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Contemporary Political Trends in Southeast Asia: An Overview

Updated on January 9, 2016

Political trends in Southeast Asia

The contemporary political trends that can be witnessed in Southeast Asia are a result of the region's various experiences regarding colonization, which are both similar and unique at the same time. Almost each country in the region has spent centuries under either direct or indirect rule from foreign powers. (In fact, Thailand is the only SEA country which was never formally under foreign rule.) This makes the Southeast Asian "colonization experience" one-of-a-kind as it is shared by virtually all of the member countries. Similar to other countries belonging to the "Third World", this experience has also influenced decision-making and approach to self-determination of the region. These influences vary from nation to nation, but there is a trend that it usually happens in a negative manner. There are, however, also positive changes that took place in SEA despite its appalling history.

The trends to be discussed will be arranged in such a way that it can be observed how one trend affects another and how they all interact and relate with each other. The order is as follows: ethnic struggle, secessionism, socialism, revolution, militarism, democratization, economic integration, and finally, elite families. Each trend will be tackled in depth and will be positioned alongside every other trend in order for us to see their connections.

Patani, Thailand

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West Papua, Indonesia (Irian Jaya)

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Ethnic struggle and Secessionism

The first trend is the concept known as "ethnic struggle". It denotes a struggle waged by people who identify with a common ethnicity and who fight for a common goal. Usually, these goals aim for their right to independence, self-determination, or autonomy. In The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, McCoy illustrated ethnic struggle vis-à-vis drug trade. He claims that tribespeople facilitate the growth of drug plants in the area, and that they are being used as such due to their vulnerability. McCoy also identified the CIA of the United States as one of the major masterminds of the drug trade. Myanmar (Burma) was pointed out as the second largest producer of opium in the whole world, second only to Afghanistan. The tribespeople in the area are the ones who control the production of the growing of plants used to produce drugs. Ironically though, most of the people involved are living below the poverty line. One of the main players in the area's drug market is the United Wa State Army, which is composed of ethnic fighters along the country's borders; some communities are under full control of the said army.

The concept of ethnic struggle is largely related to the second trend, secessionism. Secessionism is when a political entity withdraws its membership from a group, usually an independent state. The seceding entities are often groups of people who have feelings of disorientation when it comes to the country which they belong in. For example, the people of Patani in Thailand want to secede because they feel ostracized by their country since most of them identify as Muslims borne from a Malay race, which is a divergence from the Buddhist/Christians Thais who come from a mixture of ethnicities, particularly Chinese. Another motivation for seceding is for economic reasons, citing the case of Aceh in Sumatra, Indonesia. Aceh is a resource-rich region of Indonesia which feels that they are not being given the commensurate benefits that they deserve from bringing in millions of investment into the country. A similar case happens in Irian Jaya (West Papua), which is also a mining hotspot in Indonesia. There are international mining companies that operate within the area; however, the people of Irian Jaya still remain poor. Secessionist movements can be a reflection of how a people can join together to work for their independence, despite being among its own people.

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Revolution, Socialism, and Militarism

In the next trend, the concept of fighting for independence takes a new level: the struggle against foreign powers. The French Indochina is a world pioneer for socialism and socialist reconstruction. They are unusual because they are all socialists at the time which is a kind of validation of the domino theory of spillover effect. Efforts for socialism vary from country to country. Although Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia all went through some form of socialist restructuring, each had different particular experiences of it. The question that now arises is whether they had maintained their socialist orientation despite the standards set by the international security.

The next trend is that of revolution. The previous trend (socialism) is what happens when a country's fight for independence succeeds while revolution focuses on the reasons why a movement may be doomed to failure. The movements which are mostly fueled by Communists have its flows and ebbs. Guerilla leadership can be powerful since you need the support of the people. However, without the support of the people, the guerilla leadership is nothing short of being called a militarist regime. An example of a failed revolutionary movement is the Khmer Rouge which was a communist movement in Cambodia (Kampuchea). The Khmer Rouge practiced isolationist policies that had grave effects on the people and were not welcomed by them. They wanted Cambodia to isolate itself to be fully certain that no outside influence will get to the country which can lead to Cambodians having doubts against the Communist Party. However, the policies backfired in a huge way. The people lost its trust and faith in the Party and ultimately wanted the Party to fall so they can get back to their own feet. They felt that they were betrayed since they were subject to harsh conditions and forced labor that were even worse than what they experienced before the Red Party won. Another is the Ta’ang National Liberation Army in Myanmar (Burma) which seeks to eradicate the opium plantation and destroy the drug trade in the area. Their fight is strongly rooted in the people wanting to have more control of their natural resources. A case more similar to the first is the Malayan National Liberation Army which was a group composed of people from an ethnic Chinese origin who live in Malaya. It wanted to have more representation in the country and for its people to suffer less discrimination from the ethnic Malays, from whom the country was named. The movement failed because it failed to gather the support of the Malayan residents and instead relied on foreign nationals who supported them in order to get better treatment for their own. It was a great downfall that a movement’s supporters are foreigners because, unlike ethnic peoples, they can abandon their support anytime and they will not be largely harmed.

This leads to the next trend in Southeast Asia: militarism, where big companies appear to control the army while the army contains the whole country. In particular, the role of the CIA is important is discussing the militarism in SEA. The CIA is an independent agency responsible for providing national security intelligence to senior US policymakers. The Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (D/CIA) is nominated by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate. The Director manages the operations, personnel, and budget of the Central Intelligence Agency. There are many reasons to believe that the CIA has been instrumental in the victories of militarism in the region.

On to modern times: Economic integration

Economic integration is an essential program of the ASEAN although it was not in the original goals when it was formed. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) was formed in 1967 by the foreign ministers of five countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. Its primary objective was to foster “cooperation among southeast Asian countries to prevent the entry of negative influence from the outside.” The formation of the organization was a response to the threat of outside control of the region from powers interested in using the individual country’s resources for themselves. Therefore, aside from economic integration, ASEAN was geared towards strong regionalism in Southeast Asia. While it has succeeded in expanding its membership, the control of the association must also be reviewed.

The existence and prevalence of very little number of elite families can be seen as an offshoot not only of economic integration but of the “colonization experience as a whole. That there exist a few families, whose standard of living is way above the average, is an issue that needs to be handled critically. It can be a reflection of how capitalism (imperialism) prevails and it can also be reflective of the inequalities that our world in its current system faces.

The contemporary political trends that can be witnessed in Southeast Asia are a result of the region's various experiences regarding colonization, which are both similar and unique at the same time. Almost each country in the region has spent centuries under either direct or indirect rule from foreign powers. Militarist regimes usually come from failed revolutionary movements; that is, when the guerilla does not have the support of its people, as mentioned above.

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    • Jonas Rodrigo profile image
      Author

      Jonas Rodrigo 2 years ago

      Thank you for reading my hub. Yes, imperialism from all sides is a problem.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Good job of breaking down the underlying factors influencing the modern history of the region. I had never really thought about the depth of colonialism by Western powers in this region. Chinese imperialistic impulses also have been a factor in the past, and continue to be now. Great hub!

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