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Panel 15. Civil Society in Mainland Southeast Asia

Chairs: Hart Feuer (University of Bonn, Germany); Gabi Waibel (University of Bonn, Germany)

International and national policymakers as well as different academic disciplines often look at civil society in Southeast Asia from a Western liberal-democratic point of departure that understands civil society as counterpart to the state, differentiates between autonomous private and public spheres in society, and assigns civil society to be the key actor for achieving sustainable, socially-just and democratic development. Civil society is highly promoted as ‘development blueprint’ all over the world and thereby conveys strong notions of an ideal political culture. This global model is especially interesting to explore in countries that share long historical (and current) experiences of authoritarian and centralist regimes, where the experiences of civil society very often diverge from expectations and hopes. In the proposed panel we would like to discuss such ideal type categorizations of civil society in contrast to local terminologies, concepts, symbols; practices and public discourses of civil society. The panel aims at gaining insights into the local diversity and blurriness of state-society relations as well as of socio-political cultures and identities in mainland Southeast Asia. It is also a platform for discussing interdisciplinary and ethical considerations in civil society research more generally, including methodological demands of working in the countries of mainland Southeast Asia.

Paper 1: A Gramscian Sub-National Hybrid Civil Society: A Viable Path for Civil Society-State Engagement in Cambodia?

Sivhuoch Ou (Cambodian Development Resource Institute, Cambodia)

Several authors (particularly, Landau 2008 and Henke 2011) label Cambodian national level civil society as a sphere that is neither apolitical nor autonomous, but influenced or co-opted by and blurred with the state. According to them, a Gramscian perspective is more relevant than a liberal one in interpreting civil society in the country. The article examines a ‘hybrid’ type of civil society, or sub-national state-society relationships and finds that civil society at the lower tiers of society often shares similar characteristics with its national level counterpart, although it garners comparatively less state influence. While Landau and Henke imply that the national (Gramscian) civil society as a rather unhealthy and discouraging of improved positioning vis-a-vis the state, the paper finds that the sub-national counterpart of civil society often addresses many of these concerns for civil society-state engagement. The research places emphasis on the unconstructive contextual reality (characterized by a culture and history of having little contact between the citizens and the state, the mistrust of the society on the state and vice versa, which has been exacerbated by decades of civil wars, destruction and violence), finds out that while the sub-national civil society is, on the one hand, influenced/co-opted by and occasionally blended with authority structures, on the other, it contests them through non-violent means to avoid being overly or completely dominated, and to retain independence and balance. The sub-national civil society’s rather unique strategies of accommodating yet silently challenging the state has often produced the expected outputs and subsequently earned trust from the sub-national (i.e., local) government and therefore gradually advanced its relationship with the state as a whole. This phenomenon is exemplified by cases and data collected in 2009, 2011 and early 2012 and various recent studies. The paper further puts forward that the liberal modus operandi of artificially carving out a space of autonomy for civil society relative to the state (particularly in the Cambodian context) tends to limit their ability to create linkages and bridge the existing state-society gap.

Paper 2: Strengthening the party-state by promoting civil society? International cooperation in Vinh City, Vietnam

Tim Kaiser (University of Passau, Germany)

Due to the end of the Cold War and reforms in Vietnam, international development agencies and NGOs became increasingly active in the field of urban development in that country from the 1990s on. At the same time, highlighted by the World Summit in 1992 and the Habitat II Conference, approaches to urban development promoting the participation of communities and civil society became dominant in international cooperation. While Vietnamese authorities were initially reluctant to include new actors in decision making and implementation, the contemporary possibilities for participatory urban development are better, due to new legislation and regulations. Based on research on urban development in Vinh City, Central Vietnam, I will use the examples of projects in this field to highlight the role of civil society and participatory development in local implementation. Using the work of Meyer, Rowan and others on New Institutionalism, I analyze if the stated goal of institutional change towards a more open political system and a reduction of state power is achieved through such projects. This perspective points to the dilemma that the promotion of civil society in the Vietnamese context does lead to increased party-state power.

Paper 3: State and Sacrality – Multiple public spheres in Vietnam

Sandra Kurfürst (University of Passau, Germany)

The paper approaches state-society relations in Vietnam via the concept of public sphere. The public sphere is the sphere where the common good is at the centre of attention. It offers a forum for debate, as well as mediation between subjects and rulers, and citizens and governments (Wittrock 2001: 22). The ideal of the public sphere in Western political thought presupposes clear distinctions between private and public realms. For example, Habermas (1987: 14) declares: “Die Öffentlichkeit selbst stellt sich als eine Sphäre dar – dem privaten steht der öffentliche Bereich gegenüber”. Likewise Sennett (2008: 183) explains that private and public sphere are two atoms of the same molecule. According to Habermas (1987: 95 f.) the “private sphere” denotes freedom from regulations established by authorities. It designates individuals’ power to dispose freely capitalist functioning property. Although the development of private sector economy is a crucial element in Vietnam’s transformation process, major premises associated with privatisation, such as freedom of private business from state control and private property rights, are not yet granted. On the contrary, the state maintains a strong presence both in the economic sector and in public life. Thus, these theoretical approaches do not succeed in explaining the realities and alterations of state-society relations in Vietnam, where the boundaries between private and public often seem to be blurred (Drummond 2000: 2377). In this context, Eisenstadt and Schluchter offer an alternative approach by supplementing the dual relationship of private and public with a third sphere, the official. To them the public sphere is culturally and institutionally differentiated from the official and private sphere (Eisenstadt and Schluchter 2001:10). Given this theoretical framework the paper develops a three dimensional-model of the public sphere based on empirical findings from one year of intensive field research in Hanoi. The three dimensions comprise state, sacrality and privateness. The first dimension of the state represents the state’s predominance in the public sphere. The dimension of sacrality is derived from an emic perspective on the public sphere. Privateness designates the private appropriation of the public sphere that can be found e.g. in the “pavement economy” (Forbes). The recognition of an overlap of the spheres of officialdom and public, or more generally speaking, of the interrelationship between state and society and the relevance of sacrality as a legitimising entity, are central to an emic understanding of civil society in Vietnam.

Paper 4: Civil Society and political culture in Vietnam

Nadine Reis (University of Munich, Germany)

This paper argues that while civil society of a different form and nature may arise in Vietnam, the civil society attached to the Western social imaginary, which is embedded in the separation of public/private spheres, does not sit well with the medley of Confucian, Marxist-Leninist, and Buddhist values that make the Vietnamese social imaginary. These values create contradictory instructions for civic participation and group organization. The state delicately balances these worldviews in policy and practice, and is compelled to co-opt the concept and practice of civil society or render it benign. This is illustrated with a case study of water and sanitation groups in Southern Vietnam established within the framework of national policies. It is concluded that expectations that civil society will form along Western or neoliberal guidelines, or have the same balancing impact in state-society relations, are optimistic.