Southeast Asian Summary: September 6-9, 2021

Both the South China Sea and Afghanistan have largely fallen by the wayside as objects of focus in Southeast Asian commentary in recent days.

China good, bad, and indifferent

In Singapore, the interest has mostly been expressed in the reprint of FT columns concerning China’s ideological transformations rather than regional issues. For example, The Chinese control revolution: Maoist echoes of Xi’s power play and Xi’s digital blueprint for governing China in The Straits Times.

In Thailand, more attention is being paid to China’s role in Thailand, with some—particularly among the anti-establishment elements—continuing to accuse China of interfering in Thai domestic disputes. Questioning the procurement of Sinovac and other pandemic-related materiel from China invites retaliation by both Chinese representatives and members of the Thai establishment, according to some. The Bangkok Post enthuses about the growing connections between Thailand and China yet also slyly points to some of the reasons young Chinese are attracted to Thailand: “Buddhism, cool Thailand and LGBT tolerance have been cited as prominent Thai cultural assets that attracted the Chinese.” Some of these elements have become strictly taboo in China in recent weeks. Others have been taboo for longer: “social media has also reached out to Thai young people with knowledge and perceptions of China in the most extraordinary ways, which are different from conventional thinking. Indeed, the Milk Tea Alliance movement is a good case study.”

Another piece in The Bangkok Post mentions Chinese infrastructure ambitions along the Myanmar-Thai border, how this might intensify fighting on the Myanmar side, and how Thailand’s ruling PPRP party seems eager for China to fund dams on their side of the border as well.

The Irrawaddy, seeming to confirm rumors that China has been putting pressure on the Myanmar junta to give the deposed NLD breathing room, reports “The CPC is planning to hold a virtual meeting with political parties from Southeast and South Asia on Thursday. The party has invited four out of Myanmar’s 93 political parties, including the NLD. The invitation can be seen as Beijing’s official recognition of the NLD despite attempts by Myanmar’s regime to dissolve it.” Could China succeed in Afghanistan and Myanmar where the West (and ASEAN) have failed? In yesterday’s summary we noted how China warned the West about backing the pro-democracy uprising.

The Phnom Penh Post reports on the Chinese foreign minister’s recently announced upcoming visits to Vietnam, Singapore, South Korea, and Cambodia. He will be “Promoting a new development paradigm under BRI framework will be another main agenda of the visit,” an official said. This is a reference to “China’s practice of foregoing…intrusive and demanding requirements regarding the internal policies of developing countries it provides aid to, in contrast to the US and EU’s traditional insistence …[on] democratic governance, civil liberties and human rights.”

VietnamPlus reported a meeting between Vietnamese and Chinese officials, during which the Vietnamese side expressed its hope in “maintaining a peaceful environment conductive to each side’s development, and properly settling differences, including issues at sea, by peaceful means in line with international law.”

In The Jakarta Post, a former Indonesian diplomat enthused about the contributions the Chinese leadership could make to “global governance”. “One particularly important area of participation is for China to play a role as a peacemaker; namely, to play a role in conflict mediation and resolution. China’s influence would help to mediate internal conflicts in many countries. Of course, China is cautious about this role due to its commitment to the principle of non-interference.”

In the Philippines, an article again questioned why President Duterte assured Xi Jinping that the country would remain “neutral” in any future regional conflicts despite having a Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States. The author questioned whether the Duterte was looking to make the Philippines “the 24th province”.

And, Radio Free Asia reports that some Laos officials are uncomfortable with the alleged unequal benefits of Chinese investment in the country, not to mention that country’s increasing debt load.

Terror

There continues to be concern about Islamist terrorism in the region, especially Indonesia, since the Taliban victory. A piece in The Jakarta Post written by a former jihadi dissects the two maintain organizations of concern: Jamaah Islamiyah (JI) and Jamaah Ansharud Daulah (JAD), a local affiliate of Islamic State (IS). The latter is more likely to engage in violent attacks in the short-term but lacks ideological stamina while the former has a more complex and disciplined organization, is better integrated into Indonesian society, and thus makes for a more formidable long-term threat.

Indonesia

The Jakarta Post  questions the wisdom of going on with Indonesia’s National Games in October both because of the raging pandemic and unrest in Papua where the games are to be held.

Another piece there considers the legacy of Suharto in Indonesia, concluding with reflections on how many New Order apparatchiks have survived and thrived in a democratic Indonesia and the extent to which President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo ‘threatens’ Indonesia’s “fragile democracy”.

Duterte, Isko, and the fate of Philippine populism

All of a sudden, Duterte looks frail, and rumors about a rift between father and daughter Duterte look to be true. Sara Duterte announced her unwillingness to run for president shortly after her father announced that he would run for VP. Meanwhile, the allegations and insinuations of corruption in the Duterte administration’s procurement of COVID-related materiel have, according to some, caused permanent damage to his power and prestige. This is particularly pronounced in the Senate, where he is said to have gone from a supermajority to a minority of support, not only for any of these particular issues, but his questioning the Senate’s authority to investigate such issues. This is causing increased resistance to Duterte’s pronouncements not only in the Senate but among technocrats and the broader political class.

One writer asks if the young, reform-minded, technocratic, populist Manila mayor Isko Moreno might not only be less heir to Duterte’s rude and abrasive populism than Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s “polite populism”.

Malay-Muslim supremacy

The replacement of a Malay-Muslim Bersatu-UMNO-PAS government with a Malay-Muslim UMNO-Bersatu-PAS government built on a legislature that had seemed to have been elected for the express purpose of getting UMNO out of power has left opposition-supporters and reformists steamed. The opposition Pakatan Harapan attempt to have to have the newly appointed PM be subjected to a confidence vote has floundered and caused them to be accused of obstructionism.

The deeper problem, as some see it, of Malay-Muslim supremacy is as extreme as ever, the ethnic minority parties are a party to this supremacy, and demography is working against them. Numerous articles explore the ethnic question in Malaysian politics. One piece looks at the competition between Bersatu and UMNO within the Malay voting bloc. According to it, Bersatu is as strong and well-placed as ever going into the next election, despite having had its PM ingloriously booted out of office.

Thailand

PM Prayut, having been weakened by the recent censure debate, is expected by some to reshuffle his cabinet in response while protests burn brighter in response to the lack of democratic response, says a piece in ThaiPBS.

A question on many minds seems to be, Just how revolutionary are the protesting Thai youths? The answer, although not clear, seems to be that they are not as anti-monarchist as the establishment fear or the republicans hope. Interviews among the Talu Gas Group, allegedly the most violent group, suggest that they are themselves divided on the monarchy. A piece in The Thai Enquirer partly blames the US’s Cold War anti-communist efforts in Thailand for today’s mess. Having linked the monarchy with anti-communism, this radicalized Thailand in a manner similar to US anti-Soviet tactics radicalized Afghans in their war.

One piece in The Bangkok Post describes how the Thai establishment is again trying to undermine protesters by focusing on a ‘virtue campaign’, with the idea being that once virtue is established, then Thailand will finally be ready for a more complete democracy. The question is, Who defines “virtue”?

Senator Sirina Pavarolarvidya, the chairperson of the sub-committee on ethics, reported on the annual progress of the national strategy and the country’s reform plan. She attributed the current social conflict to the generation gap and proposed that the virtuous council be established to provide role models for every sector of society. For her, ethics that define Thais encompass five moral principles — gratitude, discipline, honesty, sufficiency, and a volunteer spirit — which are born out of the love for nation, religion, and king. She also called for the government to invest in human resources by promoting the public health system and sports.

This has echoes not only of previous Thai political-moral campaigns but China’s drive for greater adherence to Chinese communist/Confucian norms and “sports”.

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