International Herald Tribune
Bowring: Farcical, maybe, but serious too
Thursday, September 11, 2008

HONG KONG: In Thailand, the prime minister, Samak Sundaravej, is dismissed by a court for accepting some tiny expenses for appearing in a TV cooking show he had long hosted. In Malaysia, the prime minister has to send 40 members of Parliament to learn about agriculture in Taiwan to keep them from defecting to the opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who has vowed to gain a majority by Tuesday.

Political farce in two otherwise prospering Southeast Asian states is an outward sign of disturbing trends in both countries that have implications for regional stability.

In Thailand it has long been assumed that the monarchy is on hand in times of crisis to calm things down, using its status to impose some sort of order between contending politicians, ambitious generals and other power seekers.

But now the monarchy is increasingly seen as part of the problem rather than the source of a solution. Law courts that were once seen as being easily influenced by the government of the day now appear to have become a political force, responding to the monarchist, anti-democratic forces that are strong among the Thai military and senior bureaucracy, and in recent times have appeared aligned with the privy council headed by the retired general and former prime minister, 88-year-old Prem Tinsulanond. On this occasion they declined to restore order and remove a rabble of mostly anti-democratic, anti-government demonstrators from official buildings. Then the courts cooked up an excuse to remove Samak.

This is all supposed to be in the name of rule of law, but looks more like a silent coup. The military coup in 2006 that pushed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra into exile solved nothing, leaving popular support for him and his allies almost as strong as ever. Removing Samak may provide an excuse for the demonstrators to disperse, but it too solves nothing. Moreover, it may well have eroded the reputation of the monarchy, which, back in the days of strongman rule in the 1950s and 60s, was largely ceremonial. The 80-year-old King Bhumipol may be revered, but such respect will not carry through to his successor. The monarchy will revert to a ceremonial role with scant ability to arbitrate between contending military, populist and other forces.

Thailand's ultra-nationalist, anti-government forces have already tried to foment a crisis with Cambodia over a disputed temple, and the ongoing deadlock in Bangkok has meant that the problems in the southern provinces, with their Malay-Muslim majorities, have festered, with almost daily reports of killings of military and government personnel.

Thaksin's strong-arm policies were a disaster, but there is little chance that a centralizing regime influenced by the military and the monarchy would tolerate the degree of autonomy needed to solve the problem. Thailand is a country where some northern non-Thai hill tribes are still not accorded citizenship.

The problems in southern Thailand can all too easily link to the power struggle in Malaysia. Although Abdullah Badawi's government is moderate on racial issues, simmering tensions can bring to the fore more extreme elements claiming to defend Malay dominance and keep the other races subservient.

Anwar's opposition coalition of Malay-Muslim purists, pluralist Malays and secular-minded non-Malays is itself too unstable to offer much solace for those hoping for a stable Malaysia where racial equality prevails.

Even Anwar's Sept. 16 deadline is a date with uneasy significance. It was on that day in 1963 that the British-administered states in North Borneo, Sarawak and Sabah, and Singapore (briefly) joined Malaysia. The two have remained very different. Mixing between races and religions is more evident than elsewhere in Malaysia and the politics of both states have always been fluid. Their parliamentarians are allied to the government, but are viewed as susceptible to defection. There is also resentment at what they see as Kuala Lumpur's domination, curtailment of rights promised in 1963 and excessive taxation of their natural resource-based economies.

There is no hint of separatist movements there, or of a re-launch by Indonesia of its claims on the territories. But Sabah lies next to the Philippine islands of Mindanao and Sulu and migration from this troubled region has created political issues in Sabah that have national reverberations.

This is not to suggest that Southeast Asia as a whole is facing turmoil. Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia - in their own different ways - have exceeded most expectations in combining stability and increasing prosperity. But as the two leading middle-sized, middle-income states, Thailand and Malaysia are casting a shadow over the region.