Internal Political Conflict in Southeast Asia: The Root Causes of Conflict during Transitions to Democracy

By Ramcharan, Robin | Geopolitics, History and International Relations, July 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Internal Political Conflict in Southeast Asia: The Root Causes of Conflict during Transitions to Democracy


Ramcharan, Robin, Geopolitics, History and International Relations


Introduction

Democracy has been linked to prevalence of peaceful societies. The theory that democracies do not fight each other led to a major push by the int ernational community to expand democracy globally in the wake of the anticommunist struggle of the Cold War era. The United Nations (UN) peacekeeping and peacebuilding operations, for example, routinely include the development of democracy and the rule of law in post-conflict countries. Recent reviews of UN peacebuilding have pointed out however, that peace and stability may not be well served by a too rapid introduction of democracy and other such liberal policy prescriptions.1

Indeed, the nexus between democracy and peace has also been examined critically from various angles by scholars in light of internal conflict and violent unrest in states undergoing a democratic transition.2 Experts cautioned against the "dark side of democracy" and the rise of "illiberal democracy" (Mann, 1999; Zakaria 2007). During such transitions, the risk of inter-sate war may increase because emerging democracies typically go through a rocky transition period during which they become more conflict prone than states without a changing regime (Daxecker 2007; Mansfield and Snyder 1995). Daxecker notes that substantial change to democracy significantly lowers the risk of conflictual for eign policy behavior . As democracy deepens and strengthens, rates of conflict initiation decrease (ibid., p. 544).

The transition to and deepening of democracy in Southeast Asia is by no means complete, and in fact is a slow, grinding process. Peou's categorization of the 11 polit ical r egimes in Southeast Asia at the end of 2014 clearly revealed the road that democracy had to travel in the region. He classified them as: " undemocratic states " under military dominance (Myanmar, aka Burma, though this may change after the November 2016 election), one under monarchical rule (Brunei), and those with one-communist-party systems (Laos and Vietna m); "more democratic" countr ies such a s those t hat ma intain hegemonic-party regimes, but that are not liberal - Singapore, Malaysia, and Cambodia; and four out of the 11 that can be considered " unconsolidated liberal democratic"- Indonesia, Thailand (until May 2014), the Philippines, a nd T imor -Leste (a ka East T imor ) (Peou, 2014). T his great variety of regimes, inclusive of dictatorial and one party States belied the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' (ASEAN) purposive adoption of democratic governance as a regional norm in its 2007 Charter.

Southeast Asia's multiple transitions to democracy in the last 20 years ha ve bor ne out t he linka ge between democratic transitions a nd int er nal political conflict. It is important for ASEAN, individually and collectively, to identify and address the root causes of conflict during democratic transition processes as the region works towards creating a completed security community, a people-center ed community and an economic community.3 The progression of liberal democracy is arguably an important aspect for the consolidation of all of these but it may well be in regression across the region, with the exception of Indonesia.

This paper4 proceeds by examining the turbulent uptake in democracy, the risks of conflict and the principal factors giving rise to violent political conflict in democratic transitions.

1. The Rocky Uptake in Democracy

The region has experienced an impressive uptake of democratic governance. The Philippines' "People Power" routing of the dictatorial Marcos regime in 1986 was followed by Thailand's first democratic Constitution in 1997 and, a decade later, by the fall of the Suharto regime and Indonesia's first general elections in 1999. Malaysia's democracy also seemed to have taken a positive turn after the departure of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed, who was not shy of bending Constitutional rules (Majid, 2009). In Singapore, a slight opening up of political space followed the passing over of power from Lee Kuan Yew to Goh Chok Tong in 1990 and then to Lee Hsien Loong in 2004, though the ruling People's Action Party is assured to win and the opposition remains weak. …

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