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ASEAN’s Destructive Elites

TOKYO – The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has long been envisioned as a foundation stone for stability, security, and increased prosperity in Asia. But with uncertainty plaguing the political systems of Burma, Malaysia, and Thailand, ASEAN may be entering a period of policy and diplomatic inertia. At a time when China’s economic downturn and unilateral territorial claims are posing serious challenges to the region, ASEAN’s weakness could prove highly dangerous.

The problems that are now bedeviling Burma, Malaysia, and Thailand may appear to have little in common. But they all spring from the same source: an entrenched elite’s stubborn refusal to craft a viable system of governance that recognizes new and rising segments of society and reflects their interests in government policy.

And yet, despite the shared roots of these countries’ political dysfunction, their prospects vary. Surprisingly, hope is strongest in Burma, where the military junta recognized the need for change, exemplified in the 2010 decision to free the long-imprisoned Nobel Peace laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and embark on a transition to democracy.

Burma’s former military leaders, it seems, looked ahead dispassionately and saw a stark choice: either relinquish gradually their absolute power, allowing for a democratic transition, or permit China to tighten its grip on their country. China’s efforts to impose development plans that would deliver few, if any, benefits to Burma made the choice somewhat easier.