The Durian Chronicles: Reflections on the US an Southeast Asia in the Trump Era

Inigo Acosta

With the current state of great-power rivalry in Southeast Asia, the ASEAN region continues to play a key role in global affairs. Sally Tyler’s book, The Durian Chronicles, a compilation of articles written for online news websites and journals, presents a unique perspective on the United States’ role in the region. Unlike the plethora of policy briefings or academic publications that exist, Tyler’s work takes a different approach to understanding America’s relationship to Southeast Asia as it sheds light on more subtle connections between the US and Southeast Asia that perhaps policy analyses may overlook. Her articles cover an eclectic mix of topics and themes, from ophthalmologists and fashion to prisons and opioid addiction. Thus, Tyler’s work demonstrates that the Southeast Asia-USA relationship is more than carefully written statements from Presidential spokespeople, Ministries of Foreign Affairs, or Congressional staffers. The US-Southeast Asia relationship permeates to the subtle interconnections between people exchanged through everyday interactions and the ever-expanding digital world.

Tyler’s introduction and first two chapters explore why she decided to begin writing about the interconnections between Southeast Asia and the United States. She gives a persuasive and reflective insight into the author’s motivation for beginning to write about Southeast Asia. The style of writing in the early chapters is inviting and personal as she demonstrates how her profession as an attorney forced her to grapple with the unsettling realities of the Trump administration. It is evident that, for the author, writing was an outlet for her dismay at the erosion of democratic norms in the United States. She combined this dismay with her observations and insights during travel in Southeast Asia, leading to this: “A chronicle of policy reverberations between the US and Southeast Asia (p. 19).

The rest of the book is a wide-ranging mix of topics and stories that are often overlooked by large media organizations and policy analysts. Yet, Tyler’s writing is not to be grouped into the category of quirky musings of a traveler’s blog posts. In my view, her articles, while short, demonstrate the authors depth of knowledge on a variety of topics originating from extensive research and close monitoring of current events. For short public-facing articles, they are packed with information delivered in a concise manner. In Chapter 12, “Shall We Dance with Censorship or Free Expression,” Tyler draws from a broad range of resources to articulate the sensitive yet ever-changing nature of censorship laws in Thailand. The articles combine analysis of the Thai government’s ban of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s famous musical The King and I, statistics from Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, and White House Instagram posts resulting in an eclectic mix that demonstrates the broad impacts of the issue.

Tyler’s articles are valuable for policy analysts given that they present a clear snapshot of the ways that American domestic and foreign policies have impacted Southeast Asia. This is evident in Chapters 13 and 14, which detail the role that American pharmaceutical companies have played in exporting pain killers and opioid medicines to developing nations. The articles are packed with information pertinent to analysts and lawmakers about how opioid addiction has spread through American “Big Pharma” subsidiaries like Mundipharma in Asia. Tyler demonstrates knowledge on the topic by citing a broad range of sources from statements by members of the US Congress to studies from Harvard Medical School.

At times, I came to find Tyler’s assertions and statements to be more observations of happenstance similarities rather than actual policy impacts. For example, one point that I may question in Chapter 13 is when Tyler opines that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had implicitly acknowledged the failure of his war on drugs campaign by naming former Vice-President and political rival Leni Robredo to helm the campaign. In my view, it is more likely that Duterte appointed Robredo as a cynical political move to discredit her after she expressed concern about the rising death toll from the drug war. It was political scapegoating and “politicking” at its finest by telling his chief rival something along the lines of, “Why don’t you try and do something about it.” This is evidenced by Duterte’s communications secretary, Martin Andanar, making a statement in support of Robredo’s appointment: “We believe that the loudest critics should act beyond mere observers but be active contributors for change.”[1] Finally, it is worth noting that Robredo served in the position for 18 days before being fired by Duterte.

Moreover, I found that some articles highlighted coincidental correlations where Tyler could have extracted a broader meaning beyond just highlighting similarities. In Chapter 3, “Doctor, My Eyes,” Tyler observes that Filipino national hero Jose Rizal, Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad, and American Senator Rand Paul are all ophthalmologists. This is an interesting coincidence, but I was wondering what their joint profession means given that the majority of the article discusses Paul’s decision to break ranks with Republicans to vote against repealing the Affordable Care Act and Thaksin’s rivals trying to dismantle the former Thai Prime Minister’s popular 30-baht healthcare program. Perhaps a thesis about doctors’ participation in politics could be made clearer, leading to a comparison of the three ophthalmologists. For example, one of the main analyses of Rizal’s literary works is that as a doctor, he saw that the social ills of society (given the inequality brought about by Spanish colonialism) was akin to a cancer in society. Is this skill something Al-Assad and Paul may have been blind to?

Nevertheless, Tyler’s book is a unique contribution to understanding the United States relationship to Southeast Asia, particularly in the Trump years. She accomplishes her goal of highlighting the need for increased multilateralism and mutual understanding of the region through thoughtfully crafted articles that combine her keen following of events with personal anecdotes and experiences. It will be interesting to follow Tyler’s work as more global flows alter US-Southeast Asia relations, including post-COVID health policies, Southeast Asian nations reactions to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and an increasingly assertive China in the South China/West Philippine Sea, and another potentially contentious US Presidential election in 2024. To end with Tyler’s reminder on page 16: “This is the way things are now; it is not the way things will always be.”


[1] Statement by Duterte Communications Secretary Martin Andanar in, Mendez, Christina, “Palace: Her Success is Our Success,” Phil Star Global, November 7, 2019.