2015: A critical year for Southeast Asia

2015: A critical year for Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia in 2015 saw deeper regional integration, infrastructure development is set to flourish, and historic elections were held in Myanmar. But the Thai Junta government has prolonged its grip on power, human rights records deteriorated in several countries, and several Southeast Asian national leaders are hit by corruption allegations.

Regional integration and infrastructure development gain high momentum

2015 was a key year for regional integration, where many Southeast Asian countries became members of a few new multilateral agreements.

Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam have become the members of the US-led TPP, all ten members of the ASEAN countries have joined the China-led AIIB bank. The regional bloc also inked an agreement to create the ASEAN Economic Community, which will be launched on 31 December this year.

The 21st century trade agreement,’ TPP, could bring significant progressive reforms to Southeast Asian member states’ financial and social systems. The AEC is a major step towards further cooperation and integration that could see greater movement of goods, services and labours, and the creation of one of the biggest economies in the world.

The AIIB, which is expected to come into operation in mid-January 2016, will help to fund many of the infrastructure projects such as roads and railways that are much needed for the region, and improve its connectivity.

Landmark elections held in Myanmar, Thai Junta prolonged the military regime

Many would agree that the most notable event of the year in Southeast Asia was Myanmar’s historic poll, which saw liberal Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party gain a landslide victory. The actual power transition will have to wait until spring 2016, but it is a significant event for the democratic development for the country, which was ruled by military for decades and by a quasi-civilian government for five years.

So far, signs have been positive and the transfer of power is likely to be peaceful, and a reversion of the election results is unlikely as in the case of 1990.

Thailand, on the other hand, delayed the long-promised elections repeatedly with no sight of return to democracy within the foreseeable future. The first original poll date was set for October 2015, but the elections have been delayed at least until mid 2017 after the Junta-appointed National Reform Council voted down the draft constitution written by the military appointed constitution draft committee.

Political struggle between the military and pro-democracy supporters continued throughout the year. Crackdown on political opposition and dissents increased and small scale of protests also took place throughout the country. The Junta government, however, has done little to improve the economy. Its 2015 growth figure was revised down three times from 3.8% to 3.0%.

Human rights records deteriorated as governments increase crackdowns on oppositions and dissenters

If the regional integration and historic poll in Myanmar are signs of the region moving towards liberalization, deterioration of human rights records in the region is a step backward. Freedom of expressions and associations in Thailand has been undermined under the Junta-led government.

Crackdowns on political opposition have increased and dissenters have been thrown into jail. The government has created fear and social instability in the country with a series of purges, and have used the lese majestere (insulting the monarchy) charges broadly; the recent charge against a Thailand worker is the latest example of how the law is being abused to protect the monarchy and limit freedom of speech.

A similar situation is occurring in Malaysia, where the government has used the Sedition Act to arrest critics. Media crackdowns has also widened as the troubled state-funded 1MDB scandals unfolds. The graft allegations have also led to several small scale protests.

In Myanmar, Amnesty International also reported that people who criticize the leaders also subjects to increasing risk of punishment. Not to mention that Myanmar’s Rohingya boat people continue to suffer oppression in the Buddhist majority nation and were excluded from participating in the November elections.

With the liberal NLD expecting to take office next year, the population and the international community looks to Aung San Suu Kyi to address the human rights issues and her government to ratify key human rights treaties.

Crackdowns on opposition also intensify in Cambodia where the leading party jailed opposition activists in July and opposition CNRP lawmakers were attacked in October. Political strife is rising and could lead to a new wave of political violence.

Several major corruption scandals undermined leadership creditability, social stability and investor confidence

While corruption is an ongoing issue of the region, some of the Southeast Asian national leaders are engulfed in massive corruption allegations. The most well-known graft scandal of the region is the ongoing Malaysia’s 1MDB disaster, in which the Prime Minister Najib is accused of accepting $700 million from the state-owned company. The allegation has undermined his credibility and leadership, and his close allies have called for his resignation.

In the Philippines, Jejomar Binary, the vice president and also a leading presidential candidate for the country’s 2016 general election, is also entangled in a series of corruption allegations that happened when he was mayor of Makati City. While Binary claimed the accusations were politically-motivated to disqualify him from the presidential candidacy, the public is not so convinced as showed by his declining trust ratings.

The recent allegations of corruption of the Thai Junta involved in the Rajabhakti Park scandal is a new blow to the military government’s credibility of tackling corruption, which it vowed to do when it seized power a year ago after a military coup.

The military-funded park was built to honour the king and reinforce the monarchy, but the project came under attacks in last month after the financing of the tall bronze statues in the public park being questioned, as well as reports revealing payouts to army colonel as middlemen. The controversy around the public park raises the question of how far the Junta is keeping its promise to deliver a ‘clean’ state and anti-Junta sentiment is on the raise.  

Finally, House of Representatives speaker Setya Novanto of Indonesia allegedly demanded 20 percent company shares worth $1.8 billion from PT Freeport Indonesia, a global mining company, in order to secure an extension of its contract. The speaker has rejected the allegations, saying that he made the request with President Jokowi Widodo’s permission, which the president has strongly denied. The Speaker has resigned amid the increasing mounting public pressure that has called him to step down.

The recent scandal that has surfaced after the oil giant revealed an 80-minute recorded conversation has been one of the biggest in Indonesia’s history. However, the country is well-known for tolerating corruption and Mr. Novanto is unlikely to receive severe criminal investigation. In fact, it was the mining company that has received the strongest criticisms from the government.

The persistent graft scandals that involved national leaders and influential figures of national leading parties will continue to erode investor confidence in the region.  

About Author

Qingzhen Chen

Qingzhen is a GRI Senior Analyst and a research analyst for an international information company. Her research focuses on China and the Asia Pacific. Previously she was a market researcher for PwC. She has gained regional knowledge from internships with the UNDP, China Policy, and the Royal United Services Institute. She holds a BA in Politics and East European Studies and an MSc in Security Studies from University College London.