ASEAN’s Destructive Elites

March 30, 2016

ASEAN’s Destructive Elites in Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand

by Yuriko Koike

Yuriko Koike, Japan’s former defense minister and national security adviser, was Chairwoman of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party’s General Council and currently is a member of the National Diet.


Just as India, Japan, and the US have been helping to shepherd Burma through its transition, they should take a more proactive role in saving Malaysia and Thailand from their elites’ self-destructive behavior. Standing idly by while two of ASEAN’s core members consume themselves is simply not a viable option.–Yuriko Koike

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has long been envisioned as a foundation stone for stability, security, and increased prosperity in Asia. But with uncertainty plaguing the political systems of Burma, Malaysia, and Thailand, ASEAN may be entering a period of policy and diplomatic inertia. At a time when China’s economic downturn and unilateral territorial claims are posing serious challenges to the region, ASEAN’s weakness could prove highly dangerous.

The problems that are now bedeviling Burma, Malaysia, and Thailand may appear to have little in common. But they all spring from the same source: an entrenched elite’s stubborn refusal to craft a viable system of governance that recognizes new and rising segments of society and reflects their interests in government policy.

And yet, despite the shared roots of these countries’ political dysfunction, their prospects vary. Surprisingly, hope is strongest in Burma, where the military junta recognized the need for change, exemplified in the 2010 decision to free the long-imprisoned Nobel Peace laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and embark on a transition to democracy.

Burma’s former military leaders, it seems, looked ahead dispassionately and saw a stark choice: either relinquish gradually their absolute power, allowing for a democratic transition, or permit China to tighten its grip on their country. China’s efforts to impose development plans that would deliver few, if any, benefits to Burma made the choice somewhat easier.

Today, Suu Kyi is Burma’s paramount leader. Though the constitution imposed by the junta prevents her from serving officially as president, she holds the real power in the current government led by her National League for Democracy, which secured a landslide victory in last year’s general election.

Of course, there is no guarantee that Burma’s democratic transition will succeed; after all, beyond barring Suu Kyi from the presidency, the junta’s constitution reserves all of the “power” cabinet posts for the military. But with Suu Kyi carefully establishing the NLD’s authority, and with friends in India, Japan, and the United States monitoring any potential backsliding, there is a legitimate hope that most of the members of Burma’s military elite will continue to reconcile themselves, if begrudgingly, to modern democracy, just as Eastern Europe’s former communist rulers once did.

The situations in Malaysia and Thailand are less promising. Extreme political polarization is almost as deeply entrenched in these countries today as it was in Burma before 2010. But whereas Burma’s generals recognized the need to escape their cul-de-sac, the Malay and Thai elites seem to be doubling down on political exclusion.

In Malaysia, the problem is rooted in ethnic and racial divisions. Since gaining independence, Malaysia’s leaders have pursued policies that favored the indigenous Malay majority, at the expense of the country’s minorities, most notably the sizable Chinese and Indian populations.

But throughout Malaysia’s first decades of independence, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the country’s largest political party, did seek to incorporate minority interests, despite commanding the loyalty of the vast majority of the electorate. This inclusive approach began to break down with the 1997 Asian financial crisis, when a coalition of political parties was forged by former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim – who was subsequently jailed on contrived sodomy charges – to challenge the UMNO’s authority. With Prime Minister Najib Razak and his government now enmeshed in a vast corruption scandal, UNMO is relying more than ever on Malay chauvinism.

In Thailand, the source of deep political polarization is economic. Simply put, the “haves” want to keep the “have-nots” from having a voice.

For much of Thai history, the elite’s rule was untroubled. But the enactment in 1997 of what came to be known as the “People’s Constitution” enabled previously discounted political forces to rise. None rose faster or higher than the business tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, who exploited the resentments of the long-disempowered rural poor to forge a mighty political machine that challenged the entrenched royalist political establishment, which includes the monarchy, the military, the judiciary, and the civil service.

The clash between the two factions led to two military coups, one in 2006 to push Shinawatra out of power and another in 2014 to drive out his younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra. The conflict became increasingly violent, with both sides willing to go to great lengths to maintain their grip on power.

Today, the ruling military junta is systematically cracking down on dissent; it has banned Thaksin-aligned politicians from entering politics, and is trying to impose a new constitution. And Thailand’s troubles may be about to worsen: With King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s health failing, his seven-decade reign may be near its end. Should the royal succession be contested, Thailand could enter yet another period of chaos and violence.

Just as India, Japan, and the US have been helping to shepherd Burma through its transition, they should take a more proactive role in saving Malaysia and Thailand from their elites’ self-destructive behavior. Standing idly by while two of ASEAN’s core members consume themselves is simply not a viable option.

11 thoughts on “ASEAN’s Destructive Elites

  1. A lot of those political situations are rather delicate. The US has to choose between national building, democratic values and regional stability to safe guard the interests of US and other neighboring States. She has to understand the ramifications of state actions and in-actions. Hind sights are 20/20.

  2. I would put the common problem of Malaysia and Thailand a bit different. Its true both country problems are a problem of the elites themselves. But its a problem of elites squabbling among themselves not simply a class warfare – the class warfare may be real but its a tool of the elites squabling. Its different than the classic past class warfare where the leaders of the classes came from the classes themselves.

    The failure of the elites starts actually at global level – from financiers who created financial crises that hurts poor more to central bankers who inflate that make the problems worst to technologist that is primary consumption and not productivity driven. LKY saw these as natural Darwinianism that govt like his have limited abilities, his answer is simply more jobs and higher productivity for higher wages.

    But in Malaysia and Thailand, they make it worst rather than better unlike in Singapore. Singapore favour the elites to govern and lead but with the caveat it results in higher wages and more assets in the hands of the people. Malaysia and Thailand answer to politically drugged the populace to the point of abuse of the nation while they continue to not have actual real solutioning. Singapore is benign dictatorship while Malaysia and Thailand are modern feudalism.

    For the US to interfer and guide Malaysia and Thailand? The problems of both are not the same. Malaysia can solve a great deal of problem by dynamic democracy. there will be more waste but a more accountable leadership will make it more efficient and at the very least, allow different segment of the society to feed at the trough when self-determination fails. The risk is that talent refuse to serve given the liabilities of political leadership but it may not be that big of a risk.

    For Thailand, a nation with more limited option, dynamic democracy may not be the answer. They need a LKY but none can be found. They need a new culture of elites that provides real solutioning of difficult problems of the masses. They need elites to serve them and that is political dreaming.

  3. The US will not be able to counter a state built on the strength of Three Basic Policies. 1. Good Governance 2. Good Governance and 3. Good Governance.

  4. really din? recollect what singapores rajaratnam stated at the bangkok declaration regarding the moves of the big powers in the region. I have commented and written what he said.

  5. //recollect what singapores rajaratnam stated at the bangkok declaration regarding the moves of the big powers in the region..

    In a less serious tone, I have been kiddingly suggest to my Singaporean friends quite a few times to start lobbying their political leader(s) to warm up to the idea of inviting other ASEAN sub-states to join Singapore 😛 Why not?

  6. The likes of LKY cannot be expected to solve you problems. Given a chance even LKY will be swallowed up in whole.

  7. and why not katasayng? there was some talk about link between Sarawak, Brunie and Singapore. Remember Tom harrison and his team sent to cut off Azahari and his men marching to Brunie? Also the mysterious death of the head of ISD Singapore on the beach in Brunie??

  8. Yuriko,
    Before you try to resolve other countries issues,why dont you start by tackling your own political corruptions ,your 250% government debt that is much worse than Greece,your aging population and your moribund economy.Once you have settled all that,you are most welcome to criticise ASEAN shortcomings.

  9. // Commander: Remember Tom harrison and his team sent to cut off Azahari and his men marching to Brunie? Also the mysterious death of the head of ISD Singapore on the beach in Brunie??

    I am a Gen-X. I don’t remember, as I did not even know about those incidents until you told me, and I start to google.

    Looking into this list ..
    There is not much serious issues in the 80s,90s, and most of this millenium. Konfrantasi is only one line in my Sejarah textbook. Ha!

    @Commander, Thank you for making Malaysia safer! I am glad to know konfrantasi is only one-liner in my Sejarah.
    Most of all, I am sure Malaysians born today would appreciate in the future what you are doing today in bringing forth so many worthy discussions.

    In any case, part of me just felt like many parts of the world might be more ready for Singapore to take charge, than what Singaporeans might expect.
    I did recall there was some chat within Singaporean community about Singapore becoming the 51st state of USA, before Peurto Rico, slightly more than a decade ago. Hopefully, such discussions would be something of the past. It is a lot more exciting to see that there is a second state of Singapore 😛

    Today’s Singapore economy is really quite advance. It runs like a gigantic top notch hedge fund. Much kudos to Singapore.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.