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Burma began its chairmanship of ASEAN this year in praiseworthy fashion when President Thein Sein remarked that the constitution could be amended to allow “any citizen to lead the country”, another magnanimous gesture to Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Yet while the country once seen as a pariah continues to confound its critics, other Southeast Asian leaders are now grumbling over challenges to their power.
Dictatorial and authoritarian strongmen from different cultural, religious, and educational backgrounds have used different approaches over the years to deal with rivals. Some played the role of benevolent democratic fathers, others proclaimed themselves liberators or saviours from conquerors and aggressors, and others marketed themselves as builders of national prosperity and unity. For some, portraying themselves as regional leaders was the choice.
The fact is, post-imperialist nation-building is still a work in progress in many ASEAN states, and democratisation has therefore not yet fully taken shape.
Old-generation leaders are finding it more troublesome to govern diverse and globalised citizens and outspoken emigrants in their realms. Some refuse to accept the reality that they cannot monopolise power forever, so they refuse to bite the bullet of reform or share power with others. Instead, they defiantly insist on simply transforming power within their clan and family or to vested subordinates and cronies.
Look at Thailand and Cambodia for example. In the former, the fight is unfolding between old and new powers, and in the latter between the ruling power and the emerging classes of working people, activists and human rights defenders.
Thailand’s protracted political uncertainties have been dragging down the country’s competitiveness for a decade now. Today, the bizarre collision between the “great mass of the people” movement and the government of a sister of the ousted leader of a political party is simply a power tussle ahead of a larger transition.
Discontent in Cambodia has been evident since the July election when the Cambodian People’s Party barely held on to its majority, and only by cheating, according to the opposition. However, the bigger problem is that the dark side of its labour-intensive economy is only now being revealed after being suppressed for 28 years by a regime that just does not know how to deal with demanding workers and human rights issues.
Thailand, of course, has faced protest after protest over the past eight years. Its people have endured an airport seizure, the cancellation of an ASEAN summit and the bloody end to the street demonstrations of 2010. It’s hardly surprising, then, that governments in countries with less-than-stellar “democratic” credentials try to keep a lid on dissent within their own borders.
Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam are among those that are scared to become trapped in the same black hole that Thailand seems to have entered. (So dire is the situation at home that caretaker Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul is skipping a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers scheduled for Jan 18-19 in Burma because he needs to deal with domestic issues.)
But while people are optimistic about positive developments inside Burma, particularly as they see many exiled intellectuals returning home to lend their expertise in rebuilding society, there are those who remain sceptical.
They are not certain that the selected release of political prisoners would be followed by all-out release, and with greater channels for participation by local communities or marginalised people in various regions facing state and foreign private-sector land grabs and unfair relocations for infrastructure development, for example.
After decades of military rule and just a few years of transformation-in-the-making, pressure groups in Burma cannot just stay positive and complacent.
Burma, like other ASEAN nations but just in different forms, needs to further strengthen and create additional momentum for reforms and democratisation.
In 2006, Burma declined to take the ASEAN chairmanship, which traditionally rotates annually, amid concerns about the impact on ASEAN’s international standing of having a military-ruled country at the helm.
Four years later, the country held its first election in 20 years, replacing a military government with a nominally civilian one led by former military leaders, which has since been pursuing reforms and democratisation.
Observers believe it will take some time, perhaps well beyond the election next year, before charter amendments could really begin in a way that would benefit Aung San Suu Kyi among others.
Some pessimists have even said that Burma is simply smarter than its neighbours in learning how to manage and appease its own people and the international community with piecemeal statements of hopeful dreams.
But without sincere reforms and democratisation and well-balanced wealth sharing, it will not be long before people in Burma start to press for meaningful change, as is happening now in its neighbouring countries.