As President Barack Obama sets off this weekend for a historic trip to Southeast Asia, he arrives at a high point for himself —and a low point for the region. Obama, making his first trip since winning re-election at the polls, will be the first sitting American president to visit Myanmar. The country has undoubtedly embarked upon historic reforms, yet is also embroiled in brutal ethnic violence. Thailand, another stop on Obama’s trip, is bracing for what could be a hugely disruptive leadership succession fight. In Cambodia, he will attend the East Asia Summit, as well as the Summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), an organization in the throes of a crisis.
The violence in Myanmar’s southwestern Rakhine State may have been sparked in part by the security forces, who are eager to retain a sizable role in the new Myanmar, and it has also been facilitated by radical Buddhist groups that have been attacking Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State and have made it nearly impossible for aid organizations like Doctors without Borders to even provide aid and relief to the tens of thousands of refugees fleeing their homes there. Meanwhile, in other parts of Myanmar like Kachin State, civil war is ramping up again, raising the question of whether the president, Thein Sein, actually has control of his regional army commanders. Thus far, democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has said little about the violence in Rakhine State, a great disappointment to rights activists in the state and around the world.
Meanwhile, in Thailand, a U.S. treaty ally and another country on Obama’s itinerary, the situation is only marginally better. As the king of Thailand’s health continues to decline —rumors suggest he has had multiple strokes and is operating at minimal brain capacity, and in his few public appearances he looks extraordinarily frail— Thailand’s power centers are girding for the post-succession fight of the century. While the government of Yingluck Shinawatra enjoys a majority of popular support and control of parliament, Yingluck and her brother Thaksin, from exile, have been trying to slowly reduce the power of the country’s traditional unelected power centers, such as the military and the palace, in part by reshuffling the army to promote Thaksin loyalists. But the top army leaders remain staunchly anti-Thaksin/Yingluck and extremely royalist, and in recent weeks a new group of middle- and upper-class protestors have descended on the streets of Bangkok. Ostensibly, they are protesting corruption in the Yingluck government (though Yingluck’s government is not demonstrably any more corrupt than any previous Thai government) and they are protesting the possible return to Thailand of the exiled Thaksin, who still faces criminal charges back at home. In reality, the protestors, led by a former general linked to several Privy Councilors close to the king, are rallying Bangkokians to push to oust the government, preferably through another military coup —an openly stated goal of many of the protestors. The protest group, known as Pitak Siam, has made wild claims about the size of its rallies, but thus far they have tended to be around 20,000 people. Still, as in 2006, when hundreds of thousands of Bangkokians came to the streets to push for the ouster of Thaksin and call for a coup, these demonstrations could get larger, once again showing that there is no compromise on the horizon for Thailand’s deadlocked politics. The poor, who support Thaksin, have the votes to win election after election; the middle and upper classes, so distrustful of Thaksin’s party and poor voters, will turn time and time again to extra-constitutional means to nullify elections. This deadlock, which has lasted since 2006, has paralyzed policymaking in a critical U.S. ally, undermined the economy, and scared off investors. Indeed, the Obama administration now has closer functional ties with Vietnam and Singapore, neither of which actually are treaty allies, than with dysfunctional Thailand.
And above it all looms the crisis in ASEAN, the leading regional organization. Though ASEAN’s secretary-general, Surin Pitsuwan, is Thai, and previously served as Thailand’s foreign minister, he has had little success in helping to mediate Thailand’s political crisis. Similarly, even though Surin has pushed for a more assertive, regionally engaged ASEAN Secretariat, he has found himself unable to make much headway in addressing Myanmar’s deadly ethnic conflicts either.
On the eve of the president’s visit to Southeast Asia, the CFR Southeast Asian studies program and the International Institutions and Global Governance program are jointly releasing my new Working Paper on ASEAN: “ASEAN’s Future and Asian Integration.”
You can read “ASEAN’s Future and Asian Integration” here.