Southeast Asia is often viewed as a dynamic region, home to several of Asia’s tiger economies. But look a bit closer, and the region is replete with internal tensions—some between countries, but most within countries. April’s events in the region are illustrative of so many of these tensions. In every case, they reflect deep fault lines that have existed for many years. Resolving them will take time and require extraordinary and sustained leadership.

Thailand has witnessed an upsurge in violence in its unsettled south. More repression will not work. The government and the military need to adopt a different strategy.

On March 31, two separate and apparently coordinated bomb explosions killed fourteen people and wounded hundreds more in Yala Province in southern Thailand, making March the region’s most violent month in recent years (73 violent incidents led to 56 deaths and injured 547 others1). These incidents mark a worrying deterioration in the long-simmering conflict in the troubled, Malay-dominated southern provinces of Narathiwat, Yala, and Pattani. Since the insurgency flared in January 2004, it has claimed the lives of some 5,000 people and injured over 8,000.

Vikram Nehru
Nehru was a nonresident senior fellow in the Carnegie Asia Program. An expert on development economics, growth, poverty reduction, debt sustainability, governance, and the performance and prospects of East Asia, his research focuses on the economic, political, and strategic issues confronting Asia, particularly Southeast Asia.
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In last year’s election campaign, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra opened the possibility of some form of autonomy for the three southern provinces as well as including them in a special economic zone. Police Colonel Tawee Sodsong, the prime minister’s recently appointed secretary general of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre, also raised the possibility of some form of self-rule and lifting the emergency decree that allows detaining suspects for more than thirty days and gives government official immunity from prosecution.

These tentative signals, however, were dismissed by Army Commander General Prayuth as contrary to the army’s position of an “indivisible” Thailand. The media also reported that ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the current prime minister’s brother, was in Malaysia recently for talks with Prime Minister Najib Razak, where he also met with exiled Malay leaders for so-called peace negotiations. If true, it is difficult to imagine a less likely approach to peace, since it was Thaksin Shinawatra’s heavy-handed actions as the country’s leader in 2004 that fanned the flames of insurgency in the first place.

Thailand’s southern insurgency has never been jihadist or religious in nature. It has always been about alienation—economic and cultural—as well as perceived social and economic injustice. The Thai government and the army must recognize this. It will be almost impossible to turn the clock back to the days when southern Thailand was peaceful without a formal political agreement. A military solution has been tried for many years and failed. Indeed, all it seems to have done is further alienate the local people. More repression will not work.

Prime Minister Yingluck’s desire to bring about an end to the insurgency in southern Thailand should be taken at face value. But her room for maneuvering is limited by the army on one side and the shadow of her brother on the other. Both should back off and give her space to bring about a lasting peace. She has been right in seeking the support of Prime Minister Najib to achieve this. It is in the interest of both countries to bring this long-simmering conflict to an end.

There is little alternative left apart from direct or indirect negotiations with the insurgents (for example, by bringing in an international mediator, such as the United Nations) and the final agreement will very likely have to include a certain degree of autonomy, a recognition of Thailand’s diversity, and measures that support the economic development of the affected provinces.

Philippine President Aquino’s family should abide by the Supreme Court’s ruling to distribute half of its 25,000 acre holding in Hacienda Luisita to 6,300 farmers.

President Benigno S. Aquino III has been locked in a battle with the country’s Supreme Court, which he considers an impediment to his anti-corruption program, especially in bringing corruption charges against the previous president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. The chief justice of the Supreme Court, Renato Corona, was appointed by Arroyo a week after Aquino was elected and a few weeks before he assumed office. Prior to that, Renato Corona had served as Arroyo’s chief of staff, spokesman, and acting executive secretary. Arroyo’s “midnight” appointment of Corona was seen by many as an obvious attempt to protect herself against legal action by her successor.

President Aquino ran and won his 2010 campaign on an anti-poverty, anti-corruption platform. His campaign slogan, “there is no poverty without corruption,” directly placed the blame for the country’s stubbornly high poverty rate at the door of its endemic corruption. He made effective and honest governance the centerpiece of his development agenda. The Aquino administration’s new Philippine Development Plan prioritizes effectiveness, transparency, and accountability in public service delivery, scaling up anti-corruption efforts, enhancing the rule of law, and expanding citizens’ access to information and participation. Improvements in bidding procedures, especially in the construction of roads and highways, seem to have paid dividends by lowering costs by a third. As part of this campaign, he launched impeachment proceedings against the anticorruption ombudsman, Merceditas Navarro-Gutierrez, who resigned days before her trial was to begin in the Senate.

The separate impeachment proceedings against Chief Justice Renato Corona also need to be seen within this broader agenda. Initially the complaint against the chief justice had eight articles of impeachment, covering three broad areas: betrayal of the public trust, violation of the constitution, and graft and corruption. Five of these have since been dropped.2 The Senate is in the midst of the impeachment proceedings and a final decision is expected in June.

The Philippine Supreme Court has now bared its teeth by ordering that about 4,335 hectares of the Hacienda Luisita estate, belonging to President Aquino’s family, be distributed to 6,296 farmers and their families that have worked the land for decades. It was President Aquino’s mother, Corazon Aquino, who made land reform the centerpiece of her 1986 campaign for president. Congress passed the Comprehensive Land Reform Law in 1988, and in May 1989, the 7,000 tenants of the Aquino family estate, Hacienda Luisita, agreed to take a third of the hacienda’s corporate stock instead of the land itself. Since two-thirds of the corporate stock remained with the Aquino family, effective control of the hacienda and its land remained with the family.

In November 2011, the Supreme Court rescinded the stock distribution option and overwhelmingly voted to distribute the land to those tilling the soil. The latest ruling in April not only confirms the earlier decision, but sets the land transfer at 1989 prices (when the stock option was exercised), rather than the 2006 prices that the Aquino family was seeking. The difference is significant—at 1989 prices, the value of the land comes to a mere 196 million Philippine pesos; at 2006 prices, it could be anywhere between 5-10 billion pesos.

Although President Benigno Aquino sold his interests in Hacienda Luisita before the presidential election in 2010, it is important he uses his influence with his family so they cooperate fully with the Supreme Court decision. The president has made the rule of law the central platform of his presidency. His family now needs to observe the same principles the president himself has trumpeted.

Indeed, the Aquino family could prolong the case further by not cooperating with the Department of Agrarian Reform, the agency responsible for implementing the Supreme Court’s decision. But this would damage the president and his efforts to clean up the government. The nation is watching. He needs to make sure that no one—not even the family of the sitting president—is above the law. Moreover, there are fifteen other major land reform cases pending, and the outcome of Hacienda Luisita case will significantly affect the outcome of those that follow. Land reform, and breaking up the stranglehold the Philippine oligarch families have on the land, is not only central to improving the livelihoods of the rural poor, but also accelerating broader economic progress. The president and his family should lead the way.

Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi and her fellow National League for Democracy (NLD) party candidates must now get down to business.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party swept 43 of the 45 seats in the recent by-elections in Myanmar. But the new NLD members of parliament, including Aung San Suu Kyi herself, immediately found themselves embroiled in an argument about a clause in the oath that requires “safeguarding” the constitution—a pledge they were unprepared to take. The pledge is itself a part of the constitution (in an annex), and changing it requires a constitutional amendment, a procedure requiring a three-quarter majority in parliament.

At the behest of her party followers, however, Aung San Suu Kyi finally relented and agreed to take her parliamentary oath. This was the right decision. The alternative—amending the constitution—would have been politically impossible. Moreover, the term “safeguard” does not preclude the possibility of future amendments. The term is in line with other constitutions, including in the United States. Notwithstanding oaths to “protect the constitution,” American presidents have presided over 27 constitutional amendments. Myanmar’s parliamentarians, one would hope, recognize that they have the authority, even the duty, to change the constitution as circumstances demand.

More important, Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision to proceed with taking the oath marked her as a pragmatist willing to reform the system from within. This is consistent with her other statements regarding her intention to work with the current regime to improve the country’s social and economic situation. It will also build a spirit of cooperation between the “big three,” Aung San Suu Kyi, President Thein Sein, and parliamentary leader Shwe Mann, into a critical coalition of like-minded reformists to overcome the huge challenges the country faces.

A key obstacle to reform will be the military, which is the main beneficiary of the current rentier state. Its implicit support will be essential in reforming the economy and reducing the reams of red tape and bureaucratic restrictions that create the rents that those in power then exploit. To bring along the military while also reforming the economy is the biggest single political challenge facing Myanmar. The delicate task of working around political obstacles and deeply entrenched vested interests will require a combination of political savvy and committed leadership that the big three can bring to bear.

For this reason, big-bang reforms are out of the question. Instead, Myanmar requires slow and steady change that liberalizes economic activity at the margin and gradually reduces the role of the state, making it easier to reduce its grip on economic activity over the course of time. It is important that the initial reforms register quick wins in the form of increased economic activity and visible effects on peoples’ welfare. In this, the Burmese would do well to learn from China’s post-1978 transition to a market economy and contrast it with the Soviet Union’s disastrous perestroika.

Timor Leste elected a new president, and the prime minister’s next steps now need to be watched carefully.

In a free, transparent, and above all, peaceful election, the East Timorese elected Taur Matan Ruak as their president. Matan Ruak is not a traditional politician. He has his power base in the army and demobilized veterans. The defeated candidate, Francisco Guterres, was FRETILIN’s candidate and more of a politician with strong nationalist views. He led in the first round of the election, but only managed to garner close to 40 percent of the vote in the second round run-off election.

There are three aspects of this election that are noteworthy. The first was the defeat of incumbent president, Ramos Horta. His lackluster third place showing in the first round of voting was partly the result of his falling out with his erstwhile comrade-in-arms, the charismatic and influential prime minister, Xanana Gusmao. The essence of their disagreement was the speed of development and the extent to which the Petroleum Fund should be drawn down for development purposes.

Second, Matan Ruak, who ran as an independent and on his credentials as a resistance leader, ultimately became the beneficiary of Gusmao’s political support. Ruak’s presidential campaign tapped into the electorate’s impatience with the speed of development, and he largely sees eye-to-eye with Gusmao on the need to accelerate the pace.

Third, the presidential run-off election is essentially a curtain-raiser for the parliamentary general elections on July 7. It is too early to tell which party will emerge as the front runner. Much will depend on the coalitions that develop between now and then.

Although there is no certainty that Gusmao’s CNRT party will be able to build a winning coalition, his support of the winning candidate in the presidential election should provide him handsome returns. The two present an image that harks back to the days when they were resistance leaders against the Indonesians, and Xanana’s earthy ways and simple lifestyle make him an attractive candidate to an electorate that is angry with corruption. At the same time, much as Gusmao would like CNRT to get a majority in parliament that would make a coalition unnecessary, there is a large probability he will have to strike a bargain with another major party—the question is with whom.

The prospect of upcoming elections is raising political temperatures in Malaysia.

There has been growing speculation that the thirteenth Malaysian general elections will be held in June this year. But massive demonstrations in Kuala Lumpur on April 28 organized by Bersih (a civil society coalition for clean and fair elections) that ended in tear gas and pitched street battles, may have thrown a spanner in the government’s plans. The inevitable finger pointing between Bersih and the police that followed (some 380 people were arrested, significantly less than a similar rally last year) masks the more important point that there is popular belief that the election system is rigged in favor of the ruling Barisan Nasional.

The Election Commission has been at pains to announce that it has implemented many of the recommendations of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Electoral Reforms, which conducted a genuine and nationwide consultative process. One recommendation being implemented is the use of indelible ink to prevent voter fraud, a recommendation put forward by Bersih itself. The Election Commission also scrutinized the electoral rolls and found few irregularities, but so deep is the distrust in the country that this result appears to have carried little credibility. The accuracy of the electoral poll in Malaysia is indeed a critical matter that must be beyond reproach. There are several swing states where small margins can change the national result significantly.

In the meantime, Prime Minister Najib has embarked on a charm offensive. He fulfilled an earlier promise by repealing the Internal Security Act, which allowed for preventive detention without trial. The government also passed a law that allows students to join political parties (although political events on campuses are still banned).

These actions no doubt will positively impact the prime minister’s popularity, which was already high following a populist budget and a recent report complimenting the government on the implementation of its economic reform package. But while the prime minister enjoys very favorable ratings in the polls, his party, Barisan Nasional, does not. This has given the opposition parties some hope, although they have yet to coalesce and offer a clear alternative. The scenes over the weekend of street protests and tear gas, together with allegations of police brutality, will likely help the opposition and hurt the government. This could further narrow the difference between the incumbent Barisan Nasional and the main opposition coalition.

All the tea leaves suggest a close race, perhaps closer than the one in 2008 when the opposition took five of thirteen state legislatures and over a third of the seats in parliament, denying the Barisan Nasional a two-thirds majority.

The Philippines spat with China in the Scarborough shoals of the South China Sea helped focus the 2+2 strategic dialogue in Washington between the Philippines and the United States.

As a curtain raiser to President Aquino’s trip to the United States, the strategic dialogue between Foreign Secretary Alberto del Rosario and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin from the Philippines and the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta of the United States was held on April 30. This was the first such strategic talks held between the two countries and reflects their growing cooperation following America’s “rebalancing” of its foreign policy toward Asia and the Pacific. The talks focused on how the Philippines could project a minimum credible defense posture to protect its territorial integrity.

The ongoing stand-off in the Scarborough shoals in which eight Chinese fishing vessels were caught fishing in waters claimed by the Philippines highlighted how ill-equipped the country is to protect its maritime interests, especially against a more assertive China. As of this writing, there were four Chinese ships (three maritime surveillance vessels and one fisheries enforcement vessel) at the scene, compared to just three from the Philippines, which includes the forty-year-old cutter Gregorio del Pilar recently acquired from the United States.

Although the 2+2 talks confirmed that a second high endurance American cutter would be delivered to the Philippines shortly, the most significant outcome of the talks was a tripling of U.S. military financing and a reaffirmation that the United States would honor its obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty. The Treaty’s Article IV states clearly that “each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific Area on either of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety.” While this does not guarantee that the United States will come to the defense of the Philippines if the latter is attacked by a third party, it certainly increases the probability by declaring such an attack a danger to the safety of the United States itself.  At the same time, however, the Philippines may need reminding that the treaty does not cover the disputed South China Sea islands and shoals which the Philippines did not even claim at the time the treaty was signed in 1951. 

Also, revealingly, the United States committed to help the Philippines expand and improve its capability to withstand cyberattacks, suggesting this is a vulnerability in the Philippine defense posture. Finally, the United States and the Philippines continue to cooperate under the Security Engagement Board framework to combat non-traditional security threats such as terrorism, piracy, and insurgencies, and have expanded their relationship to also cover disaster relief, climate change, deforestation, and preservation of fisheries resources.


1  According to the Deep South Watch of Prince Songkla University
2  Prosecutors have only retained Article 2: failure to disclose his statements of assets, liabilities, and net worth; Article 3: lack of probity, integrity, independence, and competence as evidenced by “the issuance of flip-flopping decisions in final and executory cases;” and Article 7: “partiality in granting a temporary restraining order in favor of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo