The End of the Road for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal


November 24, 2018

The End of the Road for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal

 

 On Friday 16 November 2018 the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) handed down a guilty verdict against ageing former Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan in what’s known as Case 002/02. Out of fears that they would die before a verdict was reached, the case against them had been split into multiple parts. As such, they were already found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life in prison in Case 002/01.

So what’s so significant about last week’s verdict?

First and foremost is the crimes that were considered as part of Case 002/02. The first conviction against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan had related primarily to the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh in April 1975 and to a specific instance (at Tuol Po Chrey in Pursat province) where members of the previous government’s military were killed. This second part of the case considered a much broader range of crimes, and crimes that reflect the experiences of many more Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge regime.

Image result for cambodian genocide trials

Case 002/02 included crimes related to the appalling conditions in cooperatives and worksites, torture and killings at security centres, discrimination against the Vietnamese, ethnic Cham minority, and Buddhists, and forced marriage. In a survey conducted in 2008, when Cambodians were asked which crimes Khmer Rouge leaders should be held accountable for, only 4.9% of them mentioned forced evacuation, which had been the focus of Case 002/01. On the other hand, 80% listed killing, 63% listed starvation, 56% listed forced labour, and 33% referred to torture. Trials such as those before the ECCC are meant to do more than just sentence perpetrators; they are tasked with contributing to a sense of substantive justice, and with helping to find the truth about what happened. So, although these two defendants had already been convicted and sentenced, it had not yet been for what were considered to be the right crimes.

There are two particular crimes worth drawing attention to: forced marriage and genocide.

Forced marriage

The Khmer Rouge’s policy of forced marriage, and the rape that occurred within those forced marriages, was not well known before the ECCC, despite estimates now that  400,000 people were forcibly married under the Khmer Rouge. It is largely through the testimony of civil parties (victims who have become parties to the proceedings before the ECCC) and through the advocacy of their lawyers that this issue was brought into the spotlight.

In harrowing testimony, victims recounted how they were too scared to refuse to be married but that they “could see that some people shed their tears quietly”. Couples would be monitored in their homes the night of their marriage by Khmer Rouge cadre to ensure they consummated the marriage. Another victim recalled, “I had to sleep with my husband because I would be in danger if I did not sleep with my husband. Because there was a militiaman eavesdropping, I submitted myself to be a wife. I could not avoid, so I tried to take this”. Women who refused to have sex with their new husband were sometimes raped by local Khmer Rouge leaders.

Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were convicted of crimes against humanity for both forced marriages and the rapes that occurred with them. This conviction is significant from an international law perspective for recognising forced marriage as a gendered crime that was committed against both male and female victims, and for addressing it at a national scale. It is also highly significant to those victims who came forward after decades of silence. However, the ECCC has also been criticised for not addressing sexual violence that occurred under the Khmer Rouge in contexts other than forced marriage.

Genocide

Undoubtedly, the genocide conviction issued by the ECCC received the greatest attention from the Case 002/02 verdict.

Nuon Chea was found guilty of genocide against the Vietnamese and the Cham, and Khieu Samphan was found guilty of genocide against the Vietnamese (but not the Cham, with the Trial Chamber finding that “the evidence did not rise to the level of proving that Khieu Samphan actively assisted or facilitated the execution of the genocidal policy against the Cham”). Curiously, the summary of the judgement notes that “Judge YOU Ottara appends a separate opinion on genocide to the Judgement”. This is the first separate opinion issued by a single Cambodian judge, but its contents are not yet known.

There is immense power in the label of genocide. The actions covered by the conviction for crimes against humanity are just as horrific, yet it is those considered genocide that often attract far more attention. This is just as true in Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge period is referred to as a genocide in Khmer (ប្រល័យពូជសាសន៍).

Legally, however, genocide only refers to the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. This has led to divisive debates amongst scholars of Cambodia over whether some or all of the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge could be considered genocide. It also means that the experiences of ethnically-Khmer Cambodians (the vast majority of the population) are not covered by the definition, and the ECCC has not found the crimes committed against them to be genocide.

Here is where the verdict is ripe for misinterpretation. News headlines are very carefully crafted to engage readers by referring to genocide without explicitly misrepresenting the verdict (for example, the New York Times said “Khmer Rouge’s Slaughter in Cambodia is Ruled a Genocide”). For most people, Cambodian and foreigners alike, the details of this verdict will have little to no impact compared to the overarching label of genocide. However, there is a longstanding concern that if it enters into public consciousness in Cambodia that the ECCC found the treatment of the Vietnamese was a genocide but that the treatment of the Khmer was not, that this could further inflame anti-Vietnamese sentiment.

A complicated legacy

The final question to ask about the ECCC and Case 002/02 is: where to from here?

Last week, a summary of the judgement was read out before the Trial Chamber and released online. However, the full judgement is not yet available, with the only information given is that it will be released “in due course”. This decision has been criticised in a report from Stanford University’s WSD Handa Center for Human Rights and International Justice noting that Cambodia’s (notoriously weak) judiciary often relies on summary judgements without full reasoning, and that the ECCC had a chance to leave a different legacy.

The timeline for appeals will not start until this full judgement is released, although both defence teams have already flagged their intention to file appeals. In Case 002/01 the judgement was announced in August 2014 and the appeals proceedings concluded in November 2016. The current completion plan for the ECCC, foresees an appeal judgement in Case 002/02 in the third quarter of 2020.

As for trials against other suspects, myself and other New Mandala contributors have written about the reasons why it is highly unlikely these contentious cases will go ahead. In the aftermath of the Case 002/02 verdict, Minister of Interior Sar Kheng said that since there are “no more” top Khmer Rouge leaders, the government’s policy is that “now this process has ended”. It is hardly surprising, but serves as additional evidence that once the Case 002/02 appeals conclude, so too will the ECCC.


Rebecca Gidley is the author of Illiberal Transitional Justice and the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.

Book Review:The Daughter: A Political Biography of Aung San Suu Kyi


November 19, 2018

Book Review:

The Daughter: A Political Biography of Aung San Suu Kyi

Hans-Bernd Zöllner and Rodion Ebbighausen (translated by Vipasha Bansal) (Silkworm Books, 2018)

http://www.newmandala.org/book-review/selth-the-daughter

Few figures in modern history have attracted as much biographical attention as Myanmar’s State Counsellor and de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Griffith Asia Institute’s select bibliography of Burma (Myanmar) Since the 1988 Uprising, the third edition of which was published earlier this year, lists 34 books in English about her, all written since 1990. There are several others, in other languages, and even a few collections of photographs. Most have been aimed at the general public, including young readers.

All of these books were written after Aung San Suu Kyi became an icon of democracy, adored by millions and held up by the international community as a paragon of virtue, the result of her long struggle for universal human rights and peaceful democratic change.

Very few biographies have appeared since her government took office in 2016, and she was in a position to give practical effect to her ideas about political, economic and social reform. As a result, the world has been waiting for years for a study that rigorously and objectively examines not just the Nobel Peace laureate’s undoubted strengths and achievements, but also her weaknesses and policy failures.

The Daughter: A Political Biography of Aung San Suu Kyi, by long time Myanmar-watcher Hans-Bernd Zöllner and freelance journalist Rodion Ebbighausen, is a comprehensive and thoughtful account of her life and times, and ventures into a few unfamiliar areas, but it still does not satisfy that need.

Before 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi was not just admired, she was idolised. Wherever she went, both within Myanmar and outside it, she was given what journalists liked to describe as “a rock star welcome”. This cult of personality helped her become a household name around the world and boosted her cause, but it had a downside.

In journalistic and even academic circles she was rarely subjected to the same level of critical analysis as other world figures, or members of the military government she opposed.

When more objective Myanmar-watchers dared to point out examples of her poor judgement and tactical missteps, or suggested that, like everyone else, she had flaws in her character, they were subject to an avalanche of abuse. One outspoken critic who wrote disparagingly about The Lady (as she became widely known), and the tunnel vision of her more extreme supporters, was sent a death threat. This had the effect of silencing many commentators aware of her imperfections, or who disagreed with some of her decisions. Even professional analysts began to self-censor what they wrote about her.

To be fair, they did this not just out of fear of being attacked by Aung San Suu Kyi’s legion of supporters, who used the Internet and social media to great effect. Serious observers of Myanmar were aware that to openly criticise Aung San Suu Kyi risked giving the military regime ammunition to use against her.

For years, a virulent campaign was waged against the opposition leader in the state-run news media, where she was cast as a traitorous renegade who had turned her back on her own people. Countless stories and cartoons, including jibes about her marriage to a foreigner and her schooling abroad (in India and the UK) were published with the aim of undermining her popularity with the Myanmar people.

Anything written by foreign commentators in the international press, or said by them in public, that could be used to support the regime and bolster its case against Aung San Suu Kyi, was seized upon and shamelessly exploited. With that danger in the back of their minds, more critical and aware foreign observers tended not to draw attention to her shortcomings as an alternative leader of Myanmar.

Doubtless, in private counsels and confidential reports prepared for senior officials, diplomats and strategic analysts took a hard-headed approach and produced unvarnished assessments of Aung San Suu Kyi’s character, political skills and suitability for high office. Presumably, they also warned that, should she ever find herself in a position of real power, she would inevitably be forced to choose sides between contending factions, and make hard decisions about contentious issues, in ways that would leave some of her admirers dissatisfied. She would not be able to please everyone, or avoid controversy, simply by referring to broad principles and abstract concepts, as was her usual practice. However, for obvious reasons, the recipients of such assessments were unlikely to share them with the public. Some senior officials (George W. Bush and Gordon Brown spring to mind) may have even been reluctant to accept them. Thus the net effect of the world-wide campaign being waged on her behalf was to strengthen the popular image of her as being without fault or peer, existing above the grubby political fray.

This two-dimensional picture was reflected in most of the books written about her. As Kyaw Yin Hlaing pointed out in a review article, “Quite often the biographies of leading political figures are written by their loyalists, enemies, or by neutral authors or scholars. In the case of Suu Kyi, however, one finds that most of the writings about her are written by her sympathisers and her enemy (the Myanmar junta)”.

Works in the former category were not all hagiographies. For example, Bertil Lintner’s Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Democracy discussed some of the criticisms usually levelled at The Lady. Other books made passing references to Aung San Suu Kyi’s human frailties and some other perceived shortcomings. However, these character flaws tended to be brushed over as insignificant in the greater scheme of things. As a rule, very few authors attempted to offer an objective picture of the opposition leader that stripped away her public image to show the real person underneath, warts and all. As Barbara Victor wrote in her own biography, titled The Lady, “deconstructing Aung San Suu Kyi is not part of the game”.

 

 

The TOUGH and GUTSY Lady in OSLO

Over the past few years, however, the pendulum has swung completely the other way. Aung San Suu Kyi is now being lambasted by the international community and, albeit to a much lesser extent, criticised by many people within Myanmar. At one level, this is hardly surprising. Her government has disappointed on several fronts, failing to deliver on most if not all the promises she made before the 2015 elections. Given the challenges she inherited, and the unrealistic expectations held about her ability to solve Myanmar’s “fiendishly complex problems”, that was to be expected. However, her dramatic fall from grace in the eyes of the international community has come about mainly because of her response—or lack of it—to the Rohingya crisis of 2016–2017, which saw three quarters of a million Muslims driven into Bangladesh by Myanmar’s security forces in circumstances that have been labelled by the UN ethnic cleansing, if not genocide. She has also publicly defended egregious human rights violations in other contexts.

Aung San Suu Kyi is now the subject of vitriolic abuse in the international news media. Amnesty International recently stripped her of its highest honour, telling her that “you no longer represent a symbol of hope, courage and and the undying defence of human rights”. There have even been calls for her Nobel Peace Prize to be rescinded.

The collapse of Aung San Suu Kyi’s international reputation, and the flight of her former high profile supporters, begs for a detailed explanation. Also, the apparent abandonment of her principles on universal human rights, and her rejection of the international community’s responsibility to protect the vulnerable in countries like Myanmar, warrants close examination.

 

So, what have these two experienced observers made of Aung San Suu Kyi’s political career and her performance since she achieved her life-long ambition to become Myanmar’s (de facto) ruler?

Her current position is in stark contrast to the well-publicised views she held as a political prisoner. While at one level the picture is clear, these issues can be quite complex, and in certain cases her actions may appear less reprehensible when put into a wider context. For example, Aung San Suu Kyi has no control over the actions of Myanmar’s armed forces (Tatmadaw) which, under the 2008 constitution, act independently of her quasi-civilian government. Similarly, on the Rohingyas, there is a rare consensus between the government, the armed forces and the wider population that may restrict her freedom of action. This is not to offer any excuses, simply to emphasise the need for a thorough and objective account of her policies and personal attitudes.

Hans-Bernd Zöllner is in a good position to offer informed comments on such matters. He is an accomplished Myanmar-watcher, with several major works to his name. To English-speakers, he is perhaps best known for his compilations of Aung San Suu Kyi’s speeches and informal comments to her followers, published as Talks Over the Gate: Aung San Suu Kyi’s Dialogues with the People, 1995 and 1996.

He has also written a history of the conflict between Aung San Suu Kyi and the Tatmadaw, set in a global context. Another work of note is his chapter comparing different accounts of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, published in Volker Grabowsky’s edited volume Southeast Asian Historiography. Rodion Ebbighausen is not well-known in English-speaking countries as a Myanmar-watcher, but he is an experienced journalist who has covered the country for Deutsche Welle and other news outlets. He has also written occasionally about Aung San Suu Kyi, most recently in connection with the Rohingyas.

So, what have these two experienced observers made of Aung San Suu Kyi’s political career and her performance since she achieved her life-long ambition to become Myanmar’s (de facto) ruler?

As might be expected, The Daughter is a well-researched and comprehensive account of Aung San Suu Kyi’s early childhood, her time spent travelling as a young woman, her studies at Oxford and her marriage to British academic Michael Aris.

Image result for aung san suu kyi and mahathir in singapore
It describes her return to Myanmar in 1988 and unexpected rise to fame as General Secretary of the opposition National League for Democracy. Her 15 or so years under house arrest are also covered. There is an interesting excursion into Aung San Suu Kyi’s Buddhist studies, and their apparent impact on her political thinking. The authors also discuss the lack of understanding about democracy in Myanmar and explore Aung San Suu Kyi’s relationship with her followers.
As Nic Dunlop has pointed out, these sections offer helpful insights into her attitudes and personal philosophy at the time. The book finishes with an account of Aung San Suu Kyi’s election to the Union parliament in 2015 and subsequent appointment to the newly-created position of State Counsellor (the presidency having been denied to her by the 2008 constitution).

 

Image result for aung san suu kyi and mahathir in singapore

This narrative is well told and covers all the main bases, but is curiously flat. The book goes over a lot of familiar ground, but offers little by way of new information or original analyses of critical events.

Given everything that has already been written about Aung San Suu Kyi, this was perhaps inevitable to a certain extent, but the reader is left wondering why the authors have not addressed more directly and in greater depth the criticisms made of Aung San Suu Kyi during her political career.

 

Despite the general reluctance to highlight her shortcomings, commentators have referred to such personality traits as her profound sense of personal destiny, her aloofness (or arrogance), her refusal to accept criticism or to countenance dissent, her dismissal of potential rivals, and her reluctance to include activists like the 88 Generation Students Group in the wider pro-democracy movement. Nor have the two authors critically examined her encouragement before 2011 of tough economic sanctions against Myanmar and her opposition to tourism, despite the negative impact these policies clearly had on the wider population.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this book, however, is its failure to take the opportunity to look closely at Aung San Suu Kyi since she took political office. She has been criticised for vetting all bills herself and taking all important decisions on both party and government matters. She has reportedly surrounded herself with a small group of loyalists, and does not consult others who could offer different advice. These practices have caused serious problems in the conduct of government business.

More particularly, her attitude towards the ethnic communities has been described as both imperious and unsympathetic, encouraging the view that, at heart, she is an ethnic Burman centralist who shares the Tatmadaw’s hard line towards minority groups, including the Muslim Rohingyas. Indeed, over the past few years she appears to have made little attempt to curb the blatant misuse of power by the security forces and judicial system. These are all matters that would have benefited from a rigorous and balanced analysis, both to put the record straight where it has strayed from the truth, and to help explain what appears to many people to be a puzzling about face on the part of someone they once admired.

Zöllner and Ebbighausen have said that they are keen to provide a nuanced portrayal of Myanmar’s crises over the past 30 years, with Aung San Suu Kyi as a focal point. They have succeeded in this aim, but failed to meet the not unreasonable expectation that Aung San Suu Kyi would be examined more critically, now that she has revealed herself to be a more complicated person than was once portrayed. Her elevation to the leadership of Myanmar, and the challenges that she has faced in that role, has required qualities that seem to be lacking.

As former US Ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell has written, “Opposing oppressive state power and running a government are two vastly different skills”. There were bound to be teething problems, and grumbles at the slow pace of change. Also, the 2008 constitution was going to require compromises. However, few people expected that Aung San Suu Kyi would become the target of such bitter invective, mostly from the same foreigners and foreign institutions which had once idolised her.

Myanmar has always been much more complex than popularly portrayed, and Aung San Suu Kyi has been subject to as many myths and misconceptions as other aspects of the country’s modern history. Had Zöllner and Ebbighausen written more about the controversies and criticisms now associated with The Lady, and tried to explain them in greater depth, they would have produced a more interesting book, and one that made a greater contribution to the burgeoning literature on modern Myanmar.

Dr Andrew Selth is Adjunct Associate Professor at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University, and at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University. He is the author of Burma (Myanmar) Since the 1988 Uprising: A Select Bibliography and Burma, Kipling and Western Music: The Riff From Mandalay.

Cambodia Update


November 13, 2018

Cambodia Update

Image result for Cambodia's Hun Sen

 

by Dr. Katrin Travouillon

http://www.newmandala.org/where-in-the-world-is-cambodia/

The Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Sam Rainsy left Cambodia in 2015 escaping political charges. Two years later, party president Kem Sokha was jailed on treason charges. Rainsy has since made it his mission to create a sense of urgency among the world’s leaders to intervene in Cambodia lest democracy come to an end.

Image result for Cambodia's Hun Sen

Yet hundreds of fundraisers, editorials, speeches, rallies, and handshakes with foreign dignitaries and supporters in Europe, the United States, New Zealand, and Australia did not prevent the inevitable. Cambodia’s parliamentary elections in July 2018 went through as planned: without Rainsy, without Sokha, without the CNRP, and thus without any substantial opposition to perpetual Prime Minister Hun Sen. His Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) swept all available seats. With the CNRP dissolved by Cambodia’s Supreme Court in late 2017, 19 hitherto-marginal parties were the only remaining alternatives; these parties won no seats.

https://giphy.com/embed/mMFTiBRlQXMii1NUHK

 

Even casual observers of Cambodian politics are aware of the pivotal role the 1991 Paris Peace Accords play in the opposition’s attempts to call foreign actors to action. Over the past two decades, the PPA consistently provided Rainsy and his fellow opposition members with a script to claim a special relationship—a common destiny, even—that binds Cambodia to the rest of the “developed, democratic” world.

In this narrative, the designers and signatories of the PPA are morally, possibly even legally, obliged to protect their legacy and the political system it created. The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) implemented the agreements and organised the first nationwide democratic elections in 1993.

To a certain degree, Rainsy’s key audience—the international community—seems amenable to these demands. Hun Sen’s 2017–18 crackdown on the CNRP, the independent media and civil society all drew swift condemnation from international leaders and their organisations. Financial and technical support for the election was withdrawn by the US and the EU as well as Japan, followed by threats to take further action should his government not reverse course.

Image result for Cambodia's Hun Sen

Rainsy’s forced absence from Cambodia has thus only strengthened the symbiotic relationship between the opposition leader and the so-called international community: whenever it becomes obvious how little substantial influence they have on the design and direction of Cambodia’s political system they turn to each other for reassurance that they are relevant, powerful, and on the right side of history.

To many international observers, the vision conveyed in the exchanges is certainly appealing: it is that of a shared agenda and a strong, progressive political partnership on behalf of the Cambodian people. This is all the more so at a moment of democratic decline in the region, coinciding with an identity crisis of the West.

However, it is also problematic to turn to these public expressions of mutual affection in an attempt to get a sense for the ideas and motivations of those Cambodian political actors that remain committed to the country’s formal political institutions.

A narrative of suspicion

In a series of interviews I conducted in the two weeks prior to the election in July 2018, the leaders of five of the participating non-CPP parties expressed their thoughts on the barrage of international statements, threats, and promises directed at Cambodia and its leaders in an attempt to convince Hun Sen to let the CNRP participate.

Those parties’ interests and motivations are under considerable scrutiny: Pich Sros had supported the dismantling of the CNRP, and his Cambodian Youth Party(CYP) briefly benefited from the subsequent distribution of the CNRP’s parliamentary seats. The Khmer National Unity Party’s (KNUP) Bun Chhay had been released from prison just in time for the elections. As for those parties considered to be more authentically interested in advancing democracy in Cambodia? “Sam Rainsy is defaming us abroad,” Sam Inn from the Grassroots Democratic Party (GDP) said matter-of-factly, “says that we are puppets of Hun Sen”. And Kong Monika, son of a former CNRP member and leader of the Khmer Will Party, likewise conceded that many see him as a “traitor”.

Many critics of the remaining non-CPP parties saw their suspicions confirmed when leaders of almost all competing parties decided to join Hun Sen’s Supreme Consultative Council  after the CPP’s victory, in exchange for the honorific title of Ek Udom (Excellency) and a government salary (of those interviewed, only the Grassroots Democracy Party and League for Democracy Party declined).

It goes without saying that the timing of the interviews and their role as party leaders effectively obliged all speakers to defend the value of the electoral process against critical domestic and international commentators.

In this regard it is easy to see why many will dismiss these voices as the irrelevant thoughts of an irrelevant elite. After all, they decided to participate in the sham elections, providing legitimacy to a process that only served to further facilitate Cambodia’s “descent into outright dictatorship”.

Yet with every day that passes since the election, the tensions this conflict created become less and less important. More importantly, there is the fact that the interviewed actors, regardless of their proximity or distance to the government of Hun Sen, consistently drew on similar narratives and themes when presenting their views of Cambodia’s relation to the international actors that are perceived to have an interest in their country.

These consistencies (in substance, not style) are further corroborated by the debates as they play out on social media and by a series of interviews that Julie Bernath and I conducted with Cambodian political activists, advisors, and civil society leaders in 2017 and 2018.

Related image

Taken together, they draw attention to the factors that determine the space and the scales that Cambodia’s politicians (including Hun Sen) use to situate their policies vis-à-vis foreign countries. In the amicable exchanges, that purport to draw solely on the spirit of the PPA when constructing transnational political alliances on behalf of the Cambodian people, these determinants are often hidden, downplayed, or ignored.

Chief among those recurring motives in the pre-election interviews was a tendency to view the international community as partisan, biased and acting on behalf of the CNRP.

Domestically, the repeated discursive interventions by foreign actors and their demands to reinstate the CNRP have thus contributed to revive the use of the politically loaded distinctions between Khmer “inside” and “outside” of the country. When conflicts ravaged the country in the 1960s and 1970s, knowledge about the whereabouts of a person became deeply entangled with perceived political affiliations as different factions used different provinces and border camps to recruit and train their followers, while others fled the country. Former refugees who returned to Cambodia in the early 1990s to support Cambodia’s liberal reforms were not always received with open arms. Instead, many envied and resented them for the opportunities they had abroad, while those “inside of the country” suffered. Now, Kong Monika deemed Rainsy’s call for an election boycott a bad strategy because “it will cause hardship for the people inside the country, [he] is outside … he won’t have security problems, he is safe.”

The party representatives reacted equally dismissively to the EU’s threat to withdraw trade preferences, which have been the bedrock of Cambodia’s garment-export economy. The EU recently announced that Cambodia may indeed be cut off from the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme.

Such measures, this was the general assessment “won’t affect the people in power, it won’t affect the opposition leaders either. [It] will have an impact, it will affect Cambodia, but who will affect the most? The innocent people,” said Kong Monika.

Or, in a slightly more dramatic fashion, Pich Sros declared that “the people who will die first aren’t Hun Sen or Sam Rainsy”. Aware of the potential ramifications this strategy may have for him, Rainsy told “all factory workers” that “when sanctions are mounted against Hun Sen and his regime by the international community, it will not be the CNRP that is to blame. [It is] Hun Sen, because he undermines democracy and abuses human rights.”

The question here is if their economically precarious situation leaves the affected people any chance to appreciate whatever long-term game it is that political leaders are playing when these measures begin to negatively affect their livelihoods.

Moral superiority and hierarchies

On the ground, the constant criticism of Cambodia as “undemocratic” can also feed into a sense of resentment against the paternalism of distant observers. Unlike Japan, which was held up by the political figures as a model because it simply “helps Cambodia as a poor country” Western actors are often viewed to possess a false sense of moral superiority. Those speaking out in the name of the international community did of course expressly condemn the country’s ruling elite, yet, many do not take kindly to the hierarchies between Cambodia and other countries that such criticism establishes. In Prich Sros’ words:

“So international observers criticise Cambodia for being undemocratic. Undemocratic according to what standard? [What about] the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam? The US is close to all of them! Why are they not threatening to end business with Thailand? Why is the US not applying any pressure to Thailand? […] Which standard are they using? Frankly, I haven’t seen it anywhere in this world, this ‘democracy’.”

And then there are the lessons learned from the country’s recent history of wars and conflicts. Foreign actors fanned the flames in all of them:

“Because we have learned from experiences that whenever we Khmer, when our country became dependent on one great power we were not at peace; before, during the Lon Nol period, we became solely dependent on the US and fought against communism, then later on, we became dependent on China and fought against the US. Every time we become dependent on a great power we are not at peace.” (Sam Inn)

These more recent experiences feed into a collective memory already profoundly shaped by images of shifting borders and territorial losses. As a result, it is an ambivalent mix of anxiety and pragmatism that feeds into politicians’ assessments of foreign actors’ motivations to cooperate and engage with a country like Cambodia.

Its neighbours? They are still overwhelmingly viewed with deep-seated suspicion by my interviewees. The border dispute with Thailand over Preah Vihear is still fresh on people’s minds and reports over documented “encroachment” from Vietnam—considered to be driven predominantly by its intention to “swallow” its neighbours—routinely serve to stir up the public.

China? It is mostly driven by self-interest in the party leaders’ eyes. It is seen to benefit from Cambodia through strategic investments and exploitative business practices:

“There are many Vietnamese and Chinese factories and the government is giving out land concessions and a lot of business to these factories. And all those factories do not have to do anything. They cut the trees, cut the trees and sell them. They mine, mine and destroy the Cambodian resources but they aren’t creating any work for Cambodians in this context.” (Kong Moncia)

Chinese support for the elections in July was thus not framed as an attempt to create a new one-party state in its image, but as a calculated move to stabilise its strategic position.

And the “international community”?

The predominant identity accorded to Cambodia as a country and nation in their interactions with representatives of the Western countries is that of an “aid” recipient.

In an attempt to capture the general sentiment that was expressed during these interviews and those jointly conducted with Bernath, the American sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s observation about “gratitude” comes to mind: it contains not only a sense of appreciation, but likewise a sense of indebtedness. As such, the long and often heavy-handed involvement of donor countries has also given rise to notions of unease or even resentment. In the words of the LDP’s Kem Veasna:

“There are three groups of people that pretend to be generous: one, politicians; two, religious people; and three … the civil society […] They do this for a salary. […] I talk about this a lot in public forums. I am against the international community.”

In this regard, Monika’s statement reads like a final stroke under the views expressed by all interviewed politicians:

“I think that there is a political deadlock in Cambodia today that can only be overcome by a dialogue between Khmer and Khmer. We cannot always rely on foreigners for help … we have seen historically that, asking this side for help or that side for help … those who are the victims [of this strategy] are the Cambodian people.”

A new rhetoric

The Cambodian people harbour no illusions when it comes to the intentions of anyone “elected” to power to act in their interest. A few days prior to casting her ballot, a teacher summarised her expectations with a Khmer proverb that loosely translates to: “before the election they court you, after the election is won, they club you”.

And while such criticism is mostly aimed at the government, it also becomes increasingly difficult to speak of Cambodia’s opposition parties without putting the very term in ironic quotation marks. Yet, those actors and institutions that should have a vital interest in facilitating a constructive dialogue between Cambodians—among them ASEAN and the politically active diasporas in the US and Australia—should still take note of all areas of contention and dissent that were mapped out here.

The anxieties, concerns, and resentments expressed here are sparked by others’ perceived interest in their territory, their resources, but also the tensions caused by what Berit Blieseman and Florian Kühn referred to as the paradox of the international community (likewise, a concept that deserves its quotation marks): it is possible to morally exclude Hun Sen and his government from the international community, yet, structurally Cambodia—the country and its people—will remain part of it.

Many remain committed to the vision of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords. Yet, the exiled opposition needs to find ways to evoke its principles without waving the paper. This decade-long practice has closely associated the PPA with partisan, not universal, claims. As a result, international alliances forged in its name cannot rely on their good intentions. Instead, the ”international community” needs to evaluate to what extent they need a domestic political constituency able and willing to support the rationale for their interventions.

In the absence of such voices, and the government’s near monopoly on the media, can blunt measures like the proposed EU sanctions—with their simultaneously vague and extensive goals—really succeed, or are they more likely to lead to the type of “perverse effects” observed elsewhere?

Considering the Prime Minister’s firm control over Cambodia’s political and economic institutions and his proven ability to exploit the tension caused by conflicts and disputes in all those three areas, a thorough review of democracy promoters’ rhetoric and strategy might well be overdue.


The interviews referenced in this article were conducted in the context of an ongoing joint research project with Dr. Julie Bernath on the political uses and abuses of the “international community” in Cambodia since 1991.

South East Asian Cyberspace: Politics, Censorship and Polarisation


November 5, 2018

South East Asian Cyberspace: Politics, Censorship and Polarisation

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

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

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

On the other hand, Southeast Asian governments are growing wary of the potential for the internet to threaten political stability.

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

More internet, more censorship

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

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

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

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

Figure 1: Net Freedom Scores, 2016

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

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

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

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

Figure 2: Key internet censorship issues, 2016

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

Divide the people, conquer the discourse

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

Image result for duterte

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

Image result for Ahok

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

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

 

The hard line Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) more than tripled their support base on Facebook following Ahok’s comments, and figured prominently in the months-long campaign against him. Witnessing the rise of the FPI and other Islamist groups gaining prominence as anti-Ahok movement garnered force, Ahok’s opponent Anies Baswedan, long seen as a secular Islamic politician, shifted gear to appeal to those sympathetic to the FPI campaign. The online sphere became deeply polarised: a network analysis of those who commented on Ahok’s and Anies’ Facebook posts in the month of December in 2016 (Figure 6) shows that only 16 people cross-commented on both pages out of a total of 9,000 comments.

Figure 6: Network Visualisation of Commenters on Ahok’s (Blue) and Anies Baswedan’s (Red) Facebook Page

Here, Facebook played an important role in catapulting the hard line FPI into mainstream politics. This then contributed to a more polarising political environment in which more Indonesians were politically active online than ever before, but not necessarily engaging with opposing views.

Confronting the challenge to a free internet

Digital rights and digital literacy are the biggest challenges to Internet users in Southeast Asia now and going forward. While global trends suggest that the increasing tide of state surveillance, monitoring and censorship online will not dissipate, Internet users must build greater resilience to protect and defend basic human rights in the digital world, including freedom of expression, freedom of association and privacy.

Image result for Bloggers UNITED

Civil society groups, bloggers, human rights advocates, students, journalists, and academics should band together to build the technical and legal capacity needed to defend internet rights within the region against the growth of government surveillance, as well as corporations seeking to capitalise on the plethora of personal information online. Public awareness about digital rights and their importance to a vibrant democratic society is crucial to building digital resilience.

•          •          •          •          •          •          •          •

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.

Malaysia: Malay Political Dominance remains despite UMNO’s rout


October 26, 2018

Malay Political Dominance remains despite UMNO’s rout

Regime change at GE14 did not change the dominance of Malay politics.

 

http://www.newmandala.org/malay-dominance-remains-despite-umnos-rout/

Image result for Malay Political Dominance to stay

Malay Political Dominance is here to stay. UMNO ?

Analysts of Malaysia’s 14th General Election (GE-14) agree that the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) suffered a humiliating defeat. But there is less unanimity that this also applied to the dominant party in BN, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).

BN’s loss is clear to all. On election night BN won only 79 seats, down from 133 in 2013. Soon afterwards, several coalition members and UMNO representatives declared independence. BN was left with the pre-BN Alliance three of UMNO, MCA and MIC, and by September had only 51 members in the 222-seat parliament (two contributed by MIC and one MCA). BN’s share of the popular vote before desertions declined from 47.4% to 33.7%.

Image result for Malay Political Dominance to stay

Nonetheless many UMNO leaders, and political analysts, argue that this was not a rejection of UMNO. The party’s Information Head, Annuar Musa, declared UMNO had obtained 60% of the Malay-Muslim vote. Former Prime Minister Najib Razak said there was no Malay tsunami against UMNO in GE14, only a divided Malay electorate. Current UMNO head and former Deputy Prime Minister, Zahid Hamidi, claimed that UMNO still had strong Malay support of 46%, and “it is higher than the previous elections.”

Similar views have been expressed by academic commentators. One analyst claims that UMNO enjoyed the support of 46.29% of the Malay electorate, compared to 28.14% for PAS (Parti Islam), and 25.47% the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH, Alliance of Hope) coalition comprising PKR (People’s Justice Party), Democratic Action Party (DAP), Parti Bersatu (PPBM, or United Indigenous Party), and Amanah (National Trust Party), together with its Sabah ally Warisan (Heritage). A widely quoted survey by the respected Merdeka Centre put Malay support for the PH and Warisan at only 25-30%, while PAS received 30-33% and UMNO 35-40%.

While there are difficulties getting a precise measurement before detailed examination of individual constituencies, it is clear that UMNO’s influence in the Malay community is not as high as these figures suggest.

UMNO was able to gain some support in rural areas – voting data in the Perak constituency of Sungai Siput showed that UMNO won 52% of the rural Malay vote, a result likely replicated in some similar constituencies. But UMNO seats declined from 88 to 54 (48 after resignations in June, July and September), its worst result ever. Its total vote in an expanded electorate declined from 3,416,310 of 11,257,147 votes (30.4% of popular vote) in 2013 to 2,552,391 of 12,299,514 in GE14 (20.8%). In earlier elections, UMNO lost only 6-7 of 54 rural constituencies with FELDA development schemes, while in 2018 it lost 19. There is even evidence that Malay bureaucrats, the police and the army abandoned UMNO in significant numbers. And these opposition gains came after a pre-election redelineation designed to benefit UMNO and BN. It also continued to benefit from a strong weighting in favour of smaller predominantly Malay electorates – in 2013 BN required 39,381 votes per MP to Pakatan’s 63,191 votes, while in 2018 the ratio was 46,836 to 77,943.

Nor should the vote for PAS be considered anything but a rejection of UMNO, notwithstanding an understanding between UMNO and PAS leaders to divide the Malay vote to their mutual benefit. With widespread speculation that UMNO was about to win the state of Kelantan, PAS voters united against the traditional enemy, UMNO, as they had many times in the past. PAS support remained concentrated in its traditional heartland, and the small increase in its popular vote from 14.7 to 16.9% was not exceptional given that it contested more than double the number of seats it had in 2013, 157 seats as against 73 for Malaysia as a whole, and on the peninsula, 143 compared to 65.

How then was Malay support divided in this election? It must first be noted that virtually all comments on this refer only to the peninsula, as the Malay electorate is a minority in Sabah and Sarawak and does not necessarily represent the same interests as those on the peninsula. By my calculations, Malay support for UMNO on the peninsula was about 5% higher than support for PAS and PH. This is indicated in the table below:

The Peninsula Electorate

Total votes: 10,347,357

Total Malay: 6,346,739 (61.34)

UMNO vote: 2,323,665 (36.6%)

PAS vote: 2,012,381 (31.7%)

Other (PH): 2,010,693 (31.7%)

Source: calculated from EC statistics and racial breakdown detailed in Malaysiakini’s https://undi.info/

True, the UMNO vote cannot simply be equated with Malay support for UMNO. Some of the UMNO votes would have been contributed by non-Malays, while Malay UMNO supporters in other constituencies would have expressed their support for UMNO by voting for other BN candidates. Not many non-Malays would have supported UMNO candidates – most estimates are that over 93% of non-Malays voted against the BN. But nor are many Malays likely to have supported non-UMNO BN candidates, as the massive defeats suffered by these candidates indicates. It should, however be noted that UMNO contested in nearly twice as many seats as other BN (106-59). I therefore assume that non-Malays supporting UMNO and Malays supporting non-UMNO BN candidates would approximately cancel each other out, and that the percentage vote for UMNO would remain around 36.6%.

For the PAS vote it seems safe to assume that non-Malay support would have been negligible, so its share of the peninsula vote would have been around 31.7%.

That leaves another 31.7% of the Malay vote unaccounted for, and this could only have been directed to PH.

Noteworthy also is the fact that PH also had more Malays elected on the Peninsula than UMNO – 51 (PKR 26, PPBM 13, PAN 11, DAP 1) compared to 46. UMNO was soon reduced to 41 after 5 resignations.

Even these figures may flatter UMNO. On election night, the EC declared the voter turnout to be 76%, but revised this by more than 6% to 82.32% two days later. No explanation for this extraordinary difference was given, but the EC’s past record suggests that figures may have been adjusted to strengthen the UMNO-BN vote.

Image result for PAS

The GE-14 result reflects PAS’ enduring influence, yet the PH parties together with IKRAM and ABIM offer a viable ‘Islamic alternative’ for pious Muslim voters. Can PAS expand its support base in urban areas, and might Amanah make further inroads into the east coast PAS heartland?

One analyst has expressed concern that the Malaysian government is now dominated by non-Muslims, since for the first time non-Muslims outnumbered Muslims in the ruling coalition (PH and Warisan). The government has 66 non-Muslim MPs. It has only 58 Muslims – 27 from PKR, 13 Bersatu, 11 Amanah, 6 Warisan, and one DAP – comprising 46.8% of the total.

 

This is indeed the case. Although somewhat similar to the 1999 election, when for the first time UMNO won fewer seats than its coalition partners (72 of 148, or 48.6%), 11 Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu representatives in Sarawak lifted the BN Muslim component to 83, or 56.1%.

But the small non-Muslim majority of government MPs has not meant that this group dominates the government. The Cabinet is overwhelmingly Malay-Muslims, as 18 of its 26 members are Malays (69%), including the key posts of Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister.

Image result for pakatan harapan government

And the Parliament remains a predominantly Malay-Muslim institution. The PH and UMNO Malays elected for the peninsula on 9 May totaled 97. To this must be added a further 10 Malays elected for BN in Sarawak, and 15 in Sabah (8 UMNO, 6 Warisan and one from PRK). In total 122 members (55%) of the House of Representatives are Malays.

Reform For New Malaysia


October 13, 2018

Image result for malaysia parliament

Malaysia:  Reform for Transparent Governance

Improving parliamentary scrutiny helps the new government meet its election promises.

http://www.newmandala.org/better-governance-better-parliament/

Strengthening the Parliament and making the budget process more transparent are two promises made by the new Pakatan Harapan (PH) government in the run up to Malaysia’s 14th general election (GE-14) in May. The former is listed in the manifesto as Promise 16, while the latter is Promise 29. Both reforms are interrelated and complementary to each other in ensuring a robust check-and-balance against the executive branch, which had been very dominant under the former Barisan Nasional (BN) government.

Image result for Malaysia's Speaker Ariff

Recently, the new Speaker of the Dewan Rakyat (Lower House of Parliament) and former senior judge Mohamad Ariff Mohd Yusof (pic above) led a parliamentary delegation to Canberra to visit the Australian Parliament. By drawing from Australia’s experience in this area, the Malaysian Parliament can be strengthened through budget transparency reforms.

Parliaments play a key role in the budget process in many countries including Malaysia, with powers to approve or reject government budgets and oversee their implementation and outcomes. A robust parliament is essential in creating a robust budget process.

All government policies inevitably require some public resources for planning and implementation, and the budget process is an important medium for the Parliament to scrutinise policy decisions made by the Executive Branch and hold them accountable. It’s not unusual in Malaysia for opposition parliamentarians to use the budget debate to argue for a pay cut over ministers’ policy failures.

To make informed decisions, the Parliament also requires extensive information and it relies on government agencies with first-hand information. Without a transparent robust budget process supported by relevant budget information, parliaments cannot make informed decisions about budget allocations and uphold accountability effectively.

The Malaysian Parliament had been criticised as a rubber stamp for the executive branch in the previous government. While there are no global indicators on national legislative strength, indices on democracy can serve as a rough proxy, given that parliaments are central institutions in democracies. In the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, Malaysia is a ‘flawed democracy’, which despite holding regular elections, has significant weaknesses in its democracy. BN (and its predecessor the Alliance) held a two-thirds majority in Malaysia’s Parliament for most of its rule since independence (except the last two terms), and it was rare for government bills to be amended never mind defeated.

In terms of budget transparency, Malaysia is also in a sorry state. According to the latest Open Budget Survey 2017, the Malaysian public has only limited access to budget information and the country ranked 54 out of 113 countries, with a score of 46 out of 100. Although the Survey did not ask specifically about the information accessible by parliamentarians, it was likely no better than the public they represent. In Southeast Asia, Malaysia is trailing behind the Philippines (67 points), Indonesia (64 points), and Thailand (56 points), and only ahead of Cambodia (20 points), Vietnam (15 points) and Myanmar (7 points). Singapore, Brunei and Laos did not participate in the Survey.

Malaysia’s performance in two other pillars of budget accountability is likewise bad: the country received a score of 22 out 100 in public participation, and a score of 35 in institutional oversight. In particular, the Survey finds parliament providing weak oversight throughout the budget process. There is no pre-budget debate in Parliament and there are also no parliamentary committees to examine budget proposals. Malaysia also does not have an independent fiscal institution like Australia’s Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO), which is increasingly recognised as an important source of independent and nonpartisan information in the budget process.

With PH taking power in GE-14, many have seen this as an opportunity for remaking Malaysia, with reforming parliament frequently at the top of the agenda. While the issue of budget transparency isn’t prominently on the radar, we should appreciate its linkages with parliamentary reforms and promote it as an integral part of the movement to strengthen the Parliament.

Two particular reform directions stand out from the discussion above: more information should be made available, and the Parliament has to beef up its oversight capabilities. In this respect, there are things that Malaysia can learn from the Australian budget process. Both countries share the same institutional roots in the British Westminster system, but Australia is far ahead in terms of budget transparency. In the Open Budget Survey 2017, it ranked 12 and received a score of 72. Australia also has a vibrant budget oversight institutional setting, particularly the Senate Estimates, which examine the annual budget in detail.

Australia has been a pioneer in pursuing budget transparency reforms since the 1990s. There are two pillars of budget transparency in its modern budget process: the Charter of Budget Honesty and the PBO. Both level the information playing field between the Executive Branch and the Parliament.

Enacted in 1998 to improve fiscal policy outcomes, the Charter of Budget Honesty has been crucial in making more budget information is accessible by the public, and also parliamentarians who represent them. The Charter requires a number of documents to be published for ‘facilitating public scrutiny of fiscal policy and performance’. For example, the government js required to produce a Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) report, which provides an update to the annual budget halfway through the year, and reports any events or changes that may affect the budget’s trajectory. The government must also produce an Intergenerational Report every five years, which provides a long-term aspect to budget forecasting. Such documents are currently not available in Malaysia, thus limiting the information base its Parliament can use in scrutinizing the executive branch.

On the other hand, the PBO, established in 2012, plays an important role in breaking the government’s monopoly on having access to advice on the financial implications of proposed policies. The establishment of this institution allows parliamentarians to build their own policy proposals with proper costing, using the same rules and conventions as the government’s, thus allowing deliberations on a same footing. The PBO has proven to be a great resource for opposition parliamentarians. For example, in 2016-17, over 1,600 policy costings were prepared. This has contributed to improving the vibrancy of Australian parliamentary debate, with back benchers and opposition parliamentarians in a better position to carve out more solid policy alternatives to the government.

In Malaysia, this policy costing service is available only to the government. The lack of proper costings of policy proposals have been an excuse used by past governments to dismiss the opposition’s policy proposals without addressing their merits. Even the new Pakatan Harapan government has used this as a reason to justify their failure of delivering some of the election pledges. An independent fiscal institution like the PBO would rectify the problem.

The Senate Estimates process is another key feature of Australian budget scrutiny, which should be relevant to Malaysia. Established in 1970 to replace the ‘committee of the whole’ process, Senate Estimates have since become an annual ritual of the budget process, where ministers and officials are called to attend public hearings to assist Senate standing committees in considering departmental budgets. The Estimates inquiries are conducted twice a year, the first when the main supply bills are introduced into parliament, and the second when additional supply bills are tabled. They allow Senate standing committees to consider departments’ spending in a detailed manner, which would otherwise be cumbersome for the Senate to address as the committee of the whole.

 

The new government can and should take the opportunity to rehabilitate Malaysia’s battered While the purpose of the Estimates process is to help the Senate make informed decisions about the budget, its importance goes beyond that. Given that the Estimates are conducted in the form of public hearings, and officials, instead of just ministers, can be called to testify, they provide senators an unparalleled opportunity to seek information on the operations of government. They are also part of the parliamentary scrutiny of the performance of the executive branch, as ministers and officials are required to explain not only what had happened, but also why. This is where accountability is most directly manifested.

In its GE-14 manifesto, Pakatan Harapan pledged that parliamentary select committees will be established to monitor every ministry, with the power to call ministers and senior officials to testify. As illustrated by the Australian experience, the budget process serves as a good medium for these committees to hold the Executive Branch accountable for its policies, given that their funding is in play. And this is part of the recommendations by the Open Budget Survey 2017 Malaysia country report, in which it urges Malaysia to prioritize the establishment of parliamentary select committees that can examine the annual Budget.

The Malaysian Budget is where taxing and spending decisions are made, and Parliament plays a central role in the process. By improving the budget process, Parliament is also strengthened, and vice-versa.