For more than a thousand years before that, Southeast Asia had no clear national boundaries. Loosely partitioned rival kingdoms corralled subjects of distinct cultures and religions who spoke different languages. Its modern borders, which haven't really changed since they represented the boundaries of European colonies, are still flash points. Thailand. Laos. Cambodia. The demarcations of their territory can seem as random as the spread of greater vessel and lesser vessel Buddhism. And in a sprawling nation like Indonesia, the attempt to keep order, and control, over willful Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Christian populations seems to be taking down one government per year.
Journalist Michael Vatikiotis has covered the region for 20 years, currently as managing editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review. He has woven together from his experiences a book of nine short tales aptly titled, Debatable Land: Stories from Southeast Asia.
At FEER, Vatikiotis deals with the often stranger-than-fiction Asia of coups and collapsing economies, and Debatable Land weaves those cataclysms into nar-ratives. Like the region, Vatikiotis's stories are diverse, offering glimpses into the lives of a wide array of everyday characters, from downtrodden servants to the spoiled children of generals. In the opening story a poor Bangkok man, grieving the death of his son, builds a concrete wall across his street to keep expensive cars from running over more children. The wall begins to attract not only surprised motorists, but sympathetic onlookers and even a monk with a donation jar from the local temple. After several nights of growing commotion, the king satisfies the man and his supporters by decreeing the wall a national shrine—equipped with a gate for passing cars.
From Bangkok, Vatikiotis journeys to the disputed borderland of Burma and Thailand where separatist militiamen are born into a life of combat without so much as a goal or clear enemy. He goes to the metropolis of Kuala Lumpur, where the promise of quick money and status entraps a young well-born Malay into a con with Chinese businessmen. And down in Jakarta, a university student joins the Communist Party after he learns that his grandfather was persecuted by a hard-line regime for being a red.
Debatable Land is about people struggling to find their place in their balkanized nations—societies that are themselves stumbling into the modern world. Its characters, like their predecessors, are bound by ancient conflicts whose origins have been forgotten and whose purposes have become clouded.
"Dust from the bus ahead of them seared his eyes and the loose corner of a red and white national flag flapped against his cheek," Vatikiotis writes in the closing chapter on Indonesia. "Above him, on the roof, a group of students sang 'Halo Halo Bandun' at the top of their lungs. Djody felt his spirits lift. He belonged to the struggle again. He was aroused."
Discordant and sometimes painful, a struggle, any struggle, seems to be the only thing the people of Southeast Asia, like the characters of Vatikiotis's book, have in common.