Posts Tagged ‘democratization’


Part II: Comparing the four Southeast Asian states of interest

This paper focuses on the contemporary politics of four Southeast Asian states—Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand.  Two of them—the Philippines and Thailand—are relatively established democracies (albeit with authoritarian interludes) while the other two—Indonesia and Myanmar—are democratizing or liberalizing polities transitioning from authoritarianism.  It is must be noted however that Indonesia has made more considerable progress compared to Myanmar, which have moved away from authoritarianism only a few years ago.

Suharto, former president of Indonesia

Suharto, former president of Indonesia

The forms of government of these democratic (democratizing or liberalizing) states are not similar.  Both Indonesia and the Philippines are unitary presidential constitutional republics with bicameral legislatures.  While Indonesia started democratizing in 1998 after the resignation (ouster) of authoritarian President Suharto, it was only in 2004 that the Indonesian president and vice president were elected by the electorate at large.  Prior to 2004, the leaders of the Indonesian republic were chosen by the legislators.  In contrast, the presidents and vice presidents of the Republic of the Philippines were directly elected since 1946 when the United States granted its independence save for an authoritarian period when the elected leader, President Ferdinand Marcos, launched an auto-golpe in September 1972 and ruled the country beyond the constitutionally-specified end of his term in 1973.  Marcos was ousted in a popular uprising in February 1986 and the new basic law imposed a single-term limit on presidential incumbents.

King Bhumibol of Thailand

King Bhumibol of Thailand

Thailand, meanwhile, is a constitutional monarchy but actual governmental power is wielded by a prime minister (and his cabinet) chosen by a majority of incumbent parliamentarians.  However, the Thai monarch (specially the incumbent King Bhumibol) has played a substantial political role in mediating conflicts between Thai political factions (civilian, military, or otherwise).  The absolute monarchy in Thailand was ended by a military coup in 1930 and a limited monarchy was established in its place.  However, military officers took the reigns of power in several occasions largely through bloodless coups with such authoritarian interludes often gaining royal approval or acquiescence.

General Aung San, considered the father of Burma's independence, was assassinated on July 19, 1947.

General Aung San, considered the father of Burma’s independence, was assassinated on July 19, 1947.

Myanmar is a federated union established in 1948 as a weakened United Kingdom retreated from its Asian colonies.  It was a democratic polity until a coup in 1962 installed a military dictatorship.  The military regime was seriously challenged by insurrections in the capital city of Yangon in 1988 and in 2007 but was able to crush these risings.   Elsewhere, armed secessionist movements of the various non-Bamese (or Burmese) minorities (e.g. Shan, Karen, and other ethnic minorities) fought the Yangon government (considered as controlled by Bamese interests) in one of the world’s longest running civil wars.  To mollify urban opposition, the military regime called for limited parliamentary elections in 1990 but set it aside when the results were not to its liking.  Since the opposition led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (daughter of the acknowledged founder of the modern Burmese army, General Aung San) and her National League for Democracy (NLD) won almost 60% of the national vote and 80% of contested parliamentary seats, the military regime had been under considerable pressure from within and without to relinquish power to elected civilian leaders as well as release Suu Kyi from house arrest.  In 2011, the ruling military junta was officially dissolved following a 2010 general election and a nominally civilian government was installed.  While former military leaders like Thein Sein (nominally a civilian after retirement as military chief) still wield substantial power, the Burmese military have taken major steps in relinquishing governmental control.  Suu Kyi was released and allowed to stand for elections as a parliamentarian.  She assumed her seat in parliament in 2012 and has since served as NLD chair and leader of the opposition.

Shan secessionist soldiers

Shan secessionist soldiers

Notwithstanding differences in forms of government, all four Southeast Asian states have a common history of political regime swings.  However, since all four are either liberalizing, democratizing or consolidating their democratic polities, it is indeed a valid exercise to evaluate how these polities handle two key relationships—between ‘ins’ and ‘outs’, and between majorities and minorities for one to have a well-rounded assessment of their political health.

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Travails of democratization and political liberalization in the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Myanmar[1]

Amado M. Mendoza, Jr., Ph.D.

University of the Philippines

Part I: Introduction

Notwithstanding differences in the political and social development of Southeast Asian states, it is noteworthy that a ‘politics of hatred, revenge and political obstruction’ characterizes contemporary Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, and the Philippines. In Indonesia, unrepentant vestiges of the Order Baru era seeks to derail the new presidency of the popular reformist Joko Widodo, who is further hobbled by his ‘allies’ in the ruling coalition. Thailand meanwhile is gripped by the seemingly intractable enmity between pro-Thaksin and anti-Thaksin forces. In the Philippines, the out-going Aquino administration is scrambling to field a friendly successor to avoid a fate it ruthlessly imposed on the preceding president. While liberalizing and on the road to democracy and internal reconciliation, the Buddhist-dominated regime in Myanmar is currently engaged in an apparent genocide against Muslim Rohingyas, now the new ‘boat people’ that even Muslim countries like Indonesia and Malaysia are unwilling to accommodate.

Pnoy Aquino

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III

It can be argued that democracy does not have room for a peculiar ‘politics of hatred, revenge and obstruction’ that has characterized the contemporary polities of four key Southeast Asian states: two relatively established democracies—Thailand and the Philippines; a new democracy, Indonesia; and a liberalizing polity—Myanmar—supposedly on a democratic road map. Democracy is a political order ideally based on civil dialogue and compromise and political differences are to be resolved mainly through the electoral process and other political institutions. The hallmark of democracy is thus to resolve conflicts and differences in a rule-based, peaceful or non-violent, and inclusive manner. In fact, democratic theorists argue that the quality of a democracy is largely determined by its capacity to respect the rights and legitimate interests of minorities even as it recognizes that majorities rule. While consensus is not required for a polity to qualify as a democracy, the legitimate interests of any minority as well as their human rights should be respected and must not be summarily dismissed simply because ‘they do not have numbers’. This desideratum is of great importance especially to a polity that is supposedly democratizing like Myanmar.

Myanmar opposition leader Daw Aung Suu Kyi

Myanmar opposition leader Daw Aung Suu Kyi

Incumbent governments in democracies gain their right to rule, or their legitimacy, through the electoral process that must be perceived by political actors and stakeholders to be fair and clean. Electoral legitimacy can be eroded through the life of a government if it fails to deliver a decent modicum of desired public goods to a critical majority of its constituents. If electoral legitimacy is buttressed by performance, a government that seeks re-election will most likely (ceteris paribus) succeed in obtaining a new electoral mandate.

Joko Widodo, President of Indonesia

Joko Widodo, President of Indonesia

Nonetheless, such mandates are not permanent since democracies, as rule, prescribe time-bound terms of incumbency. Alternation of incumbents is thus an institutional feature of democracies. Even if the same political party or coalition is returned to power through elections, the political leaders of government need not be same. For this reason, how the ‘outs’ are treated by those in power (or the ‘ins’) is another important indicator of a democratic polity’s quality. In the same manner, how ex-incumbents deal with a sitting government will also matter. In the main, ex-incumbents may either choose to cooperate with the incumbents even while maintaining an oppositionist stance. This stance of being the ‘loyal opposition’ is acceptable in a democracy which does not require unanimity and accepts and tolerates political differences. The qualifier ‘loyal’ is important as ex-incumbents are required to respect the electoral will of a state’s citizens. Ex-incumbents, even in if the opposition, are required to limit such opposition to legal means and avenues. They may ‘plot’, plan, organize and mobilize to regain incumbency but only within electoral and institutional parameters. Should they seek to regain incumbency through non-institutional and violent ways such as revolution, coups, and the like, they undermine and weaken their polities’ democracies and impede democratic consolidation.

Thailand's former premier Thaksin Shinawatra gestures as he speaks to journalists outside his home in Dubai, after Puea Thai Party's Yingluck Shinawatra announced her coalition in Bangkok July 4, 2011. Exiled former Thai prime minister Thaksin said on Monday he had no wish to become prime minister again in the wake of a landslide election victory for his sister's opposition party. Thaksin, a billionaire twice elected premier, was ousted in a 2006 coup. (REUTERS/Jumana El Heloueh)

Thailand’s former premier Thaksin Shinawatra

Cleavages other than electoral fortune such as religion, ethnicity, wealth and income, among others, may also create majorities and minorities. In the same manner, how these non-electoral majorities relate with or treat non-electoral minorities is another important index of a polity’s democratic bona fides. If these non-electoral minorities are discriminated against, oppressed, or persecuted systematically by the majority, the discontent can lead to political disorder and instability and could inspire armed secessionist movements.

Thus, the health of a democracy, the prospects of a democratizing polity can be measured through two variable relationships: between majorities and minorities and between the ‘ins’ and the ‘outs’.

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Presented at the 9th APISA Annual Conference, Phnom Penh, Cambodia (September 11-12, 2015). Not for citation; comments are welcome and could be sent to ammendoza@up.edu.ph or ammendozajr@gmail.com.)