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People-powered revolution possible in Southeast Asia

WHO’S next for a people power revolution after Tunisia and Egypt? It could be any one of half a dozen countries in the Middle East.
Or it could jump to Pakistan and then the autocratic central Asian regimes that extend from Turkmenistan to Kyrgystan.

The International Crisis Group reported last week that a systemic collapse in education, healthcare and energy supply is likely across central Asia which could foment widespread social unrest.

The ‘Stans border China, which would bring the pro-democracy wave right to our doorstep.

So, could people-power reformist movements for self-determination and democracy spread to Southeast Asia?

They sure could.

After all, they had already done so in the Philippines in 1986 and in Indonesia in 1998.

So it is not surprising that leaders around the region have already begun trying to preclude such an eventuality.

A few days ago, the front pages of the Malaysian press carried bold headline warnings from Prime Minister Najib Razak.

“Don’t think what is happening in Tunisia and Egypt will also happen in Malaysia,” said Najib. “We will not allow it to happen here.”

Unfortunately for Najib, leaders cannot always stop it happening, as Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak discovered last Friday.

Malaysia’s opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt should be a warning signal to other autocracies “whether in the Middle East, Pakistan or Southeast Asia”.

He noted that the demise of these kleptocratic regimes, where corruption and nepotism flourished, reminded us that governments built on the suppression of citizens are always temporary.

To which Najib replied: “Malaysians have been given the freedom to choose their government, so there is no need to usurp power.”

And he is right – up to a point. There are multiparty elections in Malaysia and at the last polls, the opposition won an unprecedented five states and 82 of the 222 seats in parliament.

But it is also true that the Chinese and Indian minorities are legally discriminated against in everything from share allocations to healthcare and education. And the press is heavily censored.

Similar constraints are evident under other authoritarian regimes in this region, where wealth and power is monopolised by a few families, while plain folks contend with poor infrastructure, primitive education, minimal healthcare and decreasing incomes.

So it is no wonder that Najib spoke out. Nor that Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen did the same last month when he vowed to take stern action against any Tunisia-style uprising.

Ditto the Chinese, who dispensed with any verbal warning and simply banned words like “Egypt” and “people power” from internet search engines.

Chinese journalists are also under orders not to report on the causes of the revolutions in the Middle-East.

Vietnam has done the same and with more reason than any other nation in this region, aside perhaps from Myanmar and Thailand.
In its World Report 2011 released last week, Human Rights Watch said Vietnam’s crackdown on peaceful activists and dissidents has been systematic, severe and is getting worse day by day.

The apparachiks in Hanoi know that the Tunisian revolution began when a young man, Mohamed Buoazizi, set himself on fire – echoing the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc’s 1963 self-immolation in Saigon which led to the fall of the venal Ngo Dinh Diem regime.

It just needs another immolation in Hanoi or Saigon, or a shoe thrown at PM Nguyen Tan Dung by an underpaid textile worker to start a people power movement in Vietnam.

As for entrenched leaders who cite the maintenance of stability as an excuse for authoritarian rule, they would do well to remember that Mubarak was always a cautious leader who cherished stability.

But as Egypt’s protest leader Mohamed ElBaradei said: “Stability is a very pernicious word. Stability at the expense of 30 years of martial law and rigged elections?”
No way.

Freedom is always better than stability. Because it is repression that breeds extremism and instability, not liberty.

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