The January Spring
Image Credit: Nathan Guy

The January Spring


It seems that the winds of change have arrived early this year in Southeast Asia, which saw the unprecedented release of more than 600 political prisoners in Burma, the acquittal of Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim over sodomy charges, the start of the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona of the Philippines, and the approval by Singaporean politicians of the recommendation to have their salaries and fat bonuses reduced.

The junta-backed Burmese government surprised even its supporters when it released 651 political detainees last Friday (it was dubbed the “Beautiful Friday the 13th” by some netizens on Facebook). Those released included activists, journalists and opposition leaders who had been languishing in the country’s 43 prisons and 100 labor camps for years. The government’s decision to grant amnesty to dissidents was immediately welcomed by its neighbors and by Western powers led by the United States, which vowed to restore formal ties with Burma. If sanctions are removed, Burma can expect an influx aid and investment from rich countries. Hopefully, this would also help to end the country’s years of political isolation.

Despite its poor human rights record, it seems Burma has broadly been doing the right things since reviving its parliament, conducting more open elections, releasing Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, and now this latest prisoner release. Will the government be able to sustain the democratic reforms it has promised for this year?

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Meanwhile, in Malaysia, Anwar’s acquittal was described by opposition groups as a victory for justice after claims the Najib Razak government orchestrated the sodomy case against Anwar to undermine the opposition. The high-profile trial dragged on for two years, which led many people to question the independence of the courts.

Anwar’s acquittal can therefore help restore confidence in the courts, and may help convince ordinary citizens that a transparent and independent judiciary still exists in the country, despite the perceived machinations of the ruling party. Now that Anwar is free, the opposition can also direct its attention to upcoming elections and working out how to defeat the ruling coalition, which has been in power for several decades already. Maybe Malaysia can also review the proposal to repeal its oppressive sodomy laws.

But if the Malaysian judiciary survived the Anwar Ibrahim case, the Philippine judicial system is still facing its biggest crisis after Chief Justice Corona was impeached by the House of Representatives last month. He is now embroiled in a trial in the Senate’s impeachment court. Corona is accused among other things of using his position to protect his patron, former President Gloria Arroyo, who is being prosecuted for corruption and electoral fraud. He’s also accused of amassing ill-gotten wealth after his appointment in the Supreme Court.

Corona’s impeachment is supported by advocacy groups that consider the Chief Justice to be the main stumbling block to holding Arroyo accountable for the crimes she allegedly committed when she was in power. Some groups even view it as a long term campaign to transform the Supreme Court into a more independent and pro-people institution.

Lastly, Singapore’s decision to slash the salaries of government ministers, reportedly the highest paid public servants in the world, should be seen as another victory of the people. The record low number of votes garnered by the ruling party, which has been in power since 1959, forced the government to form a committee to review the pay scale of high-ranking ministers.

Surprisingly, the committee recommended hefty pay cuts for all ministers. The prime minister will see a 36 percent pay cut while the president’s salary will be reduced by 51 percent. Some citizens aren’t satisfied with the recommendations, and think their politicians are still overpaid. And indeed, the prime minister and president will still earn more than Barack Obama, even after their salary reductions. But the pay cuts should still be welcomed as an initial compromise by Singaporean politicians who rarely bow to public pressure. What citizens should focus on is the campaign for more economic reforms to bridge the very large income gap in this prosperous city state.

Political prisoners are now free, an opposition leader is acquitted of a sodomy charge, a chief justice is on trial, and politicians will receive pay cuts. These are inspiring political reforms that have taken place even before the first month of the new year has ended. Aside from the eviction of urban poor residents in Phnom Penh, and the deteriorating conditions of evacuees in flood damaged villages in southern Philippines, 2012 has started remarkably well for Southeast Asia.The January Spring

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