Malaysia and Thailand are two of Southeast Asia’s most prosperous middle-income states, whose relatively stable recent histories contrast with volatile neighbors such as Indonesia, Philippines or Burma.
Of late, however, the two resource-rich tourist havens are stuck in debilitating, if sometimes farcical, political standoffs.
Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej was dismissed from office Sept. 9 and replaced by Somchai Wongsawat amid weeks-long opposition protests in Bangkok. In Malaysia, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi faces revolt from within his ruling party.
Although the Thai and Malaysian crises differ, both feature “political instability, elite conflict, and a turning away by leaders from policymaking needs,” said Bridget Welsh, assistant professor of Southeast Asian Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.
In Thailand, protesters from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) have occupied government buildings since Aug. 26, with a state of emergency declared in Bangkok after clashes with government supporters.
PAD, however, has not attained the same level of public support that protests against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra received in 2006, which prompted a military coup and ouster of Mr. Thaksin.
Mr. Thaksin and his wife, who face corruption charges, have fled to Britain, claiming they will not receive a fair trial at home.
PAD is led by media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul, a royalist who has reportedly called for 70 percent of members of parliament to be appointed, saying “democracy is still a Western export.”
Mr. Samak was removed on Sept. 9 - not by the army, or parliamentary opposition, but by the newly assertive Thai judiciary, which ruled his role as a TV chef amounted to a conflict of interest with his executive duties.
That decision, however, has not placated PAD, which sees the new prime minister, Somchai Wongsawat, as another Thaksin puppet. Mr. Somchai is Mr. Thaksin’s brother-in-law, continuing a trend established during Mr. Thaksin’s tenure, when he made his cousin, Gen. Chaisit Shinawatra, army chief - a move that angered the generals and provoked the 2006 coup.
Thailand’s army has not overtly intervened in the current standoff, but with tourist numbers down and the value of the Thai stock exchange sliding, much more political strife may be untenable to the unusually recalcitrant generals.
In Malaysia, meanwhile, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has mounted a campaign to return to power after spending six years in prison on a sodomy charge. Mr. Anwar has, for now at least, overcome new sodomy allegations and has been elected to the parliament seat vacated by his wife.
Mr. Anwar set a symbolically charged Sept. 16 deadline for a parliament vote of no-confidence in the prime minister. He needed 30 pro-government lawmakers to defect if he was to remove Mr. Abdullah. That deadline slipped, after the government sent over 50 parliamentarians to Taiwan on what was termed a “study trip,” from Sept. 9-20.
Mr. Anwar wants backing from legislators representing eastern Sabah and Sarawak provinces, which joined Malaysia on Sept. 16, 1963, almost six years after peninsular British Malaya left imperial rule behind. These provinces, which sit on the island of Borneo, have substantial oil and gas reserves, and have been calling for an increase in oil royalties from 5 percent to 20 percent, to allow them address local needs. As many as 54 of Mr. Abdullah’s shaky coalition of 140 lawmakers come from these provinces.
Mr. Anwar’s drive to power comes on the back of Malaysia’s March 2008 elections, when the ruling National Front coalition, made up of 14 parties, but dominated by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), lost its two-thirds majority in parliament for the first time.
In the run-up to the elections, racial and religious issues came to the fore, risking instability in the multi-ethnic state. Images of UMNO grandees, including Education Minister Hishammuddin Hussein waving the keris - a traditional Malay dagger - at party rallies, were regarded as chauvinistic threats by Chinese and Indian Malays.
“Abdullah has sidelined and excluded the non-Malay component parties, weakening them and undermining their public support through his mismanagement of racial issues and pro-Malay favoritism,” Ms. Welsh said.
Malaysia instituted its version of an affirmative action plan, called the New Economic Policy, after race riots in 1969 left almost 1,000 dead, mostly ethnic Chinese. The plan was meant to boost ethnic Malays’ economic profile.
Malays make up around 60 percent of the population but were perceived as disadvantaged compared with Chinese and Tamil Indian minorities, around 25 percent and 8 percent of Malaysians respectively. Malays are Muslim, while Chinese and Indians are mostly Christian and Hindu.
“Issues of marginalization and corruption affect Malaysia’s race-based affirmative action policy or NEP, which supposedly benefits Malays but only end up benefiting the Malay elite,” said Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, who was elected to the Selangor state assembly in March 2008 for Mr. Anwar’s People’s Justice party. The 26-year-old is youngest ever elected representative in Malaysian political history.
The government has deployed a notorious colonial-era statute called the Internal Security Act (ISA), detaining minority activists and media critics indefinitely and without trial, including a number of prominent Hindu lawyers and, for a week, opposition lawmaker Teresa Kok.
On Sept. 22 prominent anti-government writer Raja Petra Kamaudin was jailed for two years under the ISA, after he “ridiculed Islam,” according to Justice Minister Sayid Hamid Albar.
U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the detention of opposition figures under the ISA would be viewed by the U.S. and the international community as a “fundamental infringement of democratic rights and values.”
On Sept. 17 Mr. Abdullah described Mr. Anwar as “a threat to national security,” a veiled hint that the ISA could be used against the opposition leader.
Mr. Abdullah is not invulnerable however. Four UMNO government ministers spoke out against Mr. Abdullah at a party meeting, and Mahathir Mohamed, who led Malaysia from 1981 to 2003, left UMNO in June, widely seen as a slight on Mr. Abdullah after the election result.