Thursday 24 Jan 2019 | 00:15 | SYDNEY
Thursday 24 Jan 2019 | 00:15 | SYDNEY

Lowy Institute's books of the year 2014, part 5


22 December 2014 10:00

As we approach Christmas, we offer selections from Lowy Institute staff and Interpreter contributors for the best book they have read this year. Part 1, 2, 3 and 4.

The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide, by Gary J Bass. Selected by Ric Smith, a former Secretary of the Department of Defence and a Lowy Institute Nonresident Fellow.

Gary Bass's The Blood Telegram is an instructive read. It reminds us of what its sub-title describes as 'A Forgotten Genocide' — the killing of some 300,000 Bengalis and the displacement of some 10 million people from East Pakistan in 1971 — and of the folly of US policy at the time.

Clever as they were in creating the opening to China, Nixon and Kissinger placed the US on the wrong side (both morally and in realpolitik) of the 1971 conflict, allowing themselves to become hostage to Pakistan's inept military regime and contributing to Indian mistrust of the US, with enduring consequences.

The book's title refers to the cable sent by the US Consul General in Dakha, Archer Blood, which questioned American policy, a courageous 'policy dissent' missive which cost him his career. Blood would have been more comfortable with Australia's policy, so different was it from that of the US.

Separatist Conflict in Indonesia: The Long-Distance Politics of the Acehnese Diaspora, by Antje Missbach. Selected by Peter McCawley, Visiting Fellow with the Indonesia Project at the Australian National University.

All politics is local, and local conflicts are a serious problem in many parts of Asia. In the Philippines, peace still eludes negotiators in Mindanao; in Thailand, conflict continues to cause problems in the south; in Myanmar, the bitter disputes with numerous ethnic groups all around its borders have imposed a huge cost on the nation; and it is probably only a matter of time before problems flare up again in Papua to create difficulties for both Indonesia and Australia.

So I found Antje Missbach's good book on separatist conflict in Aceh useful for several reasons.

First, Missbach thoughtfully explores the factors that helped fuel conflict in Aceh for almost 30 years up to 2005. Understanding these issues helps us understand local conflicts in other parts of Indonesia too, and provides lessons to guide policy in responding to future local conflicts. Second, quite a few of the lessons from Aceh are relevant for understanding regional conflicts in other parts of Asia. The local politics of the conflict in Aceh were complex. There were marked divisions within the Acehnese resistance groups, and the influence of the tiny Acehnese diaspora in Sweden was remarkably important. 

It is clear that for some local conflicts, at least, external support is a powerful factor that provides encouragement to local combatants to continue their fight. It is not surprising that in Papua, the Free Papua Movement values support from activists in Australia.

River of Smoke, by Amitav Ghosh. Selected by Philippa Brant, a Research Associate at the Lowy Institute.

I love historical fiction, or novels set in certain periods that tell stories through great characters. So I was rapt to discover Amitav Ghosh's Ibis trilogy a couple of years ago.

The novels are set during the height of the 19th century opium trade. The first, Sea of Poppies, is primarily based in India. Earlier this year I read the second, River of Smoke. It takes us to Canton China and the chaos and charm of the foreign enclave, 'Fanqui-town'. The novel centres around Bahram Modi, an independent Indian businessmen in a trade dominated by the British. The cast of characters and their different tongues brings to life the clash of cultures and class at a pivotal moment in Chinese history.

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