Bridget Welsh is a Senior Research Associate at the Center for East Asia Democratic Studies of the National Taiwan University. She is based in Southeast Asia, where she works on Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Indonesia and other countries in the region. She is committed to engagement, fostering mutual understanding and empowerment.

Democracy under siege

Between a military coup, killings, sedition charges, religious oppression, lawsuits and censorship, Southeast Asian nations took alarming steps backwards in 2014 It has, without question, been a hard year for democracy in Southeast Asia. The coup in Thailand in May is perhaps the most obvious marker. It is far more repressive than previous examples, as the military is not acting as a transitory national guardian but has entrenched itself. Indeed, what distinguishes 2014 across the region has been an increased use of draconian tools to stay in power, from control on protests to restrictions on social media and religious freedom. This speaks to the growing insecurities of regional governments facing more empowered and demanding societies. Early in the year, police in Phnom Penh killed four labour protesters, which led to a ban on protests for six months. Premier Hun Sen did reach a deal with the opposition in July that led to them taking their seats in parliament and launched a reformed National Election Commission. But the killings set the regional tone: that open dissent was to be less tolerated, if at all. Nowhere was this more evident than in Thailand. The military junta cracked down on peaceful protests, banning...

How UMNO lost its mojo

As Malaysia’s dominant political party held its 68th annual general assembly this week, the familiar rallying cries of imminent crisis and racial insecurity rang out again. The leadership tactic of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) from Dr Mahathir Mohamad onwards has been to foster insecurity among the Malay community and to use it to maintain political control. The use of racial supremacy fears has deepened since the 2013 general election, in which UMNO faced the most serious threat yet to its political position despite securing the most seats within the governing coalition. UMNO’s waning appeal comes from an unexpected source: within the party leadership itself. In fact, one of the distinguishing features of Najib Razak’s tenure has been the displacement of UMNO as a truly dominant political actor. With stealth and effective political initiatives, Najib has changed UMNO’s political role, making it less of a target and, ironically, less politically relevant. To understand this dynamic, one has to go back to 2008. Then the phrase ‘Anything But UMNO’ was the battle cry for the opposition. UMNO was the target, criticised for its race-based policies and entrenched corruption. After UMNO faced winning only a third of parliamentary seats in the March...

The summit of Myanmar’s ambitions

Posturing and positioning were high on the agenda for the host – and many guests – at this week’s East Asia Summit Myanmar has become a world stage, at least this week when leaders gathered in the capital, Naypyidaw, for ASEAN and East Asia Summit (EAS) meetings. Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, India’s Narendra Modi and US President Barack Obama were just a few of those joining Asian leaders including newly minted Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Thailand’s self-imposed prime minister, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha. It’s an odd, eclectic mix without a clear agenda. Myanmar’s chairmanship of ASEAN and the EAS has been strong on symbolism, but weak on substance. The ASEAN meetings so far have served as quiet meetings to showcase Myanmar’s “arrival” on the international stage rather than promote any specific sets of goals. Nevertheless, behind the pomp of the ceremonies at this EAS, there are real interests being promoted. To start with, one of the most important dynamics is that Myanmar is being used for the domestic agendas of visiting leaders, particularly those from afar. Consider Russia’s strong presence. Russia has been viewed with suspicion since the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, although no ASEAN leader...
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PAS reactionaries strike back

Taken from Malaysiakini.com With emotional outbursts, walkouts and contradictory statements, PAS’ 60th muktamar last week was more of a confrontation rather than a celebration.With the PAS president referring to the Islamic party’s Pakatan Rakyat partners as “minor enemies” and its members who stood with ally PKR as “lackeys”, it has become evident that PAS under...

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Selangor a Pakatan Rakyat family fight

Taken from Malaysiakini.com The ongoing Selangor crisis has riveted the Malaysian public for weeks and called into question the ability of the opposition to govern as a coalition.From attacks on each other to sackings and perceived party betrayals, the Selangor crisis has revealed underlying tensions among Pakatan Rakyat partners and showcased the fierce competition for...

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Wong Ho Leng was a brave fighter

Taken from Malaysiakini.com For those who knew Bukit Assek assemblyperson Wong Ho Leng, the words ‘brave fighter’ come to mind. When he entered politics over 30 years ago, he joined at a time when being part of the opposition was unpopular.It was the economic boom years in Sibu, derived primarily from timber, and he chose...

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The core character of Malaysia seen at LCCT

Taken from Malaysiakini.com Today marks the closure of the Low-Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT) in Sepang. Opened in 2006, this no-frills terminal has seen multiple millions of passengers pass through its gates and helped to develop the tourism sector nationally and internationally. The LCCT became the main transfer point of the 40 million tourists visiting Malaysia,...

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One year after GE13, lost in sea of politicking

Taken from Malaysiakini.com Today marks the one year anniversary of the historic 13th general election. This election was pivotal in the country’s history as the incumbent BN coalition held onto power, with the opposition calls for ‘change’ unfulfilled.Scholars have highlighted the fundamental shifts in the power of Umno, the imbalance of the opposition parties, the...

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Obama’s Malaysia Test

Published on Project Syndicate KUALA LUMPUR – When Barack Obama lands in Malaysia this weekend, his two-day stopover will be the first visit by a US president since 1966. Unfortunately, human rights will probably not be on the agenda. Even as Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s government pursues yet another politically motivated case against opposition...

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Karpal Singh a political man of his times

Taken from Malaysiakini.com Much has been written about the recently deceased Karpal Singh.His skills as a lawyer, his fight for basic rights and contributions to the law, his commitment to his family and his struggle for ordinary people as a humanitarian are just some of the themes raised in the many eulogies and reflections in...

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A bittersweet victory in Kajang?

Taken from Malaysiakini.com   As expected, the opposition PKR won the Kajang by-election. It did so with a smaller majority in number of voters, 5,379, but a larger share of the overall vote, up from 56.8 percent to 59.1 percent.This was an important win for the opposition. Yet, the results did not send the decisive...

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Search for MH370 highlights need for trust, unity in Asia

Taken from CNN.com In 2003, the SARS virus epidemic was a wake-up call for Asia, forcing China to increase transparency, fostering closer regional cooperation and bringing human security issues to the fore. The disappearance of MH370 will have a similar transformative effect on regional security, but it will take a different form. In recent years,...

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