Why do regimes collapse in post-colonial SEA?

In the 70 or so years since Europe left Southeast Asia, some regimes have survived, while many others have fallen.

But among all the political turmoil that periodically engulfs the region, two dominant patterns have emerged. First, that the regimes that failed have tended to be presidential regimes in states. Second, that in the countries that have constantly experienced political upheaval, the military often has a significant role in the upheaval itself.

Why? In short, colonialism.

Following World War II, there was a wave of decolonisation in Southeast Asia. The British and Americans guided their colonies to independence, leaving political institutions that mirrored their own, while independence movements fought against colonial masters in Dutch and French colonies.

Herein lies a major reason why the military was often involved in politics and political upheaval. The struggle for independence often did not only involve diplomats at the negotiating table; it also involved blood and iron in the paddy fields.

And with the main opposition to their power, a foreign military power, out of the picture post-independence, there was little that could be done to rein in the political ambitions of the military. These conditions amounted to an underlying cause for the involvement of the military in politics.

However, the effects of colonialism do not end there. Because colonial boundaries were drawn to reflect the preferences of the coloniser, many Southeast Asian states now found within their borders significant numbers of minority groups, many of whom also agitated for their own state as they did not wish to be put under the rule of the majority group.

As such, the only group that could actively preserve the territorial integrity of the states, was once again, the military. As a result, governments still relied on the military even after independence was achieved, in order to maintain their newly-obtained power and prevent its erosion. In Burma, the civilian government relied so heavily on military power that they voluntarily handed over power to a caretaker government under General Ne Win.

A common counter to this is that not all Southeast Asian states had such influential militaries. In particular, Singapore and Malaysia never saw much military influence in politics. One reason for this is perhaps that more than any other country, independence for these countries was secured mostly through negotiations with the British, rather than by the British accepting a military fait accompli in the territory.

Of course, one also has to consider the origins of the militaries. Nationalism in Burma, Indochina, and Indonesia had already become militant before World War II, while the militaries in Malaya and Singapore were set up under the auspices of the British.

As such, the military traditions for these militaries were different from the others. While the militaries of Indochina, Burma, and Indonesia developed their own political ideologies, no such development was seen in the militaries of Malaya and Singapore, and they, therefore, remained firmly under civilian control.

It is also notable that the regimes that survived all managed to produce governments that were able to pass policies and were effective in enforcing them. In other states, parliament either produced policies that did not satisfy the masses or were so gridlocked that nothing could be decided. If military intervention in politics is successful because of the strength and independence of the executive, then the weakness of the legislature and its inability to control the executive should also be examined.

Indonesia and Cambodia, in particular, stand out as examples. In both cases, civil unrest, coupled with an inability of the parliament to govern, resulted in the rise of authoritarian governments with alternative political structures. In both cases, the militaries were pitted against the communists for the regime’s favour, while the military remained the most powerful part of the executive.

Indeed, in many of the regimes that did not survive, the executive was separate from the legislature, and the executive, with a monopoly on force, could take charge of the legislature and fuse the two branches. The only states where this did not take place were states that already fused legislative and executive powers, notably the parliamentary democracies in Singapore and Malaysia. Even with the occurrence of civil unrest, the military did not completely seize power but remained loyal to the state.

After the May 13 riots in Malaysia, an emergency was declared, and Malaysia was put under the rule of the National Operations Council (NOC). The NOC was effectively the supreme decision-making body for 18 months, and after peace was restored, handed back authority to the parliament. Presidential democracies such as Indonesia from 1950-57, on the other hand, produced governments that were so split on policy, and so inept at governing that no cabinet lasted more than two years. Finally, in 1957, Sukarno introduced guided democracy, putting an end to the liberal democracy era in Indonesia.

The end state of these two trends can still be seen in Southeast Asia today. Parliamentary systems are the only stable governments in the region, and the military still wields significant power in many countries.

While Aung San Suu Kyi did take power in Myanmar, the military still holds significant power. The Thai military also periodically takes power in Thailand in coups and during martial law, exposing a continual failure for the government to rein in the military and retain civilian control over the military.

The executive, in other words, still holds the power, and until such a time that the two branches can fuse and exercise power jointly, political instability will continue.

Clement Ooi is a freshman at SIM-UOL majoring in International Relations.

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