International Herald Tribune
Two bad decisions
Thursday, May 31, 2007

BANGKOK: Two decisions on the same day on Wednesday have delivered huge to blows to liberal, plural democracy in Thailand and Malaysia, two relatively prospering and open Southeast Asian societies.

Both decisions have been given the appearance of being judicial, but both are highly political and represent efforts by entrenched interests to maintain political control.

The dissolution of Thai Rak Thai, the party of Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed as prime minister of Thailand by a coup last September, has caught more headlines. But given the volatility of Thai politics, this may prove less enduring than a decision in Malaysia to deny a woman the right to convert from Islam to another religion.

The highest court in Malaysia ruled that it had no jurisdiction over the Muslim Shariah courts, even though the Malaysian Constitution, which the civil courts are supposed to uphold, guarantees freedom of religion. The Shariah courts have been adamant that "apostasy" cannot be allowed; Muslims cannot become non-Muslims.

The ruling will be seen in most of the rest of the world as an example of Muslim arrogance, intolerance and obscurantism, which are particularly out of place in a country where more than 40 percent of the population is not Muslim (and non-Muslims are a majority in some states).

But the ruling is as much about the politics of race as it is about religion. The Malay elite is less noted for piety than for its determination to cling on to the economic and political privileges it has awarded itself through the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the party that has dominated the political process since independence 50 years ago.

All Malays are deemed to be Muslims; thus religion has become a means of reinforcing the racial basis of politics. The elite will not disavow it, partly to protect the privileges and partly to avoid being outflanked among Malay voters at election time by the more fundamentalist Parti Islam.

In Wednesday's ruling, the chief justice argued that one could not leave a religion "at whim," suggesting that it was a function of birth more than belief. By implication, he raised this question: Are Malays in Malaysia (unlike Indonesia) incapable of making their own decisions on religion?

The court (with the one non-Muslim judge dissenting) appeared to forget that non-Muslims who wish to marry Malays must convert to Islam. In short, the court has in effect undermined Malaysian pluralism for the sake of UMNO's political expediency.

Meanwhile in Thailand, the decision by a constitutional tribunal to dissolve Thai Rak Thai - but not its main opponent, the Democrat Party - has scant basis in constitutionalism.

The tribunal is a creature of the Council for National Security, which staged the coup last years, abrogating the existing Constitution, which had its own Constitutional Court.

Thaksin without doubt abused his power and was more adept than anyone at Thai money politics. His attempt at populist authoritarianism certainly needed reining in.

But the coalition of military, royalists, senior bureaucrats and some self-proclaimed democrats are not merely attempting to prevent Thaksin's return to power via the ballot box.

They have produced a draft new constitution that limits the power of the executive and expands the role of non-elected senators and judiciary officials at the expense of elected members.

Today's self-appointed rulers have even toyed with the idea of making Buddhism the official religion, which would be bound to upset the Muslims and other minorities. So-called democratic elections are due to be held once the new constitution has been ratified.

The combination of the new constitution and the tribunal's banishment from politics for five years of the top 111 officials of Thai Rak Thai make it extremely unlikely that political stability will be achieved.

The wounds that the monarchy claims to be trying to heal look likely to become deeper unless Thaksin himself decides to retire from the fray, opening the way for the return of some of the money-driven politicians from an earlier era to challenge the Democrat party, now the only significant player in electoral politics.

But it is just as likely that he will be a power for now behind the scene of a new party, and he and his many supporters, particularly among the poor, will harbor the resentment that he has been shut out by an elite and royalist camp anxious to keep power from populist hands.

The themes of Thai politics since the absolute monarchy was overthrown in 1932 - liberal democracy, populist or military authoritarianism and royalism - look likely to be exacerbated, and that at a time when the issue of succession to King Bhumipol, who is 79, is on the minds of many.

For both Malaysia and Thailand, the rulings on Wednesday represent major setbacks in their efforts to become fully developed societies in which pluralism is enshrined in the conduct of institutions.