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Southeast Asia, explained

An apocalyptic view of future Bangkok

Connecting a doom-laden forecast in "The Windup Girl" to present realities
Wind up girl bangkok 2012 02 28Enlarge
Cover artwork for author Paolo Bacigalupi's "The Windup Girl," a novel set in 23rd-century Bangkok, Thailand. (Screengrab)

If "The Windup Girl" turns out to reliably predict future Bangkok, this modern era of killer floods and bloody street uprisings will be remembered as a positively blissful chapter in the Thai capital's history.

I've just finished the much-lauded novel by American Paolo Bacigalupi, who depicts Bangkok in the 23rd century.

His forecast is quite brutal.

Monsanto-esque agro-conglomerates control the world's food supply. Carbon-based fuel supplies have run dry. Economies rely on raw physical and animal labor. Hunger and lab-designed plagues have violently pronounced societal rifts we see today.

Yes, it's all fiction. But, as a resident and observer of all things Bangkok, some of the novel's predictions felt more than a little prescient.

The book, clearly well researched, provides a fascinating extrapolation of modern trends into bleak end scenarios.

Here's a rundown.

Bangkok is still on the verge of drowning: 23rd-century Bangkok is defended by a towering sea wall, which holds back the weight of an ocean swollen by global warming.

In the real, 21st-century Bangkok -- which is already sinking -- Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra vowed to build an 18-mile sea wall during her election campaign. (Slogan: "Say Goodbye to Flooding!)

But after her victory last year, talk of the plan faded. Bangkok, by some estimates, will be under five feet of water by 2030.

Elephant labor/warfare: With diesel-powered machinery and tanks largely resigned to the past, fuel-scarce Bangkok relies on genetically modified elephant-like creatures for transport, labor and fighting. Indeed, Thailand has a long history of using elephants for logging and has marched pachyderms into battle against the Lao, Khmer and Burmese.

Fanatical anti-Chinese pogroms: In the novel, the prosperous Chinese merchant classes of Muslim-majority Indonesia and Malaysia are violently purged by "Green Headbands," Islamic vigilantes who turn on wealthy non-Muslims. This sends a cascade of hard-working, business-minded ethnic Chinese surging into Thailand.

Resentment of ethnic Chinese merchants is a recurring theme in Southeast Asian history. Food shortages and class anger have occasionally erupted into murderous anti-Chinese riots in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Coups: There's no mention of a parliament in "The Windup Girl," only warring ministries (environment vs. trade) that take turns toppling one another.

The real Thailand has seen so many coups that academics argue over the final tally. (It's somewhere around 18.)

Booze-addled Westerners: Despite the famine and warfare swirling all around, 23rd-century Bangkok is still haunted by day-drinking, whorehouse-hopping "farangs," the Thai word for Westerners.

Entirely plausible.

http://www.globalpost.com/globalpost-blogs/southeast-asia/windup-girl-bangkok