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            The relationship between politics and the military in Southeast Asian countries has always been deep- rooted, with military actors openly playing political roles on a diverse political landscape ranging from authoritarian military regimes to full democracies. Though in recent decades military influence on political structures has generally become less overt, it remains very much as a central pillar shaping power structures in the region.

            But how will this change in the future? Will military influences in the political arena wane under the pressures of Western-style democratization? Will armed forces be ready to face a journey of self-transformation towards the Western model- that of a professional army whose role is restricted to shielding and protecting the nation state from external military threat? This article discusses some of the factors and trends that might lead to such a shift.


            Elites of all political colors have long cultivated close relationships with the military, characterized by intricate power games and granting of political favor to sustain the locus of political power and continuity of economic stability. The distance between political parties and the armed forces is considered a fairly good indicator of the overall level of democratization, and explains the emergence of different modalities (as illustrated in Figure 1).

Figure 1 Modalities of nation states

            However, over the coming decade we may witness an erosion of this broad playing field for the military in Southeast Asia, as greater transparency challenges the legitimacy of the convergence of interests between the military and political elites. Mounting social opposition and even distaste for the militarys history of supporting political elites have brought unfamiliar pressures that challenge the militarys traditional loyalties to the elites.

            The middle classes in some leading economies such as Singapore and Thailand appear generally content to see a role for the armed forces as a guardian of economic stability, and (in Thailands case) as a backstop when political feuds escalate to the extent that they jeopardize national stability and particularly, economic activity. In Thailand, for example, it is commonly observed that Thai society seems to yearn for a knight on a white horse to solve short-term problems by whatever means, without considering the longer-term repercussions.

            But today, this status quo is challenged by the growing power of alliances among less privileged middle income earners and the poor who, unhappy with widening income disparities, are undermining the existing political hegemony. As these new political forces press for a greater voice, an inexorable shift in the balance of power between the elites and the armed forces seems set to redefine the way the political pie is divided.

            Partnerships and accommodation between political parties and armed forces have always been regard- ed as strategically essential in the interests of both security and stability. With at least three major long- term flashpoints in the region, this is no mere rhetoric. Ideological confrontation remains unresolved across the Taiwan Straits and between the two Koreas, nuclear-armed India and Pakistan are at their highest level of confrontation since the early 1970s, and Indonesia- the worlds fourth-largest country- is facing major internal conflicts that threaten its very existence. How it deals with demands for democracy, decentralization and political and religious diversity could well influence the course of events in Asia and beyond. And the list goes on- the recent face-off between Japan and China over Japans arrest of a Chinese ships captain was a disturbing reminder of the many territorial disputes that threaten to re-ignite deep-seated historical, territorial, ideological, and religious conflicts in the region.

            It should therefore come as no surprise therefore that the Asia-Pacific region spends about US$150 billion a year on defense more than any other part of the world except the USA and the NATO countries. The stakes are therefore undeniably high for both politicians and generals whilst domestic political forces clamor for greater separation between military and political powers, geopolitical considerations demand that the military and politicians close ranks in an unshakeable alliance to protect against these simmering and very real threats to regional security. How the regions armed forces respond to such competing demands will be closely watched as a measure of the professionalism of the military as well as a bellwether of the risk of war or regional military conflicts. Professionalism has become a buzzword in todays military debate: what that really means might be open to wide interpretation.


            With the economies, resources and geopolitical significance of the ASEAN region and its trade routes, a complex strategic situation is emerging as China, Japan and India compete among themselves for military and economic advantage over their lucrative backyard, and in a more united challenge to the dominance of the USA in the region. This of course is only to be expected. However, the ascent of radical fundamentalism has brought disruptive and irrevocable change that significantly raises the political and economic risk across the region. Their methods have exposed the impotence of both politicians and military forces to deal with non-traditional threats that do not fit with traditional set-piece battle strategies. Military strategies, designed for battle with a visible, identifiable enemy in a specific location, have been blown asunder by 9/11 and subsequent attacks around the world.

            Globalization and greater freedom of movement have facilitated the ease with which terrorist movements can operate in their attempts to destabilize Western political and economic confidence; their tactics have proved remarkably effective in creating a climate of fear and economic insecurity.

            The shortcomings of traditional military strategy are exacerbated in Asia by the weaknesses of the kind of regional security mechanisms that serve as a safety net in the European arena. The Asian economic crisis of 19971998 was a transformational event in Southeast Asia that derailed attempts to establish a role for ASEAN as a regional security organization, as well as placing a severe strain on national defence budgets. The crisis left ASEAN states with a sorely diminished ability to counter security threats, both traditional and non-traditional.

            ASEANs aspirations to become a single economic community by 2015 are underpinned by expectations that harmonization will catalyze greater cohesion among its peoples at all levels- culturally, politically, commercially and militarily. However, this free flow of trade and labour mobility will increase the burden on security forces to deal with transnational crimes, particularly narcotics, people trafficking and terror- ism. Thailand may face the brunt of a new wave of these activities due to its strategic location at the hub of Southeast Asia.

            These two trends- democratization and the emergence of non-traditional security threats- carry pro- found implications for the role of the military around the region. In the domestic arena, the militarys role in politics and in society at large will come under greater scrutiny, and on the regional scene, there seems to be no alternative to ramping up the level of regional cooperation, especially among national intelligence services, in order to deal with the growing threats to economic security, and provide effective regional mechanisms for mediating in national conflicts among ASEAN member states.

Disclaimer : The opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of Noviscape Consulting Group or the Rockefeller Foundation.

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