Political Legacies and Prospects for Democratic Development in Southeast Asia:
NBR Analysis vol. 9, no. 3

Political Legacies and Prospects for Democratic Development in Southeast Asia

by Donald K. Emmerson and Mary P. Callahan
May 1, 1998

This issue of the NBR Analysis focuses on two Southeast Asian nations—Indonesia and Burma—that pose complex challenges to U.S. policymakers. Burma’s military regime, recently renamed the State Peace and Development Committee (SPDC), remains in firm control of the country, despite U.S. efforts to isolate and unseat it. In Indonesia, the economic crisis and concerns about political instability have raised important questions about the most appropriate ways to channel humanitarian and development assistance to the beleaguered economy and to encourage political reform. In the pages that follow, two of America’s leading scholars on Southeast Asia offer rich historical perspective on the contemporary political landscapes of these countries.

In the first essay, Dr. Mary Callahan, assistant professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, addresses the political and socioeconomic conditions that obstructed Burma’s democratic development in the 1950s and are still very much a factor today. These barriers include: (1) the inadequate political basis for federalism in the multiethnic country; (2) a crisis of state capacity rooted in the fragmented nature of Burmese society; and (3) an institutional intolerance of dissent on the part of authoritarian and pro-democracy organizations alike. She points out that current U.S. policy does little to address these hurdles, and until they are overcome it is unlikely that democratic government could be sustained in Burma—even if efforts to unseat the ruling junta were successful. Moreover, Dr. Callahan argues that the “all-or-nothing” approach of the United States, which focuses on deposing the military government, raises the cost of conciliation for all parties and leaves the ruling junta with little incentive to negotiate.

Professor Donald Emmerson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison turns to the political question of presidential succession in Indonesia. He notes the likelihood that medical or political circumstances may prevent President Soeharto from completing the five-year term to which he was re-elected in March 1998. Through a careful examination of constitutional and historical evidence, Professor Emmerson argues that the vaguely worded, yet symbolically powerful 1945 constitution will establish important parameters for the succession process. The U.S. should neither isolate nor embrace Indonesia’s controversial president, the author concludes, but should seek bilateral and multilateral channels of assistance to those least responsible for the economic crisis and least able to withstand its effects.