The Lands of Charm and Cruelty by Stan Sesser

Author: Stan Sesser
Type: Non-fiction
306 Pages
Published in the United States by Vintage Books (July 1994)

The Lands of Charm and Cruelty followed the accounts of American reporter Stan Sesser during his journeys in several countries in Southeast Asia in the 1980s through the early 1990s. He journeyed through Singapore, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Malaysia – and noted the viewpoints of both the government and the commoners from those countries. And he found a common theme regarding life inside the countries: despite the exotic charm of the region that always fascinates people from Western countries, the Western-style human rights concepts had not been practiced in full, and some of the governments had been involved in the violation of human rights of its own people. Thus the idea for the title of this book.

There are five chapters in the book, and each chapter tells Mr Sesser’s account of each country he visited. The first chapter was titled “Singapore: The Prisoner in the Theme Park”, which tells of Singapore, the most prosperous, modern and most developed of all Southeast Asian countries at the time, with a disciplined society and a booming economy that had attracted much foreign investors. Despite the trappings of a democratic country, Singaporeans were actually subject to former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s strict measures of discipline – which may amount to violations of the freedom of speech.

The government determined what type of reading materials (as well as television programs, films, etc.) to be allowed into the country; what can or cannot be consumed by its citizens. The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) devised various strategies to stem the opposition – usually by labelling them as ‘Communists’ who harboured ill-intent towards the country’s interests. One opposition politician, Chia Thye Poh, served his sentence as a prisoner in Singapore’s theme park Sentosa Island. Meanwhile, the government continued to poke its nose in various issues concerning its citizens – including dirty toilets and late marriage (or not at all) among its educated female citizens – by creating a whole lot of sometimes amusing laws to handle them.

“Laos: The Forgotten Country” details on landlocked Laos, which had been dragged into a mess that devastated the whole country to what it is today. The poor country once became a victim just because it is situated between Vietnam and Thailand, both of which had not been on good terms with each other. Then it was suddenly dragged into the Vietnam War, just because America believed that bombing Laos will deter the Vietnamese Communists. During the time of Mr Sesser’s visit, the country was still struggling to build up from the rubbles of war – even landmines were still a threat to its citizens, who, from time to time got maimed or killed from the unexploded bombs of the war era.

In “Cambodia: The Khmer Rouge Have Returned”, Mr Sesser accounts on how the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime apparently tried to make a comeback after being ousted by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government in 1979. And interestingly, despite being saved from the murderous Khmer Rouge, many Cambodians resented Hun Sen’s government for it had been installed with the help of the much-hated Vietnamese. Even America and some European countries also refused to acknowledge the Hun Sen government – apparently preferring the Khmer Rouge to rule Cambodia instead – because they saw Hun Sen as Communist Vietnam’s puppet leader. The people’s resentments increased after observing that most of the government leaders had turned corrupt, and the people led difficult lives despite being liberated from the Khmer Rouge. I was amused when Mr Sesser mentioned Sam Rainsy as an unknown Cambodian dissident (at the time) – because afterwards he gained popularity,  making his appearance in the country’s political scene, led a powerful opposition coalition which was then disbanded by the Hun Sen-led government, and is now in exile.

The next chapter in the book, “Burma: A Rich Country Gone Wrong”, was a particularly distressing read – full of treachery, violence and brutal killings. It traced back to the time after Myanmar gained its independence from Britain and had a civilian government which was overthrown in the early 1960s. Since 1962, Myanmar had been reigned by the military regime which wasted no time to suppress opposition with brute force. When Mr Sesser visited Myanmar, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was still a fledgling in the dangerous world of Burmese politics, yet she had gained much support from the people of Myanmar who apparently had been tired of being oppressed by the powerful army.

Finally, the last chapter, “Borneo: Logging the Rain Forest”, recounted Mr Sesser’s visit to the Malaysian state of Sarawak, in which the indigenous tribes living in its rich rainforests had been threatened by uncontrolled logging activities. The culture and very survival of these indigenous tribes – the Penan and Kayan, amongst others – had been threatened by unsustainable logging which robbed them of their lands where they live, farm and find livelihood. It had been a sad life for these people who got nothing – or only a pittance – out of the millions and billions of revenue from logging activities, which instead went into the coffers of only a few already wealthy politicians, businessmen, as well as their families and close friends. Mr Sesser did get the viewpoints of a few Sarawak government officials, who believed that what had been done was for the best.

Though The Lands of Charm and Cruelty only dissects stories from the five aforementioned countries, some chapters did get other Southeast Asian countries – such as Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia – into the picture. The histories of several countries in Southeast Asia had been so intertwined that it was not possible to highlight only one country without involving its close neighbours.


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