Southeast Asia: U-Turns, downturns

Questions of freedom of speech and democracy loom over an economically vulnerable region, Simon Roughneen writes for ISN Security Watch.

By Simon Roughneen in Sydney for ISN Security Watch

As Thailand's international airports were besieged by protesters in December, the country's recent lurch into civil discord was spun as a disastrous regression by a hitherto vibrant and competitive democracy.

Apropos, in December, former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice described the coup as a "U-turn" for Southeast Asia.

Maybe more of a full circle than a U-turn, however. Without even mentioning the ongoing tragedy that is Burma/Myanmar, Southeast Asia's democratic progress has been piecemeal and fluctuating. During King Bhumibol's long reign, Thailand has undergone 18 coups. As such, what has taken place in recent months is nothing new.

While new Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva took power formally after enough MPs from the ousted government switched sides, it appears that the misnamed People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protesters were facilitated in bringing the country to a standstill by Thailand's military. PAD favors a partially nominated parliament in order to prevent a repeat of the self-styled "pro-poor" administration under Thaksin Shinawatra, whose admittedly corrupt government brought unprecedented gains to marginalized Thais.

Freedom of speech is under duress from state forces, even in formal democracies. Thailand retains possibly the world's harshest lese-majeste laws, with an Australian novelist and left-wing academic jailed in recent days for allegedly criticising the monarchy's role in recent political upheavals. At publication time, last week's issue of The Economist was being withdrawn from circulation in Thailand, after recent negative coverage of the monarchy.

Heavy handed in the Philippines

Still elsewhere across the region, freedom of speech is under duress from state forces, even in formal democracies. One of the latter, the Philippines, has been slated for a heavy-handed approach to dealing with various insurgencies across the archipelago.

Argentina-under-the-generals-style "disappearances" have apparently proliferated in recent years, with a recent UN report citing up to 900 extra-judicial killings and around 200 disappearances (some of whom were activists, academics and students) of people who may or may not have had links to a violent Maoist group called the New People's Army.

The Philippines remains a raucous and often entertaining democracy, with a confrontational and often sensationalist media, which sometimes holds its notoriously corrupt elites to account, and reminds the same oligarchy of the vast millions of Filipinos who remain poor and dependant on remittances.

Numerous attempts have been made to impeach President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo since she assumed power in 2001, and seven months ago a half-cocked attempt at a military coup fell flat – again not unprecedented during Arroyo's administration.

Malaysia: Slap in the face

Malaysia prides itself on being a plural, multi-religious society, with good inter-faith relations between Muslims, who constitute 60 percent of the population, and minority Christians, Buddhists and Hindus. Islam, however, is the official religion, and the Constitution states that all Malays are by definition, Muslim, even though freedom of religion is mandated in the same document.

March 2008 saw a landmark change in the country's political landscape, when elections brought an end to the incumbent Barisan National (BN) coalition's long-standing monopoly-majority in parliament. The result was a voter-driven slap-in-the-face for the BN, a multiethnic coalition that remains dominated by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).

This is welcome, but it must be noted that UMNO gambled on a turn toward Malay nationalism, spiced with some Islamist rhetoric, as it sought to maintain cartel-style privileges for its cronies in the ethnic Malay elites, and forestall the rise of the avowedly Islamist PAS, a part of the anti-UMNO coalition put together by Anwar Ibrahim.

Anwar is former UMNO protégé, who faces renewed allegations of corruption and sodomy, charges that have already landed him jail time. However, his supporters regard the charges as politically driven, given that Anwar has fallen out with UMNO top brass whom he now seeks to depose from power.

However uneasily – given a 17 January by-election loss to PAS in erstwhile pro-government and Malay-majority Kuala Terengganu – UMNO remains at the helm. Fears remain that it will embark on more sectarian rabble-rousing, such as the recent attempt to prevent the Catholic Herald, Malaysia's biggest-selling Christian newspaper, from using the word "Allah" in its Malay-language edition. Publicly, the government believes that the word will "confuse Muslims," even though Malay Christians have used Allah as synonymous for God for centuries.

Vietnam: Catholics under pressure

Catholics are under pressure elsewhere in the region.

In Vietnam, a stand-off between the Church and state has taken place at Thai Ha Redemptorist Church in Hanoi since early 2008. At issue is the former Papal Nunciature in Vietnam, which the Communist Party claims as state-owned property. Human Rights Watch has accused the Vietnamese government of what it deems the harshest crackdown on the country's Catholics in decades.

Meanwhile, various Protestant groups and non-traditional Buddhists are regularly persecuted by the one-party state, which has simultaneously busied itself with the jailing of two well-known journalists who reported on a major corruption scandal last year.

Vietnam's harsh clampdown on media and religious liberties is thought to be in part prompted by regime dogmatists, who fear too much liberalisation in economically turbulent times could ultimately erode the Communist Party's iron grip

Indonesia: Shadows or reality?

Since the fall of kleptocrat Suharto in 1998, Indonesia has by all accounts put together a functioning and open procedural democracy, even as many of the informal hindrances such as corruption and regional inequalities remain extant.

This year will see the latest round of elections in this vast island country, which holds more Muslims than any other nation in the world. As other states find loopholes to circumvent the norms of free expression and formal democracy, another free and fair election in the region's largest country would set an example to follow, and perhaps retrospectively vindicate George W Bush's conviction that Islam and democracy are compatible.

However, Indonesia has a growing minority Islamist movement, which will test its electoral mettle amid turbulent times. Islamists ran a shrill campaign to rid the archipelago of alleged pornography during 2008 – a move widely praised by Indonesia's non-Muslim minorities and moderates. However, it is not clear how much electoral traction they will have this year.

Like all its neighbors, Indonesia faces an unsettling year. When the global economic downturn hits home fully, possibly by April, reduced demand in major economies will hit the region's export-oriented base, giving air to recidivists who feel the country has moved too fast.

Like an old-style Javanese shadow play, can anyone say for sure if Indonesia's transformation is as it appears, or whether the dancing shadow puppets represent some hidden esoteric drama, denouement as yet unknown? Unlikely – and much the same applies across the region.

Simon Roughneen is an ISN Security Watch senior correspondent, currently in Southeast Asia. He previously reported from the region in 2007.