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"The academic debates help me grow intellectually"

A PICAIS research fellow is studying digital developments in transitional democracies in Southeast Asia. A conversation about streams and data flows as well as the possible consequences of liberal openings.

Boat on the river Inn near the campus of the University of Passau.

Southeast Asia has long been a beacon for examples of how democracies can prevail against dictatorships. But for some years now, there has been an opposite trend, towards authoritarian styles of government. A guest researcher at the Passau International Centre for Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies (PICAIS) hosted by Wolfram Schaffar, Professor of Development Politics at the University of Passau, is looking into how knowledge acquired by digital development can turn into powerful authoritarian tools.  

Bhumibol bridge in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo: Colourbox

You came from Bangkok, a city of eight million people, to the small German bordertown of Passau with 50 000 inhabitants. How did that feel?

Passau is a picturesque, beautiful city, a tourist destination. It’s really good for calming down and concentrate on what you are doing. I think, I’m quite productive here. And I love the rivers very, very much, because I was born beside one. My home village was just beside the river. The water means a lot to me.

Which one is your favourite river in Passau?

The river Inn. I like the colour, which is quite light even in the deep winter season. In winter, the water colour is quite dense and dark, but otherwise, in the rest of the year, it shines in light green colours. It’s just lovely to cross it. I prefer not taking the bus. I like to cross that bridge. I read that the colour comes from the Alps, from glacier water, the river originates in Switzerland. I also learned about the confluence of the three rivers in Passau and how the colours differ from each other. On the other side, the Danube is joined by a river coming from the Bavarian forest. It’s such a unique spectacle of nature, so beautiful.

Pedestrian bridge over the river Inn in Passau, Germany.

Why did you come to the University of Passau?

I used to work in a media development project concentrating on countries in Southeast Asia, in which we compared the media systems in the participating countries, for example in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand. But at that time I couldn’t come to Passau. Instead, we did workshops in my region, in Malaysia and Thailand.

What do you analyse in your research project at PICAIS?

During the democratic processes, the countries in Southeast Asia profited from all the change and digital development brought by the international community as well as from multiple commercial cooperation and access to new technologies. But some of these newly acquired technologies became quite problematic, a double edged sword, so to speak. You can use it wisely or harmfully. In my research, I study exactly this.

How can you counter these tendencies?

The voice of the independent media and of monitoring groups need to be strengthened. They are key to make sure that the people have access to information. You need to make sure that people have the technology to access this information. And thirdly, you need to raise the media literacy of the general public.

What do you miss about your home country?

Definitely food! I’m a foodie. I miss my tropical vegetables, they are different. In a hot country, we have plenty of fruits with sour flavours. I like them a lot. For example, we make salad with sour Mango that we mix with ground nut onion and bean curd, that is my favourite dish. Also, I miss the taste of a fresh banana. 

What will you miss about Passau and the environment that PICAIS provides?

I will miss the academic debates, German philosophy, that’s something I really value, I like that part a lot. This, I thank for to PICAIS and the current host, Professor Wolfram Schaffar, who helps me in every step of my research journey. This environment helps me grow and mature intellectually.  Here, I have access to plenty academic resources. The knowledge I acquire here, will not stop here. It will have an extension in my home country. 

Professor Wolfram Schaffar

researches democratisation and de-democratisation in Southeast Asia

How can the authoritarian turn be recognised?

How can the authoritarian turn be recognised?

Professor Wolfram Schaffar has held the Chair of Development Policy at the University of Passau since April 2021. Previously, he was, among other things, Professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Tübingen and Professor of Political Science and Development Research at the Institute for International Development at the University of Vienna.

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