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Web Letter

It is apparent from Barbara Crossette's analysis of the recent unrest in Thailand, and Vietnam and Indonesia's rise, that she has not spent much time in any of the mentioned countries recently. I have lived and worked in all of them in the past three years, and the reality on the ground does not fit her analysis, which amounts to armchair reporting seemingly ripped only from international news headlines.

While the unrest in Thailand is indeed a black mark on the "Land of Smiles," the Thais have something that the Indonesians and Vietnamese don't: a genuine creativity, accompanied by ingenuity, drive and much higher levels of education, that will keep their country ahead of its Southeast Asian rivals. Yes, corruption is still rife in Thailand, but Indonesia remains one of the world's most corrupt countries, and it will be a long time before that changes.

Spend some time in Kalimantan on the island of Borneo, where I lived for two years, and you will see it up close: Indonesia's rising economy is based almost entirely on the obliteration of its resource-rich rainforests for quick-buck cash crops like oil palm that have no long-term sustainability. Its decentralized government system, a product of the bad years under Suharto, gives an inordinate amount of power to local bupatis, or governors, who almost uniformly then proceed to enrich themselves by selling off the land and allying themselves with mineral and other extraction companies. The law means very little in most of Indonesia's outlying islands. Though the education system is improving, its brightest graduates still seem star-struck by the riches for the taking from the land on all those islands, and the over -exploitation of their natural resources.

The Vietnamese, meanwhile, are hamstrung by a communist government that tolerates no openness or innovation. While the cities and countryside are chock full of smart, entrepreneurial, hard workers with energy to spare, the constant oppressive clampdown on creativity or dissent of any kind translates to a lack of ideas and innovation. There is a reason you never hear of innovative products or services springing to life in the country. Vietnam has a long way to go before it can match not only the Thais' curiosity and drive for innovation but also the freedom to pursue those ideas and make them concrete.

Finally, I wonder which resorts Ms. Crossette has been frequenting in the three countries lately. The infrastructure outside of Indonesia's most populous island, Java (where 60 percent of the population lives), and the tourist destination Bali is almost nonexistent, with the vast majority of the "resorts" in the hinterlands either ignorant of or unable to move up to international standards. The choices in Thailand boggle the mind: spend some time on an Indonesian island outside of Java or Bali, and then pick any Thai island. The Indonesian island will be like stepping back fifty years, but not in a "it was more simple then with less commercialism" kind of way.

Yes, all three countries still have a long way to go in terms of joining the league of modern, reasonably functioning democratic states. Thailand's current rough patch may take the shine off the "magic kingdom" and its gold stupas, but spending a few weeks in any of the three will quickly reveal that it will take shiploads more unrest and dysfunctional politics to fall behind its still sclerotic rivals.

James Kemsey

Kigali, Rwanda

Apr 17 2009 - 1:56pm