Southeast Asians have at least two things in common. First, they all know what it's like to live under authoritarian regimes and rulers. The latter range from brutal autocrats (Burma's recently retired General Than Shwe) to self-styled strongmen (Cambodia's Hun Sen) to leaders who benefit from repressive laws that safeguard the predominance of a single party (Malaysia's Najib Razak).
Second, Southeast Asians are bone weary of authoritarianism, and increasingly unafraid to say so. There is a growing demand for accountability and good governance that the region's elites and demidespots ignore at their peril. To call it a Southeast Asian Spring is an exaggeration. But the movement is youthful and social-media-savvy, and could precipitate changes just as profound as those in the Middle East.
Prime Minister Najib, who casts himself as a moderate, seems to realize this. His party, the United Malays National Organization, leads the National Front coalition, whose decades-old grip on power has sparked protests for electoral reform. In July police violently dispersed what should have been a peaceful rally by some 50,000 members of Bersih 2.0, a group campaigning for free and fair elections. (Bersih means clean.) Protesters used Twitter and YouTube to organize the rally and, later, undermine claims that the police acted with restraint.
On Sept. 15, his reformist credentials in shreds, Najib promised to scrap the Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows police to detain suspects indefinitely, along with the much abused Emergency Ordinance. He also vowed to loosen media restrictions and review the laws on freedom of assembly. It's hard to know whether he will keep his promises. But emboldened Malaysians will hold him to them, either at the polls an election must be held by 2013 or on the streets.
Read the rest at: The Fire Next Time by Andrew Marshall.