The Arab Revolts and South East Asia: What Impact and What Influence?

South­east Asia expe­ri­enced its own polit­i­cal upheavals well before the Arab revolts. Nev­er­the­less, the wave of pop­u­lar upris­ings that shook the Mid­dle-East and North Africa region goes far beyond the region’s bound­aries, and South­east Asia is no excep­tion to the glob­al cri­sis of con­fi­dence towards gov­ern­ments. 2011 was a year of mas­sive demon­stra­tion of wide­spread and deeply felt dis­con­tent that was will­ing and able to assert itself in pow­er­ful and often new ways. Although con­texts and polit­i­cal cul­tures dif­fer, the impact of the Arab revolts on South­east Asia is already pal­pa­ble. The con­se­quences of the wave of Arab protests on South­east Asian coun­tries car­ry their load of oppor­tu­ni­ties and risks for gov­ern­ments, in polit­i­cal, social and eco­nom­ic terms. But the impact is not one way, and South­east Asian expe­ri­ences could rep­re­sent a source of inspi­ra­tion.

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A Dif­fer­ent Polit­i­cal Cul­ture

In coun­tries that have nar­row­er oppor­tu­ni­ties for pub­lic redress, cit­i­zens clev­er­ly manoeu­vre with­in tight­ly con­trolled spaces main­ly through elec­toral con­tests that do not direct­ly chal­lenge entrenched author­i­ty. Malaysians have suc­ceed­ed to get their mes­sages across, cre­at­ed dents, raised ques­tions, and expand­ed spaces for pub­lic dis­course. Fil­ipinos, Thais and Indone­sians who have suc­ceed­ed in regime change through rel­a­tive­ly peace­ful means, redi­rect­ed the course of polit­i­cal life and a qual­i­ta­tive shift in social life has occurred. Thai vot­ers returned to pow­er the par­ty of deposed pre­mier Thaksin Shi­nawa­tra through the land­slide vic­to­ry of his sis­ter Yingluck — a vic­to­ry forhis red-shirt­ed sup­port­ers that in the past involved bloody clash­es with the mil­i­tary. For the moment, her unequiv­o­cal elec­toral vic­to­ry end­ed years of strife between red and yel­low shirts and put the coun­try back on a path of rel­a­tive sta­bil­i­ty and eco­nom­ic growth. In Bur­ma, the gen­er­als have retreat­ed, and a new civil­ian gov­ern­ment promis­es to deliv­er reforms, sig­nal­ing a new polit­i­cal direc­tion for the coun­try that would emu­late mar­ket-based democ­ra­cies. In Indone­sia, broad-based social move­ments have helped restore demo­c­ra­t­ic prac­tice.

Since the erup­tion of the Arab upris­ings, Myan­mar has relaxed strict gov­ern­ment con­trol in part for fear that the Burmese might be capa­ble of the kind of resilience dis­played by Syr­i­ans in their 14-month old defi­ance of bru­tal regime repres­sion. Singapore’s long-rul­ing People’s Action Par­ty has seen its share of the elec­toral vote drop to a record low because of surg­ing prices and immi­gra­tion and a new gen­er­a­tion of young vot­ers who espouse the val­ues of polit­i­cal choice and social change. In a fur­ther indi­ca­tion of sen­si­tiv­i­ty to devel­op­ments in the Mid­dle East and North Africa and recog­ni­tion of the need for release valves, Sin­ga­pore­an blog­gers were long able to get away with what main­stream media could not1. Malaysia has respond­ed to sharp crit­i­cism of the police by repeal­ing two sweep­ing secu­ri­ty laws and lift­ing restric­tions on the media even though a new restric­tive assem­bly law and clash­es between police and demon­stra­tors point in the oppo­site direc­tion. In all of these coun­tries in South­east Asia, griev­ances were chan­neled via orga­nized efforts of social move­ments.

In all of these coun­tries thus far, polit­i­cal strife has not result­ed in civ­il wars. This is per­haps the sin­gu­lar fea­ture that dis­tin­guish­es protest action in South­east Asia from the Mid­dle East. It also sug­gests that South­east Asian gov­ern­ments are like­ly to be more adept in respond­ing to poten­tial pop­u­lar dis­con­tent than entrenched Arab autoc­ra­cies.

Fur­ther, most South­east Asian coun­tries have engaged in par­ty pol­i­tics despite the imper­fec­tions in the devel­op­ment of polit­i­cal par­ties in this region. Some coun­tries like Malaysia have expe­ri­enced the dom­i­nance of the Barisan Nasion­al which has ruled the coun­try for near­ly two decades. Yet, oppo­si­tion pol­i­tics led by Anwar is mak­ing inroads into the rul­ing par­ty and will most like­ly see the emer­gence of more vig­or­ous elec­toral con­tests in the com­ing years.

In Myan­mar, Aung San Suu Kyi has been elect­ed to par­lia­ment in which her par­ty, the Nation­al League for Democ­ra­cy, com­mands a respectable fol­low­ing. The Philip­pines, Thai­land and Indone­sia con­tin­ue to strug­gle with polit­i­cal par­ty for­ma­tion, so that these enti­ties reflect broad­er pro­grams for gov­er­nance rather than the per­son­al­i­ty of its front-run­ner can­di­dates. Polit­i­cal evo­lu­tion, though slow and tedious, her­alds the insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion of a polit­i­cal process that in turn sig­nals a for­ward march in the cre­ation of a more mod­ern­ized polit­i­cal cul­ture. For all the cit­i­zens of these coun­tries, hopes are high that the deep­en­ing of these process­es will con­sol­i­date democ­ra­cy and there­fore become irre­versible.

For all South­east Asian coun­tries, an active elec­toral cul­ture is in place, and cit­i­zens do take their elec­toral rights seri­ous­ly. They insist on the legit­i­ma­cy of their lead­ers through fair and hon­est elec­tions. This should be con­strued as a sign of polit­i­cal health, and a staunch adher­ence to a social con­tract between gov­ern­ment and their sub­jects.

Final­ly, social move­ments have been a part of the insti­tu­tion­al life of South­east Asian coun­tries. Even in Myan­mar where civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions includ­ing media have faced severe restric­tions, the Burmese found spaces with­in the exist­ing polit­i­cal oppor­tu­ni­ty struc­tures to have their voic­es heard and reg­is­tered. In Indone­sia, the Philip­pines and Thai­land, social move­ments have been an inte­gral part of the fab­ric of social life. Where protest groups have tak­en to the streets, these have been, by and large, rel­a­tive­ly peace­ful despite the occa­sion­al vio­lence and destruc­tion to pub­lic prop­er­ty.

Inter­est­ing­ly, social move­ments in all these coun­tries opt for an elec­toral option, thus work­ing with­in insti­tu­tion­al means that are offered by a regime which, in and of itself, desires to play by the rules of the “legit­i­ma­cy game.”

How­ev­er unpop­u­lar, regimes seek recourse to legit­i­ma­tiz­ing pro­ce­dures, even incur­ring the risk of poten­tial loss. Thus far, all rulers seek a pop­u­lar man­date, nev­er mind that they might engage in the occa­sion­al elec­toral manip­u­la­tion to ensure longevi­ty. Notwith­stand­ing fraud­u­lent prac­tices in elec­toral pol­i­tics in South­east Asia, the quest for polit­i­cal legit­i­ma­cy should be con­strued as a hope­ful devel­op­ment in the evo­lu­tion of pol­i­tics in these coun­tries.

How­ev­er flawed these process­es are, most South­east Asian nations are poised to con­sol­i­date their eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal gains in the years to come. And in con­trast to the Mid­dle East and North Africa with its entrenched autoc­ra­cies, their gov­ern­ments have by and large dis­played a greater degree of attune­ment to what is hap­pen­ing around them with a greater deal of vision and flex­i­bil­i­ty.

Ener­gy Secu­ri­ty Issue and Islamist Expe­ri­ence

If the Arab revolts and devel­op­ments in South­east Asia are both expres­sions of a broad­er glob­al trend, the impact on ASEAN nations of devel­op­ments in the Mid­dle East is far more direct. As the Arab upris­ing inevitably spreads to the Gulf, South­east Asian nations will have to define the risk to their ener­gy secu­ri­ty and devel­op alter­na­tives in case of a dis­rup­tion in oil and gas sup­plies as well as increase their focus on alter­na­tive ener­gy options. Some South­east Asian nations par­tic­u­lar­ly the Philip­pines and Indone­sia will also have to deal with the impact of large num­bers of migrant work­ers return­ing home to escape erupt­ing tur­moil.

The ener­gy secu­ri­ty issue will no doubt shoot to the top of the agen­da if or more prob­a­bly when the protests spread to Sau­di Ara­bia and/or oth­er major oil pro­duc­ers. Non-oil pro­duc­ing South­east Asian nations like Sin­ga­pore, Thai­land and the Philip­pines depend on the Mid­dle East for 70 per cent of the oils and gas imports. In addi­tion, South­east Asia and the Mid­dle East are cru­cial links in a seaborne com­merce con­vey­or belt that runs from the Gulf to the Pacif­ic. If the Straits of Mala­ka and Sin­ga­pore were seen as poten­tial­ly among the most risky mar­itime choke points in the past, today it’s the Straits of Hor­muz and Bab el. Man­deb, which is strad­dled by Soma­lia and Yemen. Asia would be most affect­ed if ship­ping par­tic­u­lar­ly through the Strait of Hor­muz were to be inter­rupt­ed. The US gets 22 per cent of its oil from the Gulf, Europe about 30 per cent as com­pared to Asia’s whop­ping 75 per cent. Need­less to say, Asia has the most at stake in terms of ener­gy secu­ri­ty.

South­east Asian gov­ern­ments and mil­i­tary and intel­li­gence orga­ni­za­tions are mon­i­tor­ing close­ly the geopol­i­tics of the Arab revolts as well as their fall­out as part of a glob­al trend that express­es a lack of con­fi­dence in insti­tu­tions with a mix­ture of hope and anx­i­ety.

The debate over the poten­tial domes­tic fall­out is to some degree coloured by vest­ed inter­ests that have gained in strength and promi­nence in the wake of 9/11. For those whose bud­gets are boost­ed by per­cep­tions of a ter­ror­ist threat, the focus is on the rise of the Islamists in coun­tries like Egypt and what this is like­ly to mean, for exam­ple, for Islamist groups in Indone­sia, Malaysia, Thai­land and Brunei.

To be sure, the rise of Islamist forces in the Mid­dle East and North Africa boosts con­fi­dence among Islamists in South­east Asia. Yet, the tra­di­tion of Islamist par­tic­i­pa­tion in Malaysian par­ty pol­i­tics dates back to the 1950s and has proven its resilience despite the efforts to silence its pro­po­nents. Islamist pol­i­tics in Indone­sia is no doubt gain­ing ground against more sec­u­lar forces. But it is doing so in a coun­try that votes decid­ed­ly sec­u­lar despite grow­ing reli­gious intol­er­ance and wide­spread cor­rup­tion.

Beyond The Turk­ish Mod­el A South­east Asian Inspi­ra­tion

As post-revolt and oppo­si­tion forces in the Mid­dle East and North Africa look first and fore­most to Turkey but also to Malaysia, Indone­sia and Sin­ga­pore, they are like­ly to have to first set­tle their post-revolt bat­tles before they can real­ly build on the expe­ri­ences of oth­ers. Despite all their warts, Indone­sia, Malaysia, the Philip­pines, Thai­land, the Philip­pines, and more cur­rent­ly, Myan­mar, have much to offer. Sin­ga­pore along­side Malaysia con­sti­tutes exam­ples of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism which the Mid­dle East­ern and North African coun­tries increas­ing­ly wracked by eth­nic and sec­tar­i­an cleav­ages will need.

Sim­i­lar­ly, Indone­sia stands as a mod­el of reform of the mil­i­tary in a post-revolt soci­ety, a mod­el that, like Turkey, can only grow in sig­nif­i­cance as the push for greater account­abil­i­ty and trans­paren­cy moves for­ward in the Mid­dle East and North Africa. Final­ly, Myanmar’s path towards a more open polit­i­cal sys­tem demon­strates that even the most intractable of regimes are capa­ble of being pried open.

Nonethe­less, with the excep­tion of Brunei, South­east Asia is like­ly to be more a ques­tion of a mon­soon in which steady rain wash­es away entrenched pow­ers rather than an Arab Spring in which cost­ly rev­o­lu­tions seek to replace sys­tems rather than reform them. Fact of the mat­ter is that South­east Asia despite its polit­i­cal upris­ings is a region of rel­a­tive peace and sta­bil­i­ty. It has post­ed one of the world’s high­est growth rates and South­east Asians enjoy rel­a­tive pros­per­i­ty.

South­east Asia is large­ly gov­erned today by lead­ers whose legit­i­ma­cy is ground­ed in elec­tions and who, by and large, have upheld their end of the bar­gain in social con­tracts. In doing so, they have estab­lished struc­tures that are increas­ing­ly robust yet capa­ble of embrac­ing change. This is being rein­forced by South­east Asia hav­ing one of the world’s fastest expand­ing mid­dle class­es whose clam­our for greater open­ness, trans­paren­cy and account­abil­i­ty is cer­tain to make itself felt.

There is rea­son to believe that no mat­ter how flawed the process is, most South­east Asian nations are poised to con­sol­i­date their eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal gains. The chal­lenge will be for gov­ern­ments to see social move­ments and street pol­i­tics not as fun­da­men­tal defi­ance to the sys­tem but as evi­dence that social con­tracts are sub­ject to the vig­i­lance of their cit­i­zens.

The col­lec­tive expe­ri­ence of South­east Asia should boost con­fi­dence in the region and hold out hope for the Mid­dle East and North Africa. It is an expe­ri­ence of volatil­i­ty, of two steps for­ward and one step back­ward in the imme­di­ate wake of a revolt and of the ulti­mate entrench­ment of elec­toral pol­i­tics and the flour­ish­ing of civ­il soci­ety in the longer run. In short, South­east Asia shows that insti­tu­tions, process­es and mechan­ics, how­ev­er flawed and imper­fect, can con­vert con­tentious springs into man­age­able mon­soons. What sets the expe­ri­ence in South­east Asia apart from that in the Mid­dle East and North Africa is that in South­east Asia griev­ances were chan­neled through the orga­nized efforts of social move­ments rather than sup­pressed by a mil­i­tary crack­down on civ­il soci­ety.

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1 That could be chang­ing with at least one blog­ger for the first time hav­ing been tak­en to task for what he wrote and forced to retract some post­ings

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.