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Rights or repression -- Southeast Asia's choice

Indonesia shows democracy can advance but needs public backing and enlightened leaders

| Indonesia
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, left, visited Indonesian President Joko Widodo after elections in both nations highlighted democracy's strengths in Southeast Asia.   © Reuters

Attention has focused on whether the local elections in Indonesia helped or hindered President Joko Widodo's re-election in next year's presidential contest. But the real significance of the on June 27 polls to elect provincial governors across the sprawling archipelago was that they passed off peacefully, with high voter turnout averaging over 70%. This showed that there is continued public enthusiasm for how Indonesians are governed at the local level.

This demonstration of democratic rights, combined with the recent election in Malaysia that toppled one of the world's oldest ruling parties, suggests that reports of democracy's demise in Southeast Asia are premature. Significantly, newly elected Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad visited Indonesia in late June in his first overseas trip to discuss "securing democracy" with Widodo.

Yet democracy is far from secure in other parts of the region, where democratic transitions have either lapsed or gone into reverse. In Myanmar, where a free and mostly fair election in 2015 saw a victory for the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi, newly won press freedoms have been curbed and basic human rights for minorities have regressed. In neighboring Thailand, after four years of military rule, there is still no firm timetable for a return to elected government.

In Cambodia, a general election scheduled for late July will go ahead only after the main opposition party, which garnered almost 40% of the votes in local elections last year, was banned. In the Philippines, which led a resurgence of democratization in Southeast Asia in the mid-1980s, a strongman president has trampled on human rights, jailed his critics and overseen the dismantling of the independent judiciary.

Part of the problem is that democratic change in the region has followed different national cycles. While Mahathir was jailing critics and promoting "Asian values" to justify paternalistic rule when he was first prime minister in the 1980s and 1990s, Philippine President Corazon Aquino and Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai were championing freedom and the separation of powers.

One reason for this continued fickleness is the enduring nature of political cultures that prioritize the security of privileged elites over popular sovereignty, and which is backed by the threat of military force. Both Thailand and the Philippines are susceptible to military intervention. The last attempted military intervention in the Philippines was in 2012. In Myanmar, the military retains control over key ministries in the civilian government. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is increasingly relying on military levers of power to sustain his family's political primacy.

Indonesia and Malaysia are largely free of military interference for different reasons. The Malaysian military has always been apolitical and subordinate to the civilian enforcement of law and order through the police. This is a product of the British-bequeathed system of parliamentary government. In Indonesia, the military reformed itself before the politicians. The Indonesian army's refusal to support President Suharto's bid to cling to power in the face of violent popular protests that heralded the end of authoritarian rule in 1998, was a significant factor ensuring the robust transition to democracy.

The predominant Muslim influence in the societies of Indonesia and Malaysia also play a role. The democratic reform movement of the 1990s in both countries was dominated by modernist Islamic figures such as Amien Rais in Indonesia and Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia. They used the moral basis of Islamic teaching to argue for greater freedom and justice. Both men, now in their 70s, remain involved in politics and are likely to challenge any move toward consolidating power outside the democratic framework.

Neither the feudal traditions of the Catholic church in the Philippines nor the Hindu traditions that dominate statecraft in Buddhist Myanmar and Thailand are particularly inclined toward either untrammeled freedom or equality. This has put a brake on the evolution of a democratic culture.

In Myanmar, Suu Kyi, the country's de facto leader, is preaching the value of duties over rights. In Thailand, the military junta urges Thais to put collective endeavor ahead of selfish individual urges. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte, despite the insults he hurls at the Catholic church, has cultivated an almost religious fervor around the pursuit of petty criminals deemed worthy to be killed because of their sins.

Of course, social and cultural factors are not strict determinants of the course of political development. The success of democracy in Indonesia and Malaysia is not guaranteed just because the military is weak and Muslim values immunize society from tyranny. The inherent weakness of democratic institutions tends to put a premium on personality above policy or process -- and still concentrates too much power in executive offices. As a result political contest is prone to exploiting cleavages in society and generating conflict.

The leading opponent to Widodo in next year's presidential election will again most likely be retired General Prabowo Subianto, a former special forces commander accused of human rights abuses. He has shown a willingness to appeal to conservative Islamic sentiment to undermine his opponent. Mahathir may have cloaked his return to power in the guise of a liberal reformer, but the speed with which he has consolidated power at the expense of his coalition partner Anwar Ibrahim, suggests an oncoming power struggle that once again could result in the abuse of power.

Strengthening and securing democracy will need those in power to relax their grip on independent monitoring bodies and election commissions, which now looks to be happening in Malaysia. There is also the need for more executive power to be devolved from central governments to other elected bodies such as regional parliaments and local councils, something the just held regional elections suggests Indonesia is ready for.

Yet for millions of Indonesians and Malaysians, there is much to celebrate. Their preference is to be able to freely choose who governs them. The recent elections have vindicated their faith in democracy. As Mahathir said during his visit to Jakarta, democracies have many problems. There will be sore losers who protest and try to undermine the results. But the advantages of democracy ultimately outweigh the risks. It is a pity that elsewhere in Southeast Asia, there are those who still balk at the risks and cling to absolute power.

Michael Vatikiotis is Asia director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and a former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review. His most recent book is "Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia."

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