Strongmen have a new playbook for consolidating power


November 13, 2017

Strongmen have a new playbook for consolidating power

by Dr. Fareed Zakaria

https://www.arcamax.com/politics/fromtheleft/fareedzakaria/s-2016462

NEW YORK — The news out of Saudi Arabia has been startling. A country famous for its stability to the point of stagnation is watching a 32-year-old crown prince arrest his relatives, freeze their bank accounts and dismiss them from key posts. But on closer examination, it should not be so surprising. Mohammed bin Salman is now applying to Saudi Arabia what has become the new standard operating procedure for strongmen around the world.

Image result for crown prince mohammed bin salman

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman–Making a Difference for Saudi Arabia

The formula was honed by Vladimir Putin after he came to power in Russia. First, amplify foreign threats so as to rally the country around the regime and give it extraordinary powers. Putin did this with the Chechen war and the danger of terrorism. Then, move against rival centers of influence within the society, which in Russia meant the oligarchs who at that time were more powerful than the state itself. Then talk about the need to end corruption, reform the economy and provide benefits for ordinary people. Putin was able to succeed on the last front largely because of the quadrupling of oil prices over the next decade. Finally, control the media through formal and informal means. Russia has gone from having a thriving free media in 2000 to a level of state control that is effectively similar to the Soviet Union.

Naturally, not every element of this formula applies elsewhere. Perhaps Crown Prince Mohammed will prove to be a reformer. But the formula for political success that he’s following is similar to what’s been applied in countries as disparate as China, Turkey and the Philippines. Leaders have taken to using the same ingredients — nationalism, foreign threats, anti-corruption and populism — to tighten their grip on power. Where the judiciary and media are seen as obstacles to a ruler’s untrammeled authority, they are systematically weakened.

Image result for The Dictator's Learning Curve," William Dobson

In his 2012 book “The Dictator’s Learning Curve,” William Dobson presciently explained that the new breed of strongmen around the world have learned a set of tricks to maintain control that are far more clever and sophisticated than in the past. “Rather than forcibly arrest members of a human rights group, today’s most effective despots deploy tax collectors or health inspectors to shut down dissident groups. Laws are written broadly, then used like a scalpel to target the groups the government deems a threat.” Dobson quoted a Venezuelan activist who described Hugo Chavez’s wily blend of patronage and selective prosecution with an adage: “For my friends, everything, for my enemies, the law.”

Classic centralized dictatorships were a 20th-century phenomenon — born of the centralizing forces and technologies of the era. “Modern dictators work in the more ambiguous spectrum that exists between democracy and authoritarianism,” wrote Dobson. They maintain the forms of democracy — constitutions, elections, media — but work to gut them of any meaning. They work to keep the majority content, using patronage, populism and external threats to maintain national solidarity and their popularity. Of course, stoking nationalism can spiral out of control, as it has in Russia and might in Saudi Arabia, which is now engaged in a fierce cold war with Iran, complete with a very hot proxy war in Yemen.

Dobson, however, did end the book expressing optimism that, in many countries, people were resisting and outmaneuvering the dictators. Yet what has happened since he wrote the book is depressing. Instead of the despots being influenced by democrats, it is the democrats who are moving up the learning curve.

Image result for recep tayyip erdogan and Fareed Zakaria

Consider Turkey, a country that in the early 2000s seemed on a firm path toward democracy and liberalism, anchored in a desire to become a full-fledged member of the European Union. Today, Turkey is not far from being an elected dictatorship. Its ruler, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has eliminated almost all obstacles to total control. He has defanged the military and the bureaucracy, launched various kinds of tax and regulatory actions against opponents in the media, and declared one potential opposition group, the Gulenists, to be terrorists. The rulers of the Philippines (Rodrigo Duterte) and Malaysia (Najib Razak) appear to be copying from that same playbook.

Image result for Najib Razak and DutertePhilippine President Rodrigo Duterte (left) and  Malaysia’s Prime Minister  Najib Razak

This is not the picture of democracy everywhere, of course, but these tendencies can be spotted in far-flung areas of the world. In countries like India and Japan, which remain vibrant democracies in most respects, there are elements of this new system creeping in — crude nationalism and populism, and increasing measures to intimidate and neuter the free press.

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Donald Trump, for his part, has threatened NBC, CNN (where I work) and other outlets with various forms of government action. He has attacked judges and independent agencies. He has disregarded long-established democratic norms. So perhaps America is moving up this dangerous learning curve as well.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

 

Guna’s Take on Fake News


November 8, 2017

Guna’s Take on Fake News

One would think that fake news happens only in cyberspace and that mainstream/traditional news organisations are somehow not subject to reporting fake news. But that’s not necessarily true because when the media space is controlled like it is here, it produces an atmosphere which spews out fake news in billows.–P. Gunasegaram

by P. Gunaegaram@www.malaysiakini.com

QUESTION TIME | One would think that fake news happens only in cyberspace and that mainstream/traditional news organisations are somehow not subject to reporting fake news. But that’s not necessarily true because when the media space is controlled like it is here, it produces an atmosphere which spews out fake news in billows.

In its simplest form, fake news is just manufactured news but there are degrees. Some are outright lies while others combine untruths with elements of true news to project an image which is not wholly correct while appearing to give the impression that it comes from accurate news sources.

It is most easy to do this online by setting up websites and/or blogs to propagate the news and manufacture news to the benefit of the sponsoring authority. Thus, political parties and candidates up for election pay so-called cyber troopers large amounts of money to boost their image in the eyes of the public.

Simultaneously they engage in activities to drag down the image of the opponents through smear campaigns, sometimes unearthing true stories and twisting the context and at other times broadcasting outright lies.

In Malaysia, as elections loom large and have to be held by August next year, this whole idea of fake news, especially on social media, has grabbed the attention of politician and layman alike, especially when US President Donald Trump, who has propagated fake news against Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, accuses US mainstream media of fake news in repeated tweets.

 

But in Malaysia, the situation is very different. We have had fake news with us for decades now, especially during general elections, when more or less the entire regulated media industry gets commandeered by the ruling government – BN and its predecessors.

Look at for instance, how newspapers either directly owned by political parties or those close to them behave at election time – UMNO’s Utusan group, MCA’s The Star, as well as New Straits Times, RTM1, RTM2, TV3, and even ntv7, the other broadcast media.

It is as if the government can do no wrong, it is as if the opposition is a major threat to the unity of the country. The only viable party that can rule the country is, of course, the BN, everyone else will take the country to ruin.

So the heavily-controlled mainstream newspapers, magazines and broadcast organisations not just spewed fake news but engaged in regular propaganda blasts about how the government was so great, with documentaries about what it did, and through advertisements. The poor opposition is denied any airtime or space in the newspapers while the ruling party of the day runs riot over the opposition in all the various broadcast and print media.

Is it any surprise that the ruling party thrashed the opposition soundly in almost all the elections since 1969 (until the tide turned in 2008) when the opposition denied the ruling party two-thirds majority for a while? BN regained it following the collapse of many opposition parties into BN in the aftermath of oppressive measures following the May 13 riots shortly after the elections, riots which many consider to have been manufactured.

 

And then came 2008 – BN did not lose but soundly lost its two-thirds majority and five states in the general elections, its biggest setback yet. And the opposition finally began to think about riding into Putrajaya in triumph. In 2013, despite all of Prime Minister Najib Razak’s efforts, BN did not regain the two-thirds majority although UMNO did better.

So what made the change in 2008 and 2013? In two words, social media, which remained largely uncensored and unregulated and which gave the opposition a lot more space than it ever did before – there was a new medium to send news out instead of just print and broadcast and it was accessible to all.

A game changer

The control of the print and broadcast media no longer ensured that only some news of the favourable kind reached the general public. In Malaysia’s case, social media stopped the avalanche of fake news spewing out of the mainstream manufactured news factories.

But unfortunately, with fake news making such an impact on social media in the US for instance, with Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in the polls significantly attributed to it, the importance of social media is being increasingly recognised as a game changer for elections in Malaysia.

Thus, both Najib and his deputy have been increasingly talking about fake news on social media and the need to counter it effectively. But in all probability what they mean is that the true news is coming out from many sections of the social media, so we have to do something about it.

 

Their thinking goes something like this: We have to counter all these things which are true which are coming out from social media – we can blank it out from the print and broadcast media but we need a social media attack to counter these truths with lies.

Thus, we see Najib claiming in his blog rather preposterously that 1MDB will save RM200 billion in 20 years for Malaysia when the truth is that it has in all probability it has already lost as much as RM40 billion.

Expect this broadside by the BN on social media in Malaysia to increase – in the US, fake news may have reached epidemic proportions already, but in Malaysia, the process is just beginning but will increase very rapidly.

It is not going to be easy to differentiate the truth from the fake news but if you stick to respected and established online new organisations such as … – you know who they are, I don’t have to tell you – you will be safe.

Stick to independent news organisations who have a strong tradition of respect for truth, accuracy and balance and who cover both what the government as well as what the opposition has to say. Look at who are behind news portals – if they are not specific enough about ownership and editorial team, be suspicious.

Verify and crosscheck sources of information. Much is passed on over social media websites such as Facebook and WhatsApp with not even a mention of the source. If you want to check the source, type a key extract into a search engine and look at the results.

Please remember, especially at election time – you are more likely to get fake news and inadequate news of the right kind from mainstream media who have had a long track record compared to some of the online news portals who may not have as long a record.

And finally, please support those who supply good, fair information at reasonable prices (less than 60 sen a day) by subscribing to them (instead of sharing passwords indiscriminately), and take out advertisements with them and donating to them. It’s a small price to pay.

The sad truth is that information that is free is more likely to be tainted. Now, who was it who said that there is no such thing as a free lunch?


P GUNASEGARAM says truth often lies hidden under a pile of lies. E-mail: t.p.guna@gmail.com.

ASEAN: Politics, Censorship, Polarisation and Cyberspace


November 6, 2017

ASEAN: Politics, Censorship, Polarisation and Cyberspace

by Aim Sinpeng

ww.newmandala.org/southeast-asian-cyberspace-politics-censorship-polarisation/

On 12 April 2017, Thailand’s Ministry of Digital Economy and Society issued what the Bangkok Post called “a strange government directive”. It prohibited anyone from following, communicating with, or disseminating information online from three outspoken critics of the government—or risk up to 15 years in prison. The statement seemingly appeared out of nowhere, and without any explanation. Does the act of “following” include reading these authors’ posts, or actually clicking the “follow” button on their profile? This was never clarified by the government.

The ambiguity of the Thai cyber laws prompted a local online newspaper, Prachatai, to publish information warning readers about how to avoid being charged with Thailand’s draconian Article 112, which prohibits defamation against the royal family. But the journalist responsible for the article was in turn interrogated by the Thai authorities for a possible computer crime herself. This deadly dose of opaque cyber regulations and an authoritarian political regime has made Thailand’s cyberspace one of the most restricted in Asia.

This combination, however, is growing more and more representative of the regional norm. In Southeast Asia, the liberating effects of the internet coexist in increasing tension with state anxiety about information control. Southeast Asian cyberspace is thus becoming more expansive, yet more restricted. On the one hand, the number of people who have come online for the first time has exploded: Myanmar, for example, went from 1% internet penetration in 2012 to 26% in 2017 thanks to an abundance of cheap mobile phones. Internet users across the region are increasingly spending time online to work, study, connect with friends, and participate in civic and political life.

On the other hand, Southeast Asian governments are growing wary of the potential for the internet to threaten political stability. Cyberspace in Southeast Asia has evolved into a space for contestation over power and control between the state and its societal opponents, with the former exerting greater and more sophisticated control over the latter. As electoral contestation increases in some countries, feuding elites have sought to win the hearts and minds of the ever more engaged and wired citizenry through old tactics of divide and conquer, exploiting deep-seated ethnic, religious and racial cleavages. Social networking sites like Facebook have made it all too easy to spread hate speech and misinformation—further entrenching divisions in society, and inviting yet more state-led censorship.

More internet, more censorship

Viewed globally, the Southeast Asian experience is not an aberration. Freedom House’s Net Freedom Report, which ranks the degree of cyber openness around the world, has recorded the sixth consecutive year of global decline in internet freedom. More than two thirds of the world’s population live in countries where criticism of governments gets censored.

The present reality stands in stark contrast to early optimism about the positive, liberating role the internet could play in bringing about political change in authoritarian regimes—a sentiment which flourished following the “Arab Spring”. The utopian idea that social media could spell the end of despots has now been muted by users’ frustration with increasing crackdowns on the internet and the chilling effect brought on by continued persecution of politically active social media users. Indeed, in 2016 a total of 24 countries restricted access to popular social media platforms and messaging apps—an increase of 60% compared to the previous year. 27% of internet users live in countries whose authorities have made arrests based on social media posts.

So where does Southeast Asia fit in this global picture? Despite varying degrees of internet penetration—ranging from 19% in Cambodia to 82% in Singapore—national internet environments in Southeast Asia share three key similarities.

First, there is an overall consecutive decline in internet freedom, which measures the degree to which access is unrestricted. The Philippines stands as the only country in the region that receives a score of “free” according to Freedom House (Figure 1). The rest of Southeast Asian internet users enjoy partial to little freedom in surfing the net.

Figure 1: Net Freedom Scores, 2016

Image result for Freedom House, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/freedom-net-2016

Freedom House, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/freedom-net-2016

 

In all the “partly free” and “not free” states, ordinary internet users have been arrested for their online activities and user rights have been repeatedly violated. Measures to censor critical opinions about authorities can include blocking of websites, content removal, and in some cases arrests and persecution—the latter of which has been taking place more recently, as authorities across the region pay closer attention to social media and chat app content.

Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Ngoch Nhu or “Mother Mushroom” was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2017 for “conducting propaganda against the state”, after she wrote on issues relating to policy brutality, land rights, and freedom of speech. A Thai man has been sentenced to 35 years in prison for Facebook posts the authorities deemed critical of the royal family. This follows the 2016 arrest of eight internet users who ran a satirical Facebook page mocking Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha. In Singapore, whose leaders prefer slapping lawsuits upon critics over arresting them, blogger Roy Ngerng was sued for defaming Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in posts on his blog. Even a democratic government in Indonesia has sought to censor same-sex emojis from messaging apps and has banned several gay dating apps.

Second, many Southeast Asian states have in recent years sought to institutionalise online information controls through new laws and regulations, typically citing concerns for national security. Myanmar’s 2013 Telecommunications Law openly permits criminalisation of internet activism or communication that are considered “dishonest” and “untruthful” by the regime. Cambodia has had several drafts of the cybercrime law, with each one eliciting grave concerns from rights groups. Article 35 from the 2012 draft, for instance, would criminalise civil society organisations deemed to endanger the security, morality and values of the nation. A 2017 amendment to Thailand’s Computer-Related Crime Act worsened an already repressive internet law by giving authorities wide-ranging powers to arrest anyone who might be spreading information that would be against the (vaguely-defined) national interest. Indonesia’s newly amended Electronic Information Transactions Law (UU ITE) was criticised by internet rights groups for creating chilling effects online and curbing of freedom of expression. Indeed, the majority of cyber laws in the region are written in vague terms on purpose: they give power to authorities to interpret what is critical to the nation’s security and public safety.

Third, the varying degree of filtering on issues of social, political, and national security importance gives some indication of the country’s priorities on internet control. Censorship is most severe when it comes to criticism against the state (Figure 2). While the growth of internet usage across Southeast Asia caused concern about information control among all of the region’s governments, reasons for such concern vary. Indonesia and Thailand focus their internet censorship efforts on social issues—particularly online pornography—whereas Malaysia, Vietnam, Myanmar (and to some extent Thailand too) have gone to some lengths to crack down on cyber dissidents deemed a threat to regime stability.

Figure 2: Key internet censorship issues, 2016

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Source: Adapted from the 2016 Net Freedom report, Freedom House

Highly developed Singapore, with its hegemonic party rule, has one of the world’s highest internet penetration rates. Instead of practicing cyber surveillance and filtering, its leaders prefer to rely on non-technological means to curb online commentary perceived to be a threat to social values and religious and ethnic harmony. These “second generation” control mechanisms—such as lawsuits, steep fines, and criminal prosecution—act to deter “inappropriate” online behaviour.

Divide the people, conquer the discourse

But political elites, even if they could, would not want to control the flow of all information. They need the web to be sufficiently open to allow a perceived sense of online freedom of expression, and the proliferation of engaged online discussion. This provides ruling and competing elites alike with opportunities to divide electorates and mobilise their support base against their adversaries. The Oxford Internet Institute’s research on computation propaganda has highlighted how state-sponsored “cyber troops” and trolls are commonplace around the world as means of manipulating public opinion, particularly in support of ruling elites.

The Philippines—the only country whose internet environment is regarded as free—has witnessed a high density of “cyber troops” since populist maverick Rodrigo Duterte came to power. Duterte’s online army is reportedly paid to flood Facebook with pro-Duterte propaganda, sometimes masking as grassroots activists. Cambodia’s Hun Sen, who has a huge social media following, found himself denying buying influence on Facebook after reports that only 20% of his 3 million likes originated from Cambodia (the rest largely being from India and the Philippines). That a septuagenarian former Khmer Rouge leader, who has been in power since the 1980s, felt the need to pay for Facebook likes is telling of the extent political leaders go to in order to construct digital legitimacy, even if it means spreading online propaganda.

But the most prominent example of the potential power of the above-mentioned “divide and conquer” strategy was the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election. After ex-governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama or “Ahok” made controversial comments about the Quran, anti-Ahok rallies, mobilising over 500,000 protesters at their peak, were led by a coalition of Islamic groups. These religious groups were long unhappy with Ahok in power but did not surge in popularity until Ahok’s blasphemy case came to the fore (Figure 3).

Figure 3: FPI Facebook fan change (October 2016 to August 2017)

Image result for FPI Facebook fan change (October 2016 to August 2017)Source: author analysis

 

The hard line Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) more than tripled their support base on Facebook following Ahok’s comments, and figured prominently in the months-long campaign against him. Witnessing the rise of the FPI and other Islamist groups gaining prominence as anti-Ahok movement garnered force, Ahok’s opponent Anies Baswedan, long seen as a secular Islamic politician, shifted gear to appeal to those sympathetic to the FPI campaign. The online sphere became deeply polarised: a network analysis of those who commented on Ahok’s and Anies’ Facebook posts in the month of December in 2016 (Figure 4) shows that only 16 people cross-commented on both pages out of a total of 9,000 comments.

Figure 4: Network Visualisation of Commenters on Ahok’s (Blue) and Anies Baswedan’s (Red) Facebook Page

Image result for Source: author analysis. Data are drawn from the period from December 1 to 31, 2016

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This post appears as part of the Regional Learning Hub, a New Mandala series on the challenges facing civil society in Southeast Asia supported by the TIFA Foundation.

Old dominance, new dominos in Southeast Asia


November  4, 2017

Old dominance, new dominos in Southeast Asia

by Dan Slater@www.newmandala.org

Not since World War II has liberal democracy, and the intergroup tolerance that sustains it, seemed so deeply endangered in so many places at once. For the first time in three quarters of a century, illiberalism and chauvinism have stolen the march, virtually all over the globe, on their liberal and cosmopolitan rivals. With narrow voices for exclusion and nativism making frightening headway against broader visions of inclusion and diversity in Britain, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Poland, South Africa, Turkey, and the United States, it seems fair to conclude that they can now gain major ground just about anywhere at any time.

If the flu of political and social illiberalism is circumnavigating the globe, Southeast Asia has precious little immunity with which to withstand it. This is a region where authoritarian regimes have always easily outnumbered democracies, and where liberalism and universalism have always struggled to gain traction against religion, nationalism, and communalism as forms of ideology and identification. So it should be no surprise that in a historical moment when democracy feels unsafe even in formerly safe-seeming spaces, it feels in Southeast Asia as if democracy could readily be extinguished entirely.

It wouldn’t be the first time since decolonisation that Southeast Asia suffered a complete democratic wipe-out. Historically speaking, the region’s democratic nadir ran from the early 1970s, when Malaysia’s Barisan Nasional and the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos converted their electoral legitimacy into outright authoritarian powers, until the mid-1980s. For most of that decade and a half, Southeast Asia boasted literally zero regimes that met even minimally democratic standards—with the minor exceptions of Thailand’s fleeting democratic experiment from 1973–76 and grudging democratic opening over the course of the mid-to-late 1980s. The Cold War did not produce the dominos of successive collapse from capitalism to communism across Southeast Asia that American interventionists feared, at least outside of what was formerly French Indochina. What it did help produce, though, was a region-wide domino effect of democratic collapses into authoritarianism.

Image result for A presidential campaign rally for Prabowo Subianto in Jakarta, June 2014. Photo: Liam Gammon

Could Southeast Asia domino its way into a total 1970s-style democratic abyss again? Since most of the region is enduringly authoritarian to begin with, it is already—and always—most of the way there. As in the early 1970s, the global ecology for democracy is looking downright toxic. External contributions to democratisation in Southeast Asia should never be overstated, of course. But whether by coincidence or not, democracies in Southeast Asia (as well as Northeast Asia) have almost always either been cosy or trying to get cosier to the United States. If that gravitational pull of American democracy has ever really reached all the way to Southeast Asia, it has changed from propulsion to repulsion almost overnight with the presidential ascendancy of Donald Trump. One could have recently imagined, for example, Vietnam following the path of Taiwan (and arguably Myanmar) by responding to an increasingly threatening and intrusive China by burnishing democratic credentials as down payment on a stronger American alliance. If Hanoi wants better ties with Washington now, it would be better advised to start building the right brand of luxury hotels than the right kind of political regime.

Old dominance

Even before disturbing global authoritarian trends emerged, Southeast Asia displayed a dismal democratic baseline. We would thus do well to distinguish the cases of old dominance that establish that dismal baseline from what we might call the new dominos that find themselves either tumbling or looking increasingly wobbly in these troubled global times.

None of the region’s long-dominant authoritarian regimes appear deeply endangered at the moment. Singapore’s PAP is riding high in the saddle after its most recent electoral-authoritarian landslide. It remains disinclined toward political liberalisation despite the manifest lack of risk to its own dominance from doing so. The gossipy drama of the Lee family feud distracts from the deeper point that an honest and independent media outlet could never get a license to investigate and report on it freely and openly. In Malaysia, venality is up far more than brutality is down. So long as the ruling BN can compensate for its high-level corruption with high-level repression—especially by re-imprisoning opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim—they seem likely to get away with it. Commentators commonly fret that Hun Sen just killed the last remnants of democracy in Cambodia when he shuttered the Cambodia Daily and moved to ban the country’s only major opposition party. But what is really transpiring is a transition from multiparty authoritarianism to single-party authoritarianism, since Cambodia has not met even minimal democratic standards for the past 25 years. Speaking of single-party dictatorships, Vietnam’s leaders have recently stepped up repression of dissidents. But it is not as if the Vietnamese Communist Party has ever brooked serious dissent in the first place.

Image result for One of the ubiquitous billboards featuring Cambodian strongman Hun Sen. Photo: Flickr user Erwan Deverre, Creative Commons

Not coincidentally, in all four of these cases, old dominance is rooted in old authoritarian ruling parties. In this sense, Southeast Asia is far from unique. Dictatorships ruled by parties have long tended to be more stable than those in which the military plays the leading role. So it stands to reason that the greatest action in the region, not just now but over the past decade, has been in countries where the military either still is, or in the past was, a leading power in political life. A militarised past means a high potential for a domino-ing present.

The new dominoes

Just as we can identify four clear cases of old dominance rooted in authoritarian ruling parties—Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam—four cases fit more readily in the new domino category: Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Thailand. Across all these cases, long histories of parties failing to decisively supersede the power of the military left democracies with relatively little institutional strength to sustain themselves. In the case of Thailand, these weak civilian institutions have already laid the groundwork for outright democratic collapse at the military’s—and monarchy’s—hands.

Even among these latter four cases, I hasten to add, the story in terms of national regime type has been one of stability far more than instability. Of the eight Southeast Asian cases discussed here, only in Myanmar and Thailand have outright regime transitions occurred since the turn of the millennium. And one of the two, Myanmar, has moved in a more democratic direction since 2011. So it is worth stressing that Southeast Asian democracy has not exactly been cratering.

But the times and the tides seem to be turning. Could Myanmar soon follow Thailand’s recent path back to unchallenged military rule? Could the Philippines, now ruled by a strongman backed by martial law in Mindanao, descend from its current fragile status as an illiberal democracy into an outright one-man dictatorship? And does the shocking imprisonment of Jakarta’s ethnic Chinese former governor on blasphemy charges portend the demise in Indonesia of the tolerant norms on which even a minimalist democracy depends?

Image result for An election rally for the National League for Democracy in Yangon, October 2015. Photo: Olivia Cable

Although all four of these countries have been travelling distinctive trajectories downward, there is a vital common theme. When procedural democracy arises in otherwise politically and socially illiberal and intolerant conditions, democracy’s own key features can easily—and ironically—undermine its own quality and even threaten its own survival. Specifically, democratic procedures have a tendency to produce unbridled majoritarianism and unconstrained leadership in the absence of powerful countervailing forces to contain them. In settings where liberal institutions and societal commitment to inclusive and cosmopolitan values are relatively weak, minorities exist at the mercy of majorities. Sometimes that minority is defined demographically; other times it is established electorally.

The Philippines and Thailand both exemplify the dangers of domineering and abusive executives in illiberal democratic settings. Empowered and emboldened by decisive electoral majorities, Thaksin Shinawatra has attempted and Rodrigo Duterte is now attempting to overcome legacies of unresponsive, oligarchic politics in both countries through force of personal will. In Thailand this did not lead to outright populist authoritarianism, in part because the Thai military and monarchy saw fit to re-establish oligarchic authoritarianism instead. It is in the Philippines where a brazenly violent populist seems inclined to seize as many authoritarian-style powers as the system and public will allow. As abysmal as Duterte has been for human rights, his defenders quite plausibly prefer a highly popular president responding to actual social ills like the drug trade over a discredited one hanging on through electoral malfeasance like Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo did a decade ago.

Image result for Anti-Thaksin “Yellow shirts” protesting in Bangkok, November 2012. Photo: Nick Nostitz

Human rights are precisely the terrain on which conditions are sliding downhill in Indonesia and Myanmar as well. In Indonesia both anti-communist and anti-Chinese sentiment have made frightening comebacks from their Cold War demises. Since these were the same fear-filled mentalities that spawned and sustained Suharto’s New Order, their re-emergence suddenly makes democracy feel unsafe again at the national level. Conditions in transitional Myanmar are of course immeasurably more dire. But democratisation does not deserve the brunt of the blame for an ongoing calamity like the forcible expulsion and—why split hairs?—the state-sanctioned mass murder of the Rohingya. In Myanmar as in Indonesia, it is the ideological potency of ethnic and religious nationalism that explains why minorities get brutalised. Ethnic nationalism—or what I would prefer we call nativism—is one of the most dangerous gateways to authoritarianism, as well as a sapper of democratic substance. Democracy may embolden an electorally supercharged ethnic or religious majority to believe it can do whatever it wants with unvalued minorities. But it is authoritarian legacies of militarisation in Myanmar and ethnic and ideological scapegoating in Indonesia that best explain the severity and ugliness of both countries’ nativist downturns.

Reasserting liberal democratic values

Image result for democracy in myanmar

Read On:

https://www.brookings.edu/blog/future-development/2016/03/30/aung-san-suu-kyis-new-government-what-to-look-for-in-myanmar/

If one vivid lesson shines through the dim shadows of Southeast Asia’s democratic downslide, it is that democratisation and human rights are far from the same thing. Especially when a country’s citizenry is more deeply steeped in religious than in liberal educational institutions, they will quite understandably tend to see the world in terms of good people and bad people. Meanwhile nationalists steeped in a lifetime of authoritarian state propaganda are analogously primed to see the world in terms of us, who belong, and them, who do not. Under such conditions, democratic rights may get extended; but no further than the ranks of the supposedly virtuous.

What all this suggests is that our global crisis of liberalism and democracy is first and foremost a crisis of education. Heroic histories of mass urban mobilisation to topple dictatorships naturally lead us to expect that if civil society is to help forge democracy, it will be by organising the resistance: “People Power,” as we like to say.

This may still be largely true in Southeast Asia’s cases of old dominance, where dictatorship must somehow be dislodged before democracy can be defended. But in Southeast Asia’s new dominos, as in Western democracies where pluralism is under assault, a deeper educational imperative underlies the organisational challenge confronting us. Remarkably, we have reached a moment when our politics most urgently needs to be driven not by an exalted desire to maximise human freedom, but by the base yet pressing need to minimise human cruelty. And if educational institutions—with a big assist from the mass media—do not spread the message that even the lives of minorities and suspected criminals have value and are worthy of protection, who will? For civil society to help save Southeast Asian democracy—or democracy anywhere in these dark days, to be truthful—its educational mission will need to loom as large as its organisational one.

Dan Slater is Professor of Political Science and incoming Director of the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies (WCED) at the University of Michigan. His research has focused on the historical and contemporary sources of authoritarian durability and the emergence of democracy, particularly in Southeast Asia. You can follow him on Twitter at @SlaterPolitics. This post appears as part of the Regional Learning Hub, a New Mandala series on the challenges facing civil society in Southeast Asia, supported by the TIFA Foundation.

 

 

Ops Lalang: Time to set things right


November 1, 2017

Ops Lalang: Time to set things right

Dr. Mahathir Mohamad must assume ultimate responsibility for Ops Lalang

by Dato’  Dennis Ignatius

http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com

Image result for Dr. Mahathir Mohamad and Ops Lalang

The 30th anniversary of Ops Lalang has rightly generated much discussion about a dark chapter in our history when 106 of our fellow citizens were unjustly arrested and detained under the ISA. As a nation, we need to hear again the personal accounts of the detainees and their families, we need to confront the injustices of the past, if only to remind ourselves of the unfinished task of building a more just and democratic nation.

Taking responsibility

At the time, the government offered various reasons for the arrests including the need to forestall imminent racial riots. We know now that it was nothing but a sideshow to forestall a challenge to Dr. Mahathir’s rule from within his own party and to subdue opposition from without. And if racial tension had reached alarming levels, it was because the government then, as it still does today, sought to manipulate racial and religious issues to serve its own ends.

As Prime Minister and Home Minister at the time, Dr. Mahathir must assume ultimate responsibility for Ops Lalang. The then IGP was simply a willing accomplice, nothing more. To argue otherwise is both dishonest and disingenuous.

Dr. Mahathir may now concede that many of those who were detained were good people that he had simply demonised for political purposes but it is not enough. He should take personal responsibility and apologise to each and every detainee for the injustice he visited upon them.

Dr. Mahathir today is, of course, not the same man he was thirty years ago. He is now part of the political struggle for change and, though he is loathe to admit it, he is working to undo much of the damage that he himself inflicted upon our nation. I hope he will rise to the occasion by doing what is right.

Some have argued that insisting on an apology from Dr Mahathir would simply detract from the on-going efforts against UMNO-BN. On the contrary, an apology would immensely strengthen those efforts. It would also reaffirm that the struggle we are embarked upon is not simply about ousting an unpopular government at the next elections but about building a more just and democratic nation.

A national apology

UMNO-BN’s current leaders are no doubt relishing the fact that Dr. Mahathir is being taken to task over Ops Lalang but they should not be too smug. Some of those presently in government collaborated, acquiesced or defended Dr. Mahathir’s actions 30 years ago.

Image result for Najib Razak and Ops Lalang 1987The then IGP, (Tun) Hanif Omar was simply a willing accomplice, nothing more.

 

Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, for example, was UMNO Youth Chief at the time and did his share of sabre-rattling in support of Dr. Mahathir. Other BN parties, for their part, never challenged Dr. Mahathir’s narrative or protested the mass arrests.

Image result for Dr. Mahathir Mohamad

And besides, if those in authority today disagree with Dr. Mahathir’s action, they have it in their power to set things right by issuing, on behalf of the government, a public apology to all those who were detained during Ops Lalang and awarding them appropriate compensation for the wrong that was done them.

After all, it was done for the judges whose removal from office Dr. Mahathir contemptuously engineered during the 1988 judicial crisis; there’s no reason why it cannot be done for the victims of Ops Lalang as well. It’s the honourable thing to do if there is still any honour left to be found in this government.

Other countries – South Africa, Chile, Argentina, to name a few – have taken courageous steps to confront their dark past through an open accounting of the wrongs that were done. It’s time for us to do the same with Ops Lalang. It is the only way to bring closure to this dark episode in our history and a measure of comfort to those who were so badly wronged in 1987.

Tyranny triumphs when people do nothing

The other point that is worth remembering, as we mark the 30th anniversary of Ops Lalang, is that undemocratic rulers only succeed when there are people who go along with what’s morally wrong in order to get along, who bend their knees to what their heart denies, who turn away from the truth because it is inconvenient or who simply “menurut perintah” regardless of conscience or consequence.

I was Political Counsellor at the Malaysian Embassy in Washington DC when Ops Lalang took place. We were deluged by protests from concerned US politicians and civil society groups and it fell to me and my colleagues to defend the government’s actions, unwittingly repeating the falsehoods about racial tension, Marxist agitators and threats to our democracy and stability.

Now, whenever I hear the stories about how even women were tortured and mentally abused while in detention, how those in power manipulated events and people for political expediency, I am filled with dismay and remorse that I was part of the machinery that caused the detainees and their families so much anguish.

The truth is its not just Dr. Mahathir who is culpable but the entire machinery of government, the judiciary, the police, and the politicians; they may not have given the orders but they stood by and watched it happen, or worse still, allowed themselves to be used in one way or another.

To paraphrase a well-worn quote, evil triumphs when ordinary people do nothing in the face of injustice.

The unfinished struggle

The Ops Lalang detainees have modelled for us courage and determination in the face of injustice and tyranny. Years later, many remain committed and active, undeterred by their ordeal. It is now up to us to be inspired by their example and continue the unfinished struggle for justice and democracy in Malaysia.

Dato’ Dennis Ignatius is a former ambassador.

The Great Annare (MIC) Hoax


October 31, 2017

The Great Annare (MIC) Hoax

When you are a race-based party ostensibly there to protect the interests of your community, but your community is not the people who voted you into office, there is really no incentive for you to look after the interests of your community beyond making superficial noises about Tamil schools and funding budding entrepreneurs.” –S. Thayaparan.

http://www.malaysiakini.com

 

 

Image result for The Poor Malaysian Indian in Kuala Lumpur

Does MIC care about the plight of the Indian Poor?

COMMENT | I have no idea if the Indian vote will make a difference in 60 electoral constituencies but I do know that voting for the Barisan National establishment in this election will seal the fate of the Indian marginalised poor and further class divisions within the diverse Indian community.

As someone who believes the less you need big government, the stronger you are, the disenfranchised of the Indian community which is the voting base of MIC, is the perfect example of what is wrong with the way the Umno establishment has done business all these years.

There is a robust dialectic in the Indian community which goes unnoticed in the Sino-Malay discourse that dominates the alternative press. Establishment Indian political operatives and their supporters have this strange defence as to why the disenfranchised in the Indian community remain marginalised.

Their excuse is that “rich Indians” unlike their Chinese counterparts are not doing enough for the community. While this may be true, this still does not explain why the Indian community should carry on voting for the establishment when MIC is supposed to be looking after the “interests” of the community.

 

Elites always take care of themselves first, only crumbs for the downtrodden. Expect Samy Velu and his successors in MIC to be any different from UMNO and MCA?

Furthermore, this idea that “rich Indians” are not doing enough is ludicrous because MIC is riddled with plutocrats who are the beneficiaries of a corrupt system that nurtures a feudalistic mindset. In other words, if the rich Indians in MIC cared about their community as the Chinese plutocrats in MCA do, there would be a very different dialectic going on now in the Indian community.

Meanwhile UMNO folk tell me, that whenever funds are dispersed to the Indian community, leakages prevent them from going to where it is needed most. This, of course, is rather disingenuous because everyone knows that there are “leakages”; and funds  are disbursed to ensure that votes would be bought and not that genuine progress is initiated for the disenfranchised of the Indian community.

I, of course, am the last person to talk about the Indian community. I see no reason why the interests of the Indian community should be defined by the Tamil school issue or the building of new temples. Indeed, I view all these language schools anathema to any kind of cohesive nation building but because our public schools is a hotbed of Islamic preoccupations and “ketuanan politics”, the only way young people are assured of any education not politicised by religion and racial superiority are in these kinds of schools.

Beyond that, MIC has a dismal record of holding the line when it comes to religious extremism. Have you noticed that the most disenfranchised of the Indian community – women – have been on the receiving end of Islamic extremism be it forced conversions or their children stolen from them and MIC has done nothing for them.

Indeed the only “Indian” community that has accumulated political and financial power is the Indian Muslim community–the mamaks–who should actually be part of the greater Indian community but instead is an associate member of UMNO. So that is where all the “rich Indians” went.

I mean, take this issue of stateless Indians. I have heard MIC people blame the Indian parents for not registering their newborns. Yes, blame mostly uneducated people for not understanding government bureaucracy. Is it not the job of MIC to ensure that their voting base remains healthy and vibrant? Instead, when opposition politicians bring up this issue – my sincere gratitude to those who specifically put the time and effort into handling these cases – there is this big rush to demonstrate that MIC is earning its keep.

We cannot even talk about the crime statistics, deaths in custody and the shoot first policy as advocated by the Deputy Prime Minister because victims of suspected gangsters are mostly “Malays”, because all this means confronting the issues of religious and racial supremacy and MIC has never been able to criticise the UMNO state because they know, we know and definitely the UMNO state knows, that MIC is part of the problem.

Moreover, let us be truthful especially when it comes to the nexus of crime and political power. While some folks in UMNO may praise their Tiga Line hoodlums as the last line of defence for Malay privileges and religious superiority, MIC has nurtured an overt thug culture which has seen journalists attacked and political meetings turn into freak shows.

 

 

The Tamil Malar incident is a prime example of the relationship between the MIC and UMNO. As I said then, “This merely means that people would go, “well, there is that MIC gangster culture, what do you expect” narrative and the Malay ruling elite would just think it is the price of making a display of Indian representation in the ruling coalition. I am down with that too, but it just goes to show how full of horse manure the Ministry of Youth and Sports really is.”

I can understand why MIC has been extremely ineffective in many issues. The Indian community does not have a large voting base because it is not a sizable demographic. Just like Indian politicians who cannot solely rely on their own community to vote them to power, MIC has to rely on UMNO to literally keep them in power. That always comes at the cost of communal sovereignty and independence.

When you are a race-based party ostensibly there to protect the interests of your community, but your community is not the people who voted you into office, there is really no incentive for you to look after the interests of your community beyond making superficial noises about Tamil schools and funding budding entrepreneurs.

No matter how you self-identify in the Indian community, I hope people understand that as the smallest minority, we would be the first to suffer under the assault of Islamic extremism and racial supremacy. Rejecting the establishment and their proxies is the only way to slow the tide of racial and religious extremism.


S. THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.