.) That kind of carpet-bagging would be unthinkable in other cities or provinces (in Indonesia as abroad-- can you imagine someone who hasn't been living in New York running for mayor of New York City?).

Additionally, the governorship of Jakarta can function as a viable springboard for a national campaign, in a way that (other) regional posts cannot. This might take more explaining. In the United States, it is perfectly common for a governor without experience in Washington DC's national politics to become a presidential candidate. They are sometimes unsuccessful (Mitt Romney, Scott Walker, Rick Perry), but have also seen some pretty good success in the last few decades (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush). In Indonesia, that kind of jump is not done. No one can imagine some governor of West Sumatra or East Java or South Sulawesi (just to name a few prominent provinces that can translate into good cabinet posts) as a viable presidential candidate if he (or hopefully in the future she) has not spent time subsequently in national politics. In fact, I would argue this is why current president Jokowi had to run for the Jakarta governorship, rather than wait for the governorship of his home province Central Java, because only Jakarta would be an elected administrative post that was still national, short of the president or vice-president.

So, rather than complaining about coverage of the Jakarta gubernatorial election as being some kind of negative Jakarta-centrism, I posit we should just accept that the governorship of Jakarta is a national, rather than regional post.

By Kevin W. Fogg, Apr 1 2016 02:38PM

The news out of Myanmar this week is exciting, as they inaugurate a new president (a close deputy of Aung San Suu Kyi) and two new vice-presidents (a Burman Buddhist general and a Chin Christian). My most esteemed Burmese colleague here at Oxford described to me how moving she found the ceremony, where the incoming government had chosen a song about how one must pass midnight to reach the dawn. In any case, the first civilian head of state in 50+ years is a good step toward democratization and rule of law.

Another move, though, looks a little more ambivalent or questionable when it comes to solidifying Myanmar’s path towards the rule of law. The parliament is debating a proposal that would give Aung San Suu Kyi extraordinary powers, basically turning her into a functional prime minister, since she has been denied the presidency. This would be skirting the constitution by changing sub-constitutional law (‘rule by law’ more than ‘rule of law’), but proponents may very well be right that it would reflect the wishes of the voters last November.

Very interestingly, this also follows an Indonesian precedent. I have several times heard Burmese folks talking about the ‘Indonesian model’ for transition from a military dictatorship to a functional democracy (multi-ethnic, with the daughter of the first president, etc. etc.), so much so that I was asked to speak about Indonesia’s transition to democracy when I visited Yangon in 2014. In this case, though, the precedent that Myanmar is following is not from the 1998 overthrow of the Suharto regime (which is the model they usually refer to), but rather the 1945 revolution to overthrow colonialism in Indonesia.

When Indonesia declared independence in August 1945, it immediately promulgated a constitution with a strong presidential system. The president, Sukarno, was a leading nationalist figure whose profile had only grown under the Japanese occupation, a Javanese man, not particularly pious, but heavy on charisma. He was balanced out by Mohammad Hatta, a deeply devout Sumatran with plenty of administrative sensibility. (This is not terribly unlike the balancing act to choose the president and two vice-presidents of Myanmar.) The problem was, after several weeks, the Indonesians found that the presidential system (which they had also set up with only one state political party) was not really working, even in the context of Indonesia’s nascent political consciousness. So, as I have outlined for the End of Empire project, Vice-President Hatta issued a declaration two months into independence that fundamentally changed the system of government without amending the constitution. From late October 1945, Indonesia had a Prime Minister overseeing a Working Party from the parliament—a system much closer to what they were accustomed to from the Dutch model that many Indonesians had observed.

How did this extra-constitutional, prime ministerial arrangement work out for the Indonesians? Pretty well, at first. The 1949 and 1950 temporary constitutions (the first Dutch-backed, the second more autochthonous) both enshrined the Prime Minister as the head of government, while holding onto the President and Vice-President as important figureheads. According to the superb research of Adnan Buyung Nasution, that was also the intention of the constitution that had been basically agreed by the Constituent Assembly of 1956-59 before it was dissolved. In the end, though, the Prime Ministerial system fell when it was unilaterally abrogated by President Sukarno (backed by the army), because he wanted to accrue more power unto himself, ostensibly to break through deadlock in the country. The president and the army re-implemented the original 1945 constitution from July 1959—without the broadly-agreed provision to set a Prime Minister on top of the on-paper arrangements—to reinforce their power as the country drifted towards authoritarianism. That same strong-presidential system was useful for the later strongman Suharto, and had to be tempered by constitutional amendments after Suharto’s fall (e.g., term limits on a president).

In the end, my evaluation is that this kind of extra-constitutional arrangement might be a temporary fix, but should not be relied on in the long-term. Of course, perhaps the MPs in Myanmar only intend to make this arrangement for the extraordinary personage of Daw Suu, but that raises different questions about the respect for rule of law in balance with the charismatic personality of a particular leader. Of all the Indonesian precedents to follow, this one is not my favourite.

By Kevin W. Fogg, Dec 18 2015 08:28AM

The world is shocked this week as we read news of a Thai citizen found guilty of lèse majesté ostensibly for posting about His Majesty King Bhumibol’s favorite pet dog. This is just one in a series of increasingly strange indictments under the lèse majesté laws as the reigning junta in Thailand tries to justify its existence to the people by overprotecting the monarchy.

Although there are plenty of historical examples in the last century of an intensely surveilled police state under a strong monarch, the one that I find myself having to teach the most often is Iran under the late Pahlavi Dynasty. (Unsurprisingly, as a historian of modern Islamic societies and writing a book on revolution, Iran 1979 is a major topic in my field.) Muhammad Reza Shah was less inclined to use lèse majesté against his enemies, but his serious security infrastructure interfered more and more in the lives of everyday citizens also on the pretense of protecting the monarchical institution. Of course, in plenty of other very important ways the Thai case and the Iranian case are very far apart—I think there is real love in society for King Bhumibol, and Iran did not have the chaotic history of revolving door coups that we have seen in Thailand recently, among many other things.

I have been reminded by this brouhaha, though, of one of the most interesting anecdotes I know about Iran in the Islamic Republic era. When I was in graduate school, for a while I dated a woman who had grown up in Iran in the 1980s, and one day we stumbled onto talking about the timeless classic Disney animated film Robin Hood. (You know the one, where the handsome fox robs the bad lion and corrupt wolf to feed the pious mole, mild-mannered mice and intrepid family of rabbits.) Strangely, I discovered that my Persian friend had seen this version of Robin Hood all the time growing up, but she did not know it had a final scene in which good King Richard returns and puts the world back in order. Under the Islamic Republic, this film had been edited without the last scene, and became a kind of perfect ready-made critique of the institution of monarchy as inherently wicked and given to imprisoning poor, innocent rabbit children. Super bonus points to whatever propaganda bureaucrat was able to turn this cultural product of the Great Satan on its head to support the Islamic Revolution.

This brings me to speculate: are you allowed to screen Disney’s Robin Hood in today’s Thailand? For that matter, what about other films, such as Marie Antoinette, The Last Emperor, or even The King’s Speech, which include historically-inspired royal characters living in excess, falling from their positions, or suffering an impairment? Just how far will the junta go to control society in the name of protecting the monarchy?

The thoughts and opinions presented on this blog do not represent any institutions or other organization with which I am affiliated.  They are mine and mine alone, and should not be copied or reprinted (beyond fair use) without my written permission.  My hope is that these entries will help to further discussion about Southeast Asia, Islamic history, academia in a time of technological change, and other subjects worthy of attention.

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The image above comes from a manuscript of Dala'il al-Khayrat, probably copied in West Sumatra in the first half of the twentieth century and now in the collection of Prof. Bruce B. Lawrence.