Commentary / World

Indonesia, Thailand: rising and falling stars

by Tom Plate

History never comes to a halt but snakes its way into the future as it wishes — often in unexpected and sometimes tragic ways.

Whether via revolution or counter-revolution, any abrupt change in citizen participation and political structure will shove nations onto trajectories that, for better or for worse, are difficult to reverse. At the moment no spot on our troubled planet offers a better illustration of this dynamic than Southeast Asia, with triumphant Indonesia and tragic Thailand.

In sum, the former has put its military back into the barracks, and the latter has put it in charge of the country.

In the important archipelago nation of Indonesia, citizen participation in the polity has been growing since the fall of the Suharto authoritarian regime. This was back in 1998, and to me — and maybe it’s just me — the land of 18,000 islands first glued together by European imperialism now looks like the coming star of Southeast Asia.

Its elected president, Joko Widowo, known as Jokowi, has taken the national reins with great promise. And at almost the same time, his former position as governor of sprawling Jakarta has been filled, via open election, by Basuki Tjahaja Purnarma, otherwise known as Ahok.

Please note that the Indonesian population is overwhelmingly Muslim, and Ahok is Christian. The world’s leading Muslim population has elected a Christian and a Chinese! See what I mean about Indonesia?

Both President Jokowi and Gov. Ahok present themselves as the people’s incorruptible tribunes. Only time will tell whether they are nothing more than fakers. In this region, political sincerity is often the first sign of outright deceit.

But these two gentlemen are flying on huge updrafts of legitimacy and belief, as their direct personal style greatly appeals to a public that has grown tired of being slicked to death. And they may be the real deal.

Still, we columnists, especially in the West, need to keep our head about us and control our enthusiasm. Indonesia, the fourth most populous country after the United States, India and China, and with more Muslims than anyone, is inarguably one of the most important but it has always proved a deep Asian enigma.

Put your eyes on a new book by the gifted journalist Elizabeth Pisani. “Indonesia Etc.” is perhaps the most touted literary work in English about this country since the memorable 1978 novel “The Year of Living Dangerously” by Australian novelist/journalist Christopher Koch.

Beautifully written, Indonesia Etc. is about a love affair, Pisani’s with Indonesia’s “voluptuous hospitality” that makes it such “a deeply seductive place to explore.” Hers is also a kaleidoscopic tour that you won’t regret taking, but along the way, Pisani also adds some kaleidoscopic caution.

Yes, you love the crazy place, but it’s a dangerous lover, still growing into its shoes as a stable secular giant that will forever regret and never forget the prior mean-military one that tended to shoot the people it forgot to arrest.

Even so, as we can currently exult over the optimistic equatorial sun now draping across the former Dutch colony, let me return to my basic enthusiasm, which has the additional virtue of helping me accept my fast-growing depression and anxiety about Thailand.

Here is a country that once upon a time almost everyone loved, but now is a dark place moving in a scary direction — away from universal citizen participation under the oppression of a throat-grabbing Bangkok elite.

Governance today comes from an ill-equipped military junta of South-American inelegance, as if the 21st century governance were aspects of the far future and the basic idea of political equality a sworn enemy of the state.

Forget people’s right to vote: Pushed out of office and scolded not to show her face in public is Yingluck Shinawatra, the deposed prime minister.

This consistently charming and patriotic lady had the great unfortunate success of putting aside her nonpolitical business career to take up the leadership of her brother Thaksin’s populist party in a smashing victory two years ago. Almost immediately this soft-spoken lady garnered solid positive performance reviews from Southeast Asia neighbors, despite making mistakes not unusual for a political novice.

Even President Barack Obama had remarked on her fresh spirit and honest appeal, although we now know exactly what an Obama blessing can mean: nothing. The U.S. government has all but acted as if the May military coup did not happen or, if it did, does not mind it all that much.

Where is the heart and soul of U.S. foreign policy?

And so into reverse does portentously trend the much-trumpeted U.S. “pivot” to Asia. Yet more troops, treasure and American deaths in the Middle East (a syndrome that never seems to wane), with the result that there is less time and attention (despite all the Washington ballyhoo) for Asia.

Well, who cares about silly little Thailand and its people — a nation with the population of Britain and the landmass of France?

So what about the politically violated Yingluck, who cut such a smart figure against the seedy threads of Thai politics? Why in the crunch did Obama do so little?

Does he not care?

More and more — to this observer, at least — that divot is looking like a big pothole.

Los Angeles-based journalist Tom Plate, Loyola Marymount University’s Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies, is the author of “In the Middle of China’s Future” and the “Giants of Asia” series. His next book will be “Did They Really Say That? The Art and Science of the Political Interview.”

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