Mainland Southeast Asia and Wikileaks

Last week Tyrell Haberkorn provided New Mandala readers with a handy overview of the potential implications of Wikileaks for understanding murky issues in contemporary Thailand.

Since then, an initial clump of two cables from the US Embassy Rangoon has been leaked. Press reports on the leaked cables from Yangon have understandably focused on discussions which involve Senior General Than Shwe. The story is that there was a conversation within the Senior General’s circle, motivated by the youthful enthusiasm of his grandson, about acquiring Manchester United. The price: a lazy billion dollars.

No doubt there is much more to come…

And as we all wait for whatever follows I thought I should draw New Mandala reader attention to the full text of the US Embassy Rangoon cable that discusses the formation of the Myanmar National Football League, and which includes the anecdote about Manchester United. The source (or sources) of the information have been (wisely) redacted.

This cable provides raw material that anybody looking to understand the nexus of Burma’s military power-politics, corporate opportunism, and consumer culture could find helpful. It is also something of a window into the (unsurprising) priorities of the US Embassy. There is, for instance, a second cable that offers new information, including some intriguing details, on “Zaw Zaw, one of Burma’s up-and-coming cronies”. As it stands, that is the extent of the leaked cables from the US Embassy Rangoon.

While this is hardly the time or the place to pass judgment on Wikileaks and its methods, one further (and methodological) observation occurs to me.

Long-time New Mandala readers will know that we occasionally comment on archived (de-classified, and sometimes officially redacted) government communications and documents (such as here, here and here). Examining such materials is a standard part of historical research and is also quite common among social scientists with more contemporary preoccupations. From a research perspective the unprecedented Wikileaks exposure of sensitive diplomatic communications greatly compresses the standard time-line for access to these sources, and also introduces elements of haphazardness, uncertainty and randomness. In the diplomatic sphere a specialist, 24/7 industry has apparently sprung up to respond.

I am not yet sure about how much opportunity New Mandala will have to efficiently digest the mainland Southeast Asia material that will emerge over coming weeks and months. With potentially thousands of documents related to Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia these leaks will surely generate information/scandal overload. At The Nation, Kavi Chongkittavorn concludes, with a degree of understatement, that “[s]ome explosive comments on private individuals in Thailand could be made public.” In Bangkok Pundit’s habitual style, there are regular updates on what is happening next. For Thailand there are many potentially problematic revelations to come.

And for Burma we now have a taste of details and interpretations which are new to the public record. What next? What is the feeling among New Mandala readers? Could such leaks ever prove to be political game-changers in mainland Southeast Asia?

About Nicholas Farrelly