Victory by Aung San Suu Kyi in the Myanmar elections should provide a much needed tonic for free speech advocates across a region where countries often win comparisons with the banana republics of central America in the 1980s. Whether her win — with an estimated 75 to 80 percent of the vote — can propel the National League for Democracy (NLD) into government is another question.
Despite the applause, this election was unfair, with the military guaranteed 25 percent of the seats in parliament and constitutional protection for corrupt former generals and the crony elite. Myanmar’s success will depend on whether or not the generals are prepared to bow to a civilian administration. History would suggest not.
But within ASEAN — and with its launch of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in less than two months time — the Myanmar polls were a breath of fresh air in a region grappling with free speech and democratic issues.
“For the rest of ASEAN, this election is a wake up call and a much needed boost for democracy,” said Michael Vatikiotis, Asia regional director of the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, a conflict resolution organization.
“In countries like Cambodia and Malaysia, the opposition struggles to make a dent on long term power holders, even when they do well in the polls,” Vatikiotis said. “In Thailand, the military has put democratic politics in a deep freeze.”
“So when the opposition wins as it has in Myanmar, and the military establishment accommodates a transfer of power, as seems likely, this sends a powerful message to neighboring countries.”
In Thailand, the junta has reigned in the press with a tight leash since ousting an elected government in May last year, forcing many journalists to flee their own country.
Vatikiotis said the Thai political context suddenly seems far less advanced than that of Myanmar. “I would not be surprised to see Thai civil society activists spending more time on the Myanmar side of the border, and pressure on the Thai military to speed up a return to pluralistic politics so as not to endure the shame of falling behind their western neighbor,” he said.
In the Philippines, authorities are still struggling to prosecute militias responsible for the worst massacre of journalists ever in Maguindanao six years ago.
Malaysia, where Prime Minister Najib Razak has been besieged by one scandal after another, is not that much different. The New York-based Human Rights Watch claimed in its latest report that peaceful expression has been criminalized by authorities in order to silence their critics.
In neighboring Indonesia, the recent Ubud Writers and Readers Festival events commemorating the massacre of about 500,000 people during the 1965 crackdown on communism were canceled, casting doubts over the integrity of the festival and a government that came to power amid promises of reform.
No such issues were evident at its sister festival, the Kampot Writers and Readers Festival, launched for the first time last week in Cambodia. The country is often cast as a regional villain by free speech advocates who live there, but Cambodia has perhaps the freest media in the region.
Within the 10-nation ASEAN bloc, elections remain an anathema for the entrenched powers of Brunei, Vietnam, and Laos, while in Thailand all powerful General Prayut Chan-o-cha has said he likes the idea of remaining in power forever.
Leaders in Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines are the sons of former leaders, while family ties in politics remain just as strong in Indonesia, Cambodia, and in Myanmar too. Suu Kyi’s father Aung San is loved by many as the founder of his modern-day Myanmar but loathed by others for his collaboration with the Japanese during World War II.
No country within Southeast Asia is a role model for democratic pluralism, an irritating fact given the possibilities that will emerge with the AEC which, if measured as a single country, would rank seventh in the world in terms of GDP. Nevertheless the Myanmar elections deserve to be celebrated. The 80 percent voter turnout figure is very high and proof that people in their millions believe in their right to free speech and a say in who governs them, even if their leaders all too often fail to measure up.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt