The Fire Next Time

  • Lai Seng Sin / AP

    There's a riot going on A Bersih 2.0 activist flees water cannons during a July protest in Kuala Lumpur

    Whom do you call if you want to speak to Southeast Asia? Apply Henry Kissinger's famous question about Europe to the 11 countries that arc from the Himalayas to the Pacific, and an answer is equally elusive. Their economies, cultures and politics differ so dramatically that generalizing about Southeast Asia is a risky business.

    But let's do it anyway. 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.

    Najib's announcement provoked a swift defense of the ISA from neighboring Singapore, which also inherited the law from its British colonial days. The ISA is used "sparingly" to arrest terrorism suspects, and nobody has ever been detained only for their political beliefs, said the Singaporean government. That such a defense was felt necessary is telling. In a May election, opposition candidates — who want the ISA scrapped — made historic gains against the People's Action Party, which has ruled Singapore for half a century. The government retains "broad powers to limit citizens' rights and handicap political opposition," said the U.S. State Department in April.

    Indonesians haven't marched in huge numbers since toppling the dictator Suharto in 1998. But popular yearning for good governance could easily fill the streets again. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's approval rating is plummeting, thanks to corruption scandals implicating senior officials, and an upcoming Cabinet reshuffle will do little to halt it. Indonesia's strong economy won't stave off protests either. Stability requires functioning institutions, free media and an unfettered civil society, as well as economic growth.

    Thailand is a case in point. It is now an "upper-middle income economy," with a gross national income per capita of $4,210, according to the World Bank. But it has been free-falling on other indexes, particularly those measuring corruption and media freedom, since the military overthrew yet another government in 2006. The street protests that followed were divisive and sometimes violent. But they encouraged millions of Thais to demand more say in decisions that affect their lives. Thai politicians, with their old-school reliance on patronage and payola, seem destined to fail them.

    That goes double for the young. About a fifth of Southeast Asians are ages 15 to 24. Their youthful energy has so far been channeled into dynamic economies — but that doesn't mean the kids are all right, if statistics on unwanted pregnancies and drug use among Thai teenagers are anything to go by. And governments, institutions and firms across Southeast Asia still retain hierarchical structures that stifle youth and innovation.

    This is especially true in Burma, where young people are key to reform: they have dominated every street protest since the military seized power in 1962. A nominally civilian government took office in March and has embarked upon reforms, suggesting that even Burma's hard-liners sense history is against them. In a recent interview, democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi ruled out an Arab-style revolt, and not just because violence appalls her. With Southeast Asians finding their voices, inspiration could lie much closer to home.