War, Elections, and Sexuality

Conflict and sex scandals have been dominating the headlines in Southeast Asia so far this year.

War, elections, and teenage sexuality are the top media stories of the first quarter of the year, at least as far as Southeast Asia is concerned.

The border dispute between Cambodia and Thailand has grabbed global attention because of intensified fighting between the two sides' troops since February. The recent skirmishes have already resulted in dozens of deaths and injuries while also forcing the evacuation of thousands of civilians living near the border.

The stability of the region is at stake if this little war between two formerly friendly neighbours explodes into a full-blown confrontation. It could even ignite numerous other border disputes in the region that  remain unsettled to this day. The big loser here, of course, is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which proved to be extremely ineffective in resolving what was supposed to be just a minor border spat.

Perhaps ASEAN leaders failed to see the need to intervene in the Thailand-Cambodia row since their leaders were too focused on winning their respective local elections. Singapore, for instance, will go to the polls this weekend while a state election in Sarawak, Malaysia was held last month. Vietnam’s Communist Party elected its new Central Committee last January, while Laos elected new members of parliament last week. Meanwhile, newly-elected members of Burma’s parliament began work at the start of the year. Thailand’s Prime Minister, on the other hand, has agreed to dissolve his parliament so that elections can take place in July.

Malaysia’s ruling party dominated the Sarawak polls, but its comfortable lead in past elections was substantially reduced and its diminished numbers could hurt its chances in the next national elections.

Singapore’s ruling party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), is also encountering a similar problem as it struggles to retain its dominance in the coming general elections. For the first time since capturing state power in 1959, the PAP isn’t certain of achieving a landslide victory in the polls as it finds itself alienated from the young electorate. Furthermore, opposition parties seem more successful in articulating the problems faced by Singaporeans today.

Wars and elections have clearly loomed large in the past four months in the region, but Southeast Asians were also entertained, distracted, and scandalized by stories of sexuality. For example, in Thailand, the annual Songkran Water Festival was overshadowed by news about three topless teenagers dancing on top of a car in Bangkok. The incident generated an intense debate on what constitutes Thai culture and morality.

In Malaysia, alleged sex videos of opposition personalities were exposed, but it’s been news of a government boot camp for suspected gay youth that’s really bothered many people. The boot camp was readied in the state of Terengganu for 66 male secondary students who supposedly showed ‘some feminine characteristics,’ in order ‘to correct their behaviour.’ Many were shocked with this proposed treatment, but were in the end relieved to learn from authorities that the camp isn’t intended just for effeminate youths.  

In the Philippines, a popular TV host was accused of child abuse when a child contestant in a variety programme was forced to perform a sexy dance number. The show was eventually suspended as local TV networks reviewed their rules and standards governing child performers.

Let’s hope that the rest of the year will prove more positive for everyone in this region.