Building a Peaceful and Democratic Society: Lessons for Thailand from Southeast Asia

By Michael Vatikiotis

Thai Parliament House

Thai Parliament House. Will Thailand be able to absorb lessons from Southeast Asia to build a peaceful and democratic society? Source: Wikipedia, used under a creative commons license.

This is an edited version of a speech delivered in public at the Thai Government-sponsored ‘Uniting for the Future Special lecture series‘ on September 2, 2013. The entire speech was broadcast nationally and published in the Bangkok Post.

Southeast Asia is no stranger to the challenges of unity and reconciliation. The early phases of nation building were characterized by struggle and upheaval stemming from the reluctance of established conservative elites to share power. Democratic forms of government were deemed unsuited to societies that were organized along hierarchical lines and dominated by narrow interest groups.

By the mid-1970s, however, popular protest movements had begun to exert pressure on conservative elites, partly by harnessing popular support but also by threatening a communist-led takeover. The resulting compromise was a system of partially open, semi-democratic systems that generally promoted a broader base of wealth and prosperity but still limited freedom.

By the mid-1990s, this compromise was coming undone. Economic crisis and the aspirations of a young generation better connected with the outside world combined to generate new pressures for change, which resulted in popular reform movements in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia.

The resulting broadening of democratic space in Indonesia was at first a driver of conflict and disunity. Yet, confounding predictions the country would fly apart, Indonesians worked together to heal social divisions in society and established a firm basis for open, democratic government.

This broadening of democratic space has proceeded in fits and starts across the region, most recently in Myanmar and now Cambodia. Why has this transition taken so long? And why has it generated so much conflict in society?  Popular protest and the harsh security reaction have cost thousands of lives. Much of the protest was simply about demanding rights and freedoms already enshrined in laws and constitutions, but not implemented.

The main reason for the slow pace of democratic change in Southeast Asia is that powerholders claim reform is a threat to national unity. They hold up traditions and institutions as symbols of identity and sovereignty and warn of impending disaster if they are tampered with or reformed.

Thus certain institutions, such as the military, maintain that without protecting their strength and privilege, the country’s unity would be put at risk. Even with democratic change, in countries like Indonesia and Myanmar, it is taking a long time for these institutions to recognize that their role must change.

The quality of democracy cannot be judged solely by the quality of elections; one important yardstick is the honesty and integrity of elected officials to serve the people.

Corruption and criminal activity in the political arena is a universal affliction. In Southeast Asia it is hard to eradicate because of the weakness of effective checks and balances. As democracy has taken root, so has the popular demand for transparency. The trouble is that institutions created to act as checks on the abuse of power have come under attack from the politicians and officials who are subject to scrutiny.

Another major issue across the region is that political leaders doubt the capacity of ordinary people to think for themselves. There is a prevailing paternalistic, top down culture. For this reason, people who feel attached to ethnic or regionally specific identities are mistrusted and there is a reluctance to permit genuine local autonomy.

This is a hangover of two historical legacies: first the pre-modern tendency to believe in the mystical sanctity of the center, without which the periphery would perish; the second is the centralized authority of government imposed by colonial rulers. These two tendencies reinforce one another and inhibit the devolution of effective government authority to the community level, which is the norm in modern democratic states.

This reluctance to trust people with the management of their own affairs explains why Southeast Asia is still home to a range of small wars and conflicts that cost thousands of lives.

Governments fear that if allowed a greater measure of autonomy regions with particular ethnic or religious identity will seek to separate from the state. But as the experience in Indonesia and the Philippines has shown, these fears are misplaced. Negotiated agreements in both countries have been brokered with separatist groups that offer a high degree of autonomy under the framework of the state, in return for an end to hostilities.

The three main lessons to be learned from the experience of promoting peace and democracy in Southeast Asia are:

First, historically the main obstacle to democratic change and reform in Southeast Asia is not that people are untrustworthy to govern themselves, but that political elites are reluctant to share power. This has made for a long and protracted struggle in society that has bred conflict.

Second, the key to promoting peace and harmony in society is to trust the people, devolve authority as much as possible to the grass roots and give civil society a greater say in how people are governed.

Third, a key ingredient of a healthy and peaceful democracy is clean government.  Corruption must be tackled effectively and for this to happen, the courts and special agencies that are tasked with rooting out corruption must remain above politics. This is still not the case throughout most of Southeast Asia.

Mr. Michael Vatikiotis is the Asia regional director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, based in Singapore. Follow him on twitter @Jagowriter.

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