LDESP ASIA-PACIFIC NEWS UPDATE: March 2014
The focus of the 28 March 2014 edition of the LDESP Indo-Asia Pacific News Update is on politics and security in Thailand and the Philippines. Please click here to view the document without having to login.
In Review: Politics and Security in Thailand and the Philippines
“The Thai Malaise,” Foreign Policy
“Thailand Remains in Political Limbo; Hope of Economic Recovery in Q2 is Dashed,” International Business Times
“Thailand’s Political Crisis: Shutting Down the Shutdown,” The Economist
Philippines News Headlines: military/defense reform, governance, South China Sea dispute
This month’s News Update focuses on political events in Thailand and security in the Philippines. While news from these two countries often focuses on their economic promise, in recent months, both Indo-Asia-Pacific countries have experienced changes in terms of their politics and security respectively.
Turning first to the political crisis in Thailand, the story seems to be part of the same trend seen around the world: mass protests, anti-corruption opposition, and harsh government crackdowns. Duncan Mccargo a professor at University of Leeds and an associate fellow at Chatham House provides a useful socio-political background in Foreign Policy describing the lead-up to the country’s crisis today – “The Thai Malaise” is excerpted below:
“Back in November , the opposition Democrat Party demanded the dissolution of parliament and fresh elections, but once Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra — who still had 18 months of her term left — called a snap election for Feb. 2, it soon became clear that the Democrats were refusing to play ball.
The Democrats, Thailand’s oldest political party, have transformed themselves into the kind of protest movement their leaders had always professed to despise. Not only did the party boycott the election, but it also backed moves to disrupt the polls by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) (an anti-government protest movement led by former Democrat Secretary-General and Deputy Premier Suthep Thueksuban), which announced plans to shut down Bangkok from Jan. 13 on, blocking key intersections across the city. Protesters continue to hold the city hostage. Most recently, on the morning on Feb. 18, three protesters were shot and 64 injured as police attempted to break up the demonstration.
After preventing advance polling across much of Bangkok and the south on Jan. 26 — during which one protest leader was shot dead — protestors followed a prominent Buddhist monk into a violent altercation with pro-government groups in the Bangkok district of Lak Si on Feb. 1. Soon after the election, the Democrats announced that they were bringing legal action against the Yingluck government for pressing ahead with an “illegitimate” election. For the Democrats, any election won by parties linked to the demonized former premier Thaksin Shinawatra was inherently illegitimate, however convincing the margin of victory.
Voter turnout for the Feb. 2 general election was just under 48 percent overall (compared to 75 percent in the 2011 election), not bad considering that voting was virtually impossible in several southern provinces where the opposition was able to shut down the electoral process. The controversial military-backed referendum to approve the 2007 constitution secured a comparable turnout of just under 57 percent. Overall, nearly 75 percent of those who voted in 2014 supported the government. Split ballots and “no” votes were up compared to the most recent elections.
As Thailand’s leading political blogger, Bangkok Pundit, noted, a more useful comparison might be to the 2006 snap election called under similar circumstances by Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, during his time as prime minister. Democrats boycotted the 2006 poll as well, but actively campaigned for a “no” vote. As a result, nearly a third voted “no” — compared to the mere 17 percent that did in 2014. There is no solid basis for assuming that most of those who failed to vote, or who cast “no” votes, in a boycotted and violently disrupted general election, were people who would otherwise have voted for the Democrat Party — though some were certainly disappointed by lackluster local members of parliament from the ruling party.
What the Feb. 2 elections most clearly illustrate is the growing political chasm that separates greater Bangkok and the country’s south from its less affluent but more populous regions in the north and northeast. The latter have long been strongholds of support for Yingluck and Thaksin, who was elected largely because of his appeals to urbanized villagers, Thais with rural origins who dream of making it to middle-class standards of living. Because of Thailand’s hidden “caste system” — which is linked to popular Buddhist notions that the poor deserve their lower status because of accumulated demerits from previous lives — Bangkokians typically have a profoundly paternalistic view of the masses. Thaksin’s populist, can-do message, the stuff of self-help books, resonated deeply with many voters in the north and northeast. The leaders of the current anti-government protests — many of whom come from Bangkok — constantly deride these voters as ignorant and susceptible to electoral manipulation and vote-buying. Worse still, these anti-government protesters accuse pro-Thaksin voters of disloyalty to the Thai nation and the monarchy. On Jan. 26, I heard one rally speaker declare that those who had taken part in advance voting did not really love Thailand, and were probably in fact Cambodians casting fake ballots.
How did Thailand reach this sorry state of affairs? Pro-Thaksin parties have won six successive general elections since 2001, while the opposition Democrats have failed to win a convincing election victory in almost 30 years. The conservative establishment, comprising the Democrats, the military, the network monarchy, and the judiciary, have made numerous failed attempts to drive a stake through the heart of this controversial politician: a military coup, election annulment, party dissolution (twice), and criminal conviction on corruption-related charges. Because he faces a two-year jail term, Thaksin has not set foot in Thailand for nearly six years, yet he remains the single most important non-royal Thai by far. If you just listen to the vitriolic, nauseating rhetoric at the nightly anti-government rallies at multiple locations around Bangkok, you would think Thaksin and his sister were the country’s biggest political problems. In fact, Thailand faces two huge parallel challenges, neither of which is of Thaksin’s making:
The first challenge is national anxiety about the country’s future. Rama 9, King Bhumibol, the world’s longest serving monarch, is now 86 years old. Who will succeed him, and what will happen as a result, is the focus of endless gossip among Thais. A lot of the protestors’ anti-Thaksin sentiment reflects their view that the influential former premier must not have any hand in managing the delicate succession process.
The second challenge, seen in attempts to disrupt voting in Bangkok and elsewhere, concerns the logic of electoral politics. Now that voters in the north and northeast have been mobilized to vote as a bloc, the Bangkok middle classes and their southern allies face the real prospect that they will never again choose a government to their liking. Thailand has moved into a phase of majoritarianism, in which pro-Thaksin governments will be able to run the country with virtual impunity for the foreseeable future. Affluent Bangkokians have finally grasped the logic of electoral democracy: they are permanently outnumbered by the rural masses. (Foreign Policy)
More recently, just as CNN reported that “Thailand Lifts States of Emergency in Bangkok, Tourism Industry Hopeful,” the Constitutional Court – reestablished under the 2007 Constitution to interpret the legality of parliamentary acts, royal decrees, draft legislation, political appointments – nullified the 2 February elections after the opposition mounted a legal bid also petitioning for a dissolution of the prime minister’s ruling party. In late March, Sophie Song writing for the International Business Times explains the economic implications as “Thailand Remains in Political Limbo; Hope of Economic Recovery in Q2 is Dashed”:
“The nullification on 21 March of the February election, which was challenged by the opposition Democrat Party (DP), was not surprising, but it leaves the country in a bind as a prolonged power vacuum and increasing risks to stability worsen. One senior political figure said of the nullified election, “We are back to square one,” according to a research note from Nomura on 22 March.
A number of changes would have to be made if another round of elections were to happen, and the DP has made it clear that if Yingluck Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai Party follows the same election process as the one in February, it will once again boycott the election. With this latest development, any hope of a second-quarter economic recovery is unlikely.
The Bank of Thailand (BoT) recognizes these rising downside growth risks. Last week it downgraded its 2014 GDP forecast to 2.7 percent, “which is closer to our 2.5 percent projection,” Capital Economics analysts wrote in a March 24 research note. “However, both forecasts are starting to look on the high side given the growing risks of a protracted political gridlock.” (International Business Times)
However, an update from The Economist implies that there has been a stalling of the opposition’s efforts. Excerpted below, “Thailand’s Political Crisis: Shutting Down the Shutdown”:
“FIFTY-THREE days after anti-government protesters vowed to “shut down” the world’s most-visited city in a bid to “restart” Thailand, they have been forced to quit their programme. Or perhaps rather to “minimise” its window: from the city streets to a public park in Bangkok.
Suddenly, any relaunch of Thailand’s failed people’s revolution looks unlikely. Suthep Thaugsuban, the leader of a series of anti-government protests, now in its fourth month, which has been aimed at ridding Thailand of the influence of the ruling Shinawatra clan, even apologised for the inconvenience that has been caused. Rally sites at key intersections in central Bangkok are to be dismantled, while some others are to be left in place, for now. This development will not, however, end the battle over the government’s legitimacy.
What it does show is that the risk of widespread social and economic failure has begun to register with the main protagonists: the army; the government; and finally Mr Suthep, the de facto leader of Thailand’s opposition. At least 23 people, including children, have been killed and hundreds more injured since the end of October. Earlier this week young men engaged in shoot-outs in central Bangkok. And everywhere incomes have been hit hard. One estimate puts the economic loss caused by the protests at $15 billion and warns that it could quickly double—by which point it would have destroyed income equal to the vast wealth of the royal palace.
The ugly truth at the centre of Thailand’s ideological conflict is that both sides would prefer to see the other side drop dead. And neither is about to commit suicide. In the past, the king could have told Mr Suthep to accept a compromise. But the monarch is old and frail. In his stead, the army, as the real power behind the throne, has taken action. Days before Mr Suthep’s apparent retreat, the army chief had in effect warned him and his sympathisers—in the military ranks, the civil service, the judiciary and the royal palace—that coups d’état are no longer on the menu.
For the army knows it is not welcome. Above all, it fears the sort of backlash that is already brewing among the more militant “red shirts”, the supporters of the prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, and her brother Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister. The mood among the reds has changed strikingly since February 19th, when a court ruled against them. Its judgment, that the anti-government protests were “peaceful” and that the police must not break them up, infuriated them; the ruling was a signal to their more radical factions that they might as well take up arms too. One red-shirt leader has vowed to recruit 600,000 young men for a new, pro-government Democracy Protection Volunteers Group. Whether or not he is regarded as a nutcase, he is not alone in drawing a hard line: there is to be no coup, military or judicial—or else. On March 1st unidentified men sprayed gunfire at the home of the mother of one of the protest leaders (who had, a few days earlier, chased the former wife of Mr Thaksin from a posh shopping centre).
Mr Suthep’s apparent climbdown comes only days after the red shirts began copying his tactics and laid siege to a government institution. On February 26th they built a wall of sand and crushed stones to block the gates of the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), north of Bangkok. The NACC is set to impeach Ms Yingluck over her government’s signature policy, a lavish rice-subsidy scheme. If she were found guilty, Ms Yingluck and many senior figures in her Pheu Thai party could be removed from office and banned from politics for five years.
The case appears open-ended and its outcome uncertain. In that respect it is very much like the government’s bid to complete a national election, without which it cannot convene parliament and stay in power. For that matter, it is also like those assurances by the opposition Democrat Party, when it says that it favours elections over the anti-government protesters’ demand for an appointed “people’s council”. It was the same Democrats who boycotted the polls on February 2nd, and who stand in the way of the government’s attempts to build a quorum for the next parliament.
The notion that Mr Suthep’s revolution is responding to a popular demand for better governance now looks bizarre, if not incomprehensible. In one of the thousands of tents staked in Lumpini Park, the new headquarters of the revolution, large letters printed in English seek to explain: “Western observers please understand that this is our democratic reform in progress. You had yours, let us have ours!”.
Were Mr Suthep’s revolution to regain its strength and to triumph, against the odds, it would be startling. But then the scale of the backlash against his movement could be even more shocking. Mr Suthep claims to want to protect the country and the monarchy. A less charitable view has it that he has been trying to protect the traditional elite’s political and economic control over Thailand’s resources—to defend the status quo that another revolution, the Siamese coup d’état of 1932, once tried but failed to overcome.
It appears that it has dawned on the army that Mr Suthep’s bid to preserve the role of the establishment might well backfire. Safer for everyone, then, that his insurrection should be boxed into a public park.” (The Economist)
Philippines Prepares for Historical Peace Deal
Weeks before Benigno Aquino III was elected president of the Philippines in 2010, the rebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) hosted a secret meeting with a high-ranking US embassy official and two American dignitaries. The impending national elections and the stalled peace talks in the southern Philippines dominated dinner conversation. Discussing the leading candidate for the presidency, one unimpressed rebel leader said the peace talks were “too complicated for Senator Aquino to understand”.
Four years into his presidency, Aquino is set to oversee the signing of a final peace agreement with the MILF, the country’s largest Muslim rebel group. Supporters hope the deal creating the autonomous Bangsamoro region will bring an end to 40 years of armed conflict in Mindanao that has killed at least 120,000 people and displaced more than two million. It is expected to be signed this Thursday, March 27.
But now comes the real test: implementing the deal. Threats from armed splinter groups remain, and Aquino still faces doubts over his ability to deliver what he had promised against the backdrop of lingering distrust between Christians and the Muslim minority. Since the 1970s, Philippine leaders – including Aquino’s mother Corazon Aquino, president from 1986 to 1992 – have tried and failed to end the violence in the south. “We all know that this process will be very challenging,” Miriam Ferrer, the government’s top negotiator, told Al Jazeera. “President Aquino is very committed to use his political capital for the effective implementation of everything that has been signed.” Ferrer said Aquino understands that only a “meaningful autonomy” for the Philippines’ estimated 10.3 million Muslims can bring peace in the restive southern islands, and drive economic growth in a region long considered to be the poorest in the country.
A popular president
With an approval rating above 70 percent in December 2013 and presiding over an economy that has grown by an average of 6.3 percent per year during his time in office, Aquino has expendable political capital. He is serving a single six-year term as president, so he does not have to worry about re-election. And his party controls both chambers of congress, which is expected to ratify the agreement.
In exchange for the creation of the Bangsamoro (from the words bansa, or nation; and Moro, or Muslim) and a government with its own budget and police powers, the MILF has given up its violent struggle for an independent state, promising to turn in the weapons of the more than 15,000 rebel fighters.
Steven Rood, Asia Foundation’s representative in the Philippines and an adviser to the peace talks, credited MILF Chairman Al-Hajj Murad Ebrahim for being “realistic” during the negotiations, accepting a territory smaller than what was claimed in the 1973 agreement in Tripoli, Libya. That original deal covered areas dominated by Christians, triggering years of bloody conflict.
“While there might be some dreams of sufficient agreement and relations between the communities, the fact of the matter is that the Christian community does not want to be part of a Muslim-dominated region,” Rood told Al Jazeera. “They don’t mind having a Muslim-dominated region next door, if it is a peaceful one. But even if it is peaceful, they don’t want to be part of it.”
A year after his election, Aquino held a secret meeting with rebel leader Ebrahim, in Tokyo, Japan – an encounter roundly criticised as “ill-advised” by allies of the president, and called “an act of treason” by an unnamed Philippine diplomat.
But not everyone is in favour of the deal. Julkipli Wadi, dean of Islamic studies at the University of the Philippines, said other Muslim rebel groups such as the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) of Nur Misuari have been excluded from the talks.
He also pointed to the “factionalisation” of different rebel groups in Mindanao. He said that while the MILF negotiated with the government, some of its members who favoured an armed struggle for independence left and formed the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which have been involved in bloody skirmishes with the Philippine military in recent months.
The government insists the current peace deal is different, allowing for broader representation from different forces within the region – such as women, youth and indigenous people. The new Bangsamoro government will also receive 75 percent of taxes collected in the region, 75 percent of revenues from metallic minerals and some control of fishing territories. (Al Jazeera)
Philippines to Spend $524m on Military Aircraft
The Philippines said on 22 March it will buy $524.7-million worth of aircraft from South Korea and Canada as part of a military upgrade amid territorial disputes with superpower neighbour China. The contracts to be signed on March 28 will include the purchase of 12 FA-50 fighter jets from state-run Korea Aerospace Industries for 18.9 billion pesos (US$417.95 million), Defence Undersecretary Fernando Manalo told reporters. State-owned Canadian Commercial Corp. will meanwhile be contracted to supply eight Bell 412 combat utility helicopters worth 4.8 billion pesos, with the first three helicopters expected to be delivered next year, he added. “This is significant because it will give our armed forces the minimum capability to demonstrate their ability to perform their responsibilities,” he added. The Philippines has embarked on a 75-billion-peso effort to upgrade its armed forces, particularly units tasked with patrolling disputed territory in the South China Sea. These units are dwarfed by those of neighbouring China, which claims most of the area, including waters and islets much closer to the Philippines. The Philippines has already acquired two refurbished frigates from the US coastguard as part of its military modernisation programme. China said its coastguard on March 9 blocked two Philippine-flagged vessels approaching Second Thomas Shoal, which is guarded by a small group of Filipino marines but is also claimed by Beijing. (Channel News Asia)
Philippines Arrests Top Maoist Rebels, Boosting Aquino Peace Bid
The Philippine military yesterday arrested the top two leaders of a 45-year-old Maoist rebel group for crimes including murder, in a move seen to boost President Benigno Aquino’s drive against insurgency. Benito Tiamzon, chairman of the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing the New People’s Army, his wife Wilma Austria, the second-in-command, and five others were arrested in Aloguinsan town in Cebu in central Philippines.
“The arrests will cripple their organization since they are in charge of command and control,” Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala, a military spokesman, said by telephone. He didn’t give other details of the arrests. The National Democratic Front, the Maoist group’s political organization, demanded the immediate release of Tiamzon and Austria in a statement on its website, saying that under an agreement with the government in the 1990s they are immune from arrest during the peace negotiations. The talks between the government and the group, estimated by the military to have as many as 4,000 fighters, have been at an impasse since February 2011 after the rebels pressed for the release of their arrested members before proceeding. “This is a huge blow that could weaken the organization,” said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform in Manila. “They are known hardliners against the peace talks. This will strengthen the hand of those who want to pursue the peace process.” The rebel group says it has close to 10,000 high-powered firearms, from nine when it was founded in 1969. The Communist Party will celebrate its 45th founding anniversary on March 29. (…) The arrests of Tiamzon and Austria “does not change our basic stance that peace negotiations with the CPP-NPA can only proceed with a clear and time-bound agenda that provides some possibility of bringing us closer to a final peace agreement,” Teresita Deles, Aquino’s peace adviser, said by telephone. The Armed Forces of the Philippines is on high alert, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said today. “Of course, retaliation is expected so the AFP is ready for this.” (Bloomberg)
Obama Reiterates Support for Philippines Security
President Barack Obama on 26 March reiterated his support for the security of the Philippines in its dispute with China over some islets and shoals in the West Philippine Sea. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said the president also expressed his support for the security of Japan in talks with President Xi Jinping in The Hague on the sidelines of a Nuclear Security Summit. In Manila, Spain expressed support in late March for a peaceful resolution of territorial disputes. Rhodes said President Obama stressed the need to reduce maritime tensions in the South and East China Seas. Rhodes said Obama expressed US concern over the Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) created by Beijing last November in the East China Sea in an area that includes islands at the heart of a bitter territorial row with Japan. Japan and China are locked in a dispute over islands administered by Japan as the Senkakus but claimed by China as the Diaoyu Islands. (The Philippine Star)
China Blames Philippines for Latest South China Sea Incident
China on 26 February accused the Philippines of “deliberate provocations” over an incident in disputed waters in the South China Sea that drew a protest from Manila about what it called Chinese ships’ use of a water cannon on Filipino fishermen. The Philippines lodged a protest with China on 25 February over the issue, saying the Chinese were trying to keep the fishermen from fishing in Philippine waters around the Scarborough Shoal. China’s foreign ministry, which has already rejected the complaint, said its boats had every right to respond to “provocative” acts in its territory. China suspected the aims and identities of several Philippine fishing boats that recently appeared in the waters around the Scarborough Shoal, as some of them appeared to just “hang around”, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said. The Philippine boats ignored calls from the Chinese ships to leave, with some aboard even adopting a “provocative posture of appearing to spoil for a fight” in activities showing “a strong level of organization and confrontation,” Hua said. “In the face of this seriously provocative behavior, China maintained utmost restraint, and as multiple warnings failed, could not but take the minimum measures to carry out expulsions, which caused no harm to the Philippine fishing boats or personnel,” she told a daily news briefing. (…) On January 27, a Chinese coastguard vessel tried to drive away Filipino fishermen from Scarborough Shoal by using a water cannon, General Emmanuel Bautista, the head of Philippine military said on 24 February. China claims about 90 percent of the 3.5-million-sq-km (1.35-million-sq-mile) waters of the South China Sea. It provides 10 percent of the global fish catch, carries $5 trillion a year in ship-borne trade and has a seabed believed to be rich in energy reserves.
Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Vietnam also claim parts of the sea. The Philippines has urged regional grouping the Association of South East Asian Nations to conclude a binding code of conduct with China to avoid accidents and miscalculations in the disputed waters. The Philippines has taken its dispute with China to arbitration under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea but China is refusing to participate. China has rejected challenges to its sovereignty claims and accused the Philippines of illegally occupying Chinese islands in the seas and of provoking tension. (Reuters)
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