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Taking the long view


Nayan Chanda discusses his path from war reporter to expert on globalisation, the state of Asia's media and his ECCC role.

Photo by:
Michael Hayes

Nayan Chanda in Phnom Penh on Tuesday. 

Veteran scribe Nayan Chanda, the former editor-in-chief of the Far Eastern Economic Review, was in town this week to testify at the ECCC as an expert witness. Chanda, 63, spent 31 years at the Review.  He covered the fall of Saigon in 1975, wrote a must-read book for Cambodia watchers called Brother Enemy: the War After the War, and since 2001 has been the director of publications at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalisation as well as Editor of  YaleGlobal Online (, a web publication that receives about 1.5 million visits a week.  He spoke with Post Editor-in-Chief Michael Hayes about a range of issues.

Looking back, do you think the demise of the weekly Far Eastern Economic Review was inevitable?

I'm certainly very sad because it's almost half my life I spent at the Review. ... But I don't know that it was inevitable. When I left the Review in 2001, I knew there were problems because advertisement which fell off after '97 crisis, it never returned fully, despite the economy taking off again. And then in the meantime, the economic landscape in the region had changed.

Regional publications from Jakarta Post to Bangkok Post to Korea Herald - all these local newspapers had become more independent, more objective and actually were cutting into the Review market - the Review was the only credible publication in the region, and so that was no longer the case. These papers were doing a pretty good job.... Secondly, television had emerged much stronger, and so for advertisers trying to reach local markets rather than regional markets, it made more sense to advertise in local newspapers.

That was something that made it much more difficult for a journal publication.

Do you think there is a replacement go-to publication for news on Asia now?

I do not know of any. I think now, in order to get a full sense of what's happening in Asia, you have to surf widely, several newspapers you have to look at, and then you have to assess how credible is the author, how credible is the publication. All that could be avoided with the Review. With the Review, you knew you could read something that was authoritative.


What have you been doing since you left the Review?

I went to Yale University ... Yale University was celebrating its 300th anniversary and the university president, Richard Levin,  wanted to do something to bring Yale to the world. The idea was to set up a centre for the study of globalisation  ... and I was invited to be one of the founding members of the centre and start an online magazine on globalisation.

So Strobe Talbot, who had just finished his tenure as a deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration, was the director of the centre and I was director of publications.... Our centre was founded with the concept that globalisation has to be understood from an inter-disciplinary perspective. It is wrong to look at the evaluation only in terms of economics, only in terms of sociology or politics, or environment or  health.

All this had a role in globalisation, and one needs to look at globalisation in a holistic manner, and one way of doing it is to have a centre for a platform for interdisciplinary conversations, conferences, workshops and publications.

Of course, our centre's work was somewhat hijacked by Osama bin Laden because our [first] staff meeting was going on when our assistant rushed into the room to inform us that, according to some reports, a small plane had gone into the World Trade Centre.

And so that event, of course, happening on the first day of the opening of the Centre for the Study of Globalisation, was very poignant. We started organising workshops, teachings and ended up editing a book, Strobe Talbott and I, titled The Age of Terror: America and the World after September 11. It was a collection of essays by Yale luminaries, including historian Paul Kennedy, John Gaddis, Harold Koh and several other non-Yale scholars.

And then I started working on organising the online magazine, which went live in 2002.... It's a free site and everything we've published in the last seven years can be found.

So you‘ve made the jump from hard copy print to digital. Are you comfortable with that?

Very comfortable. And in fact looking back, I think it was a very, very wise decision.

I understand you also have a new book out. What is that?

The book is titled Bound Together: How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers and Warriors Shaped Globalisation. ... The thesis of the book is in some ways very simple. Globalisation, which I define as a growing interconnectedness and interdependence of the world, is possible because of people moving, people leaving home and going somewhere. If everybody stayed where they were born, there'd be no globalisation.  

So I tried to understand why people left home, what motivated them to leave home and go somewhere ... and when this journey began and how this journey has evolved and how it has created connections that didn't exist before.

Ever since our ancestors left Africa 60,000 years ago, they occupied different spaces of the earth and civilisations developed against a river, early, in the Indus River Valley, in India, in Mesopotamia, and those civilisations initially were isolated from each other, and they started becoming connected by individuals taking risks, riding camels, taking a boat and walking, and going long distances.

So globalisation, we think, is a new phenomenon, but I argue in my book that it has been with us for over 10,000  years.

Have you come up with any conclusions, thoughts, on where we are headed? Are you worried?

Yes, I am very worried. Because of technological advances that we have made, we have now enormous capacity to consume the resources that we have and in the process create environmental disaster[s]. Our ability to cause havoc has expanded exponentially over the last 30, 40 years.

The point is that globalisation has always had positive and negative consequences. It is nothing new.... The difference between the past and the present now is in the scale and the immediacy of the consequences.

So what should people be prepared to do?  Consume less or pay more?

Both. ... The issue is that environmental degradation is not calculated on a per capita basis. And that disaster will affect everybody.

How did you get picked to testify at the ECCC?

I was puzzled, too. Because ... of the five detained, I have only met one (Ieng Sary).

So, I was surprised, but I was told they wanted me to provide expert witness about the Vietnam-Cambodia conflict that I had covered as a reporter. So it's kind of piecing together what happened and why and how.

We were asking ourselves at the trial how your testimony fit in with Duch's trial.

I think it was made clear by the defence lawyer Francois Roux. He spoke today, and he said the purpose of my testimony was that the prosecutors wanted to be certain that there was an international war going on between April 1975 and January '79. And because the war was going on, the prisoners of the war brought to S-21 would have been treated under the Geneva Convention. So the prisoners were maltreated and one of the charges against Duch is for war crimes ... so that was the connection.

So Monsieur Roux was saying that since the war was not declared until December 31, 1977, my answer to him was that I'm not a lawyer, and I do not know what is the legal definition of war. But what I witnessed ... was war and that started straight after the liberation of Saigon and Phnom Penh in '75. I have no doubt that there was an international war going on.

Had you been following this trial, was it making big news in the US?

Not at all. A couple of stories in The New York Times.

You haven't been here in about a decade. What strikes you as you spend a few days in Phnom Penh?

What strikes me is this is the most prosperous Phnom Penh I've ever seen. My first visit was in 1971 ... and things were already falling apart.

And my first trip to Cambodia after the overthrow of the KR was in 1979. Then, Cambodia was the only country on earth which didn't have a currency. I went to the market and found people selling fish and vegetables with a little can of rice (as payment).

So it's a little different now?

It's a little different (laughing).  There are ATMs now.



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