Keith Buchanan: The Southeast Asian World, Bell, 27s. 6d.
Jerrold Schecter: The New Face of Buddha, Gollancz, 45s.
Modestly sub-titled ‘an introductory essay’, The Southeast Asian World accomplishes the extraordinary feat of both providing a mass of information on all the countries in the area and explaining how study of the zone can be approached scientifically by a general reader. This is a tribute to Buchanan’s method, and his ability to use several disciplines. He introduces nutritional density as opposed to population density—hich for an apparently sparsely populated country like Laos gives a density of nearly 500 people per square mile of cultivated land. He rightly prefers Chesneaux’s ‘pre-developed’ to the widespread and misleading ‘under-development’. He explains why intensive farming in Asia does not mean the same as intensive farming in Europe, since the relative values of the various factors involved are completely jumbled. There is an excellent description of the ecological effects of swidden agriculture; and a highly informative passage on malaria—from which it emerges, surprisingly, that it is much worse in the hill areas than in the lowlands. There are rapid sketches of all the countries—those on Burma and Malaya being particularly valuable. Burma is helpfully broken down into six areas, and the condition of minorities and separatism is well discussed; the weakness of the economy is demonstrated by the fact that rice has risen from 50 per cent of exports (by value) in 1938 to 75 per cent in 1962. Similarly, for Malaya, there is a very useful description of the lay-out of the population (including the surprising information that two-thirds of Malaya is occupied by indigenous peoples such as the Semang and the Sakai), and of how the population distribution relates to the areas of development (which are largely non-Malay).
Laos’ desperate condition is well revealed by the fact that in 1963 imports were 40 times the value of exports; yet the country contains one of the most important iron ore deposits in Asia at Xieng Khouang, which is completely undeveloped. Buchanan is also very good on the pattern of development created in the area by its high degree of accessibility by water. There is a succinct discussion of the political significance of the cell-like structure of the local civilizations, and of the non-urban base of nationalism in Vietnam: ‘the traditional picture, which contrasts the conservatism of the peasantry with the progressive, even revolutionary, quality of the urban elite thus has no validity in Vietnam for the roles are reversed’. There are a lot of annotated photographs and excellent maps (the map of the Mekong river project and its accompanying critical note are exemplary); and in addition there is a selected bibliography, including novels and poetry, with paperbacks marked by asterisks. This is a model volume on a crucial storm centre of our age.
The New Face of Buddha is about the same area, but the treatment is somewhat different. Jerrold Schecter is the head of the Time-Life Tokyo bureau—which is what gives the book its interest: it is the bare bones of American bewilderment, expressed in a highly politicized yet utterly unmethodical manner, faced with the variegated spectrum of anti-imperialism in Asia. It is good to sec that the Americans are about as baffled as when they started. ‘When the Buddhist storm broke in Saigon in 1963, the American embassy had only a sketchy cia paper on Buddhism in Vietnam in its files. Embassy political officers and cia agents rushed out to find out who the Buddhists were and what they were up to.’ Mr Schecter’s book is good evidence over 300 pages and not simply two columns of Time magazine that the Americans are still floundering in their seemingly bottomless pit of ignorance.