Militarisation, Political Repression, and Human Rights Violations in Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia, stretching from Burma in the northwest to the Philippines in the east, consists of 10 countries - Burma, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines. This spacious corner of the Asian continent extends more than 3,000 miles east to west and more than 2,000 miles north to south. Its total land area is somewhat less than half that of the United States. Geographically, Southeast Asia is situated in the monsoon belt and, except for a small portion of Burma, located between the tropics. However, Nature has divided the land here as nowhere else in any of the Asian segments, effectively fractionalizing it into diverse social and political units, making the validity of a common approach to the entire region questionable.1 Its people are fragmented ethnically, culturally, religiously, and linguistically; they are also divided politically.
Southeast Asia can be seen as two geographical regions: "mainland" Southeast Asia - Burma, Thailand, and the countries of Indochina - and insular Southeast Asia - Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
From Colonialism to Democracy
All Southeast Asian countries, except Thailand, were under foreign domination for more than 250 years; the Philippines had fallen under the control of Spain as early as the beginning of the 16th century. The Second World War brought decolonisation in its wake, and the first nation to obtain independence was the Philippines in 1946 and the last was Brunei in 1976. Immediately before decolonisation began, four different colonial systems functioned in different Southeast Asian countries: the American, Dutch, French, and British systems of government. The Philippines gained independence from the United States; Indonesia from the Netherlands; the two Vietnams,2 Cambodia, and Laos from France; Burma, Malaya,3 and Brunei from Great Britain.
All of the four colonial masters had introduced into their respective dependencies, in greater or smaller measure, the ideas and institutions of the industrial age - reason, individual liberty, and an impersonal system of law - and thereby had caused a conflict between the modern and traditional systems - the latter resting on religion, personal authority, and customary obligations.4
At the dawn of independence, all the countries of Southeast Asia, except Vietnam, opted for a democratic form of government. Some of these countries accepted the system substantially, some others superficially. The Philippines, South Vietnam, and Indonesia became democratic republics with a presidential form of government. The remaining countries accepted the parliamentary form of democracy with a prime minister as the head of government (as in Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand) and a monarch as president (as in Burma and Singapore). In Brunei, the head of state is a sultan. Only the Democratic Republic of North Vietnam began its independent existence as a communist state with powers vested, under the Constitution of 1959, in a unicameral legislature.5 In the course of time, however, most of the Southeast Asian countries abandoned or suspended their democratic forms of government.
The liberal face of Southeast Asia began to change in the mid- 1950s. In 1965, the constitutional monarchy of South Vietnam was changed to a republic, which quietly passed under the dictatorial rule of its first president, Ngo Dinh Diem. In Indonesia, the country abandoned its democratic system in 1957, as did Thailand for the second time in the same year, and Burma in 1962. Cambodia's skeletal democracy likewise collapsed in 1970, reappearing in 1993 through a United Nations-sponsored election. In 1972, the Philippines came under martial law that lasted until 1986; and in 1975, Laos fell to the Communists.
The Collapse of Democracy and the Emergence of Authoritarianism
While analysing the question as to why the democracies collapsed in Southeast Asia, B. N. Panday, a noted Southeast Asian historian from the University of London, states:
After a closer look at the collapse of democratic governments in Southeast Asia, one can identify certain specific factors which led to the failure of democracy in Southeast Asia. They are issues like infighting and internal competition among the political elites for power, as in the Philippines; the growing role of the military in politics, as in Indonesia, Thailand, and Burma; and communist insurgency and U.S. intervention in internal political affairs, etc., as in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.
As already noted, the battle of the elites for power is best illustrated in the Philippines. While justifying the imposition of martial law in the Philippines, President Ferdinand E. Marcos7 put the principal blame on the political and media elites. He argued that both the reactionary right and the radical left had joined with the subversive forces in leading the country to chaos. According to Marcos, a series of activities organised by leftists, rightists, and Muslim secessionists led him to declare martial law, but these were not the only reasons. In order to suppress people's growing resistance and to ensure his continuance in power, President Marcos used his powers unconstitutionally. With the support of the military, Marcos was able to stay in power until he was deposed by a people's revolution in February 1986.
In Indonesia, the country made a promising start with a constitutional democracy under the leadership of President Achmed Sukarno with the support of four national political parties - the Partai Nasional Indonesia (PNI), Masjumi Partai, Partai Socialist Indonesia (PSI), and Partai Kommunis Indonesia (PKI). However, none of Indonesia's political parties ever acquired the requisite strength to form a viable government on its own.8 As a result, several coalition governments came into power, but none of them lasted as long as even two years. Each of the coalition fronts collapsed because of an internal rift. Parties like Masjumi and PSI were either discredited or banned in the late 1950s and early 1960s for sponsoring a regional revolution in alliance with the local army.
President Sukarno himself played a vital role in discrediting the political parties and civilian governments. He encouraged the military to intervene in the internal politics of the country. This was a strategic move to keep himself in power. As part of these tactics, Sukarno abolished constitutional democracy and introduced his new policy - "guided democracy." He re-enacted by decree the Constitution of 1945, which vested the president with supreme powers. Sukarno was able to gain the support of the military for this move, which resulted in members of the armed forces occupying for the first time a quarter of all posts in the new Indonesian cabinet.9
Sukarno, however, became tired of the overbearing presence of the military in the government. From 1959 until his downfall in 1965, Sukarno followed the strategy of dividing the military, making it more submissive, while contriving to bring the PKI, the Communist Party of Indonesia, gradually to power.10 During this time, the PKI was the only party left with any political force to offset the military.
Circumstantial evidence proved that in October 1965 the PKI organised an attack against the military in which six generals were arrested and killed in public. This was done, as an army officer proclaimed, to forestall an army coup against the president.11 One of the generals, Gen. Raden Suharto, understood the situation though and acted cautiously but decisively to fight against the conspirators. Within a short time, President Sukarno became a prisoner to Gen. Suharto. Beginning in October 1965, the country was governed by Gen. Suharto, although Sukarno was allowed to retain the presidency until 1968 when Suharto began to officially act as the president. Since then, Indonesia has been under the control of a military regime.
Thailand has also been under military dictatorship for a long time. Since 1932, the country has been under military rule, interrupted by only four democratic experiments before the 1992 popular elections returned a non-military government to power: 1944-1947, 1955-1957, 1973-1976, 1988-1991. Civilian democratic governments were short-lived and, therefore, unable to present a viable party system in Thailand. Political parties used to sprout on the eve of every election, but they never exhibited any political and mass base. Whenever there were coalition governments (as in 1973 and 1976), they were weak and under the constant surveillance of the military, which distrusted them. "Any crisis, whether arising out of an alleged communist threat or student riot, was used by the military as an excuse for bringing the civilian interlude to an end."12 After overthrowing the coalition government of Seni Pramoj in October 1976, Adm. Sangad declared: "The government cannot govern the country properly; and in order not to let Thailand become a prey to Communists and to uphold the monarchy and royal family, this council has seized power."13
Since the two countries bordering Thailand - Laos and Cambodia - had become communist countries by 1975, the military cited a communist threat as the excuse for military domination in Thai politics. The military, always distrustful of the politicians' ability to handle grave situations, gained sufficient strength after 1975 to pull down the civilian government.
Burma took another path to military dictatorship. It began its independence with a political army. Most of the army officers were involved in the independence movement; and after independence, they were assigned in an almost random fashion to careers in the army.14 The military in Burma was united, and the officers showed no intention, at least in the first decade of independence, to share political power with civilian governments. A democratic prime minister, U Nu, ruled the country from 1948 to 1958, except for a period of nine months, under the banner of the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL). The armed insurgency of the Communists and of the ethnic minority communities, however, weakened the U Nu government. In order to suppress the rebellion of these groups, the government had to depend on the army. The army, which gained more power, began to consolidate the authority of the civilian officers against the leaders of the AFPFL. Tensions between the army and the ruling AFPFL arose, and a split occurred in the party as well in 1958. U Nu lost his majority in Parliament, and finally he announced that he was handing over power to Gen. Ne Win and the army.
Army rule became unpopular though, and the military government tried to make political parties impotent. In the next general election, U Nu's AFPFL won a majority. Gen. Ne Win handed back power to U Nu, and he became the prime minister again. U Nu had to face the same old problems, however, such as the secessionist movements, military unrest, strikes by students, etc. These groups had felt suffocated under military rule. With the restoration of constitutional democracy, they were revived. At the same time, U Nu's government was under the constant surveillance of the military. Gen. Ne Win was under considerable pressure by a group of army officers to intervene in the civilian government. Finally, on 2 March 1962, the army overthrew the democratic civilian government by dismissing Parliament and abolishing the Constitution.
As for the third factor - communist insurgency and U.S. intervention - it was evident in the case of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. It should be observed at the outset that liberal democracy had only shallow roots in South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. It must also be emphasized that in the 20th century no people have suffered so much, for so long, and for so little as have the Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians during the 40-year period from 1950 to 1990.
The establishment of communist rule in China and the recognition of Ho Chi Minh's communist rule in North Vietnam by China and the Soviet Union were considered by the United States as a threat to the non-communist countries of Southeast Asia. The United States feared communist uprisings or infiltration of the non-communist states of Southeast Asia. The communist threat seemed real and more disturbing to the Eisenhower administration. America's self-appointed obligation to contain communism became more pressing after the French withdrawal from Indochina in 1954. In the same year, an effective American intervention in South Vietnam began with President Eisenhower's letter to Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem in which the former pledged American support in developing South Vietnam into a viable nation, capable of resisting attempted subversion or aggression through military means.15 The United States began pumping money and military skills into South Vietnam in order to resist communism. In reality, however, U.S. intervention only increased the strength and willpower of communist forces to liberate South Vietnam.
The U.S.-trained South Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian armed forces, even with the support of U.S. forces, were no match for the communists who waged a guerilla war. The communist strength, together with popular support, was more than that anticipated by the United States. Therefore, in order to resist the communist insurgency, a counterinsurgency operation was planned by the Kennedy administration. It did not achieve the full support of U.S. military officials, however, and the plan was also not sympathetically welcomed by the Vietnamese people. Ngo Dinh Diem had also lost his usefulness to the American leaders. As he was unheeded by his supporters, the Vietnamese generals also disowned him, and the military coup of 1 November 1963, brought to an end the civilian dictatorship. Ngo Dinh Dien was murdered during the coup. A military junta headed by Gen. Doung Van Minh took over power with the support of the United States.
In the case of Laos, under the Dulles plan for the containment of communism, it became a "bulwark against communism" and a "bastion of freedom."16 The United States poured money into the country to train the Laotian army in the American model, but it was misused and corrupted the army officers. This widened the gap between the Laotian capital, Vientiane, and the countryside. Conflict arose also between the United States and Laos's royal government of Prince Sauvannaphouma. Souvanna wanted his government to pursue a neutral policy. This was his way of keeping Laos non-communist and also of forming a coalition government with the leaders of the communist Pathet Lao. As far as the Americans were concerned, they could not tolerate this move. Souvanna was suspected of being a Communist. The United States decided that Souvanna must go.
When the United States decided to refuse rice and oil to Laos, Souvanna turned to the Russians who came forward to support him immediately. This provoked the United States. In December 1958, Souvanna was thrown out of office by a coup planned by American agents operating in Laos. Another two coups took place in 1960: the first brought Souvanna back to power; the second, once again supported by the Americans, drove him out. Souvanna took shelter in Cambodia and established a relationship with Pathet Lao leader Souphanon Ving. Thus, the U.S. administration under Eisenhower, by rejecting the neutralist alternative, had driven the neutralists into closer alliance with the Communists and, furthermore, had brought overt Soviet aid to the Pathet Lao.17
A civil war ensued in Laos between the right-wing government and the Pathet Lao, the latter controlling nearly half the country. Finally, in order to retrieve the situation, President Kennedy accepted the neutral policy of Laos and, with the then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's intervention, succeeded in obtaining the agreement of the Russians to negotiate.18 In 1961, the Geneva settlement asked all alien forces to withdraw from Laos, but it was not properly implemented. In 1962, a coalition government was installed with Souvanna as its head. Because of American opposition and discord in the front, the coalition did not last. By 1973, the Pathet Lao had come to control several areas of South Vietnam and Cambodia. In April 1975, the Pathet Lao assumed effective control of Laos; and in December of that year, the Communists seized total power.
As for Cambodia, the nation gained independence from French domination in 1953. Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who had been ruling the country since 1941 with the support of the French, abdicated in 1955 in favour of his father, King Norodom Suramario. Sihanouk believed that he could lead his country more effectively from a less exalted position. After that, Sihanouk ruled Cambodia for 15 years and experimented with a multiparty democratic system.
Sihanouk tried to overcome the danger of multiple political parties and a power struggle by forming a unified political party - the People's Socialist Communist Party. Having always enjoyed support for his policies, Sihanouk did not have to take the role of a dictator: he was always upholding neutrality. This attitude began to irritate the United States. There was a move to overthrow his neutral government. Sihanouk was provoked when U.S. airplanes violated Cambodian territory and dropped bombs on suspected communist areas, and thus, he broke diplomatic relations with the United States.
Cambodia was gradually slipping into the communist fold. Cambodia had always had a small communist underground rebel movement; in 1969, they were estimated to be about 5,000. The Nixon-Kissinger policy of bombarding Cambodia, however, resulted in an increase of strength for the Khmer Rouge to more than 70,000 supporters;19 for when Richard Nixon took over the presidency in 1969, he allowed the U.S. commands in Vietnam to bomb Cambodia. This ruthless action caused irreparable damage to Cambodia and killed thousands of people.
The North Vietnamese communists started to infiltrate into the countryside of Cambodia, becoming more and more powerful. Sihanouk was critical of the U.S. attack as well as the Vietnamese infiltration. However, in March 1970 when he was in Moscow, he was ousted in a bloodless coup by his prime minister, Marshal Lon Nol. On his return to Beijing, Sihanouk became fully committed to the Khmer Rouge and gave up his neutral policy. He had to depend on Chinese and North Vietnamese support for his bid to liberate Cambodia. Civil war between Lon Nol's forces and the Khmer Rouge continued from 1970 to 1975. Finally, the Khmer Rouge began its final onslaught. Lon Nol relinquished power and fled to the United States, and the Khmer Rouge ruled the country from 1975 to 1979.
Military Involvement in Southeast Asian Politics
In 1972, the governments of five Southeast Asian countries were headed by army generals: Thanom Kittikachorn in Thailand, Ne Win in Burma, Nguen Van Thieu in South Vietnam, Lon Nol in Cambodia, and Raden Suharto in Indonesia. Except in Thailand, the army had come to power in each of these countries at a time of crisis - the sort of crisis that would in any case demand some kind of military solution.20
In Thailand, for many years, the military dictatorship had been an integral part of the bureaucratic structure. Military rule was always entrenched in Thailand with absolute power apparently vested collectively in the National Policy Council of senior military and police officers. The highest offices in government - the post of prime minister and major cabinet positions - were held by military officers. The 15-year-long Thanam era, from 1958 to 1973, saw the continued occupation of the prime minister's office and the ministries of Defence and Interior by military men.
The military in Thailand composed or dominated the upper levels of the bureaucracy. There had been a high degree of separation in the Thai context with the military generally remaining outside but competing with the civil service and not prone to using the civil bureaucracy as a patronage base.21 Military officers held civil posts, even in the provinces. Although provincial governors had often been active or retired military men, Thailand differed markedly from other military-dominated Southeast Asian states where the normal development had been for the military to gain political control initially at the local level.
When we review the Thai political landscape, we find that military cliques that came to power through coups have always dominated Thai politics. It has been proved that Thailand progressed immensely in economic and social development during the period of military domination. Unlike other Southeast Asian countries, the character and role of the military in Thailand has varied.
For example, there have been significant variations among post- coup cliques as to the role of the parliamentary system in Thailand. Over the past four decades, parties have been wooed, encouraged, tolerated, ignored, or eliminated by different military cliques. After Thanom's rise to power, national parties, elections, and Parliament were dismissed, and a military-controlled Constituent Assembly was appointed.
In addition, the Thai military has dominated education and the socialising process. The military has dominated the economic sphere in Thailand as well. Military men can be found on the boards of state-run enterprises. Military-controlled governments have provided a favourable climate for private investment, offering protection and support to both domestic and foreign investors.
The military also holds a commanding position in Thailand in other areas as well. For the past several years, the Thai military's role in overt and covert ways of helping the Khmer Rouge guerillas in neighbouring Cambodia has been controversial. The Thai military's assistance to the Khmer Rouge - providing goods, arms, and even sanctuary for the guerilla's leadership - has raised concerns on many occasions at the international level. Although Bangkok has repeatedly said that it supports Cambodia's elected government and has no connections with the Khmer Rouge insurgency, there has been evidence of Thai military aid to the Khmer Rouge guerillas. This illustrates the military's influence in Thailand in certain key policy making decisions, including its foreign policy.
As Morton Abramoulitz, former U.S. ambassador to Thailand, has rightly pointed out:
All these years the Thai military has shown little interest in relinquishing their control of socio-political affairs. This account explains clearly how the Thai military has firmly enmeshed its presence and has exerted control over the affairs of democratically elected governments.23
In Thailand, it was only a decade ago that a civilian middle class came to the political limelight. This may be one of the reasons that the military plays a key role in the day-to-day affairs of the country, although it has a democratic political system.
Compared to other military interventions, the military rule in Burma inaugurated in 1962 was distinguishable from other authoritarian systems in that it had a flavour of communism. When Gen. Ne Win seized power in 1962, the country was passing through a political and military crisis. Ne Win's authoritarian system resembled a communist order only in its structure of one-party rule. It took about 10 years for the Burmese socialist democracy to emerge under military rule. The process began with an explicit denunciation of parliamentary democracy.
Ne Win's government was civilian in appearance, but it was essentially military without uniform. Burma's authoritarian military rule seemed stronger and more stable than that of some other Asian counterparts. The country's self-imposed isolationist policy since the coup helped it to gain an image of political strength. In reality, however, the old problems - insurgency, civil war, and subversive activities, etc. - remained unsolved. The Burmese way of socialism had simply failed, but Ne Win's leadership and the military's dominance in Burmese politics and government continued. Despite the constitutional trappings, Ne Win's government, led by his Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSSP) that ruled Burma for 26 years until 18 September 1988, constituted a dictatorship with very little fundamental freedoms available to the people.
According to Kanbawza Win, the Burmese military officer corps devoted more attention to general policy issues. This trend indicates very clearly the propensity to intervene in the decision making process within the political and other spheres.24
The first military coup in Burma in 1959 gave the Burmese army some degree of credibility and also tackled the economic factors with which the country has had to deal. This paved the way for the second coup in 1962. The present Burmese military junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), in the Burmese language means naing ngan daw nyein wut pi pya yae, if literally translated, means "maintaining peace by keeping the population under the ruler's thumb." This is a carbon copy of the traditional edict of the Burmese kings who sent their spies around the country and, if there was any potential disturbance, applied the thumb.25 The oppressed people were thus forced to be peaceful and could not act. The present-day militarised atmosphere in Burma is exactly the same replica of the older context.
In South Vietnam, the coup which overthrew the Ngo Dinh Diem regime was led by an army general. It was aimed not at forming a military dictatorship like those found in other Southeast Asian countries, however.26 The military has stayed in power ever since, but this has been as much a consequence of the military crises and the immense American presence and influence as it has been of a desire on the part of the military to cling to power.
In Cambodia up to 1955, the army had been a professional one playing the traditional role of protecting the country and especially its king. After 1955, the scene changed, and the army was brought into the political life of the nation. The Cambodians were at war, and the army's strength also had increased. When Sihanouk was deposed and a coup led by Gen. Lon Nol seized power in 1970, the role of the army again was altered. The new government, later named the Khmer Republic, demanded the departure of Vietnamese communist forces from Cambodian territory and then acquiesced in a major military incursion by the United States and anti-communist Vietnamese forces.
Analysing the tradition of the Cambodian army, M. Jenowitz says: "Cambodia represented an aristocratic model of a political- military elite structure. Political control is still civilian control because there is an identity of interest between aristocratic and military groups."27 Even now, this aristocracy in military leadership is visible in Cambodia to a certain extent.
Like most other Southeast Asian countries, the presence of the military in politics in Indonesia has a long history. Since 1945, Indonesia's military has been summoned to perform an active political role. When President Sukarno declared martial law in Indonesia, the moderate elements in the army were called upon to stabilize the political situation. During this period, the army expanded its role with control over civil and military affairs. The case of Indonesia would be close to an example of the ideal type of military takeover since constitutional democracy died at the hands of a civilian president.
When Gen. Suharto seized power after a military coup in 1965, army officers took the posts of charismatic politicians in high ranking and middle ranking positions of power and influence. The military became the technocrats and began to perform vital functions for the country.
Among the various elite groups in Indonesian politics that exercise power, the military bureaucrats have played the most significant role. They have occupied strategic political posts in the central and regional governments and in the army.28 "As the new military leaders of the nation and the army have assumed authority over a rich supply of jobs and monies, they have been able to reward their supporters and to disarm their rivals so shrewdly that they have succeeded in bringing the army under their control."29
Over the years, the military in Indonesia has acknowledged its role as an instrument of the State. The Indonesian armed forces were entrusted with the dual role of both maintaining national security and furthering socio-political development. This has given power to the military to be involved in non-military activities, including political affairs.
The dynamics of authoritarian politics in Indonesia is quite interesting. Although Indonesia is following the model of Western democracy in which the State is divided into three branches - the executive, legislative, and the judiciary - Indonesia does not believe in the autonomy of its three branches. In practice, the executive branch is dominated by the military, which does not rule as an institution. Thus, it creates an image that the State is not a military state. However, many important state positions are occupied by military personnel, for example, cabinet ministers, governors, state intelligence authorities, chairpersons of the national and local parliaments, and even the president. The judiciary is also dependent on the power of the executive. As for the legislature, it is comprised of two different institutions - Parliament and the People's Consultative Council. The Parliament consists of 500 members of whom 100 are appointees from the armed forces. This type of an agreement in the political and administrative structure gives power to the military to hold key positions while at the same time curtailing the freedom of people at every level.
Compared to all of these countries and the involvement of their military in the past in their respective countries, the military in the Philippines did not threaten to break into the normal political process, at least not initially. David Warfel has said that the Philippine army is "one of the least politically oriented armies in Southeast Asia,"30 and it is true that, until Marcos became president, the army's role was limited. After Marcos came to power though, the armed forces were given a wider role.
Marcos was in power for about 20 years. For all but seven of those years, he exercised dictatorial powers in a system he described as "constitutional authoritarianism." After the proclamation of martial law in the country on 21 September 1972, Marcos assumed full control of the executive and legislative branches of government and took direct personal command of the military. Actually the martial law declaration was a turning point in the history of the Philippine military which provided not only President Marcos the opportunity to control the socio-political structure but also the military the latitude to exert more power in the civilian affairs of the country.
The build-up of the military structure, its activities in different ways through "civic action" programmes, like building roads and bridges and giving assistance to the peasants, and the formation of civilian defence patrols had begun even before martial law was declared. Under martial law, however, President Marcos vastly expanded the size and resources of the armed forces. Gradually, the military began controlling the key areas in the political and economic spheres of the Philippines. In this connection, Dr. Carolina Hernandez, a political scientist at the University of the Philippines, observed that, after 1972, the military replaced civilian politicians as the primary dispensers of political patronage. Feeling the change in the distribution of political power, many petitioners transferred their locus of operations from the traditional politicians to the officer corps. Martial law provided a new climate for the military and police to enjoy privileges without any checks on their performance. A new regional military structure was created, staffed by officers personally loyal to the president. The police forces were integrated into a national force, and the Integrated National Police were combined with the Philippine Constabulary, which was one of the four main branches of the armed forces of the Philippines.
Although the official rationale for the declaration of marital law and the expansion of the role of military was the need to combat a growing communist insurgency in the country, President Marcos used the military for his political gains, especially to continue in power. Marcos justified the imposition of martial law by saying that he had imposed it "to save the nation" from the Maoist threat, the Muslim rebellion, and to institute reforms." These justifications given for martial law hardly reflected reality. Although the Maoist's rebels became a major nuisance, they were not strong enough to create an imminent danger and threat to the government. At the same time, the Muslim rebellion was confined to the southern part of the country, and their aim was not to topple the government in Manila. Rather, it was Marcos's personal security and the maintenance of his hold on power that clearly emerged as his immediate considerations for the imposition of martial law.
It has been argued by some political scientists that the military is the only institution which can produce stability in developing countries. Though this is obviously true for a short period of time, in the history of several countries, it has not been proven to be a positive remedy, for people in Southeast Asia have experienced bitter realities. They have realised that military rulers ban political parties, suppress and censor the news media, dismiss or emasculate legislative bodies, curtail freedom of opinion, and use repressive measures continuously to silence people's resistance. The military's performance has proved that it cannot effectively deal with the problems of a country.
Factors Contributing to Militarisation in Southeast Asia
The military has been taking part actively in the politics of most of their post-colonial histories in Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. In the Philippines, the military has been exercising substantial political influence over the civilian leadership and decision making process. In Malaysia and Singapore, military establishments assumed subordinate roles in relation to their civilian leadership.
Harold Crouch of the National University of Malaysia has painted a vivid picture of Southeast Asian politics that gives clear insights into the characteristics of Southeast Asia's militarized systems. He says:
Militarisation in Southeast Asia, thus, perverts both politics and the military itself: politics because force, not persuasion, becomes its principal process and coups, not elections, the normal way of changing governments; and the military because repression, not protection, of the people becomes its major mission.32
The process of militarisation has not been uniform throughout Southeast Asian countries. In the countries which obtained independence without a structural social change, the ruling elites opted for a capitalist model of government, and they have been unable to meet the people's demands for land and decent living conditions. In these countries, a growing awareness has been noticeable among the people. People started questioning authoritarian governments and demanding better living conditions. People's movements gained momentum, and cause-oriented groups formed umbrella organisations to collectively bargain for their rights. In order to escape from people's demands, ruling elites began suppressing the voice of the people and imposed militarisation.
In other countries where independence was accompanied or was afterwards followed by major social changes and where leaders had chosen the communist model of development, the rulers were apprehensive of a counterrevolution led by the ousted elites with the cooperation of the West. In order to protect themselves from further counterrevolutions, the rulers resorted to militarisation.
The Role of External Powers
The intervention of external powers was a common factor of militarisation in Southeast Asia for a long time. The competition between the United States and the former Soviet Union added tension to the area. These superpowers, competing with each other to establish their own dominance and influence over Asia's governments, were trying to install or maintain governments - no matter how tyrannical or anti-people such regimes were - merely to keep them under their influence or to ensure their loyalty.
Even now, the United States has strategic and economic interests in the Southeast Asian region, and ASEAN is acting as the guardian of U.S. interests in the region. ASEAN countries continue to be an oasis, especially for U.S. investment.
In one ASEAN country, Thailand, the United States has special privileges for its military and capital. The United States has monopolized several concessions for mineral and other resources in Thailand, and the U.S. military previously maintained a number of bases in the country where as many as 50,000 troops were stationed in 1973.33 The United States also forced Thailand to fight against her neighbours in Indochina. It organised and helped financially militant right-wing organisations as well, like NAVAPOL. Many who opposed U.S. imperialism are believed to have been assassinated by CIA agents.34 No one at that time could challenge the U.S. position in Thailand. Faced with the development of multiple guerilla fronts inside Thailand, the United States deployed thousands of airmen and troops in the country.
The U.S. economic and military build-up intensified Thailand's traditional social conflicts. U.S. military assistance was increasingly used to repress the indigenous Thai revolutionary movements. The United States provided a large degree of help in enlarging and improving conventional Thai police units and its armed forces.35 Immediately after World War II, the intentions of the United States to maintain a close alliance with Thailand and to turn her away from either Britain or Japan became clear.
In Indonesia, the United States failed to bring Sukarno down by supporting a young officers' revolt in 1958; but by 1966, it had secured enough of a foothold in the Indonesian army to topple the government. Later the survival of Suharto was mainly dependent upon U.S. military and economic assistance. At one time, the former Soviet Union also provided assorted economic assistance projects throughout Indonesia. The Soviet assistance to Indonesia was designed not only to thwart Western influence in Indonesia but also to counter potential Chinese domination of the most populous country in Southeast Asia.36
In the three countries of Indochina, the United States single-handedly fed, financed, trained, and armed a succession of unpopular regimes until 1975. The non-communist Khmer resistance forces under the leadership of Prince Sihanouk sent out desperate appeals after the Vietnamese invasion for U.S. aid to carry on the struggle. The ASEAN foreign ministers, disturbed by the events, also issued an unprecedented appeal for support and assistance to the Cambodian people in their military struggle against the Vietnamese-backed Heng Samrin government. The response from the United States was positive, and the Foreign Affairs Committee authorised US$5 million as military aid to the non-communist resistance forces. The communist faction of the resistance was supported and aided by China. Thailand, from among the ASEAN countries, maintained the most aggressive policy towards Vietnam. South Vietnam was always a recipient of substantial U.S. aid, having been categorised as a frontline state in U.S. global foreign policy strategy. North Vietnam, on the other hand, was largely dependent on Soviet military aid to safeguard its interests.
Joel Rocamora, an outstanding Filipino political analyst of Southeast Asian politics, comments in this connection that "the magnitude and pure horror of U.S. military efforts to maintain the regimes in Indochina are difficult to fit into humanly understandable terms".37
In the Philippines, the United States bolstered the tottering Quirino regime with large-scale economic and military assistance and then built up Ramon Magsasay to replace Quirino. After that, Marcos was supported by the United States for 17 years. The survival of Marcos was based primarily on different types of U.S. assistance. The United States had significant commercial, political, and strategic interest in the Philippines.
Analysing the influence of the United States in Southeast Asia, Rocamora further says, "The impact of the U.S. on the region goes much deeper than bullets and loans. Taken together, the multifarious and ubiquitous U.S. influence in the region has been a key factor in the development of authoritarian regimes."38 The United States has promoted the strengthening of both civilian and military bureaucracies in Southeast Asia. The expansion of the military and police apparatuses in several countries of the Southeast Asian region have been heavily influenced by U.S. advice and assistance. The armed services of the Philippines and Thailand, for instance, have been equipped almost entirely with American armaments, and the Indonesian military, which was largely Russian-equipped under Sukarno, is gradually being re-equipped with U.S. arms. The military and police in Southeast Asia have also been trained on the basis of U.S. organisational and tactical methods. U.S. training and equipment have thus played a dominant role in the growth of Southeast Asia's military apparatus.
As for the other superpower at that time, the former Soviet Union found itself in strong competition with China because of ideological conflicts since the late 1960s. During the American Vietnam War, North Vietnam was careful to maintain a balance in its relations with the Soviets and the Chinese while maximising its own independent positions. Sihanouk in Cambodia was also able to manipulate Soviet interests to balance the Chinese and especially to oust the Vietnamese-supported Phnom Penh government. The Burmese, though in many respects close to the Soviets structurally and ideologically, had allowed them only a limited economic role and even less of an ideological role.39
In 1975, with the fall of South Vietnam and the U.S. withdrawal from Indochina, the Soviet policy changed. They gained an ally in Vietnam with whom it signed a treaty of friendship. This alliance was turned to the Soviet's advantage as the Vietnamese agreed to Soviet use of port facilities and airfields, giving the then Soviet Union a new strategic flank position in its competition with the People's Republic of China (PRC).40 Vietnam openly hesitated to allow the Soviet Union full use of the vacated U.S. military facilities at Cam Rahn Bay and elsewhere, but Vietnam's dependence on Soviet support made continued refusal impossible.41
The new position of the Soviet Union in Southeast Asia was not achieved through diplomatic or political skill, however. Rather, it came as a reaction to the U.S. containment policy, the subsequent unwillingness of the United States to try to win Vietnam away from the communist orbit with reconstruction and development assistance, and the previously underestimated animosity of the Vietnamese toward the Chinese.42 The Soviet Union considered its link with Vietnam as a great factor in relation to its two foremost global objectives: containing China as well as competing with the United States for worldwide influence and power.43
Communist insurgency in different Southeast Asian countries also caused militarisation. The PRC played a major role in the process of militarisation in Southeast Asian countries. After China broke with the Soviet Union, the Communist Party of China supported indigenous Communist parties in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Cambodia, and the Philippines, and the growth of these parties served as the rationale for the militarisation of the societies of developing Southeast Asian capitalist countries. The communist threat to the stability of Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore became more visible after 1975. This caused an increase of the authoritarian tendency among certain rulers in Southeast Asia. Some of the PRC-supported Communist parties in Southeast Asian countries were outlawed or maintained a state of rebellion.
Communist insurgency became a dominant political factor in Southeast Asia as well. The political-military activities of Communists in several countries won the support of a significant proportion of the population. For example, in the Philippines, the Philippine communist insurgency emerged as a full-fledged popular movement. Over the decade from 1975 to 1985, the New People's Army (NPA), the military wing of the outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), developed from a small group that could be dismissed as a nuisance to a guerrilla army capable of tactical offensive actions in some areas, straining to reach a stage of military equality with the armed forces of the Philippines.44
The rulers in Southeast Asia faced the insurgency problem in different ways. In some cases, the military was deputed to suppress the insurgency movements. In other cases, the rulers sometimes took inconsistent approaches to the insurgents that normally resulted in the intensification of militarisation and large-scale counterinsurgency operations.
Militarisation, Political Repression, and Human Rights Violations
Human rights conditions in Southeast Asia have not been favourable. People in the countries of Southeast Asia have been struggling for human rights and human dignity for many years. The peoples of the capitalist-oriented ASEAN countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, and Brunei) as well as those of the so-called communist countries (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Burma) are struggling to free themselves from militaristic or authoritarian systems through various means. Despite elections and promises of reforms, the governments in Southeast Asian countries have become intolerant of criticism, and they use the military to suppress popular dissent. Authoritarian rule is strengthened by enforcing repressive measures.
If we analyse the context in these Southeast Asian countries, we can understand the intensity and magnitude of the problem of militarisation and the ways in which people's rights are being violated.
Gen. Ne Win's rule in Burma came to an end when Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Saw Maung led a military coup on 18 September 1988. The military coup followed pro-democracy demonstrations all over the country; thousands of people were shot and killed by the military. The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) was established by the military to lead the new government, which ordered martial law throughout the country. The new military government promised political reforms, and an election was announced for May 1990 to select a new Parliament. The promised transition to parliamentary democracy, however, was marred by repression by the new military government. Again, hundreds of people, those who opposed military atrocities, were shot down. Many of the pro-democracy movement leaders and supporters were imprisoned. Opposition leaders were arrested and officially disqualified by the military government from contesting the elections.
The elections to a new People's Assembly were held though in May 1990. Despite continuing arrests and severe restrictions on freedom of assembly and speech, the National League for Democracy (NLD), under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide victory. The former BSSP appeared under a new name, the National Unity Party and, although openly supported by the military government, was defeated. Immediately after the polls, the military government introduced certain complicated laws and decrees. As a result of this, despite their victory, no NLD leaders were released, and again a martial law decree was introduced which established a new tier of obstacles and a mandate for SLORC to hold on to power indefinitely. Although SLORC announced the election results in the official media, with the NLD winning 82 percent of the seats, SLORC did not set a timetable for the end of military rule and instead reaffirmed the need to formulate a Constitution and to form a "strong government" before it would relinquish power.
Meanwhile, SLORC continued its policy of arrests and political repression. Criticism of the military government and the exercise of freedom of expression and assembly were restricted. Several people left the country to seek political asylum abroad. The arrests of opponents of the military's rule were carried out by the Directorate of Defence Service Intelligence (DDSI) and the Military Intelligence Agency (MIA) with the support of the army. Thousands of critics and opponents of the government were detained without trial. Journalists, writers, and intellectuals were put in prison. The education system in the country was devastated as hundreds of students have been killed or arrested by the military since 1988. Thousands of students and teachers are still missing. The fate of many prisoners remains unknown, and the majority of arrests and sentences have never been officially reported.
SLORC has been projecting an international image that the process of building democracy in Burma is under way. Although it is true that certain political issues highlighted during the 1988 uprising are being discussed openly, the real problems in the country - civil war, human rights violations by the military, political repression, the suffering of the people, etc. - remain as desperate as ever.
Although foreign investments in the country have brought millions of dollars into Burma, it has had little positive effect on the life of the common people. Inflation continues to rise; people find it very difficult to live on the income of their salaries. In the meantime, SLORC takes foreign currency from tourists and foreign investors at the legal rate of about 6 kyats per dollar and then uses them at the true market rate of between 100 and 150 kyats per dollar. The profits stay with the military for the purchase of more military equipment and to keep their military forces well-paid and thus loyal. Because it suits their political and economic agenda, the military junta of Burma encourages tourism as a growing industry. The number of hotels throughout the country is rapidly increasing as SLORC looks to foreign tourists as a major source for acquiring hard currency for their military coffers.
The country's economic, social, environmental, drug, and refugee problems continue to worsen, and the military junta controls everything, everywhere, in society and politics. As a result, Burma's social, political, and economic crisis grows, and the situation remains repressive under the military government.
In Indonesia, the country has witnessed the flagrant denial of human rights since 1965. Under Gen. Suharto, the Indonesian military coordinated the slaughter of between 500,000 and one million people suspected of being members of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI).45 In order to consolidate its power, the government instituted a continuing programme of systematic repression. Under the state ideology, Pancasila, the government moved to destroy virtually all progressive or independent organisations.
The condition of political prisoners in Indonesia has been profoundly disturbing in regard to numbers, time in detention, methods used by the government, mass killings, and massive arrests. Even about three decades after the alleged coup attempt by PKI members, the official persecution of suspected Communists has not ended. In 1992, Amnesty International reported46 that hundreds of thousands of former members of the PKI and their relatives continue to be subjected to restrictions affecting their freedom of movement and civil rights. Within the past few years, a large number of people have been arbitrarily arrested and ill-treated. Candidates for the 1992 elections were required to undergo a political screening process to identify and disqualify possible communist sympathisers. More than 35,000 alleged former Communists were officially denied the right to vote.
Extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests, imprisonment, and torture have continued to be practised by the authorities in dealing with political dissent or other perceived threats to national security. It was reported that between 1983 and 1985 government death squads summarily executed an estimated 5,000 people in various cities in Indonesia. The executions were often carried out in public places, and the victims' bodies were usually left in full public view. Although the government denied any responsibility for the so-called "mysterious killings" (petrus in the local language), President Suharto acknowledged in 1989 that the killings were part of a government campaign to get rid of undesirable elements - a "shock therapy."
Political killings and "disappearances" are being systematically carried out by the military. In regions of armed conflicts, a persistent pattern of politically motivated murders and "disappearances" of unarmed civilians has emerged. People suspected of sympathising with the opposition have been tortured and killed; others have been detained in military or police premises before "disappearing."
Intensive military surveillance in places like Aceh, North Sumatra Province, and East Timor, combined with the risk of torture or death, have resulted in a climate of fear in which many residents are afraid to speak out against human rights violations. Since the Indonesian annexation of East Timor in 1975, thousands of people are believed to have been killed or "disappeared." Military tactics for dealing with political dissent in East Timor were shockingly revealed when the security forces opened fire on a crowd of people in a peaceful procession in Santa Cruz in Dili and killed at least 100, and possibly as many as 250, people.47
Torture and the ill-treatment of political detainees has continued to be widespread. Political trials have failed to meet international standards of fairness or to conform to Indonesia's Code of Criminal Procedure. Extrajudicial executions are persistently reported from different regions, and freedom of expression remains tightly controlled. Military interference in labour disputes is also a pervasive phenomenon. Curtailing freedom of expression on campuses, including banning student newspapers and arresting student activists, occurs quite often too.
Military repression against religious communities, such as Muslims and Christians, exists as well. More than 100 Muslim activists, many of them possible prisoners of conscience, were tried and convicted during 1985.48 In 1992, the military intervened in an internal leadership dispute of a Protestant denomination - the Huria Kristen Batak Protestant - in North Sumatra. The elected head of the church, the ephorus (equivalent to an archbishop), was thrown out of power by the North Sumatra branch of Indonesia's internal security agency Bakorstanasda, and a decree was issued appointing its own choice for ephorus, a person who was a convicted embezzler and who was close to certain military officers. In the uproar and protests that followed, dozens of church members were arbitrarily detained. Some of them were tortured; houses were searched without warrants; and press coverage of the situation was banned. All of these illegal actions by the military are a violation of the internationally recognised right to freedom of religion and association.
President Suharto was selected unopposed for a sixth term in 1993. The army continues its dual role in national security and politics. At the same time, human rights violations continue to occur under the patronage of the military.
In the Philippines, the declaration of martial law was the beginning of intensified militarisation. Marcos used the militarisation process as an instrument to stamp out political opposition through speedy military measures. The main effect of this rapid intensification of militarisation was an increasing deterioration of human rights in the country. There was a growing tendency to victimise all who opposed or criticised the authoritarian rule of President Marcos. Countless counterinsurgency operations in the name of "national security" resulted in innumerable cases of political arrests, kidnappings and disappearances, salvagings, torture, massacres, bombings and strafings, hamleting, and forced evacuations. These violations of human rights became very common after 1972.
During the 14 years of martial law, it was estimated that the rights of nearly a million Filipinos were directly violated, said to be the most extensive form of human rights violations of peasants. Forced evacuations had displaced one million families by the first half of 1985, according to an unpublished report of the Philippine National Red Cross. Most victims of human rights violations - an estimated 70 percent to 80 percent - were peasants.
Martial law and militarisation brought untold suffering to different sectors of Filipinos. General economic conditions worsened considerably. The value of the Philippine peso decreased; prices of basic commodities spiralled unchecked. The economy favoured the wealthy elite, encouraged the limited growth of a subservient middle class, but sorely deprived the social classes in society. Industrial and agricultural labourers' wages were subhuman, but trade unions that fought militantly for workers' rights were looked upon with suspicion. Strikes in industries were banned, and the military was used to break strikes and protest marches.
Under these conditions, those who came forward to oppose or resist the actions of the rulers were held suspect or were crushed outright. Those who expressed different views, other than the government's official views, were put in prison and labelled as political prisoners. For the most part, those under detention were "suspected activists," union organisers, "suspected subversives," suspected members of the CPP and NPA communist guerilla forces, those suspected of giving food or other assistance to the NPA, particularly farmers in the rural areas, or those said to be involved in alleged assassination plots against officials.
President Marcos, in order to silence his critics, contain and weaken the opposition, and preserve his power, issued Presidential Decrees (PD) and General Orders (GO) on national security and public order.49 These repressive laws, among others, included:
The military became more powerful and carried out a variety of operations. Atrocities, harassment, torture, massacres, salvagings, etc., became more and more regular. People were evacuated from their residences. There was widespread unemployment, illness, and a lack of decent living conditions.
While in the hands of military personnel, captives were ill- treated - even the dead were mutilated and displayed in public places or town centers. Through actions ranging from the burning and looting of villages, the extermination and torture of NPA suspects right within the village, to demanding "donations" while armed, military personnel sowed tension and fear among villagers.
Killings became rampant under heavy militarisation. The majority of the killings were attributed to the police and military or their agents who abused their authority. Indiscriminate shootings by the military and paramilitary forces resulted in the killing and wounding of many people. Continued military operations in different parts of the Philippines shattered the villagers' peaceful life. Atrocities were inevitably committeed during military operations. The government, its military and police, were guilty of gross and systematic violations of human rights throughout the Marcos era.
The four-day People Power Revolution in February 1986 toppled the 20-year-old autocratic rule of Marcos and catapulted Corazon Aquino to the presidency. As the president of the Philippines, Aquino pledged her government's commitment to and respect for human rights. After assuming office, Aquino undertook several progressive measures to make true her pledge. Aquino ordered the repeal of several repressive decrees and laws which were introduced by Marcos. The new Constitution of the country, which came into being in 1987, contained provisions on human rights.
Aquino's bold steps to enhance human rights in the country did not last long. While many repressive laws were repealed, some were retained, and new ones were signed into law through Executive Orders (EOs), including:
The Aquino government's pledge to uphold human rights began eroding through the introduction of repressive laws and other official policies, such as the "total war" policy that came into effect in March 1987 - exactly one year after she assumed power. During her tenure, President Aquino survived six coup attempts by military rebels and Marcos loyalists.
The "total war" policy led to more intense, aggressive, and indiscriminate use of military might, resulting in the loss of many lives. These new counterinsurgency operations were aimed at not only the NPA but civilians as well. The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) team that visited the Philippines for a fact-finding mission in 1990 noted: "The civilian population in the provinces has been hardest hit by this (`total war') policy. In its attempts to destroy the leftist insurgency, the army has used bombs, mortar fire, and other weapons that do not discriminate between rebels and civilians."
Since mid-1987, political killings by military, paramilitary, and other military-supported civilian groups have become the most serious human rights problem in the country. People, those who have been suspected as being supporters of the communist insurgency, have been killed by military and police forces, the paramilitary group Civilian Home Defense Force (CHDF), and other community-based civilian groups known as "Vigilantes" who have acted with the support of the military and government.
Although President Aquino initially stirred up hopes to end all types of human rights violations by the forces of the State, that did not signal the end of human rights violations. On the contrary, political murders, unlawful and deliberate killings, and "disappearances" carried out by the government or with their acquiescence persisted.
It was reported that during Aquino's presidency the number of victims of extrajudicial executions and involuntary disappearances increased. In spite of all of her earlier pro-human rights pronouncements, Aquino left the presidency almost in the same situation as when she began leading the nation in 1986. Hundreds of political prisoners languished in jail; hundreds of people were missing; thousands were executed, unlawfully arrested, and detained. Scores of communities lay devastated, and the lives of more than a million internal refugees, including women and children, were ruined.50 Aquino's lack of political will in dismantling the apparatuses of repression emboldened military and paramilitary groups to commit human rights abuses at will.51
While analysing the policies of President Aquino that caused the deterioration of human rights, Bobby Tuazon states:
The presidential election in May 1992 brought to power Fidel V. Ramos as Aquino's successor. According to Tuazon, Ramos's victory completed the metamorphosis of a man who was part of the Marcos dictatorship, a central figure in Aquino's counterinsurgency operations, and who today holds a civilian position with a solid military background.
The Ramos government vowed to eliminate the guerilla movement in two years. This indicates that Ramos, a man of the military old guard, will continue the same old militaristic approach to solve political issues. Human rights groups have recently pointed out that Gen. Ramos started counterinsurgency operations during the Marcos regime under the codename Oplan Katatagan; later he developed them under Aquino's comprehensive approach to insurgency through Oplan Mamayan; now he makes use of them under an operational plan called Oplan Lambat-Bitag, which is a long-term, nationwide strategic plan of the military to isolate the guerilla forces from the people, to drastically reduce their mass base, and to destroy their political and military infrastructure.
The Marag Valley on northern Luzon Island experienced the worst effects of the implementation of these counterinsurgency tactics initially, and now several other areas in the country are undergoing similar traumatic experiences. It was reported that 500-pound bombs dropped from jet airplanes, rockets from helicopter gunships, 105mm artillery shells shot from howitzers, and 80mm mortar rounds fell on the people, forcing them to flee and take refuge elsewhere. As a result of this, hundreds of thousands of people have been internally displaced in the Philippines. Continuing military operations in different parts of the country have shattered the villagers' peaceful life. Different kinds of atrocities are being committed against people during these military operations.
Since 1972, the military in the Philippines has become a strong partner in government administration and in all of its policies. The Marcos and Aquino governments accepted it, and now Ramos continues this trend. As a consequence of martial law, the military assumed what Harold Ward Maynard identified as a "stewardship role." This transformation of the role of the Philippine military over the years has been described as a change from military influence to military participation. This shift, however, has created irreparable damage to Philippine society, for the military is responsible for the gross and systematic violation of people's human rights.
In the case of Malaysia and Singapore, political repression has taken place in the name of internal security. Although active communist groups have been defunct since the early 1960s in these two countries, the rulers still justify the arrest of non-violent critics and activists in terms of a communist threat.
Malaysia, a constitutional monarchy since its independence from British colonialism in 1956, maintains parliamentary democracy, despite occasional incidents of ethnic and racial strife. A comprehensive and systematic culture of silence, however, has been imposed on both students and teachers as well as on intellectuals in society. Article 10 of the Malaysian Constitution provides provisions for the freedom of speech, assembly, and association. The same Constitution though takes away with one hand what it gives with the other, for it also says that "Parliament may by law impose . . . such restrictions as it deems necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of the federation or any part thereof [or to ensure] public order or morality."53
Constitutional amendments bar the people from discussing any sensitive issues in the country and have taken away the parliamentary immunity of Members of Parliament (MPs), even in the debating chambers of Parliament.54 In this connection, INSAF, the official organ of the Malaysian Bar Council, voiced fear of a constitutional dictatorship in Malaysia. The editorial said:
What is disturbing is that Parliament has in the last 20 years amended the Constitution so very often that the repercussions of these amendments may be felt in the future when it may be too late to do anything.55
The Bar Council further warned the rulers that amending the Constitution for their convenience would only increase the temptation for someone in the future to cause an emergency to be declared on vague grounds in order to simply retain himself or herself in power.
The so-called communist threat has often been used as an excuse for the enactment of repressive laws. Since colonial days, there have been a succession of government-declared states of emergency. The essential features of emergency regulations were incorporated and enacted into a new law known as the Internal Security Act (ISA). The ISA provided the police with powers of search and arrest based on hearsay or suspicion and the detention of suspects during the first 60 days of investigation followed by a further two-year detention based on allegations extracted during the investigation.56 These regulations have been enforced by the government to control the people. In recent years, the Malaysian political system has become more authoritarian than it had ever been previously. This is so in spite of elections being held regularly and the functioning of Parliament without disruption throughout the past 20 years or so. In fact, this is the interesting facet of growing authoritarianism in Malaysia: it has emerged not through the use of brute force, the suspension of the Constitution, the declaration of martial law, or bloody coups but through the use of coercive legislation passed by Parliament.57
Malaysia has introduced a series of new oppressive laws and amendments to existing laws, such as the Seditions Act, Official Secrets Act, Printing Act, Societies Act, Industrial Relations Act, Trade Unions Ordinance, Employment Act, the Police Act, Broadcasting Act, the Universities and Colleges Act, and standing orders for government servants and the conduct of civil liberties, etc., in addition to the ISA. All of these laws have been introduced to restrict civil liberties.
The essence of parliamentary democracy also is eroding in Malaysia. The executive tightens its control over the judiciary, and the judiciary, like the legislature, has become a mere rubber stamp for the executive. The Westminster notion of the rule of law has slowly given way to rule by law. Justice is no longer guaranteed by the law. This argument is substantiated by a statement on the status of authoritarianism in Malaysian politics, which makes this observation:
If we closely examine authoritarian tendencies in Malaysian politics, we can see that since the 1980s a series of events have taken place which ultimately have violated the basic rights of the people. The rulers of the country have acted in an excessive or arbitrary manner and have used repressive measures. The Memali siege is a typical example of police brutality. A team of 200 policemen laid siege on houses in the village of Kampung that was occupied by an Islamic sect of about 400 people. The police action left 14 civilians and four policemen dead. The police used heavy armoured vehicles to mow down the houses when the villagers resisted the actions of the police.
The government continues to use the ISA to arrest critics of its policies. Under the ISA, the government arrested 107 critics and dissidents of the government, including civil rights activists, opposition Muslim figures, Malay Christians, priests, university teachers, opposition party leaders, and MPs. These incidents demonstrate that the inordinately wide powers of the ISA have been used arbitrarily. The ISA has been already amended 19 times - each time giving it more power. Thus, the State has been perpetuating its dominance over all walks of society, and the use of law, rather than brute force, in several instances suffices to curb dissent and criticism against the government's anti-people policies.
In Singapore, authoritarianism has been growing over the years. As a result, repressive laws have been implemented to curtail the freedom of the people. Like Malaysia, Singapore also introduced its own ISA, which has become the main tool to constrict people's liberty. Under this act, the rulers enjoy enough power to handle their critics. Two particular clauses in the ISA of Singapore provide ample proof of this. Section 8 of the ISA states:
And Section 74 of the ISA adds:
The ISA of Singapore gives the government extensive powers of preventive detention without charge or trial. Despite the apparent economic prosperity and political stability of Singapore, the legislation is being used to arrest the critics of the government. In its application of the ISA, the government has used this law to arrest and detain suspected Communists or some other elements of the radical left who are not necessarily themselves supporters of violent revolution. The government has also used this act to curtail individual liberties and to violate the right of those journalists whose reporting is considered by the government to be deliberately slanted against it.
Over the years, the number of political prisoners has been increasing in Singapore. Despite pressure from international human rights organisations, violations of human rights, such as arrests, detention without trial, solitary confinement, denial of freedom of expression, denial of trade union activities, curtailing freedom of the press, etc., are increasing.
Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Thailand is known to be violating the rights, not only of its own citizens, but also of the crowds of refugees from Burma, Cambodia, and Vietnam who pass through its borders by land and sea.60 The Anti-Communist Act promulgated in 1952 established the legal framework for the arrest and imprisonment without trial of anyone suspected of supporting "communism." The National Administrative Reform Council extended its authority under this act with Decree No. 22. This set forth various categories of "troublemakers," including those who help instigate disturbances or perform "acts which make people agree with a system which is undemocratic and does not have the king of Thailand as its head."61 Those detained under this decree need not be charged with any crime; and as long as there is one witness, no other evidence is required. Under the shelter of this law, the government has arrested journalists, intellectuals, trade union leaders, civil liberty activists, educators, etc. Each branch of the military and police has worked from its own arrest list. Arbitrary arrests, arrests without trial, etc., have been quite common in Thailand for the last two decades.
Labour and peasant organisers are the prominent victims of right-wing terrorist attacks, and censorship of the press and academic repression have become very strong in the country. In the days following the October 1976 coup, more than one million books were seized and burned; newspapers and magazines were forced to close. The military has been trying to convert the country into a military camp. Over the years, the relationship between the government and the people has become like that between a general and a private. This type of system in Thailand has already destroyed the dignity of the citizenry, although the country has now experienced civilian rule since 1992. A full accounting of May 1992 when the military opened fire on mass demonstrations in Bangkok has yet to be made though, and some senior officers involved in this event were promoted in the military reshuffle in September 1993.
In Vietnam, the "re-education" policy of the government has caused systematic violations of human rights since 1975. Several thousand people, including prisoners of conscience, have been held for "re-education" on account of their alleged political activities or beliefs. The policy of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam, which ruled from the end of April 1975 until the reunification of the country on 2 July 1976, towards personnel of the former regime was outlined in a policy statement. Regarding "re-education," this policy required soldiers, non-commissioned officers, and officers of all of the armed forces, as well as members of the former civil administration, who had not rendered services to the revolution to spend three years in a "re-education" centre. Thousands of people underwent "re-education," and several thousand people were kept in detention without charge or trial.62 The "re-education" process was really an instrument to take revenge upon those who did not cooperate at the time of the revolution. In addition, those who did not cooperate with the revolutionary administration were warned that "those who refuse to report to the administration for re-education courses" will be brought to trial in due course.63
The effect of this policy was that thousands of people who had expected to be released after three years were kept in detention without charge or trial, which resulted in severe hardship for the detainees and their families. The living conditions of the detainees inside the "re-education" camps were poor. There were reported cases of torture or ill-treatment of individuals in custody and also accounts of the death penalty being imposed.64
In 1985, a Code of Criminal Law of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was introduced. This law gave powers to the State to imprison people who peacefully exercise their fundamental human rights. According to the provisions of this new code, at least 24 different types of offences are punishable by death. Among these are offences against national security; the life, health, dignity, and honour of individuals; socialist ownership; the obligations and responsibilities of military personnel, etc.
The following year the sixth party congress in December 1986 adopted the policy of "renovation" (doi moi), which came to designate a broad slate of economic, legal, and social reforms in Vietnam. Although the party congress had endorsed market-oriented reforms as well as amnesties for thousands of political detainees held in "re-education" camps since 1976, promulgation of the Criminal Procedure Code restrained social criticism by intellectuals, artists, and journalists. The repression of dissent is being enforced by a variety of overtly punitive measures.65 These range from short-term detention and release under condition of police surveillance and restricted movement to indefinite incarceration without trial in so-called "re-education camps."66 A denial of civil rights, arrests, detention without trial, denial of freedom of expression, etc., continue to occur.
The Constitution of Vietnam of 1980 guarantees freedom of expression, assembly, and religion, albeit so long as these freedoms do not "violate state laws or policies." The 1989 Law on Criminal Procedures also guarantees many rights to a detainee. These rights include: "the right not to be deemed guilty or punished, except by a court judgement that has taken legal effect; time limits on pretrial detention; the right for a lawyer to be present during the interrogation of the accused; the prohibition of nighttime interrogation, except when delay is "impossible"; the right of the accused to be informed of the charges brought against him or her; a ban on coercion and corporeal punishment; and the presumption of innocence."67 (Articles 10, 71, 97, 36:2, 5)
These rights, however, are frequently ignored in the case of political detainees. Even in the more open political environment, the repression of dissent is a common scenario. Human rights violations, such as the imprisonment of prisoners of conscience, detention without trial, unfair political trials, and the death penalty, continue to occur in Vietnam.
Vietnam also criminalizes certain forms of peaceful expression and association in its 1986 Criminal Code, including:
In neighbouring Laos, the country introduced its economic perestroika in early 1986; but like Vietnam, the "re-education" policy of the Democratic People's Republic of Laos has also caused violations of human rights.
Detention for the purpose of "re-education" was initially introduced in Laos in 1975 by the Revolutionary Peoples Party of Laos. The new government established by the party arrested about 15,000 people, who were detained for "re-education." Most of these people were alleged to have been associated with the previous government as administrative functionaries, police, and military personnel or were suspected of having sympathies for the former Royal Government of Laos. The "re-education" camps were located in different parts of Laos and administered by local or central authorities. Prisoners held in camps were initially required to attend political "seminars" and to participate in manual labour, often under harsh conditions. Most of the prisoners detained in the camps since 1975 have been released, especially after the introduction of economic reforms in 1986, but it has been reported that political prisoners are still being held in camps.68 (The trials of political prisoners do not meet basic international standards for fair trials. Advocates of a multiparty political system were arrested and sentenced to 14 years in prison recently. Three long-term political prisoners were sentenced to life imprisonment in November 1992.)
Certain articles of the Lao Criminal Procedure Code are applied to punish the political opponents of the government and party. For example, in most cases, charges are mainly based on:
Freedom of expression is still denied, and multiparty advocates are being arrested and detained. Although Laos has introduced economic reforms, political repression still continues.
In the remaining country of Indochina, Cambodia, it passed through the most maligned revolution in the world and was wracked by prolonged fighting. The military coup of 1970 led to a civil war in the country that was followed by the takeover of the country by the communist guerilla forces of the Khmer Rouge in 1975. All of these conflicts ultimately affected the rights of the Cambodian people. About four years of Khmer Rouge rule killed as many as one million people. One out of seven Cambodians were tortured and executed or died of hard labour, malnutrition, and disease. Cambodia witnessed a unique scene of autogenocide during the Pol Pot era.
Although the Vietnamese invasion in Cambodia put an end to the rule of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the subsequent war between resistance forces led by the Khmer Rouge and the combined forces of Vietnam and the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) ultimately threatened the peace and security of the country. The Phnom Penh government, installed by Vietnam and dominated by the Cambodian People's Party (CPP), the military, and the Cambodian People's Armed Forces (CPAF), ruled the country without tolerating any political dissent or opposition. During the CPP's rule, Cambodia witnessed a plethora of human rights violations, and suspected political opponents were jailed without trial. Social unrest, political violence, and military confrontations were also a common scenario.
The Vietnamese withdrawal in 1989, the Paris Peace Agreement signed by 19 countries on 23 October 1991, and the deployment of the United Nations Transitional Authority (UNTAC) were hopeful signs for the Cambodians, but the human rights of the people have still been violated, even in the presence of UNTAC. Since the arrival of UNTAC, several opposition party members have been murdered, for instance, and newly opened opposition party offices have been bombed or fired upon.
It is widely believed that the CPP and government troops are responsible for most of the violence; and in many cases, attacks have been preceded by threats from CPAF soldiers. UNTAC officers have reported incidents of torture, suspected rape, and degrading treatment in many areas. Prisoners have been beaten with sticks, bamboo rods, AK-47s, and brass knuckles.69
UNTAC's Human Rights Component, in reporting about prison conditions and human rights violations, observed that:
At the same time, the Khmer Rouge took full advantage of the peace process to consolidate its military and political position. The politically motivated campaign of hatred against the ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge claimed the lives of many Vietnamese civilians. In a series of attacks from July 1992 to August 1993, 116 Cambodians of ethnic Vietnamese origin were killed and another 87 injured, according to UNTAC's investigations.71 The role of the military in socio-political affairs in Cambodia still causes human rights violations, even in the changed political context.
Recently senior Cambodian military officials have been exposed as controlling a systematic campaign of extortion, murder, and routine gross human rights violations.72 Confidential investigations by government, United Nations, and human rights organisations have revealed that senior Cambodian military personnel, including the commanding officers of elite secret military intelligence units, control criminals responsible for:
The leaders of the military intelligence organisation of the 5th Military Region and another intelligence unit known as S-91, reporting directly to the Ministry of National Defence, are responsible for at least 53 summary extrajudicial killings.73
For several years, the Cambodian people have been experiencing this kind of reign of military terror. This type of military terrorism has gone unchecked for years. In most cases, military officials have been protected by civilian political leaders. The United Nations Center for Human Rights report says that the Prime Minister's Office investigation team had full access to detailed evidence proving that the military intelligence units "from top to bottom, as well as military personnel in general, appear to enjoy largely unrestricted and uncontrolled powers to arrest, detain, torture, interrogate, and execute suspects in total disregard for existing constitutional and other legal safeguards protecting their individual rights."74
Although Cambodia witnessed a political change through the mediation of the United Nations, the civilian rulers have not shown any political will to stop the military atrocities and human rights violations.
In Southeast Asia, the military occupies fairly major positions and plays a vital role in the state apparatus. The military establishments of Southeast Asian countries are united in the view that, ultimately, theirs is the responsibility of protecting the existing social structures adopted by the ruling elites. The ruling class uses the military as an instrument to protect their interests and to continue in power.
The survival of some of the Southeast Asian governments has been greatly dependent on their respective armed forces to continually exercise coercive power over society. In this process, the military has become more and more integrated into the political process and has exercised major decision making power. At the same time, the strength of the military has continued to increase substantially.
The militarisation of Southeast Asian politics and society has different dimensions. It has been proved that in Southeast Asian countries militarisation has expressed itself not only in increased defence spending but also in the greater role assumed by the military in civilian affairs. Militarisation has been encouraged by or nurtured by almost all of the regimes in the past and present in Southeast Asia in one way or another.
The military has been used as an instrument to control the dissenters and critics of the ruling system. Repression of people's movements, the working class, peasants, and students to silence the intellectuals, etc., has been quite common in most Southeast Asian countries. Gross violation of human rights occurs most frequently in countries that have shifted to authoritarian styles of government. It has become a common phenomena in Southeast Asia that militarisation destroys the dignity of people. From these experiences or trends, one can understand that in Southeast Asia militarisation is the product of the ruling class's fear of the people or of political opponents. Ultimately militarisation leads to political repression and human rights violations.