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Democracy and political change in ASEAN

By Verghese Mathews - posted Wednesday, 25 October 2006

With Thailand and Myanmar having hit the headlines and Cambodia enjoying a respite from the startling allegations of its runaway Phnom Penh Police Chief, ASEAN hugged the international media headlines more often last month than it normally does in an average quarter.

There appeared to be a common thread in the news reports - exemplified by the shrill media cry as soon as news of the Thai coup broke out - that democracy was dying or indeed stone dead. This drowned local voices, in the Thai case, that probably many Thai lives may well have been saved even if the means had been harsh.

Such vastly contradictory emotions are not uncommon in the neighbourhood where the fledging new is constantly grappling with the entrenched old. Championing one’s version of democracy is so very emotive!


In a recent op-ed contribution, a distinguished commentator made reference to the oft-quoted thesis of historian Bernard Lewis, that "democracy is a 'peculiarly Western concept' used to administer public affairs which may or may not be suitable for others". Likewise, a wit once observed that it was invariably the loser, in no matter how fair a battle, who shouted loudest about the dearth or death of democracy.

In another op-ed piece, an expatriate Myanmarese, who I suppose would belong to the “loser” group, suggested that it would be useful for the Security Council "to be mindful of Burmese history" as it took up the Myanmar issue for the very first time.

The writer, Thant Myint-U, opting for achievable measures, pointed out that to the outside world, the story of Myanmar's last 20 years had been one of a pro-democracy movement held down by repression.

"But the generals see it as a civil war finally coming to an end with the collapse of the communist insurgency in 1989 and the cease-fire agreements, in the late 1980's and early 1990's, between the army and 17 of its remaining battlefield opponents. For the generals, the near conclusion of the war is the very beginning of a long state-building exercise (on their terms), rather than a time to hand over power to the politicians they distrust."

Where strong conflicting emotions prevail, it is difficult to adequately explain the rationale of regimes popularly recognised as having caused the death of democracy. Thant Myint-U, grandson of former UN Secretary General U Thant, will probably be more criticised than thanked for his well-meaning suggestion.

Unlike this lonely Myanmar intervention, there were several concerned persons who were sympathetic with the allegations of Phnom Penh Police Chief, Heng Pov. Unfortunately for Heng Pov and his erstwhile supporters, his hands are far from clean and neither can it be denied that he was very much part of the system he now condemns. In fact, the word is that he adopted his strident stance after having lost out to equally ruthless, but more powerful enemies. To top it all, he has a murder charge awaiting him.


However, what is important in the overall Cambodian schema is that at the end of the day Heng Pov is but a distraction - somewhat embarrassing maybe, irritating maybe, but a distraction - as it is an altogether new ball game now in the Cambodia. Heng Pov failed to recognise this. The most significant of these changes is that, more than at any time before, power in Cambodia resides almost entirely with Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People's Party.

Equally significant was the recent constitutional amendment that allows future governments to be elected by a simple majority, as in most countries, instead of the cumbersome two-thirds majority requirement of the last three elections.

What this means in real terms is that the CPP can form the government on its own in 2008 or earlier if it calls a snap election. Hun Sen will not need to seek out a partner nor spend a whole year, as was the case following the last elections, to horsetrade a coalition. It was a year wasted.

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First published in OpinionAsia. Copyright: OpinionAsia, 2006.

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About the Author

Verghese Mathews, a former Singapore ambassador to Cambodia, is a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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