SOUTHEAST ASIA IN 2004: Stable, but Facing Major Security Challenges

Article excerpt

During 2004, Southeast Asia's political and security scene featured significant domestic developments in several of its states (notably Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Singapore), the continued salience of internal security challenges including a new outbreak of separatist-inspired violence in Thailand's Muslim south as well as the threat from the pan-regional Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) network, the growing interest of extra-regional powers in the sub-region's security, and continuing efforts to make ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) a more useful vehicle for security cooperation. At the year's end, the massive impact of the tsunami generated by the earthquake off Sumatra created humanitarian crises for Indonesia and Thailand, raising the question of whether governments in the region had paid sufficient practical attention to "human security" issues.

Domestic Political Developments

In the three Southeast Asian states where there were national elections during 2004, the popular vote favoured strong leadership and programmatic agendas over charisma, as well as secularism where there was a choice of an Islamist alternative. In Malaysia, the March 2004 general election saw the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, dominated by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), reelected in a landslide victory bringing it 198 out of 219 parliamentary seats, its greatest ever majority. Crucially, the number of parliamentary seats held by PAS (Parti Islam Se Malaysia, the Malaysian Islamic Party), which had become the largest opposition force in parliament following the previous general election in 1999, fell from 27 to 7. In simultaneous state-level elections, the BN regained control of Terengganu from PAS. The election result resoundingly affirmed the popularity of new Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who had succeeded Dr Mahathir Mohamad in November 2003. However, the redrawing of electoral boundaries, the use of the Internal Security Act against opposition politicians, the government's highlighting of apparent links between PAS and terrorist suspects, and the intolerant image projected by PAS all contributed to the BN's massive win. Having secured an overwhelming electoral victory, in early September Abdullah signalled his political confidence by acquiescing in the release of imprisoned opposition leader, former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, His damaged health apparently restored after surgery in Germany, but cold-shouldered by UMNO, Anwar commenced a struggle to turn the minor Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People's Justice Party), founded in 1999 primarily to fight for his release from jail, into a credible political machine in time for the next general election, due in 2008/9.1

In the Philippines' national election in May, incumbent President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was re-elected, narrowly defeating her leading challenger, Fernando Poe Junior, a well-known movie star. Despite his utter lack of political experience, the charismatic Poe - a friend of Arroyo's presidential predecessor, Joseph Estrada - was endorsed by a three-party opposition coalition as well as a clique of 50 retired senior military officers and had great appeal for poorer Filipinos. Nevertheless, Poe's inexperience, the advantages accruing to Arroyo as incumbent, the business elite's strong backing for her, and the lustre added to her campaign by her vice-presidential candidate, former TV news-show host Noli De Castro, were all factors that contributed to the result. Although in July the kidnapping of a Filipino worker in Iraq created a political crisis for Arroyo, this was defused (at least domestically) by the early withdrawal of Philippine forces and the release of the hostage. Meanwhile, Poe and his supporters contested the election result. The filmstar's death in December initially sparked fears on the government's part that its opponents, including military officers and Estrada, might exploit the funeral to incite a revolt aimed at installing a seven-person junta with Poe's wife, Susan Roces, as figurehead president. …