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Turbulent Political Transitions in Southeast Asia - 2001-12-17

The year 2001 saw some turbulent political transitions in Southeast Asia. Many observers say they were part of a positive movement in the region toward greater democracy and political openness but others aren't so sure.

The year began with a political crisis in the Philippines. Allegations of corruption against then-president Joseph Estrada brought impeachment hearings in the Philippine Senate. When the process stalled in January, thousands of people took to the streets, demanding his resignation.

After days of protests, armed forces chief of staff, Angelo Reyes, appeared before the crowd to announce that the military was abandoning its commander-in-chief. We announce that we are withdrawing support from the president," he said. "We [word drowned out by cheering] in the office of the constitutionally mandated successor, the vice president."

Mr. Estrada offered, without success, to hold new elections in which he would not be a candidate. When that failed, he left the presidential palace but questioned the constitutionality of the events that brought his successor to power. "Since I still have the support of a significant segment of our people, I do not think that the present polarization can be held by a new leader who will take over without an electoral mandate from our people," he said.

But the Supreme Court ruled Mr. Estrada was no longer fit to hold office and Vice-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was sworn in as president. "It is now, as the good book says, a time to heal and a time to build," she said. "The task is formidable. And so I pray that we will all be one."

Another leader facing a formidable task after suddenly rising to the highest office of her country is Indonesia's President Megawati Sukarnoputri. Ms. Megawati was sworn in as president after the Indonesian Parliament impeached her predecessor, Abdurrahman Wahid.

Mr. Wahid had lost popularity because of what was viewed as his erratic style of government and because he failed to address economic problems and separatist violence in the country. On the eve of his impeachment trial, he declared a state of emergency and tried to abolish the assembly.

But, as in the Philippines, the military refused to back the president and after a few days' holdout, Mr. Wahid left the presidential palace.

Sunai Prasuk, an expert with the Bangkok think tank, Forum Asia, said the year's political transitions in the Philippines and Indonesia show there has been a greater sense of political empowerment of the people but there has also been a failure of immature democratic institutions. "And when the democratic institutions, such as the parliamentary tribunal or other process of hearing, failed to remove these leaders from power it is the people who had to take to the street to get rid of them," he said.

The director of the Third World Studies Center at the University of the Philippines, Miriam Coronel Ferrer, said what occurred in her country was a cleansing process and that over time it will improve political leadership. "Maybe for other people it's too chaotic, it's too anarchic. But I think the institutions will be able to hold out and with civil society groups watching over these institutions, in the long run it could create stronger and better government for all of us," she said.

Professor Sunai disagreed because in both the Philippines and Indonesia, he said the process was controlled by party politics and the actions of the military. And the women who assumed power were both daughters of former presidents, who owe allegiance to the traditional power brokers. He worried that these governments in Southeast Asia are not moving toward greater democracy, but rather are becoming entrenched in systems that are manipulated behind the scenes by power elites. "They tend to resort to the old way of politics, either by using collusion, co-option, or making alliance with the conservative forces in the society such as the military in case of Indonesia now, or increasingly in Philippines, or in Thailand by using the power of money and co-opting certain elements in the NGO community, by co-opting the media and controlling the media," he said.

Professor Sunai said there has been a rise of populist leaders in the region, who win elections by making unrealistic promises and thus quickly lose public support. And because there are few institutions to sustain people's hopes, he said political power tends to revert to political elites who seek primarily to protect their own interests.

Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001