* Burma’s Last Royals

The King in Exile: The Fall of the Royal Family of Burma by Sudah Shah (Harper Collins)

Reviewed by Susan Cunningham

MYANMAR’S LAST ROYAL FAMILY, summarily ousted by British colonizers more than 125 years ago, hasn’t been a sensitive subject since independence in 1948. But less than three years ago, The King in Exile by Sudha Shah might have run afoul of censors just for noting that Taw Phaya Galae, a grandson of the last Burmese royal couple and one of her sources, served a stint in prison after participating in the squelched 1988-1990 democracy movement.

It is one of many signs of change that an edition of Shah’s family biography, already available in English in Myanmar, will soon be published in Burmese.

4 Daughters of Myanmar's King Thibaw

The Final Four Burmese Princesses

For the past two years, Myanmar’s military government has assumed a gentler, less martial face as it bids to welcome tourists and Western investors. After nearly 20 years of house arrest, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi won a seat in Parliament in 2012 and ventured abroad to collect her 1991 Nobel Prize and other laurels. The strides the country has taken toward greater freedom of expression in the past two years have received less attention, but are also important.    MORE

* Norodom Sihanouk’s wonderful, horrible life

Mao-Peng Zhen-Sihanouk-Liu Shaoqi in 1956--credit US Army

Mao, Peng Zhen, Norodom Sihanouk, Liu Shaoqi in Beijing, 1956

By Susan Cunningham, Guest Contributor

New Mandala

For more than a half-century, Dr. Milton Osborne was an observer of the wonderful, horrible life of Norodom Sihanouk, whose funeral ceremonies take place in Phnom Penh next week. Sihanouk  died in Beijing in October, 61 years after he assumed the Cambodian throne for the first time as the unlikely selection of the French colonial masters.  

Dr Osborne first met Sihanouk, then prince and prime minister,  when he was a young Australian diplomat posted in Phnom Penh in 1959.  Osborne then earned a PhD in history at Cornell, taught at the Australian National University and overseas universities, and worked for the United Nations along the Thai border during the early years of the Cambodian refugee crisis.

From 1982 to 1993, he returned to government service as Head of the Asia Branch of the Office of National Assessments. He is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney. Dr. Osborne is the author of many articles and ten books about Cambodia, the region and the Mekong River.

They are so well written they can be read with pleasure and benefit by people without advanced degrees in the social sciences.  His newest book is Phnom Penh: A Cultural and Literary History. Published in 1994, Sihanouk: Prince of Light, Prince of Darkness is the definitive biography, though a smart publisher should order a new, updated edition that covers Sihanouk’s second reign as king and his final attempts to influence events in his homeland. 

Back in 1973—before the Khmer Rouge victory in the civil war–Dr. Osborne already made a persuasive case in Politics and Power in Cambodia: The Sihanouk Years  that the prince’s own economic policies and megalomanic personality led to his deposition by coup d’état in 1970.  On Sihanouk’s death, he wrote this obituary for the Lowy Institute.

Q: Was Sihanouk really that charismatic?

MO: Sihanouk was one of the few people I have ever encountered who deserves to be described as charismatic. On an individual basis he radiated charm and for Cambodians in particular he had a striking capacity to enthrall a crowd–for good or ill. Have a look at my account, pp.3-4 of the biography, for an account of the remarkable double act he and Sukarno performed in 1959 and which I was lucky enough to witness. 

But he could also ‘work’ a non-Cambodian crowd. So, at a soirée dansante in the palace which, again, I was lucky to attend, at around 1.30 am, and after the king and queen had left, he beamed at the rest of us and said, ‘Well, their majesties have gone, and I suppose the rest of you can go too now, but I am going to play until dawn and I do hope you will stay.’ And, of course we all did. MORE

* Motoring with Mohammed: Living La Vida Yemeni

Motoring with Mohammed
by Eric Hansen (Vantage)
Reviewed by Susan Cunningham

Eric Hansen, the intrepid, foolhardy author of Stranger in the Forest: On Foot Across Borneo, is back with adventures from a beguiling corner of the Middle East. Back in 1978, after a yacht-wreck in the Red Sea, he was stranded for two weeks on an uninhabited island off the coast of North Yemen. Rescued after two weeks by a boatload of amiable Eritrean arms smugglers, he left buried on the island a pile of notebooks that he had compiled during seven years of bumming around Greater Asia.

Most of Motoring with Mohammed: Journeys to Yemen and the Red Sea takes place a decade later when Hansen returns with the hope of recovering his notebooks. His plans to revisit the island are stymied by bureaucracy, military security zones, and rumors of the presence of Yasser Arafat. Fortunately, Hansen rapidly loses his sense of mission as he falls into the rhythms of the Yemeni male lifestyle. This demands spending a large part of each day chewing a hallucinogenic leaf qat.
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* A History of Thailand

A History of Thailand
By Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit
Cambridge University Press, 2005, 320 pages
$60.00 (hardcover), $19.99 (paper)
Reviewed by Susan J. Cunningham


Be wary of promises on book jackets: A History of Thailand  by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit is not the first new history of Thailand in English in 20 years. First of all, although there has been a muang thai in the Chao Phraya River basin since at least the 16th century, the state’s first 300 years are compressed into two brief chapters. By chapter 3, we’re already embedded in the 20th century and the much-studied “modernization” era of King Chulalongkorn. Even so, the book doesn’t quite qualify as a history of Thailand in the 20th century because some of the most significant events of the last three decades barely rate a mention.


This is disappointing given the authors’ track record. Ms. Pasuk is a political economist at Chulalongkorn University. Her husband taught Asian history at Cambridge University in the 1970’s, then spent most of the next two decades in business in Thailand. Beginning in the 1990’s, they co-authored lively books, such as Thailand’s Boom and Bust (1998) and Thaksin: The Business of Politics in Thailand (2004), that made economic and political trends comprehensible to a wide public.


Instead of a strictly chronological approach, here they attempt to frame the 20th century as a series of contests to define and control the nation-state. The contestants have included royalists, commoner intellectuals, generals, students, communists and agrarian leftists. Yet the character of the struggle has remained between absolutist, centralized rule and an inclusive, egalitarian vision that would allow even peasants to participate in politics and define progress for themselves. The reign of Chulalongkorn, from 1868-1910, is pivotal. As is well known, the clever king fended off the designs of the French and the British by launching massive infrastructure projects, sending his young relatives to study in the West, and acquiescing to demands for geographical borders. Yet Chulalongkorn, like his father, realized it was just as important that the colonialists perceive Siam as a “civilized” nation. That required a unified, formidable heritage that would be respected and feared. Continue reading

* Not the usual nostalgia tour

Down Highway One: Journeys through Vietnam and Cambodia
By Sue Downie
Asia 2000. 325 baht.
Reviewed by Susan Cunningham.

Among books about Vietnam in the doi moi era—since the acceptance of capitalist-style economics was unveiled in l987–Down Highway One by Sue Downie offers a refreshing perspective. It’s not yet another bittersweet nostalgia tour by an elderly U.S. veteran or a former war correspondent. Neither is it a quickie travelogue by someone whose prior knowledge of the country was derived from the Lonely Planet guidebook, too many viewings of “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon,” and a skim through Michael Herr’s Dispatches.

Downie is above all a diligent reporter trying to describe how Vietnam looks and feels today. Or rather, how it looked and felt between 1988 and 1990. In 1988, she was the first Western Bloc journalist (apparently she’s Australian) since at least the 1950s to travel overland from the Chinese border town of Lang Son down the length of Vietnam and from Saigon to Phnom Penh. Her route was the 2,100 kilometre-long Highway One. She describes it as “a D-grade road–narrow and potholed with disintegrating edges.” Continue reading

* A wayward Marxist state of mind

By Susan Cunningham

Granted, it’s a small, goofy police state.

You probably wouldn’t want to live in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. You probably shouldn’t invest money there. Understandably, few foreigners have been so inclined, even though the last country to succumb to communism, in 1976, was also the first, in 1986, to give up on a command economy. Landlocked, Laos is heavily reliant on foreign aid. Per capita income runs around $337 per year. Flush with the new spirit of free enterprise, the military and revolutionary elites are enjoying the rewards of corruption with a vengeance.

So what? It’s still a terrific country for tourists. Laotians are chatty and relaxed, with neither the rapacity of the Vietnamese nor the trip-wire tempers of the Cambodians. Much of the countryside is wild and untended and the jagged karst mountains suck your breath away.

Whether on the plains or the highlands, most of the 4.5 inhabitants live much as they always have. In fairy-tale villages, they spend their days subsistence farming, weaving intricate sarongs and chewing areca nuts. They die of tuberculosis, malaria, dysentery and in childbirth. In the evenings, they dust off the satellite dish for a nightly three-hour dose of electricity and Thai soap operas. What’s more, about 40 percent of Laotians aren’t Lao, but minority people. They belong to the Hmong, Mien, Lao Theung, Khmu, Black Tai and many other tribes–and often dress in photogenic handmade attire.

So why do only 200,000 foreigners visit each year? The country suffers from a serious lack of publicity. No Hollywood movies or Club Meds have been set here. There are few books about Laos and the good ones are densely academic.

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