The Observer view on corruption, repression and violence threatening fragile democracies

Observer editorial
27th November 2016

Malaysia, Thailand and Burma are all suffering a backwards slide from the basic standards expected of modern-day representative democracies. While the reasons vary, the results are similar: growing public unrest, increased state repression, negative economic effects, weakened institutions and reputational damage.

Malaysia vividly exemplifies these phenomena. The former British colony has never been a faultless democracy. The United Malays National Organisation, representing the ethnic Malay majority, has held power since independence in 1957. The mostly non-Muslim, ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities, whose ancestors were shipped in by the British as cheap labour, have suffered historical discrimination, yet this furore has little to do with history, race or religion. It is about probity in government – which appears to be sorely lacking.

The problem centres on Najib Razak, the prime minister, who is alleged to have benefited from the disappearance of $3.5bn from a state-owned investment company called 1MDB. Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that $700m was diverted to Najib’s personal bank account. In July, the US justice department alleged wrongdoing by “Malaysian Official 1”, identified as Najib. For his part, Najib flatly denies any wrongdoing.

However, his administration has delayed a parliamentary investigation, purged internal critics and further intimidated Malaysia’s much put-upon independent media. Demonstrators have been attacked by pro-Najib thugs and protest organisers arrested. Last week, the US expressed concern about the continuing detention under counter-terrorism laws of Maria Chin Abdullah, chairwoman of the Bersih pro-democracy group. No one has been charged over the missing funds.

This scandal has gone on for too long. Najib’s leadership has grown toxic. For the good of his country and its creaking democracy, he should stand down, at least until an independent inquiry has established the facts of the 1MDB matter. Sadly, the likelihood of that happening is slim. If Najib can survive in office, he will.

In this respect, his behaviour resembles that of neighbouring Thailand’s military bosses who, having seized power in a coup in 2014, ostensibly because democracy was not working, have grown adept at finding ways of clinging to arbitrary power. General Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the coup’s leader, who styles himself as prime minister, promised reconciliation and an abundance of happiness for the Thai people.

Instead, he has presided over a repressive political and media climate, an underperforming economy, a gerrymandered constitution entrenching military control and an upsurge in violence among the disadvantaged Muslim minority in the impoverished south. Now, uncertainty caused by the recent death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej has thrown into doubt the junta’s promise to hold elections next year, although officials are adamant that the polls will go ahead.

There is speculation that parliament, which will meet in extraordinary session this week, will invite Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn to ascend the throne, despite concerns about what is politely described as his “colourful” lifestyle. Yet even these limited efforts to normalise the political and constitutional situation could fail, given Prayuth’s volatile, paranoid personality. The crown prince is said to have been close to Thaksin Shinawatra, the popular, former (elected) prime minister. Elevating the prince might threaten Prayuth’s stranglehold on power.

In Burma, disappointment attends the performance of Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy campaigner who swept to power last year after decades of ill-treatment by the military (which renamed the country Myanmar). It is too soon to say that hopes have been dashed, but her failure to stand up for the oppressed Rohingya Muslims, victims of a renewed and lethal military assault since October, has dismayed her many supporters in the west.

Up to 30,000 Rohingya have been displaced in the north-west and aid suspended to 150,000 under the military lockdown. Meanwhile, renewed clashes between the army and ethnic minority groups are reported in Shan state – another return to the bad old days.

When it comes to reuniting a fractured country and rolling back the twin, malign influences of the military and Buddhist chauvinism, Suu Kyi’s powers are strictly limited. It seems clear that, like other parts of south-east Asia, the Burmese road to democracy is a long one, featuring numerous wrong turnings and dead ends.

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