Corazon and Democracy in East Asia

Corazon and Democracy in East Asia

 

Political legends and legacies are not always created or sustained by leaders who can pass the scrutiny of history with mathematical rigour. The legend and legacy of Filipino leader Corazon Aquino, who passed away in Manila at the age of 76 on August 1, should be seen in this light. That does not, however, mean that political greatness was simply thrust upon her.

A long-term test of the Corazon legacy of “people power” does not have to be solely related to her political spirit and achievements as “the leader of destiny.” In many respects, the record of her one-term presidency, from1986 to 1992, paled in comparison with the dizzy drama and promise of her rise to power. In a turn of post-modern metaphor, she soared to extra-terrestrial heights in Filipino politics but failed to perform the arduous space walk. A real test of her legacy, therefore, is that of its being a benchmark for pro-democracy campaigns elsewhere in East Asia. “People power,” as articulated by Corazon in 1986, not her innings as President, has proved inspirational for pro-democracy activists across East Asia. This includes the Philippines, where some later-day variants of “people power” campaigns have been seen by critics as parodies.

In all, the magic of “people power” has sometimes been invoked by the anti-establishment forces in South East Asia. They have tried to advance a general agenda of democracy or equal rights for the minorities. The most conspicuous recent example is the effort by a section of the ethnic-Indian minority in Muslim-majority Malaysia. A relevant campaign for equal rights has been characterised as “Makkal Sakthi” or “people power.” Coincidentally, thousands of protesters, chanting “reformasi” or “reformation,” swarmed the streets of Kuala Lumpur on the day Corazon breathed her last. The protesters, belonging mostly to the majority-Malay community, were demanding the repeal of Malaysia’s tough Internal Security Act (ISA). Like most other street demonstrations in Malaysia, this protest, too, was quelled by the use of tear gas and water cannon. But the issues at stake go beyond such a protest-response pattern in the public domain. Anwar Ibrahim, Leader of the Opposition and a one-time Deputy Prime Minister, has not had the kind of political space that opened up for Corazon in the mid-1980s. Moreover, the Malaysian military establishment has been mindful of democracy’s cardinal principle of civilian control over national affairs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Political legends and legacies are not always created or sustained by leaders who can pass the scrutiny of history with mathematical rigour. The legend and legacy of Filipino leader Corazon Aquino, who passed away in Manila at the age of 76 on August 1, should be seen in this light. That does not, however, mean that political greatness was simply thrust upon her.

A long-term test of the Corazon legacy of “people power” does not have to be solely related to her political spirit and achievements as “the leader of destiny.” In many respects, the record of her one-term presidency, from1986 to 1992, paled in comparison with the dizzy drama and promise of her rise to power. In a turn of post-modern metaphor, she soared to extra-terrestrial heights in Filipino politics but failed to perform the arduous space walk. A real test of her legacy, therefore, is that of its being a benchmark for pro-democracy campaigns elsewhere in East Asia. “People power,” as articulated by Corazon in 1986, not her innings as President, has proved inspirational for pro-democracy activists across East Asia. This includes the Philippines, where some later-day variants of “people power” campaigns have been seen by critics as parodies.

In all, the magic of “people power” has sometimes been invoked by the anti-establishment forces in South East Asia. They have tried to advance a general agenda of democracy or equal rights for the minorities. The most conspicuous recent example is the effort by a section of the ethnic-Indian minority in Muslim-majority Malaysia. A relevant campaign for equal rights has been characterised as “Makkal Sakthi” or “people power.” Coincidentally, thousands of protesters, chanting “reformasi” or “reformation,” swarmed the streets of Kuala Lumpur on the day Corazon breathed her last. The protesters, belonging mostly to the majority-Malay community, were demanding the repeal of Malaysia’s tough Internal Security Act (ISA). Like most other street demonstrations in Malaysia, this protest, too, was quelled by the use of tear gas and water cannon. But the issues at stake go beyond such a protest-response pattern in the public domain. Anwar Ibrahim, Leader of the Opposition and a one-time Deputy Prime Minister, has not had the kind of political space that opened up for Corazon in the mid-1980s. Moreover, the Malaysian military establishment has been mindful of democracy’s cardinal principle of civilian control over national affairs.

On balance, the intangible Corazon factor as an inspiration for protest cannot be missed, although her name is not invoked as a political ritual. In fact, the triumph of “people power” over the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986 raised visions of new political paradigms in South East Asia. Yet, this sub-region continues to be hospitable to some ambivalent attitudes towards full-scope democracy. And, a few governments do advance “smart” arguments in defence of such attitudes.

“Reformasi,” an agenda-based variant of the “people power” platform, is the rallying cry of anti-establishment activists in some pockets of South East Asia today. The “people power” theme of the 1986 Filipino model had its first spill-over effect in Thailand. Today, political leaders and pundits across South East Asia are, therefore, at a loss to make sense of the “unfinished democratic revolution” in Thailand. The long shadow of the Thai military forces over the country’s civilian politics is still visible.

In the big picture of “people power” in South East Asia, Indonesia has come a long way out of the shadows of “praetorian politics.” Reflecting a conclusive say for the military forces over civilian affairs, such politics defined Indonesia’s governance at the time Corazon rose to power in Manila. By contrast, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s latest re-election in a peaceful poll is widely seen as a stabiliser of democracy in that country. Surely, the election has not been devoid of controversies. However, regional leaders and experts do not detect any significant democracy-threatening trend in today’s Indonesia. The journey to this point began, of course, with the “reformasi” movement which toppled Suharto’s authoritarian regime in Jakarta in 1998.

Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of a founder of modern Indonesia, was the passive but non-conformist dissident under Suharto’s regime. In this perspective, Ms Megawati’s passive politics during the Suharto era was somewhat similar to Corazon’s initial reluctance to hit the political trail. She required much persuasion to do so, in the wake of her husband’s execution by the minions of Marcos’ martial-law administration in August, 1983. Also, Ms Megawati was ineffective during her brief tenure as Indonesian President in the initial post-Suharto phase of politics. This matched Corazon’s lacklustre performance as an executive President. However, the comparison should end there.

Unlike Corazon, a rallying figure for diverse anti-Marcos forces in 1986, Ms Megawati never captured the commanding heights of acceptance by all anti-Suharto forces. Moreover, Indonesia has had several “reformasi” bandwagons in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This aspect was not only the consequence but also the cause of Ms Megawati’s wayward performance as a potential leader of “people power.”

Myanmar’s celebrated democracy leader and Nobel Peace Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, is unique among those with the ability to mobilise “people power.” However, her continuing travails have only confounded the larger international community. In the Philippines, the Communism-wary church made common cause with a range of political forces to end Marcos’ rule. In a recent uprising in Myanmar, too, Buddhist monks teamed up with other forces but failed to dislodge the military rulers. A poser, therefore, is whether the larger international community can succeed in Myanmar. The task is to match, if not replicate, the success of the Corazon coalition nearly a quarter century ago.

 

 

 

 

 

Opinion - News Analysis    Corazon legacy and the democracy agenda in East Asia

 

 

 

 

 

 

Political legends and legacies are not always created or sustained by leaders who can pass the scrutiny of history with mathematical rigour. The legend and legacy of Filipino leader Corazon Aquino, who passed away in Manila at the age of 76 on August 1, should be seen in this light. That does not, however, mean that political greatness was simply thrust upon her.

A long-term test of the Corazon legacy of “people power” does not have to be solely related to her political spirit and achievements as “the leader of destiny.” In many respects, the record of her one-term presidency, from1986 to 1992, paled in comparison with the dizzy drama and promise of her rise to power. In a turn of post-modern metaphor, she soared to extra-terrestrial heights in Filipino politics but failed to perform the arduous space walk. A real test of her legacy, therefore, is that of its being a benchmark for pro-democracy campaigns elsewhere in East Asia. “People power,” as articulated by Corazon in 1986, not her innings as President, has proved inspirational for pro-democracy activists across East Asia. This includes the Philippines, where some later-day variants of “people power” campaigns have been seen by critics as parodies.

In all, the magic of “people power” has sometimes been invoked by the anti-establishment forces in South East Asia. They have tried to advance a general agenda of democracy or equal rights for the minorities. The most conspicuous recent example is the effort by a section of the ethnic-Indian minority in Muslim-majority Malaysia. A relevant campaign for equal rights has been characterised as “Makkal Sakthi” or “people power.” Coincidentally, thousands of protesters, chanting “reformasi” or “reformation,” swarmed the streets of Kuala Lumpur on the day Corazon breathed her last. The protesters, belonging mostly to the majority-Malay community, were demanding the repeal of Malaysia’s tough Internal Security Act (ISA). Like most other street demonstrations in Malaysia, this protest, too, was quelled by the use of tear gas and water cannon. But the issues at stake go beyond such a protest-response pattern in the public domain. Anwar Ibrahim, Leader of the Opposition and a one-time Deputy Prime Minister, has not had the kind of political space that opened up for Corazon in the mid-1980s. Moreover, the Malaysian military establishment has been mindful of democracy’s cardinal principle of civilian control over national affairs.

On balance, the intangible Corazon factor as an inspiration for protest cannot be missed, although her name is not invoked as a political ritual. In fact, the triumph of “people power” over the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986 raised visions of new political paradigms in South East Asia. Yet, this sub-region continues to be hospitable to some ambivalent attitudes towards full-scope democracy. And, a few governments do advance “smart” arguments in defence of such attitudes.

“Reformasi,” an agenda-based variant of the “people power” platform, is the rallying cry of anti-establishment activists in some pockets of South East Asia today. The “people power” theme of the 1986 Filipino model had its first spill-over effect in Thailand. Today, political leaders and pundits across South East Asia are, therefore, at a loss to make sense of the “unfinished democratic revolution” in Thailand. The long shadow of the Thai military forces over the country’s civilian politics is still visible.

Read Full Article »
Comment
Show commentsHide Comments

Related Articles