2017 — A Thunderous Clash of Politics, Economies and Policies


January 6, 2017

2017 — A Thunderous Clash of Politics, Economies and Policies

Martin Khor is Executive Director of the South Centre, a think tank for developing countries, based in Geneva.

The Paris agreement, which was adopted in December 2015 and which came into force in record time in October 2016 as a demonstration of international concern over climate change, may face a major test and even an existential challenge in 2017, if Trump fulfils his election promise to pull the US out. Credit: Diego Arguedas Ortiz/IPS.

The Paris agreement, which was adopted in December 2015 and which came into force in record time in October 2016 as a demonstration of international concern over climate change, may face a major test and even an existential challenge in 2017, if Trump fulfils his election promise to pull the US out. Credit: Diego Arguedas Ortiz/IPS.

PENANG, Jan 2 2017 (IPS) – Yet another new year has dawned.   But 2017 will be a year like no other.

There will be a thunderous clash of policies, economies and politics worldwide.   We will therefore be on a roller-coaster ride, and we should prepare for it and not only be spectators on the side-lines in danger of being swept away by the waves.

With his extreme views and bulldozing style, Donald Trump is set to create an upheaval if not revolution in the United States and the world.

He is installing an oil company chief as the Secretary of State, investment bankers in key finance positions, climate sceptics and anti-environmentalists in environmental and energy agencies and an extreme rightwing internet media mogul as his chief strategist

US-China relations, the most important for global stability, could change from big-power co-existence with a careful combination of competition and cooperation, to outright crisis.

Trump, through a phone call with Taiwan’s leader and subsequent remarks, signalled he could withdraw the longstanding US adherence to the One China policy and instead use Taiwan as a bargaining card when negotiating economic policies with China.  The Chinese perceive this as an extreme provocation.

He has appointed as head of the new National Trade Council an economist known for his books demonising China, including “Death by China: Confronting the Dragon”.

Trump seems intent on doing an about-turn on US trade and investment policies, starting with ditching the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement and re-negotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Other measures being considered include a 45% duty on Chinese products, extra duties and taxes on American companies located abroad, and even a 10% tariff on all imports.

Martin Khor

Thus 2017 will see a rise in protectionism in the US, the extent still unknown.  That is bad news for those developing countries whose economies have grown on the back of exports and international investments.

Europe in 2017 will also be preoccupied with its own regional problems.  The Brexit shock of 2016 will continue to reverberate and several European countries facing elections will see challenges to their traditional values and established order from xenophobic and narrow nationalist parties.

As Western societies become less open to the world and more inward looking, developing countries should revise their development strategies and rely more on domestic and regional demand and investments.

As North-South economic relations decline, this should also be the moment for expanding South-South cooperation, spurred as much by necessity as by principles.

2017 may be the year when resource-rich China, with its huge Road and Belt initiative and its immense financing capacity, fills in the economic void created by western trade and investment protectionism.

But this may not be sufficient to prevent a finance shock in many developing countries now beginning to suffer a reversal of capital flowing back to the US, attracted by the prospect of higher interest rates and economic growth.

Several emerging economies which together received many hundreds of billions of dollars of hot money in recent years are now vulnerable to the latest downturn phase of the boom-bust cycle of capital flows.

Some of these countries opened up their capital markets to foreign funds which now own large portions of government bonds denominated in the domestic currency, as well as shares in the equity market.

As the tide turns, foreign investors are expected to sell off and transfer back a significant part of the bonds and shares they bought, and this new vulnerability is in addition to the traditional external debt contracted by the developing countries in foreign currencies.

Some countries will be hit by a terrible combination of capital outflow, reduced export earnings, currency depreciation and an increased debt servicing burden caused by higher US interest rates.

As the local currency depreciates further, the affected countries’ companies will have to pay more for servicing loans contracted in foreign currencies and imported machinery and parts, while consumers suffer from a rapid rise in the prices of imports.

On the positive side, the currency depreciation will make exporters more competitive and make tourism more attractive, but for many countries this will not be enough to offset the negative effects.

Thus 2017 will not be kind to the economy, business and the pockets of the common man and woman.  It might even spark a new global financial crisis.

The old year ended with mixed blessings for Palestinians. On one hand they won a significant victory when the outgoing President Obama allowed the adoption of a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories by not exercising a veto.

The resolution will spur international actions against the expansion of settlements which have become a big obstacle to peace talks.

On the other hand the Israeli leadership, which responded defiantly with plans for more settlements, will find in Trump a much more sympathetic President.  He is appointing a pro-Israel hawk who has cheered the expansion of settlements as the new US ambassador to Israel.

With Trump also indicating he will tear up the nuclear power deal with Iran, the Middle East will have an even more tumultuous time in 2017.

Some countries will be hit by a terrible combination of capital outflow, reduced export earnings, currency depreciation and an increased debt servicing burden caused by higher US interest rates.

In the area of health care, the battle for affordable access to medicines will continue, as public frustration grows over the high and often astronomical prices of patented medicines including for the treatment of HIV AIDS, hepatitis C, tuberculosis and cancers.

There will be more powerful calls for governments to curb the excesses of drug companies, as well as more extensive use of the flexibilities in the patent laws to counter the high cost of medicines.

Momentum will also increase to deal with antibiotic resistance which in 2016 was recognised by political leaders meeting at the United Nations to be perhaps the gravest threat to global health.

All countries pledged to come up with national action plans to counter antibiotic and anti-microbial resistance by May 2017 and the challenge will then be to review the adequacy of these plans and to finance and implement them.

The new year will also see its fair share of natural disasters and a continued decline in the state of the environment.  Both will continue to be major issues in 2017, just as the worsening of air pollution and the many earthquakes, big storms and heat-waves marked the previous few years.

Unfortunately low priority is given to the environment.  Hundreds of billions of dollars are allocated for highways, railways and urban buildings but only a trickle for conservation and rehabilitation of hills, watersheds, forests, mangroves, coastal areas, biodiversity or for serious climate change actions.

2017 should be the year when priorities change, that when people talk about infrastructure or development, they put actions to protect and promote the environment as the first items for allocation of funds.

This new year will also be make or break for climate change.  The momentum for action painfully built up in recent years will find a roadblock in the US as the new President dismantles Obama-initiated policies and measures.

The Paris agreement, which was adopted in December 2015 and which came into force in record time in October 2016 as a demonstration of international concern over climate change, may face a major test and even an existential challenge in 2017, if Trump fulfils his election promise to pull the US out.

But Trump and his team will face resistance domestically including from state governments and municipalities which have their own climate plans, and from other countries determined to carry on without the US on board.

Indeed if 2017 will bring big changes initiated by the new US administration, it will also generate many counter actions to fill in the void left in the world by a withdrawing US or to counter its new unsettling actions.

Many people around the world, from politicians and policy makers to citizen groups and community organisers are already bracing themselves to come up with responses and actions.

Indeed 2017 will be characterised by the Trump effect but also the consequent counter-effects.

There are opportunities to think through, alternatives to chart and reforms to carry out that are anyway needed on the global and national economies, on the environment, and on geo-politics.

Most of the main levers of power and decision-making are still in the hands of a few countries and a few people, but there has also been the emergence of many new centres of economic, environmental and intellectual capabilities and community-based organising.

2017 will be a year in which ideas, policies, economies and politics will all clash, thunderously, and we should be prepared to meet the challenges ahead and not only be spectators.

Democracy in Southeast Asia: A Conversation Between Michael Vatikiotis and Bridget Welsh


December 31, 2016

Democracy in Southeast Asia: A Conversation Between Michael Vatikiotis and Bridget Welsh

http://thcasean.org/read/articles/319/Democracy-in-Southeast-Asia-A-Conversation-Between-Michael-Vatikiotis-and-Bridget-Welsh

Journey through the ebbs and flows of democracy in ASEAN via a conversation between Michael Vatikiotis, a veteran journalist and writer living in Singapore, and Dr. Bridget Welsh, who is a Senior Associate Fellow of the Habibie Center in Jakarta. Their conversation on the state of democracy in Southeast Asia traces the history of the push for democracy in the different countries of the region, current challenges and future prospects. (This article is first published in special issue.)

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Michael Vatikiotis is a writer and journalist living in Singapore. After training as a journalist with the BBC in London, he moved to Asia and was a correspondent and then editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review. He has written two novels set in Indonesia.

Image result for Michael VatikiotisMichael Vatikiotis

Dr. Bridget Welsh is a Senior Research Associate at the Center for East Asia Democratic Studies of the National Taiwan University; a Senior Associate Fellow of the Habibie Center in Jakarta; and a University Fellow of Charles Darwin University in Darwin, Australia. She analyzes Southeast Asian politics, especially Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, and Indonesia.

Image result for bridget welsh national taiwan universityDr. Bridget Welsh

Bridget Welsh (BW): Michael, why don’t you begin. Where do you think the state of democracy is in the region?

Michael Vatikiotis (MV): Well, if you take a glass half-full approach, then I suppose you would look at the long arch of history of democracy over the last 40 years. I argue that in many countries of Southeast Asia there has been a gradual improvement in the forms of governments that have begun to look more and more institutionally like functioning democracies.

So to break that down, you have of course a wave of democratization that began with the People’s Power revolution in the Philippines in mid-1980s which was itself an outgrowth of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution in the mid-1970s that sparked what Samuel Huntington called the ‘third wave of democratization.’ This eventually reached the shores of Southeast Asia and manifested itself initially in left wing movements, student disruptions and protests in mid 1970s. Thailand saw a crackdown on student movements that led to people fleeing into the jungle and joining the communist insurgency. Similarly in Indonesia, there was the Malari incident which led to a crackdown on campus politics. In Malaysia too, there was a student agitation in the mid-1970s. By the early 80s things had come to a head in the Philippines with the implementation of martial law, the corruption of Marcos’ rule and the deep sense of unease that many people felt because of the way that they were treated by Marcos, either arrested, detained or worse. In 1983, with the murder of Benigno Aquino as he stepped out of a plane from Taiwan at Manila Airport, these finally weld up into a massive popular protest.

At the time I was a young journalist in BBC. I remember covering it from London, and it was a very exciting time, especially the whole notion of ‘people’s power.’ This was well before any of the colored revolutions that have taken place in this century. This was before the end of Cold War. It was also the very first time that CNN had covered this sort of story so far away with live camera shots of the protests. There was a sense that nothing like this had really happened before in postcolonial Southeast Asia. It was shown and reported in a very vivid manner and it also very quickly brought an end to very despotic ruler. Within a matter of weeks Ferdinand Marcos was on a plane to Hawaii.

As a side note, I think it was also very important time because up until the mid-1980s, the United States and other Western powers firmly back autocratic regimes because they were anti-communist. This changed with the ‘people’s power’ revolution on the streets of Manila. The color of the revolution was yellow, not red. You had this mild-mannered widow of Benigno Aquino who took over. She was not threatening. She didn’t seem to be communist. This allowed the United States and other Western powers to embrace a popular revolution without having to abandon their sort of anti-communist credentials. There was a sense of relief that they didn’t have to support an autocrat, because he was anti-communist.

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This set the region on the path where people expected greater openness and democratization, but it was a faltering path. It led in 1989 to a rash of students protests in Indonesia, where there was pressure on Indonesia’s government to become more open. Soeharto grudgingly allowed more openness, but it did not really bring about democratization. Similarly in Malaysia, we saw attempts to have more open system. This was met by a crackdown in Operation Lalang. Initial pressures on governments to be more open did not really work. Most tragically in Burma, the 1988 student uprising which did take its inspiration directly from ‘people’s power’ failed, spectacularly and tragically so with a huge loss of life. The assumption that ‘people’s power’ would lead to greater democratization essentially let us all down and we experienced another decade of demi-democracy at best.

Then we had the financial crisis. In 1997 there was another round of turmoil, and again there were assumptions made about the impact of the economic financial crisis on the way it would affect authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes. It was assumed that now governments would need to be reformed, need to open up and be more transparent; and better serve the people. There was pressure in Malaysia. Obviously, what happened in Indonesia was the Soeharto regime fell, collapsed under the weight of its own authoritarian inefficiency. However, once again, we all felt that there was going to be a democratic dividend from the financial crisis. If one recalls the first few years of the Indonesia transition, the initial two or three years were disappointing. You essentially had a bunch of people who had served Soeharto who basically changed their shirts and became democrats all of sudden. There was marginally more open government, but it took at least five years for the reform period to have an impact. Decentralization of government in 1999 was a first good step. But, do not forget there was also a lot of violence associated in the reformasi period in Indonesia. Many people were generally unhappy with the first few years of that period.

There was no real democratic impact on the rest of the region. Burma continued to be ruled by a nasty military regime. Mahathir continued to rule the roost in Malaysia. In the Philippines during this period there was several setbacks to democratic government in a form of attempted military interventions and impeachments of politicians. So again, while there were these promises of reform and democratization, the overall regional democratic impact was less than expected.

BW: I think if we look at the situation now, we have three different patterns. The first of which is a democratic deficit in the region’s more democratic countries, namely Indonesia and Philippines. Here there are demands for better governance that are not being met by democratic governments. This is true particularly over the issue of corruption, but this extends to social services and economic policies that are not addressing the needs of the masses. This has fueled authoritarian nostalgia, support for more autocratic rule. This was evident in Indonesia’s 2014 election and more recently with the election of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. Large shares of these societies want more strongman rule because of a lack of effective democratic governance. Furthermore, democratic conditions in democracies are contracting, with the rise of intolerance toward minorities and violations of civil liberties.

The second trajectory is the continued stranglehold of one party dominant systems in the region.  This is the case in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and, of course, Singapore. The trend has been increasing use of authoritarian measures against opponents. While opposition in all of these countries has expanded with greater access to information and rising aspirations of new generations, perhaps with the exception of Laos, Southeast Asians governments have used their control of political systems to stay in office. From the manipulation of electoral rules to arrests and control of the media, the incumbents are holding on. Some of these measures are more blatant than others, such as Malaysia’s Najib Tun Razak’s government’s arrest of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and more recently the imprisonment of Bersih chairperson Maria Chin-Abdullah for ‘terrorism,’ but the trend has been across the region. We have witnessed a broad democratic recession in Southeast Asia in the past five years, especially in the one-party dominant countries.

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A Thai Protester

The third pattern is one of regime change in two Southeast Asian countries. The first is military takeover in Thailand with the May 2014 coup. The Prayut government has arguably been one of the most repressive military governments in Thai history, with fear and repression deeply felt. Sadly, the other country affected by Huntington’s third wave, which began democratizing gradually from the late 1980s, is serving as the prime example of the region’s growing authoritarianism. The second has been in Myanmar, where the election of Aung San Suu Kyi National League for Democracy (NLD) has fundamentally opened up the system.  Myanmar is facing the same troubles you spoke about just now after 1999 in Indonesia. There is violence especially on the periphery, contributing to the serious humanitarian conditions of the Rohingyas, and other concerns for ethnic minorities. There are real challenges in weakening the power of the military as well, which extends to the economy as well as security situation. Democracy in Myanmar remains fragile.

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Protest in Myanmar

MV: The question to answer is why. If we move from glass half full at the end of last century to the glass half empty at the beginning the 21st century, the question is what can explain the democracy deficits? To be honest, it is quite hard to find a simple explanation that embraces the breadth of situations in the region. I believe we must categorize the failures.  I think the first failure is institutionalization. In all the countries where we see democratic progress, one of the weakest elements of the reform program has been institutionalizing the changes that have been made. That is mainly because the nature of political culture in Southeast Asia is personal. It largely involves groups of followers owing allegiance to individuals whether they are in bureaucracy or in the political establishment. There has never been a need to institutionalize these networks, because they are fluid and rest on a great deal of patronage. It is very paternalistic and in a paternalistic system you do not actually want to build an institution that would succeed you. I think this sort of combination of personality politics and leadership has contributed to a lack of institutionalization.

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For me, the best example is Indonesia. It is one of the tragedies of Indonesia. While there is no real question that Indonesia’s democratic foundation is firm, and no one would say that there is a danger of moving back to the system that they had before, an authoritarian leader would be unaccountable or even perhaps the military playing a role in politics. Although I think one can never completely rule these out.

BW: Indeed, we should never said ‘never.’

MV: Yes. If you look at the real weaknesses of the system and its hostage to extreme elements of prejudice whether they are racial or religion, it is because the political parties are weak. There are no platforms to speak of. The institutions for mature political debates and exchange are simply underdeveloped and not respected.

You have at the same time have successful decentralization. Many people would argue that the strengths lie here. The elections at regional and local levels are among the most successful. They are bringing forward the future politicians. They have already given Indonesia a president. Having said that, institutional weaknesses plaque Indonesia’s democracy and those of the region.

BW: I would take this issue of institutionalization a little bit further, Michael. It is not just about the relationship between the personal and institutions in places like Indonesia and Philippines and in political parties, but rather we see the weakening of political institutions that did exist. Previously functioning institutions have become personalized.

Perhaps the best example is that of Malaysia where the line between the dominant party UMNO and the system is not there anymore. Essentially all of the checks on executive power have been removed in a systematic way as power has become concentrated around the person who holds the executive office. The office is the person and the person is the office.  We see this pattern throughout the region, in Cambodia and Singapore as well. In the latter institutions function, but they closely reflect the leadership of the PAP.

MV: Well, I tend to agree, but I would break it down into two different factors. One is whether or not this was avoidable or unavoidable. I think in the case of Malaysia, it was avoidable, because the institutions and checks were working. Mahathir weakened many of them, with his very firm, autocratic sort of style of rule. Don’t forget there was this interregnum with Abdullah Badawi when many of different power centers and institutions came a life again because he allowed them to.

BW: Because he was so weak rather than due to any genuine desire for democracy. He needed to look like a reformer to win power, but when he left office there was actually very little substantive reform.

MV: Because he was weak. Najib came to power in 2009, essentially promising further reform. Many of people of the time including myself saw Najib as a competent parliamentary politician but weak. He was weak as a personality, and therefore did not seem as necessarily much of a threat if things would not go his way. As we see, things did not go his way. The precipice that Malaysia has fallen down from in terms of the undermining of the last remaining institutions of democracy essentially was brought about by the 1MDB scandal. He suddenly found himself led in that direction.

BW: Najib was doing the leading, he is the key person in the 1MDB scandal. He was weak and greedy and has abused his office to prevent prosecution.

MV: Exactly, because of that, the 1MDB scandal, he has completely turned everything on its head for democracy in Malaysia. He needs to defend his position to assure that he does not go to the jail. I have known Najib for many years. I do not recognize him now at all. He is the man who is actually more English than Malaysian. He does not even speak the Malay language properly, who essentially was led there because of the wife.

BW: There is this tendency to blame her, as women are often blamed. It is a partnership. For me he is the prime minister and he is ultimately responsible.

MV: Fundamentally he is weak. for whatever reason. He is never going to stand up either to his wife or to anything that is the least bit trouble and so therefore everything had to change. The direction has to change. The thing that I least understand and this gets back to the what we said earlier, is why there has not been any real opposition to him. Najib is not a particularly strong person. I know that a lot of people have talked about the use of the money and the payments that have been made to keep people in line. This is the idea that people are selfishly essentially going along with it because why bother to resist, why make trouble for yourself when you could essentially make money out of this situation. In that sense I shift the blame a little bit away from Najib onto a generation of politicians, many of whom I knew when they were quite young, who essentially don’t appear to have any moral principles either.

BW: Well, I think there is something more fundamental going on. There is no question that in a serious moral vacuum in terms of the incumbent Malaysian leadership. I would extend this to the Islamist party as well, that has turned away from decent political principles and in effect endorsed corruption. I would say, however, that this is not just about the politicians. It is about the whole state-business nexus, the way the economies in the region work. They are driven by those who control political power, and businesses have very strong crony relationships that feed corruption and buttress incumbent elite rule. Look at the Economist’s list of the top countries in the world for crony-capitalism. The proportion of Southeast Asian countries in top is striking, Malaysia is no.2; Philippines is no. 3 Singapore is no. 4; Indonesia is no 7 and Thailand is no 12.

MV: This is the second factor that I was going to bring up after institutionalization, the utter selfishness of elites. They really do not care. If you take the corruption issue, why would you address corruption when in a case of Thai, Cambodian, Malaysian or Indonesian elite, it means you would have to queue up; it means you would have actually dismantle this system that essentially enhances your status and gives you a privileged position. Why would you dismantle a system where you benefit from it so directly? You just perpetuate it; it keeps your family and your relatives basically in a much better position than everyone else. This has been going on for decades, and this has meant that whatever happens to the economy, there is a consistent and very discernible increase in inequality. Even with the middle class now, the middle class now is so far remote in terms of income from members of elites in many of these countries. The elite share of the amount of money accumulated perpetuates their position. They can buy whatever political process, whether is semi-democracy or even a more democratic context. They can simple buy their way into power.

BW: I think you place too much emphasis on individual politicians in the system. The political-economic relationship has evolved for years, shaped by decades of business-political ties. The structure is as important as the agents.

MV: We have variation. In Indonesia, you have a much more horizontal society because of the geography. You have more cities of more than a billion than another part of the region, and that actually breaks things out a little bit.

BW: Agreed, but Indonesia is still very hierarchical. At a fundamental level, they are few incentives to engage in fundamental economic and political reforms. The role that elites, especially business elites play, should not underestimated. When we look at a place like Malaysia and its trajectory, the business elites have been Najib’s enablers, his bankers and business partners. This extends across borders. Businessmen prefer to work with someone who they can pay off and make a deal with. Najib as minister of finance was the par excellence deal maker. Sadly, most Malaysians have been on the losing end of the deals.

MV: I think this brings us to the third reason for the region’s democratic deficit: a complete lack of sufficient counterbalance by the rule of law to political or corporate power. I have seen this situation fairly close up in Malaysia, in Thailand, less so in Indonesia. There are huge problems with a functioning judiciary. You see this in Thailand in particular, where there has been aggressive politicization of the judiciary. There is a misplaced sense that the judiciary should be politically controlled rather than apply moral pressure to the corrupt politicians. In a case of Malaysia the judiciary was one of the strongest institutions bequeathed by the British at the end of colonial period. It is striking to go back and look at some of the High Court decisions that were made in early years of independence, cases that were referred to the High Court of United Kingdom before Mahathir stopped this practice. Kelantan actually tried to bring a case to a High Court to succeed before the Federation was fully formed. That case was allowed. None of that would not happen today.

BW: Never said ‘never’. Pressures in East Malaysia are growing.

MV: Indeed, never said never. Nevertheless, the insufficiency of the law to provide a check and balance on what we talked about earlier in terms of weak institutions and elite power is a major factor in the deficit of democracy.

BW: I’m not sure whether or not this is also a reflection of public opinion. We find in multiple surveys that many Southeast Asians do not support checks and balances such as an independent judiciary in any meaningful sense. I am drawing from the Asian Barometer Survey. Southeast Asians do not conceptualize horizon accountability with check and balances, because in part of the legacy of strongman rule and the personalized and hierarchical nature of politics that we spoke about earlier. The problem goes beyond the judiciary. It is the lack of other effective horizon accountable institutions such as independent election commissions and anti-corruption bodies. These institutions do not have any real power in most of the countries of the region. Southeast Asians have few meaningful checks within the system. Laws surrounding these bodies are often manipulated in a very fundamental way to suit those in office. It is a vicious cycle, the lack of operating checks contributes to a lack of support of these institutions and further political manipulation of these institutions for political ends.

MV: We have to consider the other side of situation which are the responses by ordinary people. This is much less clear. For example, impunity is another major problem in Southeast Asia. The lack of resolution of issues does not mean people do not suffer and do not want redress. Throughout this period, there have been successful ways in which civil society has brought pressure and staved off, in some cases, some of the worst excesses or abuses of power. It is not completely a black and white picture. I would say that civil society has in some cases made considerable progress. But, maybe not enough, as they too have hampered because by the strong or selfish grip of elites in the system. They are often just scratching at the surface of some of the problems. Nonetheless it is important to acknowledge the aspirations of people and those who have been on the frontline in the struggle for democratic change.  In the thirty plus years I have been in the region, I have met some of the most inspiring people who work in small NGOs, small law offices or in opposition political parties. They really struggle. It is not always a violent struggle, although at times it is. We see Southeast Asia punctuated time and time again by needless violence, more often than not violence for political reasons. It is very often a mundane, sometimes lonely, fight for change.

BW:  I think you quite rightly point to the bravery of ordinary people. Here too, however, when we look at society, we see two very worrying trends. The first of which has been the deepening of political polarization across the region, the red and yellow shirts. You talked about the yellow shirts of the Philippines in the 1980s. Now we have open clashes in Thailand and Malaysia, large splits in Cambodia and Singapore with very different perspectives shown in survey research and divides in Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines as evident in recent elections. Even in Myanmar where everybody talks about the Aung San Suu Kyi’s ‘landslide,’ she only won 57% of the popular vote. Prabowo almost won in Indonesia in 2014. Duterte only won with 38% of the vote. Across the board in Southeast Asia, we have very deeply politically polarized societies. Governments often use this polarization to their advantage, either to as an excuse for intervention in the case of Thailand or they perpetuate this polarization in a place like Malaysia. Divisions are used as a way to justify authoritarian rule and perpetuate their power in the name of stability. Sadly, large shares of the political aspirations of Southeast Asian societies have been dismissed politically, as they are being so economically as well.

MV: Yes, I think the polarization has always been there. Now certainly there is a greater ability to mobilize and simultaneously to exploit the polarization as you pointed out. I think one of the things that interests me about the polarization is the limited channels for addressing differences and grievances. I am struck by the steady narrowing of opportunities for different ideologies, for the ideology of sort of the socialist’s nature that would revive channels for people to actually ask for more in a political context. The collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War is still to a large extent being felt across the Southeast Asia. This great fear of the left wing persists.  What is happening is that people channel a lot of the polarization into sort of racial or religion sentiments. The reality is that people do suffer and despair under the weight of equality. They yearn for some kind of inspiration, a motivational ideology that gives them an avenue for protest. If it is in fact cut off because communism is still banned in places such as Indonesia, or frowned upon the Philippines and Thailand. In Thailand the leader of the red shirts is in fact a former communist. She has tried to establish a party that aspires to represent the massive of people. It is very difficult then to actually channel that polarization into something less violent, more constructive.

BW: We know that in terms of research, most Southeast Asians conceptualize democracy in terms of equality disproportionately compared to other parts of the world. We also know that there are no real substantive open policy debates taking place in most of the region’s political environment. Admittedly, there are some areas and some pockets that we do not want to dismiss those, but at the sense of meaningful discussion of the directions of development policy or allocations of funding, there are real discussion vacuums. In the last five years especially, a lot of government policies had been low hanging fruit, basically throwing money to stave off problems. If there is one area that has been focused it has been infrastructure, hard development, an area that has created few jobs for the region’s youth and reinforced corruption. Regional governments are not meaningfully dealing with underlying challenges that these countries are facing in terms of moving their economies forward and transforming their societies towards the future, especially for the younger generations. The promise of greater social mobility is not being realized.

A second worrying concern in society involves the violations of others by members of society themselves.  Disproportionately, governments are not intervening on the significant human right violations that are being conducted by non-state actors, whether they are in the name of religion, drugs or greed.

MV: That is true. Let me come back to that. There is something else needs mentioning. In the early period of independence in Southeast Asia, many of these countries were conceived of as democracies, the pre-1965 period in Indonesia, pre-1962 period in the Burma, even in the very first year after 1954 in Cambodia. These formation democracies were led by a group of people who had been imbued with the notion of democracy from the outside. They had received education outside. If you look at some of the early leaders of Indonesia, they were essentially were Fabian Socialists. They brought these values to the establishment of the republic. That had all gone by the 1980s. One of the things that I find most interesting about what is driving this democratic deficit is the emergence of a generation of leaders who actually did not share democratic values in the same way. They simple didn’t. Mahathir never went to the West for his education. Lee Kuan Yew is another example. The whole ‘Asian values’ debate in the 1990s, was built around a lot of resentment and frustration by a generation that succeeded the founding fathers. In a patronizing way, the departing colonial powers left it to the founding leaders to set up democracy, because they were imbued the same values. That was all gone by the 1980s. Instead you have a generation who were imbued with traditional notions of power and politics.

BW: I think you continue to place considerable emphasis on leaders and their values. For me, this was broader, it was about the wealth they were accumulating and the synergy between economic and political power. Many of these leaders allied with business and other elites, and were willing to challenge those that challenged them. They were not really willing to share power.

MV: The successive generations emerging in power were not imbued in these democratic values. That is why it was very difficult for them to accept change or reform.

Now we come to the issue of human rights. In my view Southeast Asians have a really good sense of survival, family and land. Security for themselves and their families was the most important. Very often these things are prioritized against more universal things you think might be important to people. You know, if you look at the victims of 1965 in Indonesia, maybe what they want in return is not so much justice, but compensation.

BW: There should not be a trade-off. They should get both.

MV: They should get both, but I think in the end what people often settle for is the material and not the other. There helps us understand the issue of human rights not being enshrined or carried out properly. Weak institutions and power holders are simply not interested. You also have a society that is unfortunately less interested than you expect them to be in pushing for these things.

BW: Advocated for human rights are clearly minority across Southeast Asia, but this is not as simple as you suggest. A majority of Southeast Asians want better, fairer and moral governments. It is much more than the material you suggest. Survey research in the Asian Barometer Survey provides insights. For example, there is no majority of public opinion supporting a secular government a single country in Southeast Asia, including Singapore.

MV: Indeed, the growth of Christian community in Singapore is one of the most understudied phenomena in Southeast Asia.

BW: I also think have the emergence of a religious nationalism that is intolerant and undemocratic. This is not just the extremism we associate with terrorism, but an intolerance that is eating away at the fabric of society. There are clearly counter forces, but the authoritarian rhetoric and closed education systems of many governments reinforce this lack of nuance, empathy and understanding. Civic education is missing, as many governments often work against creating problem-solving and critical thinking in their education systems. Many of the forces that are challenging democracy are coming from below, shaped of course by the institutional and leadership context in which they operate.

MV: Indeed, many dynamics are coming from below. In Indonesia there is more primordialism

BW: Well, it is broader than primordialism in my view.

MV: We have reached a point in the second decade of 21st century, where we have to all ask ourselves are we going to see incremental progress. Can we assume that these hiccups along the way for democracy that we have described will continue to be hiccups and ultimately these societies are reaching the goal of becoming more democratically countries? I am doubtful frankly. I see continuing cycles of upheaval. It is possible for instance in Indonesia that what we saw in the last couple of weeks, the ability of hardline extreme group to put pressure on a very popular elective president could see the undermining not so much of his legitimacy, but of his power. People will exploit the weakness of the presidency. They will not think of the institution of the presidency. They will simply think of their own interests. They all are thinking of their own interests. This could spin-off into a cycle of instability.

Similarly, Cambodia is facing elections in the next two years, the commune election this year and general election after that. It is clear that a younger generation of voters, increasingly a majority of voters, want change. It is also clear that the ruling party and Hun Sen is not prepared to provide them with that change. He wants his son to take over the prime minister eventually when he decides to retire. He wants to retire not according to the electoral schedule.

In Thailand, we have a military that is now entrenched in power. It is not likely that they will give up power in a time soon. There might be an election in 2018. In Myanmar as you point out democracy is fragile.

BW: Democracy is definitely stagnating. but let me take an alternative view. You may be doubtful about the future, but I am hopeful. I think these authoritarian leaders, the Najib, Hun Sen and others are not delivering on expectations either. There are very serious governance deficits in Southeast Asian societies, especially in many of those led by autocrats. This is why we have seen the democratic recession in the region; they are fighting to hold on. Today we have the big catch: we have a contracting economy. We have a very different global and regional economic conditions now. It is not increasing as it was in the 1990s or even in the 1980s. The democratic pendulum can swing back. I am confident it will. There are large shares of Southeast Asians ready to accept change, with the poles on the other side ready and waiting for the tipping point to move in their direction.

MV: I am doubtful. We had exactly the same conditions in the late 1990s, and there was no a hint of the time that there was a Duterte on the horizon or that the military was going to come back to power in Thailand. We cannot use that kind of analysis because economies contract and grow again; leaders do not rise and fall in that basis. We are not see the evidence of autocrats losing power. In fact, quite the opposite. Look at Duterte, who only basically decided to run for election a few months before the election itself. He is widely popular. This is in spite the death of four thousands or more people without the judicial process. We simply can’t predict that won’t happen again.

BW: Populist autocrats are a real possibility in democracies. This is happening across the world, especially in democracies. Trump’s election is case in point. Southeast Asia is different, as the dominant mode is more authoritarian governments rather than democracies. Authoritarianism rather than democracy will be targeted. Failures of economic reform are important and now more than ever this lack of economic and political reform is affecting the system. We are not in the 1990s. There is more information and reservoirs ready to embrace change, the excludes political poles. There is unprecedented pressure on autocrats in terms of their abilities to deliver and serious shortcomings in this regard. The leaders lack the same level of legitimacy than earlier leaders, with more impatient, diverse and demanding societies. This opens up the possibility for hope.

MV: It opens up the possibility but more people like Duterte will come along

BW: Maybe, maybe not.

Malaysia’s Megaphone Diplomacy


December 28, 2016

ASEAN has to deal a Jonah Najib Razak in its midst–Malaysia’s Megaphone  Diplomacy

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ASEAN’s Jonah–Najib Razak

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Earlier this month, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak made what many saw as a serious breach of diplomatic protocol when he spoke out against Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya — treatment that, in his view, amounted to “genocide”.

Such an act of megaphone diplomacy is almost unheard of among the ASEAN member states, especially coming from an ASEAN leader, and poses serious ramifications for the ASEAN region.

READ: http://www.malaysiakini.com/news/367351

Speaking at a mass rally that was organized to show solidarity with the Rohingya, Najib directly questioned the inaction of Myanmar’s State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, pointedly asking, “What’s the point of a Nobel Peace Prize?” and telling her, “Enough is enough!”

Najib raised more eyebrows when he called on Indonesia’s President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to join him, even making reference to recent Muslim protests in the Indonesian capital against the incumbent Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama. “Do not just protest against Ahok. The Rohingya should be defended in Indonesia,” he told Indonesian Muslims.

(Read also: Good reason to tread carefully on Rohingya crisis)

Jakarta has yet to respond to Najib’s move, but Naypyidaw has predictably condemned Malaysia’s interference in its domestic affairs. A day before the rally, an official in Myanmar’s President’s Office warned, “A member country [of ASEAN] does not interfere in other member countries’ internal affairs”, while a commentary by The Irrawaddy’s editor-in-chief was headlined, “Malaysia, Don’t Use Burma to Distract from Disquiet at Home”. The Myanmar government has since announced it was stopping its migrant workers from going to Malaysia and Suu Kyi has refused to meet Malaysia’s foreign minister.

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How, then, do we explain Najib’s move? What are the ramifications for the ASEAN region? What steps should Indonesia — as the region’s primus inter pares — take to not only restore ASEAN unity but also to help resolve the Rohingya issue?

Many have attributed Najib’s strong stance as a political move aimed at distracting the domestic public from the 1MDB scandal, as well as an attempt to burnish his credentials among the Malay Muslim voters ahead of upcoming general elections in 2018. Certainly, the recent Bersih 5 rally indicates that the 1MDB scandal continues to haunt Najib, who is also facing a sustained challenge by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad to force him out of office. Indeed, the latter has formed his own political party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, which will compete for the same Malay Muslim voters who have traditionally supported Najib’s UMNO (United Malays National Organization) Party.

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No Credibility for Malaysia’s Racist Prime Minister

Yet, it is important to consider the following facts. First, the rally attended by Najib also saw political leaders from the opposition PAS (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia) take part, meaning it had some degree of cross-party support. Second, the Rohingya issue was also previously discussed by the Malaysian cabinet. On November 25, the cabinet met to consider a proposal for its national soccer team to withdraw from a regional competition co-hosted by Myanmar.

While the Cabinet decided against the proposal — fearing FIFA sanctions — Malaysia’s Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin explained, “We will pursue other avenues in raising our concerns […] We will use diplomatic (means) that will be announced by the Foreign Ministry.” Here it should be noted that while the UMNO party dominates the cabinet, a number of positions are held by non-Muslim parties that would have no need to attract the Malay Muslim votes.

Third, on the day prior to the rally, the Malaysian Foreign Ministry issued its own strong statement saying, “The fact that only one particular ethnicity is being driven out is by definition ethnic cleansing.” Interestingly, when the statement was shared on the ministry’s official Twitter page, the hashtag #R2P (responsibility to protect) was also used.

While the interests of politicians and bureaucrats are often blurred in a country where UMNO has held power since 1957, one would imagine that foreign ministry officials would not so easily allow political considerations to harm the country’s foreign policy.

As such, it is clear that there is some sense of consensus among Malaysia’s political leaders and bureaucrats on the Rohingya issue that goes beyond an attempt to distract from a particular scandal and/or vote-winning ahead of upcoming elections.

Given the above, it is possible that more consideration has gone into Najib’s megaphone diplomacy than was initially thought.

While that may be the case, it is also clear that Malaysia’s stance has serious ramifications for ASEAN. For one thing, Najib’s appeal to Indonesian Muslims threatens to export his brand of religious politics to the ASEAN level and divide the region along Muslim versus Buddhist lines. This is not only foolish but dangerous in such a diverse part of the world.

His stance also represents a major departure from the ASEAN norm of not openly speaking about each other’s domestic affairs. By doing so, Malaysia threatens to open a Pandora’s Box, which may lead to Myanmar responding with its own difficult questions about Malaysia’s domestic problems. Such a situation, whereby member states start criticizing each other’s domestic problems out in the open, will do no good for ASEAN unity.

As mentioned before, we have already seen one ASEAN minister refusing to meet another and an ASEAN member state imposing a ban on its citizens from working in another member state. This is far from what should be happening during the first year of the ASEAN Community’s regional integration and requires urgent regional leadership to not only restore ASEAN unity but also to help resolve the Rohingya issue.

In this sense, Indonesia’s more nuanced approach should be welcome. While Indonesia has gone for more quiet methods, that does not necessarily mean it is brushing the Rohingya issue under the carpet. Jakarta recognizes that the focus should be on taking steps that will actually help the Rohingya. This can be achieved neither via megaphone diplomacy nor by offending Naypyidaw.

Indeed, there are deep-rooted, complex and multiple underlying factors that have led to the situation in Rakhine state. Only with the cooperation of the Myanmar government will an effective, long-lasting and comprehensive solution be found that appeases all stakeholders, including the Rakhine Buddhists, the Rohingya Muslims and the mostly Burman military.

Indonesia should thus continue to position itself as an honest broker that understands the complexity of the situation and that realizes this is more than just a religious issue. Its offer to dispatch humanitarian aid is a good first step.

The offer builds on Indonesia’s previous efforts that have led to the building of schools and a hospital in Rakhine state and demonstrates two points: on the one hand that Jakarta is rightly focusing on the practical needs of food, blankets, education, health care, etc., and on the other hand that Jakarta has earned the trust of Naypyidaw to even conduct such activities inside the volatile Rakhine state. In this sense, President Jokowi would do well to politely ignore Najib’s call to join him. There are better ways to address the situation in Myanmar.

 The writer heads the ASEAN Studies Program at the Habibie Center in Jakarta. The views expressed are his own.

 

 

 

The Fate of Game Changer Ahok–Mass Protests


December 14, 2016

The Fate of Game Changer Ahok–Mass Protests

The huge increase in protesters from the first to the third rally against Ahok can be explained by participant mobilization theory, A’an Suryana writes.

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Certain radical and conservative groups, claiming to represent Islam, have held regular protests against incumbent Jakarta Governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama alias ‘Ahok’, since he assumed office in 2015. However, it is only recently that their initiative has drawn a massive turnout of protesters, the latest of these being the rally on 2 December 2016. Why the sudden change?

The successful framing of Ahok as a ‘blasphemous Jakarta governor defaming Islam’ struck a chord among many Indonesian Muslims, which spurred their widespread participation in the “Defending Islam” rallies of the past few weeks.

David A Snow and Robert D Benford propose that a successful people’s mobilisation depends on whether the leaders of a movement complete three core framing tasks. First, the identification of the problem followed by the attribution of blame. Second, the identification of a solution, as well as the strategy, tactics and targets to attain it. Third, a call to engage in corrective action. The higher the degree of interconnectedness and robustness among the three tasks; the higher chance of the people’s mobilisation achieving success.

These rallies have their origins in the frequent protests that conservative and radical organisations, such as the Islamic Defender’s Front (FPI), had previously organised against Ahok, who is of Chinese descent and Christian. Through the protests, the organisations were framing Ahok as someone who was not fit to lead a Muslim majority capital because of his religion. The Quran, according to their interpretation, prohibits Muslims from supporting non-Muslim leaders.

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These initial protests attracted only a low turnout, principally because the participating organisations suffered credibility problems due to their earlier, frequent participation in mass violence.

But, the anti-Ahok movement finally gained momentum after their target delivered a speech in the Thousand Islands, north of Jakarta, in late September 2016. Seeking re-election, Ahok lashed out at some politicians whom he claimed have used the Quran’s Al Maidah articles to undermine his re-election bid. It was not the first time that Ahok had used the exact same criticism against his politics opponents. But this time, his criticism caused a backlash. Two weeks after the speech, a lecturer’s Facebook post regarding the speech triggered further political tension in the capital. Spearheaded by the FPI, conservative and radical Islam organisations swiftly seized the opportunity to up the ante against Ahok by organising a protest on 14 October in front of Jakarta’s City Hall demanding Ahok’s imprisonment for defaming the Quran. While drawing only a few thousand people, it helped narrow down the attribution of blame. Before this first rally, Ahok was already the target of protests on various issues: his style of brash and blunt speaking, the eviction policy that alienated him from the poor and his Christian identity that some radical and conservative Islam organisations used to label him unfit for office. But, at that time, the protest agendas were disjointed, and failed to resonate with lay people.

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The period following the 14 October rally saw these organisations’ portrayal of Ahok as a blasphemous governor gain ground and start to resonate among those who identify themselves as Muslim. An increasing perception that the police were sluggish in responding to the demands for Ahok’s imprisonment also aided the mobilisation.

Sectarian sentiment received a significant boost after some individuals established a movement claiming to represent the influential cleric body, the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI). This movement, which called themselves the National Movement Guarding MUI’s Edicts, joined forces with the FPI to arrange an even bigger rally on 4 November.

At this stage, following Snow and Benford’s proposition on core framing tasks, the two movements’ leaders reached a consensus that the problem had been identified, namely Ahok’s alleged defamation of the Quran. They were already resolute about the effective strategy and solution that they needed to pursue; pushing for the state apparatuses to arrest Ahok in the blasphemy case. The third task, calling for corrective action, was no longer a daunting one as Muslims were already hearing the messages amplified through the Muslim conservative’s networks or the media.

The two movements grew, materialized in two rallies on 4 November and 2 December, after gaining either open or tacit support from social and political establishments, such as political parties fielding candidates to challenge Ahok in the gubernatorial election, or big moderate Muslim organisations such as Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah. The social and political legitimacy that these organisations possess assured those identifying as Muslim that participating in anti-Ahok protests had merit. Together, these factors resulted in the massive turnout for the 4 November and 2 December rallies.

A’an Suryana is teaching this semester at the School of Government and Public Policy (SGPP), Sentul, West Java province.

http://www.newmandala.org/explaining-mass-anti-ahok-rally-turnouts/

Indonesia: Questioning our pride as a democratic, tolerant and peaceful nation


November 6, 2016

Indonesia: Questioning our pride as a democratic, tolerant and peaceful nation

by M. Taufiqurrahman and Kornelius Purba

http://www.thejakartapost.com/academia/2016/11/05/commentary-questioning-our-pride-as-a-democratic-tolerant-and-peaceful-nation.html

COMMENTARY: Questioning our pride as a democratic, tolerant and peaceful nation

Marching on: Muslims march along Jl. MH Thamrin during a rally in Jakarta on Friday. Around 100,000 Muslims took to the streets on Friday demanding the prosecution of Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama for alleged blasphemy. They called on the police to immediately detain Ahok. (JP/Wendra Ajistyatama)

We have long prided ourselves as the world’s third largest democracy after India and the US, and the country with the world’s largest Muslim population. The international community and global media outlets often describe Indonesia’s version of Islam as peaceful, tolerant and moderate.

We boast that violent, intolerant and radical Muslim groups are very small in number and influence. We believe that the country’s two major Muslim organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, are the legitimate standard-bearers of Islam in Indonesia.

We like to think that we are a pluralist society, a nation built on a foundation that disregards skin color, ethnicity and faith. We submit to the belief that we, as Indonesians, cling to the idea of “unity in diversity”.

On Friday, we woke up to the disturbing reality that we haven’t progressed very far from nativism and tribalism.

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“If they are too rich, too corrupt and too lazy – we just fire them,” the Governor of Jakarta says. His views on management are simple: sack bad employees, ...

The November 4 rally has exposed some of the ugliest parts of our politics, where skin color, ethnicity and faith become weapons to attack political rivals. With the presence of incumbent Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja “Ahok” Purnama, a Christian and a Chinese-Indonesian, it is easy to see and hear the racist undertones in the political campaigns of his rivals. While the demonstration proceeded peacefully, at least until the evening, it was shocking to see some protesters shouting horrifying phrases such as “kill Ahok”, or displaying posters reading: “Wanted: Ahok, dead or alive”.

Where were the leaders of NU and Muhammadiyah on Friday?Where were the leaders of the major political parties supporting Ahok’s reelection bid?

The mass protest was led by people widely known for their dislike, if not hatred, of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. Indeed, the hard-line Islam Defenders Front (FPI) led the rally, and lead the anti-Ahok movement.

FPI leader, Rizieq Shihab, an Indonesian of Arab descent, seems to have a personal grudge against Ahok, because the Jakarta governor is the only state official in the country who has the guts to demand that the central government dissolve the FPI.

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In the lead-up to Friday’s rally, scores of Ahok’s political rivals put Jakarta’s gubernatorial election in the context of a “holy war”, or crusade against an infidel, with people such as former Muhammadiyah chairman Amien Rais (above) urging Muslims not to vote for Ahok because he is a dajjal (a kind of anti-Christ).

Earlier this week, while flanked by a number of policemen, a protester, dressed in full Islamic garb, made a long speech and offered to give Rp 1 billion (US$76,900) to anyone who could kill Ahok if the incumbent governor visited certain areas in West Jakarta. Shortly after the speech, Ahok was forced to flee from a neighborhood in Rawa Belong in a public minivan after a group of protesters started to taunt him and demand that he leave the area where he was campaigning.

On Friday, protesters hung a massive banner reading “Hang Ahok Right Now” from a pedestrian bridge near Gambir Station. And the saddest part of this whole episode is that more than 100,000 people bowed to this violent rhetoric and showed up for the November 4 rally.

The Jakarta election should be about the programs that the candidates are proposing to solve the myriad of problems plaguing the capital, from severe traffic congestion and pollution to garbage collection problems, reclamation controversies and housing for the poor. But since the campaign period began in mid-October, we have heard nothing but calls for Ahok to drop out from the race on allegations that he insulted the Quran. And nothing fires up the political base of Ahok’s rivals more than allegations that he insulted Islam.

The rivals of Ahok, who will certainly reap huge political gains if Ahok drops out of the race as a result of Friday’s rally, certainly share some of the blame for fanning primordial sentiments to get what they want.

All of us, however, should take responsibility for allowing such sectarian sentiments to grow and fester in our democracy.

We have been complacent for too long, happy to think that the movements against Ahok, and those groups responsible for acts of intolerance and violence in this country, are only fringe groups who matter little in politics.

On Friday, we were proved wrong. These groups now hold the keys to the Jakarta gubernatorial election and, probably, the success or failure of our experiment in democracy.

The sharp-tongued Ahok often provokes anger for his direct manner. However, it is hard to deny, even for his most hostile foes, that under his leadership, Jakarta has progressed and improved.

But the allegations that Ahok’s programs are beneficial to the middle and upper-income class of people, many of whom are Chinese-Indonesians and non-Muslims, and harmful to lower-income citizens, are also not totally baseless.

It is a brute reality that there are Muslims who do not want to have a non-Muslim leader. Many Muslims complain that they are a majority in this country, but a minority in terms of economic access.

It is also understandable that many non-Muslims fight as die-hard supporters for the reelection of Ahok because for a long time they have felt, rightly or wrongly, that they are second-class citizens in this country.

Some of them even believe that Jesus sent Ahok to save Jakarta, and later, if elected president, Indonesia. No one can touch Ahok because God will not allow anyone to harm him, their thinking goes.

The leaders of mainstream religious or political organizations are out of touch with the social and political reality. They belittle the role of small organizations such as the FPI.

Is this because they are too afraid to confront the intimidation and intolerance of the FPI and their ilk, or because Indonesia’s mainstream leaders actually agree with these small groups?

 

Indonesian Islam: Neither White Knight nor Damsel in Distress


September 22, 2016

Asia Pacific Bulletin

Number 354 | September 22, 2016

ANALYSIS

Indonesian Islam: Neither White Knight nor Damsel in Distress

by Benjamin Nathan

In the fifteen years since 9/11, the attitude of the American media and foreign policy community towards Indonesian Islam has followed two parallel paths. The first is that Muslims in Indonesia have the potential to influence the thoughts and actions of Islamic extremists in the Middle East. The reasoning behind this viewpoint is easy to see: Indonesia is home to the world’s largest Muslim population, an overwhelming majorityof whom reject acts of religious violence. American policymakers from both parties naturally see this state of affairs as a useful diplomatic tool for combating extremism in the Middle East.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Paul Wolfowitz echoed this theme in 2009, writing in a Wall Street Journal op-ed entitled “Indonesia Is a Model Muslim Democracy” that “if [Indonesia] continues to make progress on religious tolerance, it can point the way for other majority Muslim countries.” In November 2015, The New York Times described a recent anti-ISIS media campaign led by the Islamic organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) as a “welcome antidote to jihadism” and as a solution to the problem that “Western leaders often lack credibility with those most susceptible to jihad’s allure.”

The second path of American thinking about Indonesian Islam is that Islamic extremists in the Middle East have the potential to influence the thoughts and actions of Muslims in Indonesia. This is an idea of Indonesia as a teetering domino, a fortress of religious moderation under internal siege from a worldwide pox of Islamic fundamentalism. In this view, the fact that 90% of Indonesians are Muslims makes the country vulnerable to radicalization, moderate as Indonesia’s mainstream form of Islam may be. In its 2016 budget, the State Department listed Indonesia as a “focus country” for its Antiterrorism Assistance and Countering Violent Extremism programs. The United States provides financial and technical support for Detachment 88, Indonesia’s most prominent antiterror group, and also funds organizations deemed capable of “grass-roots counter-messaging” against extremism.

These twin perspectives assume the potential for widespread, persuasive communication between Indonesian Muslims and their coreligionists around the world. This assumption is largely off base. Chief among its flaws is that cultural and religious disparities between Indonesia and the Middle East, while impossible to measure precisely, are stark.Indonesians speak not Arabic but Malay, an Austronesian language whose resemblance to Arabic consists only of a scattershot of shared vocabulary. Indonesian Muslims generally make a point of distinguishing themselves from inhabitants of the Arab world. The Indonesian term kearab-araban, roughly equivalent to “over-Arabness,” is not a term of respect.

Even if they could easily communicate with other Muslims around the world, Indonesians would have few opportunities to do so. Indonesians are simply not well-placed around the globe to influence the ideological tide of worldwide Islam. Indonesia’s diaspora, aside from those who live in neighboring Malaysia, is small relative to population size. Of the Indonesians who travel to the Middle East, most are female domestic workers. The Saudi government caps the number of Indonesians allowed to attend the annual Hajj pilgrimage at 168,800 per year –just .08% of the country’s Muslim population.

And even if it were conceivable that Indonesian anti-extremist rhetoric could dissuade Muslims around the world from joining groups like ISIS and Boko Haram, it would still be misleading to claim that organized Islam in Indonesia is an outstanding example of peace and tolerance that transcends historically-bound political conditions. The New York Timesarticle that called attention to Nahdlatul Ulama’s anti-ISIS efforts made no mention of the fact that the group played a central role in the murder of hundreds of thousands of suspected communists from 1965 to 1966. Its popular reputation as a moderate organization that “stresses nonviolence, inclusiveness and acceptance of other religions” is the result of an astonishingly narrow focus on the present day.

The reason why Nahdlatul Ulama and similar organizations no longer coordinate mass violence is that their institutional legitimacy is now secure-they face no challenge to their influence that compares to the threat they once faced from organized communism. Their professed tolerance is a result of political stability, not a cause. The historical record on this point is clear: when immersed in the power struggle of the 1960s, NU proved just as susceptible to the temptations of political violence as the extremist groups its leaders denounce today. It is therefore hard to imagine how Indonesia’s present-day brand of tolerance could take hold in such politically unstable regions as Syria and Nigeria.

The same factors that limit the usefulness of Indonesian Islam as a counterweight to extremist groups in the Middle East apply with equal strength to attempts by extremist groups in the Middle East to make inroads in Indonesia. The wide political and cultural reach of groups like NU and Muhammadiyah have provided resistance against the ideological incursions of Salafi proselytizers and the recruitment efforts of the Islamic State. Even as mainstream Indonesian Islam grows more conservative in areas like LGBT rights and inter-religious tolerance, its institutions constrain foreign radicalization.

ISIS, for its part, seems both unable and unwilling to carry out major terrorist attacks in Indonesia. In a January 2016 report for USAID, political scientist Greg Fealy estimated that only 250 to 300 Indonesian citizens-roughly one for every million-have traveled to join ISIS. Neighboring Australia’s per capita rate is five times as high. While the attacks that killed four people in Jakarta on January 14 were widely interpreted as a sign that ISIS had expanded its focus to Indonesia, evidence suggests that central ISIS leadership in Iraq and Syria did not have a planning role. The attack was an amateurish and homegrown operation with no proven connection to ISIS beyond hazy funding links and an impossible-to-disprove link of ‘inspiration.”

Indonesia today faces issues that dwarf the threat of terrorism in their scope and significance, such as the economy and institutional political weaknesses. According to the Global Terrorism Index, Indonesia would not match Nigeria’s 2014 casualty count from terrorism if an equivalent to January’s Jakarta attack occurred five times a day for an entire year. The US foreign policy community should not let the strategic priority of preventing the spread of terrorism distort their view of Indonesia’s own pressing needs. A strong Indonesia, after all, fits well within the policy interests of the United States. The world’s fourth-most populous country is an important economic and strategic partner, not least because of China’s increasing ambitions to establish its influence in Southeast Asia.

There is a risk, moreover, that funding local counter-terrorism efforts will incur more than just an opportunity cost. The Indonesian military, sidelined since Suharto’s downfall in 1998, views access to counter-terrorism funding as a potential wedge for reestablishing its influence in national politics. A remilitarization of Indonesian society would surely damage the country’s young democratic institutions. It could also thwart key American policy goals like the protection of religious freedom and human rights. The military has recently been involved in programs like bela negara (“defend the nation”), a training program for lay citizens that aims to target such social ills as latent communism and homosexuality. If American policymakers insist on enlisting Indonesia in the fight against terrorism, they must take care to avoid treatments that cause more harm than the targeted disease.

About the Author

Benjamin Nathan is a former researcher at the East-West Center in Washington. He graduated from Williams College in 2015 and is an alumnus of the Critical Language Scholarship program in Malang, Indonesia. He can be contacted at bnathan19@gmail.com.
 
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