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Opinion

Southeast Asia stumbles over politics

The region's role as a motor for Asia's economic growth is threatened by stability risks

It is disappointing to see Aung San Suu Kyi reverse the trend for freedom of expression.   © Reuters

These are challenging times for Southeast Asia. Despite buoyant economies, healthy investment and growing trade ties, predictability and certainty in the political sphere seem elusive for the ten member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

What looked like stable political outcomes or transitions in Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia have more recently generated fear and uncertainty as squabbling entrenched elites are battered by divisive issues of corruption, identity and inequality. In Myanmar and the Philippines democratic transitions have morphed into state-sponsored repressive security crackdowns on hard-won freedoms.

Broader concerns stem from the geopolitical uncertainty created by U.S.-led efforts to challenge China's rise, which threatens to exert a drag on Asia's economic growth. The start of the third decade of the 21st century points to a troubled way ahead for the region.

The outlook is disappointing, not least because Southeast Asia is regarded as an important auxiliary engine of growth and investment for Asia as China's economy begins to cool. But optimism about its economic potential and resilience should be tempered by the realities of political developments in the region, which is struggling to escape cultural and historical constraints.

Six years after the military intervened in Thailand to end a violent and disruptive period of political conflict, elections have finally been scheduled for the end of March. There were hopes of a transition back to a democratically elected government and an end to the polarized, often violent, political confrontation, even as members of the military junta prepared to stand for elected office. But when Princess Ubolratana, the elder sister of King Vajiralongkorn, made the surprise announcement in early February that she would stand as a candidate for prime minister under the banner of a party supported by exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, deep divisions in the Thai elite were exposed. This suggests that the long period under military rule has had no impact on solving underlying conflicts.

The Thai elections may well go ahead on March 24. But no one believes the outcome will produce stability. The most likely result will be a weak coalition of military-backed figures and conservative smaller parties, which will leave dissatisfied the majority of people who have historically supported Thaksin's party.

In neighboring Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen, now Southeast Asia's longest serving elected leader, initially emerged unscathed after a flawed election last year in which the main opposition party was banned. But the European Union's recent decision to move toward withdrawing a preferential trade arrangement that benefits the country's vital garment industry threatens the Cambodian economy, which grew close to 7% in 2018. The banned opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party, many of whose leaders are in exile, may well see this as an opportunity to stoke unrest.

What at first looked like a remarkably peaceful transition in Malaysia after the defeat of the ruling United Malaysia National Organization at the polls last year is now overshadowed by splits within the new governing coalition and the failure to swiftly prosecute former Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak on graft charges. Despite credible allegations that Najib presided over the theft of more than $4 million from a state-backed investment vehicle, 1MDB, he has seen a revival in popularity among the majority Malay population. This development, along with legal tactics delaying the opening of his trial, has unnerved the new multiracial government led by veteran Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and underscored its vulnerability to fickle conservative Malay sentiment.

In Indonesia, campaigning for parliamentary and presidential elections due in mid-April is underway. As stable and routine as the electoral process has become, with Indonesia having peacefully elected two presidents since 2004, the worry is that the country's increasingly rambunctious democracy is allowing ultra-nationalist and religious extremist elements to push their agendas.

Underlying social and economic problems in Indonesia provide ample tinder for unrest if rising prices and youth unemployment are not addressed. Much of the discontent could be channeled through conservative Islamic forces, which the leading presidential candidates, incumbent Joko Widodo and challenger Prabowo Subianto, have gone dangerously overboard to cultivate. Whoever wins, "conservative Islamic groups, backed by radical groups, will win -- have already won -- the election," wrote prominent Indonesian novelist Eka Kurniawan in The New York Times.

What these electoral aftermaths tell us is that democracy, though entrenched, is far from well-established in Southeast Asia, with deep-seated problems at the social and elite level often accompanying political change that affects stability.

More troubling still are those countries where the hard struggle for freedom has been reversed.

Both Myanmar and the Philippines have endured protracted struggles at different times to replace dictatorship and martial law with democracy. Yet both countries have seen a drastic slide back toward repression under elected leaders.

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte remains remarkably popular despite his controversial "war on drugs" that has killed thousands of people, including more than a dozen elected officials. More recently, Duterte, a former city mayor from Davao, has attacked the media and stood by as Maria Ressa, the head of the popular news service Rappler, was arrested, and later released, on charges of cybercrime.

Freedom of expression was one of the earliest dividends of a gradual transition away from stern military rule in Myanmar after 2011, so it has been deeply disappointing to see the freely elected government led by the former democracy and human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi reverse the trend after she was elected in 2015. In its 2018 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Myanmar 137th out of 180 countries, citing the prosecution of 20 journalists in the past year.

None of these troubling developments appear to threaten any of these countries with collapse, but they herald trouble ahead. Transparency, government integrity and reducing social inequality are all important factors that support continued economic stability. But governments across Southeast Asia are failing to deliver on these key indicators. Removing entrenched privileges for the elite and addressing the yawning income gap that afflicts the region would go a long way toward dealing with these problems since elections alone will not do the job. More far-reaching reforms are necessary.

Set against increasing confrontation between China and the U.S., the collective role of Southeast Asian countries as a stable platform for regional economic growth is becoming increasingly important. It is vital in this context for ASEAN member states to put aside domestic turmoil and demonstrate a unity of purpose.

Michael Vatikiotis is Asia director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and author of "Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia."

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