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Ms. Halimah Yacob – First female president of Singapore

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Ms. Halimah Yacob, 63, former Speaker of Parliament, became the first woman and first Malay in 47 years to ascend to the Presidency of Singapore- highest office, after successfully filing her nomination papers on Sept 13 as the sole eligible candidate for this year’s reserved Presidential Election.

She will be officially sworn in as Singapore’s eighth President on September 14 at 6pm, at the Istana, the Prime Minister’s Office announced.

Returning Officer Ng Wai Choong declared Ms. Halimah as the President-elect at the People’s Association headquarters along King George’s Avenue to loud cheers by hundreds of Halimah’s supporters. The last Malay to hold the presidency ill he died in 1970 was Yusof Ishak, whose image adorns the country’s banknotes. Yusof Ishak was President between 1965 and 1970, the first years of Singapore’s independence following a short-lived union with neighbouring Malaysia, but executive power rests with Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s Prime Minister.

Aiming to strengthen a sense of inclusivity in the multicultural country, Singapore had decreed the presidency would be reserved for candidates from the Malay community this time. Ms. Yacob’s experience as house speaker automatically qualified her under the nomination rules. Of the four other applicants, two were not Malays and two were not given certificates of eligibility, the elections department said.

 First Malay President

This year’s Presidential Election was reserved for the Malays in a bid to ensure multiracial representation after Parliament passed into law changes to the Elected Presidency scheme last November. Apart from Halimah, two other hopefuls – chief executive of Second Chance Properties Mohamed Salleh Marican, 67, and chairman of marine services provider Bourbon Offshore Asia Pacific Farid Khan, 62 – had also filed application forms to contest as candidates. However, both men were determined ineligible by the Presidential Elections Committee as they did not meet one of the qualifying criteria, which requires that private-sector candidates must have served as the chief executive of a company for at least three years, with the company having at least S$500 million in shareholders’ equity, on average, in the most recent three years.

While some members of the public have expressed happiness at Halimah’s ascension to the Presidency, others expressed disappointment that this was only made possible courtesy of a walkover. They want an election for full legitimacy.  However, others noted that Madam Halimah is fully qualified to become the President and will be able to perform her duties well, citing her track record of over 40 years in public service.

Malays make up about 13 percent of the population, and the government is dominated by ethnic Chinese, who make up about three-quarters. There are no Muslim Malays in the top echelons of Singapore’s army, and few among the senior ranks of its judiciary, but a member of its poorest ethnic minority is set to become the first woman President of the Southeast Asian city state this week.

The government initially narrowed the criteria last year to permit only a Malay to serve as the next president, on the ground that no Malay had held the post in the five preceding terms.

The Presidential Election Committee later tightened the criteria, including a requirement that any candidate from the private sector must have been a senior executive of a company with at least 500 million Singapore dollars in equity, or about $371 million.

Two other Malays were considered by the commission, including Mohamed Salleh Marican, chief executive of Second Chance Properties. He had said that if he was elected, he would begin an investigation into the allegations that Mr. Lee abused his power in his dispute with his siblings. Both potential candidates were rejected on the grounds that the companies they headed were not large enough.

 President Halimah

Ms. Halimah Yacob is Singapore’s eighth president and its first woman head of state, in the country’s first presidential election reserved for candidates from the Malay community.

The 63-year-old former Speaker of Parliament was the only presidential hopeful declared eligible to contest by the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC) “Whether there is an election or not, my passion and commitment to serve the people of Singapore remain the same,” she told reporters.

Halimah Yacob, who was born to an Indian Muslim father and Malay mother, puts minority representation on agenda.

The youngest of five children, Ms. Halimah had described her childhood as a “terrible struggle” following the death of her Indian-Muslim father and family sole breadwinner. Her mother, who died in 2015, had to single-handedly raise the family by selling food on a pushcart. Halimah had studied at the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School and Tanjong Katong Girls’ School, before applying successfully to read law at the then University of Singapore.

Starting out as a lawyer, Halimah, 62, had spent over three decades in the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC). Before she became Speaker of Parliament in 2013, she had served as Minister of State at the then-Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports.

She collected her certificate of eligibility at the Elections Department in the afternoon, shortly after witnessing the election of her successor as Speaker in Parliament.

Ms. Halimah was a Member of Parliament and a leader of the People’s Action Party before giving up her seat last month to run for president. “I can only say that I promise to do the best that I can to serve the people of Singapore, and that doesn’t change whether there is an election or no election,” she told reporters Monday after she was certified as the only eligible candidate. Her campaign slogan — “Do Good, Do Together” — was widely panned as ungrammatical.

World’s attention is focused on Ms. Halimah as she will take her oath of office on Thursday, which will mark the start of her six-year term.

Despite being the establishment candidate, Ms. Yacob wears a hijab, which is banned in state schools and public sector jobs that require uniforms. But she has seldom spoken publicly on the issue and there is little sign of change in official attitudes.

 Mixed reactions

 There were three candidates for the presidency poll and they were issued certificates by the Community Committee confirming that they belong to the Malay community. After scrutiny, the PEC found only Ms. Ms. Halimah was eleigible candidate and  informed the other two – marine services firm chairman Farid Khan, 61, and property company chief executive Salleh Marican, 67 – that they did not qualify to contest. Neither had helmed a company with $500 million in shareholder equity for the most recent three years, a key threshold required for candidates relying on their private-sector experience. In rejecting his application, the six-member panel said it was unable to satisfy itself that he had “the experience and ability” comparable to a chief executive of a company of that size and complexity.

The PEC noted the shareholders’ equity of Salleh’s company, Second Chance, averaged about $258 million, a sum “considerably below the minimum” required under the Constitution.  Farid declined to disclose his company’s financials, but its value is believed to be much lower. He declined to show his letter from the PEC to the media. Both said they were disappointed not to be given the go-ahead – but thanked their families and supporters for their support over the past few months, and said they would continue to serve Singaporeans.

 Under the law, the decision of the PEC – chaired by Public Service Commission chairman Eddie Teo – is final and not subject to appeal or review in any court. The uncontested election drew mixed reactions from observers, who welcomed Madam Halimah making history as the country’s first woman president and the first Malay head of state in 47 years.

Institute of Policy Studies deputy director Gillian Koh said: “Madam Halimah is a double minority – not only is she a Malay-Muslim individual, but a female.” But Dr Koh felt “the statement of our acceptance of diversity would have been all the more powerful if there had been an open contest”.

However, political science professor Bilveer Singh of the National University of Singapore questioned the value of having a contest for a contest’s sake: “Being elected through a walkover does not undermine or delegitimize the winner.”

 For Lee, whose son, Lee Hsien Loong, is now Prime Minister, the answer to social cohesion lay in creating a culture of meritocracy, rather than adopting policies of positive discrimination to boost the chances of advancement for Singapore’s Malay and Indian minorities.

 Singapore

 Singapore officially the Republic of Singapore, is also referred to as the “Lion City”, the “Garden City” or the “Little Red Dot”, is a sovereign city-state in Southeast Asia. Singapore, an island city-state off southern Malaysia, is a global financial center with a tropical climate and multicultural population. Its colonial core centers on the Padang, a cricket field since the 1830s and now flanked by grand buildings such as City Hall, with its 18 Corinthian columns. In Singapore’s circa-1820 Chinatown stands the red-and-gold Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, said to house one of Buddha’s teeth.

 It lies one degree (137 km) north of the equator, just south of the Malay Peninsula across the Straits of Johor, with Indonesia’s Riau Islands to the south. Singapore’s territory consists of one main island along with 62 other islets. Since independence, extensive land reclamation has increased its total size by 23% (130 km2) and its greening policy has covered the densely populated island with tropical flora, parks and gardens.

 Singapore is a global commerce, finance and transport hub. Its standings include: the most “technology-ready” nation (WEF), top International-meetings city (UIA), city with “best investment potential” (BERI), second-most competitive country, third-largest foreign exchange market, third-largest financial centre, third-largest oil refining and trading centre and the second-busiest container port. The country has also been identified as a tax haven.

Singapore ranks 5th on the UN Human Development Index and the 3rd highest GDP per capita. It is ranked highly in education, healthcare, life expectancy, quality of life, personal safety and housing. Although income inequality is high, 90% of homes are owner-occupied. 38% of Singapore’s 5.6 million residents are permanent residents and other foreign nationals. There are four official languages: English (common and first language), Malay, Mandarin and Tamil, though almost all Singaporeans are bilingual.

Singapore is a unitary multiparty parliamentary republic, with a Westminster system of unicameral parliamentary government. The People’s Action Party has won every election since self-government in 1959. The dominance of the PAP, coupled with a low level of press freedom and restrictions on civil liberties and political rights, has led to Singapore being classified by some as a semi-authoritarian regime. One of the five founding members of ASEAN, Singapore is also the host of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Secretariat and a member of the East Asia Summit, Non-Aligned Movement and the Commonwealth of Nations.

Singapore is a parliamentary republic with a Westminster system of unicameral parliamentary government representing constituencies. The country’s constitution establishes a representative democracy as the political system Executive power rests with the Cabinet of Singapore, led by the Prime Minister and, to a much lesser extent, the President.[54]The President is elected through a popular vote, and has veto powers over a specific set of executive decisions, such as the use of the national reserves and the appointment of judges, but otherwise occupies a largely ceremonial post

The Parliament serves as the legislative branch of the government

Singapore’s foreign policy is aimed at maintaining security in Southeast Asia and surrounding territories. An underlying principle is political and economic stability in the region.[97] It has diplomatic relations with more than 180 sovereign states. As one of the five founding members of ASEAN,[99] it is a strong supporter of the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) and the ASEAN Investment Area, because Singapore’s economy is closely linked to that of the region as a whole.

 The separation of Singapore from Malaysia gave ethnic Malays a clear majority in Malaysia, while ethnic Chinese formed the majority in independent Singapore. Leaders of both countries, however, recognised that peace and prosperity depended on preserving harmony between the two groups. But living in a Muslim-dominated neighborhood, with Malaysia and Indonesia next door, Singapore’s leaders have long worried about the risk of conflicted loyalties among Malays.

President

The President of the Republic of Singapore is Singapore’s head of state. In a Westminster parliamentary system, as which Singapore governs itself, the prime minister is the head of the government while the president is largely ceremonial, broadly analogous to the Sovereign of the United Kingdom. A Constitutional Commission recommended changes to guarantee minority representation in the highest office in the land as well as to tighten eligibility criteria in keeping with the economy’s growth.

The President is the head of state of Singapore. The executive authority of the nation is vested in the President and exercisable by him or her or by the Cabinet or any minister authorised by the Cabinet. However, it is the Cabinet that has the general direction and control of the Government, and in most cases the President exercises powers in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet or a minister acting under the Cabinet’s general authority. The President only exercises limited powers in his or her personal discretion to block attempts by the government of the day to draw down past reserves it did not accumulate, to approve changes to key appointments, and to exercise oversight over the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau and decisions of the Executive under the Internal Security Act and the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act.. As a component of the legislature together with Parliament, the President is also jointly vested with the legislative power of Singapore.  The President usually opens each Parliamentary session with an address drafted by the Cabinet setting out the Government’s agenda for the session, and may address Parliament and send messages to it

The Constitution confers on the President certain executive functions to block attempts by the government of the day to draw down past reserves that it did not accumulate. Thus, a guarantee may only be given or a loan raised by the Government if the President concurs, and his or her approval is also needed for budgets of specified statutory boards and Government companies that draw on their past reserves.

 Before 1993, the President of Singapore was chosen by Parliament. Following constitutional amendments in 1991, the Presidency became a popularly elected office with certain custodial powers, particularly over government expenditure of the nation’s past financial reserves and key appointments to public offices. In November 2016, further amendments provide for “reserved elections” for a particular racial group (Chinese, Malay and Indian/other minority) – if that community has not been represented for five presidential terms.

 The President has been called “Singapore’s No. 1 diplomat” Ambassadors and high commissioners accredited to Singapore present their credentials to him, and he is called upon by visiting foreign leaders. In addition, he or she contributes to the nation’s external relations by undertaking overseas trips on Cabinet’s advice. Presidents have also used the office to champion charitable causes.

The first President elected by the majority of the people was Ong Teng Cheong, who served from 1 September 1993 to 31 August 1999. The office of President was created in 1965 after Singapore became a republic upon its secession from the Federation of Malaysia that year. It replaced the office of Yang di-Pertuan Negara, which had been created when Singapore attained self-government in 1959. The last Yang di-Pertuan Negara, Yusof Ishak, became the first President. After his death he was replaced by Benjamin Sheares, who served until his death in 1981, when he was succeeded by Chengara Veetil Devan Nair. Owing to personal problems, Nair stepped down in 1985 and was replaced by Wee Kim Wee, who served as President until 1993.

In January 1991, the Constitution   was amended to provide for the popular election of the President, a major constitutional and political change in Singapore’s history. Under the revision, the President is empowered to veto the use of the country’s past reserves and key civil service appointments. He or she can also examine the administration’s enforcement of the Internal Security Act and Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, and authorize corruption investigations The first popularly elected President was Ong Teng Cheong, a former cabinet minister. He served as President from 1 September 1993 to 31 August 1999.

Discrimination

There are serious elements of discrimination in Singapore against minorities in all walks of life. A government report published in 2013 found Malays felt they were sometimes discriminated against and had limited prospects in some institutions, such as the armed forces.

Malays, who form just over 13 per cent of Singapore’s 3.9 million citizens and permanent residents, also underperform on measures such as university and secondary school education.

The election of a Malay President is by itself unlikely to resolve concerns over under-representation, but analysts and advocates say it could help foster trust among communities.

Singapore’s economic success and education policies have helped swell the ranks of middle-class Malays, but the last census in 2010 showed they lagged other ethnic groups on socio-economic measures such as household incomes and home ownership.

Farid Khan, one of the unsuccessful candidates and the chairman of marine services firm Bourbon Offshore Asia, told Reuters more Malays now hold political office, and some are making their way in the corporate world, but “there is still room for improvement.”

Yet the reserved election has also injured some pride. “It cheapens the credibility of a Malay person that it requires a token election for us to be President,” said Malay comedian and television personality Hirzi Zulkiflie. “Some people intending to run are very capable.” 

Observation

A popular public figure, Ms. Halimah was widely expected to win the presidential election but rejection of other two candidates made the poll fairly easier. West like many anti-Islamic insiders might not like the Muslim woman is elected to presidency in Asia.

Singaporeans are used to predictable elections, with the same party winning every parliamentary poll in the carefully managed country’s 52-year history, last time with a landslide. It’s partly due to loyalty to the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), but also because the government tightly controls the media and political freedoms. As the head of state, the president plays a largely ceremonial role and doesn’t hold much power, apart from having say in the use of Singapore’s hefty financial reserves.

Ms Halimah, who is Muslim, is only the second president to come from the Malay ethnic minority. It’s a move that should be celebrated by Singapore, which prides itself on its multiculturalism and diversity. That’s because this election was only open to Malay candidates – the first time the government has reserved an election for a particular race. Otherwise a Muslim cannot t hope to be the elected president, especially in the present era of Islamophobia.

The government, which lauds its careful maintenance of national racial harmony, argued it was necessary to ensure minorities could have a chance at becoming president in Chinese-majority Singapore, which has always had an ethnically Chinese prime minister. But some Malays saw the move as positive discrimination that went against Singapore’s golden rule of meritocracy, which is that the best person gets the job, regardless of background. It also stirred up questions about Malay racial purity, after people realized Ms Halimah was half-Indian, and many have mocked her ethnicity. Singapore’s government has often clamped down on such unhealthy discussions, fearing it would hurt racial harmony.

After getting elected as the first ever female President Ms. Halimah said she is the president of entire Singapore as she is committed to Singapore and Singaporeans. She asked people to forget the differences and instead work on the similarities among them to make the nation achieve greater goals.

Ms. Halimah with a genuinely positive mindset has a long way to go forward to strengthen secular democracy, Singapore too!

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Visit of Chinese Foreign Minister to Southeast Asia

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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.

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The new AUKUS partnership comes at the cost of sidelining France, a key Indo-Pacific player

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Image credit: ussc.edu.au

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.

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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.

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Making sense of a rugged political terrain in the Land of Golden Pagodas

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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.

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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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