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L’Asie du Sud-Est 2021

Bilan, enjeux et perspectives

L'Asie du Sud-Est 2021Edited by Christine CABASSET et Claire Thi-Liên TRAN
IRASEC et Les Indes Savantes, Paris, avril 2021, 480 p.
ISBN : 978-2-84654-570-9
Langue française French text

Southeast Asia 2021 offers a detailed and synthetic analysis of the main political, economic, social, environmental and diplomatic events that occurred in 2020 in each of the eleven countries of the region, completed by a focus on two personalities of the year and a news item with striking images. The book also features four thematic dossiers that address topics dealt with at the regional level : the cities of the New Silk Road, the place of peasantry in agrarian and land dynamics in the Mekong region, trafficking in cultural goods, and an interdisciplinary debate on Southeast Asia in the face of the Covid-19. Practical tools are also available, including a fact sheet and timeline by country and for the region and ASEAN, and a notebook with key demographic, social, economic and environmental indicators.


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This book was supported by :

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Table of contents

The contributors



Urban Projects along the Belt and Road Initiative in Yangon and Melaka : urban geopolitics in the age of transnational cooperation (Adèle ESPOSITO)

Agrarian and land dynamics in the Mekong region at the beginning of the 21st century. What role for peasants ? (Jean-Christophe DIEPART)

Illicit trafficking of cultural objects in Southeast Asia : from greed to protection efforts (Étienne CLEMENT)



Southeast Asia to the test of Covid-19. An interdisciplinary perspective (Christine CABASSET, Jérémy JAMMES et Serge MORAND)



Myanmar - Viral Elections (Aurore CANDIER)

Brunei - Between Tabligh and Covid (Marie-Sybille de VIENNE)

Cambodia - Away from the Covid-19 pandemic, the Kingdom suffers the economic and social consequences (Julie BLOT)

Indonesia - A year full of challenges (Sarah ANDRIEU)

Laos - A Multifaceted Crisis State (Éric MOTTET)

Malaysia - To escape from a crocodile’s mouth to fall into a tiger’s one (David DELFOLIE)

Philippines - The Philippines at the time of Covid-19 (François-Xavier BONNET)

Singapore - Singaporean Turbulences (Éric FRÉCON)

Thailand - Health Crisis under Control, but not the Economic and Political Crises (Jean BAFFIE)

Timor-Leste - Political upheavals and the strengthening of health authorities (Christine CABASSET et Rui Graça FEIJÓ)

Vietnam - At the turn of an unhindered decade ? (François GUILLEMOT et Emmanuelle PEYVEL)

Key Indicators - Graphical Representation






Urban Projects along the Belt and Road Initiative in Yangon and Melaka : urban geopolitics in the age of transnational cooperation (Adèle ESPOSITO)

The cities located along the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are imagined as nodes where different flows would converge and be (re)distributed. Southeast Asian tycoons endorse this vision : they strive to associate projects for new urban districts to the BRI, in order to improve the role of secondary cities in global urban rankings. I draw on two urban projects in Yangon and Melaka and examine the three-layered strategy that legitimates the association with the BRI. This strategy involves discourses, financial arrangements, and actors’ networks. It is subject to readjustments in response to local, national, and international contestations against the global rise of China, its impacts on international security, and the balance of power. In this light, the specificity of BRI-related urban projects appears to be their entanglement with geopolitical rationales, which determines their prestige but also the volatility of the sociopolitical arrangements that underpin their implementation.

Keywords : Belt and Road Initiative, secondary cities, urban geopolitics


Agrarian and land dynamics in the Mekong region at the beginning of the 21st century. What role for peasants ? (Jean-Christophe DIEPART)

The chapter offers a comparative analysis of the agrarian changes and land tenure transformations that have occurred since 2000 in the five countries of the Mekong region (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam). Its central argument is that peasants are increasingly excluded from mainstream rural development and agricultural modernization policies and practices through various political and economic mechanisms, which this chapter presents. It first situates peasants within the structural transformations of the national economies in the Mekong region. It then exposes major pathways of land-use change, namely the intensification of rice production in the lowland regions and the agrarian expansion into peripheral uplands. Questions of land distribution between producers are then addressed, firstly within peasant communities and secondly in comparison with the increased influence of corporate actors who have acquired significant tracts of land through concession agreements. The chapter closes with a presentation of the multiple challenges faced by smallholder farmers regarding land tenure security and land governance.

Keywords : Mekong, Agrarian Change, Smallholder farmers, Land Tenure, Agricultural Investment


Illicit trafficking of cultural objects in Southeast Asia : from greed to protection efforts (Etienne CLEMENT)

The illicit trafficking in cultural objects is an ancient and global phenomenon. Accurate data on its importance in Southeast Asia is not available. However, observations show that the poverty still affecting several components of the population is leading to the sale of cultural objects from pagodas or archaeological sites to traffickers. They are ultimately sold on the international antiquities market or online. The Covid-19 pandemic is likely to aggravate the situation. Governments in the region prohibit the circulation of objects which are important for their national heritage and international organizations support them in training their staff. International Conventions addressing this traffic do exist but not all Southeast Asian countries have joined them. Regional organizations have recently expressed interest in the issue. Case studies focusing on Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, which cover legislation, enforcement, trade and museums, provide an analysis of progress, obstacles and needs in this area.

Keywords : trafficking, cultural objects, illegal excavations, conventions, UNESCO


Southeast Asia to the test of Covid-19. An interdisciplinary perspective (Christine CABASSET, Jérémy JAMMES, Serge MORAND)

In South-East Asia, the low lethality record is surprising and questioning, while the geographical proximity to China, the intensity of the links and means of transport, and the porous land borders between the two areas raised fears of disaster in the region. However, the on-going repercussions of the pandemic are considerable in all fields of human activity : medical, social, religious, technological, economic, political, geopolitical, etc. The perceived consonances are also, in many aspects, specific to the region. The interdisciplinary approach adopted for this chapter highlights a number of questions, such as the origin of the pandemic, the resistance of the region to the virus, the transformative power of the sanitary crisis, including on religious practices, and the eventual transnationalisation of its social and political impacts. Finally, we highlight the “biopolitical” logics that open stimulating comparisons within but also beyond the Southeast Asian framework.

Keywords : Covid-19 ; Southeast Asia and ASEAN ; Health systems ; Politics ; Socio-Economical impacts ; Religious practices ; Biopolitics


BURMA/MYANMAR - Viral Elections (Aurore CANDIER)

Two events shaped 2020 in Burma/Myanmar : the Covid-19 pandemic and the general elections, won by the National League for Democracy. During the first wave of the pandemic (March-June), there were less than 300 infections nationwide, but the restrictions implemented then (curfew, stayhome, shutdown of borders, airports and schools) continued until the end of the year. They affected all economic, political and social areas. The elections were also impacted by the constitutional reform failure (March), the outcomes of the peace process conference (August), the growing influence of ethnic parties, and the role of the political opposition. The media and civil society groups kept a watch on any sign of military propaganda. Mandalay Region and Kayah State governments became more autonomous. Public opinion denounced environmental threats. While the Chinese temporarily distanced themselves from Burmese diplomacy, the US proposed new investments, and the Japanese reinforced their economic support and soft diplomacy strategies.

Keywords : Burma/Myanmar, 2020, elections, Covid-19 pandemic, International Relations


BRUNEI - Between Tabligh and Covid (Marie-Sybille de VIENNE)

Brunei distinguished itself by its early management of the pandemic, prohibiting as of 4 February any movement to the infected areas. A first case of covid-19 on 9 March, imported from Malaysia by participants in the Tablighi Jama’at rally, led to the closure of educational institutions and places of worship. On 7 May, Brunei launched the BruHealth app, which has a bar code that allows access to all shops and public spaces, which has proven to be very effective. Despite the implementation of the Islamic Penal Code in spring 2019, Brunei’s diplomacy managed to preserve its partnerships : renewal in February of the defence agreement with the British and taking the ASEAN Presidency at the end of November. On 15 November 2020, Brunei joined the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). While Brunei’s economy is expected to grow slightly in 2020, its difficulties are likely to increase in the near future given the fall in oil and gas prices, all the more problematic since its finances have been in deficit since 2014.

Keywords : Covid-19, Tablighi Jama’at, Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, BruHealth, Asean, hydrocarbon prices, budget, deficit


CAMBODIA - Away from the Covid-19 pandemic, the Kingdom suffers the economic and social consequences (Julie BLOT)

Cambodia was not really affected by the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 on a sanitary point of view, however the economy, society, political liberties and education were deeply impacted. Even if the country was not under any lockdown, many economic activities were slowed down by individuals who decided to temporarily close their shops or factories out of fear, by restriction of visas and flights that stopped tourism, and by the global economic crisis of demand brought about by the pandemic. Cambodian garment and tourism workers received some help from the government, a first in a country that lacks social protection. However, government aid did not reach independent workers or small street sellers, who fell deeper into poverty. At the same time, schools were closed for the largest part of the year, increasing the Cambodian education disaster.

Keywords : education, social protection, freedom of speech


INDONESIA - A year full of challenges (Sarah Anaïs ANDRIEU)

2020 was the first year of President Joko Widodo’s second term. Its record is quite mixed, between economic recession and shrinking democracy, with the COVID-19 pandemic as a background. This latter continues to spread at an alarming rate in Indonesia and impacts all fields of the country’s life, highlighting the shortcomings of the health system as well as social and territorial inequalities. It also questions the status of the army within the government (which was already a concern when the President formed his cabinet in 2019). Maintaining elections in 270 regions across Indonesia reinforced the risk of increasing corruption, while the rising possibility of authoritarian drift is preoccupying, as the participation of civil society in the law-making process diminished and the repression of protests grew more violent. International relations were affected by the tensions between China and the United States.

Keywords : COVID-19, economic recession, regional elections, shrinking democracy, militarization


LAOS - A Multifaceted Crisis State (Éric MOTTET)

In 2020, the Covid-19 crisis dominated national headlines by triggering a major socio-economic and rural crisis in a country that for two decades had been enjoying a relatively straight-line trajectory. It is therefore a brutal stop for the government, a few months away from the Party Congress that will determine the next five years’ political-socio-economic orientations. Due to the Covid-19 socio-economic crisis and for lack of an alternative development model, the country finds it increasingly difficult to meet its external public debt obligations. Finally, given its geo-economic fragility, the country may be heading towards a catastrophic scenario with the aggravation of the crisis on health, economic and geopolitical levels.

Keywords : Covid-19, Economic crisis, Rural crisis, China, Geopolitical influence game


MALAYSIA - To escape from a crocodile’s mouth to fall into a tiger’s one (David DELFOLIE)

An unprecedented political crisis, due to irreconcilable positions on Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s succession deal, prematurely ended the Malaysian democratic transition led by the Alliance of Hope cabinet (Pakatan Harapan). A conservative government, headed by veteran politician Muhyiddin Yassin, seized power with the support of a slim reshuffled majority, based on the new National Alliance (Perikatan Nasional). The Federation was then harshly hit by the turbulence of the Covid-19 pandemic, which caused significant socio-economic consequences. Marked by difficulty and regression, the year 2020 in Malaysia can be summed up quite well by the Malay proverb “to escape from a crocodile’s mouth to fall into a tiger’s one” (terlepas dari mulut buaya, masuk ke mulut harimau). However, in this gloomy situation, more nuanced elements can be highlighted, in particular in the field of external relations.

Keywords : Malaysia ; PH government collapse ; pandemic ; democratic transition ; National Alliance


PHILIPPINES - The Philippines at the time of Covid-19 (François-Xavier BONNET)

2020 was a trying year for the Philippines. In addition to recurring typhoons, the country was hit by the Covid-19 crisis. The world’s longest lockdown crippled the economy, plunging the population into an unprecedented social crisis. Despite this, President Duterte increased his popularity, amplified his "war on drugs", passed an anti-terrorism law that threatens basic human rights and continues to dismantle the opposition media. Faced with an aggressive China in the South China Sea, President Duterte no longer calls into question the various defence agreements with the United States. For the first time, he even acknowledged his own country’s legal victory over China, over the Spratley and Scarborough Shoal disputes. But he is also preparing, with China, the exploration and exploitation of gas in the Palawan and Spratleys region (Reed Bank). The United States thus remains the main defence partner of the Philippines, and China the essential economic partner.

Keywords : Natural Disasters ; Covid-19 ; Anti-terrorism Law ; ABS-CBN ; Reed Bank


SINGAPORE - Singaporean Turbulences (Éric FRÉCON)

The aim of this chapter is to decipher the socio-political changes in Singapore after the last major milestone in its national history, namely Covid-19 pandemic. For that, we will use James Rosenau’s theory, which was elaborated after another global turning point, in 1989. More than thirty years later, at the “macro” level, the city-state has to struggle for its diplomatic “autonomy”, in the state-centric sphere, vis-à-vis the American and the Chinese great powers. In parallel, the micro-state also has to deal with the transnational “interdependence” and non-state issues besides Covid, such as dengue, and the food, community, and economic aftershocks these entail. Eventually, the general elections in July gave the opportunity to challenge the new leadership as well as the old institutions (at the “micro-macro level”, according to Rosenau’s words) and to highlight a slow but growing politicization at the “micro-level”.

Keywords : Singapore ; China ; Covid-19 ; Elections ; Transnationalism


THAILAND - Health Crisis under Control, but not the Economic and Political Crises (Jean BAFFIE)

The year 2020 was supposed to be unexciting after a year of election and government formation. However, Thailand was affected by Covid-19 pandemic very early, the first wave of which was quickly under control. However, the tourism sector was deeply affected as were other sectors of the economy (import-export...). Several cases showed that corruption concerned most segments of Thai society. In politics, the three main events of the year were the dissolution of one of the most popular opposition parties, the mobilization of the youth that followed and, more unexpected, the expression of explicit anti-monarchy feelings. In foreign policy, the fragile balance in relations with China and the US seems to bend toward China, in spite of the youth’s anti-Chinese mood.

Keywords : Pandemic, Tourism crisis, Corruption, youth protest, anti-monarchy feelings


TIMOR-LESTE - Political upheavals and the strengthening of health authorities (Christine CABASSET & Rui Graça FEIJÓ)

The virtual ousting by its rivals of Xanana Gusmão (CNRT), one of the pillars of East Timorese political landscape since independence, illustrates an undeniable political change (although not yet definitive). The move led to an important government, parliament and other State institutions reshuffle in favour of the Fretilin party. Marked by the weaknesses of its health system, the country has nonetheless distinguished itself for its good management of the Covid-19 pandemic (zero death). However, the crisis has severely affected the social and economic spheres. Several organisations and partner countries supported East-Timor in dealing with the pandemic, sometimes leading to a struggle for influence, particularly between China on the one hand, and the United States and Australia on the other. With the latter, the “Collaery and Witness K” case resurfaced, linked to Australia’s 2004 spying on bilateral oil negotiations leading to the CMATS oil treaty, signed in 2006.

Keywords : East-Timor ; CNRT ; Fretilin ; Covid-19 ; China ; Australia


VIETNAM - At the turn of an unhindered decade ? (François GUILLEMOT & Emmanuelle PEYVEL)

In 2020 Vietnam was dramatically shaken by COVID. From a health perspective, the country had the foresight to take into consideration its weakness and has thus remarkably contained the epidemic, at the cost of closing its borders and tightly controlling its population. Economically, while growth has slowed down, it nevertheless maintained a positive momentum. This resilience strengthens the aura of the State Party at the approach of its 13th Congress. At the same time, the State Party maintained intense repression against any form of dissent. At the regional level, Vietnam took on the ASEAN presidency, while dealing with China, a major trading partner, albeit a threatening one, particularly in the East Sea (South China Sea). In this respect, Donald Trump’s defeat heralds a renewal of regional diplomatic balances. Finally, the recent trade agreement signed with the European Union is opening up promising economic prospects.

Keywords : COVID, ASEAN, European Union, National Congress, State-Party