Saturday, June 23, 2012

The state of democracy in Southeast Asia

The great philosophical question about the elements of a perfect democracy and their relation to capitalism remains unsettled, and is likely to remain thus.

Yet the recent history of Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand calls for a more practical conversation about the nature and extent of democratic transformation in Southeast Asia. 

The demand for democratic institutions is typically associated with the rise of an educated middle class, and the organisers of pro-democracy demonstrations in the streets of Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur certainly fit this demographic. But the evolution of democracy has not necessarily followed the same pattern across the whole of Southeast Asia. This is most notable in Myanmar where there is no middle class and the reformist president, Thein Sein, is acting on geopolitical and economic considerations.

The political processes in Thailand and Malaysia (and indeed in the rest of Southeast Asia) are centred on personalities rather than on ideologies. During elections, the average Thai voter does little to examine the policies put forth by the ruling Pheu Thai Party or the opposition Democrat Party. The left–right debate is non-existent because both parties’ public policies are informed by populism. Instead, voter interest is focused on who operates and supports the political parties. 

During the July 2011 elections, for instance, it was common knowledge that former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was fully supportive of his sister Yingluck Shinawatra’s taking the helm of the Pheu Thai Party. Yingluck’s familial affiliation also ensured the continued support of Thaksin’s base, whose welfare entitlements would be protected. Across the aisle, the Democrat Party’s known ties with the military and the old guard vouched for the party’s commitment to preserving the interests and status quo of these groups.

In Malaysia’s race-based politics, matters of austerity and taxation are also conspicuously absent from the public debate. The Bersih electoral reform activist movement, the United Malays National Organisation’s (UMNO) dwindling hold on power, and the emergence of a clear bipartisan balance, gives the looming general elections more weight. The quality that most distinguishes leader of the opposition Anwar Ibrahim from the incumbent is simply that he is not Prime Minister Najib Razak. Provisions outlined in Buku Jingga, the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat’s master plan, are not radically different from the government’s Economic Transformation Programme.

Thailand and Malaysia are feeling the growth pains of democracy. The pressures of an uncertain economic climate and social injustice have prompted members of the growing Thai and Malaysian middle classes to spill onto the streets. Yet demonstrators are less concerned with the destination toward which their countries are heading, than with who is in the driver’s seat. This is expected of young democracies, and as long as public discourse, parliamentary censure and debate strengthen democratic institutions, it is welcome. This trajectory of democratic growth could lead to broader participation from constituents and the empowerment of fundamental democratic values, including freedom of speech and due process. Thailand and Malaysia appear to be on the brink of change: the dominance of UMNO in Malaysia has not been contested to this extent since 1969, and the progressive movements in Thailand coincide with the twilight of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 66-year reign.

The other big story of democratic change is Myanmar, where reforms have taken place in rapid succession: political prisoners were released, by-elections were held, and the liberalisation of the market has led to the suspension of Western travel and trade sanctions. Myanmar’s reforms are an example of what Peter Gourevitch called the second image reversed, or the notion that international relations can influence and direct the course of domestic politics. Recent events in Myanmar confirm Gourevitch’s assertion that ‘economic relations and military pressures constrain an entire range of domestic behaviours, from policy decisions to political forms. International relations and domestic politics are therefore so interrelated that they should be analyzed simultaneously, as wholes’.

Thein Sein’s strategy is both a reaction to the US pivot to Asia and a hedge against China’s growing influence. Furthermore, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent visit to Myanmar marked the third entrant to the geopolitical game. Additionally, being part of the ASEAN Economic Community and ASEAN Chair in 2014 has encouraged Myanmar to get its economy on track through political and market liberalisation. With this comes a greater need for security and stability, which the government has decided is better achieved through reform than through oppression. While credit must be given to the students and monks who have exercised civil resistance, overall Myanmar’s reform agenda is the product of global economic and political design, not the will of its people.

ASEAN governments are not liberal democracies, nor do they claim or desire to be. Stability, an attractive investment climate and economic growth are their priorities. Expecting the ASEAN countries to become free societies may be impractical at this stage, but the current liberal momentum could usher in substantial change.

Chayut Setboonsarng works for the CIMB ASEAN Research Institute.

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