National Post Online, Canada June 11, 1999
Asian regimes cast wary eye at Indonesia's democracy
JAKARTA - This week's elections here have changed the political map of Southeast Asia, and some regional regimes will not like it.
Indonesia's rapid transformation from a dictatorship to one of the world's largest democracies is the fall of a big domino in an area that prefers more predictable politics.
Malaysia, Singapore and Burma will view the change with apprehension. Repression in Indonesia has helped them justify a lack of political reform at home. Indeed, the Indonesia reforms may plant similar seeds in totalitarian countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), such as Vietnam and Laos.
The transition in Indonesia puts immediate pressure on neighbouring Malaysia, where Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has frequently cited unrest against the former Indonesian dictator Suharto as a reason to resist democratization at home. However, the reform movement has already spread to Malaysia, infecting many in the middle class with hopes of toppling Mr. Mahathir.
Many believe the prime minister's determination to maintain power is behind the campaign to discredit former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, who last year embraced the reform movement. Earlier this year Mr. Anwar was convicted of abuse of power and sentenced to six years in jail, after a trial that few observers saw as a compelling display of justice. He now faces charges of sodomy, in a new trial that has begun with equally unconvincing evidence.
In Burma, the Indonesian reform has already caused heartburn among the military rulers. In a tortuous process, the Burmese junta has tried to craft a constitution based on Indonesia's structure in the Suharto years, which gave the military a central and often decisive role in the political process.
But one of the first acts of Indonesia's transitional government, headed by President B.J. Habibie, was to sharply decrease the number of soldiers appointed to parliament. This has flummoxed the Burmese regime, which has fallen back on ever harsher repression of the pro-democracy movement. But there are now signs the junta recognizes this is not a long-term formula for success.
The tiny island state of Singapore, with its highly sophisticated systems of social and political control, is a slightly different case. The ruling People's Action Party keeps its iron fist well covered by a velvet glove, but action against political opponents remains swift and sure.
Political opposition in Singapore remains rudimentary and quixotic. Among the young, however, there are signs of unwillingness to slot into the tidy and virtuous roles set out for them by the paternal state. It seems unlikely Singapore could long survive as a haven of regimentation in a neighbourhood of social and political freedom.
Indonesia's transition will remain confused for a while. By yesterday, only about 10% of the votes had actually been counted.
After the slow process of tabulating the election results is finally concluded, alliances will have to be formed in the new parliament, and the loyalties of provincial and military representatives sorted out. Then the 700-member electoral college will convene in November to choose a new president and government