The dark side of paradise

A special New Statesman focus on <a href="http://www.newstatesman.com/seasia">South East Asia</a> wi

The dreamy, white-sand beaches of south-east Asia will welcome millions of western tourists this summer. From the west coast of Thailand, excursions will head to Ko Tapu, the island made famous as the lair of the Bond villain Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun. Others will be lured by the clifftop kecak dances on Bali, where flames illuminate the tales of the Ramayana, performed in an 11th-century Hindu temple as the sun sets on the Lombok Strait. Cultural visitors will head to the ancient royal capital of Angkor in Cambodia, while the South China Sea is heaven for divers.

But cast your mind back to the beginning of this year, and there is another picture that speaks to a somewhat darker truth about the region than the paradisiacal vistas painted by tourist brochures suggest.

As General Suharto lay dying in a Jakarta hospital in January, western commentators bemoaned the failure to bring the former Indonesian dictator to justice. A "tyrant", they called him, a man responsible for murdering up to half a million of his countrymen in a purge of communists in the late 1960s, accused of stealing as much as $35bn from the state during his 31-year rule (which ended in 1998) and who held the dubious honour of being declared the most corrupt leader of all time by the NGO Transparency International.

None of this stopped a string of local luminaries coming to pay their respects. Mahathir Mohamad, prime minister of Malaysia for 22 years; Singapore's founding father, now minister mentor, Lee Kuan Yew; the sultan of Brunei: all visited as Suharto fought his last battle. "I feel sad to see a very old friend with whom I had worked closely over the last 30 years, not really getting the honour that he deserves," said Lee, who came to full power in 1965, two years before Suharto. Dr Mahathir held the old dictator's hand and shed a tear. Even the leader of East Timor, José Ramos-Horta, had kind words for the man who ordered the invasion and subsequent repression of his country in 1975, and he asked the Pope to pray for him.

After his death, the west was unanimous in its condemnation of his rule. "Suharto's legacy speaks for itself. We regret that, on this occasion, we must write harshly of the dead. Very harshly," concluded a New Statesman leader. Yet closer to home, different sentiments were expressed. The president of the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, praised Suharto's promotion of regional unity, while Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono eulogised the "many great services" he had done for the nation. The truth is that, surprising - even repugnant - as outside observers may find this seeming indulgence of a man they considered a brutal despot, it was only to be expected that his death would be marked more generously in the region. For although in some respects Suharto may have been an exception, in many others he was the rule.

Most tourists continue to be blissfully unaware of the region's internal politics. Few larking about in the water park on Singapore's Sentosa Island turn their thoughts to Chee Soon Juan, the long-standing opposition leader who has been bankrupted by defamation suits, banned from standing for elections and frequently imprisoned - all for actions and campaigns that would be taken for granted in a liberal democracy. Nor does it seem likely that many who visit the Shoe Museum in Manila, home to Imelda Marcos's footwear collection, reflect for long on how it was that her late husband, the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, managed to turn the Philippines into a nation of "40 million cowards and one son of a bitch", as a US official put it.

Yet, as the balance of power and wealth moves inexorably east over the course of what China's Deng Xiaoping and India's Rajiv Gandhi predicted would be the "Asian century", governments and businesses need to know more about the group of countries to the south-east of "Chindia". Skyscraper cities are the visible evidence of decades of growth (5.7 per cent across the region in 2008, according to the Asian Development Bank; down from 6.5 per cent in 2007, but still buoyant compared to the 1.8 per cent the OECD estimates for the UK this year). Individually, the members of Asean (the Association of South-East Asian Nations) may not be big players, but collectively they are a part of what Fareed Zakaria, in his book The Post-American World, refers to as "the rise of the rest". And at a time when Islam's place in the world and the extent to which liberal democracies should either accommodate or confront it is the subject of constant debate, not to seek a greater understanding of an area with more Muslims than the entire Arab Middle East would be foolhardy in the extreme.

Asian values

Chief among the lessons that need to be learned are the historical reasons why liberal democracy has been so absent from the region, and why one should not expect its imminent arrival. The western powers will have to accept that their future partners - and they must act towards them as partners, shedding any lingering superiority to their former imperial possessions - may be part of the growing club of nations where an authoritarian "guided democracy" holds sway. Indeed, proponents of the "Asian values" school of thought reject the suggestion that modernisation should be accompanied by liberalisation.

As Lee Kuan Yew put it in a speech in Tokyo, in 1992: "With few exceptions, democracy has not brought good government to new developing countries . . . What Asians value may not necessarily be what Americans or Europeans value. Westerners value the freedoms and liberties of the individual. As an Asian of Chinese cultural background, my values are for a government which is honest, effective and efficient."

Put bluntly, liberal democracy has no historic roots in the Asean countries; and after independence (all were colonised apart from Thailand) there were plenty of reasons why more authoritarian forms of government swiftly became the norm. These were states, but not nation states in the classic 19th-century European sense. Some owed their very creation to European empires. The boundary between Malaysia and Indonesia, for instance, corresponds to the early 19th-century division of influence agreed by the British and the Dutch. Singapore was a swampy island populated by a few fishermen until it was founded as a city state by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819. The Philippines never existed as a unit prior to rule by the Spanish and then the Americans (400 years of convent, 50 years of Hollywood, as the saying goes). They, and many other neighbouring states, faced not only battles to maintain territorial integrity on independence, but also struggles to forge national identities.

Far from aiding this process, experiments with democracy in the 1940s and 1950s suggested it was a system that gave too free a voice to separatist tendencies and stoked racial tension. After 17 different cabinets in 13 years, President Sukarno introduced "guided democracy" in Indonesia in 1957. Five years later, the military took over in Burma, ending democracy for good. No one disputes the countless atrocities the generals have since inflicted on that unfortunate country. At the time, however, many were sympathetic to the move. "If they hadn't stepped in, the country would have disintegrated," one diplomat then stationed in Rangoon told me.

The lack of homogeneity caused serious problems. Did the large Chinese diaspora, which held levels of wealth disproportionate to its size in many countries, owe its allegiance to the new states, or did it look to the home country? It was an important question during the decades of the domino effect, when first Vietnam, then Cambodia and Laos, fell under communist rule.

Singapore grip

Stability became the goal. And the means to achieving it - removing dissent from the public sphere, building up institutions such as the monarchy in Thailand and the army in Burma - were presented as being both necessary and true to local values and customs. To adat, the system of customary law ingrained in the culture from Malaysia, across Indonesia, to the Muslim south of the Philippines, and to compadrazgo, the network of client-patron kinship in the rest of that country; to Confucianism in the Chinese communities; drawing on the passivity and fatalism of Buddhism in the northern countries, and on the essentially conservative nature of the Muslim south.

Why is all this relevant today? The answer lies in the fact that there is still not one functioning liberal democracy in south-east Asia. Burma's tragic story is well known. Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos are only beginning to recover from the decades when communists of various shades, supported by both China and the USSR, wreaked havoc throughout Indochina; Vietnam and Laos are still nominally communist today, while Cambodia's prime minister is a former member of the Khmer Rouge.

Thailand continues its well-worn pattern of oscillating between tentative democracy and army-led coups, with the monarchy playing a stabilising, moderate role. Singapore's elections are a byword for predictability, not least because any party other than the ruling PAP faces huge obstacles to getting on to the ballot. The rigidity of Malaysia's political system has been highlighted recently by the response of the governing coalition to the prospect of losing power for the first time, provoking a crisis in which the opposition leader has been framed for sexual assault. And in the Philippines and Indonesia, both supposedly democracies since the falls of Marcos and Suharto, respectively, elections are so marred by corruption and vote-rigging that it would be a joke to suggest they merit the description "free and fair".

If they paused to consider the political repression in the region, it would seem intolerable to the tourists jetting in to the airports of south-east Asia. But those shiny new temples of commerce, many of which put Heathrow or Charles de Gaulle to shame for space, convenience and cleanliness, are symbolic of why revolution is not around the corner, and why the citizens of many of these countries accept more authoritarian forms of government. It has been those governments that have kept the order necessary for growth.

Such cultural factors should also call into question the levels of demand for western-style liberal democracy. The Thai people showed that there was something more important to them than democracy when they accepted the coup against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006 because it was thought to be sanctioned by the king. There is at least some truth to those Asian values that Lee Kuan Yew talked about. Dr Mahathir put it another way in 2003: "In some countries sleeping naked on the beach as a sign of protest is considered democracy - if that is democracy then this is not needed."

That "not needed" may sound chilling to Europeans baking in the tropical sun this summer. Should they be lucky enough to enjoy lengthy interaction with local people, however, they may be surprised to find that many are not bothered by such remarks. The west had better wake up to the fact that other parts of the world don't necessarily share its values. In the age of the Asian century, it's time we stopped being surprised.

The Asean nations

  • Brunei
    Population: 380,000. GDP per capita: $32,167.
    Religion: 67 per cent Muslim, 13 per cent Buddhist, 10 per cent Christian. Absolute monarchy. Legally, the sultan "can do no wrong" personally or officially.
  • Burma
    Population: 55 million. GDP per capita: $239.
    Religion: 89 per cent Buddhist. Brutal military dictatorship since 1962.
  • Cambodia
    Population: 14 million. GDP per capita: $600.
    Religion: 95 per cent Buddhist. Faltering - some say failing - democracy.
  • Indonesia
    Population: 237 million. GDP per capita: $1,925.
    Religion: 86 per cent Muslim. Dictatorship until 1998; shaky democracy.
  • Laos
    Population: seven million. GDP per capita: $656.
    Religion: 65 per cent Buddhist, 33 per cent animist. One-party communist state.
  • Malaysia
    Population: 25 million. GDP per capita: $6,948.
    Religion: 60 per cent Muslim, 19 per cent Buddhist, 9 per cent Christian, 6 per cent Hindu. Democracy, although ruling coalition has never lost a general election.
  • Philippines
    Population: 93 million. GDP per capita: $1,625.
    Religion: 81 per cent Roman Catholic, 5 per cent Muslim. Chaotic, corruption-ridden democracy since fall of the dictator Marcos in 1986.
  • Singapore
    Population: five million. GDP per capita: $35,163.
    Religion: 43 per cent Buddhist, 15 per cent Muslim,15 per cent Christian, 9 per cent Taoist. Democracy in name; opposition parties face obstacles to getting on to the ballot.
  • ThailandPopulation: 65 million. GDP per capita: $3,737.
    Religion: 95 per cent Buddhist. Alternates between tentative democracy and coups.
  • Vietnam
    Population: 86 million. GDP per capita: $818.
    Religion: 85 per cent Buddhist. Communist state moving towards market economy.
  • Research by Alex Iossifidis