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Southeast Asia’s democratic deficit

Posted By on June 15, 2017 @ 11:00

Image courtesy of Pixabay user 3dman_eu.

Southeast Asia accounts for sizeable chunks of global investment and manufacturing capacity; it straddles vital lines of trade and communication. Whether it is mobile phone parts or clothing and accessories, Southeast Asia is a vital link in the global supply chain. What then makes Southeast Asia one of the least politically progressive and most perennially unstable regions of the world?

The one constant over the last forty years is the perpetual selfishness of Southeast Asian elites and their wilful subjugation of the rights of citizens to their own considerations of wealth and power. We see this reflected in the turbulent course of political change, the failure to address enduring drivers of conflict in society, staggering disparities of wealth and the chronic impunity towards injustice and loss of life perpetrated by the state.

More than any other part of the world today that claims to adhere for the most part to democratic principles of government and has the GDP to do so, Southeast Asia fails chronically to deliver on the promise of popular sovereignty. The latest map of freedom generated by the US-based Freedom House shows that, apart from Japan and India, the whole of Asia is considered either ‘not free’ or ‘only partly free’. That includes the Philippines and Indonesia – both semi-democracies, only partly free.

Remarkably, this democracy deficit cannot be explained away by the kinds of chronic war and related social dislocation afflicting troubled parts of Africa and the Middle East. Quite the reverse, for the past four decades Southeast Asia has been at peace and growing a solid 6 to 8 per cent per year.

Second, there has been a loosening of the bonds of tolerance and inclusion underpinning social stability in Southeast Asia. Identity politics is on the rise. Following a global trend, growth in religious orthodoxy has hardened the boundaries between different religious communities and generated high degrees of intolerance and exclusivity that increasingly fuels violent conflict.

Degraded pluralism creates a permissive environment for violent extremism to take root. Looking around the region there has been a serious uptick in ethnic and religious intolerance leading to tension and violence that has opened the space for extremist activity. In addition, the large numbers of people crossing borders in search of refuge and economic opportunity make Southeast Asia one of the hardest to protect from violent extremism. Meanwhile, deteriorating social conditions driven by alarming income inequalities ensures there are cohorts of young people susceptible to violent ideology.

Rather than address this challenge with policies aimed at shoring up traditions of tolerance, Southeast Asian governments have become prone to conservative impulses serving the ends of power. Malaysia has allowed Muslim clerics to declare liberal Muslims deviants and non-Muslim Chinese who question Islamic law worthy of being slain; a senior Indonesian security official quite recently said that lesbians and gays constitute a threat to national security.

Together with the alienation and fragility generated by protracted sub-national conflicts and the chronic impunity with regard to abuses of power and human rights, little wonder that Southeast Asia is susceptible to becoming a haven for violent extremists feeding off social division and disaffection.

Third, the flux of external environments affecting Southeast Asia: the spread of conservative Islamic dogma and extremist ideology fuelled by the contest between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the rise of China as an economic and military power are two of the most significant developments Southeast Asia has experienced since the Pacific War and the end of the colonial era in the mid-twentieth century.

Saudi Arabia and Iran seem determined to escalate their struggle for domination of the Muslim world, which can only mean continued funding for religious schools that spread conservative preaching, which in turn creates a petri dish environment for the incubation of hard-line extremist thinking. It is a waste of time for governments to make efforts to prevent violent extremism through programmes of de-radicalisation if at the same time a blind eye is turned to the steady erosion of the legal and institutional moorings of tolerance that Saudi Arabia in its existential struggle with Shiite Iran is underwriting.

Muslim nations in Asia have little or no influence over either country—though they should since the majority of Muslims in the world now reside in Asia. But if there is no political will to defend constitutional rights and freedoms and instead manipulate race and religion for political ends, there will always be a steady stream of people attracted to violent extremist ideology.

Meanwhile, efforts by Western powers, principally the US, to balance and moderate China’s burgeoning influence are generating geopolitical friction and turning Southeast Asia into a cauldron of superpower rivalry. And even if China’s growth grinds to a halt, or if the country suffers a catastrophic internal collapse—not unprecedented over the long arc of Chinese history—Southeast Asia will be affected due to the probable migration of Chinese to the region, much as they did at the end of the Ming dynasty in the seventeenth century and then more spectacularly after the collapse of the Qing dynasty at the end of the nineteenth century.

In Southeast Asia the prolonged monopoly of power and resources in the hands of urban elites has sustained strong, authoritarian government. And because popular demands cannot be accommodated in a broadly inclusive way, people are forced into militancy. That is why we see the emergence of pernicious destabilising conflict and corrosive divisions in society fuelling extremist views. Instead of allowing more open, equitable government to address these problems, the power holders exploit these dangerous fissures in society in a bid to prevent the leakage of their power.

The immediate future of Southeast Asia therefore looks certain to be characterised by enduring struggles for equality and freedom. The experience of the past four decades indicates that even with improved access to the power of modern communications technology and media, the success of these struggles is doubtful, mainly because the power holders have all the guns and control access to justice. The slow response of government to grievances and use of divide-and-rule tactics to undermine opposition will force communities and groups to look after themselves and defy the powerful centre.

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