Popular Uprisings in Southeast Asia: Is there an Egypt or Tunisia in the Region?

Southeast Asia is unlikely to see an Egyptian-style popular protest leading to regime change in the near future, though it still offers lessons to the current wave of uprisings taking place across the Middle East and North Africa, said Southeast Asia expert Catharin Dalpino at a public lecture organized by the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at George Washington University.

Catharin Dalpino, who is also an Adjunct Professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at GWU, outlined five main reasons that the recent experience of Tunisia and Egypt will not be replicated in Southeast Asia:

  • The region is not prone to contagion effects. Historical experience shows that political disturbances in one country have had limited impact beyond borders. Even during the Vietnam War, the ripple effect extended only to Cambodia and Laos, despite what the domino theory of the time had predicted.
  • Southeast Asian countries have little in common. Whereas the Middle Eastern and North African countries generally share an anti-Western sentiment, there is no such “regional angst” in Southeast Asia, said Dalpino. In contrast, Southeast Asia is “more at peace with itself and the outside world than ever before.” However, it is possible that anti-China sentiments are brewing in the region, as seen by recent tensions over China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, or reactions to China’s economic maneuvers throughout the region.
  • Most of the tenured political leaders have already left office, and thus there is no longer an individual in Southeast Asia whose prolonged rule would provide a focal point for a popular uprising, as did Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s 30 years in office. Even in Southeast Asian countries where the political system remains authoritarian, there has already been some transition of power. Instead, what now characterizes the political landscape is the dominance of dynasties and oligarchies of power, yet “people don’t seem too bothered” by this persistence of “inherited power,” said Dalpino. The only current leader who is more akin to Mubarak would be Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia, but Hun Sen’s leadership is one that has endured several political shifts and coalitions.
  • Socioeconomic conditions have improved. Whereas a high rate of unemployment has been cited as one of the factors that sparked the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the socioeconomic conditions in Southeast Asia are generally better than that in the Middle East and North Africa. Although many people are still poor, most of them have seen enough improvement economically over the recent years.
  • Political Islam is integrated into mainstream politics. On the question of political participation of Islamist groups, Southeast Asia’s response has been to “let them into the tent,” said Dalpino. In Malaysia, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party has been a serious contender in elections. On the other hand, Indonesia’s approach has been to marginalize the radical Islamist parties, while incorporating some of their platforms into the mainstream parties.

Dalpino further pointed out that many of the revolts in Southeast Asia have been organized around elections, whereas the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were not timed with an electoral cycle. She said this suggests that semi-authoritarian countries with dominant party regimes might be more vulnerable than strictly authoritarian or more democratic ones. In other words, it is the people’s “dashed expectations” that are the spark of popular discontent and mass reactions. In this context, Dalpino identified Myanmar as a plausible candidate for further uprisings, as it remains to be seen how much power-sharing will be allowed in light of the country’s recent elections and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Finally, the wave of popular uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa could draw a lesson from Southeast Asia. Citing the examples of Thailand and the Philippines, both of which have seen repeated mass movements challenging the ruling regime, Dalpino warned that “people power revolts can be habit-forming” but do not necessarily lead to substantive change. “People power can open the door to reform, but doesn’t constitute reform,” she concluded.

Catharin Dalpino is currently the Joan M. Warburg Professor of International Relations at Simmons College; Visiting Scholar in Southeast Asian Studies, John Hopkins/SAIS; Adjunct Professor, Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University; and Nonresident Senior Fellow, The Atlantic Council of the United States.  A former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, she has also been a Fellow at the Brookings Institution; a Resident Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and a career officer with The Asia Foundation.  She specializes in political development and security in Southeast Asia, and is a frequent media commentator and editor of several articles and op-eds on US policy in Southeast Asia.

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About risingpowers
Sigur Center for Asian Studies Elliott School of International Affairs The George Washington University

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