The Sand Storms of Revolution in the Middle East and their impact on Democracy in Southeast Asia
My congratulations once again to the Sasakawa Peace Foundation and the Institute for Policy Studies for hosting this Fifth Seminar. This is indeed a most opportune time for our future leaders to engage with each other on the issues that matter most to meet the challenges of a rapidly evolving world.
It was only two years ago that I addressed the last Renaissance forum held in Manila and recounted the episode of my attempt at some crystal ball gazing on the geo-political situation in the Middle East. Today, as we all know, it gives me some degree of satisfaction to be able to say that I wasn’t too far off the mark when I said that the winds of change from autocracy to democracy had been blowing across various parts of the Muslim world. Of course, little did I expect that the winds of change would transform into the sandstorms of revolution.
Indeed, regardless of the locus of the upheaval, where the formula for repressive rule is founded on the suppression of dissent by state controlled organs, such as the police, security forces or the military, the powers that be can only continue to be so as long as these organs do their bidding. As we witnessed in Tunisia, and then more significantly in Egypt, when these organs malfunction, or refuse to do their bidding, the entire substratum of control collapses enabling the people to progress from mere assemblies of protest to a virtual behemoth of regime change. Even as we speak, we know that events in Yemen, Bahrain and Libya are spiralling towards their inevitable resolution, no matter how stubbornly their leaders cling on power.
The problems that plague the Middle Eastern nations are no different from those affecting other parts of the world under autocratic regimes. The amassing of wealth by the elite at the expense of the masses, inadequate infrastructure, outdated education systems, deplorable health care and declining incomes in real terms – these are problems that almost all nations under autocratic regimes have in common. Political marginalization in all its implications and economic impoverishment, these are the perfect ingredients for political upheavals. Regimes that have gone past their expiry dates but continue to paint a facade of peace, security and even prosperity through the use of an elaborate propaganda machine are only delaying their final reckoning.
True, it will take some time for Tunisia and Egypt to move into the league of Muslim democracies such as Turkey and Indonesia, but even as the point of no return has been reached for the Middle East, we ask ourselves how these events may now impact the supposedly ‘older’ democracies in Southeast Asia.
It would do well to remind leaders here to vigorously pursue the agenda for socio-economic reform and to strengthen further the institutions of democracy and freedom. Fundamental safeguards put in place upon the attainment of independence from colonial powers have been systematically dismantled. In their place are draconian laws that violate fundamental liberties together with a systemic destruction of the separation of powers equation.
There are rare exceptions though. Indonesia, having undergone her transformational political upheaval and emerging from the storm a new nation altogether, still remains the shining example of a real democracy. Press freedom is alive and well, and the conduct of free and fair elections leaves her neighbours’ looking like pathetic upstarts in the race for democracy.
Granted it is no Utopia, but the phenomenal changes in the areas of governance, the judiciary, and the pre-eminence of the rule of law set it as an exemplary nascent liberal democracy. So what happened to the rest of the pack?
The Philippines was at the fore front in the democratization process displacing their dictator with People Power. Under the late president Corazon Aquino, the Philippines got way ahead of the curve but, as they say, democracy can be here today and gone tomorrow. So this great nation has had its fair share of the trials and tribulations associated with the passage from martial law to full freedom and democracy. Fortunately, the backsliding from democracy was never that insidious as to destroy the entire foundation. The recent elections results make us optimistic that under its new President, the Philippines will be firmly on the road back to real freedom and democracy.
Taking lessons from history, we can say that with the exception of Japan and India, not more than 30 years had passed in the countries in Asia before the euphoria of independence became supplanted with the gloom of despotism and autocracy.
Still being championed by aging autocrats some still in power and some having ostensibly retired, the view is that authoritarian systems are better suited towards realizing socio-economic ends. The proposition is that in order to eradicate poverty and exploit resources to accelerate modernization, government must be paternalistic. This means rapid centralization of power together with the dismantling of the checks and balance. These are obviously antithetical to freedom and democracy.
Today, we see the rights and liberties of the people being progressively eroded – whether they are from minorities, the marginalized poor, the progressive middle class or from those on the other side of the political spectrum. At the same time, we see political leaders grandstanding before their electoral constituents even if it means fanning the fire of ethnic tensions and putting the long term stability of the nation in danger.
In a plural society, the empowerment of one ethnic group at the expense of another would only lead to a clash of competing interests which would in turn threaten the essential overlapping consensus. This consensus requires making adjustments to overlapping claims to entitlement of rights or competing goals. It is therefore incumbent on politicians be they in power or those in opposition to conduct themselves responsibly even if it means risking popularity. It is therefore doubly reprehensible for leaders in multi-ethnic societies who control the state organs including the mass media to stoke the fires of ethnic rivalry and animosity just so that they can stay in power.
Now apart from free, fair and transparent elections, the basic institutions of civil society must be in place with an independent judiciary that will function as an effective check and balance against the powers of the executive and the legislature. We cannot overstate the profound importance of an independent judiciary. A judiciary which is compromised can and will take a nation to political damnation. It breeds systemic failure of due process and the rule of law.
If the next generation is to inherit the legacy of an Asian Renaissance in its full bloom, then the lessons of the latest upheavals in the Middle East must be learned by the leaders of the region. Some seem to have taken cognizance and are humbled. Yet others have not only remained in denial but, for reasons best known to themselves, have displayed pure arrogance in the face of these stark realities. Some pride their sense of security in the attainment of economic wealth and progress. Some pride theirs on their own evaluation of their contribution to the political well being of the state. But let us remind these pompous and pontificating autocrats that the consequences for not heeding the call for freedom and democracy will be profound and far reaching. You may be able to swim against the current in the river when it serves but you cannot swim against the force of history.
While the collapse of the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt has proceeded on an uneven keel, the common thread that links it remains clearly a collective desire to break free from the chains of tyranny and political enslavement. In as much as democracy is not time bound, the world of cyber linkages is borderless. This has immense implications for autocratic regimes. Whether they call it managing information or filtering negative content, the fact remains that the Internet is being seen by such regimes as major threats to efforts in stifling dissent. Yet, despite having been proven to be a Sisyphean endeavour, (as in Egypt and Libya) the powers that be in this part of the world, continue to flaunt its role of cyber Big Brother.
But these are things that don’t really surprise us, coming from a basically totalitarian state. But we need not look too far for surprises though. In Southeast Asia, bloggers are being hauled up to face charges for exercising their freedom of expression and that’s simply because their expressions are not in favour of the ruling governments. Bloggers and websites dedicated to opposition bashing are allowed free rein and some are funded by the powers that be.
Finally, let me say a few words about the view that is gaining currency fast in the wake of the revolutions in the Middle East. This is the so-called ‘rising tide of political Islam’. As I’ve said before, given a choice between freedom and dictatorship, Muslims will overwhelmingly choose the former. In any event, the fear of Islam hijacking freedom and democracy has been proven to be without foundation.
Hence, this rising tide of Islam catch phrase is nothing but another new way of beating the Islamic bogeyman, in its various manifestations of Islamophobia. This psychotic fear has not dissipated since 9/11 and has been given a new lease on life in the wake of the convulsions in the Arab world. And contrary to general belief, this phobia is not prevalent only in the West. We have on record a supposedly retired statesman in Southeast Asia expressing opinions on Muslims which betray an utter lack of sensitivity. We even have Muslim leaders in the region who appear to be suffering from the paranoia about the Muslim Brotherhood to a degree that rivals that of say Mubarak or even the Neo-cons of America.
We have already seen that right from the Tunisian revolution, and throughout the Egyptian phase and now in Libya, Yemen and elsewhere, the rallying cry had been freedom against tyranny and oppression. The demands of the people remain to be good governance, accountability for corruption, political empowerment and social justice.