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The Snail’s Pace of Democracy in Southeast Asia

Mitsuru Yamada
Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University

In May 2010, Senator Benigno S. Aquino III won the Philippine presidential election. The new President is the eldest son of pro-democracy leader Benigno Aquino, Jr, who was assassinated in 1983, and his wife, the late former President Corazon Aquino, who carried on the will of her deceased husband by creating a clamor for power amongst the people and establishing democracy in the Philippines.

Two former first ladies gained entry to the House of Representatives in elections held at the same time as the general election. One of them, former President Arroyo took over the constituency from her son, and is said to have stood as a candidate in order to avoid investigation into alleged impropriety by the new President. The other, the now 80-year-old Imelda Marcos had her whole family investigated by President Corazon Aquino for corruptly amassing a fortune.

The Philippine political arena sees powerful families such as those of the incumbent president Aquino, candidates Estrada, Villar and Marcos occupy governorships and both houses of the legislature. It would seem that cozy relationships remain between the families and this country’s authority which has corrupt and unjust origins. Although the newly-elected President Aquino, in a clean image, has placed the greatest emphasis on eradicating corruption in his campaign pledges, the primary cause in connection with corruption in politics in the Philippines has not changed at all.

The Gross National Income (GNI) per capita, for what was expected to be a swift embrace of democracy in the Philippines at the time of the 1986 People Power Revolution, is still only $1,620. Putting Singapore’s $32,470 to one side, we find that among the other founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) these figures are considerably lower than Thailand’s $3,400 and Malaysia’s $6,540, but on a par with Indonesia’s $1,650. It is easy to see why Philippine’s attempts to overcome poverty are progressing at a snail’s pace. (2007 figures taken from the ’09 World Development Report.)

In Thailand, who aimed to follow the path of the Philippines to instill democracy in 1990, democratic government has been shaky. Following the Supreme Court decree in February, 2010 that all domestic assets of former Prime Minister Thaksin’s family be confiscated, his support group, the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) rose up, and has occupied central Bangkok since March. The turmoil in Thailand—worlds apart from the climate of a democratic government, which includes the emergence of victims facing expulsion and the use of firearms by government troops—has been reported to the outside world.

While the Philippines and Thailand have been the standard-bearers for democratization in ASEAN, both countries have separatist movements in Mindanao and Southern Thailand. Having visited both areas, I was surprised to see many people filled with a sense of crisis over the strong policies in the government’s doctrines of assimilation of (Catholic) Christianity in Mindanao and (Theravada) Buddhism in South Thailand. The influence from these governments is such that the shared views on the use of oppression by government troops are triggering a protracted dispute.

Currently, ASEAN is paving the way for the democratization of Indonesia following the termination of the thirty-year Suharto dictatorship in 1998. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was selected by the populace in the direct presidential elections first instituted in 2004 and significant advances have been made with regard to decentralization and the furthering of democracy. At the same time, however, the economic disparity between rich and poor and among different regions has widened, bringing further instances of corruption. In 2005, the Yudhoyono administration managed to put an end to the Aceh conflict. However, the poverty experienced in the area is still a major problem and there is concern over the spread to other areas with similar causes for conflict.

East Timor, meanwhile, which became a Southeast Asian country in its own right and was considered the poorest country in Asia at the time of its independence in May, 2002, experienced an increase in the country’s GNI per capita to $1,510 by 2007, through generating revenue from the natural gas in its ocean. In a March 2009 opportunity to ask foreign minister Zacarias Dacosta about the problems related to East Timor joining ASEAN, I learned of the negativity regarding entry to ASEAN through remarks on Singapore—she did not want “any more poor countries signing up” —and on Myanmar, commenting that she did not want any country that “used human rights to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.”

Although elections are in place, the existence of considerable political restrictions over freedom of expression in Singapore, Malaysia and Cambodia, socialist one-party dictatorships in Vietnam and Laos, a military regime in Myanmar and a despotic monarchy in Brunei has meant that progress towards democratization in Southeast Asia (ASEAN) remains sluggish. The sight of the newborn state of East Timor—with its population of one million who freed themselves from the authoritarian regime in 2007, together with Indonesia, who at one time invaded and occupied her—leading the way for the democratization of Southeast Asia reflects a bizarre twist of fate.

Mitsuru Yamada
Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University


Mitsuru Yamada was born in Hokkaido in 1955. He is both a professor on the Faculty of Social Sciences at Waseda University and head of the Asian Human Community research institute, belonging to the University’s Organization for Asian Studies.

He received his masters from the department of Southeast Asian Studies at Ohio University and received his doctorate in political science from Kobe University, having earned credits at the Graduate School of Social Sciences at Tokyo Metropolitan University. He has held a number of positions including visiting researcher at the National University of East Timor, professor on the Faculty of Liberal Arts at Saitama University, and professor in the Department of International Cooperation at the Graduate School of Toyo Eiwa University. He specializes in international relations, international cooperation and peace-building. His major works include Reunification of Multiethnic Malaysia (published by University Education Press Co., Ltd.); What does ’Peace-Building’ Mean? (published by Heibonsha Limited); A New type of Peace-Building (co-authored and edited) together with Fifty things you need to know about East Timor and A New Framework for International Cooperation (both edited works published by Akashi Shoten Co., Ltd).