BANGKOK — Most of Southeast Asia has experienced military rule at some stage since the colonial era ended, and the political role of the region’s military institutions has shaped and influenced politics right up to the present day. The often-decisive interventions of the military in national politics have restricted the development of democracy, freedom of speech and human rights in many countries. In 2008, of the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), only Indonesia was deemed a fully free country by the US-based Freedom House, an NGO that monitors democracy and human rights. Implicitly, a behind-the-scenes power-brokering process played by powerful military elites in Southeast Asian countries is a key factor in inhibiting democratic development across the region. At a September conference at the Institute for Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, these issues were discussed by scholars examining civil-military relations in Burma, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. In Southeast Asia, Burma stands out, however, due to the longevity of military rule and the entrenchment of the army in all sectors of society and the economy. ISIS Director Thitinan Pongsudhirak remarked that in 1960, Burma was a democracy, having the highest GDP per capita in the region and with a relatively-advanced economy and noted education sector. However, these days, the entrenchment of military rule is so thorough, it is more appropriate to use the term “military-civil relations,” according to Win Min, a Thailand-based Burmese scholar.
DILI — Adrian Vickers, professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Sydney, told ISN Security Watch that for the most part, “the elections went off without a hitch, and more importantly (except for Aceh and Papua), without violence, so people are getting more used to the processes of democracy.” Running an election across such as vast and variegated country is not easy, and some claims of irregularities have emerged. However, in the main, the system seems to be working and at the macro-level, is helping maintain a stable Indonesia. Sunny Tanuwidjaja is an Indonesia analyst at Jakarta’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies. He described some of the democratic teething problems in Southeast Asia’s largest country to ISN Security Watch: “We have a lot of homework to do on issues such as religious freedom/pluralism, weak accountability mechanism between voters and the elected leaders, and lastly the technical aspects of the election have been badly managed by the General Election Commission.”