“I am a businessman, not a politician” Tajuddin Abdul Rahman Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry at the opening of Herbal Asia, Matrade Exhibition Centre, 1st October 2015.
Unlike most of the rest of the world that is heading along the track of multiculturalism, Malaysia seems to be locked in a limbo of racial introspection it cannot get out of.
This introspection is however more than mere racism, it is the overt part of an elaborate structure that has maintained a small elite in power for over 45 years, since the notorious May 13th riots back in 1969.
The direct discussion of this subject has basically been criminalized since the 1970s and deemed too sensitive to debate, which means there has been little public discourse on the matter of who really exercises power, how, and for whom within the country.
This has helped to enshrine a structure of political-cabalism, based upon a neo-Malay-feudalism, which has used a form of ‘Malaysian apartheid’ to support this elite in position and privilege over the rest of Malaysians they rule (as opposed to govern).
Ever since the British Colonial era, Malaysia has been divided and described through racial paradigms. The major races that represented the Malay Peninsula got together to negotiate and steer Malaya to independence in 1957, and into the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. Perhaps the most important artefact from this era is the race is still recorded on Malaysian Identity Cards today, which is hurting the sensitivities of a number of Malaysians.
However with a rekindled Malay nationalistic sentiment remerging in the 1960s, an opportunity after the 13th May 1969 racial riots arose for a group of Malay politicans to seize the reigns of power. Mahathir Mohamad, supported by a group of ‘ultras’ including Syed Nasir Ismail, Musa Hitam, and Tunku Razaleigh, moved to dispose of the then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, representing the moderate Malay aristocracy.
(Tun) Abdul Razak Hussein (father of the current Prime Minister) was installed as Prime Minister in what some describe as a ‘coup’ to succeed Tunku Abdul Rahman in 1970.
As Tunku Abdul Rahman had already invoked a state of emergency in 1969 after the 13th May riots, and ruled by decree through the National operations Council, (Tun) Abdul Razak as Prime Minister through was able to use this short window was to pass through the New Economic policy (NEP) without any hindrance, as parliamentary approval wasn’t necessary. The NEP was based upon many ideas within Mahathir Mohamad’s book The Malay Dilemma, extremely controversial at the time.
At the time, the NEP was seen, even internationally as a necessary affirmative action policy. The NEP stipulated the use of quotas in granting educational places at school and universities, the use of quotas in the public service, favouritism to Malays in the granting of business licenses, the development of Malay reserve land restricting non-Bumiputera purchases, subsidies on the purchase of real estate, quotas on public equity holdings, general subsidies for Bumiputera businesses, and exclusive Bumiputera mutual funds (ASN, ASB), which gave better rates of return than commercial banks.
When the Malaysian Parliament was reconvened in 1971, both the Sedition and Internal Security Acts were strengthened to limit any discussion about matters concerning Malay special rights, the Malay rulers, and citizenship, under the premise of preserving ‘intercommunal harmony’. These restrictions also applied to members of parliament, thus weakening the principal of ‘parliamentary immunity’, i.e., the NEP was above parliamentary sovereignty, which attracted much international condemnation at the time.
It is during this time that a concerted covert effort was made to create a ‘secret leadership’ to maintain and support what was called the ‘Malay Agenda’. According to an interview with an anonymous high ranking official within the Razak Government at the time, most executive positions, civil service placements, and high ranking police and army personnel were filled with people sympathetic to the ‘Malay Agenda’.
The author’s source also stated that it was during the Razak era that selected bureaucrats and other people stated creating and acquiring corporate assets with the objective of channelling funds back to UMNO to fight future elections, to ensure victory.
The ‘Malay Agenda’ meant running government and agencies within government with the objective of looking after ‘Malay’ interests ahead of others. The ‘Malay Agenda’ was rarely spoken about in the open but had a wide appeal among all levels of Malay society, including some members of royal families, at the time.
This was the start of crony capitalism in Malaysia, the making of a kleptocracy. This loose ruling political-cabal was developed in the Malay-feudalistic tradition, in the sense that it required giving total loyalty to the leader of UMNO, the Prime Minister, without question.
A very small proportion of this group became very rich through the implementation of this special agenda. These original beneficiaries are now considered socially as the ‘old money’ in Malay society today.
Malaysia rejected multiculturalism for its own form of ethno-religious form of ‘Malaysian apartheid’, supported by the Malay-feudalistic social structure that was enhanced rather than dismantled over the two decades after independence from Britain. The mythology that the Chinese, who already control the economy, also aim to take political control of Malaysia was dissipated as propaganda to install a fear into the Malay population. Propaganda became one of the prime tools used by the government with the formation of the Biro Tata Negara (BTN) to indoctrinate civil servants and students on the “Malay agenda”.
Section 153 of the Malaysian constitution became the proclaimed legal basis of ‘Malaysian apartheid’ measures. The Reid Commission had only intended to be a temporary measure, to be reviewed by the parliament within 15 years. Section 153 states that “….it is the responsibility of the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong to safeguard the special position of the Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak”, thus turning Malay into political construct, as there is no single Malay tribal grouping. The authorities over the years attempted to Malayanize the indigenous peoples of the Malay Peninsula, the Orang Asli, through encouraging their conversion to Islam and adoption of Malays customs.
When Dr. Mahathir came to the Prime Ministership in 1981 due to then Prime Minister Hussein Onn stepping down because of poor health, he pursued an ambitious agenda which included extending the business interests of UMNO. Much of these business interests were controlled by proxies and nominees such as Tajudin Ramli and Halim Saad. Further, Dr Mahathir with his Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim embarked on a program to produce Malay millionaires who would bring up other Malays into the business sphere.
Ironically under Dr. Mahathir, a period of liberalization came with Wawasan 2020, where the country grew very optimistic under the premise of ‘Malaysia Boleh’. There appeared to be a great working relationship between the different racial based parties within the Barisan Nasional, and Malaysian appeared to genuinely have pride in their nation.
These short ‘golden years’ for Malaysia were soon eclipsed by the Asian economic crisis of 1997 and the sacking by Dr. Mahathir of his then deputy Anwar Ibrahim in 1998. A bitter election was fought between the BN Government and newly formed Barisan Alternative in 1999, leading to the BN Government winning with a greatly reduced majority.
Many misread the Abdullah Badawi period as further liberalization, although he publically fought corruption. However, Badawi still cracked down hard on dissent such as not allowing open discussion on Malaysia’s ‘social contract’, and allowed the police to act heavy handed at the Bersih rally in 2007. A new group of entities entered into the corporate scene which led to a number of scandals, by the notorious ‘boys on the 4th floor’, who included Khairy Jamaluddin. Dr. Mahathir became Badawi’s chief critic. Badawi’s poor election performance in 2008, and criticism of his apparent enjoyment of the trappings of power led to his replacement with Najib Tun Razak in 2009.
Najib Tun Razak came to power promising a transformation of government and a completely new paradigm in race relations with the well promoted 1Malaysia slogan. However, after being the vanguard of moderation internationally, his actions domestically showed none of the moderation he had promised. Najib was totally silent when organizations like Pekasa made outlandish statements about race. His greatest modus operandi is silence when government organs and NGOs undertake extreme actions in defending Malays and Islam. Bajib’s persona as a moderate leader completely disappeared after the poor election performance in 2013, where he personally blamed the Chinese in his ‘Chinese Tsunami’ statement on election night.
Post GE13, has seen a definitive return to repression by the BN Government in power. Its closely aligned newspaper organ Utusan Malaysia has been continually allowed to publish headlines and statements, such as ‘Apa lagi Cina mahu’, which were inflammatory in the post-election environment.
GE13 also weakened the MCA, Gerakan, and MIC to the point where they no longer have any effective say in government, a far cry from their days of great influence within the cabinet during the 1970s and 80s. All political parties became totally subservient groups within an UMNO dominated BN. This is ironically a result of opposition electoral success in 2013.
Extreme groups have been allowed to make anti-Chinese rhetoric and racial insults with impunity under the Najib Government, thus keeping Chinese groups quiet through producing an atmosphere of fear and tension. This is a purposeful tactic to suppress any opposition.
In terms of popular vote, the BN Government is now in reality a minority one, capturing less than 50% of total votes cast. However through the first past the post voting system, the BN is almost ensured to continue winning elections in the future. This is especially the case with the poor electoral strategy that the Pakatan Rakyat employed last election, focusing on the urban areas, rather than the rural areas. To compete with the BN, the opposition must make major changes to its electoral strategy, but will come up against a ‘hardened Umno’ organization at grassroots level. In addition, the opposition today is in so much disarray, the effective leader of the opposition to the government appears to be Dr. Mahathir.
Rather than reaching out to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of all Malaysians, UMNO has seen the decline of electoral support for BN component parties as an opportunity to consolidate power within its own right. GE13 has allowed UMNO and the political-cabal that controls it to manoeuvre even more on the ‘Malay Agenda’.
Since 2013, economic and social policy has been allowed to degenerate into blatant racial discrimination, and now has become something even more sinister.
The Malaysian civil service is being cleaned out. For example in Sabah, civil servants from ethnic groups like Dusun/Kadazan are slowly being weeded out and replaced. A bureaucratic ethnic cleansing is going on within the civil service. Other indigenous ethnic groups are no longer acceptable. Likewise, the universities are being cleansed of dissidents. There is a purge going on in Malaysia that has even taken the Deputy Prime Minister and attorney general out. This is supplemented with a clampdown on ‘whistleblowers, and anybody within existing agencies that have potential to turn against the political-cabal. Any potential resistance, including reporters and the media, to the political-cabal that currently controls the country is being eliminated. Malaysia is now facing a repressive phase in government that one has not seen since Dr. Mahathir’s “Operation Lalang” in the late 1980s.Only this time it is much wider.
The effects of this imposed policy of ‘Malaysian apartheid’ upon the country today are profound, and can be summarized as follows:
1. A feudal social structure has been developed with four sections of populace;
i) The Malay elite who rules the country and their associates,
ii) A Malay middle class which is predominantly urban,
iii) A Malay rural class, and
iv) The rest of the Malaysian population.
Politically, this rural Malay class has kept the Malay elite in power, while the educated middle class is turning away from UMNO.
2. A brain drain is happening from Malaysia at present, which does not only include Chinese and Indian, but Malays as well. The political-cabal of elite leaders aren’t really concerned with this brain drain, as this seen as a good opportunity to weaken potential future opposition. This loss of creative and innovative people is leaving a rent seeking mentality within the country, at a time, creativity and innovation is really needed to develop the Malaysian economy. The leadership have intentionally nurtured the development of an unquestioning population, which is reflected in the Malaysian education system, as the best means to maintain a docile electorate that will not look at political issues like corruption very seriously.
3. There has been a general failure to eradicate poverty throughout rural Malaysia, as limited resources have been used to prop up the feudal warlords of UMNO through ‘white elephant’ rural development projects throughout the country. Many UMNO warlords have made it big through receiving contracts while their areas remain inadequate with basic infrastructure, and rural assistance such as farm extension services and even proper roads and irrigation. There are still large numbers of Malays who cannot afford to attend university, through the lack of any general assistance schemes available in most other countries. Poverty is still a major problem within Malaysia, where the government has been claiming undue successes.
4. The Malaysian economy is skewed with inefficiencies and market restrictions that hinder its transformation into a mature developed sustainable economic system. Companies are allowed to have monopolies, the restricted issuance of import permits has created inefficient markets, and general lack of transparency is making the Malaysian market unattractive to investors. A 2012 Asian Development Bank (ADB) report cites the two main reasons for Malaysia’s net capital outflow as the distortions introduced into the economy by the NEP, and the widespread presence and overbearing influence of Government Linked Companies (GLCs). The restriction of tenders to Bumi companies has created an inefficient Ali Baba business model, which raises the cost of both government and business. GLCs and other government owned companies openly compete with entrepreneurs in the market with an unfair advantage, thus stifling innovation, and the willingness of private individuals to take business risks. Malaysia still needs economic growth to absorb new entrants to the workforce in the coming decade.
5. Meritocracy doesn’t exist within the Malaysian civil service, universities, or other agencies. People are forced to adopt a feudal stance of seeking favour from superiors to get promotions and survive within these organizations. Under such an environment there is no chance for creativity, critical thinking, or even honesty. ‘Ketuanan Melayu’ is now turning hegemonic is a dangerous way that can spill off Malaysian shores. This stands Malaysian in a poor position to be internationally competitive in the future.
6. The divide and conquer political strategy of the Government, use of bullying through third party NGOs, and straight threats and arrogance has had a major effect upon the people of Malaysia. Many have lost hope and respect for the leadership of their country. Many are now resentful. There is potential for outbreaks of violence due to the uncontrollability of some extreme ‘ultra’ groups allowed to roam free in society today. The country thinks in terms of race, even to the point where a near diplomatic incident nearly occurred with China a few weeks ago, the second most powerful country in the world. This is not healthy and will not stand Malaysia well within the international community. The dissent generated by this ‘divide and conquer’ political strategy is fodder that allows the political-cabal to use state apparatus to strengthen their hold on power, as the current spate of arrests indicates.
7. What the policies of the Government and resulting social structure of society has created is a small elite class of rulers who act upon the axiom that ‘we are the law’. Comments by the Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein (a cousin of the current prime minister), indicate the ruling elite’s distain even for the constitutional monarchy of Malaysia. The elite is now in an unquestionable position of power unable to be dislodged by the rule of law. They are unashamed by scandal and control all the elements of power through their network of loyalists through the civil service, police, armed forces, and judiciary.
8. Finally, it could be argued that Malay self-confidence has been destroyed and replaced with a national inferiority complex, that the elite can use and play to at their whim. There is a condescending attitude by the elite that ’Malays are backward’ and need special protection by the BN/UMNO Government. Thus a whole section of the population is continually told they need help. The concept of ‘Ketuanan Melayu’, according to UKM Professor Noraini Othman has connotations of enslavement, with a Malay master and servant relationship implied. Tun Dr. Ismail Abdul Rahman went further and said that the ‘special position of the Malays’ in the constitution is a slur on the ability of the Malays.
The political-cabal that was set up in the 1970s by Prime Minister Tun Razak, has been transferred across from leader to leader since that time. Each prime minister inherited a complete network of loyalists to the ‘Agenda Melayu’.
This has been their strength. However cracks appeared in this political-cabal when Mahathir tried to make an agreement with both his successors, which according to him have not been kept. In addition, the scandals of the present prime minister are beginning to test those loyal to the “Agenda Melayu’, to the point where some may begin to feel guilty about their loyalty to the current leadership of the political-cabal and ‘spill the beans’. Hence the sackings, demotions, transfers and arrests of late.
This however will not mean self-destruction to Malaysia’s political-cabal. It’s a fight over control and not reform. Winner will take all. Perhaps Dr. Mahathir was naïve in thinking that he could still exercise control and influence over this political-cabal, once he stepped down from the leadership of UMNO and the nation. This is one of the biggest mistakes of his political career.
The very nature of UMNO itself, once a party of school teachers, junior civil servants, farmers, and fishermen, which transformed into a party of contractors, small entrepreneurs, and professional rent seekers, will serve Najib well as he tries to consolidate his position. The party is run along feudal lines where booty is distributed around the country through lucrative contracts to those who head the party at state and district levels to maintain their loyalty and support. The influence of this on public policy and development planning is rarely discussed, even though it leads to massive misallocations of funds into projects that have little, if any community or economic benefit. This prevents any policy approach to planning and implementation, drastically lowering the quality of government.
Najib can reward his warlords, maintain their loyalty, and even put more of his loyalists in place for the coming election, win it, and even end up having more power than he has now. This scenario is Dr. Mahathir’s worst nightmare, and why he is working so hard to remove Najib before the next election.
To date very few international bodies have heavily criticized this “Malaysian Apartheid”. The Malaysian Government will continue to get away with repressing its populace with divide and conquer tactics. There is no front against Malaysia, like there was against South Africa. No one interested in putting sanctions upon Malaysia.
However, Swiss Islamic intellectual Dr. Tariq Ramadan foresees a credibility gap for Malaysia in international affairs where he says “As Malaysian Muslims complaining about discrimination by the West, should first acknowledge the injustices against minorities in their own country”. Until Malaysia sorts out its own racism, any stand upon Israel and Palestine seeps into hypocrisy.
This Malaysian Apartheid will continue into the foreseeable future and anybody who tries to oppose it will meet the Roth of bullying tactics to subdue them, as is being played out now with the latest round of arrests. The Malay position will remain a taboo subject for years to come, hence Malaysian sensitivities when any non-Malaysian comments on Malaysian internal affairs.
This also means that the question as to whether the NEP/NDP has been protecting or marginalizing the Malays will not be discussed. This is an important question for the future of Malaysia and the challenges that lie ahead. As former Prime Minister Ahmad Badawi once said “Malays who can’t learn how to walk without crutches will end up in a wheelchair”. Dr. Mahathir took this further and said “Unfortunately, the protection and privileges accorded by the New Economic Policy (NEP) may weaken the Malays further by lulling the next generation into complacency, thinking that the
NEP’s affirmative action will always be there for them to fall back upon….. The NEP can make the users so dependent that their inherent capability regresses.”
This dooms the country into the ‘middle income trap’, where the capabilities, creativity and innovation needed to lift the Malaysian economy into high valued activities, does not exist. Economic and social prosperity is risked so that Kleptocratic rule can continue unabated in Malaysia. Malay self-respect has also been sacrificed in this quest to hold power.
The system of discrimination has only benefitted in preserving a feudal hierarchy within Malaysian society where the new lords are political dynasties which are now fighting each other openly using 1MDB as the platform. This is not about corruption, but which family dynasty and surrounding group rules, rather than any promise of social reform.
The Strait of Malacca: China between Singapore and the United States
According to the data of the U.S. Energy Information Administration, over 30% of maritime crude oil trade passes through the South China Sea. Over 90% of the crude oil arriving in that sea pass through the Strait of Malacca, i.e. the shortest sea route between suppliers in Africa and the Persian Gulf and markets in Asia, thus making it one of the main geographical hubs of black gold in the world.
The key factor is that many raw materials and materials for energy development must pass through this Strait. Currently, the transport of goods between East Asian countries, Europe and Africa must have the Strait of Malacca, controlled by Singapore, as a route – provided it is fast.
On September 24, 2019 Singapore and the United States signed the Protocol amending the 1990 Memorandum of Understanding on the U.S. use of facilities in Singapore.
Singapore had proposed to use U.S. warships, thus becoming the largest U.S. military base in Asia. The U.S. 7th Fleet and its ships, including aircraft carriers and other large vessels, provide logistics and maintenance services and greatly expand military control.
The 7th Fleet can cross the Strait of Malacca, enter the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea and reach the Gulf region within 24 hours. The U.S. military vessels in all the ports of the Strait can be used without prior notice. In this regard, the United States is also actively cooperating with Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries.
The United States has deployed more advanced weapons and equipment in Singapore. As long as there are military disputes in East and Southeast Asia, the United States will immediately block the Strait of Malacca and hence control the whole crude oil transport system. In case of conflict, the Strait of Malacca could easily be blocked, thus cutting China off from crucial energy resources.
Although the Chinese strategic oil reserves are sent from neighbouring countries, it is difficult to go on for over 60 days with reserves alone. Meanwhile the United States is using the financial market to drastically increase energy prices and possibly start an economic war.
If the Strait of Malacca is blocked, China has not enough energy supplies stored and it can sustain the situation for a very short lapse of time. It should be added that all military operations would be delayed.
Singapore is a country traditionally friendly to the United States. The reason is the same as Japan’s, because the United States has interests in the Far East, while keeping on encircling China, thus trying to break “the string of pearls”.
The United States supports Singapore, which has some influence in Southeast Asia because it has no strong neighbours. With a view to managing maritime transport, the most important thing is to have strong armed forces. Until the country can be conquered by force, the financial and commercial development model leads to a very high success rate.
Singapore has a surface of 721.5 square kilometres only, less than the province of Lodi, Lombardy. Nevertheless, its defence spending is three times that of neighbouring Malaysia, and accounts for about 3.1% of its GDP, which is more or less the same as the Russian military power (3.9%). This is the version of South-East Asia bequeathed by Great Britain, such a close ally of the United States to be considered the fifty-first star on its flag.
If Singapore wants to control its own power in the Strait of Malacca, it must contain and curb China. Without the Strait of Malacca, there would be no maritime centre absorbing the surrounding commercial and financial forces. As long as the deepwater port – where large military and commercial fleets can dock – is well-established, the place of delivery/passage for raw materials in Southeast Asia, from the Near and Middle East, the EU and Africa, will inevitably be Singapore.
This is the reason why – although China also has a huge export market – many of the bulk goods will be waiting in line to pass through Singapore’s “Caudine Forks”.
Since 2015 there has been a plan that could break the balance. The trade route to the Indian Ocean across the Strait of Malacca has problems with pirates, shipwrecks, mist, sediments and shallows. Its accident rate is twice as high as the Suez Canal and four times higher than the Panama Canal.
A shorter alternative route is to build a canal in the isthmus of Kra, Thailand. This would enable to spare time and reduce shipping costs as the route gets 1,000 kilometres shorter. The Chinese state-owned companies Liu Gong Machinery Co. Ltd and XCMG, as well as the private company Sany Heavy Industry Co Ltd, have taken the initiative to create a study group for the construction of the Kra Canal. The 100-kilometre artificial connection with the Indian Ocean would benefit not only China and ASEAN, but also trade of Japan and other countries, including the EU.
Thailand is located at the centre of the Indochina peninsula and leads to the important Mekong region and South Asia. This artificial canal would be about 100 kilometres from the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand, so that the trade zone of South-East Asia should not pass through the Strait of Malacca.
However, according to a survey made five years ago, only 30% of Thai people was in favour of building the canal and at least 40% of them opposed it, for fear that it could cause political turmoil in Thailand, including environmental damage and corruption by the Thai government. An attempt was being made to convey the feeling that the Thai people were opposed to such initiative.
It is obvious that there are clear opponents: the biggest one is Singapore, of course. At that juncture, maritime trade in East and South-East Asia would leave the polis, which would be bound to lose its importance as a maritime bulwark and could even lose the U.S. protection. Nevertheless, on January 16, 2020, the Thai House of Representatives decided to set up a committee to study the Thai Canal project.
The Kra Canal would be very profitable for China. The countries concerned, namely Cambodia and Vietnam, are still hesitating. Thailand wants China to contribute with money and equipment, but it fears indirect control from China.
The Kra Canal would be controlled by China. Thailand may not operate and run it as planned, but it would reap the greatest benefits from it. Hence although the canal tolls may be much lower than the cost of development, China would still be willing to encourage Thailand to implement the project in view of creating another route bypassing U.S. control. China is also actively encouraging Myanmar to build an oil pipeline connecting Yunnan to Burmese ports.
China is willing to invest significantly and the aim is to bypass U.S. control, which has completely blocked China from the Pacific islands to Southeast Asia.
The energy and food that China needs cannot be self-produced, and the United States is trying to manage these two weaknesses by “moving Singapore on the chessboard”.
After World War II, the United States is the most striking example of “vertical community”, and “horizontal continuum“, to which the principle of “close and remote strike” applies. This refers to the economic power gap, not to kilometres as the crow flies. The U.S. strategy is to establish a long-term objective to prevent competitors from producing and developing cooperation.
The countries that have a large economic power gap vis-à-vis the United States are defined as “far away”, while the others close to the United States in terms of economic power and strength are defined as “near”. As a result, the neighbour always bothers and causes inconvenience in the world as is the case when living in a block of flats.
The U.S. strategy is designed to help and support the weaker side in the economic war – no matter if it is a dictatorship or an obscurantist and reactionary regime -in order to fight the strong side and achieve power supremacy. This balance can effectively prevent the emergence of a hegemonic power directly posing an economic-military threat to the United States. Supporting Singapore, Taiwan and Japan is certainly not an act of humanism and holding on to the “medieval” petromonarchies of the Near East does not mean strengthening the much-vaunted democracy.
A crumbling Thai monarchy and the people’s longing for democracy
As a nation, Thailand has escaped colonial subjugation. But, in the past one year, the Asian kingdom faces an unprecedented political crisis at home. Both the monarchy’s legitimacy and the military-linked government’s power are questioned by a legion of dissenting youth. How did things turn out this way? Here, I analyse.
At the centre of the city of Bangkok lies the Democracy Monument. It commemorates the historic Siamese Revolution of 1932 which led to the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in what was then the Kingdom of Siam, by its military ruler, Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram who saw the monument as the central point of what he envisioned as a new Bangkok, Westernized and democratized in outlook.
But, people’s direct rule in the city and the Thai nation at large is still a distant dream for many, particularly the dissenting youth. The monarchy still has an influential role in Thai society, culture, and politics.
The Southeast Asian nation of Thailand, previously Siam, is ruled by the royal House of Chakri for the past three centuries. However, since the last 88 years, following the Siamese Revolution of 1932, it has been a constitutional monarchy, with king as a nominal head of state and the prime minister as the head of government. But, the country has a history of coups soon after this transition, making the military an influential player in its domestic politics.
So, what is happening in that country since early 2020? Why are the youth and the students protesting against the ruling establishment consisting of the king and the prime minister? What lies ahead?
People demands power transition
Protests began in March, this year, but it lost momentum due to the raging pandemic before starting again in July. Tensions escalated in mid-October when tens of thousands of young protesters took to the streets, mostly in Bangkok but also in other parts of Thailand.
The demonstrators demanded the resignation of General-turned-PM Prayuth Chan-ocha, a new and reformed democratic constitution, a reformed monarchy, more transparency in the government, and an end to the harassment of democracy activists. Police have responded with water cannons and by arresting protesters. The government has also issued an emergency decree prohibiting gatherings to curb the protests.
A section of the protesters went further with a list of ‘10 demands’ of intended reforms. They say, they do not seek to end the monarchy, rather reform it from within. But, on the other hand, there are pro-monarchy conservative royalists who support the government led by the military-aligned prime minister.
The protesters even tried to directly communicate with the king by the symbolic act of posting letters as an expression of their discontent with the establishment. The police have arrested hundreds of protesters so far. But, the unrest in Thailand has only intensified and spread to larger sections of the population.
Origins of the crisis
The origins of the current political stand-off began in the aftermath of the long-awaited March 2019 elections that brought five years of military junta rule to an end. Since a 2014 coup toppled the elected government of former PM Yingluck Shinawatra the kingdom has been reeling under junta rule that installed then General Prayuth Chan-ocha as Prime Minister.
But, after last year’s election, Prayuth resigned from the army, so he could run for Prime Minister’s office again as a civilian. He was supported by military-backed political parties and the election results were disputed by the Opposition parties, as he returned back to power as PM. But, his continuation indicated that Thai military remains a strong force in Thailand’s political scene, even though a civilian rule exists in paper.
In the disputed election, most Thai youths who are now at the forefront of protests supported the third largest party, the Future Forward Party. But, in February 2020, a court order ruled that the party should be disbanded. Young Thais, angry at the ruling, protested soon after. Then came the pandemic-induced lockdowns that restricted protests before it re-emerged in July.
A note on Thai monarchy
Thailand arguably has one of the world’s strictest lese-majeste rules that are aimed at curtailing public behaviour classifiable as criminal offences against the dignity of the reigning monarch and prohibits insults to the royal family. However, the Thai monarchy entered a period of transition after the death of former king Bhumibol Adulyadej, the father of the present king Maha Vajiralongkorn, in 2016 who reigned for long seven decades.
Adulyadej was largely seen as a unifying force in the Thai nation that has endured years of political turmoil, unlike his pompous and extravagant son who had spent much of his time in Germany since ascending to throne. While his people fiercely protested, the king stayed away from all that commotion in a foreign land away from home enjoying luxury quarantine in the Bavarian Alps with public money.
Thai protesters had earlier sought the German government to look into whether he had conducted state business while on German soil, such as the signing of royal commands and the annual expenditure act that would be unbecoming considering the behaviour expected from their king.
Moving against the flow
The latest protests by the youths and students raise justifiable questions on the legitimacy of the regal power in Thai ruling establishment. They intensely hope and raise their voices for a transition to full democracy, creating a sensitive backdrop to the grievances raised against the military-backed government, on the other side.
Meanwhile, PM Prayuth has repeatedly rejected the protesters’ demands to step down. With the looming pandemic affecting normalcy of life and the Thai government planning to extend the nation-wide state of emergency until mid-January next year, there is no foreseeable reprieve for the demands raised by protesters soon enough.
Expectations from ASEAN Summit meetings
The ASEAN summit meetings starting from November 12-15 will address issues which have challenged the Southeast Asian region this year, and much of the initial work has been discussed under the Vietnam chairmanship during the summit meetings. In fact, one of the critical areas which we discussed during ASEAN preparatory meetings and also during the subsequent East Asian Summit will be related to maintaining peace and also addressing the peaceful resolution of disputes, particularly in South China Sea, outlining the need for compliant to the UNCLOS, abiding by the principles of international law.
It is acknowledged that the different aspects related to regional security, trade and investment, addressing challenges related to the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4th IR), developing mandate and consensus with regard to the ASEAN community vision, and also developing common consensus on environment protection, marine debris, river water pollution and transboundary haze. One of the important milestones that ASEAN has achieved in the last two decades has been expanding its external relations with countries such as Canada, Chile, EU and many other countries which contribute to the development and foreign direct investment in this region. These existing partnerships need to be complemented with new partners which can accelerate economic development and growth prospects.
It is acknowledged that the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) has been challenged in the past but new countries such as Cuba, Colombia, and South Africa have signed the treaty. The TAC has been discussed as an important element of maintaining regional peace and stability, and there is need for strengthening this process so that new entrants can be accommodated. The important aspect which have been really outlined last year has been with regard to the ASEAN and the Indo-Pacific concept. Therefore, there will be discussions that how complementarities could be explored between the organisation and the geopolitical concept. As in the ASEAN outlook towards Indo-Pacific it has been outlined that the cooperation can be explored in the terms of maritime connectivity, security, promoting sustainable development, and outlining new avenues for economic operation.
The issue of new membership in ASEAN might also be discussed. In the past few years countries such as Timor-Leste have been seeking to consider for their entry into the ASEAN but Timor need to fulfil certain basic criteria which can be discussed during these ASEAN meetings.
For ASEAN, the vital issue will be to engage the new US administration under the democrats and maintain their attention that US has been given to this region particularly in terms of SCS and also supplying military hardware to many of the countries which are facing tensions with China. Given the fact that Indonesia and Vietnam have been elected as a non-permanent member of the UN it is possible that the dialogue partners and these two countries would outline important areas which can be addressed at the highest level.
One of the areas that the ASEAN can explore can be undertaking extensive corporative arrangement with the United Nations as many countries within Southeast Asia are representing their cases to the UN and its associate agencies, synergy between the two organisations is foreseen. The ASEAN also needs to work on the emergency response and assessment team which includes rehabilitation and repatriation of displaced persons across this region in the wake of COVID-19.
Refugees has been a major bone of contention among Southeast Asian nations. In this regard it is pertinent that the ASEAN will seek indulgence of countries such as Myanmar and also address problems with regard to rehabilitation of the Rohingya refugees.
The safety with regard to the South China Sea and maintaining freedom of navigation and overflight would be critical for the regional maritime trade and commerce as well as civil aviation. The 2002 Declaration of the Code of Conduct of parties in the SCS has not been valued by dialogue partners such as China. Therefore, it is critical that the Code of Conduct (COC)should be discussed during the meetings with the dialogue partners. It is acknowledged that the mutual trust between the claimant parties has been on the downslide and the deficit in mutual trust has disturbed the peace and tranquillity in SCS.
The developments with regard to Korean peninsula and the dialogue with the US have given a hope that the Korean peninsula might seek peace and as two Southeast Asian countries (Singapore and Vietnam)were involved in the dialogue process between US and North Korea. The possibility of continuing the process under nee US administration might be discussed on the side-lines. This year has been harmed southeast Asian economies because of pandemics and floods, and therefore a consensus is required with regard to medicine, standard protocols and also into ASEAN cooperation among member countries.
One of the important initiatives that has been taken by the Vietnam was the ASEAN defence ministers meeting in February 2020, in which it was noted that coronavirus disease has been making a major impact in the regional security and stability, and there was a need for acknowledging it as a public health emergency. The chairman statement with regard to ASEAN collective response was acknowledged. It was stated that there should be a strong collaboration in terms of military medicine, and collaboration through a network of chemical, biological and radiological specialists across the southeast Asian countries. Another initiative which have been taken during the meeting has been to enhance practical cooperation among the defence establishments so as to address this pandemic and bring about best practices as well as engaging the ASEAN Centre for military medicine in undertaking research related to this. This meeting proclaimed that there is a need for exploring new initiatives and ways to contact fake news which might increase public anxiety and also hinder any collaborative activities within ASEAN.
With regard to theASEAN mandate it was critical that the impact of the COVID-19 on labour and employment need to be addressed so that the right of the migrant workers as well as developing progressive labour practices could be undertaken for enhancing competitiveness within the organisation as well as promoting safety and health protocols within the region.
The ASEAN has been addressing has been promotion of human resource development as well as developing networks for technical education and skills development. While the organisation has been preparing for promoting the fourth industry revolution and therefore it has become important to utilise technology for better inclusive and sustainable growth which can provide regular employment and growth opportunities among the labour across the region. Many of the countries in Southeast Asia have been large concentration of small and medium enterprises and are providing employment opportunities. Consequently, it has been found that there is a need for developing better labour practices as well as protecting the rights of the labour.
As discussed earlier one of the important meetings which was being held in April 2020 was to seek affirmation from the 15 countries participating in the RCEP programme to accelerate their efforts in actualising this regionwide free trade area, and Vietnam has been insistent that India should be invited to partake in the negotiations once again.
In one of the statements made by the ASEAN chairman in June 2020 it was acknowledged that public health emergencies and the need to control the pandemic would be important for promoting resilience societies and healthy workforce. Importantly, since many of these ASEAN nations are export dependent economies, it will be critical that the resilience supply chain and a captive market is promoted in a big way. The dialogue between the health sector professionals as well as promoting technical exchanges related to big data, telemedicine and surveillance of the diseases need to be taken on in the forthcoming ASEAN meetings. It would be prudent that the ASEAN response fund and supporting economic recovery programme at regional level would help many nations through cross sectoral collaboration as well as mitigating the impact of this pandemic.
While it is acknowledged that the ASEAN community meeting would highlight the midterm review of the ASEAN community blueprints for the year 2025, it would also be critical that issues such as gender sensitivity, women in parliament, promoting ASEAN youth and also in the ASEAN Parliamentary assembly would be areas where Vietnam would like to take the lead. As the mandate for this year’s ASEAN meeting is “cohesive and responsive ASEAN” and therefore stress will always be there with regard to solidarity and centrality of this organisation.
The year 2020 would be a judicious milestone to look out into the future plan of action and how the organisation as a whole could work with regard to medical supplies, equipment, addressing public health emergencies and developing research and vaccine development program within the region itself. In the past the organisation has worked remarkably with regard to addressing environmental concerns, non-traditional security issues, and also taking security initiatives at the regional level.
Initiatives related to ASEAN integration among the mainland Southeast Asia countries would be a priority so that economic complementarities and division of labour as well as better production facilities should be developed across Southeast Asia. In terms of the connectivity within the organisation, the discussion would be related to infrastructure projects, supply chain resilience, building people to people connectivity and also promoting higher education linkages between the dialogue partners and the ASEAN member nations.
One of the important elements which have been often discussed within the organisation has been developing the smart cities network, incorporating capacity building initiatives, developing repository of knowledge, and sharing best practices so that sustainable development as well as better resource management within the cities could be done. Dialogue related to the ASEAN community, aspects related to political security and cultural issues will be taken up as usual but it will be also critical that the associated organisations such as East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum and other associate organisations would be discussing international developments. It is expected that South China Sea and building consensus on single draft a letter to code of conduct would be a priority under UNCLOS provisions.
One cannot deny the fact that even though majority of the ASEAN meetings throughout the year have been done in cyber and online mode but the agreements and the understanding that have been developed through ASEAN meetings would require concerted effort and sincerity on the part of member countries and the ASEAN Chairman to bring it to a logical conclusion. The ASEAN chairman Vietnam has waved the magic wand and the outcome would be interesting to watch.
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