News / Asia

Southeast Asia's Transition From Authoritarian Rule Offers Lessons For Middle East

Indonesian students fall as riot policemen charge-in during an anti-government demonstration that turned violent at the gate of the Sahid University in Jakarta 29 April, 1998.  Clashes erupted as some 300 students who were demanding President Suharto to s
Indonesian students fall as riot policemen charge-in during an anti-government demonstration that turned violent at the gate of the Sahid University in Jakarta 29 April, 1998. Clashes erupted as some 300 students who were demanding President Suharto to s

As people in the Middle East protest for freedom and democracy, many in Asia are reminded of their own struggle against authoritarian governments in the 1980s and 1990s.


When Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down after weeks of protests in Cairo, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III quickly declared the country’s solidarity with the Egyptian people.

His mother, the late President Corazon Aquino, was the central figure in the so-called "people power" revolution 25 years ago that ended the 20-year rule of Ferdinand Marcos.

In February 1986, tens of thousands of Filipinos took to the streets of the capital, Manila, and with defectors from the military, forced Mr. Marcos and his family to flee to the United States. It helped inspire similar movements and democratic change in South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Indonesia.

But as Filipinos can attest, removing a dictator is one thing, democratic change is another.

The years following the overthrow of  Mr. Marcos were tumultuous. Members of the military, which had played a dominant and favored position in politics, became disaffected.

"There were a number of coup attempts because the civilian and military leadership needed to come to a new arrangement having been part of the inner circle of power under the dictator. Even though the military was instrumental in his removal, that didn’t necessarily mean that they were comfortable with the new dispensation," said Steven Rood, the Philippine representative of the Asia Foundation, which supports economic reform and governance initiatives.

The Egyptian military, which helped pressure Mr. Mubarak to step down, is currently in charge of the country until elections take place within six months.


The military’s role was also a concern in Indonesia after the fall of President Suharto in 1998. Some political analysts predicted that without Suharto in power, Southeast Asia’s largest nation would descend into sectarian violence and secessionist movements, and the military would take over.

In Indonesia, the military was both a security force and a political force, with guaranteed seats in parliament.

That has not happened. The Indonesian military was able to adapt to the changing political order.

"The advantage was, I suppose, at that time it was riven by factions so it could never make use of its formidable powers to capture power," said Leonard Sebastian, coordinator of the Indonesia program at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
"Also there was a lot of pressure both in the streets and internationally from say, countries like the United States, for the army not to seize power. The third I would say was the emergence of a reformist group of officers who were keen to take the armed forces out of politics and effectively move the army to a more professional course."

He says one of those military officers is the current president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Rood says it is important to lay out a new role for the military after such revolutions to allow the civilian leadership to take over.

"That’s a very delicate balancing operation, and it took the Philippines a decade to get there, although I think that’s where they are now," he said.

Muslim organizations

In Indonesia, Sebastian says the country’s largest Muslim organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, which have millions of members, also played critical roles in promoting democracy.

"They were dedicated toward moderation, tolerance and inclusiveness. They sought to contribute to the debate. The leading lights within these two institutions were very prominent in the civil society that took root particularly in the 1990s to push for more democratization," he said.

What role Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood will play in the transition remains unclear; it has been a major opposition force there for decades.


Democracy in Indonesia and the Philippines has not done away with all the ills that plagued the old authoritarian governments, such as corruption and poverty.

Many political analysts see Indonesia as a more stable democracy than the Philippines. Indonesia has held three high-turnout national elections since 1998, and despite numerous terrorist attacks and sectarian flare ups, the country’s economy has thrived.

The Philippines, however, has a spotty record. In 2001, another president was driven from office by mass protests over corruption allegations, the military staged a rebellion in 2003, and widespread fraud clouded the 2004 presidential elections. And the economy has languished.

Rood says Filipinos expected more than they got after 1986.

"Because they focused their discontent on one person, getting rid of that one person led them to think that everything would change for the better immediately. And of course when it did not, a lot of discontent rose up," he said.

And change does not necessarily mean old faces will go away. Numerous corruption and human rights violations cases were filed against the Marcos family, with little success in recovering billions of dollars of allegedly stolen wealth. Mr. Marcos died in exile in 1989. Today, his wife Imelda, a daughter and a son hold elected positions in the Philippines.

Mr. Suharto died in 2008. His family continues to own vast business enterprises. Lawsuits were filed against his children, but none were convicted of graft. Mr. Suharto’s old party, Golkar, remains a major player in Indonesian politics.

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