Tuesday, November 8, 2011

South-East Asia's quiet revolutions - SEA changes

IT HAS been a year of eye-catching, dramatic upheaval in Europe and the Arab world. The former is still flirting with economic and political collapse, the latter has simply exploded. In both cases, the full consequences of the year’s events are as yet undetermined; all we can say with certainty is that countries such as Libya and Greece have gone through extraordinary change and are likely never to be the same again.

But another part of the world can also boast a year of transformative change: South-East Asia. Certainly, this has not been a full-blown spring as in the Middle East; the gains have been more modest, the shifts less obvious. But the forces unleashed this year may be impossible to stem, in which case they will have brought irreversible change in one of the most politically conservative regions of the world. Furthermore, all this has been achieved with very little bloodshed and no currency crises. Call them polite revolutions.

Consider them country-by-country. Myanmar has probably come the longest distance in the shortest time. In March a quasi-civilian government under a new president, a recently demobbed general, took over after decades of dictatorial military rule. A parliament has begun to function, and the de facto leader of the opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was released from years of house arrest only late last year, seems to have been accepted by the government as a partner. Strict media rules have been relaxed and political prisoners have begun to be released.

In Malaysia the prime minister, Najib Razak, recently announced the abolition of two notorious internal-security laws, the relaxation of curbs on the media and other liberalising measures. The government itself boasts that these reforms will constitute the most sweeping changes the country has seen since winning its independence from Britain in 1957. In Thailand, the Pheu Thai party of the ousted former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, now led by his younger sister, Yingluck, won a landslide electoral victory in July. Partly rooted in the country’s “red shirt” movement, many in Pheu Thai campaigned for radical political change, beginning with Thailand’s two most conservative (and formidable) institutions, the army and the monarchy.

Even in tiny, ultra-stable Singapore, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), in power, like its Malaysian brethren, ever since independence from Britain, has not been sheltered from the winds of change. In a general election in May its share of the vote fell to an all-time low; in August’s presidential election the PAP’s preferred candidate only just squeaked home. These were unprecedented rebuffs for the party of Lee Kuan Yew. The PAP has promised “to listen”. It may even respond.
What accounts for this relative torrent of change? Most strikingly, unlike in the Arab countries, much of this has been top-down politics; governments, rather than “the street”, have usually taken hold of the reform process, channelling it through measured political action in countries such as Myanmar and Malaysia. Governments, however, have most certainly been nudged, even pushed, by the direct threat of people power.

Many of Malaysia’s reforms, for example, came only after the government’s cack-handed attempt to suppress a rally in July in Kuala Lumpur. Protesters asking for nothing more radical than mild changes to the electoral system were met on the streets by riot police wielding tear gas and water cannon. An embarrassed government, facing a storm of domestic and international condemnation, soon repealed the very security laws that it had used to justify the crackdown in the first place.

Similarly, in Thailand the red shirts will argue that their triumph was the culmination of years of struggle following the ousting of their hero Mr Thaksin in a coup in 2006. Ninety or so people were killed in Bangkok last year in clashes between soldiers and the red shirts. And violence has erupted often enough in Myanmar over demands for political change.

Myanmar has long been an economic disaster area. But elsewhere in the region, the pressure for change has usually come from a sense that political and social reform has lagged behind economic prosperity. Many of the regimes accepting reform this year are essentially still products of the geostrategic climate of the cold war, when political stability was at a premium. Malaysia’s contentious security laws, for example, date from when the British colonial regime was battling a communist insurgency.

The West, especially America, encouraged staunchly anti-communist regimes, even if, in places such as Indonesia and Thailand, this often meant military dictatorships.

In Thailand, the army still plays an intrusive role in political life. Indeed, many feared it would not accept a Pheu Thai victory this year—which it has, so far. In many ways Indonesia led the way in political liberalisation when President Suharto was toppled in a popular uprising in 1998. Widespread disillusion with corrupt politicians, however, and the failure to institutionalise the new freedoms, serve as warning to others in the region.

Political leaders moulded by cold-war politics have found that a younger generation—people under 40 or so—are no longer so susceptible to the old rallying cries about stability. They want to make political and social choices of their own.

Chain reaction?

In pauperised Myanmar the sequence is in reverse. The government’s concern is to catch up economically with the neighbours, whereas the opposition wants political reform first. If both were to happen at the same time, it would put enormous pressure on the country’s institutions—Myanmar might even fall apart. If however, against the odds, it pulls the whole thing off, it might encourage change in others, such as Cambodia and even Vietnam. And what sort of pressure would this put on China, long used to a string of pliant, like-minded dictators to its south? American presidents such as Lyndon Johnson might have called this a domino effect. By Banyan for The Economist (Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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