The World Economy in 2018


December 26, 2017

The World Economy in 2018

ttps://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/world-economy-2018-predictions-by-michael-boskin-2017-12
 

In the tenth year since the start of the global financial crisis, the US economy reached a new high-water mark, and the global economy exceeded expectations. But whether these positive trends continue in 2018 will depend on a variety of factors, from fiscal and monetary policymaking to domestic politics and regional stability.

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Michael J. Boskin, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the T. M. Friedman Professor of Economics at Stanford University,Palo Alto, California

STANFORD – All major macroeconomic indicators – growth, unemployment, and inflation – suggest that 2017 will be the American economy’s best year in a decade. And the global economy is enjoying broad, synchronized growth beyond what anyone expected. The question now is whether this strong performance will continue in 2018.

The answer, of course, will depend on monetary, fiscal, trade, and related policies in the United States and around the world. And yet it is hard to predict what policy proposals will emerge in 2018. There are relatively new heads of state in the US, France, and the United Kingdom; German leaders still have not formed a governing coalition since the general election in September; and the US Federal Reserve has a new chair awaiting confirmation. Moreover, major changes in important developing economies such as Argentina, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil have made the future outlook even murkier.

Still, we should hope for the best. First and foremost, we should hope that synchronized global growth at a rate of just under 4% will continue in 2018, as the International Monetary Fund projected in October. Growth not only raises incomes, but also makes vexing problems such as bad bank loans and budget deficits more manageable. As former US President John F. Kennedy famously said in an October 1963 speech in which he promoted his proposed corporate and personal tax reductions, “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

For my part, I predict that the global recovery will continue, but at a slightly slower growth rate of around 3.5%. The two most obvious risks to keep an eye on will be Europe, where a cyclical upturn could stall, and the oil-rich Middle East, where tensions could flare up once again.

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Second, let us hope that the Fed, guided by the steady hand of its new chair, Jerome “Jay” Powell (pic above), will continue or even accelerate its monetary-policy normalization, both by raising its benchmark federal funds rate, and by shrinking its engorged balance sheet. And we should hope that economic conditions allow the other major central banks, especially the European Central Bank, to follow suit.

On this front, I predict that the major central banks will continue to normalize monetary policies more gradually than is necessary. The biggest risk here is that markets may try to test the Fed under its new leadership, for example, if inflation rises faster than anticipated.

Third, let us hope that the Republican tax package will, if enacted, deliver on its promise of increased investment, output, productivity, and wages over the coming decade. Here, I predict that the legislation will pass, and that investment in the US over the next few years will be relatively higher than if no action had been taken.

To be sure, whether investment will rise from its currently subdued level will depend on many other factors than the corporate-tax rate. But the tax package can still be expected to boost output, productivity, and wages. The question is not if, but when.2

If the full effects of the legislation are not felt before the 2018 or 2020 elections, that lag could prove politically consequential. The biggest danger is that its benefits will be delayed, and that its key provisions will be reversed whenever the Democrats are back in power.

Fourth, let us hope that governments everywhere begin to address the looming crisis in public-pension and health-care costs, which have been rising for decades. As social programs become costlier, they crowd out government expenditures on necessities such as defense, while generating ever more pressure to impose higher growth-suppressing taxes.

Europe, in particular, must not let its cyclical rebound lull it into complacency. Many European Union member states still need to reduce their government debt, and the eurozone needs to resolve its “zombie bank” crisis. Beyond that, structural labor-market reforms of the kind French President Emmanuel Macron is pursuing would be most welcome.

Unfortunately, I’m afraid that progress on structural reforms will be sporadic, at best. The danger is that slow growth will not lead to sufficient wage gains and job creation to defuse the ticking time bomb of high youth unemployment in many countries. Another risk is that reform attempts could provoke a political backlash that would be harmful to long-term investment.

Fifth, let us hope that the eurozone can avoid a currency crisis. This will depend largely on whether German Chancellor Angela Merkel can form a coalition government and restore political stability to Europe’s largest economy.

Sixth, we should hope that the EU and the UK can agree on a reasonable Brexit deal that will preserve fairly strong trade relations. The main risk here is that localized declines in trade could spill over and cause broader harm

And, beyond Europe, let us hope that negotiations between the US, Canada, and Mexico over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) will result in an arrangement that still facilitates continental trade. For trade generally, the biggest risk is that the Trump administration could start a lose-lose trade dispute, owing to its understandable eagerness to help American manufacturing workers

Seventh, let us hope that new policies targeting information and communication technology (ICT) strike the right balance among all stakeholders’ competing and legitimate concerns. On one hand, there is reason to worry about certain Internet companies’ concentration of market power, particularly in online content and distribution, and about the effects of new technologies on personal privacy, law enforcement, and national security. On the other hand, new technological advances could deliver immense economic gains.

It is easy to envision a scenario of too much regulation, or of too little. It is also easy to envision a large-scale public backlash against the major technology companies, particularly if poor self-policing or a refusal to cooperate with law enforcement leads to some horrible event.

Here, I predict that achieving an appropriate policy balance will take years. If some future event strikes an emotional chord, the public’s mood could swing dramatically. Ultimately, however, I suspect that competition and innovation will survive the forthcoming regulations.

Finally, and most important, let us hope that terrorism is thwarted everywhere, conflicts subside, democracy and capitalism regain some momentum, and greater civility and honest dialogue return to the public domain. Should that happen in 2018, it will be a very good year indeed

Michael J. Boskin is Professor of Economics at Stanford University and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He was Chairman of George H. W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers from 1989 to 1993, and headed the so-called Boskin Commission, a congressional advisory body that highlighted errors in official US inflation estimates.

Old Dominance and new dominoes in Southeast Asia


December 14, 2017

Old Dominance and new dominoes in Southeast Asia

by Dan Slater@www.eastasiaforum.org

Not since World War II has liberal democracy seemed so deeply endangered in so many places. 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.

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Since most of the region is enduringly authoritarian to begin with, Southeast Asia is and always has been well on its way to being a democratic abyss. It is useful to distinguish the cases of existing dominance that establish that dismal baseline from ‘the new dominos’, which find themselves either tumbling or looking increasingly wobbly.

None of the region’s long-dominant authoritarian regimes appear deeply endangered at the moment. Singapore’s People’s Action Party is riding high in the saddle after its electoral–authoritarian landslide in September 2017. In Malaysia, so long as the ruling Barisan Nasional party can compensate for its high-level corruption with high-level repression, it seems likely to get away with it.

Commentators commonly fret that Hun Sen 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 ever brooked serious dissent in the first place.

Not coincidentally, in all four cases, old dominance is rooted in old authoritarian ruling parties. 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 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.

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A militarised past means a high potential for a dominoing present. Just as we can identify four clear cases of old dominance rooted in authoritarian ruling parties, four cases fit more readily in the ‘new domino’ category: Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand. In each case, there is a long history of parties failing to decisively supersede the power of the military, which left their democracies with relatively little institutional strength.

Could Myanmar soon follow Thailand’s recent path back to unchallenged military rule? Could the Philippines descend from its fragile status as an illiberal democracy to an outright one-man autocracy? 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?

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 undermine its own quality and even threaten its own survival.

Specifically, democratic procedures have a tendency to produce unbridled majoritarianism and unconstrained leadership unless there are powerful countervailing forces. In settings where liberal institutions and societal commitment to inclusive and cosmopolitan values are relatively weak, minorities exist at the mercy of domineering and abusive executives.

In Thailand, the rise of Thaksin Shinwatra did not lead to outright populist authoritarianism in part because the Thai military and monarchy saw fit to re-establish oligarchic authoritarianism. 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 Rodrigo Duterte has been for human rights, his defenders quite plausibly support a highly popular president responding to actual social ills like the drug trade.

But democratisation does not deserve the brunt of the blame for an ongoing calamity like the forcible expulsion and 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. Authoritarian legacies of militarisation in Myanmar and ethnic and ideological scapegoating in Indonesia best explain the severity of both countries’ nativist downturns.

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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. 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 the global crisis of liberalism and democracy is first and foremost a crisis of education. Heroic histories of mass urban mobilisation predict that if civil society is to help forge democracy, it will be by ‘people power’.

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, the world has reached a moment when its politics most urgently needs to be driven not by an exalted desire to maximise human freedom, but by the base need to minimise human cruelty. If educational institutions and mass media do not spread the message that even the lives of minorities and suspected criminals have value, who will?

Dan Slater is Professor of Political Science and incoming Director of the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan. This article originally appeared at New Mandala as part of a series on the challenges facing democracy and civil society in Southeast Asia supported by the TIFA Foundation, Indonesia.

 

Saudia Arabia puts itself in the bull’s eye


December 3, 2017

Targeting Islamic scholars from Malaysia to Tunisia, Saudia Arabia puts itself in the bull’s eye

By James M. Dorsey

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters file

By declaring the Qatar-based International Union of Islamic Scholars (ILUM) a terrorist organization, Saudi Arabia is confronting some of the world’s foremost Islamic political parties and religious personalities, opening itself up to criticism for its overtures to Israel, and fuelling controversy in countries like Malaysia and Tunisia.

In a statement earlier this week, Saudi Arabia charged that ILUM was “using Islamic rhetoric as a cover to facilitate terrorist activities.” The banning of ILUM goes to the heart of the Gulf crisis that pits a UAE-Saudi-led alliance against Qatar and is driven by United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed’s visceral opposition to any expression of political Islam.

The UAE for several years has sought with little evident success to counter ILUM’s influence by establishing groups like the Muslim Council of Elders and the Global Forum for Prompting Peace in Muslim Societies as well as the Sawab and Hedayah Centres’ anti-extremism messaging initiatives in collaboration with the United States and the Global Counter-Terrorism Forum.

The ban appears to have been designed to position Saudi Arabia as the arbiter of what constitutes true Islam and marks a next phase in a four-decade long, $100 billion campaign waged by the kingdom to counter Iran by spreading for the longest period of time Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism, that often served as an ideological inspiration for jihadist philosophy – an iteration ultra-conservatives have condemned.

ILUM “worked on destroying major religious institutions in the Muslim world, like the Council of Senior Scholars in Saudi Arabia and Al-Azhar in Egypt,” one of the foremost institutions of Islamic learning, charged Abdulrahman al-Rashed, a prominent Saudi journalist and columnist for Al Arabiya.

Al Arabiya’s owner, Waleed bin Ibrahim al-Ibrahim, was among the kingdom’s top media barons arrested in Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent purge of members of the ruling family, senior officials, and businessmen under the mum of anti-corruption.

“The terrorism project hiding under Islam launched its work around the same time organizations which issue extremist fatwas (religious legal opinions) were founded. Like al-Qaeda and ISIS (an acronym for the Islamic State), these jurisprudential groups said they refuse to be local as they view themselves as global organizations that cross borders. The most dangerous aspect of terrorism is extremist ideology. We realize this well now,” Mr Al-Rashed said.

The Council of Senior Scholars, despite having endorsed Prince Mohammed’s reforms in a bid to salvage what it can of the power sharing agreement that from the kingdom’s founding granted his ruling Al Saud family legitimacy, is a body of ultra-conservative Islamic scholars.

Various statements by the council and its members critical of aspects of Prince Mohammed’s economic and social reform since his rise in 2015 suggest that support among its scholars is not deep-seated.

Prince Mohammed recently vowed to move the kingdom away from its embrace of ultra-conservatism and towards what he described as a more “moderate” form of Islam.

Speaking to The New York Times, Prince Mohammed argued that at the time of the Prophet Mohammed  there were musical theatres, an absence of segregation of men and women, and respect for Christians and Jews, who were anointed People of the Book in the Qur’an. “The first commercial judge in Medina was a woman! Do you mean the Prophet was not a Muslim?” Prince Mohammed asked.

Authorities days later banned pilgrims from taking photos and videos in Mecca’s Grand Mosque and the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina in line with an ultra-conservative precept that forbids human images. The ban was imposed after Israeli blogger Ben Tzion posted a selfie in Mecca on social media. Authorities bar non-Muslims from entering the two holy cities.

In a statement, authorities said the ban was intended to protect and preserve Islam’s holiest sites, prevent the disturbance of worshippers, and ensure tranquillity while performing acts of worship.

Founded by controversial Egyptian-born scholar Yousef al-Qaradawi, one of Islam’s most prominent living clerics and believed to be a spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, ILUM members include Rachid al-Ghannouchi, the co-founder and intellectual leader of Tunisia’s Brotherhood-inspired Ennahada Party, and Malaysian member of parliament and Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) head Abdul Hadi bin Awang.

Mr. Al-Qaradawi, a naturalized Qatari citizen who in the past justified suicide bombings in Israel but has since condemned them,  was labelled a terrorist by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt in June as part of their diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar. The UAE-Saudi-led alliance demanded that Qatar act against Mr. El-Qaradawi and scores of others as a condition for lifting the six-month-old boycott.

Mr. El-Ghannouchi was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2012 and Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers in 2011. He was also awarded the prestigious Chatham House Prize. Mr. El-Ghannouchi is widely credited for ensuring that Tunisia became the only Arab country to have successfully emerged from the 2011 Arab popular revolts as a democracy.

The banning of ILUM has, moreover, sparked political controversy in Malaysia. Karima Bennoune, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for cultural rights, recently noted a deepening involvement of Malaysia’s religious authorities in policy decisions, developments she said were influenced by “a hegemonic version of Islam imported from the Arabian Peninsula” that was “at odds with local forms of practice.”

“Arab culture is spreading, and I would lay the blame completely on Saudi Arabia,” added Marina Mahathir, the daughter of former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad

Critics of PAS  demanded that Mr. Bin Awang, President of the group, “come clean that he does not preach hatred” in the words of former PAS leader Mujahid Yusof Rawa, and called on the government to ask Saudi Arabia for information to back up its charges against the union.

Mr Bin Awang, referring to Saudi King Salman, asserted last week that he relied on the “Qur’an (for guidance) although the ruler who is the servant of the Two Holy Cities has forged intimate ties with Israel and the United States, because my faith is not with the Kaaba but with Allah.” One of the most sacred sites in Mecca, Muslims turn to the Kaaba when praying.

“Just like Qatar, PAS had tried to ingratiate itself with Iran in an attempt to cover both bases, along with Saudi. Now the chicken has come home to roost, and just like Qatar, global minnows like PAS find themselves caught in the middle between the two Muslim world influencers,” said Malaysian columnist Zurairi Ar.

Among other members of ILUM is controversial Saudi scholar Salman al-Odah, who was among clerics, intellectuals, judges and activists arrested in the kingdom weeks before the most recent purge.

With millions of followers on social media, Mr. Al-Odah, a once militant scholar, turned a decade ago against jihadis like Osama bin Laden and played a key role in the kingdom’s program to rehabilitate militants, but retained his opposition to the monarchy.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa.

https://mideastsoccer.blogspot.nl/2017/11/targeting-islamic-scholars-from.html

Rethinking Southeast Asian civil society


November 7, 2017

Rethinking Southeast Asian civil society

by Kevin Hewison@www.newmandala.org

http://www.newmandala.org/illiberal-civil-society/

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.

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.

Populism and the “Masters of Mankind”


October 31, 2017

Populism and the “Masters of Mankind”

by Roger Farinha*

Author *Roger Farinha immigrated to the United States in 1981 to New York City where he was soon after naturalized, going on to earn his Bachelors in the History of Modern Philosophy from Brooklyn College and his Masters in Liberal Studies from Fordham University. He subsequently lived an itinerant, rambling and searching life, leading up to his book “The Socratic Trucker,” from which adventure writing experience he developed a vision for an American and ultimately global social revival at newamericanspring.org. Today, Mr. Farinha works as diligently as possible, while having to maintain his working class livelihood, to introduce society and the world to this vision.

https://newamericanspringblog.wordpress.com/2017/10/27/populism-and-the-masters-of-mankind/

If Dr. Noam Chomsky is correct in his book Who Rules the World?, that the movers and shakers of policy on the highest level of the state are merely acting on their deepest interests as the “Masters of Mankind,” their agenda of “all [of the world’s resources] for us and none for anyone else,” and I think he is indeed right, then this group exercises the highest level of influence on present global affairs. If the idea of “conspiracy theory” is beginning to flash in the reader’s mind, I ask him and her to graciously suspend disbelief for the short duration of this article as I logically unfold the implications of this insight which was, in actuality, thoroughly illustrated by Dr. Chomsky in his valuable work.

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The first premise of my essay holds that there is a natural state of inequality in society, from the inequality of talents and aptitudes of individuals, to the inequality of wealth distribution. Let’s begin with that group of human beings who happen, per this state of nature, to sit on the very top of the wealth ladder—which position, as the reader must allow, must necessarily be held. It is even likely that today’s wealth elite has an unbroken lineage from the families of historical wealth, albeit those who have managed to stay on top of the trends of social change and continue to wield control, as I am about to demonstrate in the context of our information age. But while this segment of our human race might actually hold the real reins of power and are therefore our operational social “Gods,” in power if not in truth, let me attempt to explain the constellation of our world today from the perspective of groups of people and their own competing power aspirations, nevertheless playing into the hands of these “Masters of Mankind,” hereafter referred to as “Masters” or “Social Gods” for succinctness. For the central driving force common to all human beings is our will to power.

This essay therefore paints a picture of our current global social constellation from the perspective of the general human will to power, in the context of a world in which wealth amounts to power, and in the environment of a state of social inequality of wealth and its implications for social control:

Due to our information and connectivity age, global populist sentiment is on the rise as the People find themselves able to enter a common culture like never before in human history. This sentiment is merely the open aspiration of the common folk or averaged person to achieve real control over his and her life, opportunity, and flourishing. This yearning is particularly meaningful in America which historically claims to be a nation Of, By, and For the People. President Obama and Trump, for those who have not already got it, were swept into office on waves of populist (of the people) sentiment via their broad based, grass-roots appeal, although Obama squandered his opportunity to truly champion the people’s cause by becoming prematurely globalist. The temptation Obama fell into, of joining forces with a ruling class (hereafter referred to as our ruling elite) who are attempting to move the world forward and into a newly envisioned, historic unity which is not grass-roots in nature, represents a grave mistake in aspirational global leadership. For underlying their vision is a distrust and even a disrespect of the capacity of the common folk of the world to actually transcend their social differences and create a unified world outside of governmental leadership and top down economic pressure. I put the words “ruling class” in quotes in order to suggest that although this group of people are the direct administrators of governmental power, in actuality they only serve the family of the “Masters” mentioned above, so that their elitist vision of a unified world is really only encouraged and made possible through the blessings of the “Social Gods” via the economic privileges they are granted which support their elitist conceits.

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Trump on the other hand, while raw and unpolished and handicapped by his wealthier background, is genuinely trying to advocate for the American people via his more aggressive trade re-negotiations, albeit less competent attempt to return America to a manufacture economy and generally, to its mid twentieth century place of international economic dominance. Economic populists represent the aspiration of the grass-roots of our world for the most practicable control over life and flourishing. Trump, however, similar to other populist candidates in Europe, also represents some of the things that the global ruling elite rightfully despise. For the appeal of economic populist candidates is partly due to the fear and anxiety of their grassroots base as the people experience a sense of being forced into accepting too many differences among one another. Racial, ethnic, class, national and many other boundaries are too radically being blurred, against the survivalist anxiety of the people. Therefore are we experiencing a present global state of populist resurgence, particularly in the traditional democratic states of the world, and it is CRITICAL that the ruling elite reconsider their approach to their admittedly noble aim of seeing a unified world.

The debut of the smartphone is responsible for a new shift in American and even global social consciousness as social media enables people to mentally masturbate with others of their own social-political persuasion. This is only the first, natural reaction of people to the new possibilities of a new reality. For human beings naturally hope that in experiencing new connectivity, they might find that all the world really shared their own, self-centered perspective. This is so because all individuals seek to draw the world into themselves in their ego wish to see themselves as the god of others, the impulse which is at the bottom of our will to power. Reality soon takes hold, however, and the common people soon realize that they must somehow unite under a new sense of group consciousness, our present-day populist manifestations. This consciousness however only grudgingly embraces the whole as sub groups continue to hope that they might magically find that they in fact represented the whole of humanity per their god-complex. The evolution of populism hopefully therefore continues to a truer and more organic unification as group limitations and the general need for compromise continue to manifest, but only if it is lead with vision and wisdom by a social leader of spiritual caliber, one able to speak to and challenge the general human god-complex. For in the absence of such vision, eternal sectional strife and disintegration are just as possible.

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The governing elite as mentioned above, for example, are just as guilty of the illusion that they are the rightful rulers of the world since they are usually more educated, seated above the ignorant rabble and freed of the survivalist struggle. They are the professional ruling class, i.e., higher government officials, mainstream journalists, politically active liberal AND conservative billionaires, etc. They are just as needful of overcoming their ego-auto-eroticism, equally responsible for the loss of the Democratic Party in 2016 due to Obama AND Hilary’s ignoring the economic and social (or populist) anxiety of the American people, as well as the Republican Party’s loss to Trump for the SAME REASON. Not to mention that were the people more intimately connected with their governing class in Europe and America rather than being effectively treated as peasants to be dominated, the disruptive tactics of geo-political thugs like Vladimir Putin would have no foothold in the people to stir the pot of populist discontent. Putin, Bashar Al-Assad, Kim Jong-il, Ali Khamenei and others of course represent the third kind of god-complexes: the aspiration to world leadership through brash force, vailed and unveiled manipulation. These are the “Dictator Types” or “Political Thugs.”

This geo-social constellation is not clearly visible due to the blindness inherent in peoples’ god-complexes. For example, the general human wish to dominate all others, in the context of our new connectivity age, is responsible for traditional, “objective” journalism taking a hit as print news outlets, already stressed by the new digital environment, experienced cancelling subscriptions whenever journalists failed to echo the god-complex-based bias of their consumers. I put the word objective in quotes, of course, because no human institution has ever achieved true objectivism. Therefore in order to survive, journalism had to become more partisan if they wished to secure their market base in an environment of dying print. Eventually, with “objective” journalism compromised and the mainstream news becoming ever more skewed along the most general line of partisanship in America, the liberal verses the conservative, the American people have also grown more and more rigidly partisan in a tragic, feedback loop. This dividing effect which results from our human wish to be the god of others must have played right in the hands of the true “Masters” of mankind, in that the more they encourage division among their inferiors in power, the more they secure their own domination, much as crabs which are higher up in the heap benefit from the competition of the lower. Hence they may well have encouraged general populist infighting among the common people by pulling the strings of the elitist news-editors, who in turn manipulated their beat reporters and journalists via the career carrot to accentuate social differences.

This is why we have been seeing American populist aspirations restricted along liberal verses conservative lines, from the Tea Party to Occupy, from Obama to Trump. This is also why the American people are not seeing genuine representation of their common peoples’ interests as they send ideologues to congress and the house who obstruct one another. The people’s separation also results in electing presidents who, in the context of this obstructionist environment, are impotent against more entrenched, special interests which continue to pillage American wealth to the detriment of the middle class, the very basis of American liberty itself. The usurpations of these “special interests,” by the way, constitute one of the main streams of wealth which continue to feed and maintain the domination of our Masters as the ultimate underwriters of these “interests.” Going forward, finally, I see no reason why this highest wealth class may not attempt to elevate their domination from America to the larger world, via the global economic opportunities available via NAFTA and, more generally, the neo-liberal movement.

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To sum up so far, we have identified four group players in our global social constellation: the Masters, the People, the Ruling Elites, and the Dictator types. There is one remaining group, however, the most malignant in that they are capable of serving as the very instruments of our common destruction. These are the Covert Military Fascists who believe that the world is only fit for domination by the dauntless, the supermen. You will find them at the buttons of our greatest weapons, even of mass destruction, just itching to flex their muscles via their own god-complex-desire to dominate, so that our very global destruction may well be an inescapable result, as inevitable as our heap of crabs must necessarily collapse!

So what can we make of all this? How can we fundamentally change the mad direction of our dog-eat-dog world which might destroy itself through a mindless, competitive miscalculation? As mentioned above, by heeding the leadership of such a person who might speak to the very root of our human cancer in our god-complex itself. May we discover such a voice of leadership as we have providentially found the insight in this essay! As its author, I suggest to you the social re-direction pointed out at NewAmericanSpring.Org.