The Arab Revolts and South East Asia: What Impact and What Influence?

Actuelles de l’Ifri

The Arab Revolts and South East
Asia: What Impact and What
Teresita Cruz-del Rosario
et James M. Dorsey

Southeast Asia experienced its own political upheavals well before the

Arab revolts. Nevertheless, the wave of popular uprisings that shook the

Middle-East and North Africa region goes far beyond the region’s boundaries,

and Southeast Asia is no exception to the global crisis of confidence towards

governments. 2011 was a year of massive demonstration of widespread and

deeply felt discontent that was willing and able to assert itself in powerful and

often new ways. Although contexts and political cultures differ, the impact of

the Arab revolts on Southeast Asia is already palpable. The consequences of

the wave of Arab protests on Southeast Asian countries carry their load of

opportunities and risks for governments, in political, social and economic

terms. But the impact is not one way, and Southeast Asian experiences could

represent a source of inspiration.

A Different Political Culture

In countries that have narrower opportunities for public redress, citizens

cleverly manoeuvre within tightly controlled spaces mainly through electoral

contests that do not directly challenge entrenched authority. Malaysians have

succeeded to get their messages across, created dents, raised questions,

and expanded spaces for public discourse. Filipinos, Thais and Indonesians

who have succeeded in regime change through relatively peaceful means,

redirected the course of political life and a qualitative shift in social life has

occurred. Thai voters returned to power the party of deposed premier Thaksin

Shinawatra through the landslide victory of his sister Yingluck --- a victory

forhis red-shirted supporters that in the past involved bloody clashes with the

military. For the moment, her unequivocal electoral victory ended years of

strife between red and yellow shirts and put the country back on a path of

relative stability and economic growth. In Burma, the generals have retreated,

and a new civilian government promises to deliver reforms, signaling a new

political direction for the country that would emulate market-based

democracies. In Indonesia, broad-based social movements have helped

restore democratic practice.

Since the eruption of the Arab uprisings, Myanmar has relaxed strict

government control in part for fear that the Burmese might be capable of the

kind of resilience displayed by Syrians in their 14-month old defiance of brutal

regime repression. Singapore's long-ruling People's Action Party has seen its

share of the electoral vote drop to a record low because of surging prices and

immigration and a new generation of young voters who espouse the values of

political choice and social change. In a further indication of sensitivity to

developments in the Middle East and North Africa and recognition of the need

for release valves, Singaporean bloggers were long able to get away with what

mainstream media could not(1). Malaysia has responded to sharp criticism of

the police by repealing two sweeping security laws and lifting restrictions on

the media even though a new restrictive assembly law and clashes between

police and demonstrators point in the opposite direction. In all of these

countries in Southeast Asia, grievances were channeled via organized efforts

of social movements.

In all of these countries thus far, political strife has not resulted in civil wars.

This is perhaps the singular feature that distinguishes protest action in

Southeast Asia from the Middle East. It also suggests that Southeast Asian

governments are likely to be more adept in responding to potential popular

discontent than entrenched Arab autocracies.

Further, most Southeast Asian countries have engaged in party politics

despite the imperfections in the development of political parties in this region.

Some countries like Malaysia have experienced the dominance of the Barisan

Nasional which has ruled the country for nearly two decades. Yet, opposition

politics led by Anwar is making inroads into the ruling party and will most likely

see the emergence of more vigorous electoral contests in the coming years.

In Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi has been elected to parliament in which her

party, the National League for Democracy, commands a respectable following.

The Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia continue to struggle with political

party formation, so that these entities reflect broader programs for governance

rather than the personality of its front-runner candidates. Political evolution,

though slow and tedious, heralds the institutionalization of a political process

that in turn signals a forward march in the creation of a more modernized

political culture. For all the citizens of these countries, hopes are high that the

deepening of these processes will consolidate democracy and therefore

become irreversible.

For all Southeast Asian countries, an active electoral culture is in place, and

citizens do take their electoral rights seriously. They insist on the legitimacy of

their leaders through fair and honest elections. This should be construed as a

sign of political health, and a staunch adherence to a social contract between

government and their subjects.

Finally, social movements have been a part of the institutional life of Southeast

Asian countries. Even in Myanmar where civil society organizations including

media have faced severe restrictions, the Burmese found spaces within the

existing political opportunity structures to have their voices heard and

registered. In Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, social movements have

been an integral part of the fabric of social life. Where protest groups have

taken to the streets, these have been, by and large, relatively peaceful despite

the occasional violence and destruction to public property.

Interestingly, social movements in all these countries opt for an electoral

option, thus working within institutional means that are offered by a regime

which, in and of itself, desires to play by the rules of the “legitimacy game.”

However unpopular, regimes seek recourse to legitimatizing procedures, even

incurring the risk of potential loss. Thus far, all rulers seek a popular mandate,

never mind that they might engage in the occasional electoral manipulation to

ensure longevity. Notwithstanding fraudulent practices in electoral politics in

Southeast Asia, the quest for political legitimacy should be construed as a

hopeful development in the evolution of politics in these countries.

However flawed these processes are, most Southeast Asian nations are

poised to consolidate their economic and political gains in the years to come.

And in contrast to the Middle East and North Africa with its entrenched

autocracies, their governments have by and large displayed a greater degree

of attunement to what is happening around them with a greater deal of vision

and flexibility.

Energy Security Issue and Islamist Experience

If the Arab revolts and developments in Southeast Asia are both expressions

of a broader global trend, the impact on ASEAN nations of developments in

the Middle East is far more direct. As the Arab uprising inevitably spreads to

the Gulf, Southeast Asian nations will have to define the risk to their energy

security and develop alternatives in case of a disruption in oil and gas supplies

as well as increase their focus on alternative energy options. Some Southeast

Asian nations particularly the Philippines and Indonesia will also have to deal

with the impact of large numbers of migrant workers returning home to escape

erupting turmoil.

The energy security issue will no doubt shoot to the top of the agenda if or

more probably when the protests spread to Saudi Arabia and/or other major oil

producers. Non-oil producing Southeast Asian nations like Singapore,

Thailand and the Philippines depend on the Middle East for 70 per cent of the

oils and gas imports. In addition, Southeast Asia and the Middle East are

crucial links in a seaborne commerce conveyor belt that runs from the Gulf to

the Pacific. If the Straits of Malaka and Singapore were seen as potentially

among the most risky maritime choke points in the past, today it's the Straits of

Hormuz and Bab el. Mandeb, which is straddled by Somalia and Yemen. Asia

would be most affected if shipping particularly through the Strait of Hormuz

were to be interrupted. The US gets 22 per cent of its oil from the Gulf, Europe

about 30 per cent as compared to Asia’s whopping 75 per cent. Needless to

say, Asia has the most at stake in terms of energy security.

Southeast Asian governments and military and intelligence organizations are

monitoring closely the geopolitics of the Arab revolts as well as their fallout as

part of a global trend that expresses a lack of confidence in institutions with a

mixture of hope and anxiety.

The debate over the potential domestic fallout is to some degree coloured by

vested interests that have gained in strength and prominence in the wake of

9/11. For those whose budgets are boosted by perceptions of a terrorist threat,

the focus is on the rise of the Islamists in countries like Egypt and what this is

likely to mean, for example, for Islamist groups in Indonesia, Malaysia,

Thailand and Brunei.

To be sure, the rise of Islamist forces in the Middle East and North Africa

boosts confidence among Islamists in Southeast Asia. Yet, the tradition of

Islamist participation in Malaysian party politics dates back to the 1950s and

has proven its resilience despite the efforts to silence its proponents. Islamist

politics in Indonesia is no doubt gaining ground against more secular forces.

But it is doing so in a country that votes decidedly secular despite growing

religious intolerance and widespread corruption.

Beyond The Turkish Model A Southeast Asian Inspiration

As post-revolt and opposition forces in the Middle East and North Africa look

first and foremost to Turkey but also to Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore,

they are likely to have to first settle their post-revolt battles before they can

really build on the experiences of others. Despite all their warts, Indonesia,

Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, the Philippines, and more currently,

Myanmar, have much to offer. Singapore alongside Malaysia constitutes

examples of multiculturalism which the Middle Eastern and North African

countries increasingly wracked by ethnic and sectarian cleavages will need.

Similarly, Indonesia stands as a model of reform of the military in a post-revolt

society, a model that, like Turkey, can only grow in significance as the push for

greater accountability and transparency moves forward in the Middle East and

North Africa. Finally, Myanmar’s path towards a more open political system

demonstrates that even the most intractable of regimes are capable of being

pried open.

Nonetheless, with the exception of Brunei, Southeast Asia is likely to be more

a question of a monsoon in which steady rain washes away entrenched

powers rather than an Arab Spring in which costly revolutions seek to replace

systems rather than reform them. Fact of the matter is that Southeast Asia

despite its political uprisings is a region of relative peace and stability. It has

posted one of the world’s highest growth rates and Southeast Asians enjoy

relative prosperity.

Southeast Asia is largely governed today by leaders whose legitimacy is

grounded in elections and who, by and large, have upheld their end of the

bargain in social contracts. In doing so, they have established structures that

are increasingly robust yet capable of embracing change. This is being

reinforced by Southeast Asia having one of the world’s fastest expanding

middle classes whose clamour for greater openness, transparency and

accountability is certain to make itself felt.

There is reason to believe that no matter how flawed the process is, most

Southeast Asian nations are poised to consolidate their economic and political

gains. The challenge will be for governments to see social movements and

street politics not as fundamental defiance to the system but as evidence that

social contracts are subject to the vigilance of their citizens.

The collective experience of Southeast Asia should boost confidence in the

region and hold out hope for the Middle East and North Africa. It is an

experience of volatility, of two steps forward and one step backward in the

immediate wake of a revolt and of the ultimate entrenchment of electoral

politics and the flourishing of civil society in the longer run. In short, Southeast

Asia shows that institutions, processes and mechanics, however flawed and

imperfect, can convert contentious springs into manageable monsoons. What

sets the experience in Southeast Asia apart from that in the Middle East and

North Africa is that in Southeast Asia grievances were channeled through the

organized efforts of social movements rather than suppressed by a military

crackdown on civil society.

(1) That could be changing with at least one blogger for the first time having been taken to task for what he

wrote and forced to retract some postings

Le programme Maghreb/Moyen-Orient de l’Ifri combine des recherches à long terme et à finalités
opérationnelles et une capacité d’analyses immédiates des bouleversements survenus dans le monde

Teresita Cruz-del Rosario, PhD, is the Visiting Senior Research Fellow, Center for Asian Law Studies, National
University of Singapore

James M. Dorsey is Senior Fellow in the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies

Les opinions exprimées dans ce texte n’engagent que leur auteur.

ISBN : 978-2-36567-033-3 © Tous drois réservés, Paris, Ifri


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