Friday, February 25, 2011

Asia: Arab Uprisings Are Not Exciting Asian Youth

Incumbent Indonesian and Philippines Presidents Yudhoyono and Aquino | Collage: GMedia

By Kalinga Seneviratne Courtesy IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

SINGAPORE (IDN) - Two issues that have been attracting headlines recently, one in Indonesia and another in the Philippines, perhaps explain why Asian youth are not all that excited about the youth uprisings and their dramatic success in the Middle East.

Both countries went through 'people power revolutions' which brought down long-standing dictators -- Philippines overthrew President Ferdinand Marcos on February 25, 1986 and the Indonesian President Suharto in May 1998.

In Indonesia, the case of celebrity graft convict Gayus Tambunan has been drawing the media spotlight for weeks. Indonesians have been fascinated by the astonishing gal of a virtual nobody who was able to buy an acquittal in his first trial, bribe his way out of custody 68 times, and use a fake passport to make numerous trips overseas while still in custody awaiting his corruption trial.

Gayus, a former tax officer earning USD 1300 a month at the Complaints Section of the government's Directorate of Taxation, is believed to have amassed over USD 10 million. He was recently convicted for an unexplained lesser charge of embezzlement and jailed for seven years.

Gayus's case has brought into the open decades of ingrained collusion between shady businessmen and corrupt officials in the country's tax directorate, law enforcement agencies and the courts.

Currently 44 foreign and local companies, whose tax appeals were personally managed by Gayus are under investigation. The investigation is closing in on the family owned business empire of the leader of Suharto's political machinery, Golkar Party chairman Aburizal Bakrie, who is known to harbour ambitions to stand for President at the next elections in 2014.

Since his ouster in 1998 none of Suharto's family members have been convicted of graft nor their ill-gotten wealth traced and brought back to the country. His siblings are freely roaming the country and doing their businesses, though not as widespread as before.

In the Philippines, it has been the same with President Marcos' family. Twenty five years after the so called 'People's Revolution' which overthrew Marcos, successive governments elected by popular vote have not been able to get their ill-gotten wealth back home nor get them convicted for corruption. His son Ferdinand Marcos jr won a Congress seat in 2010 and is known to be planning to run for the Presidency in 2016.

Speaking on the 25th anniversary of the 'EDSA (it is a square in Manila where hundreds of thousands of people gathered to call for the overthrow of Marcos) Revolution' on February 22, 2011, current President Benigno Aquino III, the son of the revolution's icon Corazon Aquino, said, while people's power brought democracy to the Philippines, there have been little gains for the people because corruption remained prevalent in government.

"After 25 years was there change?" he asked while speaking at a function outside Manila, adding that "unfortunately nothing has really changed -- corruption is still rampant and the result, the needs of the people were left unattended".

Philippines have had five elected presidents since the EDSA Revolution, and numerous Congress, provincial and local elections. Multi-party democracy has become ingrained in the Filipino political landscape. They even had a second 'people's revolution' in 2001 when a corrupt elected President Joseph Estrada was overthrown by popular protests and Vice-President Gloria Arroyo installed as President.

But, she left office in 2010 tainted with serious corruption allegations, and the new President's attempts to investigate corruption charges against her have been blocked by an Ombudsman who was installed by Arroyo just before she left office, and her own election to Congress last year has given her a platform to block investigations against her from inside the political establishment.


Thus, Asians look at the Philippines and Indonesia today and ask the question whether regime change by popular revolt and introduction of multiparty democracy is the solution to tackle ingrained corruption and resultant injustice and poverty in the country? Such scepticism is reflected in many commentaries published in recent days across Asia on the Egyptian (and Tunisian) revolutions.

Writing in the 'Jakarta Post', political analyst Yang Razali Kassim, observed that the most striking resemblance between Egypt 2011 and Indonesia 1998 was regime change and the pivotal role of 'people's power'. But he warned that the post-revolutionary euphoria in Indonesia led to what he calls a "democratic diarrhoea" -- too much loosening of the system too fast. After the initial chaos, Indonesians have painstakingly built a national consensus, which they call 'musyawarah dan mufakat' that according to Kassim has ensured system stability.

"It did not take Indonesians too long to realize that an uncontrolled proliferation of political parties in the name of democracy is not necessarily a good thing," noted Kassim. "The Indonesian model, if adopted by Egypt, could see the disparate political forces, including the (Muslim) Brotherhood, forging compromises through coalitions."

In an editorial, the 'Jakarta Post' said: "Egypt needs help in building a strong civil society and in creating democratic institutions to ensure that it does not fall back into another form of dictatorship. Indonesia is well placed to help, at the very least to share its own experience."

Singapore's 'Straits Times' in a commentary by political analyst Loh Su Hsing argued that an Egyptian-style regime change is unlikely in China. While there are similarities in the modes of governance and simmering social discontent in these two countries, Hsing says, "the Chinese are only too aware that replacing the incumbent regime carries high opportunity costs …. radical political upheaval would undermine investors' confidence and severely compromise the current growth trajectory."

She argues that in the post-Mao era China has moved away from the personality cult, and overthrowing the government would entail revamping an entire system -- that is, dismantling the Chinese Communist Party, whose leaders are currently seen by millions of Chinese as "having improved China's international standing and steered the country’s phenomenal economic growth".

Khor Swee Kheng writing in Malaysia's 'New Straits Times' noted that the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings were characterised by its populist and non-religious leanings, which are important for building a democracy. But he expressed scepticism about whether a young generation conditioned to expect instant gratification would have the patience to build up the necessary institutions for democracy and political stability to function.

"Why do we think that an entire nation of angry young people coming together using mobile phones will suddenly bring about democracy?" he asked. "I'm all for democracy. Let's remove oppressive dictators and be rid of corruption, fear and poverty. But, we need to keep our eyes open -- we may be caught up in the 'I-want-it-now syndrom' so prevalent in modern society," he added. "To build a democracy, its creation goes hand-in-hand with widespread economic development, as part of a self-reinforcing virtuous cycle."

In the Philippines this (eighth) week, Filipinos have been on the one hand patting themselves on the back while celebrating the 25th anniversary of the 'EDSA Revolution' claiming that it has inspired peoples' revolutions taking place in the Arab world today.

On the other hand, President Aquino -- who has vowed to tackle endemic corruption in the country, which has kept millions of people living in poverty and forced millions more to go overseas to earn a living to feed their families -- is fighting an uphill battle in Congress to get rid of Arroyo's ombudsman who is blocking corruption investigations against her and her business cronies.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Asian youth are not that excited about the youth uprisings in the Arab world. If they are to be inspired by the young peoples' uprisings there, they will have to come out not just to change regimes but to chase out corrupt government officials, military leaders, parliamentarians and law enforcement officials from their jobs, and bring to justice corrupt businessmen with political patronage who are amassing huge wealth right across the Middle East and Asia.