New Year’s Predictions for Southeast Asia (Part 2)

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New Year’s Predictions for Southeast Asia (Part 2)

Counting down the top five predictions for 2015.

New Year’s Predictions for Southeast Asia (Part 2)
Credit: ahmad syauki

Following up from last week, I am now counting down my top five predictions for 2015.

5. Jokowi wins over majority of parliament

Currently, Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s coalition still lacks a majority in parliament, which is hindering Jokowi’s ability to pass legislation. But by the end of 2015, I think Jokowi’s party, PDI-P, will be at the head of a coalition that includes of majority of members of parliament. Jokowi has for weeks been wooing former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), whose Democrat Party lawmakers could, if they switched from the opposition to Jokowi’s coalition, give Jokowi a majority in parliament. Although Yudhoyono and PDI-P chief Megawati Sukarnoputri still reportedly detest each other, SBY and Jokowi have reportedly gotten along well at a series of private meetings since early December. In addition, SBY, who always saw himself as a major figure in Indonesian history, clearly is worried that people will remember only his behavior at the end of his second term, when he did nothing as the opposition in parliament passed legislation that would drastically reduce the number of direct elections for regional governors and other local offices. This is a strikingly anti-democratic piece of legislation, and one that, polls show, is not supported by most Indonesians. (SBY also probably still hopes to eventually find some sort of senior job at the United Nations or another global agency, for which his reputation matters as well.) Now, SBY may be trying to move the Democrat Party into Jokowi’s camp to show the public that Yudhoyono will fight to maintain direct elections, and to bask in some of the reflected Jokowi’s democratic glow.

4. The NLD dominates Myanmar elections

In the run-up to next fall’s national elections in Myanmar, some analysts have begun suggesting that the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, might not win such an overwhelming victory as it did in 1990, or in by-elections held in 2012, when the NLD won nearly every seat contested. The military and its favored party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), have allegedly already begun handing out money, and surely will provide more handouts as Election Day gets closer. In addition, the USDP is the party of President Thein Sein, who helped launch Myanmar’s reform process; many foreign analysts, still besotted with Thein Sein despite Myanmar’s backsliding in 2013 and 2014, believe the linkage to Thein Sein will help win the USDP seats next year. In addition, the NLD remains a party too dominated by Suu Kyi and lacking an effective apparatus for research, for developing policy positions, and potentially for governing.

It won’t matter. The NLD is going to sweep the polls in late 2015, though Suu Kyi will remain barred from the presidency by the Myanmar constitution, and the Myanmar military will continue to wield excessive power through its allocation of 25 percent of seats in parliament and through its enormous network of various security forces throughout the country. Then, the NLD will have to govern. The party’s policy weaknesses will be exposed, it will have to work with a president other than Suu Kyi – perhaps current parliament speaker Shwe Mann – and it will face the tough task of trying to slowly reduce the military’s influence over politics. But the NLD will win the election, and win big.

3. Hillary Clinton walks back her embrace of Burma policy

As she lays plans in 2015 to run for president, Hillary Clinton will have to grapple with the legacy of U.S. rapprochement with Myanmar, which Clinton helped launch as secretary of state in Barack Obama’s first term. Up to now, Clinton has continued to point to this rapprochement as a highlight of her time as secretary, a foreign policy victory in which the United States helped spark reform in one of the most isolated nations in the world. Clinton made Myanmar a central success story in Hard Choices, her book on her time as secretary. Yet since 2013, Myanmar’s political reforms have stalled, and though the NLD will win the 2015 election, its victory will hardly guarantee a return to democracy. Instead, the country is likely to face chaos, as the NLD fights the military and its allies to retain control of the government, civil strife continues in several parts of the country, and violence against Muslims rises. A consummate strategist, Clinton will find some way in 2015 to write herself out of the troubled story of U.S.-Myanmar rapprochement.

2. Southeast Asia survives (and even thrives on) low oil prices

Low oil prices already have wreaked havoc on Russia, Venezuela, Mexico, Brazil, and other oil producers, particularly those whose state companies, like Gazprom or Petrobras, have issued large amounts of corporate debt. Cheap oil will hurt some Southeast Asian countries that are significant exporters, like Brunei, Malaysia, and, to some extent, Vietnam. Of all the large Southeast Asian economies, Malaysia, which has developed a range of sophisticated oil-related industries that together account for about 30 percent of GDP, will be hurt worst. Yet none of these countries’ state petroleum companies have issued as high the levels of debt as Gazprom or Petrobras. Despite Malaysia’s many economic challenges, its state oil company, Petronas, is well-managed, a far cry from Petrobras, which is now facing a massive corruption scandal.

In addition, the drop in the price of oil will be a huge boon to Indonesia, significantly cushioning the impact of President Joko Widodo’s recent cut in fuel subsidies – and possibly allowing Indonesian consumers to spend more on other items, helping goose the economy. Cheaper oil also will be a boon to consuming nations like Thailand, the Philippines, and other oil consumers in the region.

1. Congress smacks down Barack Obama’s policies

Granted, that could be a headline related to almost any foreign or domestic policy issue in 2015; you have an incoming Congress dominated by the GOP, with leaders angry that, after the November elections, President Obama issued several groundbreaking executive orders that will transform relations with Cuba, immigration, and climate change.

But on Southeast Asia, Congress has always played a much larger role than it has played in many other areas of foreign policy. Congress has for two decades been central to policy-making on Myanmar, Vietnam, and other authoritarian states in mainland Southeast Asia, partly successive presidents mostly ignored these countries, partly because of the legacy of American wars in mainland Southeast Asia, and partly because of genuine concern in Congress that American presidents, of both parties, ignored human rights abuses throughout Southeast Asia. Seeing a void in policy-making, Congress imposed tough sanctions on Myanmar, injected human rights questions into U.S.-Vietnam rapprochement, restricted U.S. military sales to Vietnam, Indonesia, and other countries in the region, and took other measures over the past two decades to make human rights a centerpiece of U.S. policy toward Southeast Asia.

Combine Congress’s historical interest in Southeast Asia with anger at Obama and you have a recipe for a Congress active on Southeast Asia issues, and possibly hostile to the administration’s efforts to build relations with Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, and Malaysia, all of which are authoritarian states of one kind or another. New Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell long has been a hawk on Myanmar, critical of the Myanmar military and skeptical of the chances of reform there. Though McConnell warily went along with the Obama administration’s plan for rapprochement with Myanmar, the slowdown in Myanmar’s reforms and a desire by the White House to continue moving forward with closer military to military ties with Myanmar are likely to lead to pushback from McConnell’s office, especially if the Myanmar constitution remains rigged so that Suu Kyi cannot become president. Other Republican senators also clearly see Myanmar as an issue on which they can stake their human rights bona fides, and question Obama’s commitment to rights as well.  As Roll Call noted earlier in the year:

McConnell certainly isn’t alone in taking interest in the development of Myanmar’s political system. Fellow Republican Sens. Mark S. Kirk of Illinois and Marco Rubio of Florida fired off a joint letter to Kerry Thursday, asking him to address political issues while in the country. In addition to the specific problems with the constitution, Kirk and Rubio point to ongoing human rights abuses and what they term “the national phenomenon of anti-Muslim violence that is rooted in a narrative of Buddhist grievance.

Expect similar congressional pushback on other human rights-related issues in Southeast Asia, including the administration’s rapprochement with Cambodia and Malaysia, the White House’s desire to move quickly toward significant arms sales to Vietnam, and many other issues.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. This post appears courtesy of