SINGAPORE - Malaysia and Thailand are two of south-east Asia's most prosperous middle-income states, whose relatively-stable recent histories compared well volatile neighbors such as Indonesia, Philippines or Burma. However, these resource-rich tourist havens are stuck in debilitating, if sometimes farcical, political stand-offs. Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej was dismissed from office on September 9, and Malaysian counterpart Abdullah Badawi looks vulnerable.
Bridget Welsh is Assistant Professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. She told The Washington Times that although the Thai and Malaysian crises differ, both feature“political instability, elite conflict, and a turning away by leaders from policymaking needs.
In Thailand, People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protestors have occupied government buildings since August 26, with a state of emergency declared in Bangkok after clashes with government supporters. However PAD has not attained the same level of public support raised in 2006, when protests against then-PM Thaksin Shinawatra part-prompted the military coup that ultimately deposed the incumbent.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak is Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Thailand's Chulalongkorn University. He told The Washington Times that
“This time PAD resorted to physical force by breaching state agency walls. In other civilized countries, such an unlawful provocation would have been met with swift enforcement of the law, but this has been met with tame official responses.”
PAD is led by media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul, who was quoted by the Asia Times Online, during the early stages of the protests, as calling for 70% of Thai MPs to be appointed, and saying “democracy is still a Western export”. Bridget Welsh sees this as a major difference between Thailand and Malaysia, where the opposition is still “a democracy effort with an anti-corruption and better governance push.
Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has, for now at least, overcome ongoing sodomy allegations – after previously spending 6 years in jail for the same crime, a conviction later overturned – to seek Abdullah's ouster.
Anwar set a symbolically-charged September 16 deadline for a parliament vote of no-confidence in the PM. He needed 30 pro-government MPs to defect if he was to remove Abdullah That deadline slipped, not least because the government sent over 50 parliamentarians to Taiwan on what was termed a “study trip”, during September 9-20.
Anwar wants backing from MPs representing eastern Sabah and Sarawak provinces, which joined Malaysia on September 16 1963, almost 6 years after peninsular British Malaya left imperial rule behind. These provinces, which sit on the island of Borneo, have substantial oil and gas reserves, and have been calling for an increase in oil royalties from 5% to 20%, to allow them address local needs. 54 of Abdullah's shaky coalition of 140 MPs come from these provinces.
Anwar's drive to power comes on the back of Malaysia's March 2008 elections, when the ruling National Front coalition, made up of 14 parties, but dominated by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), lost its 2/3s majority in parliament for the first time.
In the run-up to the polls, racial and religious issues were to the fore, risking instability in the multiethnic state. Images of UMNO grandees, including Education Minister Hishammuddin Hussein waving the keris - a traditional Malay dagger - at party rallies, were regarded as chauvinistic threats by Chinese and Indian Malays.
Bridget Welsh said
“Abdullah has sidelined and excluded the non-Malay component parties, weakening them and undermining their public support through his mismanagement of racial issues and pro-Malay favoritism.”
Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad was elected to the Selangor state assembly in March 2008 for Anwar's People's Justice party. The 26 year-old is youngest ever elected representative in Malaysian political history. He told The Washington Times that
“Issues of marginalization and corruption affect Malaysia's race-based affirmative action policy or NEP, which supposedly benefits Malays but only end up benefiting the Malay elite.”
Malaysia's NEP (New Economic Policy) was set up after race riots in 1969 left almost 1000 dead, mostly ethnic Chinese, and was meant to boost ethnic Malays economic profile. Malays make up around 60% of the population but were perceived as disadvantaged compared with Chinese and Tamil Indian minorities, around 25% and 8% of Malaysians respectively. Malays are Muslim, while Chinese and Indians are mostly Christian and Hindu.
As Anwar moved to oust Abdullah, in Bangkok, Samak was removed on September 9 - not by the army, or parliamentary opposition, but by the newly-assertive Thai judiciary, which ruled his role as a TV chef amounted to a conflict of interest with his executive duties.
That decision however, has not placated PAD, who see replacement PM Somchai Wongsawat as another Thaksin puppet. Somchai is Thaksin's brother-in-law, continuing a trend established during Thaksin's tenure, when he made his cousin Chaisit army chief, a faux-pas with the Generals that provoked the 2006 coup. Thaksin is now self-exiled in the UK, with various corruption cases awaiting him should he return home.
Thailand's army has not overtly intervened in the current stand-off, but with tourist numbers down and the value of the Thai stock exchange sliding, much more political strife may be untenable to the unusually-recalcitrant generals.
As Thitinan Pongsudhirak put it to The Washington Times
“Over the past three years, Thai politics has degenerated from the tyranny of a majority under Thaksin to that of a minority led by PAD.”
Meanwhile in Malaysia, the government has deployed a notorious colonial-era statute called the Internal Security Act (ISA), detaining minority activists and media critics indefinitely and without trial, including a number of prominent Hindu lawyers and, for a week, opposition MP Teresa Kok. On September 22 prominent anti-government writer Raja Petra Kamaudin was jailed for 2 years under the ISA, after he 'ridiculed Islam', according to justice minister Sayid Hamid Albar.
US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the detention of opposition figures under the ISA would be viewed by the US and the international community as a 'fundamental infringement of democratic rights and values'.
On September 17 Abdullah described Anwar as “ a threat to national security”, a veiled hint that the ISA could be used against the opposition leader. Abdullah is not invulnerable however. Four UMNO government ministers spoke out against Abdullah at a party meeting, and Mahathir Mohamed, who led Malaysia from 1981 to 2003, left UMNO in June, widely seen as a slight on Abdullah after the election result.
Dr Ooi Kee Beng is a Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. One way out of Malaysia's impasse may be if Abdullah resigns:
“ This would lessen the risk of MPs jumping ship. If government MPs feel that the coalition will stay in power until the next general elections, and will have the drive to reform itself, they may take the safer road and stay loyal to it.”
Whether that is enough for the Anwar-led opposition remains to be seen. Ahmad told The Washington Times that if Abdullah hands over to a party colleague, it 'will only be more of the same”.