We wrap up our Asia-Pacific summer highlights with a look at three individual nations: Myanmar, Thailand, and China.
The beginning of the summer saw Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi being given her first passport in more than 20 years. She promptly set to touring the world, cautiously supporting sanction reductions against her country, but adding that the pressure on President Thein Sein’s government should continue to ensure Myanmar’s recent reforms are made permanent. The media, for example, remains partially self-censoring. Citizen disputes over land reform with local officials have increased. Unresolved sectarian violence remains a daunting problem that threatens to undo or distract larger reform efforts.
The rest of the world, meanwhile, is waiting to see whether Naypyidaw can buttress a flurry of new social freedoms with concrete political and economic reforms. ASEAN certainly thinks so, having pinned its hopes on the fledgling nation by giving it the association’s 2014 chairmanship. The institutions and talent needed to get there, however, are still severely lacking. Power generation, for example, is still characterized by frequent blackouts even in the capital. The financial sector is virtually non-existent, meaning intermediation for economic development is difficult to facilitate. Foreign investors continue to have their suspicions about the permanence of Myanmar’s self-professed transition from pariah state towards a market economy. These are all obstacles that Naypyidaw cannot overcome on its own. Long-term, sustainable aid and foreign expertise are needed. The challenge for the global community, of course, is the balanced provision of aid in exchange for further reform permanence.
Rookie Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s summer showcased two longstanding issues that threaten Thailand’s growth and development. First, the government continues to struggle with attacks from ethnic separatists in the restive Malay South. The protracted insurgency has intensified in recent years, underscoring Bangkok’s inability to manage its counterinsurgency campaign and open meaningful negotiations with the rebels. Indeed, the attacks seem to be increasingly ruthless and violent.
The fear is that further escalation will mean direct attacks against economic targets, and violence visiting Thailand’s tourist-dependent regions. Neither eventuality is desirable. Foreign tourist casualties would instantly internationalize the conflict, which would be framed in terrorism terms. Crippled infrastructure would further retard efforts to economically recover from last year’s devastating floods. Thailand’s position as a critical hub in the regional production supply chain means any industrial interruptions will have global impacts; witness, for example, the worldwide shortages of computer and automotive components after the 2011 floods. Interruptions due to counterinsurgency activity or infrastructure loss would be far more severe.
Second, Bangkok’s rice pricing scheme has led to a global market share loss for the nation’s farmers. The ill-advised plan was one of many campaign promises made by Ms. Shinawatra’s populist-leaning government – promises now being played out to varying degrees of fruition. Reductions in the oil levy and a minimum wage hike, while popularly appreciated, have siphoned government funds earmarked for long-term economic development. Promises of such development to the country’s northeastern provinces have yet to materialize, however, while constitutional reform and Thailand’s controversial lese majeste laws also remain unaddressed.
Taken together, the two events contribute to a rather unflattering track record for Ms. Shinawatra’s administration since her landslide victory last year. The nation remains bitterly divided politically between opposition ‘Yellow Shirt’ royalists and ‘Red Shirt’ supporters of Ms. Shinawatra’s brother – ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The present administration has not shown itself to be a particularly worthy successor to the immensely-popular Thaksin legacy.
The daunting tasks go beyond domestic popularity. The government must repair massive flood damage while simultaneously modernizing its industrial portfolio to ensure Thailand’s long-term growth. Current and potential investors are understandably skittish after the government’s mixed handling of the flood crisis. Moreover, as one of the more developed ASEAN members, Thailand wants (and is expected by others) to take a leadership role in regional economic integration. The unsettled southern provinces and an inconsistent government do little to inspire confidence in any of these tasks.
The Bo Xilai affair came to an anticlimactic end in August with a suspended death sentence for his wife, Gu Kailai. Gu’s complicity in the killing of a British citizen in China set in motion a series of events that ultimately brought about Bo’s downfall from the Communist Party of China (CPC) Politburo and the end of his political career.
Gu’s trial did no favours to the credibility of Beijing’s ruling elites. Rather than showcase China’s progressive institutions, the trial reiterated the longstanding intimacy between Chinese law and politics. The outcome merely reaffirmed suspicions that the central leadership had supreme influence over the final court decision.
The Bo-Gu scandal also highlighted Beijing’s insecurities about party unity. The CPC ardently strives to extinguish any hints at intra-party divisions, seeing such tensions as a threat against the party’s legitimacy to rule. So paramount was the need to maintain party solidarity that Chinese leaders were willing to set aside differences to present a facade of harmony in Bo’s removal from the Politburo.
Equally important, however, is the implicit message that the party will not tolerate hard-headed personalities. Bo’s Maoist ideological leanings clashed with the pervading movement toward greater liberal social and economic reform, while his grandstanding personality ran contrary to a system that stresses collective decision-making and consensus. Promotion to the Politburo Standing Committee – the nine-person council that controls the CPC and thus the country – would have caused serious problems in foreign and fiscal policy formulation as well as other matters of state. Worse, his charisma, ambition and strong popular support base would have made him a serious rival with considerable clout in the Standing Committee. Such power would have undermined the Party’s absolute control of the government by essentially becoming an alternate route to party appointments.
That the CPC seeks to avoid ideological extremes (particularly a return to the Maoist left) indicates some hope towards a gradual transition to greater moderation and stability. A stable China provides far more predictability than one characterized by extremist strongman politics. This should come as some relief to those anxiously looking to October, when the CPC begins its 18th Party Congress. This year’s once-in-a-decade leadership transition already has enough on its plate – a lagging economy, rapid domestic social change, territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas, and a disappearing president-elect.
The author apologies for not covering everything that happened in the Asia-Pacific this summer and welcomes suggestions for a follow-up post highlighting these other events.
Ernest Chong graduated from the Master of Public Policy program at the School of Public Policy and Governance in 2011. He also holds a Master of Arts in War Studies from King’s College London. His areas of interest focus on defence and security issues in Canada, the United States, and the Asia-Pacific.