At 50–Quo Vadis ASEAN

October 20,2016

At 50–Quo Vadis ASEAN

by Tess Bacala

As the international backlash continues over Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, the lack of due process and the consequent deaths of “suspects” in his campaign, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations(ASEAN), along with its individual member states, has been characteristically silent.

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For instance, ASEAN’s leaders and ministers met at their summit in the Lao capital Vientiane last September and discussed a range of issues in the region and beyond. But neither the organization nor its members raised a whimper about rights concerns on the extrajudicial killings of supposed drug users and pushers since Duterte assumed office on June 30.  News reports put the figure of alleged users and pushers killed at more than 3,000 since Duterte took over.

ASEAN’s silence on this issue was not particularly a surprise, but it was the latest example of how it is not the organization’s habit to tell off a member state about its domestic issues.

More typically, it was an outside state like the United States, though not a disinterested country, that brought up the issue of human rights at the September 6-8 summit, where Duterte made his debut on the regional stage.

To human rights advocates across the region, the 28th and 29th ASEAN Summits, held back to back this year, should have been an apt occasion to discuss a subject that is otherwise anathema to the Southeast Asian organization, especially given its theme, ’ASEAN 2025: Forging Ahead Together’, which defines the vision of the ASEAN Community for the next decade.

At the ASEAN-US summit in Vientiane, President Barack Obama called to mind a “common vision” for the region — “(a)n open, dynamic and economically competitive Asia-Pacific that respects human rights and upholds the law-based order.”

But this is far from how the situation is from the view of the sectors that have been at the receiving end of certain governments’ systemic suppression of dissent at home. This also comes at a time when the ASEAN Community has been formed with its three pillars — political security, socio-cultural, and economic – and where its peoples can enjoy “human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

ASEAN continues to steer clear of human rights issues in line with the principle of non-interference in its member states’ internal affairs. But as ASEAN turns 50 next year, critics say this adherence to non-intervention should not be absolute, especially now that economic integration is going full throttle after the launch of the ASEAN Community’s in December 2015.

Economic but not political openness

The organization has shown much more openness – and willingness to let go of sovereignty concerns – in the areas of economics and business rather than in political areas such as human rights.

“ASEAN has promoted a harmful contradiction. Member states have abandoned ASEAN principles of ‘non-interference’ and ‘state sovereignty’ in relation to capital and economic policy but doggedly retained them in relation to human rights,” says the alternative document titled ‘Vision 2025: ASEAN Women’s Blueprints for Alternative Regionalism’.

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Ryerson University (Canada)’s Dr. Sorpong Peou

Over recent decades, Southeast Asia has experienced three ‘miracles’: economic growth, the disappearance of mass atrocities, and efforts to promote regional peace and community building,” said Dr. Sorpong Peou, chairperson of the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University in Canada. “Large-scale killings or genocide such as those in Indonesia (1965–66), Cambodia (1975–1978 under the Khmer Rouge), and East Timor (1975–1999 under the Indonesian occupation) “have all disappeared from contemporary Southeast Asia.”

“But authoritarianism keeps threatening to return,” wrote the Cambodian-born scholar in a commentary published by the East Asia Forum in March. “Below the surface of official declarations lies an acceptance among most ASEAN leaders that democracy and human rights should not be pushed too fast and too far.”

Appreciation and interpretation of human rights are subject to national interest rather than international human rights standards,” said Jaymie Ann Reyes, program manager of the Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism. The Working Group, a coalition of individuals and organizations that include civil society and academics, engages ASEAN on specific rights initiatives.

Rights? It depends

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Some human rights themes and focuses are more acceptable to ASEAN such as women’s rights, children’s rights, and rights of persons with disabilities,” Reyes added.

All 10 member states have ratified the UN Conventions on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Rights of the Child, and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. “But there are more ‘sensitive’ issues that are not discussed for fear of violating the principle of ‘non-interference,’” she said.

One of these is refugee protection. The majority of ASEAN countries have not signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and the 1954 Statelessness Convention.

A wide range of other rights concerns continues to exist today across the region of 620 million people.

In Indonesia, the vigorous implementation of the death penalty, the enactment of more discriminatory laws against women, and violent attacks against religious minorities are bedeviling the government, according to Human Rights Watch.

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Neighboring Malaysia recently passed the National Security Council Act (NSCA), which empowers the government to declare martial law in areas where there are perceived security threats. Singapore’s Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill, passed in Parliament just a month ahead of the Vientiane summit, is seen as yet another attempt to muzzle freedom of expression in the city-state.

The decades-old Internal Security Act, which allows arrests without warrant and indefinite detention without trial, remains firmly in place in Singapore. (A similar law in Malaysia was abolished in 2012. Yet four years later, the NSCA came into force.)

Thailand’s new constitution — approved in a referendum on August 7 — is seen to reinforce the military’s two-year hold on power.

“For the people in Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore, the democratic crisis has meant increasing crackdowns on journalists, human rights lawyers, opposition politicians, bloggers, activists and religious leaders. Political deterioration has also contributed to internal conflict in Southeast Asia,” said Yuyun Wahyuningrum, senior advisor on ASEAN and Human Rights at the Human Rights Working Group, a coalition of more than 50 groups advocating for human rights in Indonesia.

The Bangkok-based Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), sees “a trend of shrinking civil society space” despite “ASEAN’s aim to be a people-centered and people-oriented community”.

In Cambodia, government critics have been jailed, and more oppressive laws passed. For instance, Kem Ley, leader of the advocacy group Khmer for Khmer, was gunned down in broad daylight in the capital Phnom Penh on July 10 this year.

Although Myanmar has ceased to be a pariah state, its democratic transition has been marked by concern over discrimination against Rohingya Muslims, who are stateless in the mainly Buddhist country.

Punishment under Hudud

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Critics have also dubbed as medieval Brunei’s announcement in October 2013 to impose a tough shariah penal code system, after its chairmanship of ASEAN that same year.

Yet ASEAN prides itself on having an “overarching human rights institution” such as the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR).

In fact, the ASEAN Chair’s statement in Vientiane commended the commission for “the progress of (its) work” and urged it to “promote the mainstreaming of human rights across all three pillars of the ASEAN Community”. But how such “progress” is measured and improves the rights landscape is not clear.

On the eve of the Vientiane summit, the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights appealed to ASEAN leaders “to press the Lao government to cease the abuses that have consistently placed Laos at the bottom of rights and development indexes measuring rights, press freedom, democracy, religious freedom, and economic transparency.”

This referred to the unresolved disappearance of Lao activist Sombath Somphone, missing since December 2012. The Lao government had earlier said the issue had no place at the ASEAN meetings.

Looking back, ASEAN’s road to setting up a human rights commission – whose limitations its own commissioners concede – has been far from smooth. The commission’s creation was already a feat by itself.

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ASEAN launched in Bangkok in 1967

The regional grouping laid down the ASEAN Charter in 2008, which stipulated the creation of a human rights body. AICHR was created in 2009. In a process criticized by civil society for falling short of international standards, ASEAN drafted an ASEAN Human Rights Declaration in 2012.

From being taboo, human rights principles were slowly integrated into ASEAN documents, institutions, and language. ASEAN bodies and government representatives are slowly adopting and using human rights language,” said Reyes of the Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism.

But the AICHR’s limited mandate does not include receiving and investigating rights complaints. “It is high time it (AICHR) evolved from promotion to the protection of human rights,” said a statement by the Thai Civil Society Network on ASEAN and AICHR.

Today, “all ASEAN human rights instruments recognise universal human rights standards with caveats: the principle of non-interference and due regard to the different culture, history, and socioeconomic condition in each ASEAN member state,” Ranyta Yusran, research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Centre for International Law, said at a legal conference in Beijing in May.

Wahyuningrum of the Jakarta-based Human Rights Working Group said: “Human rights and democracy issues (in the region) are not going to simmer down. How is ASEAN going to keep up with these changes if it remains too bureaucratic and difficult to engage with?”

But she said there are encouraging signs. At a recent meeting she attended in Bangkok on legal aid and witness protection for victims of cross-border trafficking, participants acknowledged the political differences among the member states they were representing, but nevertheless focused on cooperation. The participants wanted to develop a cross-border witness protection standard operating procedure, which is a “good start,” she said.

Although AICHR has not adapted to “the changing context and structural challenges” of rights protection, Wahyuningrum credited it with initiating activities that have helped set “different platforms for subregional debate on human rights and clarified the ASEAN dimension on responses to human rights issues”.

For Reyes, there has also been “more robust engagement between and among non-governmental and civil society organizations,” though this faces challenges.

All eyes are now looking to 2017, when the Philippines takes its turn as ASEAN chair during the organization’s 50th year. The country has had a record of speaking up against rights abuses in ASEAN, but there are questions about how – and whether it can still do this credibly – given the furore over extrajudicial killings in the Duterte government’s crackdown on illegal drugs.

Tess Bacala wrote this as a fellow of the Reporting ASEAN project of Inter-Pres Service (IPS) Asia-Pacific (  This story was produced under the “Reporting Development in ASEAN” series of Inter-Press Service Asia-Pacific. 

ASEAN: Security remains a serious concern

October 16, 2016

by Bunn Nagara

ASEAN: Security remains a serious concern

Security in the region continues to be a serious concern for all, not least because of the antics of major powers beyond the control of ASEAN countries.

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THE “regional security architecture” of East Asia is often said to be in need of refurbishment.

The decades-long balance of forces deriving from the distinct national interests now being pursued by the major powers is thought to be out of kilter. At the very least, it is unlike what it had been in the postwar period since 1945. In recent years, the key factors contributing to this perceived strategic disequilibrium have been the rise of China, and US and other countries’ reactions to it.

The “Pax Americana” of regional order, peace and security imposed through US dominance is now more than 70 years old.It is an order that began when the US had both economic and military supremacy. Now that its economic prowess is being matched and possibly later overtaken by China, what next?

Thus, at an East Asian Institute workshop in Singapore last Friday to sketch some updates on these themes, more than a few views were aired and debated. And that was how it should be. Germany’s Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung as sponsors invited international security specialists to discuss the issues as these continue to be played out in the region, particularly in the South China Sea.

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The standard narrative is heard often enough: China’s economic rise has been complemented by its enlarged strategic presence, further enhanced by the US military “pivot/rebalancing” of deploying more firepower to East Asia.

The worrisome tit-for-tat, back-and-forth of pouting and posturing between these giants, or “G2”, has been a main event for this region and will remain so for some time.

For many, the US and China seemed destined for a showdown of sorts. But such an alarming outcome is unlikely, given several realities.Unlike with the Soviet Union before, the US is not in bitter ideological contention with China today.

The US and Chinese economies are also deeply intertwined; damage to one also means damage to the other. Washington now also needs China’s help in playing vital strategic roles: fighting terrorism, and keeping North Korea contained.

For more than half a century, all countries including China had accepted a US-led position of military pre-eminence. All these countries including China may still feel the same.

Nonetheless, China’s rise has been so steep, so rapid and so relentless as to set off multiple reactions to it. How will South-East Asia in particular be impacted by it all?

For decades, South-East Asia has informally been taken to be synonymous with ASEAN. Pundits often still talk about South-East Asia as “the ASEAN region”.

ASEAN for many is so broad in scope and implications as to be somewhat imprecise. There are at least three other levels of ASEAN’s state of being.

From the Informal ASEAN regarded as another name for South-East Asia, there is the Intuitive ASEAN: the motif or Zeitgeist of time (now) and place (South-East Asia).

Another ASEAN is the Formal ASEAN: the active transnational agency that had given rise to its founding treaties and declarations, along with ASEAN Plus Three, the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit, besides regular defence ministers’ meetings, Bali Concord documents and others.

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The fourth ASEAN is the Bureaucratic ASEAN: comprising principles, processes and procedures, as well as values, norms and conventions.

Then there are the multiple points at which ASEAN engages with principal players in the region: the US, China, Japan, and increasingly also India and Russia. The EU would also want to relate more and better with ASEAN.

Like practically everything else, ASEAN evolves according to the circumstances of the time. And since ASEAN is amenable to change, it may be time to consider some timely changes.

The first follows from ASEAN’s nature of reaching out beyond its own region of South-East Asia. Thus the many multilateral extra-ASEAN institutions that ASEAN had initiated or are ASEAN-centred.

ASEAN can begin by doing more, and on a regular basis, most naturally with its formally designated Dialogue Partners. From there it can prepare to expand its engagements with other countries and regions.

ASEAN understood that rising global competitiveness meant that it could be decimated, so it decided to reach out beyond South-East Asia early. If ASEAN were to survive in an Asia-Pacific crowded with major powers it had to be consequential; the alternative would be to become inconsequential, fade and perish.

The second area of change involves a multilayered ASEAN Security Regime whose time has surely come. With Total or Comprehensive Security for the region as the goal, ASEAN can move for a regime spanning traditional and non-traditional threats.

The third area is a review of some established norms in the “ASEAN Way,” notably such principles as “non-intervention” and “consensus”.

There is nothing wrong with these universal and uncontroversial principles, which are practised elsewhere and which predate ASEAN. The problem lies only in ASEAN’s peculiar interpretation of them.

In ASEANspeak, non-intervention is stretched to cover refraining from even voicing any disapproval or criticism, in whatever form, of another country’s conduct or character, however deplorable.

So long as there is no malice shown or intended, and no attempt to humiliate or offend, there should be no taboo against passing honest and due judgment on an erring fellow ASEAN member. To ignore troubling faults is to be irresponsible.

But ASEAN’s standing “code” is to treat all commentary, however well-intentioned or diplomatic, as unpardonable sin. That is hardly the way forward in the 21st century.

This inventive, indiscriminate but ultimately self-defeating interpretation is a hindrance and an obstacle to greater candour. It further disables ASEAN countries’ natural communicability among themselves.

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It would help if ASEAN developed a clearer, more disciplined and more consistent application of these principles to render them more realistic. It would certainly help ASEAN and its own credibility. For example, when member nations agree to the text of a joint statement, the original statement should be released even if one or two countries retract their assent. Their late dissent should be recorded as a footnote in the statement, and not become a reason for blocking the statement.

Consensus is fine, but it has to be handled with care, maturity and intelligence to facilitate rather than to obstruct the order of business.

If a country or a minority of some countries succeed in holding up the release of a statement, their identities and their reasons for doing so should likewise be released in place of the statement. And if any member state were to commit a serious wrong, a simple majority of the remaining nine may decide if action is to be taken. A two-thirds majority of the nine may then decide on the type of penalty.

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Obama in Laos for ASEAN Summit

Any organisation, even ASEAN, is free to develop such codes or practices to improve its functions. To insist on not even considering any of these options regardless is regressive. More tough-minded actions in place of woolly fumbling are just as important as benchmarks to help ASEAN achieve Community status. But can ASEAN rise to the occasion?

The time of dithering, muddling through, hoping for the best and spinning for a favourable effect by “massaging” the news media must surely be over. But that assumes ASEAN is serious about real Community status, and not just talking about it.

Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.



His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s Legacy

October 15, 2016

His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s Legacy

by Nicholas Farrelly

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The 70-year reign of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej started and ended inauspiciously. It was a family tragedy that unexpectedly brought Bhumibol to the throne. He went on to become the world’s longest serving monarch but, in death, his formidable legacy is deeply tarnished by the ambitions of those who fought hardest to defend him.

In 1946, the untimely and mysterious death of his older brother, King Ananda Mahidol, catapulted the young Prince Bhumibol into a role for which he was unprepared. King Ananda died violently in Bangkok’s Grand Palace. He was found in bed with a pistol shot to the head. To this day, nobody knows who pulled the trigger. Forensic reports suggest that neither suicide nor an accident were likely. Whispered speculation about regicide has continued ever since.

Many like to believe that shadowy figures outside the palace were responsible. There is also the deeply disturbing possibility—unthinkable for most Thais—that Ananda’s death was an inside job. Some commentators have wondered if Bhumibol, who was the last person to see King Ananda alive, would ever cast any light on the mystery. He never did, and any knowledge he had of the tragic event is now probably gone forever.

Bhumibol was born in the United States and spent much of his early life attending school and university in Switzerland. Even after becoming king, he returned to Switzerland for another five years of education, jazz music, fast cars and European high-society. He returned full-time to Thailand in 1951, aged 23 and speaking imperfect Thai.

Few would have expected this highly westernised young man to become Thailand’s longest reigning king and a potent symbol of the Thai nation. In fact, early in his reign, there was diplomatic chatter that Bhumibol was easily controlled by scheming politicians within the government. In 1932 a revolution had bought about an end to the absolute monarchy and by the time Bhumibol became king Thai royalty had lost much of its former prestige and power. Some of the old palace hardliners would have preferred a more formidable figure on the throne.

It was an unremarkable beginning, but King Bhumibol gradually grew in stature as a role in modern Thai politics was constructed for him. The palace became a useful symbol around which Thailand’s ruling military strongmen could build the ideological infrastructure of national unity. In those years, royal endorsement and conservative credentials were far more important for Thai governments than electoral legitimacy.

Surrounded by loyal establishment figures, Bhumibol was manoeuvred into the public consciousness as a diligent and compassionate king and as the embodiment of Thai values. In those crucial years, the monarchy grew to become Thailand’s premier institution. It was not long before Thailand’s once tentative king was making globetrotting trips, meeting with international leaders and showing off his glamorous queen.

At home, national unity was a pressing concern. In the 1960s and 1970s, Thailand was besieged by the communist advances in Indochina. Within Thailand’s borders, communist insurgents mounted a persistent campaign against the government. Nullifying these opponents, and winning over the hearts and minds of the Thai people, became a top priority for both the government and the palace.

As Cold War anxieties climaxed, Bhumibol supported a strong American presence in Thailand. From its bases in the kingdom, US forces bombed Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. In Thailand, Bhumibol sponsored the establishment of paramilitary organisations, and became the patron of the Border Patrol Police and other guardians of the realm. He also set up a series of rural development centres in the poorest and most remote areas of the country.

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He argued, quite rightly, that social and economic development would make Thailand’s rural poor less vulnerable to leftist indoctrination. Some of the most iconic images of Bhumibol’s reign come from his visits to rural villages, where he dispensed development resources and agronomic wisdom to his grateful peasant subjects.

Thailand’s status as a linchpin in the anti-communist fight, paved the way for an economic boom and the enmeshment of Bhumibol in global power politics. The defeat of local communist forces in the early 1980s was directly linked, in many Thai minds, with the king’s devotion to his kingdom. Following the spectacular economic growth and semi-democracy of the 1980s, the last three decades of Bhumibol’s life were accompanied by constant reference to his newly democratic public persona.

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His adoration by the Thai public was stoked by a constant diet of positive press coverage about him and his family. Bhumibol’s status grew as international organisations flocked to honour Asia’s modern monarch with a welter of awards and honorary degrees.

His greatest public relations triumph came in 1992, following a massacre of unarmed protesters by army units on the streets of Bangkok. In a nationally televised display of royal authority, Bhumibol called the protest leader and the Prime Minister to his palace. As they knelt before him, he commanded that they settle their differences peacefully. This is the king that many people in Thailand will want to remember: powerful, wise and rescuing the nation in a moment of crisis.

This image served the king well in the years that followed. In an emerging but still fractious democracy, Bhumibol was seen as the ideal national arbiter if things got out of control. His homespun “sufficiency economy” philosophy provided Thais with moral reassurance during the Asian economic crisis of 1997. The king was capitalising on the charisma that he had accumulated during the earlier decades of his reign.

But Bhumibol’s health began to falter and fade at the same time as new political challenges were emerging in his kingdom. Modernisation, consumerism, mass education and the Internet were starting to unravel the established political order. In these turbulent times, Bhumibol was very poorly served by his energetic backers.

In September 2006 the Thai military overthrew the elected government of billionaire businessman Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin was an immensely popular political leader and his populist economic policies dwarfed the benevolence of the king. Thaksin had cashed in on Thailand’s lust for modernity and many felt that his unprecedented electoral power was a threat to Bhumibol’s traditional royal authority.

The king’s closest supporters were instrumental in engineering the move against Thaksin. The coup-makers were obliged to infuse their actions with royal mystique. When the tanks took to the streets of Bangkok, yellow ribbons were tied around their gun barrels. Yellow is King Bhumibol’s colour. After the putsch, one of the king’s Privy Councillors, and a military veteran of the fight against communism, was appointed as Prime Minister. The unelected government actively promoted Bhumibol’s “sufficiency economy” philosophy as an antidote to the brash commercialism of Thaksin.

What Bhumibol thought about the enthusiastic use of his royal brand by a military government that had destroyed Thailand’s constitution is not known. What is known is that he made no attempt to distance himself from it. For the first time, the Thai public had a clear view that the palace was a player in partisan politics and, what’s more, had contributed to the overthrow of a government that had been elected three times.

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There was worse to come for Thailand’s monarchy. In the post-coup election of December 2007, a new Thaksin-aligned government was elected, effectively undoing the work of the coup-makers. Powerful sections of the Bangkok elite could not accept this result. They mounted a series of increasingly belligerent street protests, swathed in royal yellow, to bring down another elected government.

Carrying portraits of the royal family everywhere they went, the “yellow-shirt” protestors occupied government house, blockaded the parliament and, in their ultimate act of national vandalism, closed down Bangkok’s international airport. Despite the damage to Thailand’s economy and international reputation the security forces refused to move against them. There was speculation that the protesters had friends in very high places.

Eventually the pro-Thaksin government fell, and a much more royal-friendly administration lead by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva took its place. Throughout the months of yellow-shirt chaos, neither the king nor his advisors did anything to call off those who were campaigning under the royal banner for the forcible overthrow of his majesty’s elected government.

That government eventually fell at an election, replaced by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawtra. Her opponents in royalist and militarist circles insisted on undermining her grasp on a democratic mandate. It was no great surprise when her prime ministership ended in May 2014 with yet another army coup.

The current government in Bangkok, headed by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, took charge specifically so that top military and palace figures could control the kingdom in the sensitive hours, days, weeks and months after Bhumibol’s passing. Under these conditions it is clear to analysts, both within Thailand and internationally, just how little Bhumibol’s reign contributed to democratic consolidation.

Despite these troubled times, King Bhumibol’s record of virtuous good works, combined with the formidable royal publicity machine, means that he is still held in great regard by a large proportion of the Thai population. His image hangs in houses throughout the kingdom – from elaborate mansions in Bangkok to bamboo huts in the far-flung hills of Thailand’s north. His death will generate deep sadness and a long period of mourning.

Those who publically depart from the acceptable script of royal virtue risk being charged under Thailand’s punitive criminal code. There is a real fear in Thailand about discussing royal matters. In his later years, Bhumibol expressed discomfort about the abuse of laws that protected him, but he never openly called for their reform or repeal.

The reverence for the late king is very real. But the active repression of free speech means that there is no room in Thai public life for any other sentiment.

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Perhaps there may be stirrings of new sentiments when the new king takes the throne. Bhumibol’s son, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, is expected to be the new king, although his elevation is a delicate and contentious matter. Vajiralongkorn has a chequered private life and a reputation for hot headedness. He is a magnet for salacious rumour and colourful internet imagery. He is much less popular than his younger sister, the unmarried Princess Sirindhorn, who is popularly referred to as Princess Angel.

Much planning has gone into what happens next, but Bhumibol’s death may still loose forces that will energise a new round of political turmoil. No wonder the Thai stock market is jittery and investors are calling in their risk assessors.

King Bhumibol was the dominant political and cultural figure in Thailand for as long as most people can remember. He reigned over a newly-prosperous and internationally respected kingdom, and found a place in the hearts and minds of his subjects. But in late moments of reflection he may have regretted that his country became so ill prepared for mature leadership transitions and that his own charisma had been so regularly mobilised against the political wishes of the Thai people.

Dr Nicholas Farrelly is the co-founder of New Mandala.

The Musical Compositions of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand–A Tribute

Your Weekend Musical Guest–The Musical Compositions of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand


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Dr. Kamisiah Haider and Din Merican have chosen to play the musical compositions of the dearly departed, much respected and admired, and loved His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand.

For this weekend, we pay tribute to a multi-talented long serving  His Majesty King of Thailand for his many contributions to socio-economic development of the country he loved very much. By listening to His Majesty’s compositions, we  should not be surprised that His Majesty  The King is regarded as the Soul of Thailand. His Majesty’s musical compositions reflect his love and passion for the Thai People.

His Majesty is not just a wise and compassionate King but also a pioneer agriculturalist, humanist-environmentalist, scientist and talented musician. Let us and all mourners in Thailand listen to His Majesty’s wonderful compositions that will be remembered and appreciated through the ages by us in ASEAN and around the world.

Once again we wish to convey our heartfelt condolences to the people and the government of Thailand, in particular to our Thai friends, associates and readers of Din Merican’s blog. We join you in your moments of grief of His Majesty’s passing. At the same time, let us celebrate His Majesty’s life and legacy through his music.–Dr. Kamsiah Haider and Din Merican


New Foreign Policy Directions for The Philippines

October 6, 2016

New Foreign Policy Directions for The Philippines

by Bobby Tuazon

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Duterte has no time to be polite when it comes to his country’s sovereignty

President Rodrigo Duterte’s resolve to chart an independent foreign policy has exponential implications on Asian geopolitics and puts a spike on US hegemony in the region. American lawmakers are mulling retaliatory measures. To them, the maverick Filipino President can be tolerated, but any move to oust a key US strategic military outpost in the Philippines is another thing.

In a recent two-punch announcement, Mr. Duterte “served notice” that this month’s PH-US war games will be the last. While honoring treaty commitments with Washington, he also said he would forge economic alliances with China and Russia.

Mr. Duterte turned a new page in foreign policy when, instead of first paying a courtesy call on the White House, as his predecessors did, to reassure “special ties” with America, he flew to Laos for the ASEAN Summit, and then went on a state visit to Vietnam. Soon, he will go to China and Russia.

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He had earlier railed against US meddling following President Barack Obama’s hectoring that the war on drugs should be done on the right track. “For as long as we stay with America, we will never have peace,” he said, and followed it up with the statement that US forces should leave Mindanao. “We might as well give it up.”

With US politics in transition amid a divisive presidential election, it will take time for US officials to take stock of the changing gears in Philippine foreign policy and figure out how to whip a bellicose, third-world President into line. But America’s carrot-and-stick diplomacy is now in the works, with the US Embassy in Manila hinting of possible cuts in US aid.

Disturbed that Mr. Duterte’s anti-American jabs are undermining the two countries’ strategic alliance, some US policymakers are using the extrajudicial killings in the war on drugs as an issue to teach the Filipino President a lesson. Answering a query on the steps America should take if aid cuts would not do the trick, Senator Patrick Leahy, chair of the powerful US Senate appropriations subcommittee, said on Sept. 26: “We are faced with a broader issue that cannot be remedied simply by withholding assistance.”

Yet unpredictable is Mr. Duterte abrogating the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement and other military deals with America, and court reprisals from the superpower. But the belligerency of his remarks, making him the only Filipino leader to stand up to America, is shaking a relationship long grounded on mendicancy and dependence. It is jarring a strategic alliance flaunted as America’s linchpin in its security engagement in the region, which the Pentagon has falsely claimed as a stabilizing force in the last 70 years. Losing military presence in the Philippines means relinquishing a major hub in the US system of bases and alliances for permanent hegemony in the Asia-Pacific.

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But Mr. Duterte is on the right track; his independent foreign policy resonates at the right time. US credibility is on the decline, its much-touted Trans-Pacific Partnership in deep trouble, and Obama’s pivot or rebalancing strategy—which will reposition 60 percent of America’s global force in Asia against China by 2020—now appraised as a failure. Some US apologists see such a failure in the Pentagon’s inability to prevent North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and in curbing China’s facility-building in the South China Sea despite the Pacific Command’s muscle-flexing. China’s economic diplomacy is winning over Asian countries as it rolls out its grand “One Belt, One Road” economic connectivity with at least 50 percent of the world’s humanity. A Beijing-based analyst notes: US military power will be made irrelevant by an economy-driven “parallel order” cobbled by China, Russia, and other emerging powers.

Such trends help frame Mr. Duterte’s pragmatism and balancing act: making the Philippines a coequal of America while forging stronger economic cooperation with the latter’s peer competitors. National-interest-driven economic and trade alliances with new economic giants can bolster his administration’s big programs, particularly transport infrastructure and job-generating industries in the provinces. Negotiations can explore using the South China Sea’s marine and oil resources for mutual economic benefits with Chinese and Russian technology, and possibly even Norway, which is now involved in the peace talks.

Independent foreign policy should aim at veering away from security-based relationships, which America dominates, toward an economy-based one which opens limitless possibilities of friendly relations with the world. When based on people-centered and state-regulated sustainable growth, economic relations will help provide a stable base for an independent foreign policy.

But a foreign policy reorientation also needs the reform of two major institutions under the President: the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). The DFA should be further professionalized by expanding the core of career officers to lead Philippine diplomacy. It should now draw up a long-term foreign policy roadmap that includes abandoning a fixated pro-US position in place of a respectable, trustworthy, and beneficial policy track.

As well, Mr. Duterte faces the daunting task of purging the AFP of US influence. The AFP has long acted as America’s surrogate army in fighting foreign wars, including recent ones in the Middle East, as well as being the US state department’s critical force in political upheavals in the Philippines. It should be fully insulated from politics and adhere to civilian supremacy while cutting its reliance on US military aid, training and indoctrination.

Bobby Tuazon, CenPEG’s policy study director, is coauthor and editor of 15 books on foreign policy and international relations, governance, peace process, electoral reform and political parties.


Principled Politics of our Time

September 25, 2016

 Principled Politics of Our Time

by Dr. Munir Majid


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ALAIN Juppé may not be a household name in Malaysia but the principled politics of this former French Prime Minister (1995-1997) in his country’s fraught national environment is worthy of note.

Despite France’s reputation for being the most pessimistic nation on earth, he projects himself as a prophet of happiness. He attunes himself to the promise of a happy national identity.

He strongly argues the diverse and mixed society is not a threat to France. He is against calls for a ban on burkinis (a preferred swimming costume among Muslim women). He proclaims: “I won’t turn people in France against each other.” Notably, in the Islamophobic climate in France, he holds to the concept of integration against assimilation.

Juppe is not a starry-eyed idealist however. His clear integration carries fixed rules: charter of secularism, reorganise Islam in France to ensure French funding and preaching, firm line on immigration control with annual quotas set by Parliament.

For him: “The role of a political leader is not to add to the unhappiness of the times, or to darken the situation even more.”Juppé is a Gaullist, fighting against Nicolas Sarkozy to win nomination of his party, Les Republicans, for next spring’s presidential election.

Sarkozy is riding the wave of popular sentiment to win nomination by speaking out against Muslims, immigration and all things not lily-white.

Jean-Claude Juncker, perhaps better known in Malaysia as President of the European Commission, sees the need for better explanation of European values against blatant nationalism, the galloping populism that is gripping Europe.

The values of freedom, tolerance and democracy, and the rule of law are a high point for humanity which must be defended. In Britain, after Brexit, some segments of the populace have taken that vote as a democratic mandate for racism.

Polish people, one of the most hardworking in the country’s labour force, have been beaten and, in one case, murdered on the streets of Essex. As of last week there had been 31 attacks on Poles since the Brexit referendum: in Plymouth, Yeovil, St Ives, Harlow and Leeds, among others.

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Juncker is very clear the whole European polity must fight against discrimination and racism. The British Government and laws, of course, do not countenance these attacks.

But there is undoubtedly a strong undercurrent of intolerance and hate in much of Europe which not insignificant numbers of politicians are exploiting and whipping into huge waves of all possible illiberal tendencies.

There are brave, liberal and true politicians who are willing to stand against these waves, for the values of the liberal and tolerant order that recognises the total and full rights of all citizens, not a regime that reduces some of them to the status of semi-citizens, a regime that hounds them to the periphery of national life. People like Juppé and Juncker have a tough fight ahead. But they are in it.

In America we see the rise of Donald Trump as nominee of Abraham’s Lincoln’s party to be President. That is how close illiberalism and intolerance can get to the seat of power to wreak disastrous outcomes: this in America, but not forgetting Europe or anywhere else.

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There are grave dangers of Trump-style fear and demagoguery, and Nicolas Sarkozy’s hard-line brand of national-identity politics, surfing on a fear of Islam and cultural difference. Don’t forget, not too long ago Sarkozy was a respectable centrist politician and President of France. That is how strong the dangerous currents are.

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Former Republican Secretary of State Colin Powell may call Trump “a national disgrace” and an “international pariah” (in a leaked email to a former aide in June) but his rise reflects what is happening in America as well.

What the Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton calls the “basket of deplorables” – whether half or all of them – are his supporters, who are American. They are there ready to be turned into overt racists and jingoists by cleverly exploitative politicians like Trump.

There is an argument claiming these Trump supporters are the uneducated underclass – the lumpenproletariat – who have been under-served and under-provided in an economy of huge disparities of income and wealth. This may be so. But as many as half of them? Is American society that poor?

There are actually perfectly “normal and respectable” Americans ready to be had, to go down that racist, Islamophobic and jingoistic path. Quick to blame others. Fast on the draw to exaggerate and to caricature.

These are the people – and there are many of them in the American Congress – who have been against Barack Obama these past eight years he has been US President because he is black.

They have been driven by the power to show, even if a majority of Americans may support Obama, they can jam it and make it difficult, sometimes impossible, for him to do his job – not infrequently against America’s own interest.

These are the people who are so anti-Muslim just beneath the surface that they are quick when scratched to jump and point at the Islamist threat to America. On the other hand they do not see gun laws and the police shooting blacks as any threat to American society.

They are irrational. They are emotional. They are one plus one equals to two people. The type one plus one equals to two populist politicians lap up. Politicians with no principles. Politicians who do not understand the complexity of things.

It is all too easy to whip up xenophobia among them. Looking at all this from Asia, we have no cause to be complacent. Indeed, we have our own dark spots in many countries.

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Taking just Malaysia, we have to defend our democratic, liberal and tolerant tradition. If we allow our populist politicians to ride roughshod over it there will be hell to pay not too far down the road.

It is deeply disturbing the way “liberal” has been turned into a bad word. As if it meant licence and excess, and therefore has to be snuffed out. To be replaced by what? A plutocratic religious order?

Exhortations and many actions point to this. Whipping up a frenzy.It is also deeply disturbing that the consensus on a multi-racial and multi-religious society in Malaysia is being challenged by some quarters. Again, to put what in its place? A uniracial, monocultural polity?

These are big issues principled politicians should take a stand on – like Juppé and Juncker.

Individuals and commentators, and groups like the G25, can make their point, but even they are attacked for being “liberals” who know nothing about religion – by those who claim to know everything.

But even groups like the G25 and those from civil society will ultimately be ineffective if leaders in the formal political system do not take up their cause. Or they have to get into politics.

Let us remind ourselves. When we talk about Vision 2020 we must not just talk about the economic targets. All this was to happen in a country and society that was “democratic, liberal and tolerant.” In a system with “strong moral and ethical values.” Go back and read that statement in 1991 – and hopefully be revived.

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Our King and Rukun Negara

Go back to Rukun Negara in 1970. The aspirations and principles expressed for our society, even if just after the May 1969 racial riots.

Look at them closely: Belief in God; loyalty to King and country; democratic way of life; just society; liberal approach to rich and diverse cultural tradition; rule of law; good behaviour and morality.

They were strong expressions that go back to the Federal Constitution espoused by the two greatest political leaders this country has ever had – Tun Abdul Razak Hussein and Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman – both of whom had the strength of character and leadership to define the future, even as they sought to repair the damage done to the country in 1969.

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We owe it to them – and to ourselves – to make sure the country does not deteriorate. As we look at what is happening in our country, at what is happening in Europe, America and elsewhere in Asia, our politicians particularly must arrest populist tendencies and provide principled leadership to secure the future, and not just fight among themselves for the next piece of cake.

Tan Sri Munir Majid, chairman of Bank Muamalat and visiting senior fellow at LSE Ideas (Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy), is also chairman of CIMB Asean Research Institute.