SEAC Director's End of Year Message

As 2023 draws to a close, it’s time to look back on what has unfolded over the past year in Southeast Asia, in the field of Southeast Asian Studies, and at the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre (SEAC) here at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

Across Southeast Asia, it must be acknowledged that the picture is largely one of disappointing continuities. Against the backdrop of ongoing climate crisis, turbulence in global markets, and an economic slowdown in China, countries across the region have struggled to return to pre-pandemic levels of economic growth and to reform their economies in the direction of more equitable and sustainable forms of economic development. In the realm of politics, moreover, there appears to be little forward movement towards greater accountability and inclusivity across the region. Military rule remains entrenched in Myanmar after the termination of the experiment with limited parliamentary rule in the decade preceding the February 2021 coup. Hun Sen, Cambodia’s authoritarian Prime Minister since 1984, has passed on power to his son, Hun Manet without any apparent resistance to this pattern of dynastic succession. In Vietnam, Nguyễn Phú Trọng has remained in power as General Secretary of the Communist Party since 2011, with recent senior appointments suggesting a prolongation of concentrated power which bears comparison with the pronounced centralization of authority observed under Xi Jinping in neighbouring China.

As for the region’s democracies, a pattern of what some term ‘promiscuous’ – or perhaps incestuous – power-sharing has prevailed. In the Philippines, President Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos, Jr. won office in mid-2022 as the anointed successor of then president Rodrigo Duterte, with Duterte’s daughter elected as Marcos’s Vice-President. In Indonesia, the front-runner in the 2024 presidential election, Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto, has chosen current President Joko Widodo’s son Gibran Rakabuming as his vice-presidential running mate, thus ensuring Widodo’s endorsement and the support of the incumbent administration. In Thailand, the reformist Move Forward Party, which placed first in the parliamentary elections in May, was prevented from forming a government, paving the way for a compromise between the military, the monarchy, and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose Pheu Thai Party was allowed to reassume power instead. Meanwhile, Malaysia’s movement from effective one-party rule to genuinely competitive democracy over the past several years seems to have reached something of a deadlock, with former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim now serving as Prime Minister, but only on the basis of a fragile coalition with the long-entrenched UMNO machine. Thus across Southeast Asia, the overall trend is movement towards the narrowing of political competition and the concentration of political power, alongside the continuing widening of inequalities in the economies and societies of the region.

Against this backdrop of economic slowdown, ecological slippage, and political stagnation, the past year has seen continuing dynamism in the field of Southeast Asian Studies, perhaps partially inspired by deepening concern about developments and trends across the region. Two new books, Mark Dizon’s Reciprocal Mobilities: Indigeneity and Imperialism in an Eighteenth-Century Philippine Borderland (University of North Carolina Press) and Stephanie Joy Mawson’s Incomplete Conquests: The Limits of Spanish Empire in the Seventeenth-Century Philippines (Cornell University Press) have shed new light on the early centuries of Spanish colonial rule in the Philippine archipelago by highlighting the agency of indigenous, Muslim, and immigrant Chinese communities during this formative period in the country’s history. At the same time, Hongxuan Lin’s new book Ummah Yet Proletariat: Islam, Marxism, and the Making of the Indonesian Republic (Oxford University Press) has challenged understandings of the roles of Islam and Communism in the Indonesian struggle for independence, even as Mattias Fibiger’s Suharto’s Cold War: Indonesia, Southeast Asia, and the World (Oxford University Press) offers a systematic contextualization of the transition to conservative military rule in Indonesia within regional developments and the global Cold War.

Important new books on contemporary Southeast Asia also came into print over 2023. Marcus Mietzner’s The Coalitions Presidents Make: Presidential Power and its Limits in Democratic Indonesia (Cornell University Press) provides an account of Indonesian democracy unparalleled in its breadth, depth, and analytical insights, even as Eve Warburton’s Resource Nationalism in Indonesia: Booms, Big Business, and the State (Cornell University Press) represents the most important contribution to the comparative political economy of Indonesia – and Southeast Asia – for many years. Scholarship on Myanmar has seen similarly significant new books published over the past year, including Gerard McCarthy’s Outsourcing the Polity: Non-State Welfare, Inequality, and Resistance in Myanmar (Cornell University Press) and Andrew Ong’s Stalemate: Autonomy and Insurgency on the China-Myanmar Border (Cornell University Press). These are only some of the numerous new and noteworthy studies on the region which have been published over the past year.

In addition, over the course of 2023, investigative journalists and other non-academic researchers have also provided considerable illumination of important – but understudied – developments and trends across Southeast Asia, especially with regard to the diverse forms of violence and labour exploitation experienced by Southeast Asians within and beyond the region. Patricia Evangelista’s new book about the Duterte administration’s ‘War on Drugs’ in the Philippines, Some People Need Killing: A Memoir of Murder in the Philippines (Random House/Grove Atlantic), has received considerable attention and enthusiastic accolades from many quarters. Ian Urbina, whose 2020 book The Outlaw Ocean: Crime and Survival in the Last Untamed Frontier (Vintage) was received with similar acclaim, has continued to expose the exploitation of Southeast Asian fishermen and the environmental degradation of coral reefs and other marine resources by Chinese commercial fishing fleets within and beyond the region in his writings and podcasts over the past year. Over the course of 2023, moreover, reporters from the Washington Post, Nikkei Asia, and the Guardian published articles revealing a pattern of human trafficking and labour exploitation in online ‘scam factories’ in Cambodia also documented by the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights and the San Francisco-based NGO Cyber Scam Monitor, and described by the scholars Ivan Franceschini, Ling Li, and Mark Bo as ‘compound capitalism’ in a recent article in Critical Asian Studies.

Against the backdrop of this impressive dynamism and diversity in the study of Southeast Asia, the past year has seen LSE’s Southeast Asia Centre continuing in its efforts to promote research and analysis focused on important developments and trends across the region. With the year 2023 as the last in Professor Hyun Bang Shin’s tenure as SEAC Director, the Centre showed ample evidence of the impressive legacies of the work which he and Centre Manager Katie Boulton had undertaken over his five years in the post: a very lively weekly seminar series, a wide-ranging Southeast Asian Futures event in London followed by a Malaysian Futures event in Kuala Lumpur with the Khazanah Research Institute, and continuing support for LSE staff and student research, visiting fellows, and early career networking among scholars working on Southeast Asia, bearing fruit in a raft of blogposts, working papers, and scholarly publications by associates and visiting fellows of the Centre.

As the new Director of the Southeast Asia Centre, I’ve been finding my feet over the past several months and planning for the year ahead. Building on Hyun and Katie’s work over the past years, I’m trying to broaden the Centre’s coverage, engagement, and outreach in our webinar series, with a Southeast Asia Forum focused on the challenges of sustainable economic development in the region scheduled for May 2024, a proposed contribution to the LSE Festival in June 2024 focused on geopolitical contestation over the waterways and transportation and telecommunications circuitries of the region, and ongoing exploration of possibilities for collaborative work with the UK’s Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), with The Asia Foundation (TAF), and with other research institutes within the LSE. Looking back on 2023, it seems clear that are very strong foundations to build on, but looking forward to 2024, I can see that there is much to be done over the months ahead.

With best wishes to you all for the winter holidays and the New Year,


john sidel23

Professor John T. Sidel

Director, Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre

London School of Economics and Political Science