Military and Democracy in Southeast Asia

The term “stifled” can be defined as the military not allowing democracy to gain influence in independent Southeast Asian states. The military can be said to have stifled democracy as it was used as a tool for maximum governments to retain control while also crushing democratic movements in the 1980s and 90s. However, it can be argued that the military did not stifle democracy given the inherent failures of democracy and how democratic ideals were still upheld in certain Southeast Asian states. Even though the military did stifle democracy in the period shortly after decolonization and continued to attempt to do so, it was ultimately unable to stop and contain the will of the people for democracy.

It is said that the military stifled democracy in independent Southeast Asian states as it is often used as a tool by maximum governments and rulers to sustain or even expand their control, resulting in the ideals of democracy being unable to take shape. Given how such maximum governments almost always see the idea of democracy as a threat to their rule, the military will often be utilized by such rulers to actively purge the system of any semblance of democracy. As the rule of these rulers may often last decades, such actively suppression may have lasting impacts on whether democracy can flourish in the country. This can be seen in the Philippines, where Marcos declared martial law in 1972 and ordered the military to arrest thousands of anti-Marcos forces in Manila. This continued as Marcos became a authoritarian ruler, with the military being utilized by Marcos to stifle differing voices, mostly notably in the assassination of Benigno Aquino Jr., a prominent opposition leader, in 1983. In addition, in Indonesia, the military under Suharto caused chaos by ordering and encouraging civilians to kill any suspects communists and communist sympathizers, something which was deeply undemocratic and resulted in thousands of innocent lives being lost. These two case studies show how the military often crushed dissenting voices as well as political opposition, and given how freedom of speech is one primary facet of democracy, this in and of itself is a stifling of the ideals of democracy. However, the military can also be used as a force of good by civilian democratic governments, as seen from how the National Operations Council (NOC), whose membership included the military and was able to restore order after the May 13 Incident, which saw an unprecedented amount of ethnic violence in Malaysia, thus enabling democratic governments to act decisively.

The military can also be argued to have stifled democracy, given how it crushed democratic movements and public calls for democracy in the 1980s and 90s, preferring instead to try to cling onto their power against public opinion. The military of such maximum governments tended to use excessive force against mostly peaceful protesters and often denied the moves towards democracy even though it was the prevailing public sentiment to return to democracy. This can be seen in the case of Burma during the 8888 Uprising where thousands of protesters gathered against the military regime on 8 August 1988 but was fired upon, causing many innocent civilian deaths. The military not only displayed a cruel disregard for the lives of their own citizens, but also placed Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League of Democracy (NLD) under house arrest in 1989. Similarly in Thailand, General Suchinda also attempted to cling onto power despite promising to hold elections in 1993, firing upon and killing thousands of protesters for challenging his rule, with the violence only being halted thanks to King Bhumibol’s intervention. Both case studies highlight how the military often stubbornly held onto power while suppressing democratic movements, despite it being the overwhelming will of the people. However, the military did not always act against such democratic movements, as seen in the case of the Philippines during the People Power Revolution in 1983, where the military refused to fire upon protesters despite Marcos ordering them to do so.

However, the military in fact did not stifle democracy given the inherent weaknesses of a democratic political system and how democratic governments were typically met with failure during the period shortly after independence. The democratic system was often too slow, inefficient and was simply not suitable at the time as the political climate in many Southeast Asian states called for a strong and decisive leader. This can be seen in Burma, where the democratic government under U Nu was met with incessant civil strife due to U Nu’s inability to unite the various ethnic groups like his predecessor Aung San. U Nu proved to be insufficiently politically savvy, backtracking on promises such as forcing the Sawbwas to give up their autonomy in 1950. In contrast, Ne Win improved bureaucratic efficiency, dealt with pocket armies and reduced corruption all in the space of two years upon coming into power leading his caretaker government in 1988. Meanwhile in Indonesia, the democratic system was crippled as a result of political factionalism, as none of the four major parties commanded more than 25% of the popular vote in the 1955 elections. Their differing beliefs and political ideology meant that the government became deadlocked over the very principles of the new Indonesian state, thus showing how a democratic political system often led to slow and inefficient decision making when a newly independent nation often needed the exact opposite of such decisions. As such, democracy in the earlier stages of the independence of the various Southeast Asian states was not stifled by the military, as it was doomed by its very own shortcomings and failures which led to people choosing alternatives that were seen as more favourable.

Indeed, the military did not stifle democracy due to the fact that democracy was still able to thrive in certain Southeast Asian states, where the system of democracy has been somewhat sustained since independence. As such, it would be an over-generalization to state that the military completely stifled democracy throughout Southeast Asia, as these systems proved that democracy can find success in Southeast Asia. One such example is Malaysia, where the democratic system has held strong since its independence from the British in the 1960s, despite it undergoing certain periods of uncertainty such as the period of Konfrontasi with Indonesia and the 1969 racial riots. The military has remained largely subordinate to the democratic government, as seen from how all Defence Ministers have been civilians. Similarly, in Singapore, the military is also subordinate to ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), as it was developed from the ground-up only after Singapore’s independence from the British in 1965. The military has remained subservient to the civilian government throughout Singapore’s history, as the system of democracy was able to achieve notable economic success and enabled Singapore’s rise to being one of the four tiger economies in Asia by the 1980s. This shows how the military did not stifle democracy in Southeast Asia, particularly since the military is subordinate to the civilian governments in Singapore and Malaysia and has been throughout their existence. However, some may argue that Singapore and Malaysia merely used a different force in the police force and also similarly stifled ideals of democracy. This can be seen in both countries’ implementation of the Internal Security Act (ISA), with Malaysia notably arresting 119 dissidents in 1987 in response to protests from Chinese educationists. This can be said to be infringing upon the freedom of speech of the people, which is one key facet of any democracy. However, while the political structures of Malaysia and Singapore may not closely resemble that of a Western democracy, it does not change the fact that the military has remained mostly subordinate to civilian governments and played no role in stifling democracy in these two countries. On the contrary, the ideals of democracy and democratic structures have become deeply rooted into the Malaysian and Singaporean societies.

Benjamin Zhang (18-E1)

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