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THE GLOBAL FINANCIAL CRISIS AND ASIA: Implications and Challenges. Edited by Masahiro Kawai, Mario B. Lamberte and Yung Chul Park. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. xvii, 324 pp. (Figures, tables.) £55.00, cloth. ISBN 978-0-19-966095-7.
So much has been written on the global financial crisis of 2008 that there now appears to be a veritable cottage industry. Much of the burgeoning literature, however, has focused on the experience of developed countries—understandably so, given the fact that unlike other recent financial crises, the origins of this crisis are firmly located in the US. Yet, precisely because the crisis erupted in the US, its deleterious impact was much deeper and wider than any previous financial crisis, leaving no region untouched. The fallout from the crisis was particularly detrimental to Asia, especially in its early stage. The Global Financial Crisis and Asia, an edited volume brought by the Asian Development Bank Institute, makes a timely and important contribution to understanding the impact of the crisis on Asia and its implications.
The book is organized into four main sections. The first section, written by the editors, provides an excellent overview of the key issues raised by the crisis for Asian economies, the policy measures adopted by their respective governments in response to the crisis, and a set of recommendations for the future, the details of which are fleshed out in subsequent chapters from various angles. The second section offers two chapters reviewing the origins of the crisis in the US and its transmission to Europe. While this section may be useful to those unfamiliar with the gestation of the crisis in the US and its impact on Europe, readers interested in this book for its central theme will likely find it somewhat redundant. For those needing some refreshing, however, Bosworth and Flaaen offer a solid remedial course on the US crisis.
The third and fourth sections are where the real strength of the book is found, offering an impressive array of insightful analyses on the impact of the crisis on Asia and a series of cogent policy recommendations. In the third section, readers will find three chapters presenting a more general take on the crisis’ impact on the region and its policy responses, followed by five case studies on China, India, South Korea, Thailand and Malaysia. While the specifics of each case differ, there are nonetheless several common leitmotifs emerging from these case studies that weave nicely into the findings of the more general chapters. One is the export-dependence of the region on developed markets, which has been a source of both growth and vulnerability for Asia; another is the region’s continued exposure to the vagaries of short-term capital flows, which led to a severe liquidity crunch for a number of countries and compelled at least one country, South Korea, to seek and obtain external assistance from the US; and a third recurrent motif is found in the region’s fiscal and monetary policy responses to the crisis, which, following a drastically different route from the Asian crisis of 1997, were aggressively countercyclical and made a big difference to the region’s relatively quick recovery.
Policy recommendations following from these common threads are interspersed throughout the book, but the last section offers expanded discussions on several areas, including financial policies, growth rebalancing, and reserve policies. An interesting issue emerges from the general orientation of the policy prescriptions presented in the volume, which has to do with the “decoupling” of Asia—the idea that the region, with deepening intra-regional economic integration, has been increasingly reducing its growth-dependence on advanced economies. The crisis shows, as argued persuasively by Athukorala and Kohpaiboon, that despite the huge rise in Asia’s intra-regional trade, its economic growth still remains fundamentally dependent on the import demand of developed economies, as the expansion in intra-regional trade has been driven by the fragmentation of vertically integrated production chain networks, whose final goods are ultimately destined for advanced economies. While Park takes a less pessimistic view on this, his prescription is nonetheless the same as those coming from other authors: to insulate itself from external shocks, Asia needs to shift its growth-dependence from extra-regional demand to domestic and intra-regional demand, a recommendation repeated elsewhere by numerous authors in their country-specific case studies and elaborated in more detail in Prasad’s excellent chapter on growth rebalancing.
Similarly, the crisis also exposed Asia’s continued dependence on extra-regional sources of short-term private financing, which is rather ironic given the fact that it is the Asian public sectors, through their massive reserve accumulation, that have been financing US consumption. The phenomenon of reserve hoarding is addressed in part by Eichengreen and more fully by Aizenman, both of whom recognize its drawbacks and suggest additional means to secure the region’s financial resilience, including strengthening regional monetary cooperation, especially the recently multilateralized Chiang Mai Initiative. In finance as in trade, Asia’s dependence on developed economies is recognized as the most important source of its vulnerability to external shocks, and regional cooperation once again is offered as the key cornerstone of the book’s policy recommendations.
The volume does have some weak spots. One rather curious omission, especially noticeable given the book’s title, is the lack of any substantive discussion of Japan. Although the editors discuss the difficulties faced by the Japanese economy briefly in their introductory chapter, it is rather perfunctory and out of place. This is puzzling, not only because of the importance of the Japanese economy in the region, but also because of Japan’s crucial political role for regional cooperation advocated so forcefully by the authors. Another weakness is the lack of any consideration of the political dimension. Since the contributors are all economists, this is understandable, and my complaint may appear to be little more than a pet peeve coming from a political scientist. However, policy implementation is fundamentally a political process. While the book does an excellent job of laying down, persuasively and admirably, the economic grounds for Asia to wean itself of export-dependence and move toward greater regional cooperation, it is silent on the many political obstacles that will have to be surmounted for this to occur. For this, readers will have to turn to another book.
Youngwon Cho, St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, Canada
Sarah Paine, known for her earlier book that closely examined the First Sino-Japanese War, now presents us with an ambitious new book that is much more expansive in both scope and breadth, bringing forth a holistic view to the major conflicts that were fought in China (including Manchuria), beginning with the 1911 Chinese Revolution up to the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. One should note, however, that although the term “Asia” is part of the main title, it is readily apparent even from the very selection of 1911–1949 as the time period under study—not to mention the Chinese quotes appearing at the beginning of the chapter title pages—that her predominant interest lies with China. This is important to keep in mind, as it has a not-so-subtle impact on her narrative and also colours her overall understanding of the “Wars for Asia.”
Despite this, Paine’s comprehensive study does endeavour to transcend China and sets forth a multinational view of events by examining each conflict from the vantage point of Japan and Russia, the other major players in the region. Through this, she not only succeeds in showing the nexus that inextricably links each country through the string of conflicts, but also clearly points out the fundamental political aspirations and/or national interest objectives that served as the main driving force behind the decisions that were eventually made. By taking this approach, Paine is able to show us that that the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Chinese Civil War, and the Pacific War (or the Great East Asian War to be more accurate), were not actually separate wars, but instead were merely threads that formed the same fabric. This “long war” thesis that she presents adds an interesting perspective, if not quite original, and does lend credence to her primary argument that these wars should be treated as a whole in order to grasp the big picture, which is that it was in fact a 38-year war.
But does Paine succeed in her goal of revising the Western orthodoxy that has preferred to view each war as a distinctively separate event? The answer is both yes and no. First of all, the truly multilingual and extensive bibliography (52 pages) attests to the seriousness of the scholarship as well as the author’s devotion to multiarchival research. This in itself is an admirable feat, and the multi-dimensional view that is presented does support the theory that the wars were invariably connected on many facets. However, when one steps back from the field of traditional military history, which has tended to make clear distinctions between individual wars and often presents only a single overarching vantage point, one sees that the thesis in itself is not new and follows neatly in line with recent scholarly trends in international history, namely to view the various major conflicts as “long wars,” such as the connection between the First World War and the Second World War, the Second World War and the Cold War, and so on.
Undeniably, major wars force drastic changes to the existing system, and it is therefore not uncommon for these changes to contribute to increased instability, which is then in turn resolved through conflict. Hence, although Paine’s argument may not have been previously applied to wars involving China—at least from the standpoint of Western scholarship—it does follow certain logic and thus is not particularly earth-shattering. Moreover, from the perspective of Japanese historiography, Paine’s interpretation has already been embraced by the academic left in Japan and has been touted as the “15-year-war thesis.” This view is in essence the historical equivalent of the big bang theory that unashamedly posits that war with the US became predestined the very instant the Manchurian incident blew up. While Paine is much too sophisticated to make such an over-simplified argument—after all, it is the contingencies that make history so interesting—and takes a more nuanced stance, the main thrust of her argument remains the same. While this linear view of history may have existed in the minds of a few military leaders, it certainly was not the case among senior diplomats and civilian leaders. By reinterpreting history while being fully cognizant of its final outcome, the power of hindsight can sometimes lead us to connect dots where in reality there should be no lines drawn at all.
In addition, the book also suffers from a few weaknesses. Returning to my first comment, a considerable knowledge gap exists when Paine writes about Japan versus China. Notwithstanding the textbook-like narrative that merely presents a standard view of events, her treatment of the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy as being monolithic institutions is overly simplistic and misleading. As we know, there were various factions that competed for control over policy and this struggle had a critical impact upon Japan’s actions towards China. Furthermore, when the author writes about Tojo Hideki’s failure to commit suicide (he botches an attempt) and how his contemporaries frowned upon this, she fails to provide a deeper assessment that Tojo’s greatest service to his country was actually that he lived to die by the noose as a war criminal. In this way, he bore the blame for the war, and became an effective scapegoat for Hirohito. Digging deeper to show the complexities of events would have definitely led to a much more substantial book. And of course, a more substantial conclusion, one that actually synthesizes the main arguments of the book rather than offering a Wikipedia-like chain of biography entries on key individuals, would have also greatly benefitted the final product.
In conclusion, these comments are not meant to detract in any way from what is on the whole a serious undertaking that is also delightfully easy to read. The book contains a wealth of facts and can be handy when retracing the conflicts in China during the period in question. It also gives me a sigh of relief to know that history dealing with high policy still has room to exist in a field that remains enamoured with the marginal and abstract. The history presented in this book clearly has utility; current events taking place in Northeast Asia remind us that the region is still ripe for conflict. Faced with these stark realities, Paine’s book provides us with an important tool through which we can learn the lessons of the past. This in turn will hopefully allow us to plot a safer course in order to avoid any future wars for Asia.
Tosh Minohara, Kobe University, Kobe, Japan
BEYOND SUFFERING: Recounting War in Modern China. Contemporary Chinese Studies. Edited by James Flath and Norman Smith. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011. xix, 306 pp. (Tables, figures.) C$34.95, paper. ISBN 978-0-7748-1956-5.
For decades the field of Chinese military history was a sorely neglected subject in the West and had received scarcely more attention in China. Thankfully, the past fifteen years have witnessed a veritable explosion (if you will) of works in English, many of which draw upon recently published Chinese secondary studies and newly available archival materials. This volume marks another contribution to this rapidly growing field, bringing together a diverse group of (mostly Canadian) scholars to examine various ways in which war in general and different forms of suffering in particular have affected memory and the construction of history and historical identities in modern China. The result is a wide-ranging collection of essays that introduce several little-known topics, such as the so-called Blagoveshchensk Massacre of 1900 along the Sino-Russian frontier in Manchuria, to Western audiences while also touching upon new dimensions of more familiar subjects, such as the significance of the Whampoa Academy in creating a new image of revolutionary soldiers in modern China. However, while the overall quality of the contributions is high, some of the authors are clearly less comfortable relating their subjects to war than others. Furthermore, the level of broader knowledge of the field of Chinese military history varies widely by author, some of them apparently being much less conversant with recent literature than others. Nonetheless it is refreshing to see scholars moving beyond their normal comfort zones and recognizing the significance of the military and the effects of warfare on virtually all aspects of modern Chinese society.
After a preface by Timothy Brook that touches upon various historical and philosophical typologies of suffering, the book continues with an altogether too brief introduction from the editors that draws attention towards the increasing recognition of the significance of suffering as perhaps the major trope in modern Chinese history. The work is then divided into three rather nebulous and at times only tenuously linked parts: “Society at War,” “Institutional Engagement” and “Memory and Representation.” As is often the case with such conference-derived volumes, at times the authors are at pains to link their arguments to larger themes within one another’s work, though that also admittedly reflects the complexity of the subject matter and the chronological scope of the essays. Additionally, while China is admittedly the focus of the book, greater efforts on the part of the contributors to make comparisons with similar phenomena elsewhere (as in comparing the bombing of Chongqing to The Blitz in London) would have been most welcome and would have broadened the book’s appeal, especially for classroom use. It should be noted that some authors, such as Michael Szonyi in his chapter on the militarization of Jinmen (Quemoy), explicitly reject such comparisons, arguing for the uniqueness of the cases they are studying.
In terms of common themes, several emerge. The first concerns the relationship of the military to state legitimacy. This plays out in a confusing variety of ways ranging from the subversive writings of Manchukuo intellectual deployed to write accounts of how the Japanese-imposed state was improving public health and morals by taking control over the opium trade in an essay by Norman Smith, to how the inability of warlords to control their soldiers undermined an emerging sense of the possibility that soldiers could serve as a revolutionary vanguard in modernizing the nation in the early twentieth century, as discussed in essays by Edward McCord and Colin Green. In other words, when both regional and national military regimes proved unable to actualize their own widely publicized programs, whether in regards to curbing drug use or simply maintaining public order, the state’s legitimacy was undercut. At the same time the state sometimes sought to turn potentially destabilizing developments, such as the proliferation of orphans during the Japanese invasion, into a source for state support and mobilization. M. Collette Plum shows how the Guomindang grappled with integrating the traditional family and its values, which many in the GMD hierarchy, including Chiang Kaishek, supported, into its modern state-building initiatives that sought to subordinate traditional loyalties to more modern ideas of nationalism. The fact that newly emergent organizations then recast the state’s language to suit their own interests and improve their lots bespeaks the populace’s increasing awareness of its role in helping to shape the directions of state policy, even if such power was circumscribed by generally authoritarian political regimes.
State legitimacy also emerges with respect to changing memories, commemorations and memorialization of historical events. For example, fine essays by James Flath and Diana Lary discuss how contemporary political concerns continue to shape the ways in which the PRC government casts the so-called “War of Resistance” against Japan and how the changing political climate also contributed to decisions to make tourist attractions out of sites and memorials that had languished in obscurity for decades after the founding of the PRC. And while ordinary citizens, filmmakers and the like are producing a fascinating array of new materials shedding all kinds of new light on China’s wartime experiences, as Lary observes, “Official memories are all about contemporary political legitimacy” (284). In this sense remembering and reconstructing the history of the War of Resistance in particular is not unlike the compilation of official histories in the dynastic era. Recognizing this we can nonetheless move forward to a more subtle and nuanced appreciation of the multifarious links between war and suffering and how they have shaped China’s modern history. By drawing attention to such important questions the essays in this collection have certainly advanced our knowledge and opened up a number of fruitful avenues for further investigation. For as no less a luminary than Jiang Zemin has reminded us, echoing The People’s Daily, “the past, if not forgotten, can be a guide to the future.”
Kenneth M. Swope, University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, USA
In his new book An Unfinished Republic, David Strand examines the political culture of the early years of the Chinese Republic. While the 1911 revolution failed to produce the stable Republic that so many revolutionaries had hoped for, “within a few years,” Strand asserts, “the Republic became entrenched, no so much as a set of national political institutions, but as a political way of life in which citizens confronted leaders and each other face-to-face” (1). The 1911 revolution, in other words, did not simply produce the negative result of destroying the imperial system, it created a new Republican culture of political argument and contestation, in which citizens felt empowered to face up to those in political power and demand that they respond to public needs. Strand approaches early Republican politics from a novel direction, focusing on the practice of public speaking and political oratory. These were skills that were little needed in an imperial regime where political discussion mostly happened behind closed doors. But they quickly became essential during the first two decades of the twentieth century.
Strand’s first book, Rickshaw Beijing, a study of the micro politics of Chinese urban life in the early Republican era, quickly became a classic after its publication in 1989. An Unfinished Republic is a less accessible book, but no less important. This is a deeply researched work which ranges across a remarkable range of sources in Chinese and English, including newspaper reports, personal correspondence and memoirs. The author combines an anecdotal style with sharp analyses drawing on wide reading in theoretical and comparative works. It is studded with insights about the nature of Chinese politics, ideas about citizenship, and the dramatic cultural developments in the fifteen years following the 1911 Revolution.
Strand focuses on three individuals: Tang Qunying, the Hunanese revolutionary and suffragist, Lu Zhengxiang, a professional diplomat turned politician, and Sun Yatsen. Tang was one of the most prominent women activists in the Revolutionary Alliance and subsequently the Nationalist Party (Guomindang). A fervent advocate of women’s suffrage, she fought in the revolution, and famously slapped Nationalist leader Song Jiaoren at a Guomindang meeting in 1912 for failing to live up to earlier commitments to female suffrage. She emerges as an unwavering and heroic figure, a symbol of the unrealized potential of the new Republic. Lu Zhengxiang was a professional diplomat who returned to China and served as foreign minister and briefly prime minister under Yuan Shikai. A Chinese patriot who hoped to remain above the fray of politics, Lu’s failings as an orator doomed his term as prime minister in 1912 before it really started. Lu serves as a near tragic example of the impossibility of being an apolitical leader in an age of vigorous public speech and debate. Sun, by contrast, was a skilled orator with indefatigable energy for talking about China and its future. He bounced back from disappointments, and managed to remain not only relevant, but the most broadly appealing political figure of the time. Strand makes the case that his abilities as a public speaker, and deft handling of difficult moments during his frequent public appearances, were essential to both his political successes and his remarkable resilience. Strand concludes that both Sun Yatsen and Tang Qunying “were drawn to the political stage confident that they could persuade even hostile or indifferent audiences to follow them” (287). Lu Zhengxiang’s skills served him well in the arena of diplomacy, but his inability to tune into the emotional tenor of Chinese nationalism led him to political disaster.
An Unfinished Republic is important in several respects. First, it is a powerful corrective to an earlier generation of scholarship on Chinese political culture, associated with scholars like Lucien Pye, which emphasized a desire for authoritative leaders and consensus politics. Strand’s argumentative republicans were, he claims, precursors to decades of movements of dissent in the People’s Republic of China, and the richly competitive democratic politics of Taiwan after Chiang Ching-kuo. Second, this book is an insightful contribution to discussions about the public sphere and the nature of citizenship in modern China. In the rise of political oratory, Strand shows clearly that politics in early twentieth-century China were indeed different from the local elite activism of the late imperial period. He also shows that politically engaged Chinese saw themselves as citizens, not subjects.
An Unfinished Republic is not without flaws. It could have benefitted from a stronger editorial hand to tighten some chapters. For example, chapter 4, “Seeing Like a Citizen,” while full of perceptive commentary on political practice, doesn’t hold together as a coherent whole. At times chapter 5 seems like a long (albeit interesting) digression from the narrative of Lu Zhengxiang’s disastrous speech of July 1918. Strand also leaves two very big questions unanswered: How and why did the lively oratory of the early Republic go underground? How did the stiff culture of China’s Leninist political parties, the post 1920s Guomindang and the Chinese Communist Party, come to dominate Chinese politics after 1927? Nevertheless this is an important book, and essential reading for those interested both in modern Chinese history and in Chinese politics, both past and present.
Richard S. Horowitz, California State University, Northridge, USA
Rachael Joo’s book is a valuable and welcome contribution to academic critique on how media sports intersect with both nationalist and gendered discourses to position individuals in Korea and the US as global Korean subjects. Through employing a transnational lens it illustrates how the discursive and visualized process of creating ideal “global Koreanness” does not simply rely on drawing from national and ethnic signifiers of national identity that originate solely from South Korea. Rather, through analyzing visual media representations of sports events and ethnic Korean athletes in Korean and US media, this book proposes that images of ethnic Korean athletes based overseas also contribute to accepted notions of global Koreanness in a number of ways.
The book is divided into three main sections, the first focusing on the history of sports broadcasting in Korea and Korean athletes in the US and Korean sports media. Chapter 1 traces the historical trajectory between sports and national identity discourses in South Korean media to suggest reasons as to why recent events in the Korean sports annals (such as the 2002 World Cup) intersect with contemporary notions of national identity, and how sporting successes have been so effortlessly integrated in the narratives of the nation. Chapter 2 traces the genealogy of US multicultural sports history to critique the way in which notions of racial diversity have been deliberately commodified in the US sport media. Taking some prominent Korean American (or US-based Korean) athletes as an example, the author presents an analysis of how overplaying markers of the perceived foreignness of multicultural sporting stars in the US media allows sponsors and professional sporting organizations, such as the LPGA, to position them as products for both domestic and overseas consumption. While highlighting this “othering” par excellence, Joo makes an important point that the very same discourses are also simultaneously utilized to bolster the “sense of American exceptionalism produced through sport” (85) within which the US appears as a land of opportunity for hardworking immigrants.
Part 2 turns to analyzing gendered representations of athletes in Korean sports media. Chapter 3 puts forward a compelling argument of how the exposed torsos of South Korean male athletes in sports media and related advertising have been eroticized in the national imagination as symbolic representations of Korean national economic strength, and act as visual reminders to point to the imagined possibilities open to globalized Korean subjects. Transnationally, for Korean American men these male athletes may well represent a new powerful image of Asian masculinity, yet Joo makes an important point in emphasizing that Korean American men exercise agency and “are able to pick and choose their own self-representation from a confusing mix of racial signifiers that are disconnected from history” (127) without the need to refer to images of Korean male athletes for signs of racial or nationalistic identification. Chapter 4 discusses representation of female golfers in transnational sports media. Unlike male athletes who are often positioned as representatives of the nation, female athletes in media narratives are utilized to symbolize the possibilities of individual neoliberal aspirations. However, rather than evidencing women’s liberation in a wider context in contemporary Korea, the author highlights how media narratives on golfers such as Pak Se Ri emphasize the centrality of a strong father figure who facilitates the success of the female athlete. Rather than subverting existing gender discourses that prioritize patriarchy, these narratives thus work toward justifying continuing patriarchal dominance.
Part 3 moves on to discussing the viewing publics in both Korea and in Los Angeles Koreatown during the 2002 Football World Cup. Chapter 5 analyzes how individual subjects in Korea positioned themselves in relation to media and sports fandom, and performed signifiers of national identity in very organized and gendered ways. Chapters 6 and 7 employ the notion of pleasure to critique and question whether the World Cup was, as it was asserted in Korean American media, a transnational and transgenerational space for Koreans all over the world to come together as a “global Korean family” with the shared aim and purpose of cheering for the South Korean football team. Joo asserts that these “emotional narratives of generational unity” (235) were actually too transient and less concerned with nationalism to merit such claim, and rather bore a striking resemblance to the way young Koreans consume other popular culture products for pleasure. This chapter illustrates how for many second-generation Koreans in the US in particular the motivation to view football matches and to display shared signs of Koreanness (such as wearing the national football shirt or chanting) was more about consuming pleasure than it was about connecting to some presumably “lost” notions of national identity. That said, Joo points out that pleasure does not necessarily foreclose the political potentiality of sport either. Accordingly, the concluding chapter describes how mass sporting events such as the World Cup can become embodied experiences which can create an affective memory of the mass crowds and a sense of shared unity and purpose. These experiences can inspire individuals to take part in mass events for shared purpose that can make mass protests (such as the 2002 and 2008 Candle Lit demonstrations) possible. Elaborating this further, the book closes with some thoughts on the potential of media sports to mediate between North-South Korea relations.
Whilst the book as a whole would have perhaps benefitted from a clearer theoretical framework to structure and deepen analyses of media and advertisement narratives on gender and ethnicity, Joo’s work offers important and timely insights into the complexities that surround simplistic notions of not only national identity discourses played out in the media and the public, but also on the gaps that exist in attempting to analyze the national identity discourses of American Korean immigrant communities within a simplistic generational frame. This book will be an excellent resource for scholars working on Korean nationalism, Asian American studies and gendered representations in sports media, and a very welcome and useful addition to research on the political significance of global media sports.
Joanna Elfving-Hwang, University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia
SOUTH ASIAN SECURITY: 21st Century Discourses. Routledge Contemporary South Asia Series, 51. Edited by Sagarika Dutt and Alok Bansal. London and New York: Routledge, 2012. xii, 286 pp. (Tables, maps.) US$145.00, cloth. ISBN 978-0-415-61891-5.
South Asian security has gathered considerable salience and complexity with the beginning of the twenty-first century, in the context of the US global “war on terror” in Afghanistan and the rise of a number of insurgencies in South Asian countries. Sagrika Dutt and Alok Bansal’s edited volume seems to be a response to these developments. The issues involved in South Asian security have been addressed in this volume at three levels: those related to state-centric approaches; those emerging from insurgencies and ethno-nationalist movements; and lastly those concerned with human security. At the state-centric level, the situation in Afghanistan, India-Pakistan conflict on Kashmir and the nuclearization of these two regional adversaries and China’s strategic assertion in South Asia have been covered. With regard to internal conflicts in South Asia, the volume addresses ethno-nationalist movements in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India’s northeast as well as the emergence of Maoists in Nepal and Islamic identity in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. Lastly, to focus on the “changing security agenda,” the authors discuss human security, climate change, energy politics and the performance of regional development organizations.
Most of the narratives in this volume present known facts in a descriptive format, with the exception of some contributions, like the one by Blarel on “Nuclear Weapons in South Asia” (chapter 3, 47–61), Bansal on “Ethno-nationalism in Pakistan” (chapter 7, 121–140) and by Dadwal on “Energy pipelines” (chapter 13, 235–244). In general, the volume lacks in the depth of understanding and the level of analysis of the themes discussed. The contributor on Sri Lanka (chapter 6) appears to be struggling to relate the Tamil-Sinhala ethnic conflict with the questions of democracy and development. The one on Nepal (chapter 9) misses the most important aspect of the Maoist ideological movement that relates to its convergence with ethno-nationalist faultlines simmering in the country for centuries. It is this convergence that has become a major obstacle in drafting a Constitution for the “New Nepal.” There is another odd omission: given that the volume addresses the Maoist insurgency in Nepal, why does it not offer any contribution on the Maoist movement in India, which has officially been described as the most serious security challenge to the country by no less a person than the Indian prime minister himself. One fails to understand Kunal’s argument on Islamism in South-Central Asia for there is no attempt to link the phenomenon of Islamic extremism with the problem of South Asian regional security or the global concern for terrorism. The narrative of India-Pakistan relations on Kashmir does not make any distinction between the stated and the real significance of the Kashmir question in terms of the identity or existential security of the contesting states; nor does it bring out the role of extra-regional powers and the Cold War that made the issue more complex than it deserved to be. One wonders if Pakistan is involved more in keeping the Kashmir issue alive to stoke the regional fires rather than seeking its judicious resolution.
Most of the chapters are dated, closing their narratives by 2009 or 2010 at the most. Subsequent developments in the respective South Asian countries have overtaken the arguments made in this volume. The chapters seem to stand alone, without any attempt having been made, either within the chapters or at the end of the volume to link their arguments with the overarching theme of regional security. The editors owe it to their readers, and also to the contributors, to provide a summing-up chapter that presents the findings of each of the essays as part of a coherent argument regarding the problems and prospects of South Asian security as a whole.
The readers of this volume will find difficulty in comprehending its conceptual layout in two significant respects. The first is to do with the theoretical framework of regional security followed in the volume. Sagarika Dutt, in her theoretical discussion of the regional security concept, rightly observes that international security studies is “mainly a western subject with its roots in western political theory” (19). That being so, why should then the non-Western security puzzles, cast into radically different cultural and historical contexts, be sought to be solved through Western paradigms? Dutt has endorsed Buzan’s concept of “security complex.” The relevance of such concepts in the context of a rise in the security role of non-state actors and a fast globalising world has become severely constrained. Was it helpful in structuring this volume? No other chapter refers to Buzan in any serious manner. In fact Ayoob’s contribution, taken into account in Dutt’s chapter (13–14), offers much more relevant insight, which the contributors in the second section of this volume (on internal ethno-nationalist conflicts) could have made use of if alerted to it in advance by the editors. Ayoob has drawn clues from South Asian experiences to construct the notion of insecurity arising out of the nation and state-building processes.
The second difficulty with the structure of this volume is that the contours of South Asian security as they are unfolding in the twenty-first century cannot be neatly categorized into three clusters, separate from each other. Yet the book forces such a three-part distinction because of its structure. The real security cocktail in South Asia is made up of the spill-over from one cluster to the other. Both the human and non-traditional security triggers as well as the state-level conflicts feed into ethno-national insurgencies and conflicts. And it also works in reverse, where the insurgencies and internal conflicts vitiate inter-state engagements and complicate human security challenges. Further, there is a cluster beyond these three regionally confined clusters, at the global level, namely of extra-regional powers and their moves in and around South Asia. The imperatives of a rising and assertive China for South Asian security has been noted in some of the chapters (3, 5 and 6), somewhat casually. But no attempt has been made to delineate the US role in post-Cold War South Asia. The US has obviously been the game changer in Afghanistan, with its strong ripples in South and Central Asia. And now, the new US strategy of Asia-Pacific rebalancing has been set into motion, with India positioned as a “lynchpin.” To the extent that India decides to join the evolving new “great games” in post-2014 Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Asia-Pacific region (under US-China competition and rivalry), South Asian security would be affected through the reactions of China and Pakistan to the India-US strategic partnership. The implications of the big players’ strategic equations on internal turbulence in the South Asian countries will add new dimensions to South Asian security. As such, the volume under review offers very little help in identifying the emerging security challenges in South Asia in the coming years and decades of the twenty-first century.
Sukh Deo Muni, National University of Singapore, Singapore
EVERYDAY ETHNICITY IN SRI LANKA: Up-Country Tamil Identity Politics. Routledge Contemporary South Asia Series, 61. By Daniel Bass. London; New York: Routledge, 2013. xvii, 228 pp. (Table, figures, maps, B&W photos.) US$135.00, cloth. ISBN 978-0-415-52624-1.
Daniel Bass makes a welcome contribution to the scholarship on Sri Lanka with a thorough ethnographic study of an oft-neglected community. The narrative of Up-country Tamils—descendents of colonial-time Indian labour migrants working on the estates in Sri Lanka’s central highlands—escapes the mould of the island’s political master cleavage: the antagonism between the majority Sinhala community and the so-called Sri Lankan Tamils, whose elite vied for a separate state. Ironically, the position of the Up-country Tamils as the stepchild of the island’s ethno-political panorama often gets replicated in scholarly writing on Sri Lanka. In analyses of the island’s recent separatist war and unresolved ethno-political crisis, the Up-country Tamils typically receive only token treatment.
It is Bass’ insightful discussion of the everyday production and reproduction of identity in the Up-country, more than its theoretical contribution to scholarly debates, that makes the book worth reading. The ethnographic core of observations and interviews (based on fieldwork in Hatton, in 1999–2000 and 2006) is embedded in a wider review of historical sources, a discussion of unionism and politics, and transnational dimensions. The latter issue is explored on the basis of complimentary ethnographic fieldwork in two hill stations of Tamil Nadu (India), which results in critical and worthwhile reflections on repatriation.
The book starts out with a relatively straightforward history of colonial rule, migration and estates, which pays due attention to intra-Tamil issues of caste, place and socio-economic inequality. Bass does a good job in connecting the grand schemes of history to the details of everyday life, and revealing the way injustice often outlasts times of change. Ironically, Sri Lanka’s independence heralded the loss of citizenship for the Up-country Tamils. “Kankanis” (the Tamil “supervisors” who served as proxies for colonial schemes) were abolished, but subsequent “Talaivars” (Tamil “head men,” associated with unions) reproduced patterns of exploitation and corruption. Bass goes on to describe the community’s persistent bread and butter issues—wages, labour rights, housing, and so on—and takes issue with an historic tendency to write the vital role of women in estate labour out of the story.
He argues that it was the closure of political, civic and social channels for expressing estate labourers’ identity, which pushed the work of identity into the registers of culture and spatial belonging. Chapter 5, on religiosity, presents ample interesting detail on the oracles of (place-based) Amman temples, and the way rituals and processions provide a stage for the enactment and subversion of local pecking orders. Similarly, street drama (chapter 6) provides a stage for expressing and addressing community issues, but Bass interestingly points out that the expression of ethnic identity and grievances has displaced Tamil drama’s historical preoccupation with caste. Such observations elucidate a vital analytical thread of the book: the evolution of different layers of identity and the associated cleavages—caste, class, gender, place, region, dialect, religion and ethnicity—and how the latter came to trump all of the former.
The detailed ethnographic exploration of these dynamics forms the main strength of Bass’ book. His careful juxtaposition of lived ground realities and perspectives in the Up-country with a balanced review of Sri Lanka’s colonial and post-colonial politics puts Bass in a good position to explore the ethnogenesis of the Up-country Tamils as a “diaspora next door” (to India). He offers a robust and politically engaged demonstration of how “Up-country Tamils have become Sri Lankan, the ways that they have remained Indian, and the meanings of these identifications” (186).
While this ethnogenesis and its contemporary manifestation provide a useful narrative, the book does relatively little to go beyond ethnographic description. The conceptual discussion remains brief and there are some missed opportunities for connecting to broader debates: the discussion of place-making for example (centrally important to the book’s narrative) strangely does not acknowledge any geographical debate on this topic. The book derives some broader resonance from Bass’ consistent references to other Indian-origin estate communities, on Fiji, Malaysia, Mauritius and Trinidad. Scholars interested in the diaspora associated with post-colonial estates will find the book interesting for this reason. However, the author’s claim that these contexts are more relevant for understanding “Sri Lanka’s ethnic problems” than Hindu-Muslim communalism in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (187) remains unsubstantiated. Bass’ interesting narrative of the Up-country does not really succeed in providing a strong vantage point to engage with Sri Lanka’s ethno-political conundrums; it steers clear of exploring Sri Lanka’s wider questions of ethnic separatism, its ethnicized democratic politics, or the nature of the state in any significant detail. The book’s claim to relevance for academics working on violence and post-conflict nations thus seems to be unfounded.
Bass underlines that identities are relational and for that reason the Up-country Tamil identity needs to be understood in connection (or opposition) to Sinhala and (non-Up-country) Tamil identities. This contention could have been explored further. Sri Lanka’s other Tamil community (whom Bass oddly labels as “Jaffna Tamils”) gets left out of the story almost entirely. In a side note, the author acknowledges that it is a simplification to subsume this entire community (including those living in Batticaloa, Trincomalee, the Vanni and Colombo) under the northern phrase Jaffna (53–54). This sudden terminological pragmatism is at loggerheads with the book’s central plea for a fine-grained understanding of place and identity, and it is strangely dissonant in a chapter that spends many pages justifying the name Up-country (Malaiyaka) Tamils, while problematizing the alternatives: Indian Tamils, Plantation Tamils, Estate Tamils or Coolies.
All in all, Bass’ solid ethnography will be of interest to scholars of (South Asian) diaspora, as well as to Sri Lanka specialists who wish to strengthen their knowledge on this under-represented community. Readers desiring a surprising or conceptually stimulating argument, are less likely to find “Everyday Ethnicity in Sri Lanka” a must-read.
Bart Klem, University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland
In this important and well-written study of Southeast Asian attitudes to American power since the end of World War II, Natasha Hamilton-Hart examines “foreign policy beliefs” in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam. She bases her study on interviews with foreign policy experts and diplomats as well as a wide-ranging survey of scholarship on the cultures, politics and histories of the region. Although she writes in part for a specialist audience of foreign policy and political science scholars, for whom abstract formulations like “‘unmotivated’ cognitive processing” (31) and “biased scanning” (35) will be meaningful, the book will be of general interest to historians of Southeast Asia and useful in teaching at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Two aspects of Hamilton-Hart’s approach stand out and will offer excellent topics for classroom debate: she is critical, but does not engage in a “blame game” about the negative effects of American foreign policy in Southeast Asia; and she bases her analysis on universal cognitive categories rather than culturally specific ones.
Behind what Lord Palmerston called “permanent interests” that explain the choices nations make in their relations with one another lie biases, attitudes and “beliefs” that are held by the people who actually formulate and carry out foreign policy. How these beliefs are formed is what interests Hamilton-Hart. Why do the majority of the diplomats she interviewed support “American primacy” in the region? After setting out the plan of the book in chapter 1, Hamilton-Hart explains her theoretical framework in chapter 2. Her main point here is that, except for Vietnam, Southeast Asian elites in the countries of her study have been pro-American because American policies have helped them hold onto power, and their success in doing so has allowed them to conflate their own interests with those of the nation-states they serve. In chapter 3, Hamilton-Hart traces, country by country, the historical creation of the nexus of personal interests and the belief that what is good for pro-American Southeast Asian elites is best for the region. In the case of the Philippines, the US continued to back the same oligarchy during the Cold War that it nurtured before World War II. In Thailand, military leaders secured American support against political rivals, and American aid assisted the rise of a Thai middle class. The brutal suppression of the Left, not only in Thailand, but also in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, also provided a rationale for believing that American support was essential for maintaining the “non-communist” status quo. America was also synonymous with capitalist growth that disproportionally favoured elites in control of states, who maintained their power by denying it to the rural and urban poor.
Those same elites also inscribed their dominance and reliance on American wealth and power on historical accounts of the past, as Hamilton-Hart argues in chapter 4. The official histories of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia all demonize leftist politics during the Cold War as a “communist threat” that had to be destroyed at all costs. This conclusion, Hamilton-Hart shows, was reached without the slightest appeal to hard evidence and in clear recognition of the fact that it served the interests of those in power. Similar “establishment narratives” are found in Thailand and the Philippines, but here anti-establishment, revisionist historians have challenged them repeatedly. In keeping with the mythology of a communist threat, histories written in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have also portrayed China as a greater threat to the region than the United States, a view that Hamilton-Hart also heard voiced in Vietnam, where an ancient antipathy to its northern neighbour outweighs its experience during the American War. Filipino and Thai historians, however, have given China a more positive assessment, in keeping with their more critical view of the US. In general, the national histories studied by Hamilton-Hart present a “sanitized” version of the American presence in Southeast Asia, one that ignores counterfactual possibilities, such as: “Would Singapore be a worse place to live had Lee Kuan Yew not wrested power from the left wing of his own party in the early 1960s?” (135). Histories that assert a communist threat to the region also take no account of the price paid in lives and destruction for the “security” provided by Americans and their Southeast Asian allies. Histories from the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand, by contrast, do present a picture of the United States as a “destructive power” rather than a “benign hegemon” (142).
Sanitized histories of the American presence in Southeast Asia have contributed to a general lack of critical thinking and professional expertise among foreign policy professionals in the region, as Hamilton-Hart shows in chapter 5. Even for the years 2002-8, when there was widespread condemnation of US foreign policy, criticism by Hamilton-Hart’s respondents was limited, their overriding conviction being that “American power is fundamentally benign and that an American presence in the region is necessary for stability and prosperity” (146). Other factors affecting conformity to this view are: diplomatic routines and adherence to official policies; the mentoring of junior staff by senior diplomats; and the opinion-shaping effect of the largely pro-American TV and print media in the region. The fact that many Southeast Asian diplomats have personal ties to Americans and have studied in the US is also significant. In her final chapter, Hamilton-Hart concludes that “beliefs” in the diplomatic communities of Southeast Asia have been largely shaped by vested material and political interests that are reliant upon a strong American presence in the region. She demonstrates that it would be wrong, however, to see these interests as being synonymous with those of national communities as a whole or to imagine that capitalist development entails a convergence of values. As she notes, “…the roots of alignment with the United States have more to do with authoritarianism than any convergence of liberal values” (199). In only one country, Indonesia, does Hamilton-Hart think that “fundamental foreign policy beliefs” are likely to change in the foreseeable future, due to the growing influence of Islam.
Tony Day, Wesleyan University, Middletown, USA
Aloha America is a carefully researched and well-written account of the history of United States imperialism, colonialism and militarism in Hawai‘i, all seen through the multifaceted lens of “hula circuits.” To understand the profound link between hula and politics, Imada explores “how and why hula performers have become such material and symbolic embodiments of Hawai‘i” (4).
Beginning in the late nineteenth century, the United States utilized hula as a powerful but subtle instrument of conquest. Portraying Hawai‘i as gentle and feminine, primarily through hula, the US created a feeling of “imagined intimacy,” making Hawai‘i seem desirable, comprehensible and assimilatable. This ambience of familiarity paved the way for political activities, such as the annexation of Hawai‘i in 1898 and the construction of military facilities prior to World War II. Hawaiians, however, used hula to communicate counter-colonial sentiments, even while appearing compliant. Through the use of kaona (the veiled language that accompanied hula) they were able to disguise political critiques from the colonizers. Hula also became a critical vehicle for the survival of Hawaiian language and culture.
Imada’s research methods are impressive. They include archival work, oral histories and interviews with former hula performers, many of whom are invisible in the archival record. She also includes “counter archives,” namely the souvenirs, songs, photographs and other fragmentary evidence that Hawaiians collected for themselves. Her comprehensive methodological approach provides a welcome, more nuanced, understanding of individual Hawaiian performers and their performances than has been offered by previous accounts.
The first chapters cover the early colonial period and the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. King Kalakaua, known as the “Merrie Monarch,” was a great supporter of hula. Musicians and dancers from his royal court traveled to the mainland to perform, making their first overseas appearance at the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, where dancers lived and worked at the fairgrounds for six months. While performing in Chicago, they learned about the American-backed overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i. In protest, the troupe chose not to return to their homeland and instead took their tour to other parts of the United States, and eventually to Europe. As they traveled farther afield on the hula circuits, they connected with political figures and prepared themselves to actively oppose colonialism. Always, while performing in the role of peaceful “primitives” on stage, they were engaged in subversive political activity. For example, they attached photos of Queen Lili‘uokalani to the sheet music they sold at the fairs to spread news about the political upheaval in their homeland.
In a later chapter Imada explores hula through the stories of individual performers during the time when hula became a fixture in places like the Hawaiian Room at the Lexington Hotel in New York City. Although Hawai‘i had already been incorporated as a US territory in 1900, most Americans had little opportunity to come in contact with Hawaiians until the 1930s, when hula performances became popular as an indispensable feature of the growing tourism industry. Ray Kinney’s “Aloha Maids,” all of whom were hapa haole (part-white), became the main attraction at the Lexington Hotel. They fit the image of women who were sexually available, non-threatening, and desirable to American men. Lacking access to Hawaiian materials, the performers adapted their appearance, music and songs to what was available and fashionable on the mainland. They improvised with cellophane and plastic, and were instructed to wear stage make-up. “Little Brown Gal,” one of the most popular songs, described the thrill of meeting a “little brown gal in a little grass skirt in a little grass shack in Hawai‘i” (178). While these images of an exotic but docile Hawai‘i circulated on the mainland, American tourists and military personnel were arriving in Hawai‘i in record numbers. These hula circuits permitted hula to obscure American military buildup through the presentation of images of desire and accessibility.
Imada next discusses the military details of World War II by analyzing archival photography and film, and specifically a film called Luau, A Native Feast. Ray Kinney and his hula troupe entertained the troops on the US continent. With troops arriving in Hawai‘i by the thousands, hula performers in the islands worked to provide military entertainment. Even after the war ended, hula dancers continued to perform in army hospitals for convalescing soldiers. During this period the Army played an important role in transforming the lu‘au from a celebratory and communal Hawaiian feast to an event that provided tourists with the sensory pleasures of eating, looking and listening. This new style of lu‘au, which incorporated hula for the first time, introduced a host-guest structure, where Hawaiians provided all the labuor and the military engaged in all the relaxation and consumption. Through the Army’s manipulation of hula, military authority was disguised as island hospitality. Hawaiian culture became celebrated for its military worth, with lei makers being required to switch from working with flowers to weaving camouflage nets for US Army engineers.
An epilogue brings the story into the present by underscoring ways in which activism and tourism can work synergistically. Imada describes examples of the current usage of hula as a Native Rights activist tactic where kumu hula (hula teachers) protest the exploitation of hula as simple entertainment. For example, when asked to perform for the 1997 opening of the new Hawai‘i Convention Center, they declined because, although millions were spent on art for the centre, not one Native artist had been invited to contribute.
By presenting a meticulously researched and balanced account Imada shows that “hula performance and its global circulation can be read neither as wholly complicit with a colonial or neocolonial system nor unproblematically resistant to it” (262). With its thoughtful interpretations and profound insights, Aloha America contributes significantly to the fields of American Studies, Anthropology, Pacific Island Studies and Women’s Studies.
Miriam Kahn, University of Washington, Seattle, USA
Documentary Films Reviewed
TALES OF THE WARIA. Written, produced and directed by Kathy Huang; a co-production of the Independent Television Service (ITVS) with assistance from the Center for Asian American Media; editor, Carla Gutierrez. Harriman, NY: distributed by Transit Media Communications, 2011. 1 DVD (56 min.) In Indonesian with English subtitles. Colleges/Universities, US$295.00; High Schools/Public Libraries, US$100.00; Home use, US$25.00. Url: www.thewaria.com
CHILDREN OF SRIKANDI. Directed by The Children of Srikandi Collective; produced by Laura Coppens and Angelika Levi. Berlin: Srikandi Films; Celestefilm, 2012. 1 DVD (75 mins.) Institutions, US$295.00; home use, US$29.99. http://www.childrenofsrikandi.com
In the past few years, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) communities in Indonesia have been facing greater challenges due to the increase of intolerance expressed in the public sphere. In 2010, the ultra-conservative Muslim group FPI (Islamic Defenders Front) forced the closure of LGBT-related events, including a workshop on transgender issues in Depok, the ILGA (International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association) conference in Surabaya, and the Q! Film Festival in Jakarta. Following these raids, LGBT advocacies in the forms of art and activism continued with extra caution as there was no protection guaranteed by the police. While in the previous years the Q! Film Festival was celebrated publicly by urban film goers, in 2011 and 2012 I attended the festival opening (if one could even call it a festival at all) in a clandestine mode. It felt like going to your neighbour’s private party, with the schedule for screenings updated on a daily basis via email. But in those two years I also watched more LGBT-themed films, many of which were made by gay and lesbian filmmakers: Madame X (2010), Lovely Man (2011), Sanubari Jakarta (Jakarta Deep Down, 2012), Parts of the Heart (2012), and Children of Srikandi (2012).
The fall of the New Order authoritarian regime under Suharto in 1998 was followed by a more pressing and visible interrogation on the discourses of gender and sexuality. In 2003, the film Arisan (The Gathering), directed by female filmmaker Nia Dinata, portrays the first uncensored gay kissing on cinema. Whereas in the New Order period homosexual characters were victimized, pathologized, and “cured,”the gay relationship in Arisan is described as a natural part of everyday life, and the process of coming out is intertwined with the characters’ realization to “be true to themselves” in a hypocritical society. However, post-1998 political reform has also paved the way to other forms of visibility. Along with the implementation of sharia law in some regions, militant groups, in the name of religion, have been conducting protests against female performers deemed as morally loose or sexually “deviant” individuals. The debates around sexuality and morality were intensified when the government passed the Pornography Law in 2008, which, according to both secular and Muslim activists, would legitimize the criminalization of women’s bodies. Despite some revision, the Pornography Law still retains heteronormative-biased articles, including the one that defines homosexuality as a form of deviance.
It is within this disheartening political climate that two films, Tales of the Waria (2011, dir. Kathy Huang) and Children of Srikandi (2012, dir. the Srikandi Collective), are particularly important. Tales of the Waria documents the lives of four transgender women in Makassar. During the process, Asian-American director Kathy Huang consulted with the local transgender community (one of the characters in the film, Tiara, also serves as associate producer of the film). Children of Srikandi started with a workshop, led by German filmmakers Angelika Levi and Laura Coppens, that brought together eight queer women filmmakers in Indonesia. As stated on its website, Children of Srikandi is “the first film by queer women about queer women from Indonesia.” In addition to the crucial issues addressed in both films, the transnational collaborative processes should be underlined as they would potentially lead to more affiliations and exchanges on gender and sexuality issues in a wider cinematic and social landscape.
The two films differ in their artistic approaches but both emphasize the agency of queer subjects in positioning themselves within their immediate environment. Tales of the Waria responds to how waria—a combination of two Indonesian words, wanita (woman) and pria (man)—has been historically situated within the national imagination. The waria subjects have long populated Indonesian cinematic screens as comic figures; they are both loveable and laughable. As suggested by anthropologist Tom Boellstorff, warias are highly visible in Indonesian culture in comparison to gay men and lesbi (lesbians), yet this does not necessarily mean full acceptance. In Indonesian heteronormative society, many warias remain second-class citizens with limited professional options.
What the viewer learns from the documentary Tales of the Waria is not merely the “truth” about warias but how the waria subjects/characters participate as performers of truths. Tiara, Mami Ria, Suharni and Firman, the four characters in the film, occupy a typical waria space as performers, hairdressers and make-up artists, yet in that limited space each of them negotiates with the spatial confinement by performing their “true” desires. HIV-infected Suharni is both a breadwinner and homemaker, and there is no part in the film in which she portrays herself as a victim. Tiara recalls her past as a boy who did not fit in and, proudly, shows her mother photographs of herself in women’s dresses and full make up. The mother, who remains ambivalent about her son’s identity as a waria, praises her beauty and calls her “a real woman.”
The film is captivating precisely because it does not try to erase ambivalences through the portrayal of idealized waria warriors. The desire for everlasting love is a theme that binds these characters, and in their journey they might end up in unexpected places. Mami Ria, a salon owner, considers plastic surgery to keep her relationship with a married police officer. To fulfill his parents’ expectations, Firman discards his waria identity to live as a married man with two children. It is easy to dismiss these characters as conformists, but they have revealed themselves, to the camera, as transgender subjects who face and deal with their own ambivalences. In the end, realizing that he could not repress his desire to return to his waria community, Firman acknowledges his fractured self. Mami Ria makes a bold move to end her affair with the police officer, though of course such decision does not come without regret.
The individual stories of eight queer women filmmakers in Children of Srikandi, transcending the borders between documentary, fiction and experimental film, are woven by a wayang (shadow puppet) narrative featuring an androgynous mythological female warrior Srikandi from the Mahabharata. The story of Srikandi desiring another woman, juxtaposed by the real-life story of the transgender puppet master Soleh who describes himself as a “man with woman’s soul,” is in itself very promising and calls for further elaboration. The myth of Srikandi was in fact used by the leftist women’s organization Gerwani, which was banned by the Suharto regime, defamed, and later accused of promoting lesbianism. However, since each filmmaker only has 10 minutes to present her individual story, depth and complexities can be a challenge.
Lesbians face different—and one could argue greater—challenges in Indonesia. Compared to the waria and gay male communities, the lesbian communities tend to be more discreet. As the narrator in Stea Lim’s segment in the film explains, a woman in Indonesia is expected to be “a good daughter, wife, and mother,” and a lesbian could only fulfill one-third of these expectations. With double discrimination as both women and lesbians, “coming out” could be a very painful process. The film’s tagline, “breaking the code of silence,” is not an overstatement since silence was (and is still) pervasive. Hence, despite the limited space for exploration, the filmmakers have courageously presented their views on various issues, ranging from the memory of growing up as queer, the tension with their families and religion, and confining labels given in the society (as well as within their own lesbian circles). The value of Children of Srikandi lies in its process, of “coming out” as a collective, and within it filmmakers help one another as actors and collaborators.
Both Tales of the Waria and Children of Srikandi engage with the question that might be posed by many foreign audiences: How do queer subjects live in a country with the largest Muslim population in the world? In her article on the making of Tales of the Waria published in the Huffington Post (2012), Kathy Huang wrote that she went to Makassar with questions about religion and proposed this topic to the warias. One of the warias replied, “What for?” For many Indonesians who are Muslim by birth, religion could be both present and absent, playing a significant role only as a marker of a family gathering ritual, every Idul Fitri holiday. The fact that religion and transgender identities could conflate in unthinkable ways, shown by Suharni praying at the mosque as a man, is probably not surprising for many Makassar warias. For them, the ways in which they negotiate their waria lifestyle and Islam were less urgent than what Huang describes as their “more immediate concern”: the search for an everlasting love. The emphasis on love strategically gives a different view of Islam, which, again, might surprise foreign audiences more than Indonesians, and calls attention to how the transgender subjects want themselves to be seen. Perhaps, if one would pose a critique, the search for love, as in many other films with the same theme, might create a distance between the film and the inseparable, larger social reality: the cases of violence against transgender individuals in many parts of Indonesia.
Violence against LGBT people in the name of religion has been worsening, and this is what Children of Srikandi wants to address. In the segment Jlamprong, Eggie Dian, director and character in the film, narrates her experience living on the streets of Yogyakarta where she became the target of violence by the police and ultra-conservative religious groups. Eggie Dian is a survivor and her story must be heard, but the juxtaposition between the narrative and the images prevents us from grasping the complex issues involving politics, the state apparatus, and the religious groups in Indonesia. As she recalls how she “was abused physically and sexually by the police, and by a religious male group from the neighborhood,” the film displays images of the FPI’s protest against the ILGA conference (with an FPI member writing “teroris moral”/“moral terrorist” on the gate) and the Q! Film Festival incident. The film uses footage from a documentary on the FPI’s raid against the festival, in which a man with a turban speaks into a microphone, “Screening gay and lesbian films and free sex is against religion!” While the violent acts against the ILGA and the Q! Film Festival are real and should be addressed, they are not automatically the same as those suffered by street children like Eggie. The images might reduce the “religious male group from the neighborhood” to the FPI, whereas in small towns there are many more groups, with less visibility, which operate with the same mechanism as the FPI.
The two films, however, have done their parts in creating spaces for queer subjects to tell their stories, and this is a highly significant political agenda. What future films on Indonesian LGBT could elaborate on further is the question of the role of the government, which has been very slow in responding to discrimination against sexual minorities and violence in the name of religion. In LGBT-themed films I watched in the past two years, the state is largely absent. In the post-authoritarian context, such absence might reflect the difficulty in reformulating the relationship between the citizens and the state. While Indonesians have engaged with the issues of identity politics to redefine the nation after Suharto, new ideas of nationhood are permeated by skepticism and distrust over the competence of the state to mediate tensions among citizens.
Intan Paramaditha, New York University, New York, USA