May 31, 2011


Democracy roots spread in Southeast Asia (Michael Vatikiotis, 6/01/11, Asia Times)

That said, there are recent trends that suggest the coming decade will see more rather than less momentum for political change. These factors could well be enhancers and accelerators of political change.

The first factor is the rise of populist politics. The 1997-98 Asian financial crisis generated popular discontent with old established elites regarded as corrupt and excessively rich, opening the door to populist figures appealing to the frustrated middle classes who lost their wealth and those who felt excluded from power. Joseph Estrada in the Philippines and Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand rode the crest of this wave. The new populist politics has shaken the foundations of established elites and opened the door to more radical social change.

Mobile phone services and the Internet have proven to be powerful agents for mobilizing popular support. More important than the sheer numbers that can be mobilized using mobile phone messaging and the Internet is the ability of the new technology to spread consistent messages and consolidate popular constituencies around platforms for change.

Thailand’s Red Shirt movement was effectively launched on the back of the ability to digitally shape and transmit a simple but powerful message that differentiated between the haves and have-less - the "amart" or aristocrats and the "phrai" or peasants. In Singapore, muscular media management couldn’t cope with the power of social networking and instant messaging that drew huge crowds to the political rallies organized by weak opposition parties and transformed their lawyerly candidates into virtual rock stars.

The major driving force of political change today is pressure from civil society. Across Southeast Asia, people are organizing themselves at the community level to challenge the power holders. Above all, they are able to do so because of the modest opening of space and respect for human rights. In Indonesia, civil society and a free media hold the line against backtracking on bureaucratic reform and a subtle but noticeable impulse to restore central authority and moving away from the decentralization that has helped reduce conflict.

Equally, civil society is more focused on the needs of ordinary people. For much of the last 30 years - especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Communist Eastern Europe, religion replaced socialism as a basis of salvation ideology in the region. However, religious faith is a less effective mobilizer of political change because it is either innately conservative or too far out on the radical fringe to move the mainstream of society. This would appear to be changing with the rise of new neo-socialist movements on the back of populist politics.

Add to this the real chance of deeper and long-lasting recession around the corner combined with the factors mentioned above and this will make it harder for the kind of V-shaped recovery needed to protect the political status quo. One of the inhibitors of sweeping democratic change in the past was the ability of conservative elites to re-invent themselves as democrats in time to prevent the mobilization of mass-based movements with the real capacity to change the status quo. This kind of moderation will be harder to sustain in a prolonged period of economic stress.
If the pace of democratic change in Southeast Asia has been slow and subject to regression these past few decades, what would accelerated and sustained change look like? Will it bring violence? And what form of democracy will evolve? These are tough questions to answer. What we see in the Middle East provides a clue and a warning to what happens when long pent up frustrations boil over and people are willing to subject themselves to violence and even civil war in order to bring down the old autocratic order.

Here in Southeast Asia, fundamentally anti-democratic elites long ago learned to release pressure for change with piecemeal reforms, symbolic gestures and modest but limited measures of popular sovereignty. I coined the term "Trimming the Banyan Tree" but you could also call it "Democracy light". The region’s fast-paced growth of consumption has generally dampened frustrations and provided a sufficient accommodation between the growing aspirations of ordinary people and narrow elite interests. So long as the economic dynamism of this region continues, I see no reason why this should change.

All this is not to say that democracy has shallow roots in Southeast Asia. US President Barack Obama during his visit to Jakarta in November 2010 told Indonesians that "your democracy is sustained and fortified by its checks and balances: a dynamic civil society; political parties and unions; a vibrant media and engaged citizens who have ensured that - in Indonesia - there will be no turning back."

In other countries of the region too, the key to moving forward is to thwart the anti-reformist urges of resilient anti-democratic elites by ensuring a prominent space for civil society and respect for truth and justice that constitutes the basis for equality.

Posted by at May 31, 2011 5:49 AM

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