Rethinking Southeast Asian civil society

November 7, 2017

Rethinking Southeast Asian civil society

by Kevin

In the mid-1990s, there was a lot of enthusiasm for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the expansion of civil society in Southeast Asia. At the time, there was an efflorescence of activism as activists campaigned against trade agreements, foregrounded gender issues, worked to reduce poverty, improve health, protect the environment, advocated for workers and consumers, exposed corruption, bolstered human rights and agitated for democracy.

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The optimism of the decade was driven by a feeling of confidence that democracy was taking root in the region, growing on a foundation of thriving capitalist economies. The resonance of 1960s modernisation theory was palpable—the “Third Wave” of democratisation was said to be washing over the region. This was emphasised by the triumphs of popular uprisings in the Philippines (1986), South Korea (1987), Thailand (1992) and Indonesia (1998). These events were associated in the theory with the rise of the middle class and an expansion of civil society.

Two decades later, this optimism has faded. There is now more pessimism about civil society and democratisation. To understand these changing perspectives, it is necessary to give attention to recent political events, and rethink how we conceptualise civil society and its role in Southeast Asian politics today.

Civil society and democratisation

The notion of “civil society” has meanings embedded in the development of capitalism and the end of absolutism in Europe, and the consequent reduction of the weight of the state. The idea of a space relatively autonomous of the state developed quite late in colonial and postcolonial Southeast Asia. While anticolonial, socialist and communist movements, religious and educational organisations, trade unions and the like were established from the late 19th century, they were usually repressed.

When writing of civil society in late 20th century Southeast Asia, analysts tended to emphasise the non-state nature of civil society organisations (CSOs). Many have agreed with David Steinberg, who defined civil society as:

composed of those non-ephemeral organizations of individuals banded together for a common purpose or purposes to pursue those interests through group activities and by peaceful means. These are generally non-profit organizations, and may be local or national, advocacy or supportive, religious, cultural, social, professional, educational, or even organizations that, while not for profit, support the business sector, such as chambers of commerce, trade associations, etc.

The organisations mentioned can be formal or informal, may be charitable, developmental or political. Yet when considering democratisation, authors usually associate civil society with efforts to expand political space. Some authors identify a “political civil society,” where “non-violent … organisations and movements … seek to promote human rights and democratisation…”. Their efforts mean that the political space of civil society becomes a site of intense competition and struggle—including for the organisations that occupy this space.

Civil society and political conflict

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But this conceptualisation of civil society—one which views the groups making up civil society as only being non-violent and peaceful—is too limiting. Civil society and its political space is open to many groups, not just those considered “democratic” and “progressive”. That space can also be occupied by state-sponsored, right-wing, anti-immigrant and anti-democracy activists, and many others considered nasty, fascist, and reactionary. That the groups occupying civil society’s political space will sometimes be violent, and will oppose other groups, should be no surprise when we consider that all societies are riven and driven by conflict over all manner of resources.

Thinking this way of political space and civil society is not uncontroversial. Much of conventional political science, heavily imbued with modernisation theory, has romanticised civil society as the natural domain of individual and group freedoms, and sometimes conceived of NGOs and CSOs as representative interest groups. Such a perspective treats conflict and division as pathological, and misses the fact that political space is created through contestation with the state and with other groups in society. It is a view that fails to give sufficient attention to how civil society groups have actually behaved.

Contestation within civil society

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Bersih Movement in Malaysia

When we think of civil society as a site of struggle, it becomes clear that it is not always a ballast for democratisation. Islamic militias in Indonesia, racist Buddhist gangs in Myanmar and right-wing ultranationalists in the Philippines and Thailand are not forces for a democratic society—yet each undoubtedly occupies the space of civil society.

Islamic militias have re-emerged at various times during Indonesia’s reformasi era and engaged in mobilisation and violence. While the use of violence might exclude such groups from the romanticised approaches to civil society, militias have occupied a space created by democratisation, even if their activities are meant to mobilise anti-democratic groups and against some freedoms. A recent example of such anti-democratic opposition was seen in the defeat of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) in the 2017 Jakarta governor’s election. The Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, or FPI) joined with several political parties to oppose Ahok in an acrimonious contest that involved the mobilisation of Islamic identity in huge demonstrations that targeted Ahok as a Chinese Christian portrayed as “threatening” Islam. Eventually, Ahok’s opponents gained the support of elements of the state to jail him on charges of blasphemy and inciting violence.

In Myanmar, religious groups have also engaged in racist and xenophobic activism. Radical Buddhists such as the ultra-nationalist 969 Movement and Ma Ba Tha (Myanmar Patriotic Association) have been able to mobilise mass demonstrations against Muslims and have fuelled extreme communal violence since 2012. Such groups have also been supported by elements of the state and by elected politicians, all the while taking advantage of the expanded political space created by Myanmar’s political transition to mobilise and propagandise.

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Buddhist monks walk during a prayer ceremony for the victims of the recent unrest between Buddhists and Muslims in Mandalay, at Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar’s capital Yangon on Friday, July 4, 2014. (Reuters)


Indonesia and Myanmar demonstrate how extremists use the political space of civil society, and elements of electoral democracy, to oppose and challenge the freedoms that have come with democratisation. These groups are connected with some of the most regressive elements that continue to populate some state agencies. So far, they have not managed to destroy the political basis of these new democracies. But to see how the political space of civil society was used to re-establish authoritarianism in a Southeast Asian “democratic success story” of years past, we only need to turn our eyes to Thailand’s decade of high-octane political contestation.

Thailand: civil society for military dictatorship


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The Yellow and Red Shirts of Thailand

Thailand’s recent political mobilisations have been designated by the colours that define their motivations. Their massive street demonstrations mobilised many, including NGOs and CSOs. The broad Red Shirt movement and the official United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship bring together supporters of electoral politics, those opposed to military interventions, and supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra. The Red Shirts, of course, developed to oppose the anti-Thaksin Yellow Shirt movement. The latter initially coagulated as the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), wearing yellow to announce their royalism. Yellow Shirts tend to support the status quo, are anti-democratic, ultranationalist, and supported the 2006 and 2014 military coups.

In the 1990s, Thailand’s civil society, dominated by middle class interests, gained a reputation for opposing the military’s domination. NGOs and CSOs also tended to support the liberalising ideas that permeated the so-called People’s Constitution of 1997. When Thaksin was elected under the rules of this constitution in 2001, his government gained the support of many NGOs and CSOs. This support was forthcoming because of Thaksin’s initial nationalism, and his attention to grassroots issues and poverty eradication. That early support quickly drained away, with Thaksin coming to be viewed as authoritarian and corrupt.

The PAD, which was formed to oppose and bring down the popularly elected Thaksin, came to include many CSOs and NGOs which, at the time, would have been bundled into the broad category of “progressive civil society”. As the anti-Thaksin campaign expanded, the middle class, including spokespersons for civil society groups, began to denigrate the grassroots. The latter appreciated Thaksin’s “populist” policies and, especially in the north, northeast and central regions, voted for his parties in large numbers. Mobilised Yellow Shirts vilified this grassroots support for Thaksin, labelling those who voted for his party as ignorant, duped or bought.

As pro-Thaksin parties won every election from 2001 to 2011, the Yellow Shirts began an inevitable shift towards the denigration of the electoral processes itself, while declaring themselves the protectors of “true democracy”. The Yellow Shirts—the PAD and its clone, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC)—emphatically rejected electoral politics, arguing that electoral victories amounted to a dictatorship of the majority. In the 2013–14, PDRC protesters opposed an election called by then prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Yellow Shirts blocked candidate registration, prevented the distribution of ballot papers, and tried to prevent voting on polling day. The PDRC argued that no election could be “free and fair” until the “Thaksin regime” had been destroyed. Their ultimatum was that the Yingluck government had to be thrown out, replaced by an appointed government and an appointed “reform” committee to purge those associated with Thaksin’s rule.

Backed by Bangkok’s middle class, including CSOs and NGOs, PAD and the PDRC campaigned for a “democracy” that rejected voting and elections. They wanted a greater reliance on selected and appointed “representatives”, usually opting for a royally- appointed government of “good” people. This paternalism was taken up by protesters, who claimed to champion transparency and anti-corruption while begging the military for a coup. Such Orwellian doublespeak was also in evidence when the military responded and seized power in 2014. The junta defined a coup and military dictatorship as a form of “democracy”. One pronouncement called on:

all Thai citizens [to] uphold and have faith in the democratic system with His Majesty the King as Head of State. [The] NCPO [junta] fully realizes that the military intervention may be perceived by the West as a threat to democracy and a violation of the people’s liberty. However, this military intervention was inevitable, in order to uphold national security and to strengthen democracy (emphasis added).

The result has been more than three years of military dictatorship that has narrowed political space and heavily restricted much civil society activism. Red Shirts had championed electoral politics, arguing that winning elections should count for something and reckoned that electoral democracy was the appropriate platform for political reform. Under the military junta, they have been demobilised, jailed, and repressed.

Interestingly, most of the PAD and PDRC-affiliated NGOS and CSOs have either supported, or at least not opposed, the junta. Some have continued to receive state funds. However, the relationship with the junta remains tense, not least because the junta sees some of these groups as contingent supporters, worrying about their capacity for mobilising supporters and considering them more anti-Thaksin than pro-junta. Few high-profile leaders of these groups have expressed regrets about having supported the 2006 and 2014 coups.

Complicating “civil society”

The travails of electoral democracy in Indonesia, Myanmar and Thailand are not unique in Southeast Asia. Certainly, any notion that increased national wealth results in a civil society that becomes a “natural” ballast of democratisation should be rejected. Democratisation does increase the space identified as civil society. However, this space is not always a stronghold of progressives. As a site of struggle, civil society can be occupied by groups that are anti-democratic, ultra-nationalist, and sectarian. As the experience of Thailand and other countries has made clear, much abstract talk of “civil society” runs the risk of crediting its constituent parts with a uniformly pro-democratic outlook that they manifestly do not hold.

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.

FELDA Global Ventures is bigger scandal than 1MDB, says Jomo

November 4, 2017

FELDA Global Ventures is bigger scandal than 1MDB, says Jomo

by Geraldine

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The Felda Global Ventures Holdings Bhd (FGV) scandal is bigger than the one surrounding 1MDB because it affects more people, opined prominent economist Jomo Kwame Sundaram.

“There is a tendency for everyone in the opposition to focus on 1MDB, but there is a lot of nonsense going on and it is not all 1MDB.

“The bigger scandal in my view, affecting more people, is FGV,” Jomo said in a forum titled “Envisioning the Future: Malaysia Beyond GE14” in Bangsar today.

He pointed out that Felda settlers took part in the “second biggest IPO (initial public offering)” in the world with FGV in mid-2012, but now the stock prices are less than 40 percent of their original value.

This has caused Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak to resort to giving Felda settlers “bribes” in the form of a RM5,000 replanting grant as well as instructing banks to forgive all their loans, he said.

“This underlines how sensitive the issue is,” he said.

Jomo stressed again that there are other scandals in Malaysia aside from 1MDB and even FGV, including the Gatco issue in Negeri Sembilan.

Amanah strategic director Dzulkefly Ahmad, another forum panellist, denied that the opposition only focuses on 1MDB. Dzulkefly said that Pakatan Harapan also focuses on the cost of living, GST, the Mara scandal and many others, including FGV.

When FGV was first listed, its stock price was RM4.55 per share. It is currently listed at RM1.83 per share.

FGV had also come under investigation by the MACC in June after its former CEO Zakaria Arshad was given leave of absence, and CFO Ahmad Tifli Mohd Talha along with two other senior management members were suspended.

‘Incompetent’ opposition

Jomo said that BN is likely to gain strength in the upcoming general election if things remain as they are now. “It is not as if BN, UMNO or the Prime Minister is very strong. Rather it is the situation of the incompetence of the opposition”.

Meanwhile, Jomo said that BN is likely to gain strength in the upcoming general election if things remain as they are now.

“It is not as if BN, UMNO or the Prime Minister is very strong. Rather it is the situation of the incompetence of the opposition,” he said.

This will lead to three-cornered fights, which will subsequently open a path for BN to secure a two-thirds majority, which he said will give the ruling coalition greater legitimacy and allow them to reform laws to suit its interests.

Image result for Malaysia's Most Corrupt Prime Minister Najib RazakThe Most Corrupt Prime Minister of Malaysia Najib Razak is poised to win a stronger mandate in GE-14 because of the incompetence of the political opposition, says Dr. Jomo

“The opposition, by being unable to unite, is going to give this government, arguably the most corrupt government we’ve ever experienced in my lifetime, a stronger mandate. That is, unfortunately, the dystopia we face (in the future),” Jomo said.

A Beleaguered Malaysian Prime Minister seeks Donald Trump and Theresa May’s Support to shore up his regime ahead of GE-14

October 5, 2017

A Beleaguered Malaysian Prime Minister seeks Donald Trump and Theresa May’s Support to shore up his regime ahead of GE-14

Politically Connected UK PR Company’s Contract With Malaysian Government Lurks Behind Royal Visit!

By The Sarawak Report

The British style is different to that of the United States.  Last month’s Najib visit was leaked in Washington DC a couple of weeks beforehand and when Najib presented his tempting deal to President Donald Trump, consisting of multi-billion dollar investments, his voice audibly trembled as he realised that the whole exchange was being filmed, shortly to be uploaded onto YouTube.

The President showed his contempt soon after by leaving Malaysia out of his South East Asia tour.

By contrast, Najib made it to London a couple of days later, had his half hour with Theresa May and was out again safely before anyone knew anything of the visit.  The detail of that Prime Ministerial discussion was, moreover, kept completely secret. Nevertheless, the evidence is glaring that behind both visits lay extensive and expensive PR preparation and Malaysian lobbying by hired agents with close connections to both the US and UK current governments.

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“Now we know what the short little visit to Downing Street was all about. But what has the UK been promised for sending over Prince Charles and what is a promise from Najib Razak worth?”

Malaysian Government Contract With UK Politically Connected PR Company 

In the case of the United Kingdom, Sarawak Report has received information that yet another politically-connected UK public relations and private intelligence company has forged a commercial relationship with the Malaysian Government to promote its image, particularly in Sarawak and Sabah, where there is building anger over Prime Minister Najib Razak’s refusal to review the almost non-existent oil royalties being paid to these key resource providing states.

The issue has now extended to Najib’s 2012 Territorial Sea Act, which was specifically designed to further limit Sarawak’s control over its territory to 3 nautical miles from its shore (whereas previously state control extended across the whole continental shelf) thereby taking federal control of Sarawak’s sea-based oil and gas deposits and other rich resources, including marine fishery and other minerals.

Najib has ignored growing demands by the state government of Sarawak, which has responded to popular opinion by asking for a review of these prejudicial arrangements.

Information made available to Sarawak Report makes clear that the company, which has strong connections with the British Conservative Party, has been contracted by Najib in a deliberate and secretive attempt to alter such negative perceptions in favour of the Malaysian Government.

The company promotes a variety of campaigning techniques, but what could be more effective than an old fashioned propaganda coup than the promotion of a Royal Visit, given this company’s clear connections with the present UK Government?

Prince Charles Forest Campaigner Used For ‘Trade Initiative’?

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HRH Prince Charles’ Visit to Malaysia — A strong endorsement of Malaysia’s Corrupt and Scandal ridden Prime Minister Najib Razak?

Today, a statement from the Palace confirmed that Charles is making the visit to Malaysia at the request of the UK Government. Evidence suggests that aggressive lobbying by Najib and his PR contractors has played its part.

It means that the world now certainly knows a great deal more about the content of Mr Najib’s secret discussions with Theresa May at Downing Street last month.  These will without question have included this matter of parading Prince Charles (and his wife Camilla) around Malaysia, inevitably providing a PR opportunity to a Prime Minister, who has spectacularly robbed his people in a world record theft.

Without doubt also there is a valuable quid pro quo in the background from the UK’s point of view, just as there was with regard to the visit arranged with President Trump.

Granted, Prime Minister Theresa May is anxious to demonstrate that the British Government can deliver unilateral trading agreements post-Brexit and that will have doubtless have been on the list.

However, it is also worth a very hefty bet that long mooted arms sales were also on the Downing Street agenda.  Najib’s promises to buy billions of dollars worth of Boeing passenger jets from the United States have echoed to the hollow ring of empty coffers, but it is almost certain that the Malaysian Prime Minister will have thrown out the same bogus line to the United Kingdom, which has been dancing around with various European rivals for several years, chasing supposed military contracts that Najib is at least pretending he is looking to complete.

After all, this veteran UMNO politician has become a cynical expert in playing first world arms-selling nations at their own game.  Even if it comes to naught, the Foreign Office mandarins behind this tawdry visit can expect a nice pat on the back and a chance to move on long before the sham becomes clear. And the PR companies involved can claim to have earned their Malaysian taxpayer-funded contract.

In return, the UK’s respected Royal Family has been pressed into service to cement the deal, providing Najib with the pre-election ‘validation’ he craves to project in the face of his international disgrace over 1MDB.

Snub To Myanmar Over Rohingya Implies Clean Bill Of Health To Najib!

It is plainly disgraceful that Prince Charles has been used in such a way and advised to travel across the world to shake hands with a kleptocrat before (even worse) being sent to visit the Governor of Sarawak, who is an even more egregious kleptocrat, responsible for destroying the rainforest that the Prince, who is a passionate enviromentalist and indigenous rights supporter, has long campaigned to protect.

After all, Sarawak and Sabah remain BN’s crucial ‘safe deposit’ of seats needed to prop Najib up in power.  The Malaysian PM is clearly determined to keep their oil money, whilst manipulating perceptions back into his own favour, as he hands out cheap bribes in the normal way.

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Even more disgraceful is the fact that this ‘validating’ tour of Malaysia sanctioned by the British Government has been accompanied by a deliberate and public snub of Myanmar, by means of an announcement that the Royal Couple have abandoned their plan to also visit, because of the treatment of the Rohingya.  Campaigners on this issue have made the point perfectly in their statements on the matter:

““To have someone of Prince Charles’s stature go to visit the country would be seen as a reward, and giving legitimacy to the government and the military that are currently violating international law,” said Mark Farmaner, Director of Burma Campaign UK.” [Reuters]

Fair enough.  However, instead the ‘reward’ has gone to the global class kleptocrat leader of Malaysia, who has been desperately seeking just this form of international endorsement in front of his electorate as he gears up for his next election.

There can be no doubt in anyone’s mind whatsoever how Najib will use the visit.  He, his spinners and propaganda media will declare that this British Royal ‘valediction’ proves what they have been claiming for months, which is that the DOJ case against him over 1MDB is just a cooked up plot by foreign bloggers.

If Prince Charles is willing to endorse him, they will ask, how can he possibly have been identified as having stolen billions of dollars from his people?

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The poke in the eye to Aung San Suu Kyi (pic above), who has struggled against the military in her country, is another boon to Najib, since he has recently started to posture as a champion of the refugees as a convenient way of forging further solidarity with his new friends in PAS.

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The Vietnamese Boat  People

The Malaysian PM wants people to forget that he and his government were initially responsible for one of the most vicious and cold-hearted rejections of these fellow Muslims in their plight, when Malaysia turned around several hundred in their sinking boats away from the safety of its shores, only to have most of them drown.  Najib made no apology for this outrage until Sarawak Report and others decried such atrocious and pitiless behaviour – and yet he now, thanks to his trade deal, Najib expects to be praised compared to Myanmar.

In Return For ‘Trade’ Must Charles White-Wash Najib And Green-Wash Taib to Sarawak’s Voters?

By traveling to Sarawak and politely shaking hands with the hierachy there, Prince Charles will be complying with one of Najib’s key pre-election priorities, which is to change the perceptions of that Christian state in favour of him and his Government.

The locals will be expected to  reassured through Charles’s presence that Najib is their best option and that he is looking after the concerns of non-Muslims after all, despite the cosying up to extremist Islamic action groups and their harsh agenda to turn Malaysia into an intolerant Islamic State.

Charles, who has long championed the rights of the indigenous peoples and Penan of Sarawak and deplored the greedy destruction of their natives jungle lands, will be lined up to shake the hand of another even more egregious kleptocrat, none other than Governor Taib Mahmud who is single-handedly most responsible for the felling of the Borneo Jungle and has stolen the vast majority of the profits gained.

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The  late Bruno Manser with a Penan Chieftain

As heir to the role of Head of the Church of England he will be publicly flagged up in Sarawak as endorsing a regime that has pushed back against the rights of the majority Christian population of that state: excluding them from power, taking their lands and treating them as second class citizens over the six decades since independence.

Sarawak Report suggests that Malaysians demand further details of Najib’s lobbying contracts with his politically connected UK PR company. Taxpayers have a right to know how much public money has been spent on yet another PR contract designed to covertly maniputlate peoples’ opinion at their own expense.

They should further be entitled to know exactly what promises have been made to the UK in terms of investment of Malaysia’s dwindling reserves of cash, on top of the enormous commitments their Prime Minister has already just made to the US?