Books

Many authoritarian rulers, both past and present, of Southeast Asian countries such as Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines, have been able to cling onto power for decades. They have done so by strategically designing their extractive political-economic institutions to support their winning coalitions to extract rent from natural resources and other public resources. These strategies have resulted in adverse impacts on the local populations, provoking resistance from the weak grassroots communities and non-governmental organizations, commonly known as civil society organizations. Strategies of regime survival: Weak men versus strongmen in Southeast Asia is the first attempt to analyse how these authoritarian rulers maintain their durability in office, and, in this context, explains why some movements of civil society organizations succeed while others fail to achieve their demands. It discusses the relationship between the state-society-business in the political survival context. The first comparative analysis of strategies of regime survival across Southeast Asia, this book also provides an in-depth insight into the various opposition movements and the behaviour of antagonistic civic and political actors in the region. More info about the book click here.

Visual spectacle: Social media, citizenship and political emancipation in Cambodia
the proposal is being reviewed by a university press

This book is the result of ethnographic research in Cambodia as part of a project entitled “Citizens of Photography: The Camera and Political Imagination” at University College London, UK. At its core, the book centres on the relationship between visual representation and political representation and explores visual and social media forms of citizenship and its imagination. Conceptually, the book examines how visual materials, such as photographs, videos and images, make available a form of the citizenry, a form of civil imagination that may be available in advance of conventional political citizenship. In the era of globalised visual means of communication, digital media, social media, internet, affordable smartphones and cameras, this book addresses whether arguments about the “distribution of the visible” which establishes at one and the same time something common that is shared and exclusive parts (Rancière, 2009), and how political possibility is related to “a certain field of perceptible reality” (Butler, 2010) can be illuminated through the study of quotidian visual practices. These practices have a significant relationship with the everyday socio-political interactions between the state and citizens of a post-conflict society such as Cambodia where the mediums of photography and social media are rapidly democratised. It draws on diverse fields of inquiry, such as political sociology, digital media, social theories, political culture, visual culture and communication, and Southeast Asian studies, to explores the nexus between photography, visual media, citizenship, activism and the political imagination.

 

Theoretically informed and empirically grounded, the book is an emic account by a native Cambodian who experienced the country’s socio-political and technological changes, from the Khmer Rouge to peace and political reconciliation period, and regional and technological integration. It traces the historical development of visual culture, in terms of being seen, identified and circulated, in the context of socio-political events that define Cambodia's citizenship vis-à-vis political imagination. It suggests a dynamic relationship between socio-political change, citizenship, digital media and visuals. During the civil war, the visual aspects of citizenship, and their ability to access state resources, welfare and protection, were scarce, and, indeed, often absent. After the conflict, the visual dimensions of citizenship, such as photographs and other audio-visual materials, re-emerged. In the age of the smartphone and social media, photographs and videos outnumber the population (currently about 16-million, whereas around 1.5 million photographs and videos (re) produced and (re) circulated online daily). This suggests fundamental democratisation of the image and the means of visualisation in Cambodia's post-conflict authoritarianism. While the country has a poor rate of literacy (reading and writing competencies), visual literacy, meaning the ability to communicate and consume visually, is rapidly advanced. A large proportion of Cambodians subscribe to the internet and use social media and smartphones as a means of visual communication (see diagram below). 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Through (self)-making, (re) productions and (re) circulations of visuals on online social networks, citizens increasingly represent themselves and others. It has stimulated Cambodians to enact their citizenship, producing videos, images and photographs of themselves and for under-represented and deprived persons (broadly defined as non-citizens who are unseen or unrecognised by the state’s resources and services), envisioning their socio-political hopes. Rather than directly confronting the state (the ruler’s) authority, photographs exercise power to contest the ruler’s monopolised space as on social media platforms. These photographic platforms, however, are double-edged swords in the view of ordinary citizens and activists: striving for emancipation from political at one end, and exposing and submitting identities to the state’s surveillance authority at another end. In the age of surveillance, the ruler strives to push citizen-photographers from political space to civic space. The larger space the citizen-photographers claims, the more anxious the ruler is, particularly in the context of the  current authoritarian populism. 

 

This book manuscript is a result of detailed ethnographic fieldwork conducted not only in the Phnom Penh, the capital city, but also remote rural areas of Cambodia where the population and interlocutors had experienced and spoke about social, political, technological and visual medium change. The fieldwork for this project was conducted over 12 months between 2017-2018 and followed by multiple follow up visits. Even though the author has left the country for writing up the manuscript, the author remains in touch with most of his interlocutors as he applied a “digital ethnographic” approach, where the scholars can observe and interact with the research participants, while compiling the book, on the social media platforms. This has allowed the author to remain informed of the on-going change and to analyse the on-going situation of the research participants.  

 

Visual Spectacle is a result of analysis of analogue and digital photographs, and audio-visual materials that have been retrieved from archives, museums, galleries, family albums, and personal social media accounts accessible through public and friends’ networks. Visual materials from the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (S21), Photo Studios, Bophana Audio-Visual Resources, Exhibition Centres, Image Galleries, and Document Centre of Cambodia were retrieved for analysis. Other photographs and audio-visual materials were collected from various sources, including individual citizens photographers, activists and photojournalists. The digitised photographs posted onto social accounts by political elites and rulers (Prime Minister of Hun Sen who has been in power for more than three decades) were retrieved, and online interactions (comments) extracted for analysis.

 

Visual Spectacle is a result of observation of and extended interviews and participant-observation with amateur and professional photographers, photojournalists, citizen photojournalists, citizen journalists, journalists, visual and contemporary artists, ordinary villagers, former Khmer Rouge officials, individual activists, and indigenous people. The author of Visual Spectacle actively partook in lectures on visual representation, citizenship and photography to undergraduate and postgraduate students, and independent photographers, to interact and observe the participants. Visual Spectacle is a result of a visual experiment as the author collaboratively organised photo exhibitions with one of the prominent annual photo festivals in Cambodia. Interaction with interlocutors was also held at various sites in Phnom Penh where visual art or exhibition events were held.