Southeast Asia

Mapping Nighttime Light and Economic Development in Burma

Burma Nighttime Light MapAfter posting the excellent Wikipedia map of per capita GDP in Thailand in the previous GeoCurrents article, I decided to look for similar information on Burma (Myanmar). I was not surprised to discover that such information is lacking, as the Burmese government publishes little economic data. I did, however, come across a 2012 article from The Economist that highlights a fascinating study by Satoru Kumagai, Souknilanh Keola, and Toshihiro Kudo. These scholars have attempted to map regional economic development in Burma on the basis on nighttime light intensity. As they argue:

Myanmar’s official statistics provide considerably outdated and narrowly covered data on the country’s economic and industrial situation. Data on geographical economic activities are particularly lacking. However, it is critically important for policy makers to know what the economic geography is like in Myanmar when they envisage sustainable and balanced economic development.

An alternative way invented to estimate economic activities in developing countries is to use the strength and distribution of nighttime lights. It is now widely known that the strength of nighttime lights and economic activity are firmly correlated.

Burma per capita GDP by Region MapAfter analyzing the light patterns, the authors matched the resulting data with population figures to determine preliminary comparative per capita GDP by region. The resulting map shows areas above and below the national average, which is given a numerical value of “1.” The darkest areas on the map, in other words, are believed to have per capita GDP values that are more than twice the national average.

The Economist article provides a convenient summary of Kumagai, Keola, and Kudo’s findings:

Among other things, the researchers’ satellite-enhanced number-crunching reveals that:

1. Three regions of Myanmar—Yangon, Mandalay and Naypyidaw—emit 40% of the country’s light at night-time.   (Yangon alone  accounts for 22% of it.)

2. GDP per head in these three areas is more than twice as high as the national average.

3. Almost all of the districts that border China have a GDP per head higher than the national average.

4. Two out of the 12 districts that border Thailand have income levels that exceed the national average.

The border districts with India and Bangladesh, by contrast, are pitch-black, and poorer than the national average.

Burma Nightime LightsIf correct, these findings are important. First, they indicate a relatively low level of regional economic differentiation in Burma. (Recall that in neighboring Thailand, the most developed province has a per capita GDP figure more than 40 times that of the least developed province.) Second, they reveal the explosive growth of Naypyidaw, which was of little significance before it was selected as the new capital city in 2005, a move that was widely criticized as economically irrational. Third, and most surprising, they show the deep importance of trade with China and the corresponding development of the northeastern border zone. This rugged frontier was a marginalized periphery until relatively recent times. Inhabited mostly by non-Burman “tribal” groups,” it has also been noted for its numerous ethnic insurgencies that lasted from the time of independence until the 1990s. Indeed, bitter fighting continues to this day in the Kachin area of the far north, which has generated major flows of internal refugees. Yet according to this analysis, much of Kachin state has a significantly higher than average level of economic development. It is also noteworthy that drug production (opium and methamphetamine) and gambling are major forms of enterprise along much of the Burma-China border; evidently they bring significant economic rewards.

Burma Ethnic States MapAs noted in both the original article and the summary in The Economist, Burma’s border with India is in contrast a low-light zone, forming a dark splotch on the map of the night sky reminiscent of North Korea. Much of this region is the territory of the Chin, one of Burma’s many so-called tribal peoples. Information on the Chin Hills is difficult to find, as until recently the area was essentially off-limits to foreigners. The authors of a recent article in The Independent claim to have been the first outsiders to visit the area in 50 years. As they write, in rather exaggerated prose:

Today, the Chin have left their savage past long behind, and thanks to Christian missionaries, they are also literate. But in the process, they have been deposited in a kind of ethnic limbo: Christians in an overwhelmingly Buddhist land, Burmese citizens who feel neither Burmese nor anything else. A century ago, they were unrivalled hunters in the dense forests through which they wandered; today, the hills are denuded, the tigers and bears and deer are long gone; hunters with locally-made guns still march out into what remains of the woods, but the odd wild pig is the best they can hope to bring home. And the plight of the Chin is that of those hunters writ large: locked in a land which is as much their prison as their paradise.

Information on the Chin, however, is available in The Irrawaddy, an invaluable independent news agency that reports on Burma and neighboring countries. As noted in a recent article, Chin leaders are currently unhappy with Burma’s ethnicity questions on its new census forms:

Most data collection was completed last month for the United Nations-backed census, the first such exercise in Burma for more than 30 years. One question asked by volunteer enumerators was on ethnicity, a sensitive subject in Burma, where the official list of 135 ethnic groups is highly controversial.

The Chin National Action Committee on Census (CNACC), a civil society group formed by Chin political parties and NGOs, issued a statement Friday compiling its observations on the census-taking process.

Burma’s list of ethnicities includes the Chin nationality, under which a bewildering 53 “subgroups” are listed.

In the statement, CNACC requested that in the census everyone identifying under a Chin subgroup be counted together as ethnic Chin.

As is often the case, determining who belongs within a given ethnic group can be a highly charged issue.

Thailand’s Political Crisis and the Economic Rise of its Eastern Seaboard

Thailand Regions MapNews that a Thai court had just ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra came to my attention yesterday just as was beginning to prepare a lecture on the politics, culture, and economy of Thailand. I immediately began to assemble a series of maps showing the geographical contours of Shinawatra’s powerbase. According to the conventional story, the populist (former) prime minister, like her brother Thaksin before her, gathers most of her support from the relatively poor and agrarian north and northeastern regions, whereas her establishment-oriented opponents find most of their support in the relatively wealthy Thai core area around Bangkok, as well as in the south and west. But when I examined the most recent economic and political maps, it quickly became apparent that story is a bit more complicated.

Thailand 2011 Election MapAs it turns out, most of the provinces in the greater Bangkok region had actually voted for Shinawarta’s Pheu Thai party or other populist parties in the most recent election (2011), although Bangkok itself did support the main opposition party, the conservative (or classically liberal) Democrat Party. The Democrat Party also performed very well in the “middle-income” southern and western regions of Thailand.

Thailand GDP by Region MapThe big surprise, however, came from the most recent map of Thailand’s per capita GDP by province, posted in the Wikipedia. As it turns out, greater Bangkok is no longer wealthiest part of the country, at least according to this metric, having been surpassed by the Eastern Region, also known as the Eastern Seaboard. The discrepancy is pronounced, with Rayong Province posting a “First World” figure of $40,277, greatly surpassing Bangkok’s $15,830. Not surprisingly, both figures dwarf those of Thailand’s Isan (or Northeastern) region, with Amnat Charoen Province registering a paltry figure of $985. As the electoral map shows, most of the prosperous Eastern Region supported the conservative Democrat Party in the most recent election, although well-off Chonburi province gave its support toPhalang Chon, a small populist party led by a former supporter of the Shinawatras.

Thaland Regional Economic GrowthThe economic rise of Thailand’s Eastern Seaboard is relatively recent, as can be seen in the graph posted here, which terminates in 2010. Since 2011, moreover, the region has continued to surge ahead in industrial development. The main reason’s for the east’s ascendency is spelled out in the Wikipedia article on the region, as are some of the trade-off involved:

The [Eastern Seaboard] region is home to many huge industrial estates. …

However, development hasn’t come without consequences. Serious problems resulting from pollution have plagued the Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate in Rayong, an industrial zone for petrochemical and heavy industries that has suffered from heavy metal and organophosphates poisoning. Factory workers in the region are among the highest paid in Thailand, often more than doctors in the region, but occasionally suffer physiological ailments.

Besides heavy industry, Thailand’s eastern seaboard is also noted as a tourist destination and settlement zone for well-heeled expatriates. This combination may seem odd, as petrochemical plants and tourism tend to be mutually exclusive, but the region is apparently large enough for both. The same Wikipedia article quoted above also outlines this side of the regional economy:

Other than its manufacturing and shipping industries, [the eastern Seaboard] also has a diverse service sector consisting of the tourism, construction, and retail industries. Pattaya, the major tourist city, is also located here, and is only second to Bangkok in Thailand for the number of high rises. The region is also popular as a retirement area for foreigners.

Left out of this brief discussion is Pattaya’s main draw: commercial sex. As Macao and Las Vegas are to gambling, Pattaya is to prostitution. For visual evidence, all one has to do is conduct an image search on the city. But other tourist draws exist as well, and more are coming. According to a recent article in the Pattaya Mail:

One of Pattaya’s most long awaited tourism attractions, the Cartoon Network Amazone water-park, is on schedule for a summer opening in July of this year.  Located in Bang Saray, approximately 14km from Pattaya, the project is the first internationally branded water park in Thailand and is touted to put the country on the global theme park map.

Other recent news headlines from the city include: “Drunk, broke and lovelorn, Russian arrested for stealing ‘white spirits’”; and “Miss Tiffany’s Universe Transgender Beauty Contest Held in Pattaya.” As the latter article notes:

This year marked the 40th anniversary of the Tiffany’s show in Pattaya and this was the 16th Miss Tiffany Universe contest with all of the transsexual or transvestite contestants, aiming to promote human rights for the trans-gender population in Thailand.


India and Indonesia: Pronounced Differences in Electoral Geography

Regional Parties in India MapAs India and Indonesia, the world’s largest and third largest democracies respectively, carry out their complex 2014 national elections, it is worthwhile to compare their political and electoral developments since independence. Although the two countries have much in common, they have taken a markedly different direction in political ideology and electoral geography. In India today, two major and several minor national parties, all ideologically distinct, vie with an array of state-based regional parties*, generating complex trans-party alliances. In Indonesia, regional parties are of no significance, and all of the major parties follow the Indonesian national credo of Pancasilaas their guiding ideologies. To be sure, ideological differences are found among Indonesian political parties, but these tend to be much more muted than what is encountered in India.

India Insurgency mapThe similarities between the two countries are numerous. India and Indonesia both cover core areas of relatively coherent cultural-historical regions, although both of these larger regions have been geopolitically sundered: “greater India” by the post-colonial partition that created Pakistan (and eventually Bangladesh), and “greater Indonesia” by the colonial division between the Netherlands and Britain that led to the separation of Indonesia and Malaysia (as well as Singapore and Brunei). At the same time, both countries include areas that were never part of these expansive cultural-historical regions, but were instead appended to them by colonial forces. In India, the far northeast (Nagaland, Mizoram, etc.) fits best into this category, while in Indonesia the most relevant area is the western half of the island of New Guinea. Both of these peripheral areas, not surprisingly, are the sites of perennial but low-level insurgencies.

Although India is a predominately Hindu country (80 percent) while Indonesia is mostly Muslim (87 percent), religious similarities are significant as well. Historically speaking, both countries have a dual legacy of Hinduism and Islam, and while in Indonesia the former faith was long ago largely relegated to the island of Bali, the great Hindu epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, continue to play a crucial role over much of Java. The Muslim communities in both countries, moreover, are divided between those who adhere more to mystical Sufi orientations and those who favor more strict scriptural interpretations. Both India and Indonesia also include distinct areas of Christian and animist majority, although in Indonesia animism is officially prohibited, as one the five principles of Pancasila—the official state creed—demands “belief in the divinity of God.” Atheistic Marxism has also played a major role in both countries, although Indonesian communism was violently crushed in 1965, whereas in India it still underwrites a major peaceful political party (CPI[M]) as well as a violent but localized “Maoist” insurgency.

India and Indonesia also have some linguistic commonalities. Both countries are noted for their diversity of languages, and neither has a majority mother tongue. Yet in both countries, one regional language stands well ahead of all others in terms of native speakers: Hindi in India and Javanese in Indonesia. Both of these languages, moreover, are centered in their country’s demographic core area, which are noted for their rural crowding and poverty (the central Ganges Basin in regard to Hindi; central and eastern Java in regard to Javanese). Not surprisingly, both states have experienced tensions between their regional language groups and their core language populations.

In economic terms, severe regional discrepancies are found in both countries. India and Indonesia alike contain rapidly growing and relatively prosperous areas, and large swaths of land that have experienced much less social and economic development.

Owing in part to such religious, linguistic, and economic diversity, both India and Indonesia have seen efforts by important regions to secede and form independent states. India, for example, long struggled against the Sikh-inspired movement to create a sovereign state in the Punjab (“Khalistan”), whereas in Indonesia the religiously devout Muslim region of Aceh has most insistently wanted out. While India defeated the Khalistan independence movement outright, Indonesia has evidently solved its Aceh problem by granting the region pronounced legal and political autonomy. Indonesia totally lost, moreover, the region of East Timor (Timor Leste), which gained independence in 2002  (although it must be noted that East Timor was not part of the original Indonesia “geobody,” having been annexed only when Portugal retreated from the area in 1975). Another historical parallel involves territorial rivalry with a closely related neighboring state. A low-level war in the mid-1960s between Indonesia and Malaysia, known as the “Confrontation” (Konfrontasi), focused on the Island of Borneo, whereas the struggle between India and Pakistan over Kashmir has persisted from partition in 1947 to the present.

Overall, both India and Indonesia have faced similar issues of regional devolution and separatism, yet both have succeeded in building relatively strong national identities, with active separatist movements now being largely confined to remote and peripheral locales. Given such similarities, why then does India contain such strong regionally based political parties, whereas in Indonesia such parties are lacking? And why, we might also ask, are Indonesia’s political parties so ideologically indistinct, at least on the surface, unlike those of India?

Such questions defy easy answers, and I would not pretend to supply them here. It does seem pertinent, however, that India has a much more stable democratic legacy than Indonesia, having been under elected governance since independence, with the brief exception of “The Emergency” under Indira Gandhi (1975 to 1977). Indonesia, on the other hand, has experienced lengthy periods of autocratic rule as well as a prolonged spell of “guided democracy” (1957-1966). In comparative terms, India’s democratic stability could help generate political regional and ideological diversity, just as the instability of Indonesia could militate against it. Indonesia’s arguably weaker territorial integrity could also be a factor. The restive Indonesian region of western New Guinea, for example, is much larger and more resource-rich than India’s insurgency-plagued far northeast. If Indonesian political leaders are worried about losing the provinces Papua and West Papua, and perhaps other peripheral areas as well, they would have a pronounced incentive to band together and emphasize national unity.

Indonesia 2009 Election MapBut if Indonesia might be regarded as less democratically and territorially secure than India, it is arguably more culturally unified, at least in terms of language. While India has not seen the emergence of a nationally unifying native language, Indonesia has. Although only about 25 million out of 237 million Indonesian speak Bahasa Indonesia as their first language, the vast majority speaks it as a second language. The success of Bahasa Indonesia in education, media, and politics, moreover, is undeniable. Language-based politics therefore has little significance in Indonesia, unlike the situation in India. In India, demands for the creation of new states have often (but not always) been based on issues of language and ethnicity. Such controversies, in turn, have helped generate strong regionally based political parties.

Note: the data used to compile the map of state-based parties in India is incomplete, which has probably resulted in several errors.

* The Wikipedia provides a good description of regional (“state”) political parties in India:

If a party is recognized as a state party by the Election Commission, it can reserve a symbol for its exclusive use in the state. The following are a list of recognised state parties as of 12 January 2014:

A political party shall be treated as a recognised political party in a State, if and only if the political party fulfills any of the following conditions:

1. At General Elections or Legislative Assembly elections, the party has won 3% of seats in the legislative assembly of the State ( subject to a minimum of 3 seats).

2. At a Lok Sabha General Elections, the party has won 1 Lok sabha seat for every 25 Lok Sabha seat allotted for the State.

3. At a General Election to Lok Sabha or Legislative Assembly, the party has polled minimum of 6% of votes in a State and in addition it has won 1 Lok Sabha or 2 Legislative Assembly seats.

At a General Election to Lok Sabha or Legislative Assembly, the party has polled 8% of votes in a State.


Controversies over Ethnicity, Affirmative Action, and Economic Development in Malaysia

Malaysia states mapFew issues are more controversial in Malaysia than the country’s National Development Policy, particularly its extensive “affirmative action” provisions that provide economic and social advantages for the majority (61%) indigenous population (“Bumiputeras”) at the expense of the Chinese and Indian communities. Dating back to the early 1970s, this policy has resulted in significant economic gains for the Malay community, but at some economic price for the country as a whole—and at more significant costs for Malaysians of Chinese and Indian background. Although Muslim Malays—and all Malays are automatically registered as Muslims in Malaysia—have been the main beneficiaries, other Bumiputeras (“sons of the soil”), such as the non-Malay-speaking, non-Muslim indigenous peoples of Sarawak and Sabah in northern Borneo, receive the same benefits. Who exactly qualifies as a Bumiputera, however, can be a complicated and controversial matter, as the governing laws vary from state to state. In 2009, for example, a local debate erupted in Sarawak in northern Borneo when a local girl was unable to attend college after being denied Bumiputera status because her mother is Chinese, even though her father is an Iban indigene. In neighboring Sabah state, such a mixed-race individual would in theory be granted Bumiputera status.

Malaysia GDP by state mapAt the national level, controversies surrounding the policy intensified this week after Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced new measures focused on providing business training and affordable housing for the country’s Bumiputera majority, even though he had previously vowed to substantially reform the affirmative action policy. As reported in a recent Malaysian news article, “analysts said the announcement, made live on national television, aimed to rally Najib’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) ahead of party elections but could hurt an already slowing economy.” Although the Malaysian economy has in general performed well over the past several years, it is currently confronting a marked slowdown apparently caused by “current-account deterioration, fiscal balance deterioration, [and] higher leverage.” During periods of economic distress, Malaysia’s affirmative action program tends to provoke heightened controversy, as is currently the case.

Economic production in Malaysia, as in most developing countries, is quite geographically uneven, as can be seen in the first map. Per capita GDP ranges from US$ 2,694 in Kelantan to US$ 18,218 in Kuala Lumpur. The remainder of today’s post considers whether such discrepancies match Malaysia’s geography of ethnicity.

Malaysia Bumiputera MapMalaysia Muslim Population by State mapAs the second map reveals, high levels of economic development (as measured by the admittedly crude yardstick of per capita GDP) are found in and around the Kuala Lumpur area in western peninsular Malaysia, although resource-rich Sarawak in northern Borneo falls into the same general category. The country’s least developed states, in contrast, are found in the northern reaches of peninsular Malaysia. As the third map shows, northern Peninsula Malaysia also has a high percentage of Bumiputeras. Pahang in the central part of the peninsula and Sabah and Sarawak in northern Borneo, however, also have large Bumiputera majorities, yet Sarawak in particular has a high level of per capita economic development. Yet as the next map show, the Bumiputera population of Sabah and Sarawak is quite distinctive from that of the peninsula, as it is heavily composed of non-Muslim indigenous peoples. Malaysia’s Chinese community—against whom the country’s affirmative action programs are largely directed—is particularly well represented in Kuala Lumpur, the country’s economic core. Large Chinese minorities are also found in Johor and Perak, states of middling economic performance. Perak also has a large Indian population, as can be seen in the final map.

Malaysia Chinese Population by State mapMalaysia Indian Population by State mapPerhaps the most interesting thing revealed by these maps is the ethnic contrast between Malaysia’s two capitals: Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya. Kuala Lumpur, the seat of parliament and by far the largest and wealthiest city in the country, is ethnically diverse, with a Bumipitera minority and an especially large Chinese community. The new city of Putrajaya (population 68,000), Malaysia’s administrative capital since 1999, is in contrast almost entirely Malay and hence almost entirely Muslim (97.4 percent of its population follows Islam according to the 2010 census). Intriguingly, Putrajaya’s lack of ethnic diversity is seldom noted in the literature on the city. Most sources stress instead its planned development, parks, and spacious living accommodations.

The Philippines’ Uneven Economic Boom

Philippines Regions MapFor decades, the Philippines has been noted for its economic failures. Fifty years ago, it was ahead of South Korea on most economic indicators, and its relatively high levels of education and public health seemingly indicated a bright future. Misrule, corruption, and missed opportunities, however, took a heavy toll, as did a persistently high birthrate, leading many observers to dub the Philippines the “sick man of Asia.” As a result of such problems, the Philippines has had to export much of its labor force. Currently, more than 9 million Filipinos work abroad, many of whom (particularly nurses) are highly educated.

Over the past several years, however, the Philippine economy has regained its health, registering rapid expansion just as its neighbors have slumped. In the second quarter of 2013, the Philippine economy grew at an annual rate of 7.5 percent, roughly equal to that of China and far surpassing Indonesia (5.8 percent) Vietnam (5 percent), Malaysia (4.3 percent), and Thailand (2.8 percent). Current economic expansion, moreover, seems relatively well balanced, with strong gains in manufacturing, construction, and services. Business-processing outsourcing, however, has been the strongest sector.

But if the Philippine economy has been doing well of late, the country still faces enormous challenges. Poverty remains deep and widespread, and many Filipinos cannot find work. In the outsourcing boom, fairly high skill levels are generally required. Many experts think that infrastructural investments and gains in basic manufacturing will be necessary before broad-based employment growth can be realized.

Philippines per capita GDP mapRegardless of the country’s prospects, it is clear that economic development in the Philippines remains very geographically uneven, as is the case in most developing countries. In terms of per capita gross domestic product, the country’s richest region enjoys more than a ten-fold advantage over its poorest region, as is evident in the map posted to the left.* By far the most prosperous part of the country is the National Capital Region, roughly comprising Metro Manila, the Philippines’ primate city. Although Manila is infamous for its vast and dismal slums—recently depicted by a well-known novelist as the very “gates of Hell”—the city actually has much less poverty than most other parts of the country, as can be seen on the map below. (It must be noted that the threshold for poverty in the Philippines is set at a very low level.) It is thus understandable why Metro Manila continues to mushroom, despite its inadequate infrastructure and appalling pollution.

Phlippines Poverty MapSome intriguing geographical patterns are evident in these maps. The poverty map shows a clear north/south divide, with Luzon vastly out-performing the southern island of Mindanao. In Luzon, the broad central zone around Manila shares to some extent the capital’s relatively high standing, particularly in regard to poverty. The southern Tagalog region (now known by the acronym CALABARZON), noted for its fertile volcanic soils and mid-sized manufacturing cities, clearly stands out on the per capita GDP map.

Two of Luzon’s regions demand more careful consideration. Southeastern Bikol lags well back, despite its relatively productive agricultural basis. Yet in the early 20th century, Bikol was among the most economically vibrant parts of the Philippines, based on its export of Manila hemp, or abacá (derived from the fibers of a plant closely related to the banana, and giving us the term “Manila envelope”). But as historian Norman Owens has shown, the abacá industry failed to generate sustainable economic development, and when it collapsed so did the regional economy. Relatively speaking, Bikol has never recovered.

Philippiones Economic Growth MapLuzon’s other oddity on GDP map is the mountainous Cordilleran region, which posts the country’s second highest level of per capita production. Not only is the Cordillera a rugged area with limited infrastructure, it is also mostly inhabited by so-called tribal peoples, members of ethnic groups that were not Christianized under Spanish rule. Such conditions would in general lead one to expect subsistence-oriented economies with low per capita GDP and widespread poverty. But the Cordillera also includes Baguio City, the high-elevation resort city favored by the Philippine elite, as well as the mining and temperate-vegetable-growing districts of Benguet Province (discussed in my book, Wagering the Land). Like the Philippines as a whole, the Cordillera is characterized by profound economic disparities.

The island of Mindanao in the far south also contains some interesting discrepancies. Although the entire island has high levels of poverty, its north-central and southeastern regions are fairly productive in economic terms. The Philippine’s fastest growing economies are also found in Mindanao, particularly the far west (Zamboanga) and the northeast (Caraga). The key factor here seem to be export-oriented, plantation-based agriculture, focused on such high-value crops as pineapples (the Philippines is the world’s leading pineapple producer by a healthy margin). Mindanao is now responsible for some 60 percent of Philippine agricultural exports. Plantation-based agriculture, however, is often noted for its failure to alleviate poverty even where it does generate substantial economic gains.

On all three economic maps posted here, one region stands out for its poverty and lack of economic development: the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (which is in the process of being renamed Bangsamoro). The prolonged insurgency here both reflects and has deepened its entrenched economic distress. Although some observers think that peace may be at hand as a result of a 2012 agreement between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, others are not so optimistic. As recently as August of this year, some 2,000 people were forced to flee their homes in Mindanao due to fighting between the Philippine military and the breakaway rebel group that calls itself the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.

*In the United States, by contrast, the per capita GDP difference between the least productive (Mississippi) and most productive (Delaware) state is a little more than two-fold: $33,000 to $70,000.

North Kalimantan: Indonesia’s Newest Province and Southeast Asian Geopolitical Tensions

Indonesia provinces North Kalimantan MapIndonesia and Malaysia have a long history of mutual distrust, despite—or perhaps because of—their similar historical and cultural backgrounds. Indonesia objected so strongly to the creation of an independent Malaysian state out of several British colonies in the early 1960s that it instigated a four-year undeclared war, the so-called Indonesian–Malaysian Confrontation (1962–1966). But with the fall of the Sukarno government in Indonesia and the creation of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) in 1967, such tensions receded into the background. In recent years, arguments between the two countries sometimes seemed more comedic than threatening. A prime example would be the 2007 Rasa Sayang controversy, generated when prominent Indonesians accused Malaysia of “cultural theft” over its use of a popular folk song that originated in what is now part of Indonesia in a tourism campaign.

But latent mistrust between the two countries persists and sometimes surfaces more directly. Deep Indonesian concerns about Malaysia were clearly apparent earlier this year when the country’s 34rd province, North Kalimantan, was inaugurated along the Malaysian border despite Indonesia’s stated moratorium on the creation of new provinces. Although the official justification for the elevation of North Kalimantan to provincial status focused on development issues, an article in the Jakarta Post made it appear that geopolitical concerns were prominent. As the article noted:

Lawmaker Agun Gunandjar Sudarsa, who sits on House Commission II on regional autonomy, said that the endorsement of North Kalimantan would secure the loyalties of Indonesians living on the Malaysian border. 

“North Kalimantan will be an open gate to enter Malaysia, the southern Philippines and Brunei Darussalam. Therefore, the province is a strategic location to counter threats against the unity of the nation from neighboring countries,” Agun said. 

According to the Golkar Party lawmaker, the establishment of the new province would also prevent Malaysia from making territorial claims on Sebatik Island, which is divided between the nations, and in nearby Krayan subdistrict.

Sebatik Island Google EarthAlthough it hardly seems likely that Malaysia has designs on the Indonesian half of Sebatik, Indonesian concerns about the area are understandable. Population density and infrastructural development are much higher on the Malaysian side of the border. The third largest city in the Malaysian state of Sabah, Tawau (population 382,000), lies just across an ocean inlet from Sebatik, whereas the entire area that now constitutes the Indonesian province of North Kalimantan counted only 525,000 inhabitants in the 2010 census. Indonesian authorities have also identified the town of Nunukan, located just south Sebatik, as a human trafficking “hotspot,” from which poor Javanese women are sent to Malaysia under false pretenses. As a recent article in the Jakarta Globe notes, “Women from the provinces are often promised jobs with good salaries in Malaysia but are then forced to work at nightclubs or similar places.”

Geopolitical tussles have also recently broken out in the area. In March 2013, Malaysia forced Indonesian nationals living in its part of Sebatik to return to Indonesian territory. Its ostensible reason for doing so was its inability to protect the Indonesians from possible attacks by militants from the Philippines. The precipitating incident here was the so-called 2013 Lahad Datu Standoff, generated when 235 fighters professing loyalty to the long-defunct Sultanate of Sulu in the southern Philippines, and with links to radical Islamists groups, landed in a nearby town to assert dormant Philippine claims to the entire Malaysian state of Sabah. Malaysian troops eventually defeated and expelled the militants, killing 56 and capturing 79. Although the event seemed to some observers to be an odd mix of farce and tragedy, it revealed deep nationalistic tensions persisting between the Philippines and Malaysia, notwithstanding either ASEAN-engendered amity or the fact that the Philippine government had nothing to do with the Lahad Datu adventure. As reported in the Wikipedia:

On 3 March 2013, the website of Globe Telecom [a major Philippine company] was defaced by hackers claiming to be from the “MALAYSIA Cyb3r 4rmy”. The group left the message, “Do not invade our country or you will suffer the consequences.” Global Telecom confirmed its own website had been hacked but assured the public that no sensitive information was stolen. The website was restored at around noon the same day.

In apparent retaliation, hackers identifying themselves as from Anonymous Philippines, attacked several Malaysian websites. They warned Malaysia to “Stop attacking our cyber space! Or else we will attack your cyber world!” The website of Stamford College in Malaysia was also hacked with its front page replaced by a note that said: “The time has come to reclaim what is truly ours. Sabah is owned by the Philippines, you illegally [sic] claiming it.”

Indonesia GDP by Province MapRegardless of possible underlying geopolitical issues, the creation of the Indonesian province of North Kalimantan did have an economic rationale. The new province was hived out of East Kalimantan, a resource-rich and rapidly growing part of Indonesia. Owing mostly to oil, natural gas, coal, and gold, East Kalimantan is by far the most economically productive part of Indonesia on a per person basis.* According to the most recent available statistics, the per capita GRP (Gross Regional Product) of the province was US$ 11,300, whereas those of second-place Jakarta and third-place Riau were US$ 8,200 and US $5,900 respectively. Although East Kalimantan is still lightly inhabited, with only about three million people in an area roughly the size of the United Kingdom, its population had been only 733,000 as recently as 1971. Most of the explosive growth in the area occurred in the southern coastal portion of the old province, especially in and near the capital city of Samarinda. By creating the new province, with a new capital city, Indonesian authorities are hoping to even out the developmental process. More rapid growth in the area may already be occurring; if the figures cited in the Wikipedia are correct, North Kalimantan gained more than 200,000 people between 2010 and 2013.**

North Kalimantan Google EarthEnvironmentalists are concerned that the creation of a new project will accelerate deforestation in the region. In the rump province of East Kalimantan, little primary forest remains, covering only some fifteen percent of its territory. But in North Kalimantan, a land of few paved roads and minimal infrastructure of any kind, primary forests still cover 69 percent of the land. Such a situation is unlikely to persist for long.

* Such figures, it is essential to note, do not reflect average living standards, as the distribution of wealth is not considered and as much of the economic gains in resource-rich areas are taken by outsiders. On the map, such Indonesian provinces as Papua and West Papua appear to be relatively prosperous, but such prosperity reaches relatively few of their residents.

** The article on the province states that its population was 525,000 in 2010 according to the census, but it places its current population at 738,163.


Bhutan’s Paradoxical Development

Himalayan GDP Per Capita MapThe southern rim of the Himalayas is rarely mapped as a region, as it encompasses two independent countries (Nepal and Bhutan) and five Indian states.* As a result, maps depicting economic and social development of the area can be misleading, as they typically contrast the two Himalayan countries with India as a whole. To address this situation, I have made a per capita GDP map of the seven relevant states as if they were equivalent geopolitical entities. As can be seen, politically troubled Nepal lags behind the rest of the region on conventional economic grounds. The comparison between Nepal and both Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh is striking, as the three states have much in common in regard to both physical and human geography. If one were to map a variety of social indicators, the contrast would be even starker.

As can also be seen, Bhutan has by far the highest per capita GDP figures in the region. The Bhutanese economy has also been growing at a rapid pace in recent years. In 2007, it posted the world’s second highest rate of economic expansion: 22.4 percent. Such figures may seem odd, as the government of Bhutan has long been suspicious of conventional economic development, stressing “gross national happiness” instead of “gross national product.” The country has also been noted for its subsistence-oriented economy and its relative separation from the global market. As framed by the Wikipedia:

The economy of Bhutan, one of the world’s smallest and least developed, is based on agriculture and forestry, which provide the main livelihood for more than 60% of the population. Agriculture consists largely of subsistence farming and animal husbandry. Rugged mountains dominate the terrain and make the building of roads and other infrastructure difficult and expensive.

Bhutan has been lauded by many critics of the global economic order for its heterodox position on development. The Bhutanese government’s recent decision to convert all agriculture to organic methods has received an especially favorable response from the environmental press. As one recent article put it:

“Bhutan has decided to go for a green economy in light of the tremendous pressure we are exerting on the planet,” Agriculture Minister Pema Gyamtsho told Adam Plowright of L’Agence France-Presse in an interview by telephone from the capital Thimphu. “Intensive agriculture requires the use of so many chemicals, which is not in keeping with our belief in Buddhism. We must live in harmony with nature.”

In light of such policies, Bhutan’s rapid economic growth and its relatively high level of per capita GDP do seem unusual. The answer, however, is relatively simple: dam building followed by the export of electricity to India. As it turns out, Bhutan’s 22.4 percent GDP expansion in 2007 “was mainly due to the commissioning of the gigantic Tala Hydroelectricity project.  Hydroelectricity and infrastructure-based construction continue to be the two major industries of growth for Bhutan despite natural constraints posed by the country’s extremely rugged terrain.”   And as emphasized by the CIA World Factbook, “The import of equipment and fuel to build hydropower plants [in Bhutan] is leading to large trade and current account deficits, though new hydropower projects and electricity exports to India are creating employment and will probably sustain growth in the coming years.”

Hydroelectricity is in many respects an environmentally benign form of economic development, as it generates power in a renewable manner, with little release of greenhouse gasses.** Environmentalists, however, typically oppose hydropower due to its corrosive effects on local ecosystems and indigenous peoples.

The disconnection between environmental and developmental rhetoric in Bhutan, both by the Bhutanese government and by outside supporters, has led to some pointed revisionism that emphasizes the country’s problems. A 2009 article from India’s Economic Times is especially pointed:

Large dams are not usually regarded as recipes for happiness. Environmentalists usually condemn them for displacing people and submerging forests. Bhutan’s neat ploy has been to adopt a green name (Druk Green Power Corporation) for its hydropower producer. It gets away with this since environmentalists don’t want to attack a much ballyhooed Shangri-La of happiness.

… A nasty ethnic struggle has led Bhutan to expel 100,000 people of Nepali origin, who now languish in refugee camps in Nepal. Ethnic Bhutias constitute 50% of Bhutan’s population, and ethnic Nepalese 35%. Nepalese migrants have swamped original ethnic groups in neighbouring parts of India like Sikkim and Darjeeling. The Bhutias of Bhutan are determined not to be swamped too. Those expelled say they are regular citizens who have been ethnically cleansed, while the government claims they are illegal immigrants. Such ethnic strife does not look like a recipe for happiness.

In most countries women outnumber men. But Bhutan has only 89.2 females per 100 males. This is worse even than India (93.3 females per 100 males) where female foeticide and infanticide are common. Bhutan’s gender ratio suggests strong discrimination against female children in access to health and food.

The CIA World Factbook estimates literacy in Bhutan at 47%, while a recent Bhutanese publication puts it at 59.5%. The country banned TV for decades to protect its people from pernicious modern influences, but finally allowed TV in 1999. Low literacy and media bans are not usually associated with happiness, but some will say that ignorance is bliss.

Bhutan Gender statisticsSuch harsh assessments seem unfair, as Bhutan has made significant progress in social development in recent years. As the graph posted here shows, most young people in the country are being educated, and the gap between male and female literacy levels is decreasing. And while it is undeniable that the country’s sex ratio is highly male biased, that may be changing as well. According to a Wikipedia table on the issue (derived from CIA data), Bhutan has one of the world’s most male-heavy populations in the 15-65 and over-65 age ranges, but its ratio in the 0-15 bracket is actually slightly less male-biased than the global average.

Himalayas Map*Parts of Pakistan and even Afghanistan are often included in the region as well, as can be see on the Wikipedia map posted here.

**Not all hydropower project, however, are climatically friendly. Dams in low-elevation areas covered with dense vegetation can actually produce more greenhouses gases—methane in this case—than coal-burning plants. The prime example is Brazil’s Balbina Dam.


Mapping Evangelical Christian Missionary Efforts

World Evangelical MapIt is difficult to find maps depicting religious adherence in areas outside of the historical boundaries of the major universalizing faiths, such as much of sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania. Many such places, however, are characterized today by profound religious change, as missionaries seek converts and as syncretic forms of worship emerge. Some proselytizing organizations, however, maintain intricate maps of their own activities. One prime example is the Joshua Project, an evangelical organization that defines itself as “a research initiative seeking to highlight the ethnic people groups with the fewest followers of Jesus Christ.”

The Joshua Project’s world map of “Gospel Progress,” posted here, is extraordinarily precise, although its accuracy is questionable. The map makes it seem as if a significant Christian evangelical community has been established virtually everywhere in Amazonia, the Congo Basin, and Highland New Guinea, with only a few small red splotches indicating “unreached” or “least reached” populations. Such a scenario seems unlikely, considering how remote some of these areas are, although it is undeniable that Christian missionaries have been highly active in many such places. The map is difficult to interpret, however, as it does not indicate how the three major categories are determined, leaving us to wonder what differentiates a “formative” from an “established” evangelical presence. Other maps on the same site, however, provide the necessary information. As it turns out, the thresholds set are relatively low, as a mere two-percent evangelical adherence rate is enough to place a region in the “significant/established church” category (see the map of Indonesian New Guinea below).

Papua Religion MapThe map’s most basic pattern is clearly evident: Joshua Project outreach has made almost no progress in areas of Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist heritage, and has fared poorly across most of Europe and Russia. Although unnoted on the map, areas in Muslim countries marked as having been successfully evangelized, such as parts of Egypt and Indonesia, almost certainly indicate missionary activities among local Christian (or, in the case of Indonesia, animist) minorities, not among the Muslim majorities. Many of the areas mapped as evangelized in Egypt, moreover, are essentially unpopulated. The manner in which the Joshua Project subdivides the world for its mapping purposes is specified elsewhere on the website. The basic unit is labeled the “people group,” and is defined as follows:

For evangelization purposes, a people group is the largest group within which the Gospel can spread as a church planting movement without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance” (Source: 1982 Lausanne Committee Chicago meeting.)… In most parts of the world lack of understandability acts as the main barrier and it is appropriate to define people group primarily by language, with the possibility of sub-divisions based on dialect or cultural variations. Such a list may be referred to as an ethno-linguistic list of peoples. In other parts of the world, most notably in portions of South Asia, acceptance is a greater barrier than understandability. In these regions, caste, religious tradition, location, and common histories and legends may be used to identify the primary boundary of each “people group.

Papua Religion Language MapA close analysis of another map on the website, that showing the Indonesian part of the island of New Guinea, reveals that in this area “people groups” are indeed defined on a linguistic basis, more specifically as mapped by the Ethnologue, a standard reference source that is also associated with Christian missionary efforts. As can be seen in the paired maps posted here, the Ethnologue depiction of the east-central portion of this area is close to but not identical with that found on the Joshua Project map. It is unclear whether the discrepancy is due to the use of older Ethnologue maps by Joshua Project cartographers, or whether the Joshua Project actually defines Papuan “people groups” independently of the Ethnologue in some circumstances.

Lovely Wikipedia Gong Map of Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia Gong Culture MapA Google image search of “culture map” returns some interesting images. A striking Wikipedia map that comes up high in the search depicts three “gong and chime” culture areas in Southeast Asia: gamelan, kulintang, and piphat. The gamelan percussion orchestras of Java and Bali are relatively well known globally, but the same cannot be said for piphat or kulintang, both of which deserve wider recognition. As mentioned in the Wikipedia article on the topic, tuned “pot gongs” are an extremely important part of the musical traditions of Southeast Asia.

Kulintang, found in the southern Philippines and eastern Indonesia, is the least well-known Southeast Asian gong tradition. As described by the Wikipedia:

Like the other two, kulintang music is primarily orchestral with several rhythmic parts orderly stacked one upon another. It is also based upon the pentatonic scale. However, kulintang music differs in many aspects from gamelan music, primarily in the way the latter constructs melodies within a framework of skeletal tones and prescribed time interval of entry for each instruments. The framework of kulintang music is more flexible and time intervals are nonexistent, allowing for such things as improvisations to be more prevalent.

Several excellent kulintang videos are found on YouTube; my favorite shows young musicians in a seemingly impromptu setting, found here.

Gong music is found over a much wider area of Southeast Asia than is visible on the map. Many local gong-dependent musical styles, however, lack the complexity of gamelan, kulintang, and piphat. In the 1980s, I lived in a tribal village in northern Luzon for over a year, and simple gong beating was an essential part of indigenous religious festivities. The gongs used here were made of bronze, and had been imported from China long ago.  The great Yale anthropologist Harold Conklin made a detailed study of the gongs used by tribal groups in northern Luzon, as discussed in this article.

Indo-Australian Plate Rent Asunder Beneath the Ocean

In April 2012, two massive earthquakes hit northern Sumatra. The earthquakes—one of magnitude 8.2 and the other 8.6—were far in excess of what one would expect to encounter many miles from a tectonic plate boundary. Indeed, “strike-slip earthquakes”, where pieces of crust rub against each other laterally, had been completely unknown in the area before the two quakes. Now, researchers from the École Normale Supérieure in Paris argue that the quakes are a manifestation of a new fault line dividing the erstwhile Indo-Australian Plate (see U.S.G.S. map at left). According to the researchers, the infamous earthquakes that hit nearby Aceh in 2004 and Nias in 2005 played an important role in this development. Although the 2004-2005 events were typical earthquakes near a known subduction zone, they may have aided the “intraplate deformation” process sustained by April’s earthquakes. If born out, the research means that the number of major tectonic plates on the Earth’s surface has risen from twelve to thirteen.

The Indo-Australian Plate separation, even if it is still incomplete in some areas, is usually recognized as a forgone conclusion among geologists. During the 1970s, scientists discovered a six hundred mile zone of broken and disfigured crust along the floor of the Indian Ocean. This breakup zone has been in the making for between eight and ten million years. The “Indian Plate” has continued to move north, colliding with Eurasia as it has done for about 50 million years. The “Australian Plate”, meanwhile, has been moving away from the Indian Plate in the west, while crashing into it in the east and causing the pressure that has yielded the new Sumatran earthquakes. The basic dynamics of the situation have been recognized since a 1995 report by researchers from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University.

The Indo-Australian Plate separation may seem like a mostly academic issue, but it promises to have major consequences for the new fault region, and perhaps the rest of the world as well. Parts of Sumatra and environs once thought to be relatively safe can expect more mega-quakes and tsunamis in the future. As New Scientist ominously puts it, “Things should become clearer as more earthquakes shake the region.” Moreover, according to researchers from the U.S.G.S., April’s earthquakes set off uncommonly large aftershocks all over the world. Before April, only one earthquake greater than magnitude 5.5 had been recorded as an aftershock more than 1,500 kilometers from the epicenter of the “mainshock” that caused it. During the six-day span after April’s magnitude 8.6 earthquake, the world experienced five times as many remote earthquakes greater than magnitude 5.5 as it normally does. In short, the new strike-slip fault dividing the Indian and Australian plates means business.

The breaking of a tectonic plate is a difficult process to fully comprehend. The Indian Plate is one of the thinnest plates on Earth, but still represents roughly 100 vertical kilometers of rock. The plate’s relatively slender profile is likely the result of melting due to the same massive lava plume that broke up Gondwanaland 90 million years ago and more recently created the Kerguelen microcontinent.

The Indian and Australian Plates were not always joined at the hip; researchers think they only fused about 43 million years ago with the cooling and solidification of former spread regions. In light of their independent histories and the rather awkward-looking shape of the Indo-Australian plate, perhaps the longtime union of the Indian and Australian plates—rather than their separation—is what requires more explanation. It is quite rare for changes taking place on a geologic timescale to manifest themselves clearly during a matter of days and months, but it appears that the present is indeed such a time.

The Australian Asylum Controversy Extends to Indonesia

The on-going Australian asylum-seeking controversy has recently spread to the Indonesian island of Java. On August 20, the Jakarta Post announced the arrest of “28 illegal immigrants hiding in a forested coastal area of South Cianjur, West Java. The immigrants were part of a large group of asylum seekers from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran who were heading to Christmas Island.” The report went on to note that a total 61 asylum seekers have been detained, and that a number of others are still being sought. The Australian government had previously reached an agreement with Indonesia that would allow its navy to turn boats with asylum seekers back to Indonesian waters, but it has announced that it will not pursue that option.

Christmas Island is a small (135 km2; 52 sq mi) Australian territory located much closer to Java than to the Australian mainland.  Asylum seekers bound for Australia are held in detention centers on the island for processing. Because many detainees are eventually given visas and allowed into the country, boats carrying refugees often head for the island. Detainees on the island now number almost 1,700, as opposed to 1,400 permanent residents. Overcrowding is resulting in serious shortages of milk, fuel, and other goods on the island.

To cope with the record number of new arrivals, the Australian government has ordered the reopening of the detention centers on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea that had been employed by the previous, much more conservative, government. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard of the Labor Party is now taking a hard line herself, threatening “indefinite detention for boat arrivals”—a maneuver much opposed by the Green Party. According to a recent report, the Australian intelligence service has discovered that “people smugglers have been overheard telling clients that even if they are sent to Nauru or Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, they will eventually get to Australia if they are patient enough,” informing their customers that that “Nauru is ‘just another Christmas Island.’”

Australian law courts, meanwhile, are handling dozens of suits brought forth by former detainees on Nauru, many of who claim to have been suffered physical abuse along with “forced solitary confinement for 23 hours a day for as many as four weeks.” Over the past year, the government awarded former detainees with several million dollars in compensation funds.



New Government in East Timor Sparks Gender Debate

Over the last half-century, peace and stability have remained elusive goals in East Timor, officially known the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste. Invaded by Indonesia shortly after it achieved independence from Portugal in 1975, East Timor has only been a formal country with de facto control of its borders only since 2002. On July 7, the country held its third parliamentary election that was won handily by the ruling party, the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction. Outside observers have praised the election as relatively uncorrupt, with people walking hours in order to cast their votes. Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao announced the formation of a new cabinet on August 7th, completing the new government.

The choice of Maria Domingas Alves, previously the Minister of Social Security, for the more prestigious position as Minister of Defense and Security (the military’s top civilian overseer) proved to be the most controversial cabinet pick. President Taur Matan Ruak, who was elected as an independent candidate in April, seems to have balked at the selection of a woman, and forced the nomination of Cirilo Jose Christopher instead. Christopher’s nomination is now secure, but women’s rights groups in East Timor are furious. The Rado Feto womens’ network claims that the snubbing of Alves is a decision to “reduce the dignity of East Timorese women, and ignore women’s capacity that was well demonstrated [by Mikato] in her over five years contributing strong successes in the administration of the first coalition government.” The women of East Timor’s parliament have also expressed their anger, claiming that the President’s decision “kills the spirit of participation among women.”

President Ruak’s real name is José Maria Vasconcelos. Taur Matan Ruak is rather a nom de guerre meaning “two sharp eyes” in Tetum, an Austronesian language straddling the Indonesia/East Timor border. Having fought the Indonesian occupation of East Timor for its entire 29-year duration, Ruak remains a very popular political figure. He played a controversial role in the 2006 East Timor Crisis, a period of infighting among the military, where he distributed weapons to civilians to help back his faction, but this seems not to have damaged his political career. After a generation at the helm of East Timor’s armed forces, Ruak sees Alves as an outsider who lacks the necessary experience and pedigree, a charge deemed ridiculous by Alves’s supporters.

Adding to these tensions is East Timor’s persistent (and historically justified) fear of conflict with Indonesia. Recently a small fight broke out between Indonesian and East Timorese civilians inside the “Free Zone” that separates the two countries. Apparently, the East Timorese attempted to build a customs facility in the zone, which Indonesians attacked with rocks. An East Timorese security post suffered damage, but otherwise no one was harmed.

Allegations of presidential sexism notwithstanding, the last month has generally been regarded as a success for East Timor. With its history of war and a GDP per capita of only $1,588 in 2011 (156th in the World according to the World Bank), carrying out successful elections remains a significant accomplishment for the country.

Robert Kelly’s Delusions about Indonesia

A recent post in Robert Kelly’s Asian Security Blog that lists “America’s 8 most important allies … in order” (see map) has been getting a lot of attention. Kelly’s response to his critics has not done much to bolster his position. Consider, for example, what he has to say about Indonesia (here and here), which he regards as the sixth most significant ally of the U.S.:

The very fact the Indonesia is a moderate Muslim state is why no one cares about it, but that is a good thing! I guarantee you that if Indonesia had nasty salafists running around like in the ME, we’d all be talking about it… But the real story of American commitment in the Muslim world should be Indonesia. Not only is it valuable as a bulwark against Islamic extremism where the majority of the world’s Muslims live (SE Asia), it’s also a valuable hedge against China, and it’s the fourth largest country on earth.

The majority of the world’s Muslims live in Southeast Asia? Not quite. According to a detailed 2010 Pew survey, out of a global Muslim population of 1.69 billion, roughly 234 million live in Southeast Asia. South Asia, the same report tells us, has a Muslim population of some 507 million, more than twice that of Southeast Asia.

Kelly’s other observations about Indonesia are not enlightening.  Whether the country qualifiers as a “moderate Muslim state” is an open question. It is true, as a recent Jakarta Post article notes, that Indonesia “has not seen a major terrorist attack since the bombing of the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels in 2009 as many top terrorist leaders and bombmakers were either killed or captured in police raids.” Yet as this statement also makes clear, Indonesia has produced a number of “terrorist leaders,” the trials of whom continue to this day. And while Kelly claims that the country has “no nasty salafists running around,” in actuality the Salafiyyah movement is well represented in Indonesia. But then again, most Indonesian Salafists might not merit the term “nasty”; a 2004 report, for example, found that “Salafism [in Indonesia] may be more of a barrier to the expansion of jihadist activities than a facilitator.” But regardless of terrorist activities or Salafist orientations, it is difficult to ignore the strength of anti-liberal attitudes in Indonesia. According to a recent article in The Economist:

 MAY was a cruel month for Indonesians trying to do nothing more than worship their god. During an Ascension Day service on May 17th (and again on May 20th), about 100 Protestants were attacked by a Muslim mob at their church in Bekasi on the outskirts of the capital, Jakarta. The mob hurled stones, bags of urine and death threats at the congregation. The church was still only half-built when it was attacked; the pastor has been waiting more than five years for permission from the local district administration to complete it. Since May 2nd local government officials in the ultra-conservative Muslim province of Aceh, in northern Sumatra, have closed at least 16 Christian churches, citing lack of permits.

A recent New York Times report outlines attacks on the Ahmadi sect in Indonesia:

 The Ahmadiyya Muslim community is perhaps the most persecuted. Violent attacks against this group, whose beliefs are considered heretical by many conservative Muslims, have increased significantly. Last year I met victims of one of the worst outbreaks of violence, an attack on Ahmadis in Cikeusik on Feb. 6, 2011, which left three people dead.

Perhaps the best evidence for the strength of non-moderate Islam in Indonesia comes from the Pew Global Attitudes project. As the tables posted here show, support for Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden is stronger in Indonesia than it is in Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and even, astoundingly, Pakistan.






Kelly’s notion that Indonesia can serve as a “hedge against China” also seems to be exaggerated. Unlike Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines, Indonesia has no territorial disputes with China, and hence enjoys reasonably cordial relations with the country. As Radio Australia notes, Jakarta’s ambassador to Beijing recently  said that “the Indonesia-China relationship had moved from one of initial suspicion to that of cooperation for the common good, beginning with trade.” Even Kelly’s assertion that Indonesia is “the fourth largest country on earth” is slightly off base. Indonesia is indeed the fourth most populous sovereign state in the world, but the term “country” generally emphasizes territorial extent over population. In this sense, Indonesia is actually the world’s fourteenth largest country, coming in just below Mexico.


Religious and Racial Strife in Western Burma

Although Burma (Myanmar) has seen substantial reform over the past few months, several deeply entrenched conflicts create major obstacles for the country’s transition. According to The Irrawaddy, tensions in the western Arakan region recently exploded into violence when “300 people stopped a bus carrying Muslims from a religious gathering, dragged out the 10 occupants, beat them to death and burned the vehicle in Taunggup…” The attack occurred in retaliation for the alleged rape and murder of a Buddhist girl by three Muslim youths.

Burmese Muslim leaders were incensed not only by the actions of the mob, but also by the descriptions of the incident carried by the state-run media. In several report, the victims of the bus attack were referred to as “Kalars,” a pejorative Burmese term used for foreigners, especially those of South Asian extraction. Democracy advocates in Burma are also upset by the use of the term, which was quickly denounced by leaders of the 88 Generation Students group.

Most of the Muslims of Arakan are Rohingyas, a people of South Asian origin who speak a language closely related to Bengali. The Rohingyas of Burma have been victims of discrimination and worse for some time; a recent Times of India article describes them as “among the world’s most persecuted people,” noting that in the early 1970s they were stripped of their nationality and more than 200,000 were forced out of the country. Most of those displaced from Burma have been languishing in dismal camps in Bangladesh ever since, although many have sought refuge, often unsuccessfully, elsewhere. In 2011, however, the Burmese government agreed to begin repatriating Rohingya refugees.

Prejudice against the Rohingyas in Burma is both religions and racial in nature. Racial animosity, as well as opposition to it, can easily be gleaned from the comments posted on articles about the issue. One commentator on The Irrawaddy website, for example, opined, “Asians look like Burmese, Chinese, Thai, Japanese. These people look like middle eastern and indians. They don’t Belong in Myanmar, so GET OUT. We should have Nation wide Votes to kick them out before they convert everyone of us to Musilims” – to which the next commentator responded, “If you do not like Indian face, how would you love holy lord Buddha!!!”


Thai Transsexual Wins Election

Yonlada Suanyos, a transsexual woman, recently gained fame by becoming Thailand’s first katoey (or openly transgender person) to be elected to public office. Ms. Suanyos, a PhD candidate who also runs a television station and a jewelry business, will soon become a councilor in Nan province in northern Thailand. She was formerly a member of a transgender music group called Venus Flytrap, performing under the name of Posh Venus.

Thailand is noted for both the size and the public acceptance of its transgender community. According to a Global Post article, roughly one biological man in 2,500 live as women in the United States, whereas in Thailand the figure could be as high as one in 165. Not surprisingly, Thailand is a major center of sexual reassignment surgery. Thai transsexuals often suffer abuse, but less so than in most other countries. They are periodically celebrated in beauty contests, and last year, according to Reuters, “A new Thai airline [began] hiring transsexual ladyboys as flight attendants, aiming at a unique identity to set itself apart from competitors as it sets out for the skies.”

Military service can be a difficult matter for transsexuals in Thailand, a country that practices conscription. As the Global Post article recounts:

 In practice, long-haired, perfumed draftees with hormone-induced breasts are very rarely drafted. Instead, they are dismissed as unfit for service, often for having “malformed chests.” The most common reason for dismissal, however, is also the more damning: “mental disorder.” Worse yet is “permanent insanity,” a ruling written into the permanent record of kathoey Samart Meecharoen in 2006.

The Thai Buddhist establishment is also concerned about the prevalence of transsexuals in the country. Some monasteries even provide “masculinity training,” a difficult and highly controversial practice. Reportedly, half of the young men trained in one program have gone on to live as women.