Tuesday, June 22, 2010

How Would Indonesia React to A Political Crisis Such as Thailand’s?

Thailand’s recent political crisis has shone a light on one aspect of Southeast Asian democracies, namely the question of how governments can enforce their democratic systems and institutions.

Although Indonesia’s democracy is now considered more robust than Thailand’s, the Thai experience can serve as a lesson for the practice of Indonesian democracy in the future.

That lesson is that an unpopular civil leadership risks losing public trust and democratic legitimacy if it chooses to use military force to put down civil unrest.

In cases where the military is still strong and is seen as a guardian of public order, this may well pave the way for an overthrow of the democratic system itself.

Put simply, the Thai crisis shows Indonesia what governments should or should not do to resolve such a crisis.

Thailand’s reaction to the political crisis gave Indonesian watchers a sense of deja vu, bringing to mind the years surrounding Suharto’s fall from power.

The biggest demonstrations happened in May 1998, at a time when Suharto’s brand of enforcement left nothing up for discussion.

Coincidently, the most recent events in Bangkok also happened in the month of May, and few will forget the country’s clashes of 1992 that became known as “Black May.”

Obviously, the recent political disturbances in Thailand were not the first and surely will not be the last.

Political differences and larger political rifts are common in every country whatever their form of democracy, and challenges to political power are commonplace.

What varies among countries is the process of dealing with them.

The occupation of Bangkok’s main business center by Red Shirt protesters was no ordinary event.

International and local businesses shut down their downtown workplaces and were forced to rent temporary offices elsewhere.

The Red Shirts made their point.

Was the Thai government bound to take martial action, or could a non-military compromise have been reached?

For some observers, the Thai government has little political legitimacy left, meaning its current conflict resolution policies will struggle to gain traction.

For others, the political situation is not as dire, but they may still agree that the government’s reaction has been part of a backward transition from the democracy that Thailand championed in Southeast Asia, leaving the democratic baton now firmly in the hand of post-New Order Indonesia.

Is there any legitimacy in this assertion?

Freedom House, a major agency for the measurement of democracy around the world, thinks so, promoting Indonesia as the model of democracy for the region.

Indeed, in many ways Indonesia is now more democratic than ever, if not necessarily free of political conflict.

Certainly we have many political issues to overcome.

Corruption is deeply entrenched in our political and social systems, which if combined with the ineffectiveness of the government to root out graft, means that corruption is still a major problem.

When we add issues like economic and social inequalities, a high degree of unemployment, environmental degradation and the ever present threat of extremism, it becomes obvious that our young democracy has many challenges ahead.

But at least our current president has full political legitimacy, as he was elected directly by the people.

This is a stark contrast to the rise of Thailand’s current administration, and despite the fact that there are continued criticisms of President Yudhoyono’s second term over perceived indecisiveness in resolving important issues relating to the legal system with high-profile cases involving the tax authorities and big business.

We must also acknowledge that democracy here is still in its infancy and has not yet been challenged in the ways that have challenged Thailand.

When citizens resort to violence, Indonesia has proved vulnerable.

Clashes among students and between students and other citizens also illuminate the fault lines in society.

But all in all cases, the reaction by Indonesian authorities has been measured.

In many ways, the political economies of Thailand and Indonesia are similar.

Both face problems of economic growth amid the financial crises, regional issues surrounding autonomy and religion, majority versus minority rights and issues with young populations finding it difficult to find work.

In most young democracies, newly empowered civil societies often have high expectations of governments — often too high!

More discussion is needed to see how legitimate Thai reactions were to the recent strife, and whether expectations were too high on both sides.

But what is clear is that when governments “fail” — or even are perceived to fail — in these expectations, a typical reaction is to take to the streets. This is not only the case in Thailand but in Indonesia too.

Newly democratic countries do not like being publicly put on the spot, or having their hand forced by citizens or international pressure.

When they are backed up against a wall, they often revert to former authoritarian stances, temporarily ignoring outside reactions.

However, a firm style is not the same as a dictatorship.

A charismatic and decisive leader who also enjoys popular support can deliver the needs of the people even better in a democracy than in a dictatorship, if only because the needs of the people are likely to have been better and more legitimately articulated in the first place.

In a true democracy, the elected president will certainly have popular support and will be able to enforce internal political integrity but will also be sensitive to lessons he or she is giving to neighboring and comparable countries.

In a democracy, what happens next door is your business, especially if your actions give neighboring citizens the impression that all they have worked for nothing.

The misuse of strong political systems by the military is a slippery slope that can lead to militarism and dictatorship.

Indonesia has just emerged from that nightmare.

Let us hope that the recent Thai experience does not give militarism legitimacy here once more.

Beni Sastranegara is a research officer for politics and international relations at Strategic Asia, a Jakarta-based consultancy promoting cooperation among Asian countries.

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