Hub of turmoil thrives in Asia

gerhard-hoffstaeder-thumb Dr Gerhard Hoffstaedter

First published in The Canberra Times on 1 July, 2010

As we saw last week, political coups in Australia happen peacefully and all that is shed are a few tears by the outgoing Prime Minister. Just to the North of us in Southeast Asia the political situations are more volatile and political assassinations can have much graver consequences than just a change in leadership.

Although the recent violence and political stand-off in Thailand has receded from public consciousness, the whole region may reel from this episode for some time to come. Thailand has seen political impasse many times before, including military coups and the King’s interventions. This time, however, the fault lines are drawn by class: on the one side, those who are missing out on Thailand’s development, who are pitted against the state; and on the other, those who have become rich from the economic and tourism boom. When the protesters gave in after an army assault, it was the Central World Mall, Bangkok’s newest, largest and shiniest mall, which was set ablaze and sparked several other arson attacks on malls, the stock exchange, cinemas and banks.

Targeting these places symbolises the growing disparity between the rich and the poor. They highlight the differences between those who can access and enjoy these places, who can partake in the positive effects of globalisation, of increased trade, of cheaper consumerables in their bountiful varieties, and those who cannot. And it is the latter, the rural and urban poor, who were wooed by ousted prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, and his plans for rural development projects, better health care and poverty reduction schemes.  

This undermined both the King, who had traditionally looked after the northern hill tribes, and the Bangkok elite, who had never had an interest in the north. Thaksin remains in exile in Cambodia, where he now acts as a special advisor to the Cambodian government. But with Thailand now divided between the red and yellow shirts, the ideological divide may widen and make future elections an increasingly uncertain affair. The tensions have gone far beyond whether Thaksin can return to Thai politics in the future, and have brought to the fore the underlying structural tensions within society.

In a similar vein, just south of the border, Malaysia too is increasingly being drawn into a two-horse race, fighting over who is to benefit from the national wealth. Malaysia has similar ideological fault lines, but perhaps more dangerously these include ethnicity and religion, which could easily spark violence.

Malaysia’s political tensions have been simmering since the 2008 election that delivered several states of the federation to the opposition coalition which comprises of the Islamist party of Malaysia PAS, the mainly Chinese Democratic Action party, and the former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim’s Justice Party. This coalition had also managed to break the two-thirds majority of the ruling National Front in the federal parliament, which has ruled Malaysia since its independence in 1957. In its bid to stay in power, the National Front’s leading party, UMNO (United Malays National Organisation), has unleashed a range of reactionary civil society organisations to do their bidding by exacerbating Malay–Chinese tensions, especially those surrounding the role of Islam in the state as well as positive discrimination for Malays. A recent by-election saw UMNO promise government handouts to electorates, if their party should win. This tactic has often worked to secure seats, and with billions of dollars in slush funds at the government’s disposal, UMNO is sure to win over some. In this instance, it did not work and it may signal a shift of the otherwise secure rural vote for UMNO and its coalition partners. Years of mismanagement of the country’s development funds and broken promises bear their toll which will lead to a tight and fiercely contested run-up to the next elections.

With two of its closest neighbours looking at uncertain democratic futures, Myanmar will be even less likely to engage democratic reform. And with this in mind, the Myanmarese military junta will be eager to maintain their hold on the country and the relative stability that strong military power provides. This is bad news for thousands of Myanmarese, and particularly for minorities living in fear, poverty and state oppression. It will also put more pressure on countries like Thailand and Malaysia who receive many Myanmarese refugees.

Indeed, Thailand and Malaysia face a growing refugee population without adequate legal, social or economic frameworks to deal with them. The poverty in frontier regions remains another major issue in all three countries as both the rural poor and refugees are moving into cities in search for work and a place to live, further exacerbating the urban sprawl, placing further pressure on major metropolitan centres.

The issue is one of governance. Which form of government takes its mandate seriously enough to address the basic preconditions for a better life: poverty alleviation, human rights protection and adequate health care? All three countries can ill afford more tensions and outbreaks of violence with all their far-reaching knock-on effects in the region.