Posts Tagged ‘Southeast Asia’

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.


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’.


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 or

Comparing democracies IN and PH


Amado M. Mendoza, Jr., Ph.D. Department of Political Science University of the Philippines

5 February 2015

Chiang-Mai University, Thailand

It appears that many theorists have such diverse characterizations of the regional organization that it cannot faulted if an outsider or a neophyte thinks they are describing different entities.   ​

MIN-HYUNG KIM (2011) FOR INSTANCE,  proposes a theory that the (underlying) STRATEGIC PREFERENCES (such as significant increase in intra-ASEAN trade and investment, a much stronger pressure from domestic businesses for deeper integration, or external shocks that threaten thre region’s economic growth–in short forces and pressures generated by widening and deepening globalization, aka also read as integration and participation in the global capitalist division of labor) of the  ASEAN members, ​SHOULD BE a KEY VARIABLE in explaining the ASEAN integration process (also read as ASEAN economic community building) over the last 4 decades.

ASEAN integration would not have progressed without the remarkable developments in factors (see above) that affect the underlying preferences of ASEAN states.

Meanwhile and elsewhere (meaning 10 years earlier), DAVID MARTIN JONES and MICHAEL L.R. SMITH (2001) wonders if “there is a Sovietology of South-East Asian studies”?  Could the former Soviet Union and post-Cold War SEA have anything in common?  With such leading questions, the duo argued for a YES answer and in the process refers to strange animals such ASEANology (attributed to a so-called Singapore school populated by scholars like Chan Heng Chee, Jon Quah and K.S. Sandhu and their so-called Western admirers such as Thomas Bellows, R.S. Milne, Diane Mauzy, Philippe Regnier and Raj Vasil) and ASEANthink (a discourse “generated internally within the region by Southeast Asian scholar-bureaucrats who presented ASEAN as the basis of a new regional identity and dispensation”.

The duo did not hide their disdain and contempt for what is perceived as HUBRIS and quoted VACLAV HAVEL in their prologue:  “You do not become a ‘dissident’ just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and places in  a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society.”

A parting shot: ASEANology was more Sovietological (read as more flawed) than Sovietology!

For one, ASEANology does not suffer a similar “onerous” information-gathering regime like Sovietology.

Why? In quick succession: re the relation of the scholar and the state: “bureaucratization of academia”; subordination of academe to the requirements of nation-building in SEA projects–“similar to the experience of Soviet academics under the rubric of the “party line” plus the coercive and cooptive role of outside academics; SEA academic managerialism coinciding with bruearucratization of research in American, British and Australian environs.

I had at first difficulty understanding Jones and Smith’s argument but as years went by, I slowly began to appreciate the quality of the same.  Like Sovietology, ASEANology is afflicted with failings despite differences between the two ‘ologies’.

My own thoughts on theorZing ASEAN; theorizing SEA is necessary but not sufficient :   unlike EU with supranational governance and institutional architectures, the ASEAN does not have such even as the Charter has been adopted.

The Europeans appear to be more ready to compromise on the ‘benefits’ of national/state sovereignty while Southeast Asians are not prepared to do so.

There is an obvious difference in historical and conceptual trajectories between the SEA and Europe with consequences for differential regional institution building projects.   Before the modern period, Europe was one, was one Church. The waning of the Church’s overweening influence led to the fragmentation of the Church and the eventual emergence of distinct and competing nation-state identities, loyalties, and institutional infrastructure.

War–international war–is the key crucible for nation-state building projects and catalyst for such international divisions and competition.  War was in fact the default behavior since 1648; since Westphalaia, that is.

However, Europe has come full circle after the Second World War. It is becoming whole again, one again–a European house.

In contrast, Southeast Asia has never been one.

In the pre-colonial period, Chinese (Celestial or middle-kingdom) hegemony (read as suzerainity) was of a different (different from Persian and Roman, for instance) type and did not unify the region, its potentates and its peoples.

Prior to the Chinese, the Indians had their chance but it was not enough.

These hegemonies were quite different too–China’s was tributary while India never aspired for territorial control ala the Romans. The modality of Indian hegomonic attempts was ideational, theological, philosophical, non-instrumental.

What was sought to be controlled or influenced were minds instead of territory, sub-ordinates, and peoples.

At most, the Chinese were content with mere acknowledgement as a benevolent superior. Han China was the Celestial kingdom and was enough; barbarian lands and peoples simply needed to realize they’re gaijin or inferior.

In contrast, civilized Rome wanted to civilize the barbarians (coopting in one way and in some instances and places (pace Alexander/Sikander/Iskandra/Sikandra) but largely through the sword–the hegemony of control rather than the Gramscian project of convincing the sub-ordinate that indeed, super-ordinates must hold sway over them.

In sum, all these political ‘business models’ were quite different from Western hegemonic projects born out of competitive nation-state (or empire) -building) projects.

Qua discourse, the ‘Southeast Asia’ concept is relatively new.

Colonial SEA was not under a single colonial master and so diversity continued despite centuries of colonialism.

The post-colonial states reiterated such diversity such that it really difficult to really what makes Southeast Asia more than a mere geographical label.

Some observers point to trivia(?) such as rice (and wet-rice agriculture) and fish sauce as the only common elements for the peoples in the so-called region.

In effect, Southeast Asia is an inside defined solely by a significant ‘outside’ other.

The ASEAN concept or brand has a newer provenance but is still largely a response to an outside other.

Sukarno and Bandung (to some extent, Burma/Myanmar) sought to develop a region distinct from and uncommitted during the Cold War even as other modern SEA states like the Philippines and Thailand and the putative Indochinese states (divided Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia/Kampuchea) aligned themselves in one way or the other.

After the Cold War’s end, the ASEAN morphed into a project which sought to bring together what was previously divided by the Cold War without changing the nature of the governmental/governance regimes of member-states.

ASEAN made for the uneasy co-existence of low-performing democracies (Philippines and Indonesia) and performing semi-democracies (Singapore and Malaysia), an absolute sultanate (Brunei) , occasional constitutional monarchies (Thailand and Cambodia), communist authoritarianisms slowly integrated into the global capitalist division of labor (Vietnam and the rest of Indochina), a military regime transitioning to democracy (Myanmar) with different degrees of regime legitimacy, strength, capacity and level of integration with world capitalism.

Aside from banal statements about diversity and attempts at unity and integration and being ‘accidental’ drivers-on-the seat, it is quite difficult to identify or use enduring leitmotifs that applies to the region despite the existence of an ASEAN organizational entity.

Thus one finds difficulty in identifying who or what an expert of Southeast Asia is–how can one be an expert of a unity supposedly in the making when one still struggles with determining what makes this unity one?

Should one develop particular expertises first as a matter of course towards the way to becoming a regional expert?

If so, how many SEA countries must one know so one can be a SEA expert?

In October last year in Stanford, the best I could do was to hypothesize about the region’s three democracies–Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand–and suggest that a ‘politics of hatred’ unifies (on a temporary basis)  the politics of the three.  Jokowi and his rivals (a blast from the Order Baru past), Aquino over his predecessor GMA, and the never ending contest between Thaksin and anti-Thaksin forces in Thailand.

Can I use the same metaphor for the other seven (eight including Timor Leste) states in the region?

It seems I can for Myanmar (but even for Myanmar, hatred is not sufficient as competitive cooperation seems to be the new norm amongst the Bamese).

But can’t it also cover the relations between the Bamese and the non-Bamese, specially the Rohingya people?

How about the Muslim Thais (nay, Patani) in Southern Thailand (nay, northern Malaysia)?

Will such sense of ephemeral one-ness end soon?

Through what process(es) or mechanism(s)?

Can globalization (read as continuous integration within global capitalism) do it?

Is globalization enough?

Needed perhaps but sufficient?

Specially given the contest between and among the so-called Washington consensus of John Williamson (and George Stiglitz’s PWC) and the Beijing consensus?

In the face of trouble in the EU house–PIGS and recently the Tsipiras challenge in Greece?

The civil war in the United States (1% vs. the rest) between Obama’s project and all fundamentalists, conservatives, etc. best concretized in the so-called Tea party?

Given that the Western hemisphere is no longer the US’ (read Monroe Doctrine) playground–what with the likes of Chavez, Evo Morales, Brazil (Lula and post-Lula), and more recently, the Pope Francis-mediated US-Cuba normalization?

Can one envision clearly what the end-state for ASEAN will be?

Can one really say that an EU-like situation will be the most likely outcome?

If one says no, what is the alternative envisioned future?

Or is the future plural rather than singular, mixed and diverse rather than homogeneous?

The challenge to us all:   Is there a Southeast Asian expert in the house?

Or should the expert be a collective?

What collective?


What theory(ies)?

How ‘useful’ is a a-historical SEA/ASEAN theory?

Is there a room for ASEAN-skeptics and anti-skeptics of all stripes alike?

Is dreaming the ASEAN dream socially necessary?

How can dreaming be tempered and yet yield plausible possibilities?

Big-picture, big-data analysis, I believe is needed.

It cannot be done by a single academic, cannot be done by academic from a single country.

Qua collective good, a useful theory of ASEAN based on a theory of SEA contexted within a world theory can only be evolved, provided, developed by a (still inchoate) collective entity.

I hope the ASEAN University Network (AUN) working with the Plus Three, the newly established Community of East Asian Affairs (of which I am/was a founding member representing the University of the Philippines) and significant others in the US, Europe, Australia and elsewhere can be that collective.

Thanks for listening to my meandering stream of consciousness.   After I have answered your questions and responded to comments, please allow me too to continue my vacation (and honeymoon!).



Peace be with us!

PS 178 Internal armed conflicts in Southeast Asia

What is Southeast Asia

PRC flag (taken at the Jinan University, Guangzhou, September 2013

PRC flag (taken at the Jinan University, Guangzhou, September 2013)

The People’s Republic of China is a revisionist rather than a status quo power. These rather old concepts still apply in this case. Despite appearing to have been socialized with the “civilized” behavior of the international community states, China seeks changes in the international order according to what it reads as best for its interests.

It may be a member of the United Nations Security Council, yet China is not secure. Compared to the Cold War period, the only improvement is rapprochement with Russia. On its flanks, China is hemmed in by hostiles like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and further afield–Australia.

China in Asia

China in Asia

China is basically a land power with a brown-water navy. While the US 7th fleet had a more formidable presence during the Cold War (it had an anti-Soviet orientation), this time American naval forces have an undisguised anti-Chinese orientation.

Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia

China seeks to build its forces steadily so it can over-match the opposition, the US included. It asserts its territorial claims for the twin purpose of interdicting sea lines of communications as well as pushing forward lines of defense. It has not entirely abandoned its charm offensive in so far as Cambodia, Myanmar, and Timor Leste are concerned. It wants to drive a wedge within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). It is cautious with Vietnam and other territorial claimants in Southeast Asia. Cambodia and Myanmar offer possible outlets to the Gulf of Thailand and the Indian Ocean via the Bay of Bengal.

Indian sub-continent

Indian sub-continent

Only the Philippines is treated in a different manner. The Chinese leadership have apparently written the Philippines off. The resort to hard power is addressed more to the United States than Manila. The question seems to be: what will you do for your ally beyond the issuance of official communiques? To themselves: to what extent can we push the envelope?

With the key powers in the sub-continents–India and Pakistan–China have good relations. It’s true that India was closer to the Soviet Union during the Cold War given that a war was fought with China over disputed territory. The US sought to improve relations with India post-Cold War but India refuses to be trapped in a monogamous relationship. In addition, the US has cohabited with Pakistan, India’s principal enemy, for a long time. Pakistan will not change its anti-India orientation but it is doubtful if it could be mobilized in an anti-China effort.

China’s activities in sub-Saharan Africa are intended to create friendly spheres of influence through soft power. What is interesting is China’s pointed willingness to do business with states and leaders that are frowned upon by the Western powers.

China is obviously not a global power. Its current programme is to achieve parity with the United States in the East Asian theater. Whether it will go beyond what its currently doing is an empirical matter.

Who are China’s allies in the East Asian theater?

Together with Russia, China is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a Eurasian political, economic, and security organization. However, SCO is principally oriented to Central rather than East Asia.

Shanghai Cooperation Organization

Shanghai Cooperation Organization

In the Yellow Sea region, only North Korea is apparently China’s ally. Its reliability is rather suspect. Opposing China is Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the American military forces.

Northeast Asia: The Yellow Sea region

Northeast Asia: The Yellow Sea region

The US alliances established during the Cold War with Thailand and the Philippines are still intact and the latter’s forces exercise regularly with the US and other American allies like Australia for inter-operability.

In short, China seems to be alone while the other side is heavily populated.

Why then is the apparently weaker and out-numbered side making very bold and provocative initiatives (at least vis-a-vis the Philippines and Japan)?

It is less risk-averse. Its moves are calibrated. It stops short of making a move that will invite catastrophic consequences. If an earlier move is more or less unanswered and gains are made, it will raise the ante until the returns are no longer attractive. It may lay low for a while and launch a new offensive in the future.

Such is the nature of revisionist powers. They will always take the initiative. I cannot imagine them to be merely reactive.