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A ‘Biography-Not’ General Trần Độ: His Dissident Writings, Elite Politics, and Death in Retrospect

Journal paper
Ken MacLean
The Journal of Vietnamese Studies 2013 8(1): 34-79

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This article explores the controversial life, writings, and death of Lieutenant General Trần Độ, a decorated war hero who became Vietnam’s leading political dissident during the final decade of his life. From 1995 until his death in 2002, the General made use of his biography to author ‘open letters’ that circulated via elite social networks and later the Internet. In them, he called on the Communist Party to crackdown on corruption and to abandon socialism if that was what was necessary to ensure just development in Vietnam. Attention to the contours of the General’s career, his ideas, and his legacy illustrate the crucial importance of an individual’s biography to shaping not only dissent, but efforts to censor it as well.

Bodies in Perpetual Motion: Struggles over the Meaning, Value, and Purpose of Fuzzy Labor on the Eve of Collectivization

Book Chapter
Ken MacLean
State, Society, and Market in Contemporary Vietnam: Property, Power, and Values, eds. Hue-Tam Ho Tai and Mark Selden, pp. 33-54 (London: Routledge, 2012)

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This paper examines the partial reconfiguration of property relations in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam between late 1956 when the land reforms were abruptly halted and late 1959 when the new Constitution abrogated a number of legal protections, including the right to privately own the means of production. The details, drawn from archival records and other materials published at the time, reveal that multiple property regimes were in use in the Left Bank Region of the Red River Delta during this “transitional” period. These regimes defined and allocated ownership, administrative, and use rights quite differently; moreover, since they overlapped in time as well as space, rural populations were often confronted with heavy and conflicting demands upon their labor-time, as each regime privileged some moral-economic “obligations” (nghĩa vụ) to family, village, nation, Party/state and so on over others. The conflicts that inevitably ensued are most often attributed to the failure of low-level cadres and/or peasants to properly implement official policies rather than the policies themselves. The focus here, however, is upon a different problem that, although related to both segments of the rural population, was treated as it were separate from them. Specifically, the “reactionary” (phản động) activities of unidentified “enemies” (địch) who sought to undermine efforts to restore the [post-war] economy.” Close attention to the form and content of these fragmentary descriptions ideologically inspired acts of economic sabotage sheds light on the dynamics of domination and resistance as well as the political economy of affect in the Left Bank Region on the eve of collectivization.

Capitalizing on Conflict: How Logging and Mining Contribute to Environmental Destruction in Burma

Report
EarthRights International and Karen Environmental & Social Action Network

capitalizing-on-conflict

Constructing Civil Society: Assessing Participatory Development in Contemporary Vietnam

Book Chapter
Ken MacLean
Globalization and the Asian Economic Crisis: Indigenous Responses, Coping Strategies and Governance Reform in Southeast Asia), ed. Geoffrey Hainsworth, pp. 473-483 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 2000)

Bac Ninh Intro PNR 8 copy

Counter-Accounting with Invisible Data: The Struggle for Transparency in Myanmar’s Energy Sector

Journal paper
Ken MacLean
Political and Legal Anthropology Review (PoLAR) 2014 37(1): 10-28

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This article examines the counter-accounting methods one NGO, EarthRights International (ERI), uses to make Myanmar’s notoriously opaque energy sector more transparent. ERI’s methodological approach relies heavily on the identification of “invisible data,” which do not appear in the statistics that governments and foreign energy companies release concerning their joint ventures. However, the data leave patterned traces in other statistical financial data. ERI asserts that it is possible to reconstruct joint venture balance sheets by comparing these traces against what the principles have not disclosed, such as with the controversial Yadana pipeline and the precedent-setting human rights lawsuit connected to it. The choices that ERI made illustrate how financial “facts” are fashioned rather than found, and that technical decisions regarding who does the counting, what gets counted, and what is disclosed to whom are profoundly political in nature. Such decisions also foreground key limitations of NGO-led revenue transparency projects, especially in resource-rich countries. Greater data disclosure does not necessarily result in increased transparency. Rather, the proliferation of structured and unstructured data sources (information that is organized and readily searchable versus information that is not) often leads to greater disagreement among key stakeholders regarding the relevance, neutrality, intelligibility, and verifiability of the numbers available for audit.

Enacting Anti-Corruption: The Reconfiguration of Audit Regimes in Contemporary Vietnam

Journal paper
Ken MacLean
positions: asia critique 2012 20(2): 595-625

PMU 18 Cartoon

This essay examines the ongoing “fight against corruption” in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The PMU-18 scandal (ca. 2005–2007), the country’s largest to date, is featured as a way to explore how different initiatives to audit the financial-moral practices of officials at all levels of government shape one another in contemporary Vietnam. This focus, which considers the material consequences of different discursive positions, reveals a curious paradox. Namely, the dominant regulatory approaches in use today define the primary source of bureaucratic corruption and thus the forms of intervention best suited towards its reduction in terms that are most often associated with the other. “Socialist” approaches, which are conventionally thought to rely upon techno-scientific and administrative modes of regulation, also called for external performance audits and other business management techniques to provide greater incentives for individuals to engage in ethical forms of self-regulation, whereas “neoliberal” approaches, which normally abhor regulatory mechanisms, recommended the reintroduction of centralized command-and-control measures to limit the ability of government officials to abuse their public positions for private gain. This outcome suggests that both regulatory regimes and the techniques used to promote accountability may have more in common than is commonly thought as it also raises the possibility that recombinant forms now exist. The patterns also provide comparative insights into (trans)national efforts to guide the conduct of conduct in settings that are neither Western nor liberal

From Land to Water: Fixing Fluid Frontiers and the Limits of Sovereign Authority in the South China / Eastern Sea

Book Chapter
Ken MacLean
Forging the Fiery Frontier: Two Millennia of China’s Encounters on the South and the Southwest, eds. John Whitmore and James Anderson, pp. 370-394 (Leiden: Brill, 2014)

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Different political entities, most of which no longer exist, have redrawn the Sino-Vietnamese frontier, including its maritime limits, more than a half-dozen times since the late nineteenth century. These entities—the Qing Empire, the French Third Republic, the Republic of China, Imperial Japan, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the Republic of Vietnam, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV), and the People’s Republic of China (PRC)—have used a combination of tactics ranging from bilateral treaties to military force to advance their respective interests in the borderlands. This chapter examines present-day conflicts between the SRV and the PRC over their maritime frontier with a focus on the historical, legal, and scientific basis for their competing territorial claims and the identity politics that inform them. Conflicts related to China’s southern frontier are not new as the other chapters in this collection demonstrate; they date back more than two thousand years. Nonetheless, a significant change has occurred. Neither the SRV nor the PRC has, until quite recently, made concerted efforts to establish permanent sovereign control over large parts of the South China Sea, which Vietnamese speakers call the Eastern Sea. Both countries, traditionally thought of as land-based empires, now recognize that their natural security is directly linked to their ability to fix this previously fluid frontier in ways that serve their political and economic needs.

In Search of Kilometer Zero: Digital Archives, Technological Revisionism, and the Sino-Vietnamese Border

Journal paper
Ken MacLean
Comparative Studies in Society and History 2008 50(4): 862-894

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This essay explores how digital archives, also known as web-accessible databases, mediate not only the form and content of political dissent online, but official efforts to censor it as well. Critical attention is focused on how materials in digitized form move between two or more databases, and the problems multiple and slightly different copies of the same “original” pose for those interested in determining the provenance of a particular electronic item and thus its authenticity. Reconstructing the social lives of such objects helps foreground why the spaces through which they circulate simultaneously enhance and limit our ability to interpret them. These theoretical arguments are developed in relation to an ongoing controversy concerning the location of Kilometer Zero, a spot that symbolically marks where Vietnam ends and China begins in the historical imagination of most Vietnamese. Originally sparked by rumors concerning the “true” terms of a border agreement reached in secret by the Communist Parties of both countries in 1999, the transnational debate has since broadened to include a range of sensitive topics. At the center of these debates are competing depictions of the Sino-Vietnamese land border and how it has allegedly moved over time. Three examples are presented to illustrate how the maps are used by state officials, dissidents, and members of the Diaspora to territorialize the complicated and politically charged history of Sino-Vietnamese relations in different ways.

Lawfare and Impunity in Burma since the 2000 Ban on Forced Labor

Journal paper
Ken MacLean
Asian Studies Review 2012 (36) June: 189-206

The article examines the efforts of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) over the past decade to convince government officials to take meaningful steps towards the eradication of forced labour in Burma. Despite the government’s intransigence on this issue, ILO-led interventions have produced some tangible results: a ban on the practice in 2000 and the creation of a complaint mechanism in 2007 that enables its Liaison Officer to determine whether the claims of alleged victims warrant further investigation by the relevant authorities. Critics of the ILO argue that these achievements, although welcome, fail to address the magnitude of the problem. This article details how events at the macro- and micro-levels have affected each other and thus the possibility for further progress on these issues. Special attention is devoted to the coercive use of legal instruments (i.e. lawfare) by both parties and the impact real and threatened actions have had upon their respective goals. The dynamics provide insights into the limits of the complaint mechanism and the efforts to end impunity in Burma with regard to the continued use of forced labour.

Manifest Socialism: The Labor of Representation in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (1956-1959)

Journal paper
Ken MacLean
Journal of Vietnamese Studies 2007 2(1): 27-79

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The main components of the massive Bắc-Hưng-Hải Irrigation Project were built in stages between 1958 and 1962 to overcome chronic food shortages in the “Left Bank” region southeast of the capital. The project also made the collectivization of agriculture to promote large-scale forms of production across twenty percent of the Red River Delta technologically feasible. The Bắc-Hưng-Hải Irrigation Project was not simply about the promise of the socialist future, however; this article argues that it also served as a key means for overcoming a range of conflicts, many of them ideological in nature, engendered by the recent past. A close survey of relevant archival documents and other materials from the popular but state-controlled press reveals there were at least five competing modes for organizing labor on public works projects during the mid- to late-1950s. Each of these modes is examined to illustrate how ideological concerns and bureaucratic struggles shaped the construction of dikes, canals, and sluice gates between June 1956, when the Bắc-Hưng-Hải Irrigation Project was first proposed, and May 1959, when Wave 1 was finally completed. The models and the conflicts they produced illustrate that initial efforts to “build socialism” in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam were far more ad hoc and contingent than is typically portrayed in official accounts of the late 1950s. By contrast, the materials discussed here reveal that disruptions, false starts, and counter-productive policy modifications, including fierce competition between different state agencies, were the norm rather than the exception.

More of the Same: Forced Labor Continues in Burma (October 2000-September 2001)

Report
EarthRights International

Reconfiguring the Debate on Engagement: Burma and the Changing Politics of Aid

Journal paper
Ken MacLean
Critical Asian Studies 2004 36(3): 323-54

For the past fifteen years, the question of whether it was possible to “engage” Burma’s successive military regimes to achieve constructive change has dominated policy discussions in regional and international forums. This article examines how this question has structured the terms of the debate and prevented a compromise position that might have averted the present humanitarian crisis. Information drawn from research conducted with a wide range of Burmese pro-democracy activists based in Thailand also indicates that this humanitarian crisis has thrown many time-honored positions on engagement into flux. The growing diversity of viewpoints has produced several strategies to address the immense problems confronting the country. Regardless of which strategy is favored, three issues are of importance to activists: the changing nature of political legitimacy in the Burmese context; the right of exiles to participate in the country’s affairs; and the problems associated with the military’s continuing use of forced labor. This article examines these issues against the backdrop of shifting regional and international interests, with special attention focused on the viewpoints of expatriate Burmese who support a significant increase in different forms of cross-border aid, while maintaining sanctions on the regime. The article warns that this approach may actually be worse than the problems it seeks to solve. Evidence is presented to illustrate how the possibility of resuming international aid to Burma has increased political factionalism and ethnic divisions among different expatriate groups rather than resolving these long-standing problems.

Risk Management and the Business of Financial (Non-) Disclosure in Myanmar

Electronic publication
Ken MacLean
Spillover Edition Political and Legal Anthropology 2014 (August)

oil-gas-concessions-myanmar

Sovereignty after the Entrepreneurial Turn: Mosaics of Control, Commodified Spaces, and Regulated Violence in Contemporary Burma

Book Chapter
Ken MacLean
Myanmar: the State, Community and the Environment, eds. Monique Skidmore and Trevor Wilson, pp. 246-267 (Canberra: Asia-Pacific Press, Australian National University, 2007)

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This chapter highlights the repercussions of ceasefire agreements involving the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC)—the name of the military regime currently in power—and armed opposition groups in two separate parts of Burma. Such agreements typically allowed armed opposition groups to retain not only their weapons but nominal administrative control over their territory as well. In many cases the armed opposition groups were also permitted to lease concessions and to enter into joint ventures with state-owned enterprises, army battalions, and a wide array of private business interests. As a result, the number and type of commercial enterprises operating in previously contested regions of the country has expanded tremendously over the past decade. The ceasefire agreements, however, have done little or nothing to resolve the underlying political conflicts that initially prompted the insurgent movements. Taken together, these dynamics have contributed to cascading flows of people, capital, and resources across Burma, which are simultaneously centralizing and decentralizing different kinds of “state effects.” On the one hand, the concessions have helped the SPDC to expand its military, administrative, and economic reach, as the patron-client relationships at work in these concessions mediate and sometimes even replace direct governance by the state, at least as it exists in these areas of Burma. On the other hand, the concessions have constrained the regime’s ability to exercise sovereign control over these same areas by establishing inter-personal networks that move goods and services through and around state institutions. In the process, the historical ties that bind territory, landscapes, and identity in particular places are being forcefully reconfigured in Burma. More significantly, the case studies show that different populations experience, understand, and react to their forced relocation in historically contingent rather than uniform ways—even where the processes contributing to their displacement are quite similar. More broadly still, the case-studies challenge long-standing ideas about conflicts in contemporary Burma, particularly those that seek to explain the violence primarily in terms of ethno-nationalist struggles without reference to the changing political economy of access to and control over resources.

Spaces of Extraction: Actually Existing Governance along the Riverine Networks of Nyaunglebin District

Book Chapter
Ken MacLean
Myanmar: the State, Community and the Environment, eds. Monique Skidmore and Trevor Wilson, pp. 246-267 (Canberra: Asia-Pacific Press, Australian National University, 2007)

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The Collected Works of the Communist Party: The Possibilities and Limits of Official Representations of Actually Existing Government

Journal paper
Ken MacLean
Journal of Vietnamese Studies 2010 5(2): 195-207

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The Emergence of Private Indirect Government in Burma

Book Chapter
Ken MacLean
Finding Dollars, Sense, and Legitimacy in Burma, ed. Susan Levenstein, pp. 40-53 (Washington D.C.: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2010)

Burma cover

All eyes were upon Burma’s first election in 20 years. Did this election bear any significance to the country’s political future? In an Asia Program publication, eight Burma experts weighed in, offering insights on the recent state of Burma’s economy and politics. Edited by Susan L. Levenstein

The Enterprising Cadre (Cán Bộ Dáng Làm)

Book Chapter
Ken MacLean
Figures of Southeast Asian Modernity: Vietnam, eds., Erik Harms, Joshua Barker, and Johan Lindquist, pp. 59-60 (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2013)

The Government of Mistrust: Illegibility and Bureaucratic Power in Socialist Vietnam

Book
Ken MacLean
(Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013)

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A groundbreaking book that looks at bureaucratic documents as a major history-shaping force

Focusing on the creation and misuse of government documents in Vietnam since the 1920s, The Government of Mistrust reveals how profoundly the dynamics of bureaucracy have affected Vietnamese efforts to build a socialist society. In examining the flurries of paperwork and directives that moved back and forth between high- and low-level officials, Ken MacLean underscores a paradox: in trying to gather accurate information about the realities of life in rural areas, and thus better govern from Hanoi, the Vietnamese central government employed strategies that actually made the state increasingly illegible to itself.

MacLean exposes a falsified world existing largely on paper. As high-level officials attempted to execute centralized planning via decrees, procedures, questionnaires, and audits, low-level officials and peasants used their own strategies to solve local problems. To obtain hoped-for aid from the central government, locals overstated their needs and underreported the resources they actually possessed. Higher-ups attempted to re-establish centralized control and legibility by creating yet more bureaucratic procedures. Amidst the resulting mistrust and ambiguity, many low-level officials were able to engage in strategic action and tactical maneuvering that have shaped socialism in Vietnam in surprising ways.

The Rehabilitation of an Uncomfortable Past: Remembering the Everyday in Vietnam during the Subsidy Period (1975-1986)

Journal paper
Ken MacLean
History and Anthropology 2007 19(3): 281-303

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In 2006, the Museum of Ethnology organized a special exhibit on everyday life in Hanoi during the “subsidy period,” the term increasingly used to describe the decade of high socialism that began in 1975 with the reunification of a divided Vietnam and ended in 1986 with the official introduction of market reforms known as Đổi mới (Renovation). The representational strategies, which linked the collectivism of the past with the individualism of the present, prompted a nation-wide discussion regarding the significance of a moment that previously had no clear name or place in official accounts due to the severe hardships it produced. The details presented demonstrate how the rehabilitation of this decade has expanded the political boundaries of what state institutions can present as having historical and ethnographic value in Vietnam as well as opened new avenues for comparative studies with (former) socialist states elsewhere.

Văn kiện Đảng: Những khả năng và giới hạn trong thể hiện chính thức của một chính đảng đương quyền

Electronic publication
Ken MacLean
Talawas (March 2010)

We Are Not Free to Work for Ourselves: Forced Labor and Other Human Rights Abuses in Burma (January 2002-May 2002)

Report
EarthRights International