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Challenges before the New Governments in Southeast Asia

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  • May 06, 2016

    The political systems in Southeast Asia often come under denunciation for not being capable enough to uphold the basic democratic rights. Questions may be asked about the governance in the region and whether it is transparent and accountable to its own people (Gonzalez)

    In this given context, it would be worth to watch the challenges faced by the new governments that recently came into power in Southeast Asia or is expected to take over very soon. Vietnam and Myanmar fall under the first category as shift in power just happened in both these countries and Philippines comes under the second sort as it will undergo a change in power in the coming months.

    The political system of Vietnam is such that its people do not enjoy the right to directly elect its prime minister and president. The Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) holds a national level congress in every five years where its delegates (1510 in number) participates and elects 180 members for the party’s central committee and 16 members for its politburo. Politburo of the VCP is the strongest political organisation in Vietnam. It elects the party’s general secretary, the most powerful person in Vietnam. This year, in the 12th National Congress in January 2016 the party chose Nguyen Xuan Phuc (who was earlier Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s deputy) as the new premier, Public Security minister Tran Dai Quang as president (which is more or less a ceremonial position) and Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan as the speaker of the House.

    Nguyen Phu Trong was re-elected as the chief of the party for a second term at the January congress. Alexander L. Vuving believes that re-election of Trong would usher in a new era in Vietnam, but in ‘small steps’.

    However, critics are of the opinion that the former Premier Dung was a reformer and considered as a business friendly leader in the US; thereby was useful for many economic interests. Trong, on the other hand, is a conservative leader and also reflected as a pro-China forerunner. Another observation is, though Trong maintains a pro-China stand in public, he has the capacity to take a firmer position against China’s assertive positions on disputed South China Sea islands if required. Trong has also launched an anti-corruption agenda in Vietnam during his first tenure as the party’s general secretary. Therefore, it is to be watched whether Trong will maintain a fine balance between the US and China in matters relating to South China Sea and not letting the big powers considering Vietnam as a pawn in their hands in their great game rivalry in the Asia Pacific. The other question remains, what will be the future of individual freedom (primarily driven by the internet revolution) with the conservative leadership coming to power in Vietnam? (Oliver Holmes)

    Contrary to the political system in Vietnam which is a one -party system, Philippines has a multi-party system. The election in Philippines is scheduled to be held on 9 May. The next President of the Philippines will be Benigno Aquino III’s successor who cannot continue as the president for the second term, as observed in the constitution. The five candidates for this year’s presidential election are as follows; Grace Poe (47)- she is one-term senator and an adopted daughter of a movie star; Mar Roxas (58)- he was educated in the US and grandchild of a late president; Jejomar Binay (73)-he is a Vice-President and former mayor of Makati, the Wall Street of Philippines; Miriam Santiago (70)-he has experience in politics and has worked in government agencies and departments for years; and finally, Rodrigo Duterte, a mayor known as “Dirty Harry” and is known for his harsh anti-crime drives during his tenure as a mayor. Few observers express that either Grace Poe or Duterte is likely to win the race. (Avantika Chilkoti)

    Poe represents aspirations of the new generation and change on the one hand and on the other, Duterte is accused for being unforgiving towards criminals and his sexist comments during his election campaigns have already raised concerns in the Filipino society. Coming to the challenges the new president will have to face as a legacy of Aquino, one may note that despite his fanciful relations with World Bank and other international organisations for his pro-Bretton Woods principles and relative economic growth in the country, President Benigno is censured by his critics for not giving proper attention to the core economic problem of Philippines, i.e. poverty.

    Huge traffic, the question of resettlement of the Islamic extremists and corruption are other domestic concerns that should be addressed by the new president. The strained relations with China would be one of the major foreign policy agenda for the new government in Philippines. The arbitration case Manila has filed against China is expected to be settled by this year too. However, China has repeatedly mentioned that the tribunal court at The hague has no jurisdiction to settle a dispute in a territory which comes under its national border. Having said that, it must be remembered that few days back China’s ministry of foreign affairs spokesperson, Hua Chunying, criticised the US for being “instigating” towards Manila in the territorial disputes in South China Sea which only reiterates China’s dislike for any outside power involvement in the South China Sea dispute. (PTI)

    Followed by the November 2015 election where the National League for Democracy (NLD) obtained a swiping majority in the parliament (255 seats in Pyithu Hluttaw and 135 seats in Amyotha Hluttaw), Myanmar elected Htin Kyaw as the first ever civilian president of the country in five decades. Though, critics are often arguing that Htin Kyaw would be a shadow of Daw Aung Saan Suu Kyi, who is the new foreign minister in Myanmar.

    However, under the leadership of Suu Kyi and Htin Kyaw, Myanmar will hopefully experience a dawn of economic opportunities, civil rights and individual freedom. However, the new government in Myanmar will have to face a tough time in an order to fulfil its ambitions. First, only eight of the 18 armed ethnic groups took part in the nation -wide ceasefire agreement signed under former President Thein Sein. The NLD government will have to be cautious in its approach towards other ethnic groups and their armed wings as it surely wants to end the decades-old ethnic unrest in the country.

    Second, the 2008 constitution of Myanmar which is still functional needs to be amended in order to facilitate Suu Kyi becoming the president herself. However, to do that, she has to confirm support from the Tatmadaw which is still enjoying 25% reservations in the parliament. Besides, the armed forces still occupy important folios like defence, home affairs and border affairs. Henceforth, for a smoother administration and governance, Suu Kyi and Htin Kyaw would have to ensure constant support from the military and this may force the NLD government to compromise on certain issues where conflict of interests emerge between the armed forces and democratic values. Resettlement of the former political prisoners and surrendered ethnic nationalities, freedom for media, economic freedom for all Myanmarese, the fate of the Rohingyas, trafficking, corruption and nepotism are only few domestic issues which require urgent attention from the new government. At the external level too, challenges are of varying degrees. To note the most important ones, Myanmar’s relations with China and Myanmar’s relations with rest of ASEAN should be factored in the new government’s foreign policy.

    The suspension of Myitsone dam and the recent hiccup caused by the illegal movement of the Kokang refugees from Myanmar to China have already created an environment of mistrust in China-Myanmar bilateral relations. During the Junta rule, China was Myanmar’s stronger supporter and hence, though both Suu Kyi and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi spoke about paukphaw friendship between the two sides in their meeting on April 7 (Michelle Guanzon) critics have their reservations about the future of this traditional friendship. Given the fact that Myanmar is now opening to the global market and not any more dependent on China for each and every economic necessity, it is expected that Myanmar will only diversify its sources of foreign investments. Its foreign policy too, will see more dynamism now rather than just being influenced by the Chinese. In addition, with Suu Kyi as the foreign ministry holder of Myanmar, the country’s relations with ASEAN too may experience some more ups and downs now. It may be remembered that in her early political life, she was not very welcoming towards ASEAN. A recent report by Kavi Chongkittavorn in The Straits Times has advised Ms. Suu Kyi to be ‘patient’ and ‘humble’ with ASEAN and mentioned that her international vision will be valuable for ASEAN. (Kavi)

    The same author further reiterates,

    “…although she is “above the president” in Myanmar, that does not mean she is above “all the Asean ministers” when she attends the AMM in July in Vientiane; there are certain protocols and procedures she has to follow. It is incumbent on her to separate her roles as foreign minister and as state counsellor in the discussions and decision-making” (Kavi)

    At the end, it may be said that Southeast Asia is gaining new importance in the world affairs by its economic accomplishments, large market potential, geo-politics around South China Sea, formation of the ASEAN Community and its stakes in mega trade blocs as well as mega regional security mechanisms. Since the US has embarked on its ‘Pivot’ policy and Indo-Pacific has become a matter of strategic discussions, Southeast Asia can no longer be side-lined in the international geo-politics. The new governments in Southeast Asia need to understand the global significance of the region vis-à-vis the countries and act accordingly. They are expected to act wisely so that a balance between the domestic and country specific interests find a convergence with the larger international interests.

    The article was originally published in The Dialogue.

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