36. Epilogue & Current Events

Chapters
Previous
Next
Book

ASEAN history

Southeast Asia: “These two volumes have been devoted to telling my unique story, from my tectonic beginnings hundreds of millions ago through to modern times, even unto the events of September 2014. My Author has consistently treated me as a unified entity with a character of my own. Despite my having hundreds of distinct ethno-linguistic cultures, he has perceived some common threads that tie my diverse peoples into one unified package.

My entire region has finally come to understand this same commonality. My countries with all their diverse peoples have all joined together in a political and economic organization called ASEAN, Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The 4 newly formed sovereign countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines joined together with Thailand to form the original politico-economic alliance on August 8, 1967.

There were multiple motivations behind the original union, foremost of which was to facilitate nation building in the midst of a hostile world. Although most of my countries had escaped from under the thumb of European colonialism by this time, the Cold War was raging – the Vietnam War at its height. The Communist states, primarily Russia and China, and the Cartel-controlled states, primarily the US, were intent on bringing my Southeast Asian countries under their sway. To influence the course of events, they employed bribes in the form of enormous amounts of economic and military assistance that came in a variety of forms. Besides enriching the military industrial complex, the massive influx of weaponry also led inevitably to civil war and bloodshed.

By this time in the late 60s, the 5 founding countries had sided with the West and so were definitely anti-communist. But they had also come to realize that US/Cartel’s economic and military assistance came with strings, i.e. the necessity of exploiting the land and the poor. As such, part of the future vision of ASEAN was political and economic self-sufficiency. In this sense, it could be said that the association of Southeast Asian nations was a self-help group to provide mutual assistance in the turbulent process of growing to political adulthood. Maturity meant independence from the parent countries.

In January 1984, ASEAN added its 6th member. Brunei joined the exclusive club a week after gaining independence.

As the Soviet Union crumbled in the late 1980s, the Cold War came to an end. The pulse of human insanity that led so many deaths and so much destruction had finally played itself out. The Soviet communist experiment was over. The excesses of the Cultural Revolution were past. Both Russia and China were joining the free market economy.

With the communist threat ebbing along with the associated fear, a global consciousness began emerging. My nations came to realize that politico-economic strength came in numbers and size. They began to celebrate political diversity, rather than fear it.

With an aim at increasing regional prosperity and fostering political cooperation, Vietnam became the 7th member in July 1995, and then Laos and Burma the 8th and 9th members in July 1997. After stabilizing the government, Cambodia became the 10th and final member of ASEAN in 1999, the very last year of the old millennium. East Timor has applied for membership, but has yet to be accepted due to lack of economic development. However, many of the member countries are assisting East Timor to fulfill the requirements. The goal for East Timor’s admission is 2015, but it could be later.

Besides economic growth, ASEAN aims to protect the peace and stability of the region. To this end, the association provides opportunities for member countries to discuss differences peacefully. Each of the nations has also signed non-aggression pacts with its neighbors. Plus in 2001, all the members ratified the Southeast Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty, which effectively bans all nuclear weapons in the region.

In addition to the political and economic spheres, another intent of ASEAN is to foster social evolution by encouraging basic human rights and social protection for the citizens. The intention is to create a peaceful environment that is conducive to the fulfillment of personal potentials and self-realization. These noble goals hark back to the devaraja (god king) notion from so long ago.

The virtual completion of ASEAN at the beginning of the new millennium means that my territory of Southeast Asia is finally back to where it was before the Europeans invaded, starting with the Portuguese in the middle in the last millennium. Instead of a colonial income property to be exploited or an international battleground, it is primarily an international trading zone once again. As an improvement on these past times, the political borders seem to be fairly set and recognized universally with no potential aggression between the countries.

While ASEAN is the politico-economic organization, I, Southeast Asia, am the real estate upon which it exists. Although I cover 3% of the total land area of Earth, I provide a home for 8.8% of the world's population, approximately 600 million people. In contrast to every other political entity on the planet, my sea area is about three times larger than my land area. Further if ASEAN, my unified human association, were a single entity, it would rank as the sixth largest economy in the world, behind the US, China, India, Japan and Germany. It makes me proud that humans have finally formed a political organization that represents my complete territory. Hip, Hip, Hooray!

Global Comparisons: Relative Population & Area

To attain a global perspective, let us compare my Southeast Asian nations with each other and the rest of the world’s nations in terms of the relatively benign and non-controversial figures related to population and area.

The following chart provides some perspective on the relative areas of my 11 countries. Over a quarter larger than Alaska, Indonesia dwarfs the rest in terms of area. Burma, the 2nd largest, is about the size of Texas, while Thailand at 3rd is still larger than California. The three postage stamp countries (Singapore, Brunei, and East Timor) are over an order of magnitude smaller than the rest. Yet they are still larger than the smallest US States. The remaining Southeast Asian countries are about the size of the midsize US States, somewhere between Montana and Washington.

Global Area (square kilometers)

1

Russia

17,100

 

 

2

Canada

10,000

 

3

China

9,600

 

4

USA

9,500

US States

15

Indonesia

1,900

Alaska

1,400

40

Burma

672

Texas

676

51

Thailand

513

California

403

64

Philippines

342

Montana

376

67

Vietnam

331

New Mexico

314

68

Malaysia

330

S Dakota

199

84

Laos

236

Washington

184

90

Cambodia

181

Connecticut

12.5

159

East Timor

15

Delaware

5

173

Brunei

6

D. Colombia

2.7

190

Singapore

0.7

Rhode Island

0.2

 

The following chart provides some perspective on the relative population sizes of my 11 countries. Note that Indonesia at #4 in the world dwarfs the rest in numbers of people. The next 4 countries with the largest populations, i.e. the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar, all have significantly more people than California, the US’s most populous state. Timor and Brunei have about as many people as the US’s least populous states. The rest are in between.

Global Population (millions)

1

China

1,400

 

2

India

1,200

 

3

USA

318

 

4

Indonesia

252

 

12

Philippines

100

 

13

Vietnam

90

24

Thailand

64

US States

25

Burma

51

California

37

42

Malaysia

30

Texas

26

69

Cambodia

15

New York

20

105

Laos

6.7

Florida

20

116

Singapore

5.4

Rhode Island

1

158

East Timor

1.2

Vermont

0.6

175

Brunei

0.4

Wyoming

0.6

 

To complete this survey of my modern nations, let us finish off our tale with some late breaking news.”

Recent News 2014: Malaysia's Sedition Act alive and well

In our article on Malaysia, we mentioned that the government passed the Sedition Act in 1969 in response to the May 13 Riot, where hundreds of lives were lost and thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed. This and other measures were passed to quell dissent and ensure that the Malays were firmly in charge of the government. It was a major turning point in the country’s history.

The Sedition Act allowed the state to imprison anyone indefinitely that was suspected of sedition. Sedition could include criticizing the government and this law. Because this law and others like it were never repealed, Malaysia is considered a quasi-democracy with limited freedom of speech.

Malaysia has enjoyed almost a half-century of relative social stability and economic prosperity, especially as compared with the other Southeast Asian nations. However, the country’s political climate has not changed much since 1969. We offer as evidence, the following bit of current events direct from Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday September 3, 2014, less than a week ago as this is being written.

A Malaysian opposition party announced that it is planning a series of protests to pressure the government to abolish the Sedition Act and to drop all charges brought under the legislation. Evidently 14 people have been charged under the act since 2010. However in the 2 weeks prior to the article, 4 individuals were accused of sedition under the legislation, including three opposition legislators and a respected university lecturer just the day before. This most recent arrest presumably instigated non-violent public protests against this repressive law.

Aggravating matters, the majority ruling party had pledged 2 years prior that it intended to repeal the law. In fact, they promised to introduce an entire package of measures designed to liberalize the country’s political freedoms. These pledges were presumably intended to prop up flagging support for the administration. However instead of repealing the law, they have used it silence the opposition. The meat was placed in the dog’s salivating mouth and then withdrawn, as he was about to bite into it. Ouch!

Myanmar’s continuing suppression of Press Freedom

In 2011, Myanmar’s military government finally released Suu Kyi after more than 2 decades of house arrest. Shortly after, they allowed elections for the first time in decades and relinquished some power to the elected civilian authorities. On the same track, there was a general lightening up of the repressive political atmosphere and an opening up to the outside world. Due to these positive trends, both international observers and locals had a growing optimism about Myanmar’s future.

Then on July 11, 2014, Myanmar's military-run courts sentenced five journalists to 10 years imprisonment for presumably presenting a critical view of the government. Of course, the severity of the sentence sends a strong message to any other reporter who might be tempted to speak out about anything. Needless to say, this unfortunate decision is a huge blow for press freedom in Myanmar and reverses signs of positive change.

Thailand’s Military Coup of 2014

Thailand’s political system could be called an ‘intermittent’ democracy. Since their first election in 1932, there have been 20 military coups, a dozen of which were successful. Unlike Burma, Indonesia, the Philippines, or even Cambodia, the army never established a long-term dictatorship. Instead the military leaders regularly relinquished power after a relatively brief interval to elected civilian authorities and the king. Rather than eliminating the democracy, military rule was and is a mere interruption.

As elsewhere, the army claims that the coups were and are necessary to re-establish social order. The Thai military frequently adds another justification to their aggressive actions. They claim that they are the sole guardians of their revered monarchy. The most recent military coup occurred in 2014. Let’s examine why.

The military, the monarchy and the entrenched economic elite have joined forces to rule Thailand in the modern era. They have primarily appealed to the urban business class to win elections. The rural peasantry had little say in government policies in the last century. As a balance, the venerated King Bhumibol took it upon himself and the power of the monarchy to tend to the needs of this disenfranchised class. His compassion for the poor effectively defused any kind of revolutionary sentiment.

In the new millennium, Thailand’s traditional power structure was challenged. By appealing to the peasantry, Thaksin Shinawatra won the 2001 election for president. Making good on campaign promises, his administration provided low cost health care for the poor and an economic stimulus package for small business owners and farmers. Due to this populist appeal, Thaksin, an independent telecommunications billionaire, won the 2005 presidential elections in a landslide.

Unfortunately for Thailand, Thaksin did not have the personal integrity of King Bhumibol or Indonesia’s Yudhoyono. Instead of committing his administration to servicing the nation and the needy, he instead seemed to be more interested in accumulating personal wealth and power. Legislation was passed that increased the power of the presidency and reduced the ability of independent agencies to restrain the actions the executive branch. He employed these enhanced powers to limit press freedom and enrich his circle of family and supporters.

Employing strong-arm techniques rather than accommodation, he inflamed revolutionary sentiments of the Muslim population in the south. This hostile strategy led to the deaths of some 6000 citizens. His administration also challenged the traditional power elite of Thailand. There was and is even talk that Thaksin wants to set himself up as the new king of Thailand once the aging King Bhumibol passes away.

Due to the blatant corruption, the social turbulence and perhaps his real potential for a power grab, there was a military coup in 2006 in which the army took control of the government. They immediately banished Thaksin from the country on corruption charges. However his power base was strong. After the army allowed elections again, his candidates continued to win.

The military-supported courts invalidated one democratically elected Thaksin-supported candidate after another. In 2010, tens of thousands of rural citizens, called ‘red shirts’, occupied the busy streets of Bangkok to protest these anti-democratic practices. Of course, the ‘occupation’ disrupted business and more importantly the lucrative tourism industry. The city folk were not happy.

Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck, won the 2011 presidential election. Thaksin promoted her candidacy, unabashedly calling her his ‘clone’. As might be expected, her government passed an amnesty bill in 2014, which overturned Thaksin’s corruption conviction and paved the way for his return to Thailand. In response, tens of thousands urban ‘yellow shirts’, the anti-Thaksin contingent, took to the streets in February of 2014 to shut down Bangkok. Part of the strategy was to disrupt the democratic process in any way they could, for instance preventing voter registration and blocking entrance to polling booths. Again this was not good for business or tourism.

The rural ‘red shirts’ know they have the numbers to win national elections. Accordingly, they are pro-democracy because this political process will assist them to gain power. In contrast, the urban ‘yellow shirts’ are in the minority nationally. Their traditional power will be eroded if legitimate elections are held. As such, they are in effect anti-democracy. Their occupation of Bangkok was not ‘rights driven’, but an attempt to shut down the electoral process. Indeed, the 2014 election was voided because of so many irregularities.

Denied the democratic process, the rural red shirts took to the streets of Bangkok again. Their protests led of course to violent clashes with the yellow shirts. After months of social turbulence that disrupted their previously prosperous capitol city, the army stepped in to take control of the government on May 22 to presumably re-establish social order. This was the second coup in 8 years. A popular general claims that elections will supposedly be held in 2015. For now Thailand, especially Bangkok, is under military rule once more. The city folk are happy because business and tourism can flourish once again – business as usual.

Indonesia’s 2014 Election: A Peaceful Transfer of Power!

We left Indonesia’s story after Yudhoyono, their remarkable president, was stepping down voluntarily due to constitutional 2 term limitations. This move was exceptional in and of itself. With his military connections and due to his popularity, we imagine that Yudhoyono could have easily retained power if he had wished. Yet this exceptional man consistently led Indonesia towards rule by law rather than by the arbitrary whims of military authorities. Yudhoyono must have been proud of what came next.

Joko Widodo, the governor of Jakarta, carpenter and child of the slums, was elected president after a very heated 2014 campaign. Upon hearing the results, the losing presidential candidate, Suharto’s son-in-law, claimed there was voter fraud. Instead of employing military force to assert his claims, the former army general brought his charges of corruption to the court. Then on September 5, 2014, he accepted the court’s decision that the elections were legitimate. Although there was some rioting, the transfer of power was generally peaceful. This was the first time that an individual with no military background was to become Indonesia’s leader.

This civilized political transition is more amazing still as it was only 16 years ago that Suharto’s 32 year long dictatorship ended. Further, it was a mere 10 years ago that Indonesia had its first direct elections for president and other political offices. In the 2014 election, 140 million people cast ballots, a 75 percent turnout, and everyone accepted the results. Although the newest democracy in the region, the New York Times reports that “Indonesia has become a role model for peaceful, democratic transfers of power in Southeast Asia, a region where they are becoming increasingly rare.”

Experts suggest 3 primary reasons for this sudden turn-around: 1) addressing political corruption, 2) separating the military from politics, and 3) granting local political autonomy. All of these reforms came to completion or were instituted during Yudhoyono’s administration. This is why he should be proud.

Let’s speak a little more about this amazing transition. Recall that Sukarno joined the enormous Indonesian archipelago with its thousand islands into one country shortly after World War II. Needless to say the transition was not entirely peaceful. However, he encouraged a sense of national unity and pride. More importantly, it was evident that his administration cared for the citizenry. To achieve political stability in Indonesia’s diverse nation-empire, Sukarno regularly balanced the needs of three primary political groups – the military, the Islamic leaders, and the people-oriented communist party.

Unfortunately for the people, the military became top-heavy with armaments supplied by both Russia and the US. Ultimately there was a violent military coup followed by Suharto’s 30-year autocratic dictatorship. At this point the military and the government were united as one – no separation whatsoever.

Provided with billions of dollars in military assistance from the Cartel-driven US government, Suharto employed this weaponry to force the central government’s will upon the many islands. Armed resistance followed, which was, of course, violently suppressed with sophisticated American-made armaments. In this way, Suharto’s central government retained complete power.

Due to filmed abuses of an East Timorese massacre, the US administration under Clinton stood up to the Cartel and began withdrawing military assistance to Indonesia. Without this weaponry to prop up his government, Suharto fell from power. His military regime was replaced with a democracy. Yudhoyono became president in Indonesia’s first general election.

One of his top priorities was to extract the military from government. To this end, his administration took several actions. They passed laws that barred military leaders from holding political office, eliminated the military’s legislative appointees, and instituted direct elections. In other words, Yudhoyono’s administration deliberately transferred political power from the military to the civilian population.

Indonesian specialist Marcus Mietzner states: “Even though Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world and has more than 300 different ethnic groups, the democratization process is on track,” he said. “The military has accepted civilian supremacy, and that is the key thing.”

Another of Yudhoyono’s priorities was to eliminate internal armed conflicts, i.e. civil war and violent uprisings. To defuse revolutionary sentiment, Yudhoyono finished a process begun by his predecessors. His government granted the many islands greater control over their destiny. In the quest for national peace, the Yudhoyono administration wrote legislation that transferred power from the central government to duly elected local authorities. The decentralization and de-militarization of political power has transformed Indonesia into a modern democracy. This political state of affairs was beyond imagining just a few decades ago.

Marcus Mietzner again: “There is no doubt that Indonesia is now Southeast Asia’s most democratic nation, and this is something no one would have predicted in 1998.”

Of course, political circumstances are far from perfect in Indonesia. There is still plenty of corruption, ethnic discrimination and human rights abuses. However, considering what the citizenry has been through, the progress is remarkable.

 

Home    Southeast Asia Home    Chapters    Prior    Next    Comments