“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.
Visit of Chinese Foreign Minister to Southeast Asia
Following the visit of Kamala Harris, the vice president of the USA to Vietnam and Singapore, the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi visited the two countries as well as Cambodia to engage the regional players. Vietnam has become the cynosure of major powers such as the US, Japan, and China. The visit of Japanese Defence minister and the US defence secretary happening within a period of three months. US defence secretary visited Vietnam in July 2021 while the Japanese defence minister visited Vietnam in September 2021.
Given the hyper activism which was shown by the two members of the Quad, the Chinese foreign minister sensing these strategic dynamics choose to visit Vietnam to comfort the ideological partner that China would be acting constructively. The Chinese foreign minister during the visit to the country clearly stated that Vietnam should stop entertaining extra regional powers in South China Sea and resist from complicating the situation while magnifying the maritime territorial disputes. This clearly shows that China was rattled by the very fact that US has been undertaking extra efforts in engaging Vietnam through vaccine and health diplomacy as well as creating favourable conditions for Vietnam to enhance trade relations with the US. As part of a reassurance strategy, China has committed to donating 3 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine and is willing to support Vietnam in their fight against COVID-19 pandemic.
In the last two years the Vietnam foreign ministry has been criticising Chinese manoeuvres in South China Sea and threatening legitimate activities of Vietnam in its Exclusive Economic Zone. The illegal activities undertaken by Chinese survey ships and fishermen militia in Vanguard bank, Reed Bank and Whitsun Reef were a manifestation of Chinese hyper activism. This has been criticised by the US state department as well as members of international community.
In the second leg of the visit, the Chinese foreign minister visited Singapore and had fruitful interactions with his counterpart Vivian Balakrishnan. Given the fact that Singapore is slowly emerging as a critical lynchpin in the larger Quad objectives in the region. Therefore, for China, engaging the city state is critical for securing its strategic periphery and engaging Singapore for its trade and economic interests. The proposal of development cooperation proposal by the Chinese foreign minister is to get assurance from the Southeast Asian neighbours regarding good neighbourliness and commitment to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) undertaken by the China in the maritime domain.
The Chinese foreign minister had visited almost nine countries in the last one year when Vietnam was the Chair of ASEAN. This was primarily to counter the efforts which have been made by the high-level delegations of the United States government which included the visit by the United States vice president Kamala Harris, US defence secretary, the US deputy Secretary of State and the visit of armed forces officials to the Southeast Asian countries. China’s neighbourhood diplomacy clearly shows the anxieties from the point of view of China after US has intensified surveillance and intelligence activities as the latest Malabar defence exercises(25th edition) which concluded recently near Guam. Chinese assertive activities have been operationalised by the Chinese naval ships, Chinese Coast Guard, Chinese hydrographic survey ships, and the Chinese maritime boat militia which has been threatening navies and fishermen of littoral countries in South China Sea. The military exercises undertaken by China closer to the contested waters in South China Sea, particularly in the Paracel islands, which belongs to Vietnam, and strengthening the illegal structures built on those islands is primarily aimed to counter the group sails undertaken by the US and its alliance partners as well as any concerted activity undertaken by the Quad countries.
The visit to Cambodia was expected given the fact that the politics in Cambodia is heating up because of the Hun Sen political ambitions of placing his son at the helm of power and helping Chinese to set up a full-fledged Chinese naval base at Ream naval base. The US projects in that region has been stopped and relocated to other areas which was not liked by the US agencies.
The vaccine diplomacy which has been adopted by the Chinese foreign minister to address the deficit of vaccines in countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam is symbolic.
In this context it is also important to investigate the Japanese overtures in this regard. The Japanese have signed a defence partnership agreement with the Vietnamese which assures the exports of Japanese defence equipment to the socialist country. Under the partnership it is expected that not only arms and equipment, but also technological support and training of the technicians will be undertaken by the Japanese forces. This is the first of its kind defence partnership agreement between Japan and Vietnam showcasing the growing trust between the two countries. There have been certain writings which allude to the fact that a trilateral between India, Vietnam and Japan might be in the offing. Scholars such as Gitanjali Sinha Roy feel that Japan with its technological supremacy, and India with its large armed forces along with Vietnam’s strategic location will act as a common platform to address regional security concerns in the Indo -Pacific region. India being a regional player in the Indian Ocean region and Japan being a formidable power in the Pacific would add heft to the larger maritime security objectives.
The involvement of the European powers in the security of indo Pacific region with reference to the UK, France and Germany showcases that many players would be involved in ensuring maritime security in the region for trade and commercial aspects.
This visit of Chinese foreign minister should be seen from the point of view of reassuring Chinese commitment to the regional peace while at the same time giving a veiled warning to the neighbours that China is still a very potent power in South China Sea, and it would not allow any intervention by the extra territorial powers which tries to intervene in the South China Sea dispute. This visit clearly highlights that China has been startled by the active diplomacy undertaken by countries such as Japan and US and why keeping countries such as Singapore and Vietnam in good humour is critical for Chinese interests.
Vietnam’s ingenuity in handling diplomatic relations with the US, China and Japan and maximizing national strategic interests is appreciated. Through skilful handling of relations with these three countries, Vietnam has become a partner contributing to the peace and security of the region and affirming its central role in Southeast Asia.
The new AUKUS partnership comes at the cost of sidelining France, a key Indo-Pacific player
Here is my quick take on the new AUKUS security partnership announced on Wednesday (September 15), by the leaders of three key English-speaking countries – Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. But, the move has invited displeasure from France, a key player and partner in the Indo-Pacific with permanent presence in the region.
US President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison – leaders of three key English-speaking countries – have announced a new trilateral security partnership in the Indo-Pacific on Wednesday, abbreviated as AUKUS. This came a week before the in-person Quad summit, aimed at deepening cooperation in a range of defence arenas such as artificial intelligence, cyber and quantum technologies and undersea capabilities. It is the latest in a series of moves taken by the Biden administration to engage proactively in the Indo-Pacific, keeping China in mind.
A key initiative of the new AUKUS partnership is to support Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines within the next 18 months. But, this comes at the cost of Canberra putting a halt on the ocean-class submarine development programme agreed with France known as the “Future Submarine Programme”. As Australia strengthens its age-old alliance with the United States and welcomes a deeper British presence in the region, the stakes are at an all-time high for Canberra.
The French Response
When China denounced the new trilateral partnership by referring to “Cold-War mentality and ideological prejudice”, it was expected. However, what stood out was the French response. A joint statement by the French Defence and Foreign Ministers following the announcement of AUKUS stated that it was ‘contrary to the letter and the spirit of the cooperation which prevailed between France and Australia’, and that the American choice reflects ‘an absence of coherence that France can only observe and regret’.
Australia is also a member of the Quad and the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence-sharing alliance that includes Canada and Australia as well. With AUKUS, Australian military will be closely linked with that of the United States. However, the UK has not had a permanent presence in the Indo-Pacific for decades now. On the other hand, France is the only European power currently present in the region with nearly two million of its citizens and more than 7,000 military personnel, spread across a vast maritime stretch from the Réunion Island in the Western Indian Ocean to French Polynesia and New Caledonia in the South Pacific.
In a catchy tweet, the Ambassador of France to the United States, Philippe Etienne noted,“Interestingly, exactly 240 years ago the French Navy defeated the British Navy in Chesapeake Bay, paving the way for the victory at Yorktown and the independence of the United States”.He was just reminding the Americans of their historical ties with the French that goes beyond the Statue of Liberty.
‘Global Britain’ to align with the Indo-Pacific vision
The AUKUS is specifically hurting French sentiments at multiple levels. Being a reliable partner in the region that proactively engages in a broad network of trilaterals and minilaterals involving Quad partners Japan, India, Australia and other regional players, France was much better suited than the UK to form a defence partnership, in my view, when the region needs timely action. The concept of ‘global Britain’ has made its entry into public discourse only recently. The way ahead for the re-emergence of the UK from its post-war decline seems a long one, vis-à-vis dealing with a rising China.
In contrast, the French and their military installations are already in the region. It could’ve been considered better for amplifying collective defence capability and interoperability in the region and to empower the Australian military, rather than partnering with a dormant and erstwhile regional power in Asia and the Pacific like the UK, at a time when the region faces ‘unprecedented challenges’, as noted in the French statement of response.
Washington has shared the technology of nuclear submarines only once before with the UK, almost seven decades ago. Australia’s geographic advantage and deteriorating ties with China makes it a rightful next choice. It seems the new Anglophone trilateral partnership is a systematic US-led attempt to involve the UK, particularly in a post-Brexit scenario, to play a bigger role in the Indo-Pacific.
A new addition to the regional architecture
In the context of the disruptive rise of an increasingly assertive China, it is understandable to have a variety of partnerships and minilaterals among maritime democracies that could complement the Quad and the ASEAN-led regional institutions in the Indo-Pacific. Instead of inviting the UK to the Quad itself, the Biden administration chose to form a new sister grouping in the region, perhaps with the intention of being more flexible. In the present geopolitical scenario, empowering Australia’s defence capabilities is understandably a timely move, but the choice of partners is the real issue here.
It is reasonable that not every ally or partner needs to be in every alliance or coalition, however, time-tested regional players should not be ignored in a way how the US and Australia did to France with the underlying intention of bringing the UK back into the region’s newly evolving geopolitical equation.
What Australia should be careful about?
No matter how the US chooses to hedge the situation with France, Australia should deepen its bilateral partnership with France, being a key Indo-Pacific player with permanent regional presence. The ‘2+2’ ministerial consultations between the two countries, which was inaugurated last month, needs to be built upon.
Nuclear-powered submarines could definitely boost Australia’s maritime deterrence capabilities. However, handling and operating them is a highly-complex and risky manoeuvre. So, it is important that the move should not be given the impression of being escalatory. Moreover, Australia, being a non-nuclear weapon state, should reinforce its commitment to the global non-proliferation regime and the rules-based order.
Making sense of a rugged political terrain in the Land of Golden Pagodas
Eight months have passed since Myanmar’s coup d’état. What are the domestic factors that contribute to the country’s grim political scenario? What are the odds that work against Burmese democracy? Here, I look back at the chequered political past of Myanmar to find answers.
After a decade of relative calm, the Tatmadaw, as the Burmese armed forces are referred to, smuggled power from the civilian leadership by staging a repugnant coup in February this year, led by its 65-year old-leader, General Min Aung Hlaing. This was executed just a few days before the convening of Myanmar’s newly-elected Parliament and three months after the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) landslide victory in the election held in November 2020 in the country’s second freely-contested polls since 2015.
As the junta came back to haunt the newest democratic experiment in Myanmar again, history repeats itself. Even before the coup, the Tatmadaw’s dominant posture in the administration was strongly evident, as twenty-five per cent of seats in the Parliament and key portfolios in the Cabinet were reserved for the military, according to the Constitution promulgated by the military itself in 2008.
Déjà vu 1988
Apparently, the Tatmadaw and its aging leader were outraged by the continuing and overwhelming popularity that democratic icon Aung San Suu Kyi still enjoyed in the weeks following the 2020 elections, despite all the allegations of her playing second-fiddle to the Tatmadaw. The coup d’état and the subsequent crackdown on democracy set the clock back to 1988.
It was in that year, a large wave of protests erupted against the military that began as a student-led movement in the city of Rangoon (now, Yangon), which soon spread across the country. It came to be known as the ‘8-8-88 Uprising’ or the ‘People Power Movement’ because the protests peaked on 8 August 1988. Suu Kyi’s NLD party emerged from this movement.
Burma was separated from British India as a separately-administered colony eleven years before the country gained independence. The Buddhist-majority state was free of British rule in 1948 under the leadership of people like U Nu and Aung San with the hopes of ushering in a parliamentary democracy. Unfortunately, in the next fourteen years, the country would witness the very first military coup in its history since independence, in 1962, led by General U Ne Win, who would go on to rule the country with an iron fist for the next twenty-six years.
Absence of a political consensus
Right from its independence in 1948, the Land of Golden Pagodas has been a deeply divided nation along the lines of ethnicity, religion, and political loyalty, with the majority Burmans dominating the upper echelons of power. Myanmar comprises of 135 ethnic groups in total. It includes the majority Burmans, who constitute two-thirds of the population, minority groups such as the Shan, the Karen, the Rohingya, the Kachin, the Mon and other smaller groups. A grave absence of political consensus among diverse ethno-religious groups and their respective parties had always been a bane for Myanmar’s overall stability.
Myanmar’s decades-long inter-ethnic tensions and sectarian violence have been a historical factor behind the rise of popularity of the Tatmadaw among the people, who consider themselves as the only force that could bring-in stability to the country, an idea that resonates with a substantial proportion of the majority Burmans even today. But, a pro-democracy resistance movement is underway on the other side, with the military’s recent excesses leading to many of its supporters switching sides.
When the Tatmadaw was seen a beacon of stability
The Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) coalition dominated Myanmar’s political scene from 1948 to 1958. Contrary to popular beliefs today, the military was seen as a beacon of stability in the country’s immediate post-independence period as numerous sectarian groups battled each other. In the 1950s, the country had to deal with scattered left-wing insurgencies too, along with the widely prevalent ethnic conflicts.
Even as early as 1958, when the affairs of the state were slipping away, the Tatmadaw was asked by the civilian government to step in as a temporary caretaker government. The military remained loyal to the elected government for fourteen years since independence and had even facilitated the general elections of 1960.
At a moment when the military’s public support rose considerably among the people, catalysed by a corrupt civilian government led by the AFPFL, the Tatmadaw decided to take matters into their own hands by staging a coup in 1962. The junta adopted a new Constitution in 1974, suspending the one previously promulgated in 1947.
Soon, the military emerged as a repressive force and their socialist state policy known as the Burmese Way to Socialism isolated Myanmar from the rest of the world from 1962 to 1988 and devastated the economy. Around the same time, Buddhist ultra-nationalism perpetrated by fear-mongering monks also thrived under the regime at the cost of intimidation of the minority groups.
The dawn of a new epoch and the return to history
With the people realising their folly in trusting the Tatmadaw, the uprising of 1988 happened. Around the same time, young Suu Kyi returned to her home country after completing her studies abroad. Witnessing the scathing power abuse of the ruling junta hands-on, she rallied her fellow Burmese citizens for the cause of Myanmar’s democratic transition. The uprising can also be viewed as a direct consequence of the emergence of the NLD, which contested and won the elections of 1990. But, the military refused to accept the results and prevented a civilian government from exercising power.
Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest by the junta in the following year. She continued her struggle and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. She was detained for fifteen years in total between 1990 and 2010. Elections were held in 2010 and the junta was ‘supposedly’ dissolved the following year, only to re-emerge in 2021.
As per estimates by the United Nations, around 230,000 people were displaced as of June this year, because of the military action and retaliatory attacks either by civilian rebels or by one armed resistance group or the other. As of July this year, more than a thousand people were allegedly killed by the junta, with thousands of protesters arrested, detained, or charged, and many even just disappeared beyond trace. Recently, the shadow resistance movement that calls itself the ‘National Unity Government’ of Myanmar had gone underground since the February coup and has called for a nation-wide ‘people’s defensive war’ against the Tatmadaw.
Regional voices and the road to peace
Myanmar is a member of the ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) since 1997. But, the organisation, despite its diplomatic efforts, was unable to prevent the coup and the subsequent civilian unrest in the country. In fact, the ASEAN’s negotiations in its capital Jakarta, in April, and the Five-Point Consensus that emerged from it have been seemingly side-lined by the junta. ASEAN envoys met with the army leaders in June and the organisation’s latest proposal for a ceasefire until the end of 2021, put forward in August-end, has been reportedly denied by the military.
Due to geo-economic and border security considerations, neighbouring China and India happen to have good ties with the Tatmadaw. However, a broad-based civilian support is the only way to ensure the army’s sustained legitimacy. And, the best solution to bring back real stability in Myanmar is to agree on a mutually-accepted power-sharing agreement between the shadow civilian leadership and the military that would secure unequivocal internal peace within the country.
Social cohesion continues to be a distant dream for Myanmar and the Burmese people, the absence of which continues to be the root cause of all political wrongs in the country. The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is making the crisis worse. In the end, the military cannot afford to antagonize the United Nations and the democracies of the world for long, especially of the West, with their economic sanctions in place, and the dire curbs placed on the Burmese people’s genuine democratic aspirations will go out of the reckoning again in just a matter of time.
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