Trends of 2019: Indo-Asia-Pacific
IAP Editors Arin Chinnasathian and Ashanee Kottage contributed to this Trends of 2019 piece.
An Eventful Year for Democracy
India, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand will hold key elections in 2019, a significant year for Asian democracies.
Political tensions in India, the world’s largest democracy by population, have already increased ahead of its 2019 general election. The incumbent Hindu-nationalist Indian People’s Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi’s opposition Indian National Congress (INC) party will compete for votes and seats in Parliament. A January poll published by Deccan Herald indicates that the INC-led coalition may claim the majority. India Today attributes the BJP’s declining popularity to the “not-so-successful economic policies of demonetisation and [the goods and services tax (GST)].”
The INC proposed a minimum-income plan for India’s poor despite doubts over its practicality. As the race intensifies, critics fear that the BJP may resort to mobilizing its Hindu-nationalist support base against Muslim minorities to convince its base to go to the polls. A dispute between Hindus and Muslims over the Ayodhya religious site in November serves as an example of the potential BJP strategy of making Hindu-Muslim relations one of the key issues for the upcoming election.
In Indonesia, a presidential election is scheduled for April 17. Incumbent President Joko Widodo and General Prabowo Subianto are competing for the presidency in a reprise of the 2014 election. The economy and religion will also play a key role in this election as the Indonesian rupiah continues to weaken amid the U.S.-China trade war, while religious tension continues to intensify, especially in key Muslim regions like Aceh. Although Widodo currently leads by almost 25 percent, his leadership could be challenged—one of the president’s former allies, a Muslim nationalist, has befriended Subianto.
The Philippines will hold a legislative election on May 13 when all seats in the House of Representatives will be up for grabs. With the presidential election still three years away, this election comes halfway through the term of incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte. Despite allegations of crimes against humanity, Duterte’s PDP-Laban party remains relatively strong in the polls. A plebiscite in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao may impact the election. The vote comes as the product of a peace agreement between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a group of independence fighters responsible for 50 years of violence. Although the result has not yet been announced, observers expect that voters will approve the creation of an autonomous Muslim region, bringing the prospect of peace for the volatile region.
After five years of government under a military junta, Thailand will hold a general election on March 24. The National Council for Peace and Order lifted a ban on political activities in December 2018, and political parties are entering the race. A National Institute of Development Association poll reveals that almost 60 percent of eligible voters would like to see new parties gain seats in the election. The leader of one such party, the Future Forward Party, vows to reform the military. Nonetheless, the military has entrenched its political presence by hand-picking all 250 senators who, together with the 500-seat House of Representatives, will be able to nominate the next prime minister. Given the extent of the military’s influence and its political engineering of the election, the future of Thai democracy remains in question.
Democracy in Southeast Asia seems poised to deteriorate despite numerous upcoming elections in the region, but that is not true across the board.
Cambodia has become a de facto authoritarian state after a parliamentary election in July 2018. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, won 77.5 percent of the vote and all 125 seats in the parliament. BBC reported that the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party was dissolved in the aftermath, and its leaders were imprisoned. The Cambodian government has actively threatened freedom of the press. Critics called the election a sham and observed that Cambodia is effectively under one-party rule.
Duterte has constantly attacked the press in the Philippines by threatening to close the country’s leading independent news outlet, the Rappler. Duterte also announced that he intends to expand extrajudicial death squads—originally tasked with killing anyone involved in drug trafficking—to fight “anyone linked with insurgent groups.” The independence of the judiciary is at-risk after the country’s highest court ousted its own chief justice, Maria Lourdes Sereno, who called for drug traffickers to be given due process. Despite the autocratic backslide in the Philippines, Duterte remains a popular figure.
Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s denial of the Rohingya Muslim crisis worsens the prospects for Myanmar’s democracy in 2019. The rule of an elected government that does not guarantee the fundamental rights of all its citizens puts Myanmar in the category of illiberal democracy, according to the New York Times. The Council on Foreign Relations further cites “stalled democratic reforms, regression on press freedoms, and a scorched earth policy toward the Rohingya in western Myanmar” as sources of disappointment. Additionally, nationalists are gaining political momentum, signalling a further decline in civil rights, especially for minorities.
Malaysia may continue to reverse its authoritarian slide in 2019. Dr. Mahathir Mohamad toppled ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak in a general election in May 2018, marking the end of the 60-year rule of the National Front coalition. The newly elected prime minister quickly reopened corruption investigations of Razak and others involved in the massive 1MDB corruption scandal, involving billions of dollars pilfered from the state sovereign wealth fund. Just six months in, the government has announced various reforms, such as a review of the death penalty and the possible removal of a tax on feminine care products. The Malaysian government continues its commitment to eradicating corruption and is heading steadily toward democratic reform.
Meanwhile, Thailand experiences a complex democratic transition. An election will be held on March 24, but gerrymandering and an electoral system that disadvantages political parties may undermine the results. The incumbent junta is employing all available methods to hamstring its rivals, including by opening an investigation of a presumptive candidate for prime minister from the historically popular Pheu Thai party. Nonetheless, five years of democratic suppression has agitated young voters, who comprise more than seven percent of all eligible voters. New political parties are exploiting this sentiment. Many of these parties are openly hostile to the military’s rule, promising military reform and possible defense budget cuts. Nonetheless, doubts remain whether this election will be free and fair.
Altogether, Southeast Asian democracy is on a difficult path. Countries may improve their democratic track record and then revert to authoritarianism in just a few years. Whether democracy will take hold in the region or not, and how, remains to be seen.
Sri Lanka in Crisis
Last year, Sri Lanka, one of Asia’s oldest democracies, found itself in crisis overnight. On October 26, President Maithripala Sirisena appointed a former-president and then-member of parliament (MP) Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister before formally dismissing incumbent Ranil Wickremesinghe, leaving the island with two concurrent prime ministers.
The situation was particularly shocking to the public because of the dynamic that had until then defined Sri Lankan politics. During the general election in 2015, the primary aim of all the opposition parties was to oust Rajapaksa. Therefore, Sirisena of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and Wickremesinghe of the United National Party, joined forces to win a majority in Parliament.
Rajapaksa was unpopular because he ran an authoritarian regime based on exploiting the 18th Amendment, which gave the president extreme powers. The new duo aimed to repeal the amendment so that the president was no longer allowed to dissolve Parliament forl four-and-a-half years after an election unless two-thirds of Parliament requested that it happened sooner.
However, after the election, their ideological differences seemed to resurface. They disagreed on how to pursue post-civil war justice for minorities and on the country’s economic relations with China while rumors about assassination plots planned by Wickremesinghe only worsened the situation. Yet, despite this pre-existing tension, citizens never expected the former-president to be a better option in Sirisena’s eyes.
When Sirisena announced the replacement, Wickremesinghe claimed that the president’s actions were illegal and hence refused to formally resign. Other members of Parliament also opposed the decision, and Sirisena responded by dissolving parliament and calling for a new general election on January 5.
The Supreme Court suspended Parliament’s dissolution and ruled it unconstitutional, reconvening the legislature, which quickly passed a motion of no-confidence against Rajapaksa as prime minister. However, the motion of no-confidence against Rajapaksa did not mean that Wickremesinghe commanded a majority of Parliament either.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which represents a majority of the Tamil population in Sri Lanka’s northern and eastern provinces, came to Wickremesinghe and the UNP’s rescue. The TNA, an opposition party, extended support to the UNP to gain a parliamentary majority. TNA MPs voted in favor of Wickremesinghe in a vote of confidence. Subsequently, Rajapaksa’s faction claimed that TNA leader R. Sampanthan could not hold the office of the opposition leader any longer. Later, MPs who supported Rajapaksa informed the speaker of Parliament in writing that a majority of the opposition wanted Rajapaksa to be appointed as the official opposition leader, and he now holds that post.
The political crisis turned deadly as the bodyguard of a former cabinet minister fired on a crowd, killing at least one person and wounding two others. The gunfire broke out when the former petroleum minister tried to enter his office at the state-run Ceylon Petroleum Corporation and was confronted by a group of workers loyal to the president. The guard opened fire, a police spokesman, Ruwan Gunasekera, said. The guard was arrested, but many mobs attacked government officials to express opposition to the decision.
Furthermore, the international community expressed its displeasure at the ongoing events, with some even condemning Sri Lanka outright and challenging the government to respect the country’s constitution. Sri Lanka’s economy also took a hit as the stock prices plummeted, foreign investors suspended their projects, international monetary agencies stopped extending aid, and the tourism industry crashed as people cancelled airline and hotel bookings in droves. Moreover, the Sri Lankan rupee continued its downward trend.
Pandemonium reigned in Parliament with sessions disrupted by violence that included parliamentarians throwing chilli powder at one another. The unruly and erratic politics of the ensuing weeks ended with the government boycotting the proceedings of Parliament.
Although the peak of the crisis has passed, tensions remain. The president has already indicated his displeasure about having to work with the Wickremesinghe government. The next general election is due in September 2020. However, the president can dissolve Parliament as soon as March 2020.
Sirisena’s own presidential term will be concluded by then. Presidential elections are due between November 2019 and January 2020, but Sirisena could call for an earlier vote. The next president—whether a re-elected Sirisena or a new face—should be sworn in by January 2020. Prior to the general election and presidential elections, several provincial elections are due. There is now renewed talk about a new constitution with changes to the executive branch. That would result in a national referendum, the first in more than two decades.
Remembering the Rohingya
In August 2017, militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) coordinated a series of explosive raids on 25 to 30 police and army outposts in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state. ARSA argued for the need for “defensive action” to protect insurgents and civilians alike from security forces, whom ARSA accused of overstepping the law and committing atrocities against the Rohingya people. Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s civilian leader, denounced ARSA’s attacks as merely the “violent actions of extremists.”
The raids touched off an unrelenting military campaign in upper Rakhine, where “grossly disproportionate” force—including cases of unlawful killings, torture, rape, and arson—has driven hundreds of thousands to flee. A majority of the Rohingya headed to Cox's Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh, which borders Rakhine; many Rohingya also sought shelter in India, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.
The United Nations (UN) estimated that there are over 650,000 Rohingya refugees. Though this is an unprecedented number, the exodus is not the first of its kind. Living in Myanmar—a longstanding Buddhist stronghold—the predominantly Muslim ethnic minority have faced decades of discrimination. Waves of Rohingya—over 200,000 in total—ran from similar outbreaks of concentrated violence in 1978 and the early 1990s.
In addition, a 1982 law excluded the Rohingya from a list of ethnic groups that receive full citizenship, so Rohingyas are technically stateless. Without national verification cards, those who remain in Rakhine struggle to access education, healthcare, and other essential services, and they cannot travel freely.
Human Rights Watch condemned the latest crackdown as an example of ethnic cleansing, and Amnesty International singled out its human rights violations as crimes against humanity. In August 2018, one year after the initial raids, a UN investigation team called for Burmese military leaders to be prosecuted for multiple international crimes, including genocide.
Nevertheless, Burmese officials have downplayed the severity of the situation. Hoping to attract foreign businesses, Aung San Suu Kyi recently skirted the topic of the Rohingya crisis in favor of highlighting Myanmar’s economic reforms during an official investment conference in January 2019.
As mass displacement continues, countries with high Rohingya populations may continue to provide refugees with provisions and shelter. Alternatively, they could increase rates of imprisonment and deportation.
In addition, Myanmar, spurred by international pressure, may seriously de-escalate conflict and prepare for repatriation in 2019, paving the way for eventual safe and voluntary resettlement. On the other hand, this outlook might be overly optimistic: little to no progress may be made, especially if Myanmar continues to downplay the crisis.
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a Chinese international economic project began in 2014, is most known for benefiting international trade by lowering transport costs, closing the infrastructure gap, and transferring skills to developing countries. War-torn Syria and Yemen recently joined the initiative, hoping that it will assist in their reconstruction, while 84 other countries have allowed China to invest. With distrust toward countries in the OECD, a group of advanced economies; resentment of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank; and a growing inclination toward de-globalization, China appears to be the big brother these countries were looking for, but have they gone from friendly family help to Orwellian Big Brother domination?
BRI projects increasingly trap these vulnerable countries in debt. China offers loans to countries on floating, as opposed to concessionary, interest rates, which these countries cannot afford to pay in the medium or long-term. Consequently, they default, and their credit rating worsens. For example, Sri Lanka is now rated B1 by Moody's, which decreases their chances of obtaining new loans from other countries or organizations, thereby trapping them in loans from China. Chinese loans do not come with any of the strings attached to Western debt. The debt trap has a drastic impact on governments and populations as evidenced by the fact that Djibouti’s debt to China represents 85 percent of its GDP. This forces the government to increase taxes to attempt to pay off the debt, thereby overriding the lower production costs brought about by the BRI highways, roads, and railways, harming firms and individual incomes.
In addition, these countries lose their sovereignty as China requests debt swaps (a transaction in which a foreign exchange debt owed by a developing country is transferred to another organization on the condition that the country use local currency for a designated purpose, usually environmental protection), causing debtor countries to lose even more of their scarce resources, as exemplified by Sri Lanka and the 99-year lease of the Hambantota port to China. Countries also make diplomatic and trade concessions like the Maldives-China Free Trade Area, in which Maldives had to end its tariffs for 95 percent of products, while China only did the same with ten percent of products.
Moreover, China uses debt as a strategic weapon and swaps it for permission to establish military bases, as in Djibouti, and dock warships, as in Maldives. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor runs through the disputed territory of Kashmir, further escalating conflict between Pakistan and India.
Critics vehemently argue that the BRI improves China’s economy at the expense of others due to predatory lending practices. This is evident as sea lanes, ports, and refueling stations are proximate to China’s own overseas markets and ensure uninterrupted access to energy, such as the Gwadar port in Pakistan, which decreases China’s vulnerability to strategic choke points for oil imports, such as the straits of Malacca and Hormuz. It disproportionately benefits China and benefits other countries almost not at all, as evidenced by the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport in Sri Lanka, one of the world's emptiest airports, averaging just seven passengers a day.
Further, the transfer of skills to locals does not manifest itself either because contractors are 89 percent Chinese and only four percent local. Some experts suggest that China actually leaves other countries worse-off than they originally were; environmental degradation in the Mekong River has wiped out migratory fish species, and Chinese projects have cleared forests in Myanmar.
China also empowers dictators, corrupt officials, and human rights violators. Because of their refusal to abide by global human rights and transparency standards, these countries do not receive conditional aid from international organisations or other nations. Countries like Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and Afghanistan rank 95th, 156th, and 169th, respectively, on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, meaning that the loans that go to these governments are often misused and misallocated, worsening the situation and diluting their impact on the actual population.
Overall, the BRI is still viewed as a Chinese version of America’s post-war Marshall Plan of 1948 and as a form of neo-colonialism. In order to succeed, therefore, China needs to allay some of the concerns member countries have raised. If they take productive steps to improve the implementation of projects, the BRI’s potential for economic development may manifest.
Re-Inspecting Uyghur “Re-Education” Camps
In August 2018, a UN committee dedicated to combating racial discrimination boosted worldwide attention to the mass internment of Turkic Muslim minorities in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region. Vice-chair Gay McDougall cited “many numerous and credible reports” that the Communist Party, led by Xinjiang party leader Chen Quanguo, was holding over one million Uyghur, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz Muslims in “re-education” camps. McDougall probed claims of authorities violating detainees’ rights and arresting them “based solely on their ethno-religious identity.”
Human Rights Watch researcher Maya Wang followed up on McDougall’s report in September 2018 by publishing former detainees and other Xinjiang residents’ accounts of religious and linguistic suppression, political indoctrination, and torture.
Chinese officials have denied abuse allegations. In August 2018, the deputy director-general of China’s UN mission, Hu Lianhe, maintained Xinjiang’s commitment to preserving religious freedom. Then, in October 2018, Xinjiang’s chairman, Shohrat Zahir, linked the region’s “vocational education and training institutions” to global counter-terrorism and counter-extremism efforts.
Flouting a Chinese deportation request, Malaysia released 11 Uyghur Muslims to Turkey in October 2018, and hundreds of Indonesian Muslims rallied in December 2018 to protest persecution and show solidarity with their fellow Muslims. Overall, however, few Muslim-majority countries have spoken out about the camps, likely due to China’s imposing economic and political strength.
As a gesture of transparency, the Chinese government arranged for foreign reporters to take a closely chaperoned tour of three “model” facilities in January. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang also entertained the possibility of a UN visit to Xinjiang as long as inspectors would agree to “abide by Chinese law.”
As 2019 continues, China might scale back detainment in the face of international pressure, especially if members of the worldwide Muslim community take a more vocal stance. Western nations, including the United States, could step up their criticism and possibly even enact sanctions against China due to the Uyghur detention camps.