Asia Media International Founder Tom Plate writes in his syndicated column: History never comes to a halt but snakes its way into the future as it wishes – often in unexpected and sometimes tragic ways.
Whether via revolution or counter-revolution, any abrupt change in citizen participation and political structure will shove nations onto trajectories that, for better or worse, are difficult to reverse.
At the moment, no spot on our troubled planet offers a better illustration of this dynamic than Southeast Asia, with triumphant Indonesia and tragic Thailand. In sum, the former has put its military back into the barracks, and the latter has put it in charge of the country.
In the important archipelago nation of Indonesia, citizen participation in the polity has been growing since the fall of the Suharto authoritarian regime. This was back in 1998. To me, the land of 18,000 islands first glued together by European imperialism now looks like the coming star of Southeast Asia.
Its elected president, Joko Widodo, has taken the national reins with great promise. And at almost the same time, his former position as governor of sprawling Jakarta has been filled by Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who is Chinese and a Christian. See what I mean about Indonesia?
Both men present themselves as the people’s incorruptible tribunes. Only time will tell whether they are nothing more than fakers. In this region, political sincerity is often the first sign of outright deceit. But these two are flying on huge updrafts of legitimacy and belief, as their direct personal style greatly appeals to a public that has grown tired of slick politicians. And they may be the real deal.
Still, we columnists, especially in the West, need to control our enthusiasm. Indonesia, the fourth most populous country after China, India and the US, and with more Muslims than anywhere else, is inarguably one of the most important countries but it has always proved a deep Asian enigma.
Cast your eyes over a new book by journalist Elizabeth Pisani. Indonesia Etc. is perhaps the most touted literary work in English about this country since the memorable 1978 novel The Year of Living Dangerously by Australian novelist/journalist Christopher Koch.
Beautifully written, it’s about Pisani’s love affair with Indonesia’s “voluptuous hospitality” that makes it such “a deeply seductive place to explore”. Hers is a kaleidoscopic tour you won’t regret taking. She also adds some kaleidoscopic caution: it is still growing into its shoes as a stable secular giant that will forever regret and never forget the military regime that tended to shoot the people it forgot to arrest.
Yet, I still return to my basic enthusiasm, which has the additional virtue of helping me accept my fast-growing depression and anxiety about Thailand. Here is a country that was once loved by almost everyone, but now is a dark place moving in a scary direction – away from universal citizen participation under the oppression of a throat-grabbing Bangkok elite.
Governance today comes from an ill-equipped military junta of South American inelegance, as if 21st-century governance were aspects of the far future and the basic idea of political equality a sworn enemy of the state.
Forget people’s right to vote: pushed out of office and scolded not to show her face in public is Yingluck Shinawatra, the deposed prime minister. This charming and patriotic lady had the great unfortunate success of putting aside her business career to take up the leadership of her brother Thaksin’s populist party in a smashing victory three years ago.
Almost immediately, she garnered solid positive performance reviews from Southeast Asian neighbours, despite making mistakes not unusual for a political novice.
Even US President Barack Obama remarked on her fresh spirit and honest appeal, though we now know exactly what an Obama blessing can mean: nothing. The US government has all but acted as if the May military coup did not happen or, if it did, does not mind all that much. Where is the heart and soul of US foreign policy?
And so into reverse goes the much-trumpeted US “pivot” to Asia: yet more troops, treasure and American deaths in the Middle East (a syndrome that never seems to wane), with the result that there’s less time and attention (despite all the Washington ballyhoo) for Asia.
Well, who cares about Thailand and its people? So what about the politically violated Yingluck, who cut such a smart figure against the seedy threads of Thai politics? Why, at the crunch, did Obama do so little? Does he not care?
More and more – to this observer at least – that pivot is looking like a big pothole.
Los Angeles-based journalist Tom Plate is Loyola Marymount University’s Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies. He is the author of In the Middle of China’s Future and the Giants of Asia series. His next book will be: Did They Really Say That? The Art and Science of the Political Interview
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as While Indonesia grows in confidence, Thailand remains stuck in cycle of coups