How Real is the ‘Foreign Intervention’ Threat in Southeast Asia?

Though allegations are common, they are not always grounded in reality.

Several governments and political parties in Southeast Asia have raised the issue of foreign intervention this year.

In Malaysia, the police are probing some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for receiving funds from a foundation owned by American businessman George Soros allegedly in order to topple the ruling party which has been in power since the 1950s. Meanwhile, leaders of Cambodia, Thailand, and the Philippines have accused the European Union and the United States of hypocritically using human rights issues to justify foreign intervention. And in Myanmar, radical Buddhist monks denounced the role of the United Nations and former U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan in addressing the Rohingya refugee crisis which they insist should remain a domestic matter.

Midway to the preparation for the staging of another anti-government Bersih (Bahasa term for Clean) rally in Malaysia scheduled on November 19, a leaked document revealed that the Open Society Foundation owned by Soros intends to promote democratic elections in the country. This was interpreted by some pro-government groups as proof of conspiracy to oust the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak, which is facing numerous corruption scandals.

Groups which reportedly received funds from the foundation include the Bersih movement, Merdeka Center, Bar Council, and alternative news website Malaysiakini. The police are currently investigating these groups and the alleged plot to destabilize the government.

Bersih leader Maria Chin denied accepting funds to oust the government. She emphasized that the aim of Bersih is to promote a free and fair election.

“What is wrong with our agenda (of free and fair elections) that they have to harass us in this manner? It’s really unacceptable,” she said in a media interview.

Malaysiakini CEO Premesh Chandran asserted that the news website is not in the business of “overthrowing” a government.

“Malaysiakini is in the business of holding federal, state and local governments, public officials and the powers that be accountable to the rakyat (people),” he added.

Meanwhile, last June, The Diplomat reported Cambodia’s strong objection to the resolution passed by the European Parliament in relation to the government crackdown of the political opposition. Prime Minister Hun Sen angrily reacted to the warning of the EU to cut aid to Cambodia if political repression will continue in the country. Hun Sen subsequently challenged the EU to stop giving funds while insisting that his country is no puppet of any foreign government.

The Diplomat also reported the fulmination of Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha against a U.S. diplomat when the latter expressed concern about the state of civil liberties under the Junta. Prayut insisted that Thailand is not a colony of the United States.

In Myanmar, radical monks questioned the appointment of foreigners in the State Advisory Commission formed by the Myanmar government to propose solutions on how to end the conflict in Rakhine State between some Buddhist and Muslim groups. In particular, they criticized the decision to appoint Annan in the commission which they believe constitutes an interference in Myanmar’s domestic affairs. They organized protest actions when the former UN leader visited Myanmar, although it was the government which invited him.

And lastly, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has been the most consistent Southeast Asian leader in denouncing the undue influence of developed countries like the United States in the region. He said his government will pursue an independent foreign policy but he rants against the United States every time American leaders and diplomats raise the issue of human rights abuses allegedly committed by Philippine state forces in pursuit of the so-called war on drugs’

It is difficult to ascertain whether a specific act of a government body or a statement of a diplomat can be clearly categorized as foreign intervention. Global superpowers such as China, United States, and Japan have deep economic ties with many countries, including in the Southeast Asian region, and therefore it is quite understandable if they express interest about the political situation of their trading partners. But a simple trade policy pronouncement can also trigger an adverse reaction especially if it would lead to some negative economic results to another country. Then, it can be easily construed as an act of foreign intervention.

These countries have also previously signed various agreements of cooperation to address a myriad of issues such as trafficking, terrorism, poverty, and climate change. They conduct joint military drills, and pursue economic partnerships and scientific exchange programs. But if the relationship turns sour between two countries, a casual remark of a diplomat or a ministerial decision of a government institution can be easily exaggerated as a belligerent move of one country against another.

But even if building a case against a supposedly meddling country is quite hard and complicated, it is politically persuasive to raise the issue.

For one thing, it may be true. It’s no secret that Western governments have had a long and notorious history of installing and toppling regimes in the region and elsewhere to advance their geopolitical interests. Regime changes can be done by instigating conflicts and also through covert means.

Politicians in the region can cite the nefarious legacy of colonialism and neocolonialism to convince their constituents that global superpowers continue to behave like a colonial master. They can harness an extreme variant of nationalist sentiment among the population which they can tap in support of various self-serving political goals.

But it is highly probable that the issue of foreign intervention is also being invoked to distract the attention of the local population. The call to resist arrogant and hypocritical foreigners is a powerful and credible appeal. It has the potential to mobilize popular support for a beleaguered government accused of committing human rights abuses and grand thievery.

This year, we saw how many leaders in Southeast Asia rallied their people to defend the sovereignty of their lands against foreign aggressors.

The patriotic plea is valid since it represents a counter movement to a type of globalization that is seen by many to be biased in favor of rich and powerful countries. But a growing number of citizens are also becoming aware that this political appeal also serves the narrow interest of ruling parties which aim to discredit legitimate demands for transparency, accountability, and rule of law. As citizens aspiring to build a democratic society, they refuse to be complicit in promoting a partisan agenda that they fear will disempower the people in the long run.

In summary, while it is generally appropriate and relevant to repel the interventionist policy of global superpowers, it is equally rational to be critical every time corrupt and tyrannical leaders raise the specter of real and imagined foreign interventions in their countries.