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.

Opinion: Malaysia’s Broken System


November 4, 2017

Opinion: Malaysia’s Broken System

by John Berthelsen@www.asiasentinel.com

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Journalist John Berthelsen

 

It is ironic that a chorus of leaders from the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) have accused critics of scandal-scarred Prime Minister Najib Razak of “seeking to destroy parliamentary democracy in Malaysia.”

There is no parliamentary democracy in Malaysia.  Malaysia’s government is broken. Every institution that exists in a normal democracy to protect the people does not work. That includes the parliament, the courts, the police, the mainstream press and the religious establishment, which all act to perpetuate the ruling coalition – primarily UMNO – in power.

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“Constitutional democracy has taken a new meaning in Malaysia and that is the status quo of the incumbent power,” one of the country’s most prominent constitutional lawyers said privately. “There are threats even against me for having acted in my professional capacity as a constitutional lawyer for those who desire to seek change.”


‘Our parliament is a rubber stamp; our judiciary is compromised; our civil service is mediocre and incompetent’


The situation is not new. Najib, who is accused of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money by critics – but not by law enforcement agencies – is not the cause of the breakdown. He is only a symptom of it. While UMNO has dominated politics since independence in 1957 under the Barisan Nasional, the current system was largely built by Mahathir Mohamad during the 23 years he was in power.

It’s been a long time coming

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The breakdown began decades ago, even before the subversion of the courts by Mahathir in the 1980s, although that was a major contributing factor. The Barisan Nasional inherited a series of repressive laws from the colonial British, including the Internal Security Act, which allows for indeterminate detention without trial. Although the ISA was supposedly suspended as a reform by Najib in 2012, it was replaced by an almost equally pernicious statute, Section 124 of the Penal Code, which allows for the arrest of individuals “for activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy.”

Another is the Printing Presses and Publications Act of 1984, which replaced similar colonial laws and requires all printing presses to secure an annual license from the Home Affairs Ministry.

The British also bequeathed the Sedition Act of 1948, which banned speech that would “bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against” the government or engender “feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races.”

The sedition act has been used repeatedly as the current scandal has grown in proportion, with its most notable potential victim Clare Rewcastle Brown, the UK-based journalist and blogger whose Sarawak Report has played an instrumental role in exposing corruption connected to 1Malaysia Development Bhd, the state-backed investment fund that has amassed RM42 billion in debt. Scores of others including opposition politicians, activists, academics, journalists and cartoonists are being investigated or have been charged.

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Good Luck, Malaysia with these UMNO 3 Stooges in Command

“Our parliament is a rubber stamp; our judiciary is compromised; our civil service is mediocre and incompetent led, by a bunch of apple polishers; our police force, which is headed by an Inspector General of Police, treats us like enemies of the state, not as taxpayers and citizens who should be protected from criminals,” said Din Merican, a Malaysian Malay university professor now teaching Political Science and International Relations at the University of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. “Our fiscal management is in a total mess because we have a Finance Minister who regards our national coffers as if they were his own and mismanages our economy. We have rampant corruption and abuses of power.”

Rigging the game

Things really began to go downhill in 1986 when the country’s highest court ruled that the government’s cancellation of the work permits of two Asian Wall Street Journal correspondents was unlawful. That was followed by the High Court’s decision to issue a habeas corpus writ for the release of opposition leader Karpal Singh from detention.

Then Justice Harun Hashim declared UMNO illegal and dissolved the party. An outraged Prime Minister Mahathir fired the chief justice and subsequently moved parliament to amend the constitution to say that the courts would only have judicial powers “as may be conferred by or under Federal law,” making Malaysia the only Commonwealth country whose courts do not have judicial powers unless the legislative branch says so.

As a result, the courts are clearly in thrall to the governing party, as witnessed by the two farcical trials that put opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in prison against all evidence, and a long string of decisions that have cleared government leaders despite strong evidence of their guilt.

Democracy itself is broken, with gerrymandering keeping the opposition in its place. Witness the 2013 parliamentary election, which the Barisan actually lost, 51.39 percent to 47.79 percent, although it retained 133 seats to the opposition’s 89. It was an election won on vast infusions of apparently illegal money, if the latest revelations are true that Najib’s US$681 million “donation” diverted into his account was to help him fight the election. Top leaders of the ruling party are ignoring the deepening scandal because the prime minister has paid them continuing rounds of ill-disguised bribes to keep their loyalty. In addition, the election commission comes under the purview of the Prime Minister’s Office, rendering it toothless.

Broken presses

In addition to being muzzled by the printing act, the idea of a free press, which would keep a watchdog eye on the government, has been subverted by the fact that virtually all of the major media, both in English and Malay and including newspapers, television and radio, are owned by constituent parties of the Barisan. Najib used his powers recently to shut down the two most critical newspapers, both owned by The Edge Group, for three months after they reported on the 1MDB mess. Neutral or hostile online media, which is freer but subject to partisan pressure, are constantly threatened with lawsuits that can’t be won in the kept courts, or by sedition or other charges.

Bad religion

The ruling party also has become adept at using Islam as a cudgel to beat other races, particularly the Chinese, and to scare the kampungs, or rural villages, back in line while splintering the opposition.

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“We have become a racist and theocratic state led by men and women who no longer uphold the traditions of public duty,” said Din Merican. It is hard not to agree.–John Berthelsen

________________________________________________________

Opposition leaders and others have accused Najib, with some justification, of being behind a “unity government” strategy to support the fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia in its effort to implement hudud, or harsh Islamic law, in the state of Kelantan, which it controls. The idea is to destroy a shaky opposition coalition cobbled together seven years ago out of disparate elements. That effort appears to have succeeded, with PAS splitting the opposition coalition earlier this year.

It is the use of religion for cynical political ends that may be the most dangerous part of the UMNO strategy. The so-called Group of 25, comprised of senior civil servants, former diplomats and others, issued an open letter in December calling for moderation; they have renewed their call, saying the imposition of hudud would tell the world that the country has abandoned its once-moderate path.

“We have become a racist and theocratic state led by men and women who no longer uphold the traditions of public duty,” said Din Merican. It is hard not to agree.

Old dominance, new dominos in Southeast Asia


November  4, 2017

Old dominance, new dominos in Southeast Asia

by Dan Slater@www.newmandala.org

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

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

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

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

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

Old dominance

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

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

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

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

The new dominoes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reasserting liberal democratic values

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Read On:

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Ops Lalang: Time to set things right


November 1, 2017

Ops Lalang: Time to set things right

Dr. Mahathir Mohamad must assume ultimate responsibility for Ops Lalang

by Dato’  Dennis Ignatius

http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com

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

Taking responsibility

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

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

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

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

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

A national apology

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

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

 

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

Image result for Dr. Mahathir Mohamad

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

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

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

Tyranny triumphs when people do nothing

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

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

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

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

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

The unfinished struggle

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

Dato’ Dennis Ignatius is a former ambassador.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak belongs in Jail: Mahathir’s Mission


November 1, 2017

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak belongs in Jail–Mahathir’s Mission

by The Malaysian Insight

Image result for Najib Razak liar and crook

PAKATAN HARAPAN today announced its pledge to clean Malaysia from corruption as part of its manifesto for the coming general election.

PH chairman Dr Mahathir Mohamad said during the first 100 days of PH in power, it would:

1. Arrest Malaysia Official1(MO1) and other “sharks”.

2. Set up a royal commission inquiry to investigate the misappropriate of funds in 1MDB and Felda,

3. Set up an independent body to return the asset and people’s money stolen and misappropriate through corruption,

4. To make MACC an independent body that reports direct to Parliament.

5. To eliminate direct negotiations for government contracts.

Image result for Najib Razak I am a crook

Also present at the press conference were other leaders such as PH president Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Armada youth chief Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, DAP leaders Teresa Kok and Liew Chin Tong among others.

The pledge to fight corruption is not as new as PH has repeated it during its many roadshows across the country.

The latest was at the Love Malaysia, End Kleptocracy rally in Petaling Jaya on October 14. – October 31, 2017.–The Malaysian Insight

 

The Great Annare (MIC) Hoax


October 31, 2017

The Great Annare (MIC) Hoax

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

http://www.malaysiakini.com

 

 

Image result for The Poor Malaysian Indian in Kuala Lumpur

Does MIC care about the plight of the Indian Poor?

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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


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