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Gaddafi’s downfall a lesson for the region

BEHOLD, let us welcome change, for its ramifications are about to sweep across the region.

They will come in a more orderly fashion than in the Middle East, but they are likely to be no less momentous, and for some of those involved, no less frightening.

Last week’s grisly, yet long overdue demise of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and his son Muatassim will make other nepotistic and authoritarian regimes around here pause for thought.

That this is already happening is evident from the way those regimes are repressing coverage of these epochal events in their state-controlled media.

For instance, in the most rigid one-party countries like Laos, Vietnam and China, the reportage, if not completely blotted out, is severely muted.

At the same time, a risible catch-up process has begun in which the terminology used for the deposed crackpots is undergoing a startling revision.

China, which threw billions of dollars into Gaddafi’s coffers and once glowingly referred to him as “the region’s strongman”, has now begun calling him “the former Middle-East madman”.

In like fashion, Vietnam backed Gaddafi to the end and even led this region’s CLMV group (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam) in opposing a United Nations vote to recognise Libya’s new government. While that misguided move can be corrected, it is not the response to the Arab Spring that is most intriguing, but rather the reaction to more orderly, yet quite unexpected changes closer to home.

Consider how the extraordinary reformist steps being made by the newly elected government of President Thein Sein in Myanmar have been interpreted across the region.

In relatively liberal democracies like Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, they have been broadly welcomed and given front page coverage, as of course they have in the West.

In the so-called disciplined democracies of Malaysia and Singapore, they have also been praised, but with rather snidey caveats.

Singapore, for instance, has let it be known that while Thein Sein’s actions are good, they are not yet enough to justify supporting Myanmar’s bid to host the 2014 ASEAN Summit.

The most significant reactions, however, have come from Laos and Vietnam, which view the reforms in Myanmar in the same horrified way that Syria and Algeria view the events in Libya and Eygpt.

After all, if Myanmar truly democratises, then, in the context of this region, the focus of the world’s outrage will switch to Vietnam.

Already the most repressive regime in Southeast Asia, its constitution brooks no opposition to the Vietnam Communist Party.

Lawyers, academics and journalists who suggest a peaceful evolution to a multi-party system are promptly given long jail terms in prisons that make the Chateau d’If seem luxurious.

Indeed, any Vietnamese journalist who even hints obliquely at the incompetence and venality that pervades the VCP knows they have bought a one-way ticket to perdition.

But the momentous changes in Myanmar, which, in a less dramatic way, echo those in the

Middle East, as well as those in Indonesia just a decade ago, place Vietnam’s dictatorial system under threat.

Certainly, it will now be far harder for Hanoi’s leaders not only to continue crippling the economy and erasing all vestiges of free thought, but simply to survive.

It is hard to say how long it will take for them to go the way of fellow crackpots like Gaddafi and Ne Win, but go they will.

Because the disinfecting sunlight of honest reporting will always filter in and allow ordinary Vietnamese to follow the effects of Thein Sein’s quiet revolution in Myanmar.

And that explains a wry joke now doing the rounds in Hanoi. It looks ahead to a future democracy when the deposed communists meet other dictators in hell and ask who caused their downfall.

Indonesia’s Sukarno says: “Suharto.” Burma’s Ne Win replies: “Aung San Suu Kyi.” Philippine hard man Ferdinand Marcos says: “Benigno Aquino.”

And the Vietnamese lower their heads and say: “Thein Sein.”

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