By Aparupa Bhattacharjee
Elections, national and political reconciliation within, Myanmar becoming the next ASEAN Chair, growing Chinese influences and the American pivot were the major issues of debate in Southeast Asia during 2013. To understand the changes that are expected in 2014 it is essential to have an overview of the last year from the political, economic, and foreign policy perspective.
Malaysia and Cambodia: The Elections Storm
The 13th General Election of Malaysia on 5 May was historical. Eversince 1967, for the first time, the majority party Barisan Nasional (BN) – gained less percentage of votes in comparison to the opposition party, Pakatan Rakayat. Although BN have been able to retain their position as the ruling party due to achieving 44 seats more than PR, however the results were clear indication that Malaysians are not happy with their performance. Important was the shift of loyalty of the Malaysian Chinese population towards PR instead of Malaysian Chinese Association. The reason for the shift was the ethnicity based politics, corruption scandals and failure of Prime Minister Najib Razak’s 2010 new Economic Model.
The second significant election took place in June in Cambodia. The weeks following the announcement of election results, violence prevailed in the streets of Phnom Penh, as both the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) who have been in power since Cambodian independence and the opposition party Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) claimed to have gained the majority votes. Although, the peace was reinstate after CPP formed the government, nevertheless the cold war still prevails between these two parties especial in between the two charismatic leading leaders Hun Sen and Sam Ramsay.
Political scenario in Thailand has taken a significant turn, since November 2013. The crisis started after Yingluck Shinawatra’s government tried to introduce an amnesty bill in the Parliament, this bill would have pardoned the corruption charges of Thaksin Shinawatra, and facilitated his return to Thailand from his self imposed exile in Dubai. The protest which was initiated against the bill slowly turned into anti government.
On 9 December 2013, Prime minister dissolved the lower House and declared an election for 2 February 2014. However the protestors have declared that the February election will not be a peaceful one. Several incidents have been reported whereby the candidatures for election were not allowed by the protestors to register themselves for the election. Thus, it is clear that the February election will not be an easy process for the Thais and evidently the political future of Thailand is to be decided by this year beginning.
A Peace deal was signed in between the Thai government and the Thai insurgent group, Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) in March 2013. However, this does not imply that peace was restored everywhere and there was no insurgency attack recorded. The northernmost islands of Malaysia were attacked by group of insurgent from Sulu, Philippines. Similarly, Zamboanga city of Philippines was attacked and captured by the insurgent group Moro National liberation Front (MNLF). All these incidents had questioned the success of the peace talks and peace deals.
Myanmar: National Reconciliation, Unsatisfactory Peace Deals & the Violence Against Rohingyas
The formation of United Nationalities Federation Council (UNFC) an umbrella group of 11 armed ethnic group of Myanmar meeting in order to work towards the ethnic reconciliation was hoped to bring peace in Myanmar in 2013. However, Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) refrained from singing of the ceasefire agreement that was to establish a nationwide cease fire and paved the path towards a peace accord. The KIO refrain to sign due to a confrontation with military in Laiza in February. This further delayed the peace process. Hopefully success will be achieved by UNFC in the year 2014.
The violence against the Rohingyas, minority Muslim who have been denied citizenship by Myanmar government, continued in the year 2013 also. The violence has already taken several lives and displaced many. Two of the worst recorded violent riots against Rohingyas in the year 2013, was reported in Thandwe and Meiktila. Moreover, the roles of the police who have been installed by the government in order to restore peace have been severely criticised. The Myanmar government have been undertaken several initiative in order to resolve dispute with other ethnic groups nevertheless they have not taken any concrete steps in order to resolve the violence against the Rohingyas. The government have also refuse the request by the United States and other countries to rework the 1982 constitution which denies to grant the citizenship rights to the Rohingyas. In fact Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s, the epitome of democracy in Myanmar, silence on this issue, has earned her criticism from her followers.
The Economic Decline
The economic performance of the region has been recorded poor in comparison to the last year’s performance. The GDP growth rate is approximately around 5.2 percentages for this year. The two countries that are worst affected is Indonesia and Thailand. The high inflation and falling export prices have resulted to weak economic growth by Indonesia. In fact, the Indonesian stock exchange has recorded the first yearly loss since 2008, in last year.
Several protests have been reported in Indonesia for the demand of higher minimum wage. All these factors will certainly have its impact on the presidential election this year. Thailand’s economy has been hampered due to the political instability, if continued it might also impact the foreign investments in this year. Interestingly, both Cambodia and Laos have reported a stable economic growth the credit for which should be accounted to the Chinese investments and support to both these countries.
Chinese Influence and the American Pivot
Growing Chinese influence through trade, aids, bilateral treaties and private investment, on most of the Southeast Asian countries was a noticeable factor for the whole world. Moreover, Chinese President Xi Jinping made his first visit to Southeast Asia in October 2013. He visited Malaysia, Indonesia and Bali, where Xi Jinping have attended 21st informal economic leaders’ meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. His visit to region was seen as a milestone in strengthening the relation and reassurance of Chinese commitment of peacefully negotiating the tension over the South China Sea. However, China’s declaration of an air-defence identification zone (ADIZ) over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands has recreated the suspicion against the Chinese move in Southeast Asia. The US involvement has also been a growing aspect, becoming prominent by the increase in number of American ships deployed in Northern Australia, Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries. Typhoon Haiyan hit Philippines have received a huge financial aid from US unlike China who did not play any significant role in assisting Philippines. Nevertheless, the question remains that whether this growing US pivot can negate the Chinese effect or not, can be answered by time.
Early this year will witness the general election in Thailand which has been scheduled in 2 February 2014, this election will be crucial for the political future of Thailand. Presidential election is also scheduled for this year in Indonesia; it will be an interesting to note the new President’s strategy to restore the national economy.
Myanmar who is the ASEAN chair for the year 2014, is also expecting crucial political changes. The committee considering amendments of the Myanmar’s constitution will submit its report. These amendments will pave the way to the next general election in 2015 and also involves the stake of all the ethnic groups in Myanmar who are demanding for a federal political system that will give ethnic states greater autonomy.
2014 will definitely be an eventful year for Southeast Asia.
Research Officer, IPCS
About the author: IPCS
IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.