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Book Review: Strategies of Authoritarian Survival and Dissensus in Southeast Asia by Sokphea Young

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 25/04/2022 - 9:12pm in

In Strategies of Authoritarian Survival and Dissensus in Southeast Asia, Sokphea Young argues that the success of civil society organisation (CSO) movements in Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia depends largely on whether these movements are seen as threats to the regime’s winning coalition. This book’s powerful examination lays important foundations for further research examining the link between regime survival and civil society success, writes Bavo Stevens

This book review is published by the LSE Southeast Asia blog and LSE Review of Books blog as part of a collaborative series focusing on timely and important social science books from and about Southeast Asia.

Strategies of Authoritarian Survival and Dissensus in Southeast Asia: Weak Men Versus Strongmen. Sokphea Young. Palgrave. 2021.  

Strategies of Authoritarian Survival and Dissensus in Southeast Asia cover‘Why do some movements succeed while others fail in the context of a regime’s political survival?’ That is the question at the heart of Sokphea Young’s ambitious book, Strategies of Authoritarian Survival and Dissensus in Southeast Asia. The book engages with the complex literatures on authoritarian repression and clientelism to tease out when civil society organisation (CSO) movements and protests are successful in achieving their aims. Young’s close analysis of contemporary Cambodia, alongside two shorter interventions on Indonesia and Malaysia, suggests that the success of CSO movements ultimately depends on how regimes respond to them. Young’s work shows that even when CSOs are strong and well-organised, their success largely depends on whether they are seen as threats to the regime. When CSOs are seen as a threat, regimes are likely to opt for repression. But when CSOs are not seen as a threat, regimes are less likely to repress and opt instead for a concessionary strategy.

In the first part of the book, Young broadly examines the politics of authoritarian control and the political development of modern Cambodia, showing how issues of patrimonialism, repression and control intersect in the country. Young effectively lays out the central challenges that rulers confront in holding on to power, particularly in maintaining support from their winning coalitions through effective client-patron relations. Young casts Prime Minister Hun Sen as the central patron in Cambodia, who has used extractive economic institutions to maintain support and partial political legitimacy. A second strategy that Young describes is the co-option of CSOs, especially CSOs whose work closely aligns with the interests of the regime.

Police officer in Cambodia

Image Credit: Crop of ‘Police’ by Damien @ Flickr licensed under CC BY 2.0

Young then examines two cases emblematic of his central thesis. The first case looks at a peasant movement targeting a powerful Cambodian senator with close ties to the ruling regime and a sugar company. The well-organised movement that developed in response to the expropriation of land by the sugar company threatened the interest of the Baron and, by extension, the ruling regime. The regime’s violent crackdown on protestors and intimidation of activists, in addition to blocking action through the courts, mean that the movement failed to achieve its demands, including the return of the expropriated land.

The second case presents a slightly different story. A European company with agricultural stakes in the country faced a loosely organised response by an indigenous community that felt its land was unfairly expropriated by the company. But unlike the Sugar Baron, the local partner that worked with the European company did not have strong ties to the ruling regime. As a consequence, the regime felt less threatened by the community’s movement, which gave its local officials the space to use regulatory instruments to address the CSO movement’s demands as part of its more concessional strategy. The community was able to partially fulfil its goal and received some compensation for its lost land.

In short, the first CSO movement, despite being relatively strong and well-organised, threatened the regime’s neo-patrimonial network and faced a repressive response that prevented it from achieving its goals. The second CSO movement, which was relatively weak and more loosely organised, did not threaten the regime’s network, and faced a more concessionary strategy that allowed it to partially achieve its goals. The argument presented in these two chapters is overall convincing. The in-depth analysis of these two cases with a broader discussion of CSO movements and neo-patrimonialism presents a convincing case of Young’s argument: it is ultimately the regime’s response that matters the most.

It is in its discussion of Cambodia that the ambitions and strengths of the book shine. By identifying how ‘threats from society’ can challenge the interests of a regime’s neo-patrimonial network, Young is able to show that distinguishing between threats of authoritarian power-sharing and control, like Milan Svolik also demonstrates, is not always so clear cut. Rather, they inform each other; threats from society and threats from elites are linked.

The strong discussion on Cambodia sets Young up for an interesting comparative analysis with Malaysia and Indonesia in the two penultimate chapters of the book. Though Young is able to show that similar patterns existed in Malaysia and Indonesia, this is not argued as clearly as the earlier chapters on Cambodia. For one, the analytical focus in the Malaysia and Indonesia chapters shifts somewhat from CSO movements and the neo-patrimonial networks of the regimes to the survival strategies of former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and Suharto, former President of Indonesia. The chapters point to changes to the winning coalitions of the respective regimes, rivalries that existed within these coalitions and how Mahathir and Suharto navigated their rivalries with other elites and responded to challenges from society. Young’s discussion in these chapters is not as sophisticated as his analyses of CSO movements in Cambodia because the reader is given less information on the strength and strategies of the CSO movements Young studies nor evidence on the winning coalition of the regime.

Secondly, where Young does discuss CSO movements, the neo-patrimonial links appear more tenuous. For instance, in the chapter on Malaysia, Young discusses several dam-building projects. One of the projects Young highlights is the Bakun project, which resumed after the Asian financial crisis with one of the Prime Minister’s close friends, Ting Pek Khiing, awarded the contract. This suggests that similar dynamics are at play, but it is never clearly established if Ting Pek Khiing was an initial member of Mahathir’s winning coalition, what the scope and strength of the CSO movement that protested the project were or if broader economic factors following the 1997 crisis influenced the decision to move forward with the project.

Similar concerns emerge in the chapter on Indonesia, where Young discusses similar examples of resistance. One notable example is the movement against the Kedung Ombo dam project. The project faced continued protests from the people of Boyolali whose land was to be flooded. The protestors took their case to court, with the Supreme Court ultimately ruling for $4.5 million in compensation. Suharto intervened and overturned the project and the compensation was voided. Young argues that Suharto intervened to maintain the economic interests of the crony system that underpinned his regime since many dams were funded by Indonesian cement companies, some of which belonged to his siblings and allies. But if that is the primary reason why the Kedung Ombo project moved forward, it is left somewhat unclear why the movement against the Lindu dam project was more successful. Like the Bakun project in Malaysia, questions about the scope and strength of the CSO movement also remain unanswered.

Despite some of these limitations, Young’s book offers a powerful look at the strategies of authoritarian survival and how they shape the success and failure of CSO movements. It is work by scholars like Young that helps add significant nuance to our understanding of how authoritarian regimes can operate. Young sheds light on why authoritarian regimes respond differently to the demands of similar civil society organisations and demonstrates that the neat divide between threats from elites and threats from society in understanding regime durability is rarely so neat. The book is therefore able to lay important foundations for further research that examines the link between regime survival and civil society success.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science.


Book Review: Malaysian Christians Online: Faith, Experience, and Social Engagement on the Internet by Meng Yoe Tan

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 02/02/2022 - 2:39am in

In Malaysian Christians Online: Faith, Experience, and Social Engagement on the InternetMeng Yoe Tan explores how the internet has provided an environment for Malaysian Christians to articulate personal engagement with the faith. This book stands out as a vivid ethnography of the way cyberspace is mobilised by minority religious groups, writes Roberto Rizzo

This book review is published by the LSE Southeast Asia blog and LSE Review of Books blog as part of a collaborative series focusing on timely and important social science books from and about Southeast Asia.

Malaysian Christians Online: Faith, Experience, and Social Engagement on the Internet. Meng Yoe Tan. Springer. 2020.

Book cover of Malaysian Christians OnlineThe surge of the internet and of social media platforms after the 1990s has posed new and interesting channels for religion and, for the scholars and observers who study it, unprecedented sites of investigation. The web has expanded the reach of proselytism, but it has also allowed for the exponential growth of lay voices that challenge traditional authorities and theological positions within a given religion. On the level of practice, blogs, streaming platforms and instant messaging apps have redefined the pathways of religious sociality and, importantly, the possibilities for devotional expression. The global COVID-19 pandemic condition has highlighted these trends like never before, as religious communities moved online in most parts of the globe and across the denominational spectrum.

Although conceived in a pre-pandemic world, Meng Yoe Tan’s book, Malaysian Christians Online: Faith, Experience and Social Engagement on the Internet, feels incredibly timely for the broader study of religion in the social sciences. The author investigates the ways in which the internet has provided an environment in which Malaysian Christians could articulate strands of personal engagement with the faith. At the same time, Tan also looks at the intersection between authority and presence online, both from an institutional perspective and from the point of view of everyday religion. The interplay between these two levels of religious experience, online and offline, is one of the most enticing aspects of the book.

Another reason why I consider Malaysian Christians Online a much-needed piece of scholarship is precisely for documenting the lived experiences of a not so well-known religious minority. Christianity has a long history in Malaysia, but it has enjoyed a distinct increase in popularity in recent decades. This has occurred in a Muslim-majority country and in a historical period signposted by identity politics and major intertwinements between Islamic and national institutions. The relative increase in the visibility of Christianity is due partly to a conversion trend among Malaysian-Chinese, partly to the incorporation into the state infrastructure of ‘native’ sections of the population in Eastern Malaysia – the Sabah and Sarawak provinces – regions in which Christian proselytism has been particularly active and that had not subscribed to national Islam as a formal religious affiliation. A smaller segment of Malaysian Christians is composed of individuals who convert or practise in the religious tradition privately for fear of exposure and backlash and whose numbers are difficult to estimate. The anonymity allowed by cyberspace is crucial in such instances and it is captured, although marginally, by the writing of Tan, whose research is predominantly linked to peninsular Malaysia and centred on Malaysian citizens of Chinese background.

Image Credit: Photo by T RR on Unsplash

The book proceeds from accounts and perspectives given by individual lay Christians and expands progressively to include those conveyed by institutional characters, such as pastors, and further into the implications for the wider Malaysian society. The section of the book (Chapter Three) dedicated to the individual experiences of spiritual ‘coming of age’ through cyberspace is perhaps its most fascinating. It is also the section that integrates best Tan’s ethnographic work with the analytical framework which the author braids in, particularly the porosity between the online and the offline worlds. The chapter narrates the stories of five research participants who engaged in various ways their faith on the internet. The accounts focus for the major part on the creation of Christian blogs, an important tool for elaborating religious commentaries online in a more extended form compared to chatrooms and messaging groups.

Two stories are especially compelling, those of Matt and Stark, both relating processes of conversion. Matt converted to Christianity as a young adult out of Chinese traditional religion and related two stages in his religious passage. The first conversion was an intellectual one, born ‘out of reading books’, and attending events organised by the Malaysian Evangelical Church. However, what he names his second conversion, which we are led to think is the one that struck a more visceral and definite chord, took place on the occasion of praying for the healing of a friend’s mother. Although the mother eventually passed away, it got him to ponder on the efficacy and the ritual means involved in Christian devotionality. The period in which his second conversion occurred culminated right after that event, as he took on a job in a Christian bookstore. He investigated Christian doctrine in-depth, thus coming full circle in his textualist approach to the faith. Matt started a blog where he posted lengthy sermons in which several theological issues were discussed from his rather inter-denominational point of view. The sermons were later debated in offline discussion groups.

Like Matt, Stark converted to Christianity from Taoism. Her decision was not well received by her family, who opposed not only the conversion itself but also the fact that it was driven by Stark’s romantic engagement with a foreigner. Stark’s spiritual trajectory proceeded hand in hand with the acquaintance of her fiancé-to-be, both originating from online activity. After the initial animosity from the side of her family, a tension she considered as a ‘revenge from the gods of Taoism’, things became smooth when she moved to university in a bigger city. She became a militant blogger, bringing her own testimony and taking critical stances towards ‘unbelievers’. However, the blog remained anonymous throughout, with Stark being especially attentive to keeping it hidden from her parents’ reach, a position that somewhat contrasted with the vehemence of her posts and her militancy.

Stories like Matt’s and Stark’s show clearly what Tan sees as an intrinsic interdependence between the online and the offline. Both stories are the result of developments that stemmed from events and relationships carried out offline (arguments, deaths or life paths) but are indissoluble from the activity linked to cyberspace, either as consumers or producers of online content. This interplay is maintained in the subsequent chapters, Four and Five, in which the focus is shifted to authority and the subjects are pastors and entire parishes active in Kuala Lumpur and other locales of urban Malaysia.

The neat distinction between authority subjects vis-à-vis everyday figures in the structure of the book is understandable on the ground of sorting a large amount of ethnographic data. However, the feeling is that this recurring distinction does not keep the promise evoked in the beginning of the book, in which the author advocated a lived religion approach. That is the idea that the ‘person of knowledge’ and the ‘person on the street’ participate in equal measure in the grassroots evolution of a given religious tradition. If the intention of the author was to foreground the use that Christian institutional bodies make of the online world, an approach more akin to discourse analysis could have provided more interesting insights in that direction.

Another point that runs through the book’s stories but that is not fully developed is the role of physical and class mobility. The vast majority of the ethnographic data in the book shows how participants underwent some degree of spiritual transformation in conjunction with moving away, from one’s family, one’s hometown or economic background, often towards one of Malaysia’s major peninsular cities. While in these cases religious change cannot be attributed to mobility as such, it is worth pausing on the expansive role that mobility entails for the lives of religious subjects, such as those involved in Malaysian Christians Online.

Tan’s book stands out as a vivid ethnography of the way cyberspace is mobilised by minority religious groups, such as Christians in Malaysia. It comes out at a crucial point too, in which the prevalence of the internet invites novel discussions on religious embodiment and the ontology of the numinous. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the limits of what was traditionally regarded as a sacred space and the ways religious feeling is assumed to circulate through physical engagement. But the migration of many facets of religious sociality to the online sphere obliges subjects and observers alike to take cyberspace seriously. Tan’s case study contains a number of interesting threads that may help us grapple with the renewed relevance of online religion. In any case, it is a welcome monograph in the study of underrepresented minorities in Southeast Asia which could inspire comparative works in respect to other minoritarian religious communities in the region.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre or of the London School of Economics and Political Science.