29 May, 2014

Infiltrating the Khmer Rouge - The Nate Thayer Story


Several months ago I highlighted the work of Nate Thayer, one of the more accomplished investigative journalists of the post-Cold War era, here at the Stage. Some of Mr. Thayer's most impressive work dates to the 1990s, when he was the Far Eastern and Economic Review's man on the ground in Cambodia. One of his editors at the Review described his achievements in the following terms:
"Nate broke the story in 1997 that Cambodia’s ex-dictator, Pol Pot, was still alive and had been purged from the Khmer Rouge. He followed up a few months later with the first interview with Pol Pot in 18 years, shedding light on how utopian leftism translated to genocide back in Cambodia.... In an era of instant communication, when scoops are matched in hours and sometimes minutes, the Pol Pot stories went unmatched for months. That’s because Nate had spent years developing contacts within the Khmer Rouge, Thai intelligence, and elsewhere to gain this access" [1]
You do not have to read very many of Mr. Thayer's dispatches or essays to realize how incredible his biography is or how important his life's work will be for the historians of the future. His is a story that deserves to be told.

Luckily for us, Thayer has started a crowd-funding project to do just that. He explains the ultimate goal of the project as follows:
I have been researching and writing my book Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir from Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge for 15 years. For 25 years, I have conducted original reporting to compile what is now an 800 page, rough, unedited manuscript. I have accumulated millions of words of notes, hundreds of hours of audio and video recordings, and thousands of still photographs during thousands of interviews of people involved in the contemporary Cambodian political tragedy, with a special focus on Pol Pot;s Khmer Rouge.....

The current manuscript requires extensive editing and will result in the creation of two separate print books. One a more academically focused compilation of the often dry, but critical minutia of the Cambodian contemporary political culture.

[The other] will be an approximately 400 page hardcover book, written in the first person memoir style for a broader readership - Sympathy for the Devil. While written in an accessible readable style, it will be crucially a serious history of modern Cambodia with a decided focus on the Khmer Rouge political movement responsible for the deaths of nearly 2 million people in recent years. It is entirely based on my original research and personal interviews and observations and collected documents and other material over more than two decades. There will also be an eBook of Sympathy for the Devil.

This project will also make available for the historical record hundreds of hours of related, un-redacted archive videos, interviews, and transcripts I have compiled over decades of chronicling Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge and contemporary Cambodian Politics. It will include hours of raw video and audio interviews of Pol Pot and the entire senior Khmer Rouge leadership. [2]

I am excited for the publication of Sympathy for the Devil by merit of its historical content alone. Those of you less inclined to trawl through academic tomes than I am will be happy to know that the book also promises to be a rip roaring good read. Mr. Thayer's search for Pol Pot was an exploit that came about through several near-death encounters and other outlandish experiences that can only be had in an isolated jungle fought over by guerrillas, soldiers, and spies. You can get a good sense for the kind of stories that will end up in the book by reading some of the (unedited) excerpts Thayer has published on his website. A few of my favorites:

"Why You Want to Avoid Getting Blown Up by a Land Mine"
Nate Thayer. nate-thayer.com. 28 January 2014.

"How the US Dropped the Ball when Offered to Bring Pol Pot to Trial"
Nate Thayer. nate-thayer.com. 24 January 2014.

Note: This one is perhaps better titled "How to Be Buddy-Buddy With a Guerrilla General"

"Reporting From Inside the Collapse of Pol Pots Khmer Rouge"

Nate Thayer. nate-thayer.com 18 April 2014.

There are several ways you can help support the book's publication and the project's completion. Thayer is selling a bona fide catalog of items whose purchase will support the project, including advanced and autographed copies of the book itself. He is also selling unedited footage of his interview with Pol Pot and Pol Pot's 1997 trial. These are too expensive for the average buyer, but if you are associated with an institution who could put the footage to good use--say, the Genocides Studies Program at Yale or the Center for Southeast Asia Studies at UH Manoa--then you may consider petitioning it to purchase and archive the footage for later research. Finally, you can promote Thayer's work-or this post-through the normal social media challenges. 

I have contributed to Mr. Thayer's fund already. I encourage all readers with an ounce of interest in Asian political and diplomatic history, the horrors of 20th century totalitarianism and communism, contemporary Cambodian society, or the inner workings of modern guerrilla conflicts to give this project your support.


[1] Andrew Sherry, quoted in "Selected Reviews and Commentary on Nate Thayer," nate-thayer.com (accessed 21 May 2014, or. posted a long time ago). 

[2] Nate Thayer, "Support Publication of Sympathy for the Devil," nate-thayer.com (March 2013).

22 May, 2014

A Few Comments on China, Vietnam and the HYSY981 Crisis

A Chinese coast guard ship fires a water cannon at a Vietnamese vessel.
Image Credit: AP News (16 May 2014)

Over the last two weeks remarkable things have happened in the South China Sea. I assume that the readers of The Stage have read the relevant news reports; I will not copy them here. At the time of this writing (21 May 2013) the situation seems to have stabilized somewhat, giving us a chance to assess what has happened and sketch out the potential consequences of China’s decision to send the Hai Yang Shi You 981 into Vietnamese waters and the riots in Binh Duong and Ha Tinh that soon followed.

I offer here a few observations on neglected facts and themes that may help interested readers make sense of these events.  


 Western analysts need to be brutally honest when we attempt to discern the intent behind Chinese actions on the international stage. Despite the good work produced by the scholars who write for the China Leadership Monitor, Journal of Contemporary China, or The China Brief, the decision making process of the CPC remains opaque. We know less about the cliques, internal debates, and power plays that drive Zhongnanhai’s decisions than those of any other great power. We do not have the information we need to properly assess the intentions of and conflicts between China's most important players. We will not have this information for decades—if ever.

This has practical implications for all observers trying to make sense of Eastern affairs. When it comes to decisions made at highest levels of China’s national leadership, we simply do not know which policies were designed to resolve challenges internal to the CPC and which policies are driven by events on the international scene. As the rest of this post shall show, it is not difficult to analyze the PRC’s behavior solely in reference to regional geopolitics. Yet this type of analysis is inherently flawed. It ignores the incentives nearest and dearest to the men who are making the decisions that matter. We can say with certainty that anything written by an outside observer is incomplete. There is a fair chance it will be completely and utterly wrong. This is an inevitable weakness of any attempt to understand an opaque regime. One should read any sweeping analysis of Chinese foreign policy—including what follows—with a well deserved grain of salt.

1.a With that disclaimer in mind, I submit that China’s decision to send a flotilla and oil rig into the Vietnamese EEZ should not be seen as senseless or unexpected. Chinese leaders have suggested for some time that its territorial island claims in the East and South China Sea are a ‘core interest’ of the People’s Republic of China. [1] For the last two decades these leaders have followed a consistent strategy towards these periphery possessions and the other powers of maritime Asia who contest China’s claims to them. Andrew Erickson was able to fit an outline of this strategy into one neat paragraph during his testimony to the House Armed Services Committee last year:

Chinese leaders are acutely attuned to perceived changes in relative national power, and periodically examine other nations’ stated policies for potential changes in the will to maintain their position regarding issues that are important to Beijing. They will create incidents and probe relentlessly when circumstances suggest that something may have changed, whether timing, leaders, or resources. When met with convincing capability—provided that they do not perceive gratuitous humiliation or threats to the most vital of interests—they typically retreat. When insufficiently opposed, they see how far they can push[2]

The widespread perception that China has become increasingly aggressive over the last few years obscures what is really going on. For the most part, they are doing the same sort of things they were doing 15 years ago. In Erickon’s words, they “probed relentlessly” back then and they “probe relentlessly” now. There is little evidence that the tempo of these probes has increased dramatically over the last twelve months or even the last five years. [3] In comparison to America’s strategic schizophrenia, the essential contours of Chinese policy have been fairly stable. If the situation in the South China Sea is dramatically different now than it was 20 years ago, it is not because the nature of the PRC’s strategy has changed, but because the relative power of the parties involved has changed dramatically over this time period. 

Given the clear priority Chinese leaders have given to China’s maritime disputes and its long term policy of creating crises to test the resolve and reaction of other claimants, Zhongnanhai’s decision to send the Hai Yang Shi You 981 and its flotilla to contested waters is not shocking. 

Acknowledging this leaves us with two much more interesting questions:

1) Why now

2) Why Vietnam?

1.b  Why Now? 

I am inclined to agree with Hugh White, Peter Lee, Carlyle Thayer, and others who have suggested that Beijing’s actions make most sense when placed in their regional context. [4] Thayer is succinct
The deployment of the CNOOC mega rig was a pre-planned response to President Barack Obama’s recent visit to East Asia. China was angered by Obama’s support for both Japan and the Philippines in their territorial disputes with Beijing. Therefore China manufactured the oil rig crisis to demonstrate to regional states that the United States was a “paper tiger” and there was a gap between Obama’s rhetoric and ability to act.” [5]
President Obama’s tour, which ended shortly before the whole HYSY-981 fiasco began, brought the President to Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Tokyo, and Seoul. One wonders if it was wise to exclude Beijing from this list—particularly seeing as the President’s agenda included signing a ten year military pact with the Philippines, declaring that the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands are under U.S. military protection [5], and cajoling South Korean and Malaysian government officials and corporate bigwigs into joining the anti-China Economic Pact Trans Pacific Partnership. From the Chinese perspective it is hard to look at this trip as anything but a hostile attempt to draw tight the noose and solidify a regional alliance to contain it.

Prompting a crisis was an adroit way to show that the PRC cannot be contained. Washington will not crusade against Moscow and Beijing at the same time. Beijing has forced the Americans to choose between the two. To the chagrin of our Asian allies, Washington’s priorities are not those proclaimed in the President’s speeches last month. ASEAN’s inability to stand as a united front against China’s actions is icing on the cake. Reports from the ASEAN negotiations have been more muted than the last time China was able to sow disunion in ASEAN’s ranks, but it is a safe guess that Chinese diplomats were able to pull many of the same strings they did in 2012. One suspects that China specifically timed the crises to display ASEAN’s disunity, showing the region’s middle tier powers that attempts to use ASEAN to stifle China’s ambitions are nothing but a pipe dream. 

1.c Why Vietnam?

Experience suggests that Vietnam is a low risk punching bag. China’s expectations for their oil rig escapades are influenced by their past experience with Vietnam; as I suggested above, they have been ‘probing’ the country for the better part of two decades. Many of these past confrontations closely parallel current events. Andrew Chubb explains:

Despite the obvious tensions, one thing that may be important to bear in mind when interpreting this incident is its resonance with other incidents over the past 15 years. Although it may be the first time China has tried to drill for oil in the area, as opposed to conduct seismic surveys, the PRC’s practice of positioning energy survey platforms in provocative locations west of the Paracels dates back well before even the 2007 incident discussed below. In March 1997 and November 2004, for example, CNOOC set up its Kantan-3 survey rig around 65nm from the Vietnamese mainland.

The most remarkable resonance is with the 2007 confrontation in the Paracels, made public for the first time in a CCTV documentary late last year (see Scott Bentley’s excellent writeup on The Diplomat). That time, Chinese law enforcement ships were likewise escorting an energy survey operation, in a similar area of sea (on the Vietnamese side of Triton Island), which about 30 Vietnamese ships were attempting to disrupt. In 2007, following a brief period of standoff, the China Marine Surveillance ship Haijian-84 was instructed to ram the Vietnamese ships….
The similarities between the two incidents’ initial causes (Chinese energy exploration activities), responses (Vietnam sending a fleet to try to interfere with the survey), locations (near Triton Island), and specific actions (Chinese ramming of Vietnamese boats) carry at least a couple of implications. First, to date at least, this incident at sea is probably not the “accident or miscalculation” that many Western government officials and think tankers are often warning about. Given the close following of past patterns, the Chinese side would surely have anticipated Vietnam would respond as they did, and Vietnam had every reason to expect the Chinese countermeasures that ensued. [6]

If Beijing saw the past as pattern for the future then the entire affair is one of little risk and great reward. The Americans and ASEAN would be humiliated, the PLAN would have fun playing with water cannons, ramming Vietnamese ships, and practicing fleet maneuvers in a real but not too dangerous situation, and tensions would simmer away when the rig departs in August. The end result would be immediate gains, a few short term pains, and no long term costs. 


Beijing’s decision was a miscalculation. The Vietnamese government played their role according to plan, but the Vietnamese people did not. At this point the mobbery on land has eclipsed the confrontation at sea as the main story. The violence of this backlash has surprised many—it certainly surprised both governments involved. A few things to keep in mind as we try to account for the intensity of the violence:

2.a There is no way to say this delicately: Asia is home to a base and deep seated sort of racism most educated Americans have never experienced or are likely to ever encounter. One must search long and hard to find a society east of the Oxus where it is unacceptable to scorn and abuse people of another race. On a continent chock full of ethnic superiority complexes, the intensity and complexity of Southeast Asia’s ethnic tensions are in a class of their own.  Vietnamese perceptions of the Chinese are a particularly volatile cocktail, mixing the standard feelings of bitterness and resentment felt by peoples across Southeast Asia towards the well-to-do Chinese diaspora  with a nationalist narrative that champions centuries of resistance to Chinese aggression. The lower elements of Vietnamese society do not distinguish between local ethnic Chinese, Chinese nationals, Taiwanese, and employees of the PRC government—for the most part they are all seen as rich Chinese speakers living a life more comfortable than theirs. It was these same cruder elements that were whipped into a destructive frenzy last week.

2.b There is also a strong economic element to the riots. Four days ago I had the chance to chat with a friend who has business dealings in Binh Duong (she currently lives in Binh Phuoc, just north of the Binh Duong). As she told me about the various selfies friends had sent her from inside the factories when the riots were at their peak [8], she repeatedly emphasized a fact few commentators acknowledge. Most of the rioters tearing apart factories work as laborers in the very industrial parks they gutted. [9] These protests were not led by Vietnam’s students, middle class, or its peasantry. They were an affair of the industrial underclass. For many of these rioters, nationalism was simply an excuse for theft.

Vietnam’s tremendous growth has concealed how thinly stretched the growing urban underclass actually is. Along with growth has come inflation—more than 20% in 2008 and 2011, while 2013 was the first time in a decade it dipped below 7%. [10] The Vietnamese government has had to increase the minimum wage 10 times over this period simply to keep pace with inflation. The last minimum wage hike was prompted by “a study [from] the Vietnam Labor Union [that] found a properly sustainable diet, which is defined as a diet of about 2,300 calories a day, costs approximately VND900,000 per month to fund… [while other government] officials estimated that the previous minimum wage rate covered just 70 percent of the cost of basic necessities.[11]

This is before these workers send a chunk of their paycheck home to rural families as remittances. [12]

By Western standards factory conditions can be very rough—and they are made rougher by the Korean, Taiwanese, and Chinese supervisors who run the factories. Western audiences were first introduced to their abuses during the Nike sweatshop scandal of the early 1990s. Famously, a supervisor working for Sam Yang, one of Nike’s Korean subcontractors, had lined up unproductive Vietnamese workers and beat them over the head with a shoe. [13] The incident caused controversy because of Nike’s global reach, but it is not the last time Northeast Asian management has relied on force to put Southeast Asian workers in their place. [14] Northeast Asian companies’ disregard for labor and safety rules, different cultural attitudes towards hierarchy, dissent, and conflict resolution [15], and a perceived sense of inferiority on the part of many Vietnamese workers produces tensions that periodically erupt into violent conflict between Vietnamese workers and Chinese, Taiwanese, or Korean management. 


A riot in Thai Nguyen (9 Jan 2013) during the construction of a new Samsung production facility.

These same elements are seen in the interviews with those present at last week’s riots:
"I saw 13 Chinese dead and dozens of them injured," said the Ha Tinh factory worker, who asked Reuters to withhold her name. "Vietnamese workers didn't want to send the Chinese to hospital. They said, 'Let them be. We treat Chinese like they treated us'. But then the police came and took them to hospital." (emphasis added) [16]

The resentment Vietnamese factory hands feel towards their foreign supervisors helps us understand how anti-Chinese protests could morph into the indiscriminate gutting of Taiwanese and Korean factories so easily. [17]


3.a Perhaps the biggest winner in all of this is Cambodia. Hun Sen’s government and ranking members of the CPP have suggested on multiple occasions that the labor protests that rocked Cambodia earlier this year have damaged the country’s investment climate. The delays caused by those protests do not hold a candle to the destruction wrought by the mobs in Ha Tinh and Binh Duong. As with Vietnam, Cambodian industry is dominated by factories owned and managed by South Koreans, Taiwanese, and Chinese companies. Those fearful of more violence in Vietnam may find her western neighbor a more secure location for direct investment. Cambodia’s sketchy electricity grid puts a limit on how quickly heavy industry can move production to Phnom Penh, but given the long experience Northeast Asian subcontractors have in Cambodia and its physical proximity to Vietnam it is not difficult to imagine such a transition taking place if companies expect tensions between Vietnam and China to worsen on the long term. 

3.b 190 of the factories ransacked by the mobs were owned and managed by Taiwanese companies. In desperation, the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs printed out 20,000 stickers reading “I am Taiwanese, I am from Taiwan” that Taiwanese nationals could post outside of their factories and facilities in a futile effort to distinguish themselves from the Chinese in Vietnam. The stickers arrived too late to help—it is questionable if they would have helped had they been available when the riots started—but the lesson was not lost on the Taiwanese expats in Vietnam or the Taiwanese government. Beijing’s “one country” claims, the acceptance of these claims by other governments, and the blurring of the legal and economic lines between Taiwan and China endanger lives and damage Taiwanese interests. As was the case in Vietnam, Taiwanese citizens and businesses abroad are forced to run the gauntlet whenever and wherever there is a backlash against Beijing’s policies. Taiwan’s status as a not-quite-a-country also complicates any attempts on Taipei’s part to press for compensation for damages through normal legal channels. [18]

In the coming months I think we will see moves from Taipei to emphasize its “Taiwaneseness.” Taipei’s harsh rejection of Beijing’s offer to cooperate in the South China Sea last week is a harbinger of what is to come. With legislators in the KMT (!) now suggesting that Taiwan should “seek to establish diplomatic relations with countries engaged in confrontation with China[19], the DPP raising their standard objections, and the memory of the Sun Flower Movement still fresh in everyone's mind, the Ma administration will be placed under immense pressure to distance itself from Beijing. In the coming months we should expect Taiwanese officials and businesses to take every chance they can get to sharply distinguish themselves from China, despite objections Beijing may raise.


[1] Paul B. Stare, “Ask CFR Experts: Is the South China Sea, Like Taiwan, now a Core National Interest for China?Council on Foreign Relations: Ask CFR Experts Blog (29 July 2013). 

[2] Andrew S. Erickson, “China’s Naval Modernization: Implications and Recommendations,” Hearing for the Armed Services Committee of the United States House of Representatives (11 December 2013), 11. 

[3] For example, Chinese naval patrols sent into the East China Sea have decreased substantially over the last six months. M. Taylor Fravel and Alastair Ian Johnston, "Chinese signaling in the East China Sea," The Monkey Cage (12 April 2014).

[4] Hugh White, "Explaining China's Behavior," The Interpreter (22 May 2014); Peter Lee, "Bell Tolls for U.S. Pivot in South China Sea," Asia Times Online (14 May 2014); panel discussion, "The China-Vietnam Standoff: How Does it End?" China File (9-17 May 2014),
comment by Carlyle Thayer (9 May 2013).

[5] A much more significant event than most analysts admit. Despite what the President claimed to the press, before his statement last month American policies in the East China Sea were ambiguous and dangerously unclear. See my earlier post, "The United States Does Not Know What It is Doing in the East China Sea," The Scholar's Stage (6 February 2014).

[6] Andrew Chubb, "China-Vietnam Clash in the Internet Era: History Repeats itself in the Internet Era?" South Sea Conversations (7 May 2014).

[8] If  the idea of workers barely surviving on Vietnamese minimum wage taking selfies seems a bit confusing, I recommend this summary of how the cell phone business in Vietnam works:  Anh-Minh Do, "In Vietnam, For Every 100 People There Are 145 Phones," Tech in Asia (5 December 2012).

[9] This accords with reporting on the ground. Most of the riots seemed to follow a “two-wave” pattern, starting when factory workers began peaceful protests but escalating when agitators and thugs arrived on the scene, began smashing things up, and told the original protestors to “take what you want.” 

See Andrew R.C. Marshall, “How a stand off at sea led to mob violence in Vietnam,” Reuters (16 May 2013); Eva Dou and Jenny Hsu, “Foreign Firms Regroup After Vietnam Riots,” Wall Street Journal (16 May 2013).

[10] See IndexMundi’s “Inflation Rate (Consumer Price %)” data by year for Vietnam.

[11] Dezan Shira & Associates, “National Wage Council Established in Vietnam, Minimum Wage Rises,” Vietnam Brief (16 July 2013).

[12] I have had trouble finding data on the exact proportion that send indemnities home, but a general demographic picture of these factory workers is not hard to compile. Binh Duong has the highest in-migration rate of all provinces in Vietnam. Recent surveys suggest that the majority (64%~) of Vietnamese internal migrants come from rural areas, and more than a third did not graduate high school. The number of migrants under twenty—who, lacking families of their own, are expected to support their families back home—has trebled between 1989 and 2009.

Le Thi Kim Anh, et. al, "An analysis of interprovincial migration in Vietnam from 1989 to 2009" Global Health Action (5 December 2012) dec.

[13] A summary can be found at Vietnam Labor Watch, “Nike Labor Practices in VietnamSaigon.com (or. pub. 20 March 1997).

[14] This power dynamic was seen most recently seen in the violent crackdown of the Cambodian factory workers strike in January. Geoffrey Cain, “South Korea Pulled Strings as Cambodia Violently Smashed Labor Protests,” Global Post (10 January 2014). 

[15] I owe this insight to a March 2014 lecture by Kristie Seawright, who conducted interviews of Vietnamese workers, Korean subcontractors, and American investors during the early 2000s for a study she conducted evaluating global labor relations. 

[16] See note 13, Marshall, “How a stand off at sea”

[17] In Bin Duong, more Korean factories were ransacked than Chinese ones! Phila Siu and Ng Kang-chung, “Just 14 factories targeted in Vietnam's anti-China protests belonged to mainland ChineseSouth China Morning Post (19 May 2014)

[18] Julian Ku, “Why Taiwanese Investors Should Think About Becoming Chinese (At least When Sueing Vietnam,” Opinio Juris (19 May 2014).

[19] Shih Hsiu-chuan, "Vietnam Protests: Officials say no to Beijing's Initiative,"  Taipei Times (16 May 2014). 

14 May, 2014

What Books Do We Need to Rewrite All of Human History?

Image source.

The Long Now Foundation, a society devoted to human flourishing on a millennial timescale,  has started a project named the "Manual for Civilization." The idea behind the Manual is not unlike that of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a seed bank built deep beneath the ice of a remote Norwegian island that aims to serve as a reserve for other seed banks whose seed stores may be damaged by accidents, funding cuts, civil strife, or more romantically, a global catastrophe that threatens all of human civilization. Where the Svalbard Seed Vault stores seeds, the Manual for Civilizations will store books. Quite specifically:
"3,500 volumes in a floor-to-ceiling library featuring carefully selected books that could be used to help restart civilization [in the event that 'civilization' failed]" [1]
Over the last few months prominent members and associates of the Long Now Foundation have published lists of some of the books they would like to see in the library. The majority of these lists have absolutely no relation to the Manual's stated mission. They are dominated by works of literature, history, and popular science of a very recent vintage--all in all books more useful for reconstructing the ideologies of the contributors than for reconstructing civilization. [2] Civilization is not built on creativity alone; were humanity in such bad shape that it needed to unearth a 3,500 volume library to find its way back to the light it would be in desperate need of a library compiled with a different set of guiding priorities.

Yet the compilation of all these books poses an interesting question. What would the future survivors of apocalypse understand of human history and of the society which left these volumes behind? Would they be able to reconstruct the history of mankind, or would the narrative of human civilization be completely lost from their view? What primary sources would a future Edward Gibbon need to write a History of the Decline and Fall of Human Civilization?

The question is a fun one, so I thought I would try my hand at making a list of the essential narrative sources our knowledge of human history is built upon. These sources are not meant to be the sole record or historical analysis available to the post-apocalyptic era. For the sake of the social scientists of mankind's second age, a proper catalog of human history should devote as many volumes to archaeology, ethnography, linguistics, and dry tomes of historical statistics as it does to historical narrative. Likewise, a hundred or so works written by modern writers deserve to be on the list so that knowledge gained from documentary sources too scattered, fragmentary, or otherwise inconsequential may be preserved for future generations.


 Multiple Authors (32nd-7th centuries BC),, trans. and compiled by James Henry Brested, Ancient Records of Egypt, 5 vol
 Multiple Authors (28th-8th centuries BC), various translators and compilers, Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia Project, 7 vols
Multiple Authors (8th-6th centuries BC), various translators and compilers, Royal Inscriptions of Neo-Assyrian Period Project, 4 vols

Author unknown (3rd [?] century BC), Zuo Zhuan Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals
Author unknown (3rd century BC), Stratagems of the Warring States 
Multiple Authors (2nd century BC-15th century AD), 24 Dynastic Histories
Faxian (5th century), A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms,
Bianji (9th century), Great Tang Records on Western Regions 
Sima Guang (11th century), Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Governance, collected memorials
Wang Anshi (11th century), collected memorials
 Zhou Daguan (12th century), The Customs of Cambodia
The Kangxi Emperor (17th-18th centuries), collected letters and proclamations

Le Van Hu'u (13th century), Annals of Dai Viet
Ngo Si Lien, et. al (15th-17th centuries), Complete Annals of Da Viet
Mpu Prapance (14th century), Nagarajretagam 
Various Authors (14th?-18th centuries), Chronicle of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya 

Multiple Authors (8th-9th centuries AD), The Six National Histories [Rikokuku]
Multiple Authors (11th-14th centuries), The Four Mirrors
Author unknown  (12th century), The Tale of Splendor
Authorship disputed (12th century), Tale of the Heike
Jien (14th century), The Gukansho
Kitabatake Chikafusa (14th century), Chronicles of the Authentic Lineages of the Divine Emperors
Attributed.to Humro Tokinaga (14th century), The Tale of Heiji 
Author Unknown (14th century), The Tale of Hogen
Attributed to Kojima (15th century), History of Great Peace [Taiheke]
Oze Hoan, Taikoki (17th century)
Ota Gyuichi, Schinsho Koki (17th century)

Kim Busik (12th century), Chronicle of Three Kingdoms [Samguk Saki]
Multiple Authors (14th century), History of Goryeo [Goryeosa]
Yu Sung-ryong (16th century), The Book of Corrections
Multiple Authors (14th-19th century), True Record of the Joeson Dynasty

Herodotus (5th century BC), The Histories
Thucydides (4th century BC) , The Peloponnese War
Xenophon (4th century BC), Hellenika, Anabasis
Demosthones (3rd century. BC), collected speeches
Arrian (3rd century BC), Anabasis of Alexander, Indica
Polybius (1st century BC), Histories

Cicero (1st century BC), collected speeches
Julius Caesar (1st century BC), The Gallic Wars, The Civil Wars
Livy (1st century AD), History of Rome
Josephus (2nd century AD), Antiquities of the Jews, The Jewish Wars
Tacitus (2nd century), Histories, Annals, Agricola and Germanica
Appian (2nd century), Roman History
Suetonius (3rd century), The Twelve Caesars
Plutarch (3rd century), Lives
Eusebius (4th century), Ecclesiastical History 
Ammianus Marcellinus (5th century), Roman History, Res Gestae

Procopius (6th century), The Secret History, History of the Wars
Theophanes (9th century), Chronicle of Theophanes
Michael Psellus (11th century), The Chronographia
Anna Komnene (11th century), The Alexiad
Michael Attaleiates (11th century), The History
John Skylitzes (12th century), Synopsis of Histories
Nicetas Choniates (13th century), Historical Annals
Michael Critobulus (15th century), History of Mehmet the Conqueror 

Ali Waqidi (8th century), Book of History and Campaigns
Al Musudi (9th century), Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems
Al Tabari (10th century), History of Prophets and Kings 
 Ibn al-Qūṭiyya (10th century), History of the Conquest of Al Andalus
Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi (11th century), History of Baghdad 
'Abd Allah b. Buluggin (11th century), The Tibyan 
Ali Ibn al-Athir (12th century), The Complete History
Ibn Battuta (14th century), Rihla
Muhammed Aufi (14th century), Jami al-Hikayat 
Ibn Khaldun (14th century), Muqaddihmah, Book of Lessons, 
Mir Kvhand (15th century), Garden of Purity

Author unknown (13th century), The Secret History of the Mongols
William of Rubrick (13th century),  The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck: His Journey to the Court of the Great Khan
Rashid al-Din (14th century), The Compendium of Chronicles 
Marco Polo (14th century), Travels of Marco Polo 
Sharaf al-Din (15th century), Zafar-Nama
Ahmad ibn Arabshah (15th century), The Wonders of Destiny of the Ravages of Timur

Thera Mahanama, attr. (4th century), The Mahavasma [Great Chronicle] 
Various Authors (5th-19th century), The Culavasma [Lesser Chronicle]
Bannabatha (7th century), Acts of Harsha
Al Biruni (11th century), The Book Confirming What Pertains to India, Whether Rational or Despicable
Kalhana (12th century), Rajatarangini [River of Kings]
Ziauddin Burney (13th century), Firuz Shah's History
Muhammed Khwandamir (15th century), Habib al-Siyar [Friend of Biographies] 
Babur the Great (16th century), Baburnama
Abdul Hamid Lahori (17th century), Padshahna
Abd al-Qadr Badauni (17th century), Bada'uni's History 
Jahangir (17th century), Tuzuk-e-Jahangir

Sidi Ali Reis (14th century), The Mirror of Countries
Evilya Celebi (15th century), Seyahatname
Mustafa Naima (17th century), The Garden of Husayn in the Summary of the Chronicles of East and West

Gregory of Tours (6th century), History of the Franks
Gregory the Great (6th-7th centuries), collected letters
Einhard (9th century), The Life of Charlemagne 
Bede (9th century), Ecclesiastical History
Various Authors (9th-12th century?), The Anglo Saxon Chronicle 
Frutolf of Michensburg and Ekkenhard of Aura (11th-12th centuries), World Chronicle 
Author Unknown (12th century), Heimskingla
William of Tyre (12th century), History of Jerusalem
Otto of Freising (12th century), Deeds of Emperor Frederick the Great
Galbert of Bruges (12th century), The Murder of Charles the Good
James I (13th century), The Book of the Deeds of James I of Aragon
Mathew of Paris (13th century), Chronica Majorica 
Giovanni Villan (13th century), Florentine Chronicle
Jean Froissett (14th century), Chronicles 
Dietrich of Neiham (15th century), The Schism 
Fernao Lopez (15th century), Chronicle of Peter I, Chronicle of John I, Chronicle of Fernando I

Philippe de Commynes (15th century), Memories

Leonardo Bruni (15th century), History of Florentine Peoples
Joao de Barros (16th century), Decades of Asia  
Johann Wick (16th century), The Wickiana 
Pietro Bembo (16th century), History of Venice
Edward Hall (16th Century), Hall's Chronicle 
Francesco Guicciardini (16th century), History of the Italian People
Jacques Auguste de Thou (16th-17th centuries), History of his Own Time, Memoirs
Elizabeth I (17th century), state papers
Duke de Richelieu (17th Century), Memoirs, Political Testament
Don Gaspar de Guzmán (17th century), collected memorials
Samuel Pepys (17th century), Diary
John Rushworth (17th century), Historical Collections

Various Authors (3rd century-8th century AD), Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions 
Author Unknown (14th-15th centuries), The Codex Borgia, Codex Nuthall, Codex Bodley, 
Codex Mendoza
Bernardino de Sahagún (16th century), The Florentine Codex
Juan de Betanzos (16th century), Narrative of the Incas
Pedro Cieza de Leon (16th century), Chronicle of Peru 
Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala (16th century), The First New Chronicle and Good Government 

A few comments on this list.

Readers will notice that I did not include any books written after the 17th century. By the Early Modern period court annalists and national historians of the ancient type had faded away. Moreover, the last few centuries have left such an abundance of documentary evidence that it is nigh impossible to narrow down entire centuries to the words of a single grand historian. 

In some regions this problem is seen much earlier. Both medieval India and medieval Europe were places where power was decentralized and knowledge was provincial. Historical projects like the 24 Standard Histories simply were not possible in such environments, for historians lacked the means and the knowledge to write narratives that might transcend the political boundaries that divided their respective subcontinents. If the works selected for either of these time periods feel a bit arbitrary or scattered, this is the reason.

There are a few gaps worth noting. Ancient and classical India is not represented here. I explained the special challenge the Indian literary tradition poses for the historian in an earlier post:
The Rig Veda is the first voice heard in the "great conversation" of the Indic literary canon. In the 3,500 years that followed the Indic cultural tradition did more than survive: it thrived. From its humble beginnings on the Indo-Gangetic plain it spread across the entire subcontinent. By the first century BC it had spread to Southeast Asia; it provides the cultural foundation of Cambodian, Lao, Thai, Malay, and Burmese society to this day. Across dozens of languages, an even larger number of empires, hundreds of miles, and thousands of years this tradition persevered. Yet in all of those languages, miles, countries, and years it never produced a single historian! 
The Indic tradition can claim sacred hymns, epic poetry, treatise on philosophy, mathematics, grammar, and science, handbooks on art, dharma, politics, and sex, love poems and tragedies, religious devotionals and children parables - but no histories. Because of this, the most important historical sources for these societies are usually outsiders from the West or from China! Despite the wealth of literary and epigraphical material these societies produced, Megasthenes remains one of the most important primary sources for historians studying the Maurya Empire and Zhou Daguan is one of the most important sources we have for the Angkor Empire. It was not until Muslim marcher lords fought their way into India that the discipline of history took root on the subcontinent. Southeast Asia waited even longer, seeing its first indigenous historians well after their conquest by imperial European powers. [3]
In the comments section of this post Al West pointed out this is not quite true-the Sri Lankans were able historians, maintaining the religiously charged Mahavasma and Culavasma chronicles for centuries. But they are the exception that proves the rule. The glories of the Gupta and Maurya Empires, for example, are known to us only through travelers' reports, literary allusions, and the hundreds of epigraphs and inscriptions these empires produced. If these inscriptions are all ever recorded and published in one set (i.e. a Sanskrit version of the "Royal Inscriptions of Neo-Assyrian Period Project"), they would be an ideal addition to our library. 

I also have not listed any narrative sources for Eastern Europe, Russia, or Africa. These regions are not irrelevant to the project's aims; I simply am not familiar enough with the historiography of Africa or the Slavic lands to know which sources deserve to make the cut. 

If readers more knowledgeable than me have any suggestions please chime in the comments below. You never know, the historians of the future may depend on it. 


[1] Austin Brow, "Towards a Manual of Civilization," Long Now Blog (14 August 2013).

[2] The exceptions is Lewis' Dartnell's list, one of the few that may actually come in handy if civilization were in need of a reboot. See Alexander Rose, "The Knowledge," The Long Now Blog (19 April 2014).

[3] T. Greer, "Whence Springs a Strategic Canon?" The Scholar's Stage (9 April 2013).

04 May, 2014

Understanding Dysfunctional Democracies


Over the last few days a fractious discussion about contemporary Thai politics has arisen over at Zenpundit, the premier space on this side of the blogosphere for discussions of strategic theory, history, political ideology, and the intersections between them. Yesterday  Lynn Rees, a superb essayist who posts regularly at the site, entered the discussion with a lengthy--but quite frankly, brilliant--comment that matches any other analysis I have seen of the issues at hand. His conclusions are of such quality that they really deserve their own post. I copy his words here in their entirety with a few comments of my own at the end:
Nothing of the use of the combats in Thailand strikes me as giving either of these factions a special patina of righteousness. Thai factions and their respective Western useful idiots show little appreciation of the cultural nuances of Western culture.
Here we see the culturally invariant phenomenon of elite factions in a small pool escalating their squabbling over the division of power in that small pool. The incumbents are largely drawn from an older stratum of the Thai ruling class and their middling servitors centered in the cities, predominantly Bangkok. The challengers are drawn from a more marginal class of more rural and provincial elites who are trying to increase their share of the pie at the expense of the existing. Both seek predominance over the coercive mechanisms of the Thai establishment, an agglomeration of ostensible public institutions like the state and ostensibly private institutions such as a large mobile phone company.
Neither seeks the more abstract ideals silly Westerners would see such as the Benthamite ideal for public sector institutions i.e. the greatest good for the greatest number or a private sector institution i.e. a profit maximizing entity striving in an antiseptically depoliticized consumer market. Instead they fight for control over a limited number of assured profit streams secured by a diversified portfolio of investments in both public and private entities with the resource flows and other assets secured by the core bedrock of violence backed assets. Add to this the even more parochial interests of factions within factions such as those of the anachronistic royal court, the dead enders of the legacy Thai aristocracy with impeccable breeding, the traditional perks of the Thai military leadership, and middling urban Thais whose ancestors already escaped toil in the rice paddies and don’t want to slide back as other peasants threaten to do the same. Toss in the usual animosity of an economically poor ethnic majority, especially those semi-educated members who’ve drunken too deeply from the shallow yet potent brew of cheap knock off French Revolution-era flavored nationalism with its trappings of respectable formalism, toward an economically well off ethnic minority and the enhanced animosity raised when the more ambitious among that minority seek to add political and social power to their riches and the elite battles are likely to be tense.
I suppose the question has been asked more than once by some Thais: how Thai is Mr. Thaskin? Is Thainess based on blood descent or is Thainess a state of mind? Is Thainess based on % of blood or % of devotion? Mr. Thaskin’s immediate forbears changed their name from Goldberg to Smith to become more Thai. The same forebears were tax farmers, a distasteful practice outsourced by many incumbent insiders to uppity minorities e.g. Armenians, Lebanese, Jews, Chinese that can be periodically shaken down, disposed of, or plausibly denied when their efficient exactions from a beleaguered populace trigger the inevitable peasant rage. Mr. Thaskin’s family fortunes are derived from similar rental sources like conveniently acquired telecom monopolies and other takings which are tax farming operations behind their thin veneer. I suspect most of those who would cast Mr. Thaskin down are not so concerned with his rent-seeking at the expense of the majority of Thais but are concerned that he’s the one rent-seeking instead of those to whom rents should go as a matter of right.
As with any elite squabbling, an arms race is set off in which each faction, however finely sliced, seeks more and more mobilizable allies as the struggle for power intensifies. Where the fashionable mechanism of acquiring a patina of legitimacy is snout-counting, this involves bringing new supporters into the electorate e.g. Mr. Thaskin’s peasant vote buying. The primarily urban anti-Thaskinites probably see themselves as “democratic” and possibly do have some snout-counting legitimization role within the narrow based electorate that usually follows the initial phase of urbanization. A major centralizing role has been played between traditional core aristocrats or monarchs and the aspiring middle against the petty snobbery of traditional provincial elites and the more uppity new aristos. The traditional elites can point to a centralization resisting aristocratic faction and say to those beneath the aristocratic threshold: you may be poor but at least your Thai unlike those evil Hakka oppressing you.
Long live the king.
Another usual technique in the intensification of elite squabbling is not only seeking to mobilize internal political support but to mobilize external political support. At its most marginal this involves attracting foreign sock puppets, be they knowing fellow travelers or unknowing useful idiots, and wringing them for whatever small puffs of power they’re good for. At its most potent this involves attracting patronage from foreign power, usually with far more violence-backed assets than locals, and turning them on your enemies. I suspect many Thai elite factions are more aware that many of their most important constituents live in Beijing, Washington, Tokyo, New York, or some other foreign domicile and not in urban or rural Thailand and that, if speaking of the will of the people, it is the will of those people and not the Thai people, inasmuch as the Thai people have and can express a will, that matters.
Thailand is a small insignificant nation: the fact that it is so small and insignificant is what makes those scrambling to control so much more passionate about its politics than than contenders in a bigger shark tank like America the Beautiful i.e. . Rama IV, when not bursting into song duels with the foreign help, and Rama V, when not being forced to listen to song duels with the foreign help, recognized their insignificance and used their small size and impotence to triangulate between the various Western imperialists and maintain more control over their kingdom than if they’d mattered or been something France and Britain cared to come to a codominum over.
Since many Thais have adopted or had imposed upon them a straight jacket drawn from Western norms over the past 150 years or so, they invoke words like democracy, human rights, &tc, at least to silly Westerners and perhaps even among themselves. Their understanding of the nuances of the original Western context is muddled, probably because the Western understanding of the nuances of the original Western context is equally muddled if not more so. Politics is the division of power and Western politics, inasmuch as it functions as an ideal, is a dispersed and balanced division of power.
When Cliesthenes and the more sketchy figure of Publius Valerius Publicola created the original demokratia and res publica in the last decade of the sixth century before Christ, they aimed to keep one from  individual winning all the shiny marbles for themselves. In Thaskin and his rivals, you see people who want anything but a system that keeps them from winning all the shiny marbles for themselves. When Mr. Thaskin wins power by buying rural votes with spending give aways, it’s a victory for “democracy”. When his rivals allow the Thai army to topple a “democratic” government in the name of protecting their interests, it’s a victory for “democracy”. Neither want victory for an abstraction like the will of the people: they just want to win. If they can get away with doing that by snout counting, well and good: one snout counted one time and I win forever. If they can get away with that with a coup d’etat, well and good: one coup one time and I win forever. 
Cliesthenes, an old-time aristocrat whose factional discontents required a more creative solution, broke up the traditional kinship and class based structures in Athens while Athens existence was threatened by the aggressions of its neighbors led by the Spartan king Cleomenes. Out went voting among a narrow elite faction. In came elevation to office by playing Plinko. Out went the division between rural and urban. In came the deme, each consisting of an urban area, a coastal region, and an inland rural area. Ostracism was instituted to let the people vote to send over mighty politicians into exile for a decade without confiscation of their property. The Thais seem to be working towards that with Mr. Thaskin. These measures coincided with a revival of Athenian military fortunes, which gave them a thick coat of legitimizing gloss. So thick that their original creator, Cliethenes, disappears in a quiet non-Mr. Thaskin way from the historical record.
Key take away: it’s not about voting or which righteous cause is elevated to the supreme reforming sotto voce redistributing role. The will of the people for the breakdown of how spending is split between rural peasant and urban functionary is ultimately no more relevant to the rightness of governmental form than the preference of the will of the people for curry over pad thai burritos. The key is a broad and enduring division of power within a polity where no one can ever win one true victory.
Usually this involves dumping your king by exile, cozy retirement, or lopping off their head but Americans cannot definitively take the high ground on this issue: we still insist on electing a king every 4 years. If the Thais magically invoke les majeste and the sacral character of their monarch as a way of saying king dumping will never happen here, the Nepalis would advise caution on that. Beware the sudden leveling wind. And if the Thai man on the street bothers to ask whether my emaciated furin’ scribblings here are driven by concern with the politics of my own country or my concern with Thailand’s politics, the answer is yes for myself and (I suspect) Mr. Yon. A pox on both our houses. (Color emphasis added).  [1]

 Mr. Rees' central point transcends the electoral intrigues of Bangkok politics.  Indeed, it explains many of the tensions we see in unstable democracies across the globe. Representative democracy did not originate as an abstract design in a philosopher's head. It was a creation centuries in the making, the product of negotiation, conflict, and a myriad of historical contingencies. Many educated Americans of our day, heirs to one of the longest and most stable democratic traditions on Earth, have little understanding of the circumstances in which their system of government was created or the concerns that determined its ultimate structure. A great number of America's most serious political predicaments reflect our reliance on institutions designed to meet the needs of  a different age.

The mismatch between the political institutions modern America has and the type of institutions that would best meet the needs of her citizenry is the end result of hundreds of incremental decisions made over decades of American history. For the world's "third wave democracies" this political transition was more jarring. Often their new institutions did originate as abstract ideas in politico's heads, more firmly grounded in Westerner's platonic ideal of what democratic government should be like than in the political realities on the ground. The results of haphazardly grafting Western institutions onto these societies are often tragic. As Virak Ou sadly reflected  in a recent lecture on Cambodian politics, "The problem with Cambodia is not its constitution. Cambodia has one of the best constitutions in the entire world... [the real problem is that] the constitution doesn't matter" [2] and it has not mattered since Hun Sen, the siting Prime Minister, violently removed his political rivals from power in 1997. This is not a curse unique to Southeast Asia. The same troubles beset any fledgling democracy where local elites have been forced to clothe themselves in Western ideals and institutions to validate their quests for power.


[1] Lynn Rees, Comment #16 (2 May 2014) on a post by Charles Cameron, "Michael Yon Discussing 'Possibly one of the Largest Peaceful Uprisings in History,'" Zenpundit (30 April 2014).

[2] Virak Ou, "Will Cambodia See a 'Spring'?," lecture at the Stanford Center for Development and the Rule of Law (3 February 2014), YouTube video (posted 7 February 2014).