Asia's year of living dysfunctionally

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 December, 2008, 12:00am

If 2008 needed a symbol for the dysfunction and intractability still dogging East Asia's politics and diplomacy, then Cyclone Nargis is a compelling candidate.

Japan and Thailand - two of the region's largest democracies - were mired in political crisis, while progress in the international effort to rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons remained glacial at best. Yet it was Nargis - and the chilling poor reaction of Myanmar's military regime - that took people's breath away.

The giant storm that swept up the Bay of Bengal and lashed southern Myanmar over the first weekend in May killed more than 138,000 people - the worst natural disaster ever to strike the country.

Having destroyed the homes and crops of millions more, its impact is still being felt across a nation that was already Southeast Asia's poorest.

Its destructive force - 215km/h winds and a vast tidal surge - swept away low-lying areas on the fingers of land known as the Mouths of the Irrawaddy. Children were pulled from their parents' grasp as waves swept over villages in the darkness, reaching more than 30km inland. Entire towns were destroyed.

The wrath of Nargis also laid bare the nature of Myanmar's isolated rulers. For three vital weeks the generals thwarted relief efforts, demanding aid but refusing visas for international relief teams and UN agencies vital to its distribution.

As fears of starvation and disease mounted, phone calls from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to junta chief Senior General Than Shwe went unanswered. UN officials described the actions as 'unprecedented' in the history of international relief.

For years the black sheep of Southeast Asia, Myanmar was suddenly cast in an even darker light, plumbing depths of international recalcitrance not seen outside of the Stalinist hermit state of North Korea.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations struggled to mount an effective response as a crisis swamped one of its own. French, British and US warships loaded with supplies waited off Myanmar's coast. They would eventually depart without landing.

Nargis showed just how deeply entrenched the military's dominance has become, and Senior General Than Shwe has shut himself away behind statues of Burmese kings in his new purpose-built capital, Naypyidaw. Diplomats described an increasingly paranoid ruler, suspicious of his underlings and outsiders. Even nations with strong connections - China, Russia and India - were treated with considerable caution.

Just as the world struggled to make itself heard in Nargis' wake, so too did the military rank and file. Despite intense internal fears for the nation's ability to cope, no one wanted to pass the bad news up the chain.

For more than a week after the storm, Myanmar's military - the one well-funded state institution - showed little reaction. Its helicopters, planes and trucks, and hundreds of thousands of personnel, were all deployed on other duties.

The military's first priority was not the storm but to secure the passage of a national referendum on a new constitution written in the generals' favour. It passed.

After three weeks, Mr Ban was able to visit. He would eventually spend more than two hours in talks with Senior General Than Shwe and aid workers were allowed in.

Within days, an estimated 900,000 people would have access to meals from the UN's World Food Programme. More than half are still expected to need that support into next year.

As 2009 dawns, one of the big questions is the extent to which the fallout from Nargis will impact on the regime, if at all. Will it force another grass-roots attempt to unseat the generals? Or will history judge that they have 'got away with it', surviving despite treating their citizenry with unprecedented contempt?

On the streets of Yangon, few are expecting trouble. The crackdown on monk-led protests in September last year - the worst violence since the bloody suppression of the pro- democracy movement in 1988 - has not been forgotten.

Less than a month ago, 14 long-term activists were jailed, some for as long as 65 years.

'We know the outside world is waiting, wanting us to move,' Than Nay, one politically-active student, said last week. 'But we are scared and we are exhausted. We feel crushed from every side.'

Many activists have quietly turned their hands to rebuilding efforts while aid workers report a slow but growing sense of grudging co-operation with the regime.

One of the most startling aspects of the recovery has been the ability of ordinary people to rebuild their own houses and get crops back in the ground, irrespective of government interference or neglect.

If dysfunction is still bedeviling one of the poorest countries in the region, it is also poisoning the political climate of the richest.

The year is ending with Japan - Asia's biggest economy, and the world's second-largest - yet again in recession and facing grim prospects for 2009. Yet just as the Japanese look to their ruling party for leadership at a time of global crisis, only further uncertainty fills the horizon.

Prime Minister Taro Aso took office in September - the fourth premier in two years - but it is highly unlikely that he will serve a year in office.

A gaffe-prone nationalist, Mr Aso was selected by his Liberal Democratic Party in the hope his popular appeal would create enough 'bounce' to win a snap election against a resurgent Democratic Party of Japan.

The DPJ controls the upper house of the Diet, allowing it to stall bills and wreak legislative havoc. It is showing every sign of seizing the moment against the lumbering LDP.

Mr Aso's poll numbers are tanking, mirroring the performance of his predecessors, Yasuo Fukuda and Shinzo Abe, both of whom quit after less than a year in office. There is no figure within the grey ranks of the LDP to match the vision or energy of Junichiro Koizumi, who served for five years and pushed through popular reforms before departing in 2006. Mr Aso has pushed through big spending packages and is hoping to hold off an election until mid-year.

Given the chaos now surrounding the ruling party, he may not even make it to May. It is far from certain whether the LDP would win a national poll.

Similarly, the situation in Thailand may also get worse before its gets better - despite the demands prompted by the economic crisis for calm and visionary leadership.

The opposition Democrat Party forged a ruling coalition after the courts disbanded the People Power Party loyal to ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra - the grouping that won elections last December.

Privately, the Democrats know they must call and win elections to secure a mandate. They are unlikely to win, however. Thaksin remains hugely popular in the rural north and northeast, where most voters live.

Thaksin is now in exile and a fugitive from justice, having been sentenced to two years jail on conflict of interest charges. His political ambitions remain, however, even if they are now expressed through cronies.

The establishment - including the Democrat leadership - is determined to keep him away from power as the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej enters the twilight of his reign. The recent occupation and shutdown of Bangkok airports by anti-Thaksin groups only highlighted the divisions now splitting the nation.

The king, now 81, is ailing and largely unspoken fears over his succession are dogging the crisis.

Close attention will also be kept on the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. The reclusive leader reportedly suffered a stroke in August.

The precise state of his health remains unclear. So too is his grip on power and his own succession plans for communism's only dynasty. The uncertainty has seen Pyongyang retreat further into its shell, snubbing overtures from both Japan and South Korea. The doubts mean North Korea is going to remain a key issue of regional concern as 2009 begins.

From Myanmar to Japan and North Korea, the events of 2008 have done nothing to ease the most pressing regional issues. They have brought the sense of uncertainty dogging the region into ever-sharper relief.

Greg Torode is the South China Morning Post's chief Asia correspondent