Indonesia Vs Thailand (again)


HERE in Bali, life is seen as a search for balance between the forces of galungan (good) and kuningan (bad), the festivities celebrating the triumph of the former over the latter having been recently completed.

The furious red-shirted demonstrators seized army tanks in Thailand

In Southeast Asia last week, we saw this same duality we find in all cultures played out regionally in good events (Indonesia) and bad ones (Thailand). In Indonesia, the first professional president the country has ever enjoyed, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, found his new party, the Democrats, triumphing in parliamentary elections.

In preceding weeks, we were visually confronted by huge billboards of candidates (usually stout well-fed pria) and troops of young men on motorcycles storming through this island with red banners (PDI – Megawati Sukarnoputri’s party), yellow (Golkar, the miraculously reconstituted Suharto party led now by vice-president Jusuf Kalla) and occasionally the blue of the Democrats.

They assembled at rallies, where they got their R50,000 (RM20), unless they were in car caravans (R100,000). So SBY, being the head of government and state, just had more money? No, it’s a lot more than that. Democracy, not just the Democrats, seems to be triumphing.

In Thailand, the opposite seemed to be happening. There, a leader has to show “the hand”, more than just the “strong fist” of Western dictatorships. It conveys the sense of strength from which even legitimacy, in the Thai mind, proceeds.

Same red-shirted people gathered in Indonesia, only more peaceful

If Abhisit Vejjajiva, the new prime minister, cannot even protect two narrow roads into an awesomely important regional gathering, he definitely lacks “the hand”. He can’t last long.

In Indonesia, an archipelago of 14,000 islands, patterns emerged. Here, people rally around strong leaders just as in Thailand; issues aren’t too important. SBY has had to take extremely controversial decisions, like a sudden doubling of gas prices a couple of years ago, on the theory that there would be violent protests against all incremental price rises, so why not bear the pain all at once? That’s leadership.

The existing alliances are probably breaking up. Golkar leaders are mooting partnership with the Democrats, with its 20 per cent of the vote so far, as is the smaller PPP, the United Development Party.

In contrast, the PDI-P party of Megawati is withdrawing from the so-called “golden triangle” of three parties, which included Golkar, and is trying to team up with two small parties, of Generals Wiranto and Prabowo respectively, each of which got more or less four per cent. That’s Old Politics. As for all the vote-buying, well, what’s new?

Democratic theory doesn’t rest on perfection. As far back as Aristotle, 24 centuries ago, it was seen that people would support good government, when “the shoe fits”, an apt metaphor in the Thai kingdom.

Throughout Indonesia, enough people saw that SBY was delivering good governance for his party to trounce its opponents. Now his re-election in three months is assured, and he can launch more pervasive anti-corruption programmes (note that heads have already rolled) along with reforms in devolution, participation and rural development.

In contrast, throughout the poor Thai northeast and north, the shoe hasn’t fit. The rich Bangkok alliance of high business and the political elite was increasingly seen for what it had become — a maladaptive form of governance. It had worked brilliantly for decades (no country in history grew as fast as Thailand between 1985 and 1995), but now with the king’s health declining, the country has not been able to find a balance.

Comes a rich populist demagogue, Thaksin Shinawatra, silencing his opposition as much as possible, buying off or shutting down media and threatening to replace the existing elite with his own. This would-be Mussolini broke all the rules, even attacking the throne, and finally got the heave-ho in September 2006.

But his replacement government was lazy, and didn’t show “the hand”; especially the successor patchwork coalition government led nominally by Abhisit. The result has been confusion and chaos that a divided military has not been able to contain.

Just imagine holding the 14th ASEAN summit (odd that it wasn’t the 13th!) and this happens. The great importance world leaders attribute to the alliance was shown by the attendance of the Chinese premier, Korean president and 20 others. And then the unprecedented disaster — a few hundred “red shirt” supporters of Thaksin outwitted the security forces and even broke into the hall.

It was dazzling in the extent it humiliated the Royal Thai government. History suggests that the time is ripe for some unexpected general to find within himself the power to show “the hand”, but not someone as arrogant and headstrong as Thaksin.

Indonesia is on the make; Thailand has to catch its breath and find the will to get back on the adaptive path it followed for many decades, even centuries. But so much damage was done last week that it isn’t going to be easy, and a new leadership will have to design policies that finally draw in support from the poor northeast and gain national legitimacy. It’s happening beautifully in Indonesia.

The writer was emeritus professor at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, Tufts University.

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