The Asian Wall Street Journal May 17, 2001


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Debatable Land
Stories from Southeast Asia
By Michael Vatikiotis
Talisman Press, Singapore
Price not stated
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One irony of being a foreign correspondent is the sheer volume of anecdotes
you must leave aside because they are not germane to the piece you have to
file that night. The editors have asked for 600 words; background must be
provided for the new reader who reads about the country for the first time;
and material that provides color, but is superfluous, must fall by the
wayside, on the cutting floor.
For most foreign correspondents, these anecdotes remain buried in their
minds. They are recalled with dew-eyed feeling when, years later, someone
at a journalism school asks a question: "So how was it, like, when Suharto
fell?" Or another time, at a bar, when some rookie reporter wants to know
how to find his feet in this mysterious country.
It is Michael Vatikiotis's great fortune that he has been able to write
these stories while they are still fresh in his mind, and found a publisher
bold enough to put the volume in Asian bookshelves. The nine stories in the
collection, "Debatable Land", deal with the ferment of the post-crisis East
Asia, where the questions have still not been resolved, and the answers
remain elusive.
Mr. Vatikiotis is uniquely positioned: as managing editor of the Far
Eastern Economic Review, he has a ringside view of the region. More
important, he has been a reporter in Southeast Asia for over two decades;
not only does he speak Bahasa Indonesia/Malaysia and Thai, but has lived in
Jakarta, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and now Hong Kong, and travelled through
Indochina and beyond. He has also written academically-acclaimed studies on
Suharto's Indonesia and Southeast Asian politics.
And yet, as Mr. Vatikiotis notes in his acknowledgements, a Malaysian
friend had warned him early: "Watch out, you can never belong here." It
hurt Mr. Vatikiotis, and these stories show how he has been able to
transcend cultural barriers. Little wonder, then, that the Indonesian
writer, Mochtar Lubis, inscribed one of his books, saying, "To Mike, who
knows us well, and hope he will not be too disillusioned with Indonesia."
What comes through these stories is Mr. Vatikiotis's empathy for the
marginal men and women of Southeast Asia. For they are the toilers, the
workers, the chauffeurs and maids, who are collectively called "skilled
labor" or "disciplined workforce" and are lost in statistics, because of
which their collective effort in lifting their lives out of absolute
poverty, which is the real Asian miracle, rarely gets due credit.
The pressures of journalism are such that such people feature in
correspondents' stories mainly to provide an authentic backdrop; an
anecdote to establish a point, or a local voice to back up a claim by an
international observer, usually a regional expert sitting in Hong Kong or
Singapore.
In "The Wall", for example, Mr. Vatikiotis uses a tragic accident, in which
a bricklayer's child is killed, to make larger points not only on the
relations between the rich and the poor in Thailand, or the sway of the
generals, or the traffic of Bangkok, but also the position of the king. In
other words, he uses an individual act of rebellion the bricklayer builds
a wall across the street where his child was killed to prevent cars from
wantonly killing others to focus on the Thai society. Interestingly, the
solution, which comes from the King, converts the wall into a gate,
allowing the traffic to continue, but creating a memorial, is a uniquely
Thai compromise.
In his most ambitious story, "Debatable Land", Mr. Vatikiotis tells the
tragic tale of a small rebel army on the Thai border, "like a Swiss canton
nestling in the Alps .... surrounded by perpetually mist-capped hills"
fighting the might of the Burmese military. Their claim for nationhood is a
pipe-dream; the rag-tag collection of soldiers won't be able to halt
protesting students at Sukhumvit; but their dream, of a nation called Pa O,
lives on.
"Money" is a satirical story about a Melayu Baru, the new Malay, enchanted
by the riches of his Chinese friends, desperate to get wealthy quick,
playing the KLSE by floating a company which possesses a fictitious
gambling license in a Chinese province. "Family Values" is about modern
Thai families disintegrating, by sending their elderly to a retirement
home. In "Vietnamese Cha Cha", Mr. Vatikiotis focuses on the Viet Khieu,
the overseas Vietnamese who have returned to Vietnam since it has opened
for business.
The last three stories deal with Indonesia in transition: What drives
someone to make a bomb? What happens to the '65 generation which had
aspirations, but which was told to obey? Questioning a foreign expert
predicting a revolution in Indonesia in a public meeting, Mochtar, who had
seen revolutions in the past and the havoc they had caused, thunders: "You
know, I don't think he can say these things. This is our mess. This is our
struggle. Who gives this man the right to meddle? If we want to be saved,
Mr Foreign Expert, we will ask for help."
Mochtar's plea is understandable; in another story, "Menteng", another
character says: "I've never heard of a system that hands down persecution
from one generation to the next, like heirloom." The choice he faced was
between freedom and death; his daughter's choices are less stark cash or
credit card. Should that comfort be cast aside for revolution? Isn't order
preferable? But in such compromises truth is often buried deep. In another
story, "The Making of a Terrorist", Djody feels history is a constant tool
of power, in constant need for correction, and that's how lies are born.
As the New Order in Indonesia makes way for another order, Mr. Vatikiotis
deploys a clever trick: In a tribute to wayang kulit, Mr. Vatikiotis never
names Indonesian politicians like Suharto or Habibie in his stories; but
gives broad hints about who they are. That's part of the Asian tradition of
epics. During the Suharto era, writers who were blunt, like Pramoedya
Ananta Toer, went to the Indonesian gulag, Buru. Other writers therefore
commented subtly, by hinting and gesturing. By continuing to do so in the
post-Suharto era, Mr. Vatikiotis shows that nothing has really changed in
Indonesia.
Neither fact, nor history, nor entirely fiction, Mr. Vatikiotis's stories
dwell in the twilight region between reportage and literature. The
Malaysian friend had got it half right: Mr. Vatikiotis may not belong to
the region by the narrow definition of passports and nationalities, but as
Mochtar Lubis put it, he understands the region well.
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Mr. Tripathi reported from Southeast Asia as a former correspondent at the
Far Eastern Economic Review. He now lives in London where he is working on
a novel set in Southeast Asia.