POLITICS in South-East Asia is in a state of flux, if the trends in a few key countries in the region are indicative of some new thinking here and some old habits there.
On the positive side, Malaysias March 8 snap general elections can in fact lead to a paradigm shift in its governance-related politics if the parties concerned are able to rise above the routine calculations of losses and gains and seize the moment. The poll results, if interpreted as a qualitative signpost for the future instead of as a zero-sum game of conventional parliamentary arithmetic, indicate the possibility of transforming Malaysia into an organic and multiracial whole consisting of various ethnic groups.
Currently, the country is governed as if it were a political patchwork of ethnic communities. The Merdeka (freedom) compact among the independence-era leaders of the Malays as also ethnic Chinese and Indian-origin people has certainly ensured Malaysias political stability and macro-level economic dynamism in the five decades since the exit of the British colonial master. However, the votes for the parties espousing opposition to race-based politics show that the original compact could perhaps be refined without being undermined, more so to meet the present ethno-economic ground realities.
In Thailand, the military forces and their nominated government with a civilian streak have not only quit the stage after last Decembers democracy-restoring elections but also allowed the government, led by Samak Sundaravej, to begin work autonomously. Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed as Prime Minister in the September 2006 military coup when he was away at the United Nations, has now found it expedient to return to Thailand by ending his self-imposed exile.
Critics believe that Thaksins return became possible only because Samak, his one-time protege, assumed office as Prime Minister on the basis of the elections. Contrary to speculation, the cases of alleged corruption and cronyism slapped on Thaksin by the previous military ruler, have not been scrapped. Thaksin, who is still able to evoke popular adulation, especially among the poor, has been asked by the new authorities first to clear his name. Regardless of the compulsions of Samak and Thaksin to go through this process, there now exists a new window of opportunity to re-establish the primacy of rule of law, which suffered under the coup leaders.
The lingering question certainly is whether the military-imposed laws and the military-initiated legal proceedings should at all run their course. However, this issue, too, can perhaps be sorted out in the new ambience of openness, if the players concerned so intend.
On a different plane in Thailands neighbourhood, military-ruled Myanmar is determined to prove how immune it can remain to democracy. This message has been conveyed to the U.N. Special Envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, who drew a blank during his latest visit to Myanmar on issues relating to its announcements to hold a referendum on a new Constitution and conduct follow-up general elections.
In democratic Philippines, rumours of coup plots and a continuing political discourse centred on the legitimacy of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyos rule are rarely off centre stage.
Indonesia, increasingly being recognised as the worlds third most-populous democracy, is beginning to put national interest above any thoughts of being a regional leader on issues such as air pollution. However, democracy of the non-military kind, howsoever defined, remains the dominant theme in these two culturally different countries.P.S. Suryanarayana