Southeast Asia's Stark Democracy Lessons

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 such as Indonesia and Malaysia.

The resulting broadening of democratic space in Indonesia was at first a driver of conflict and disunity -- it sparked a vicious religious war in eastern Indonesia that cost an estimated 7,000-10,000 lives. Yet, confounding predictions that the country would fly apart, Indonesians worked together to heal social divisions 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, where the opposition made significant gains in the past election.

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 in the past three decades across the region. 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 power-holders are afraid of change, often claiming that far-reaching 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.

Thus certain institutions, such as the military, maintained that without protecting its strength and privilege, the country's unity would be put at risk. In the 1980s and 1990s, Indonesian officers would preach that the military was the guardian of the nation, and how civilian politicians, if allowed to, would bring the country to the brink of ruin.

These same officers would always deny any role in politics, but in reality they were power brokers. They had the guns and could force any deal they wished. So a problem in Southeast Asia is that certain institutions that should have no role in popularly elected government other than to serve the people have retained a stake in determining policy to protect their own interests. 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.

Perhaps the best example of where this has succeeded to some degree is in Indonesia, where the military is now subject to strict laws governing how it operates in the country and its personnel are subject to prosecution for human rights abuses.

We cannot judge the quality of democracy in this region solely by the quality of elections or frequent changes of government; one important yardstick is the honesty and integrity of elected officials to serve the people.

Corruption and criminal activity in the political arena are a universal affliction. But here in Southeast Asia it has proven 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 the 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.

In Indonesia, the Corruption Eradication Commission, established as a government body in 2002, has aggressively tackled widespread corruption in business, bureaucratic and political circles. It has tapped phone calls, made arrests and has a 100 percent conviction rate in almost 90 cases. But the effectiveness of the body has stirred resistance in parliament, which is seeking to clip its wings. This has generated a popular backlash and hence conflict in society. Still, given the challenges, Indonesia's model of using a strongly mandated and empowered body to tackle corruption has begun to act as a strong deterrent to bureaucratic corruption and money politics.

Another major issue across the region is that political leaders tend to doubt the capacity of ordinary people to think for themselves. There is still 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 is 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 have cost thousands of lives and prevented the improvement of people's livelihoods. Across Myanmar, Indonesia, the Philippines and in Thailand, these conflicts have simmered for decades.

The fear that governments have is that if allowed a greater measure of autonomy, these regions with particular ethnic or religious identities will seek to separate from the state. But as the experience in Indonesia and the Philippines has shown, these fears are misplaced.

In the Philippines, first Indonesia and then Malaysia were asked to help negotiate an end to violent separatist conflicts in the Muslim-majority Mindanao Island. Indonesia helped broker the 1996 agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front and now Malaysia has facilitated an agreement to end the conflict with the splinter group the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. In both cases, the negotiated agreement offers a high degree of autonomy under the framework of the state, in return for an end to hostilities.

This shows that dialogue is possible and in the end, the compromise worked out through negotiation with avowedly separatist organizations can secure sovereignty and favor the state. Aceh endured three decades of conflict and a resolution of the conflict brokered with the help of former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari. Yet Aceh is still very much part of Indonesia.

Indonesia and the Philippines provide two very concrete examples of how a democratic and open approach to conflict resolution has helped restore peace and preserve the boundaries of the state. For in the end, what people want is respect and dignity and for governments to show that they can be trusted to manage their own affairs.

There is no perfect model for a peaceful, democratic society in Asia. Many students consider Indonesia's transition to be among the most successful, though if you talk to many Indonesians they would argue that there has been insufficient reform of the bureaucracy, and democracy has allowed dormant religious and ethnic conflicts to erupt, manipulated by competing political interests.

The Philippines has built a model of democratically elected, decentralized local government down to the township community level. Yet too often some of these local governments become the fiefdoms of local warlords who use violence and coercion to exploit the people.

Yet in both countries, it has been demonstrated that peaceful reconciliation can be achieved through dialogue and compromise. The process may be messy, protracted and uncertain, but the outcomes speak for themselves.

However, we should not take for granted that democracy in Southeast Asia, once established, is safe. Thailand was considered a poster-child for democratic government in the late 1990s, especially after the promulgation of the 1997 constitution drawn up after a far-reaching popular consultation. But then came the 2006 election boycotted by the opposition, a military coup and a slow descent towards mob violence in 2010.

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 can't be trusted 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.

(Michael Vatikiotis is Asia regional director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. This is from a speech delivered at the Uniting for the Future Conference, Bangkok Sept. 2, 2013.)