Nusantenggara’s Fragile Peatlands

For something which takes thousands of years to form and develop, Southeast Asia’s peatlands quality as monument of natural heritage itself.  Yet, this fragile stretch of wetland across much of the Malay Peninsula, Borneo and Sumatra is fast disappearing by the years; an estimated 2,700 sq. kilometers are lost each year, due to increased draining, fires, and other ecosystem changes.  Palm oil plantations, the backbone of both Malaysia and Indonesia‘s agro-commercial sectors, is chief among factors.

Nusantara‘s peatlands play an integral part in keeping large quantities of carbon out of the atmosphere while providing habitat for certain species of fauna; a living, carbon sink in its own right.  The world’s peatlands potentially store more carbon than all rest of the world’s other plants combined.  Perhaps surprising enough is that an estimated total of six thousand species of wildlife inhabit the peatlands, most notably the Orangutan in Borneo‘s lowlands.

Peatlands, according to Earth Times, “form in wet lowland areas where lack of oxygen keeps vegetable matter from completely breaking down. The organic material piles up in partially decayed layers.” Forming at about 0.5 mm to 0.20 mm per year, it’s with little surprise that between 1990 and 2010, the percentage of original peatland coverage dropped by 41%.  Dramatic measures would be necessary to protect and preserve this indispensable ecosystem.

A sign of brief relief for conservationists and nature-lovers, Indonesia pledged to conserve natural forests and peatlands beginning 2011, as part of a US$1 billion agreement with Norway.  The deal comes into fruition this year, yet stakes remain high on the peatlands, predicted to vanish altogether by 2030.

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Russo-Siamese Relations Fin de Siècle

Relations between Thailand and Russia go way back, to the time when one was the Kingdom of Siam, and the other, the Russian Empire.  Most were chronicled in the primary records from the Thailand National Archives, serving as testament of the cordial and solid relationships between the two nations up to this date.

Officially established in 1897 when King Chulalongkorn (1868-1910), paid his first envoy visit to St. Petersburg, in hopes of securing European allies against increasing pressure by France from the East (Indochina) and Britain from the West (Burma and Malaya).  The Siamese court hope to enlist the support of major European powers  at the time, such as Kaiser Wilhelm II (1888-1918), to strengthen its bargaining power with neighbouring colonial governments.  With the Romanovs, the King found exceptional hospitality from the court of Tsar Nicholas II (1894-1917), who appraised his Siamese counterpart as ‘civilised cousin of European royalty.’

The result was the firm establishment of Russo-Siamese relations.  Upon return from his European tour, Chulalongkorn himself decided to send his crown prince, Chakrabongse Bhuvanath for miliatary training on Russian soil.  Russia reciprocated by appointing Alexander Olarovsky, First Charge d’Affaires to Siam.  Phraya Mahibal Borrirak was sent to St. Petersburg as first Siamese Ambassador to the Russian Empire in 1899.   Nicholas II, then Tsarevich, was also invited to Bangkok by the Chakri court, which he  responded almost willingly,  bearing witness to the Kingdom’s splendours and hospitality throughout his five day visit.

Russia would since play an important role in mediating Franco-Siamese relations along the Mekong, given Russia and France’s amicability towards one another.  Russia’s presence in Bangkok would also serve to remind Britain to honour Siam’s position as buffer state, given it’s natural weariness towards Russia.

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Mongol Imprint on Southeast Asia

The largest empire in modern history, the Mongol empire, progressed through much of the 13th century, covering vast territories across Eastern Europe and Asia; the bulk of the known world at that time.  Emerging across a series of conquests and invasions, the Horde began its ventures into Southeast Asia beginning the mid 13th century; reaching Vietnam by 1257.  Vietnam at that time lied along Kublai Khan’s path of interest towards Champa, facing the repeated pressures of invasion.   Trần Hưng Đạo of the Trần Dynasty would proceed to resist the Horde with exceptional valour and ingenuity.  Beyond Trần borders, the Champa Kings would eventually submit to Mongol suzerainty, after repeated attacks.

The Khmers, on the other hand, followed more or less the Champa policy, resolving to send tributes amid joint Viet-Siamese political ambitions and Mongol expansionism.  The Siamese Sukhothai meanwhile, ever more weary of such advanced adversary, chose to accept Mongol supremacy.  It was during these times that King Ramkhamhaeng (1279–1298) visited the Yuan court to show their loyalty several times.

Unlike the invasions of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, the court of Kublai Khan followed a policy of sending envoys to the Indochinese and Nusantara governments instead.  Those subjects, in return submission, paid tribute to the Mongol court, including elephants, rhinoceroses, jewelry.  One notable exception was during the Mongol invasion of Java, which followed the Majapahit King Kertanegara‘s (1268–1292) refusal to paid tribute.  The battle result was a unique case of Javanese victory.  Otherwise the peoples of Malaya, Sumatra, the Philippines and surrounding states were more or less ceremoniously accepted suzerainty.

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Vietnamese Pre-Colonial Chinese Nostalgia

One of the lasting legacies the Chinese left on modern Vietnamese culture is Chữ Nôm.  Otherwise forgotten in today’s romanised Vietnamese, Chữ Nôm survives particularly well in certain artistic and cultural revival circles.  Though defunct in everyday Vietnamese life since 1917, Chữ Nôm in essence remains a rich codex of the country’s heritage; covering science and technology, arts, literature, economics and warfare.

To the untrained eye, Chữ Nôm appears unintelligible from orthodox Chinese characters, yet the system is a totally different set of ingenuity.  Early Vietnamese scholars beginning the 13th century derive formative principles from Chinese, paving way for the scripting of  spoken, vernacular Vietnamese.  One basic theme persists, which is the borrowing of Chinese semantics to transcribe Vietnamese sounds.  This practice is known as ‘Gia.’  Otherwise, academic terms are directed imported unaltered from Chinese.  Thus ‘woman’ in Chinese is ‘more’ in Vietnamese; while ‘mathematics’ remain mutually understood.

 

Chữ Nôm would go to prosper in the ensuing years.  Poet and court diplomat Nguyễn Trãi (1380–1442) would become pioneer the script, having written many works of literature in  Chữ Nôm.  Himself a court advisor to the the Lê Kings,  Nguyễn Trãi also played decisive roles in repelling the threat of Chinese domination.   Chữ Nôm would continue to prosper in place of Chinese, until the arrival of the expansionist French in 1858.

 

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The Burmese Face of France’s Oriental Romance

Beginning the 18th century, France, flexing through the Compagnie des Indes Orientales, had begun to venture into Southeast Asian affairs.  Burma, abundant in teak and crude oil, seemed irresistible to the then Governor-General of French India, Joseph François Dupleix.  As a result, present day Thanlyin (Syriam) received a French shipyard in 1729, serving the Pondicherry across the Andaman.

With the revolt of the Mon, the Syriam shipyard came to an end.  The French, which came to the aid of the Mon against Burma’s then Toungoo dynasty (1486–1752), were bent on extending influence across the Irrawady delta.  Unfortunately reluctance by Paris to sanction the move ultimately limited this move.  That didn’t end well either, with Sieur de Bruno, head of the French expedition, and his men captured and tortured by a subsequent Burmese counter offensive, this time with British help.  Surviving French navy officers were later forced into Burmese troops, forming an elite corps and played decisive roles in defending Burmese integrity against Siamese and Chinese encroachments.

 It wasn’t past the Seven Year’s War in Europe that France again had her interests laid on Burma and beyond.  French interest in Burma were limited to arms deals, evident in 18th century ammunitions warehouses in Rangoon, sanctioned by the Konbaung King Hsinbyushin (1737-1776) himself.  Ultimately, French interest shifted eastwards towards Tonkin and China, leaving Burma to be absorbed into the British Raj‘s territory.

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