December 19, 2013 12:00 am JST

New level of activism on the rise in SE Asia

GWEN ROBINSON, Nikkei senior Asia editor

BANGKOK -- A surge of popular protests throughout Asia highlights a new level of activism in the region. Issues range from charges of election fraud in Malaysia and Cambodia to communal tensions in Singapore and Myanmar, religious and political violence in Bangladesh, corruption, labor and land disputes throughout Southeast Asia, and challenges to government legitimacy in Thailand. 

     While the complaints differ, common traits include rising popular pressure on governments to respond, growing public readiness to drive home their demands and above all, the expanding role of social media in informing or even inciting protesters.
     "It seems that this is the year of the protester in Southeast Asia," Murray Hiebert, Southeast Asian fellow at Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, told Nikkei Asian Review. "Protests over various issues have sprung up throughout the region, whereas they were more rare and isolated in the past. Gone for the most part is the old fear, in the days when protests were often shut down forcefully and organizers rounded up. Of course the goals differ from country to country, but the tactics often are similar."
     In recent weeks, those tactics have been on full display in a number of countries, led by Thailand, where tens of thousands of protestors -- and many more on some days -- paralyzed parts of Bangkok and occupied government buildings in a bid to drive Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from power.
Singapore cracking
In Singapore on Dec. 8 there was an outbreak of street violence -- the first such protests in the affluent city-state since race riots nearly 45 years ago.
     The trigger was a road accident in which a man, a migrant worker from India, was hit and killed by a bus in the vibrant "Little India" district.
     The furious reaction among South Asian workers took Singaporean authorities and the world by surprise. In what appeared to be an outpouring of pent-up resentment among migrant workers over poor pay and conditions, rampaging mobs overturned police cars and other vehicles, smashed windows and battled police for hours, injuring nearly 40 security personnel.
     The violence was concentrated in little over 1 sq. km of the city-state, but to many older Singaporeans, it evoked the country's race riots of 1969.
     Since those times, the ruling People's Action Party, founded by former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, father of the current leader Lee Hsien Loong, has guided Singapore's remarkable development through its own brand of "authoritarian democracy." Fundamental to its growth has been low-skilled migrant labor. Foreign workers, mainly from China and South Asia, particularly India and Bangladesh, now account for nearly 1.5 million of Singapore's 5.4 million population, or about one-third of the workforce. Another 500,000 foreign workers are classified as nonnative permanent residents.
     The recent cracks in Singapore's orderly facade have revived the old fears of communal tensions, this time fueled by foreign laborers' complaints and local resentments about hosting outsiders.
     The issue is galvanizing the sentiments of many middle-class Singaporeans, who until recently did not dare question government policies. Those attitudes have been changing rapidly, particularly since November last year when more than 170 Chinese bus drivers launched an illegal strike to protest against poor wages and conditions.
     The strike was one of the country's largest organized labor actions. It was rapidly put down, but the episode sparked unprecedented public criticism of the government's policies. In social media, over restaurant tables and through the first-ever public protests, earlier this year, well-heeled Singaporeans have been openly expressing opposition to migrant workers -- and directly criticizing government policies on imported labor.
     Commenting on the arrests initially of 27 South Asian workers in the wake of the riots, one Singaporean, Tan Beng Ming, wrote in a chillingly typical response on Facebook: "Jail them, cane them and send them packing! For good measure, send their compatriots back too!"
     In a stark acknowledgement of the public mood, the government has retreated from plans to significantly boost migrant workers by 2030; first by emphasizing moves to investigate the recent riots and better manage foreign workers, and; second, by assuring the public it would tighten criteria for worker entry.
     In a rare official explanation, Tan Chuan Jin, acting Manpower minister, told Bloomberg Television: "While foreign labor has contributed to the growth of the economy, there has been a cost, including a strain on infrastructure. We are continuing to tighten our manpower policies because we do want to move to a leaner approach."
     So far, Singaporeans have stayed largely quiet about issues related to heavy state control in politics, education, welfare and other fields. But concerns about the foreign worker influx have hit a popular nerve, prompting analysts to warn that hitherto timid or politically apathetic Singaporeans could press even harder for immigration curbs. Such action could eventually harm an economy that has become dependent on cheap but increasingly restive migrant labor. Even so, the government has moved quickly to increase levies that companies must pay for lower-skilled foreign workers and reduce the maximum limit on overseas workers in some industries.
Cambodian connectivity
In Cambodia, meanwhile, unrest has escalated over allegations of electoral fraud in the country's July 28 poll. The main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, which lost the election by a handful of seats, has boycotted parliament and on Dec. 15 kicked off what it claims will be daily protests to force a rerun of the election.
     The government of Prime Minister Hun Sen has hesitated to use force, instead offering talks with the opposition. But just like in neighboring Thailand, escalating protests could weigh on the burgeoning economy and eventually ignite violence. Over decades in power, Hun Sen has developed a reputation as a ruthless strongman. This time, however, overt intimidation of an increasingly popular opposition will be difficult.
     "People no longer have fear because they have information through social media, because they have confidence in us and because they can no longer continue to live with this injustice, and Hun Sen has lost his credibility," Sochua Mu, a leading CNRP member, told NAR. "Either Hun Sen puts national interest first or he goes for the guns, but we will stand firm with the people."
     Sochua Mu said many in the international community prefer the status quo. "They want political and economic stability. They never thought we could win. But they're not aware of the real situation here. Massive land grabs and deforestation have left people in despair. They've found us. They know we're their alternative."
     The Dec. 15 protest in Phnom Penh, which drew a relatively small (5,000 to 6,000) but angry crowd of opposition supporters, also signals a shift by the opposition from earlier demands to investigate election irregularities. "From now, we will organize demonstrations everyday, nonstop. We will demand to have a re-election to be held soon," Sam Rainsy, an opposition leader, told media.
     In an unusual sign of official concern, Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party asked the opposition to cancel the protests and offered to resume talks. With their protest campaign in full swing, however, opposition leaders have indicated the time for talking has passed.
Power questioned
Thailand's current protests, in which at least four people have died, are starting to wreak havoc on the economy and on the national psyche. Unless the opposition Democrats agree to participate in the Feb. 2 national poll proposed by the government, counter protests by red-shirted supporters of Yingluck and her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, are likely to prolong the upheavals and could ultimately force intervention by the military or monarchy, say some analysts. In a marked shift, however, the military -- once prone to coups -- has insisted it will stay out of politics. If so, it would advance one aspect of Thai democracy, even as the broader upheaval signifies overall backsliding.
     In Singapore, nearly 30 rioters face prison, deportation or even caning. The government has promised to investigate the unrest and impose more curbs on migrant workers. But local analysts say it will take much more to end tensions.
     Ultimately, "regional governments will have to become more responsive to their citizens' needs and aspirations," noted Hiebert of CSIS. "Thanks to social media and the Internet, citizens know much more about what's going on and know it much more quickly. Governments can no longer assume that citizens will give them a blank check years after they came to power."