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Southeast Asia's paths to political change

Political transformations can come in many forms. That is certainly the case in Southeast Asia.

But there are essentially three different types of political change -- as seen in the region. The first is transformative change, a gradual and peaceful process that normally occurs in the framework of democracy. It implies a consultative and consensus-making process, exemplified in the region by developments in Taiwan which held successful elections earlier this year.

Then there is revolutionary change, which can be sudden, confrontational and violent, as in the cases of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. It implies an explosion from the lower depths of society.

Finally, there is change in terms of reform from the top down, imposed on the general population, along the lines of the Singaporean model.

Such categories are not clear-cut. Sometimes change can be driven by alternating between two or even three of these underlying models.

In all three scenarios, there is one common feature, which is the existence of a small group of prime movers and organizers. In the case of transformative change, the leaders usually come from the elite, but are able to reach out to the population and work together. Elites are also involved in top-down reform, but they confine themselves to decision-making and command roles. Revolutionary leaders are usually outsiders who do not belong to the elite.

The history of Southeast Asia has been rich in such examples of transformation, reform and revolution. In some countries these processes continue to advance, but others have become static and settled into a status quo.

Taiwan's example

Taiwan went through societal transformation that became participatory and holistic, albeit following the trauma of civil war, with a process of democratization beginning in the 1980s. The people are the center -- the owners of national sovereignty as well as the final recipients of sovereign rights, benefits and rewards.

Thailand, in contrast, has gone through top-down reforms in the last 150 years without much mass participation. The first was under King Chulalongkorn, who with the support of royalists and aristocrats, turned the country into a centralized state in the late 19th century. The second reform began with a coup in 1932 when a group of foreign-educated aristocrats, bureaucrats and military officers ended the absolute monarchy and replaced it with a constitutional monarchy.

Although the resulting political structure looked democratic, it fell short of that ideal because of a lack of civic and political education. So Thailand can be seen as undergoing a top-down process of uneven reform and a half-finished transformation of limited public participation.

Elsewhere in the region, Brunei remains an absolute sultanate awaiting internal and external pressure to change.

In the case of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, all mounted revolutionary struggles for independence from French colonialism, and these movements were characterized by a degree of national unity. But on the eve of independence or in the immediate aftermath, power struggles erupted between leftist and rightist factions, which included citizens participating. Communism won and Laos and Vietnam are still one-party states.

Cambodia would also have remained a communist state, but for the intervention of Vietnam during a civil war among communist factions in the late 1970s, followed by a United Nations administration and then democratic elections.

Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge official, eventually won the elections and became the country's latest -- and longest serving -- strongman, following in the footsteps of King Sihanouk and General Lon Nol. Hun Sen continues to rule and the status quo reigns.

Singapore, through the unwavering leadership of Lee Kuan Yew, achieved good governance and high living standards through education, a strong work ethic and rising incomes. It is practically a one-party city-state. It has all along been engaged in a top-down reform process, but there is a consensus on the direction of Singapore, since the public believes in the quality of the leadership and trusts it. Both the leaders and the public appear to move together. Singapore has all the elements of eventually switching from a top-down reform structure to a transformative one of public participation in decision-making.

A turning point for Malaysia

Malaysia however is a major cause of concern. It is a one-party state that is turning away from pluralism, tolerance and democracy to increased discrimination in favor of the ethnic majority Malay population. The ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities cannot protest without triggering a possible violent backlash. The future of Malaysia will depend on what the Malays and their religious leaders do.

Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar all fought revolutionary wars against colonial rulers and then endured decades of authoritarian rule. But they seem to have good prospects for transformative political changes, with democracy developing in an encouraging manner.

That is true even for the Philippines under its new populist leader, President Rodrigo Duterte. He has started to reach out to the Communist Party and to Muslim separatist movements, which suggests inclusiveness is taking root.

In Myanmar, the ruling National League for Democracy and the military are continuing discussions on sharing power. They are also talking to armed ethnic minorities to end conflicts and agree on a new state structure.

Post-Suharto Indonesia is an exemplary model. The present leader, President Joko Widodo, is an outsider from a middle-class background with some business experience. He gained recognition for being a down-to-earth, hands-on mayor of Jakarta. He should be able to lead the transformation process to make Indonesia both great and inclusive.

Meanwhile in Thailand, it is worrying to see that conservatism has taken hold of the middle class, who appear to be opting for stability under military rule over participatory politics, halting the democratization process.

It is possible that the military will turn Thailand into a one-party state, combining elements of the Chinese Communist party and Singapore's People's Action Party. The military establishment appears to be imposing a top-down reform process. As a result, the transformation process of inclusiveness could be abandoned, leaving a divided country and widening the ideological and socioeconomic gap.

Discontent is being swept under the carpet with draconian laws, backed by military power. But there could be a sudden disruption and conflict if the military is not careful.

Given all these developments, it is clear Southeast Asia can learn from the contrasting examples of China and Taiwan. China is trying to export the concept of combining restrictive one-party rule with economic success. This concept is finding favor among some governments in the region.

In contrast, Taiwan should promote its model of political transformation in a democratic setting, identifying like-minded countries in Southeast Asia and sharing its experiences and best practices.

While China is propagating totalitarian rule, Taiwan must try to convince aspiring countries in the region that pluralism and openness are a better alternative.

Kasit Piromya was Thailand's foreign minister, 2008-11 under the Democrat Party administration of Abhisit Vejjajiva.

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