Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004

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@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Written for The Diplomat

The 48th foreign ministerial meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Malaysia concluded by releasing a communique last week. As expected, most media reports focused on the position of ASEAN with regard the South China Sea dispute involving China. This is newsworthy because the issue has regional implications and the ministers were able to formulate a joint statement on a divisive topic. In 2012, no communique was released by ASEAN ministers in Cambodia because of divergent views on the aggressive activities of China in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

This year’s communique tackled various issues and while China was mentioned in the document, it should not lead us to ignore ASEAN’s views on other less glitzy international matters. For example, the communique echoed the stand of ASEAN on the Palestine question: “We reiterated ASEAN’s support for the legitimate right of the Palestinian people for an independent state of Palestine and a two-State solution where Palestine and Israel live side-by-side in peace.”

It also expressed support for Iran nuclear agreement and the warming of relations between the United States and Cuba.

“We called for the timely lifting of all sanctions and embargoes imposed on Cuba.”

ASEAN also rejected extremist movements in the Middle East. “We condemn and deplore the violence and brutality committed by extremist organizations and radical groups in Iraq and Syria, whose impact increasingly poses a threat to all regions of the world.”

In addition, the communique also promoted moderation as the ASEAN approach of addressing conflicts.

“We recognized that moderation is an all-encompassing approach not only in resolving differences and conflicts peacefully but also for ensuring sustainable and inclusive development and equitable growth as well promoting social harmony and mutual understanding within countries and regions.”

Furthermore, the communique provided updates on ASEAN’s improving relations with various countries such as Australia, Canada, European Union, India, Japan, Republic of Korea, New Zealand, and Russia. It reported that Canada and European Union have expressed commitments to appoint an ASEAN ambassador.

It recognized the strategic role of the United States in “sustaining Southeast Asia’s rapid economic growth and maintaining peace and stability.” At the same time, it also affirmed its commitment to realizing the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area with an aim to achieve the target of USD 1 trillion on trade by 2020.

The communique is also useful to determine ASEAN’s assessment of its own socioeconomic situation. While many are worried about China’s military dominance, ASEAN is also concerned about its economic prospects as a more basic concern.

“The continued moderation in China would have an impact on the ASEAN’s forecast growth rate, given ASEAN’s strong economic linkages to China. The region is also faced with financial challenges as the persistent strengthening of the U.S dollar against domestic currencies, as well as the ongoing Greece debt crisis, which may cause volatility in the global financial markets,” the communique read.

A few days after releasing the communique, Indonesia reported lower economic growth while Malaysia’s currency was devalued. These troubling reports should make us realize that economic jitters, and not just the China ‘threat’, are hounding ASEAN countries today.

Aside from this, the communique also made reference to other regional problems such as the “irregular movement of persons”, people smuggling or trafficking, illegal drug trade, transboundary haze pollution, and climate change vulnerability.

“We noted with great concern that climate change is already having significant impact in the region, posing challenges to our environment, causing severe social and economic disruption and damage throughout the region.”

Finally, ASEAN warned China that its land reclamation activities in the South China Sea “have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability” in the region. It took note of Indonesia’s proposal to establish a “hotline of communications” between ASEAN and China to address emergency situations on the ground. It also endorsed the implementation of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.

The 2015 communique issued by ASEAN’s foreign ministers reflected the unique perspectives and priorities of the regional grouping. Some were unhappy about its failure to directly make China accountable for its rude behavior toward its neighbors, while some appreciated that ASEAN was able to finally issue a stronger statement regarding the South China Sea dispute.

We should also be careful not to equate the communique with the actual commitment of ASEAN member countries. For instance, the communique declared full adherence to the protection of human rights even if many ASEAN governments are guilty of violating the political and economic rights of their citizens.

Overall, the communique is a reminder of the dynamic character of ASEAN as a political formation. On one hand, it strives to establish a more solid community of nations with an integrated economy. But on the other hand, it is also a group of neighbors besieged by transnational crimes, environment pollution, and the specter of a rising superpower represented by China.

Southeast Asia’s Transparency Problem

Written for The Diplomat

Most countries in Southeast Asia do not have a transparent budget process, according to a global survey conducted by International Budget Partnership.

The 2015 Open Budget Index used 140 observable facts and indicators to measure if a country’s budget system allows opportunities for adequate oversight and public participation. If a country scores a minimum of 60 out of 100, it is deemed to provide sufficient budget information and audit mechanisms.

In Southeast Asia, only the Philippines scored above 60 (the global average is 45). Indonesia and Malaysia performed above average with a score of 59 and 46 respectively. Thailand and Timor-Leste received ratings of 42 and 41. Three countries in the region were found to have a budget system with limited public participation and weak transparency: Vietnam (18), Cambodia (8), and Myanmar (2). There is no data available for Singapore, Brunei, and Laos.

The survey confirms long-held assumptions that many countries in the region continue to implement budget processes with little accountability and public engagement.

Of course, the problem is not exclusive to Southeast Asia: 98 out of 102 countries which participated in the survey lack adequate institutions and mechanisms “for ensuring that public funds are used efficiently and effectively.” In fact, only 24 countries scored over 60 on the budget transparency index.

But within the region, several common threads can be seen. The first is the failure of the government to include substantial public input and feedback in the budget making and implementation. The global average score for public participation is 25. Yet several Southeast Asian countries scored lower than this: Malaysia (12), Timor-Leste (10), Cambodia (8), and Myanmar (6). Even the Philippines, which scored high on this category and was singled out in the report for institutionalizing citizen participation in the budget system, was asked to “provide detailed feedback on how public perspectives have been captured and taken into account” in the whole budget process.

Another one is the absence of a strong legislative oversight of budget spending. Malaysia scored 15, while the Philippines got its lowest rating (36) for this indicator in the budget index. Last year, the Philippine Supreme Court ruled that a disbursement program enacted by the office of the president was unconstitutional since it was not authorized by Congress.

There were specific recommendations for countries in order to make the budget process more transparent and democratic. Cambodia is urged to “hold legislative hearings on the budgets of specific ministries, departments, and agencies at which testimony from the public is heard.” Vietnam needs to consult the legislature first before releasing contingency funds, which were not identified in the budget law.

Juvinal Dias, a researcher of Timor-Leste NGO La’o Hamutuk, recommends the following to the government: “Make budget information available to the public, make opportunities available for public participation in the budget process, and strengthen fiscal oversight by the legislator and auditor.”

There are also simple but relevant reforms that governments can immediately implement. These include publishing budget year-end and audit reports (Myanmar), producing a pre-budget statement and making it available to the public (Indonesia), establishing specialized budget research office (Malaysia), and holding a pre-budget debate by the legislature (Philippines).

The budget survey is useful as a benchmark for governments, scholars, and civil society organizations in assessing the utilization of public funds in their respective countries. In Southeast Asia, it is a reminder that opportunities for corruption can be reduced if we make the budget process more open while strengthening mechanisms for inter-agency accountability.

Southeast Asia’s Color Protests

Written for The Diplomat

Malaysia’s massive Bersih rally over the weekend reminded us of the colors used by protesters across Southeast Asia to symbolize and articulate their political demands in their respective countries.

Bersih (meaning “clean” in the local Malay language) started as an election reform movement that mobilized thousands of Malaysians in 2007, 2011, and 2012. This year, Bersih is demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is being implicated in a corruption scandal.

During all Bersih events, yellow was chosen as the protest color. It was a successful branding strategy which made yellow the symbol of the national movement for reforms in governance. A few days before Bersih 4 took place, the government enacted an order which criminalized the wearing of yellow Bersih clothing. The order described the printing, sale, and possession of the yellow Bersih shirt as a threat to security and the national interest.

During the actual Bersih event, police arrested 12 people for wearing the banned shirt. At least 100,000 people who joined the Bersih rally in Kuala Lumpur could also be prosecuted for wearing prohibited clothing.

Meanwhile, Najib downplayed the protest and accused the Bersih organizers of being unpatriotic. He made this statement while wearing red during a televised speech. His supporters vowed to mobilize a million ‘red shirts’ on October 10 to prove that majority of ordinary Malaysians still support the beleaguered prime minister.

One of the country’s prominent personalities who joined Bersih was former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. The appearance of the 90-year old retired leader surprised many, since he was consistently against the holding of rallies during his two-decade rule. In a media interview, Mahathir called for people power to force the removal of Najib. He likened Najib to former Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos, who was ousted by a popular uprising in 1986.

Mahathir’s analogy can be extended as well to the Philippine protest movement which challenged Marcos in the 1980s. Like Bersih today, Filipino protesters adopted the color yellow as a protest symbol against Marcos, whose trademark election color was red. “Yellow magic” became effective in persuading many ordinary Filipinos to resist Marcos, first through the ballot box and then subsequently in the streets, which led to the downfall of the dictator.

Will “yellow magic” also work in Malaysia? The Philippine example is a bit outdated compared to the recent conflict in Thailand, which involved dueling protesters and government supporters wearing yellow and red shirts. The Yellow Shirts are critics of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who were infamous for occupying the Bangkok airport in 2008. They succeeded in forcing a change in government but a new group emerged to counter them – the Red Shirts. This new group copied the tactics of the Yellow Shirts by blockading the major streets of Bangkok in 2010.

The daring actions and occasional clashes between these groups and the political parties that support them intensified Thailand’s political crisis. That in turn allowed the army to justify a coup in May 2014. And even before the army intervened, many Thais indicated their exasperation over the provocative campaigns of both the Yellow and Red Shirts by urging the public to wear neutral colors such as orange, white, and purple. At one point, Blue Shirts emerged, vowing to restore peace and order in society. Some suspected they were pro-government militia.

Though the coup last year ended the street rallies, Thais lost their right to organize peaceful assemblies. The military-backed government continues to ban protests and the public gathering of five or more people. Any color of protest is quickly rejected by the army as a threat to national security.

Whether it is Malaysia’s Bersih, the yellow fever of the 1986 People Power revolt in the Philippines, or Thailand’s current policy of outlawing protests organized by either Red or Yellow Shirts, the indubitable lesson from these distinct protest campaigns in Southeast Asia is that politics can never be color blind.

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