There is no overarching trend of transition towards any common set of norms of governance within state boundaries in Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
Thailand's embattled Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has offered to dissolve the House of Representatives and hold a snap general election nearly a year ahead of the scheduled timeline of December next year. The dissident United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) does not see this, however, as responsive politics. By Sunday (April 4), the UDD, with its record of organising essentially peaceful but also stridently propagandist anti-Government protest marches and picketing for over three weeks in Bangkok, found Mr. Abhisit in an increasingly combative mood.
On balance, the current crisis in Thailand cannot be seen in conventional terms of democracy versus dictatorship or responsive governance versus arbitrary rule. In a simple yet profound sense, Thailand is in a state of political flux.
Currently, a few other Southeast Asian countries, too, are passing through some form of political transition or other. Besides Thailand, Myanmar as also Malaysia and Indonesia, and even the Philippines are together in an arc of political flux. The defining political aspiration in each of these countries is distinctive. There is no overarching trend of transition towards any common goalpost such as a set of norms for governance within state boundaries. Also absent is any linkage among the mutually-exclusive activist-groups which are seeking, along parallel tracks, a new political ambience in their respective domains.
Of these countries, Myanmar, with its long contemporary experience of military dictatorship, still remains, in outer space terminology, light years away from any system of representative rule. Priding over this, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the Myanmar junta styles itself, is currently engaged in “restoring democracy” or more precisely paper-democracy through what can only be seen as utterly undemocratic means.
The SPDC's transparent bluff of political reforms is being called by the dissident National League for Democracy (NLD), which is led by the still-incarcerated Nobel Peace Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi. The NLD has now decided to stay away from the junta's promised democracy-restoring general election. Under the SPDC's new electoral decrees, the NLD runs the risk of losing its current status as a political party. Such de-recognition, an existential dilemma, is the price that the NLD has decided to risk. While the proposed general election has already lost credibility in this situation, even a flawed poll process is likely to push Myanmar towards some form of political flux.
In Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra, a twice-elected Prime Minister who was toppled in a bloodless military coup in 2006, is seeking to change the current rules of the political game in his country and bounce back to power. He is a proclaimed fugitive following a judicial verdict against him in absentia in a recent case. And, he orchestrates the UDD campaign through exhortations over video-links from foreign bases in his self-imposed exile. Mr. Abhisit is seeking ways of banishing Mr. Thaksin's political ghost without de-plugging Thailand from the grid of political globalisation, as it were.
Thailand is no stranger to coup-masters or the political shadows of the armed forces. Its latest identity crisis, when seen against this background, reflects the search for a uniquely Thai form of democracy. The challenge is formidable. Mr. Abhisit, a military-friendly civilian leader, presides over a flawed system in the context of some political chain-reactions that followed a general election held by the coup-masters in 2007.
Of the five countries in today's Southeast Asian arc of political flux, Malaysia is unique in having a robust practice of keeping the country's military bloc away from the democratic politics of civilian rule. So, the new storyline is that of translating the idea of “1Malaysia” into live-reality. For this, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak has announced plans for a “New Economic Model (NEM)” that could benefit the disadvantaged people in each of the various ethnic groups.
The major groups are: (1) the Bumiputeras, comprising the Muslim-majority of Malays and the indigenous populations, (2) the ethnic-Chinese minority, and (3) the people of Indian origin as another significant minority group. The NEM, yet to be blueprinted in substantive detail, is being envisioned as a policy-sequel to the decades-old New Economic Policy (NEP).
In Mr. Najib's view, this is being done to overcome the divisive politics of perception that the NEP had completely marginalised the vulnerable sections among the minorities, especially the ethnic-Indians. The perception flows from the NEP ideology of affirmative actions for the benefit of the Bumipeteras. Such actions were originally intended to set right certain historical economic imbalances in the Malaya region. Mr. Najib says that the NEP implementation has not really created new economic or political fault-lines across the social domain. Moreover, the intended benefits have not even reached all of those who needed them among the Bumiputeras. His political narrative on these lines is disputed by some activist groups like the banned Hindu Rights Action Force and the unrecognised Human Rights Party of Malaysia.
In all, today's political flux in this upscale developing country is being addressed through prescriptive economics rather than the more fundamental calculus of basic statehood and statecraft. And, regional experts generally reckon that Mr. Najib is on the right track in making this choice. His political discourse also reflects an awareness that Malaysia's long-term political identity as a pluralist society with an Islamic core can be ensured only by addressing the existing disaffection among several sections of the minority groups.
Regardless of the blurred military-civilian boundary in the politics of some pockets in Southeast Asia, Indonesia has in recent years given up its addiction to the praetorian model of governance. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, authentically re-elected not long ago in a political process widely believed to have been fair, gets praised in regional circles for this particular success story. The Indonesian military is no longer breathing down the neck of the civilian administration – a far cry from the past when the army ran the state either directly or more often through proxies.
However, Indonesia's free-will tryst with democratic pluralism, in a Muslim-majority social setting, is far from being fully accomplished. A new political identity apart, the country is still in a state of flux over such economic issues as a people-friendly growth model. Public controversies relating to a recent bank-bailout package are just symptomatic of the economy-centred discourse. On the political side of the state ledger, Mr. Yudhoyono (also known as Mr. Susilo or more simply SBY) is carrying out a vigorous anti-terror campaign. However, his anti-corruption drive has run into a storm of suspicions about “selective” raids and political “kickbacks” that might have “benefited” his party.
The Philippines, famous in the region for proving the efficacy of “people power” against autocratic rule in the past, is not such a shining story now. Of all the controversies during Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's long rule, due to run until the next presidential poll in May, the “political legitimacy” of her ascent to and stay at the helm has not been fully sorted out. In this larger sense, the Philippines finds itself in political flux yet again before the imminent poll.