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State, enterprise and the alcohol monopoly in colonial Vietnam

  • Gerard Sasges

The state-administered monopoly on the production of distilled rice alcohol instituted in Vietnam after 1897 evolved into one of the colony's most pervasive and unpopular institutions. This article examines the origins and operations of the monopoly, focusing on how much revenue it generated and for whom. It reveals that the monopoly generated little net revenue for the state, and instead functioned to promote the creation of a centralised and ostensibly civilian administration, capable of intervening in the economy to promote the accumulation of capital by local French entrepreneurs, but ultimately dependent on vast, invasive and frequently brutal systems of surveillance and control.

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1 The use of the name Vietnam is anachronistic. During the period of the French presence, Vietnam was divided into three regions: Cochinchina in the South, Annam in the Centre, and Tonkin in the North. Together with Cambodia and Laos, these regions made up French Indochina. Strictly speaking, only Cochinchina was a colony, while the other four were protectorates. In practice, there was little difference, and this article makes general use of the term colony and colonial to describe the French presence in all of Indochina. Similarly, the alcohol monopoly operated differently in time and space across the four regions of Tonkin, Cochinchina, Annam and Cambodia (and in fact never operated in Laos). However, by 1907, the basic features of an effective monopoly of production by the Société des distilleries de l'Indochine (SFDIC), and systems of surveillance and repression operated by the state's Department of Customs and Excise existed across the four regions, justifying the description of the system as a single alcohol monopoly.

2 In their 1918 appeal to the League of Nations for the right to self-determination of the Vietnamese people, Phan Chu Trinh and Nguyễn Ái Quốc (Hồ Chí Minh) described how ‘the administration forces even our smallest villages to purchase large quantities of alcohol and opium’. The nationalist An Ninh, Nguyễn told his readers, ‘You see, our mother country takes really good care of us. We are thirsty for education. She quenches it with alcohol.’ La Cloche Fêlée [Saigon] 21 Jan. 1924. Even supporters of the French administration such as Bùi Quang Chiêu and Phạm Quỳnh mounted protracted journalistic and political campaigns demanding an end to the monopoly. For the text of the Declaration of Independence, see Minh, Hồ Chí, Toàn Tập [Complete works], vol. 4, 1945–1946 (Hanoi: Nhà xuất bản sự thật, 2000), p. 10.

3 Long, Ngô Vĩnh, Before the Revolution: The Vietnamese peasants under the French (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), pp. 64–7.

4 Lâm, Trương Bưu, Colonialism experienced: Vietnamese writings on colonialism, 1900–1931 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000), p. 48. For a detailed study of the monopoly, see Gerard Sasges, ‘Contraband, capital, and the colonial state: The alcohol monopoly in Northern Viet Nam, 1897–1933' (Ph.D. diss., University of California at Berkeley, Department of History, 2006); Erica Peters, ‘Negotiating power through everyday practices in French Vietnam, 1880–1924’ (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago Department of History, 2000); Peters, Erica, ‘Taste, taxes, and technologies: Industrialising rice alcohol in Northern Vietnam, 1902–1913’, French Historical Studies, 27, 3 (Summer 2004): 569600; Peters, Erica, ‘What the taste test showed: Alcohol and politics in French Vietnam’, Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, 19 (2004): 94110. See also Dung, Hồ Tuấn, Chế độ thuế của thực dân Pháp ở Bắc Kỳ từ 1897 đến 1945 [The French colonial taxation system in Northern Vietnam from 1897 to 1945] (Hanoi: Nhà xuất bản Chính trị Quốc gia, 2003).

5 Opium regimes: China, Britain, and Japan, 1839–1952, ed. Brook, Timothy and Wakabayashi, Bob Tadashi (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000); Jennings, John M., The opium empire: Japanese imperialism and drug trafficking in Asia, 1895–1945 (Westport: Praeger, 1997); Slack, Edward R. Jr, Opium, state, and society: China's narco-economy and the Guomingdang, 1924–1937 (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2001); The rise and fall of revenue farming: Business elites and the emergence of the modern state in Southeast Asia, ed. Butcher, John and Dick, Howard (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993).

6 The use of ‘Chinese’ is shorthand for an extremely diverse population originating from different regions of present-day China, speaking different dialects, and often resident in Southeast Asia for generations.

7 Dick, Howard, ‘A fresh approach to Southeast Asian history’, in Butcher, and Dick, , The rise and fall of revenue farming, p. 9.

8 For Foucault, the modern state was characterised by direct and indirect control of the population in the minutest details of their daily life. Foucault, Michel, Surveiller et punir: naissance de la prison (Paris: Gallimard, 1975). In English, Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison, trans. Sheridan, Alan (New York: Pantheon, 1978).

9 Rabinow, Paul, French modern: Norms and forms of the social environment (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989), p. 289. See also Wright, Gwendolyn, The politics of design in French colonial urbanism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991). Ann Stoler writes that ‘under Dutch rule, the plantations located in Sumatra's cultuurgebied (or ‘plantation belt’) were virtual laboratories for technical and social experimentation. They were also microcosms of the colonial capitalist effort, at once compact and enormous ateliers in which racial, class, ethnic, and gender hierarchies were manipulated, contested, and transformed.’ Stoler, , Capitalism and confrontation in Sumatra's plantation belt, 1870–1979 (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1985), p. 2.

10 Rabinow, Paul, Symbolic domination: Cultural form and historical change in Morocco (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975).

11 Daniel Hémery, in the preface to Morlat, Patrice, La répression coloniale au Vietnam (1908–1940) (Paris: Editions l'Harmattan, 1990), pp. 78.

12 Zinoman, Peter, The colonial Bastille: A history of imprisonment in Vietnam, 1862–1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001); Woodside, Alexander, Community and revolution in modern Vietnam (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976), p. 3. See also Benedict Anderson's observation that ‘centralizing, “absolutizing” tendencies have nothing intrinsically to do with modernization and everything to do with the inherent dynamics of a certain type of state system’. Anderson, Benedict, ‘Studies of the Thai state: The state of Thai studies’, in The study of Thailand: Analyses of knowledge, approaches, and prospects in anthropology, art history, economics, history and political science, ed. Ayal, Eliezer B. (Athens, OH: Ohio University Center for International Studies: Papers in International Studies, Southeast Asia Series no. 54, 1978), p. 218.

13Alcool indigène’ or indigenous alcohol was defined in the legislation as distilled alcohol made from a base of rice using ‘indigenous equipment and processes’.

14 Despite the fact that the system of distilling licences adopted by the Nguyễn government in 1874 was modelled on the French system from 1864, the French were happy to use it as proof of the indigenous origins of their later alcohol monopoly.

15 The first indication of the coming shift in alcohol taxation policy was the decree of 3 May 1893, which established the principle of taxation on the basis of real rather than potential production, requiring a higher degree of surveillance and intervention by French authorities.

16 Reid, Anthony, ‘The origins of revenue farming in Southeast Asia’, in Butcher, and Dick, , The rise and fall of revenue farming, p. 79.

17 The party had its origins as a political bloc in the 1880s, and was officially constituted as a party at its first national conference in 1901. The party was deeply involved in France's colonial project, resulting in what Jean Martin refers to ‘the reign of the Radical high functionaries’ at the highest levels of the colonial administrations. Berstein, Serge, Histoire du parti radical: La recherche de l'âge d'or, Vol. 1, 1919–1926 (Paris: Presses de la Fondation nationale des sciences politiques, 1980), p. 29; Martin, Jean, L'Empire triomphant (1871–1936), Vol. 2, Maghreb, Indochine, Madagascar, îles et comptoires (Paris: Denoël, 1990), p. 230. See also Morlat, Patrice, Les affaires politiques de l'Indochine, 1895–1923: Les grands commis, du savoir au pouvoir (Paris: l'Harmattan, 1995), p. 118.

18 Doumer's performance as rapporteur of the project was such that he was first offered the post of Governor General in October 1895. He declined in order to accept the position of Minister of Finance in the cabinet of Léon Bourgeois on 1 Nov. Lorin, Amaury, Paul Doumer, governeur général de l'Indochine (Paris: l'Harmattan, 2004), p. 36.

19 Doumer, Paul, Situation de l'Indochine (1897–1901) (Hanoi: F.H. Schneider, 1902), p. 135.

20 Ibid., p. 157.

21 Local colonial officials were quick to see the problems involved in the creation of sales and production monopolies. In spring 1897, Customs Director Frézouls circulated to all provincial Residents a draft of the 1897 decree that would establish provincial monopolies of sale and set the stage for the eradication of Vietnamese distilleries. Of 14 Residents who replied, only the Resident-Mayor of Hanoi was willing to endorse the project. Six Residents refused either to endorse or reject the project, while the remaining seven were opposed. For the draft circular, see Director of Douanes Frézouls to Secretary General, Hải Phòng, 5 Apr. 1897. For the Residents' replies, see particularly Adamolle (Resident of Quảng Yên), Miribel (Vice-Resident of Hưng Yên), or Tirant (Resident of Sơn Tây). L'Archives national d'outre-mer, Aix-en-Provence (henceforth ANOM), INDO/GGI//24749.

22 Métin, Albert, L'Indochine et l'opinion (Paris: Dunod & Pinat, 1916). Métin was a deputy, former minister of labour and social security, and rapporteur of several projects regarding the budget and loans of Indochina.

23 Fourniau, Charles, Vietnam: Domination coloniale et resistance nationale (1858–1914) (Paris: Les Indes savantes, 2002), p. 742.

24 Descours-Gatin, Chantal, Quand l'opium finançait la colonisation en Indochine: L'élaboration de la régie générale de l'opium, 1860–1914 (Paris: l'Harmattan, 1992); Chandra, Siddharth, ‘What the numbers really tell us about the decline of the opium regie’, Indonesia, 70 (Oct. 2000): 101–23.

25 The tobacco monopoly in the Philippines: Bureaucratic enterprise and social change, 1766–1880, ed. de Jesus, Edilberto C. (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1980).

26 F.W. Diehl, ‘Revenue farming and colonial finances in the Netherlands East Indies, 1816–1925’, p. 205; Hakiem Nankoe, Jean-Claude Gerlus and J. Murray Martin, ‘The origins of the opium trade and the opium regie in Indochina’, p. 192. Both in Butcher and Dick, The rise and fall of revenue farming.

27 Rather than ‘plowing some of its millions of guilders of opium profits into the eradication of smuggling, the Regie chose to keep the sizable proceeds as profit, ensuring the perpetuation of the problem and the consequent continuing profitable market for the legal drug’. Chandra, ‘What the numbers really tell us’, p. 120. For revenue statistics, see ibid., Table 1, p. 104.

28 Girault, Arthur, Principes de colonisation et de législation coloniale: Les colonies françaises avant et depuis 1815, notions historiques, administratives, juridiques, économiques et financières (Paris: Recueil Sirey, 1943); Milloz, Pierre, Les inspections générales ministérielles dans l'administration française (Paris: Economica, 1983).

29 Other reports concerning the alcohol regime include that of Inspector General Espeut (1894, ANOM, FM/SG/INDO/AF/143), Inspector Salles (1898, ANOM FM/SG/INDO/AF/146), Inspector General Picquié (1900, ANOM FM/SG/INDO/AF/147) and Inspector Arnaud (1902, ANOM FM/INDO/NF/464).

30 After 1906, the administration only published global figures for all of Indochina, despite the fact that the regime operated differently in each region. See, for example, ANOM INDO/GGI, ‘Rapport sur la situation et le fonctionnement du service des Douanes et Régies pendant l'année 1906’, or ANOM INDO/GGI/8897.


32 For a similar conclusion, see an article that calculated total net receipts from the alcohol regime in Tonkin and North Annam at 2.5 per cent of the 1931 general budget. La question de l'alcool’, L'eveil économique, 707, 11 Oct. 1931.

33 Rapport sur la Régie des alcools en Indochine par L'Inspecteur Général des Colonies A. Le Conte, 24 June 1930. ANOM FM/INDO/NF/2481.

34 Report of Inspector of Colonies Gayet, 14 May 1927. Quoted in ibid. Le Conte estimated that the true ratio of Department resources devoted to the régie in Tonkin and North Annam was at least 31 per cent.

35 Anonymous report prepared for Director of Civil and Political Affairs, Hanoi, 10 Sept. 1885. National Archives One in Hanoi (Cục lưu trữ Quốc gia 1, henceforth CLTQG1), RST 2408.

36 In this particular case, the Governor General backed the Resident Superior: in ‘a measure that implies no idea of blame’, he invited Crayssac to give his subordinate a new assignment. Resident Superior Tonkin to Governor General, Hanoi, 20 Jan. 1904; Resident Superior Tonkin to Governor General, Hanoi, 30 May 1904; Governor General to Resident Superior Tonkin, Hanoi, 18 June 1904. CLTQG1 RST 4206.

37 Chassigneux, Edmond, ‘L'Indochine’, Histoire des colonies françaises et de l'expansion de la France dans le monde (vol. 5), ed. Hanotaux, Gabriel and Martineau, Alfred (Paris: Plon, 1932), p. 493. Doumer was appointed Governor General on 26 Dec. 1896, after the death in office of Governor General Armand Rousseau. The fact that Doumer's intervention with the Minister of Colonies to quash the draft legislation predates his appointment as Governor General would indicate that his appointment had already been decided, if not as early as Oct. 1895 then at least soon after the fall of the Méline cabinet on 29 Apr. 1896.

38 There were four main bond issues associated with the ‘Doumer Project’. The first, in 1896, was for 80 million francs, and had been made possible by Doumer's project to write off the existing debt of Tonkin and Annam. The 1898 issue for 200 million francs was disbursed in three parts: 1898, 1902 and 1905. These were followed by issues of 53 million francs in 1909, and 90 million francs in 1913. The funds were earmarked for a public works programme defined almost exclusively as the construction of railroads. Robequain, Charles, The economic development of French Indo-China, trans. Ward, Isabel (London: Oxford University Press, 1944).

39 Guyho to Minister of Colonies, Hanoi, 1 May 1910. ANOM FM/INDO/NF/926. ‘Rapport de l'Inspecteur Général des Colonies Guyho’, 1910. Together with 13,650,000 francs in annual payments to Paris in return for the military presence, this meant that even by the Administration's own calculations, 34 per cent of the total tax revenue of the general budget was going directly to the metropole. For the same period, Fourniau calculates the total debt of the colony at 499 million francs. Fourniau, Vietnam, p. 738.

40 The revenue claimed of 19,928,920 piastres multiplied by 28 per cent gives 5,580,097 piastres. This is necessarily a rough calculation for the purposes of illustration only. All revenue figures from ANOM FM/AGEFOM/215.

41 Fourniau, Vietnam, p. 738.

42 Howard Dick, ‘A fresh approach to Southeast Asian history’, in Butcher and Dick, The rise and fall of revenue farming, p. 10.

43 John Butcher, ‘Revenue farming and the changing state in Southeast Asia’, in Butcher and Dick, The rise and fall of revenue farming, pp. 19–44.

44 In the case of the opium farm, for example, a disastrous attempt by two French entrepreneurs to administer the opium farm paved the way for the Chinese to take over after 1864. Nankoe, Hakiem et al. , ‘The origins of the opium trade’, in Butcher and Dick, The rise and fall of revenue farming, p. 184.

45 See Gerard Sasges, ‘From the consortiums to the colonial conglomerates: Enterprise in Vietnam 1858–1945’ (forthcoming).

46 Nankoe et al., ‘The origins of the opium trade’, p. 189.

47 Ibid., p. 191.

48 Albert Calmette, ‘Fabrication des alcohols de riz en Extrême Orient. Étude biologique et physiologique de la levure chinoise et du Koji Japonais par le docteur Calmette’, 1892. CLTQG1 RST 14165.

49 Director of Douanes Morel to Minister of Colonies, Hanoi, 1906. ANOM FM/INDO/NF 463.

50 The first regional monopoly officially covered Tonkin and ‘Northern Annam’. The decision to append the northern provinces of Annam, which could be supplied from factories in Tonkin thanks to the Hanoi–Vinh railway, reflects how the shape of the monopoly was determined by commercial and logistical concerns rather than administrative rationality. For a discussion of the creation and extension of the monopoly, including Chinese resistance to the monopoly in Cochinchina, see Sasges, ‘Contraband, capital, and the colonial state’, chapter 4 ‘Creating the monopoly’, pp. 106–38.

51 An exchange of letters between Fontaine and Doumer reveals that Doumer may have initially favoured appropriating Fontaine's distilleries and establishing a state monopoly of both production and sales. Fontaine to Governor General, Hanoi, 31 May 1897. CLTQG1 RST 14112. We can only speculate why Doumer subsequently decided to create an alcohol régie that reserved the cost of enforcement for the state, and granted most of the profits to a single private enterprise.

52 Legal consumption for the region at the time was about 52 million litres.

53 A.R. Fontaine was the SFDIC's director and its largest shareholder.

54 Distillers in France producing for the government in the early 1900s made a profit of approximately 5 francs per hectolitre, or 2.00 piastres. Minister of Finance to Minister of Colonies, Paris, 8 Mar. 1913. ANOM FM/INDO/NF/4040. Also by comparison, the 1897 legislation had granted indigenous distillers a profit of approximately one cent per litre of alcohol at 35 per cent, or 3.0 piastres per hectolitre of pure alcohol. Confidential Circular no. 53r, Director of Douanes, Hải Phòng, 10 Feb. 1897. ANOM INDO/GGI//24749. The calculation of the SFDIC's profit is based on an average price of rice in Tonkin in 1902 of 4.57 piastres per picul.

55 Report no. 48, ‘Régime des alcools en Indo-Chine’, Inspector Méray to Minister of Colonies, Hanoi, 29 Apr. 1908, ANOM FM/INDO/NF/880.

56 The SFDIC had factories in Saigon, Phnom Penh, Hanoi, Nam Định and Hải Dương (originally built by the Société des Distilleries du Tonkin, later bought by the SFDIC). Through its subsidiaries, the Société anonyme des distilleries du Centre-Annam (with distilleries in Qui Nhơn, An Thái [Bình Định] and Tuy Hoà), the Société industrielle et commerciale d'Annam (distillery in Đà Nẵng), and the Société anonyme française des distilleries de Battambang (distillery in Battambang, Cambodia), it controlled legal alcohol production for the entire colony except Laos. Laos apparently represented too small a market to warrant the SFDIC's attentions.

57 Meuleau, Marc, Des pionniers en extrême-orient: Histoire de la Banque de l'Indochine (1875–1975) (Paris: Fayard, 1990), p. 342. Throughout the 1920s, dividends on SFDIC shares were higher than that of the Bank of Indochina itself, which consistently returned some of the highest dividends on the Paris bourse.

58 The relationship between the Bank and the SFDIC began in 1905 when the Bank was granted 500 shares of SFDIC, becoming its second-largest shareholder after A.R. Fontaine. The SFDIC, for its part, became one of the major shareholders in the Bank, for example, in 1920 receiving the bulk of the Bank's issue of 48,000 new shares. Meuleau, Des pionniers en extrême-orient, p. 307.

59 Founded by the Bank and the SFDIC on 21 Feb. 1923. Although the institution's subsequent growth was to reduce the Bank's and the SFDIC's share position, the Bank retained the presidency and two seats on the board, while Fontaine retained the vice-presidency (Annuaire des enterprises 1930). See Gonjo, Yasuo, Banque coloniale ou banque d'affaires: La Banque de l'Indochine sous la Troisième République (Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1993), pp. 315–16.

60 John Butcher, ‘Loke Yew’, in Butcher and Dick, The rise and fall of revenue farming, pp. 255–61.

61 For a discussion of the legacy of Japanese colonialism for the development of the Korean economy, see Eckert, Carter, Offspring of empire: The Koch'ang Kims and the colonial origins of Korean capitalism, 1876–945 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991); Woo, Jung-En, Race to the swift: State and finance in Korean industrialization (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991); Kohli, Atul, ‘Where do high growth political economies come from? The Japanese lineage of Korea's “Developmental State”’, World Development, 22, 9 (1994): 1269–93. My thanks to Scott Cheshier for familiarising me with this literature.

62 Marr, David, Vietnamese anticolonialism, 1885–1925 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971).

63 See, for example, Hinh, Nguyễn Duy, Đề-Thám: Con hùm Yên-thế [De Tham: The Tiger of Yên-thế] (Saigon: Khai-Trí, 1961).

64 Doumer, Situation de l'Indochine, p. 77.

65 By contrast, 10 years earlier in 1898, the Department had a total of 199 full-time European employees in Tonkin and North Annam. ANOM INDO/GGI//24745.

66 Niollet, Dominique, L'épopée des douaniers en Indochine 1874–1954 (Paris: Editions Kailash, 1998), pp. 232, 242.

67 Total of personnel and materials. From information in Colonie Indochine — Statistique financière, ‘Dépenses du Budget Générale de 1899 à 1927’, ANOM FM/AGEFOM/215.

68 Clinquart, Jean, L'administration des douanes en France de 1914 à 1940 (Paris: Comité pour l'histoire économique et financière de la France, 2000), p. xix.

69 Tổng đốc Dương Lâm to Governor General, Jan. 1912. CLTQG1 RST 74801.

70 See, for example, Cao, Nam, Chi Pheo and other stories (Hanoi: Foreign Language Publishing House, 1983).

71 It is impossible to list all the incidents in which Vietnamese villagers were murdered by agents of the régie. See, for example, CLTQG1 RST 72188, CLTQG1 RST 4206, CLTQG1 RST 74760, CLTQG1 RST 74647, CLTQG1 RST 46782.

72 While the stated objective of the raids was the contraband industry, it should also be noted that just five years earlier the province had been the site of the Xô Viết Nghệ Tĩnh, the first sustained uprising following the founding of the Indochinese Communist Party in 1930.

73 Quoted in Niollet, L'épopée des douaniers en Indochine, pp. 482–3. The first raid on 25 July saw 38 Douanes agents and 60 militia from the Garde Indigène divided into six groups, each with different targets.

74 Ibid., p. 484.

75 See Gerard Sasges, ‘The moral economy of oppression and resistance: Towards a deeper contextualisation of resistance to the colonial alcohol regime in Northern Vietnam, 1897–1945’. Paper presented at the third International Conference on Vietnamese Studies, Hanoi, 4–7 Dec. 2008.

76 According to the inquest, the woman was shot at such close range that her forehead was black with powder, and the cardboard cartridge (not just the bullet) was found lodged intact in her skull. Beaussart had attempted to flee but had been captured and beaten unconscious by angry villagers. He died later that day without regaining consciousness, probably from a blow to the head with a staff. ‘Meurtre commis sur la personne de l'agent Beaussart de la ferme des alcohols de Nính Giang et mesures administratives prises a l’égard du village de Trịnh Xuyên', 1899. CLTQG1 RST 72188.

77 See ‘Candidats alcoolistes’, La Tribune Indigène, 19 Sept. 1922; ‘Les monopoles en Indochine’, La Tribune Indigène, 19 Mar. 1923; ‘On aime trop notre pays!’, La Tribune Indigène, 27 Nov. 1923; ‘La logique administrative’, La Tribune Indigène, 27 Dec. 1923; ‘Pas de politique! De Choum-Choum seulement!’ La Tribune Indigène, 10 May 1924. The story of his campaign against the renewal of the contract is outlined in ‘Encore les monopoles: L'intérêt des requins avant celui des masses’, La Tribune Indigène, 2 Sept. 1924.

78 Nguyễn Ái Quốc, Bản án chế độ thực dân Pháp, p. 33.

79 Sasges, Gerard, ‘“Indigenous representation is hostile to all monopolies”: Phạm Quỳnh and the end of the alcohol monopoly in colonial Việt Nam’, Journal of Vietnamese Studies, 5, 1 (2010): 136.

Gerard Sasges is Assistant Professor at the Department of Southeast Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. Correspondence in connection with this paper should be addressed to: . The author would like to thank Scott Cheshier, Phạm Hồng Tung, Nguyễn Thanh Hải, Brad Davis, Chris Goscha, Tuong Vu, Shaun Malarney, Peter Zinoman and the anonymous reviewers of the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies for their support and for their critical comments on earlier drafts of the paper.

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