Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Empire of Vice: For Those Interested in Southeast Asia and Empire

This is the sixth in a series of posts about my book, Empires of Vice.

In my first post, I mentioned that this is a book for multiple audiences--political scientists, historians, specialists of Asian Studies, and policy makers--in overlapping but different ways. In this final post, I dwell on how legacies of European imperial rule have shaped Southeast Asia's drug problems today; and why understanding this history matters for policy makers. 

It is tempting to believe that today’s international drug control regimes originated from a triumphant moral crusade. Our usual story is that the world came to better understand the harms of opiate addiction and states cooperated to protect humanity from a dangerous drug. Yet, this prevailing history tells an incomplete story. It explains why global norms against drugs shifted, but not how states actually came to change their moral behavior. Empires of Vice reveals a darker history of opium prohibition linked to European imperialism in Southeast Asia. It also elucidates the crucial role of bureaucracies in changing state behavior by designing feasible reforms.

Popular depiction of the Second Opium War
Le Charivari 1859,  by Honoré-Victorin Daumier
(Source: http://bir.brandeis.edu/handle/10192/3540)
European empires in Asia profited enormously from opium during the 19th century. The drug was was both a major trade commodity between India and China, and one of the largest sources of colonial tax revenue in Southeast Asia. What we recognize today as the “right” approach of limiting opium’s legitimate use to medical purposes only became an international consensus during the early 20th century. A powerful moral crusade—an organized movement among religiously-inspired social reformers and transnational activists who framed opium harms as serious moral problems—successfully lobbied the British to end the India-China opium trade. The 1907 Anglo-Chinese Opium Agreement brought India’s opium exports to China to a halt in 1913, and marked a turning point for the birth of today’s multilateral drug control treaties.

However, prohibiting opium in 20th century Southeast Asia proved a much more difficult task. The drug had long served as a building block sustaining European colonial states and economies—from capturing the wage labor of plantation workers in Dutch Indonesia to building railroads and canals in French Vietnam. Also, large swaths of colonized populations were accustomed to consuming opium legally under European rule, and opium taxes remained a non-negligible source of revenue.   

In effect, European colonial states in Southeast Asia were addicted heavily to opium. And their process of withdrawal would prove slow. Global norm changes and international drug control treaties did not provide viable ways for colonial states to dismantle existing fiscal structures, replace revenue, and manage potential social unrest from banning opium. Actual changes in state behavior required nitty-gritty, pragmatic solutions. Colonial administrators on the ground developed workable approaches to prohibiting opium by constructing official problems, as I explained in an earlier post. Instead of reacting to moralizing voices afar or abstract concerns with international reputation, these actors focused on local crises resulting from opium related crime, finance, and smuggling. Completely eradicating the drug required overhauling the state itself and risked popular backlash. Local administrators did not make such radical changes, but instead, developed smaller, less visible, and  incremental anti-opium reforms.

When European imperialism came to an end after World War Two, the prohibition of opium for Southeast Asia was still incomplete. Across the region, newly independent states inherited and continued to struggle to solve problems that colonial states had unleashed. If legalization had once fostered popular drug use, expanded sales and distribution networks, and generated large sums of government revenue, then prohibition drove such practices underground, fostering secretive and stigmatized consumption, and incentivizing illicit poppy cultivation. Put simply, the very same empires that once profited from opium tried later to ban it, a policy reversal—from legalization to prohibition—that was both imperfect and incomplete. 

Currently, 9 out of 10 ASEAN member states impose the death penalty for non-violent drug crimes, accounting for nearly a third of the world's countries that retain capital punishment. Major 21st century “drug wars”—including in Thailand (2003), the Philippines (2016-), Indonesia (2017-)—have killed hundreds of thousands of people and violate the human rights of more. And Southeast Asia hosts the “Golden Triangle” region, the world’s second largest illicit poppy cultivation area. Southeast Asia’s vexed landscape as such is no accident. The region’s illicit drug economies and punitive states represent the stubborn legacies of opium-entangled European imperialism since the 19th century.

What are practical lessons to be drawn from Southeast Asia's past? For one, it helps explain why zero-tolerance approaches to drug control will not work. Most countries with drug problems today have complex histories of state building tied to drug revenue and imperialism. Such legacies cannot be totally eradicated. Second, for policy makers interested in solving transnational problems, Empires of Vice sheds light on why great moral transformations in state behavior happen slowly and incrementally: not only because knowledge and norms about what defines “good” in the world change slowly, but also because pragmatic approaches for acting according to new moral standards are difficult to design. I elaborate on these and additional policy implications in this short essay for The Ambassador’s Brief

It has been a pleasure and honor to contribute to the Legal History Blog, as a guest blogger for the month of June 2020. And I look forward to continuing as an avid reader and audience for future contributions.

-Diana Kim