An Arab Spring for Southeast Asia?
Image Credit: Simon Roughneen

An Arab Spring for Southeast Asia?


Malaysia’s electoral reform movement, known as Bersih (clean), succeeded in mobilizing tens of thousands of people in the streets last April. According to organizers, this year’s Bersih was the biggest political rally in the modern history of Malaysia. The government has disputed this claim, but the political impact of Bersih in terms of reinvigorating the ranks of the opposition can’t be denied.   

Bersih proved that it’s more than just a coalition pushing for electoral reforms. Its popularity among the masses, and its brave assertion of its politics through rallies, made it into an important political force in Malaysia. Among the participants of the recent Bersih were opposition personalities, students demanding free tertiary education, civil libertarians, free press advocates, and community activists.

Bersih continues to be Southeast Asia’s shining example of a grassroots initiative, one that has made a huge impact on national politics. In many aspects, it has the potential to spark the region’s “Arab Spring.”

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Meanwhile, Indonesia’s debate over fuel subsidies triggered widespread citizen condemnation across the country. Protests turned into riots in some cities, and at one point some analysts feared that the situation might degenerate into a full-blown political crisis similar to the 1998 riots that led to the downfall of the government. 

Earlier this year, a “sandal protest” became a popular citizen movement in Indonesia after many people reacted to the arrest of a minor accused of stealing a pair of slippers. Thousands of people “donated” sandals to police stations across the country as a form of protest over the harsh penalty handed the young sandal thief.

Some protests received limited public support, such as the religious riots that erupted several times this year. Sectarian violence has damaged Indonesia’s image as a Muslim-dominated nation that still promotes interfaith harmony and tolerance. 

Recently, street protests sprouted up after Indonesians objected to Malaysia’s “stealing” of their country’s cultural heritage.  

But the most surprising citizen protest of the past half year took place in Burma. Residents who had grown weary of daily blackouts went out in the streets last month to protest the ineptitude of their local officials. Candle lighting events spread to big urban centers where young protesters demanded the resignation of energy officials. The spontaneous gathering of Burmese in the streets showed that a growing number of citizens are prepared to defy the iron grip of the military-backed government. 

On the other hand, the communal violence in western Burma that displaced thousands of poor villagers was a big blow to the country’s democratic transition. The riots between the Rohingyas and Arakanese exposed the lingering ethnic tension in the country. But peace assemblies and interfaith dialogues in Rangoon and other cities rose up in response to the violence in Arakan State.

Cambodia’s recent election was relatively peaceful, but it shouldn’t overshadow the continuing eviction of residents from their homes because of the land concessions given by the government to local and foreign companies. In many towns, residents have successfully barricaded their homes. Sadly, the defense of the people’s right to protect their land has led to the rise of killings and arrests of land rights activists in the past six months.

Vietnam’s development projects also generated intense resistance from local residents and anti-mining activists. But the protests against China’s “invasion” of Vietnamese islands received more global attention. Another prominent protest, although online, is related to the continuing detention and persecution of the country’s democracy bloggers

Thailand’s Red Shirts also went back to the streets last month. The rally highlighted the division in the country and the unresolved bickering of various political forces. But the rise of protests against the Lèse Majesté law gave hope that citizens are more inspired to fight for democratic reforms. 

Malaysia’s Bersih, Indonesia’s fuel protests, Burma’s “power revolt,” Indochina’s resistance to development aggression – more and more people in Southeast Asia are starting to express their sentiments by organizing and participating in street demonstrations. This is a positive development that should be encouraged by democracy advocates. But it should be sustained by a more definite plan of action and agenda on how citizen engagement can effectively lead to substantial reforms in governance and policymaking.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief