Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.
DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I'm speaking with Meredith Weiss, who is a professor at University of Albany in New York, and Jeremy Menchik. He is also a professor, but he is based at Boston University. They are here for a convening by the New York Southeast Asia Network (NYSEAN), which has always been instrumental in helping us put together some of these podcasts, so we want to give a shout-out to the network as well.
Today we're looking at the current state of Southeast Asian politics. Before we get to the nitty-gritty, so to speak, can you tell us a little bit about the Network and the gathering this week and what you've learned?
MEREDITH WEISS: Sure. The NYSEAN, the New York Southeast Asia Network, is a fairly informal grouping centered around mostly Columbia's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and NYU but stretching throughout New York. They organize all sorts of events, everything from more artistic endeavors to various speakers and so forth centered around Southeast Asia for academics, the general public, policymakers, and others.
What we're doing is a seminar on elections in Southeast Asia, looking primarily at Indonesia and Malaysia.
DEVIN STEWART: Is there a sense of what you've learned so far or what you anticipate might be some of the big themes?
MEREDITH WEISS: Our event is this evening, so we can imagine that we'll learn a lot from each other.
I've spoken at different points for NYSEAN or for some of the groups that became NYSEAN, and generally, partly because there is a mix of both the diaspora community in the New York area and because there are people who have real interest in Southeast Asia, these events tend to draw a fairly informed audience who know at least the region if they don't know the specific events we're discussing or the specific countries so well, and all sorts of great questions. Sometimes there will be a focus on how X, Y, or Z relates to U.S. politics, but more often it's actually people who just really want to know more about what has been happening in different places.
Jeremy, do you want to add?
JEREMY MENCHIK: NYSEAN is part of a larger network of academics and policy-oriented scholars and public intellectuals and the journalism community that are in general are trying to raise public awareness and increase public education about events that are going on in one of the most populous, economically exciting, and contentious regions in the world.
Southeast Asia, because the United States hasn't had a recent war in Southeast Asia and only one occupation—of the Philippines, and that was 100 years ago—doesn't get quite as much attention as the Middle East or East Asia, and yet there are a lot of interesting things going on. Particularly in the past couple of years elections have been a real focal point for political change as well as for unsettling some of our ideas about what elections can do in terms of popular representation, so that's what we're going to get into tonight, and I think in general try to educate the public about what's going on in the region and why Americans should care about it.
DEVIN STEWART: Let's get to that. For someone who reads the newspaper but doesn't see a whole lot of Southeast Asia news coverage, why should the average educated public citizen care about Southeast Asia? What are the big themes, why should people care, and what are some of the trends that are important that people should know about?
MEREDITH WEISS: There are a number of them. The most obvious reasons why the educated public in the United States, for instance, might be interested or might want to know more might have to start with U.S. interests. So we have things like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which had been a major election issue here even. It has been discarded on the U.S. side but continues from the perspective of Asia. There is now a replacement agreement for that.
So we see this area that has tremendous economic power and growth potential as well as ongoing growth—it's not even just potential at this point—that is actively engaged with the United States but in really changing patterns. Even Malaysia, for instance, which is by far not the largest country in Southeast Asia, is usually somewhere around the 10th-largest trading partner of the United States because it's an upper-middle-income country and so forth.
In addition, we have questions of U.S. security interests that we can trace in a number of different ways. One is that the United States has for all sorts of reasons an interest in Muslim-majority countries—we have several of those in Southeast Asia. The Straits of Malacca that run alongside Malaysia is one of the world's major areas for piracy. These are still major trans-shipment areas for oil and other natural resources and so forth.
So economically and in terms of security interests, interest in a rising China, which is active throughout Southeast Asia militarily, economically, and otherwise—for all of those reasons people in the United States should be interested.
But also specifically politically. The elections and politics that have captured U.S. attention most in the last few years have tended to be issues related to Myanmar, previously known as Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Rohingya, all of those different conflicts and dynamics of political change and political regression in Burma have captured a lot of attention.
The recent Cambodian elections this summer, which showed a regression toward basically single-party authoritarianism under the guy who was—
DEVIN STEWART: Hun Sen.
MEREDITH WEISS: Right. Hun Sen was put in place by the Vietnamese before Cambodia really tried to resurrect its politics independently.
But then also, places like Indonesia, one of the largest countries in the world, one of the most promising democracies in some ways but also with some difficult tendencies, as Jeremy will talk about more, and Malaysia, where we have these somewhat bizarre but also probably promising political developments in the last couple of years but that are not so well understood or known in the United States but that really are important for understanding what the potential is of democratization or regime change by elections, what the limitation are of that sort of mode, and how all of that matters in terms of everything from foreign aid and intervention to the progress of human rights globally, for instance.
DEVIN STEWART: I'm curious, Jeremy, not to anticipate what you might say, but can you tell us a little bit about the big mega-themes that seem to be all over the world, like the rise of populism, nationalization of industry, for example, trade protectionism, more government intervention in the economy, and anxiety about globalization, and things like that? How are those big mega-trends playing out in Southeast Asia?
JEREMY MENCHIK: I think Meredith nailed the point, which is that Southeast Asia is a great place to watch the world change, and you can really see it happening in real time. It's also a good place to have good snacks while you're watching that show, because the food's delicious.
DEVIN STEWART: But it depends on which country, right? Some are better than others.
JEREMY MENCHIK: Malaysia and Indonesia I'll say are at the top of the map.
DEVIN STEWART: No competition?
MEREDITH WEISS: We won't mention it. We'll be ethical and polite.
JEREMY MENCHIK: Building on Meredith's comment in terms of the rise of China, I've been teaching courses on Southeast Asia and world politics for, oh, gosh, almost a decade now. When I first started teaching about China and Southeast Asia in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, it was an open question about what was going to be the future of Chinese influence in Southeast Asia. Was the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the multilateral organization, going to band together in order to block Chinese interests in taking over areas of dispute, like the Spratly Islands? That was one possibility. Was the United States going to align closely with the Philippines, with Vietnam, with Indonesia, and provide the defensive capabilities that were going to be necessary to protect those islands?
Those questions are really not in dispute very much anymore because China has for the most part taken what it wants by building up a military presence in Southeast Asia and by undertaking a series of contentious acts vis-à-vis Vietnam, vis-à-vis the Philippines in terms of taking over territory, and now we see what the future of China and Southeast Asia is, which is China will take the resources that it wants because it has the military capability to do so, and the United States will say some things and object and will probably insist on free flow of trade through the Malacca Straits for Japan and for other allied nations, but isn't going to interfere with that process.
If you're interested in the rise of China and whether we'll be constrained by the international laws that the United States put into place after World War II, which was a big debate 10 years ago, Southeast Asia is a great place to watch the answer play out, and the answer is no.
DEVIN STEWART: I guess the question was in 2008—and I was actually teaching a very similar course around that time, too, at NYU, and the premise was the future of East Asia and particularly what will China's place be. The open question back then I think was something like: "Will China dominate? Will it face its own crises? Is its own regime stable enough to maintain a certain amount of power and stability?"
I'm sensing that you two are saying that that question has been answered, and the answer is that China is going to be very dominant in Northeast and Southeast Asia, at least for now. But there are still other questions about China's place.
For example, I am fairly certain that it's contentious. Can you talk a little bit about the nuance, about how various countries perceive China's place?
MEREDITH WEISS: One of the issues is what we mean by a "rising" China or Chinese influence. So when we talk about U.S. influence in the region, we tend to assume an economic and security presence with political conditionality, and much of China's role in the region lacks that same political conditionality. We find more of what might really seem to be more of a mercantilist model of Chinese infrastructure development in a place like Myanmar, for instance, building bridges and roads, which benefit Myanmar but are also specifically designed to move goods, move resources, from Burma into China.
The Belt and Road Initiative—which is still highly contentious; we find Malaysia since the elections pushing back against some of that—may develop the region. There may be a spillover effect. This is in some ways similar to an earlier model of Japanese-led industrial development throughout the region, this "flying geese" model, in which the assumption was: "Yes, Japan as the lead goose will benefit the most, but everybody else also will be part of that chain," not just following blindly perhaps.
DEVIN STEWART: Almost Confucian, right? You better know your place in the—
MEREDITH WEISS: Exactly. Right. So there is that. So we can see the Belt and Road Initiative or the One Belt, One Road in a similar way, or we can focus on the role of China within it. But if there isn't that domestic cooperation and if there isn't a market, then China doesn't benefit. So, inasmuch as it's not at least mutual to some extent, it doesn't work.
So this isn't about imposing, for instance, communism across the region as in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, an earlier model of Chinese geopolitical influence in Southeast Asia. That was about the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Kuomintang in warring times really trying to assert a political influence. But the way that Chinese influence works is still pervasive and important and significant to watch but not necessarily a direct parallel or counterpart to, for instance, a U.S. influence within the region.
At the same time, we have these domestic political processes, like you mentioned populism. So we have a Duterte, for instance, who can bring the Philippines toward or away from China as his mood dictates to a large extent, and the same with the Philippines' movement toward or away from the United States.
DEVIN STEWART: You think it's mood-based? Is that capricious or—
MEREDITH WEISS: When we're talking about Duterte, yes, I think it is. I don't think there's a grand strategy in much of what he does in that sense. There may be an underlying strategy to some of it, but in terms of geopolitics it's hard to identify a coherent theme, I think.
The point then is that China can't in the same way assert its mercantilist ambitions as, for instance, the British, the United States, the French, and the Dutch used to do in an actual political colonial model. It's still important, and it's still impactful, but the dynamics, the agency is less fully in the hands of the geopolitical power here.
In other words, China needs cooperation. It needs some level of buy-in. It can push its will. It can assert itself in the South China Sea—in the Spratlys, for instance—and it has been doing so. Then the states within the region are pushed to take sides.
We have places like Cambodia, for instance, which largely for reasons of economic dependency but also for political support from China and not from anyone else right now, tends not to oppose what China wants to do. We have places like the Philippines that at least under the last presidency tended to push back a bit. Malaysia tries to balance. It tries to be this ultimate middle power that doesn't want to antagonize, except Mahathir, now the new-again prime minister, is a little bit more aggressive toward China but much more toward its economic role than toward what it's doing in the South China Sea.
In that sense, each state within the region is pushed to determine its position vis-à-vis China economically as well as in security terms. There may or may not be a level of coordination, but it's still qualitatively different from what we might see as an earlier colonial or later U.S. hegemonic system within Southeast Asia.
DEVIN STEWART: You mentioned a return to mercantilism, which is a zero-sum attitude toward international trade: "I'm going to trade with you, but I want to make sure that I make more money than you do," that sort of thinking. It seems to be that President Trump feels similarly about international trade.
Do you see also a kind of return to other old-fashioned ways of looking at international affairs in Asia? You said that the American hegemony is disintegrating a little bit, or at least maybe the sun is setting. Is there a return to something like great-power rivalry or balance-of-power politics or anything like that?
JEREMY MENCHIK: I think you see a return to a certain amount of polarization rather than a streamlining of countries in the same direction around the world. Rather than convergence, you're seeing polarization, both within countries and within different spheres of influence.
You still have a global population that feels more comfortable near an airport. Wherever they are in the world, what's very important to them is that they're close to an airport.
DEVIN STEWART: So they can escape or what?
JEREMY MENCHIK: So that they can travel, so they can be polylingual, so that they can—
DEVIN STEWART: They're cosmopolitan.
JEREMY MENCHIK: They're part of the global cosmopolitan, the "globalists," which is now apparently a pejorative term.
DEVIN STEWART: It is.
JEREMY MENCHIK: That's still very common. That has not changed.
DEVIN STEWART: So the globalists are still surviving all around?
JEREMY MENCHIK: They're thriving.
DEVIN STEWART: They're in Kuala Lumpur, they're in Singapore.
JEREMY MENCHIK: Because in part they are less affected by the Dutertes of the world, by the Prabowo Subiantos in the case of Indonesia, by the Donald Trumps. There is a measure of which they can remain buffered from these pressures.
But the protectionists and the new mercantilists as Meredith said, there are reasons why the working class supports them, because they don't see some of the benefits of trade. The rising inequality is leading to different spheres in which people in the same country inhabit.
I have students in my classes who are third culture kids (TCK). They grew up in Singapore, they were born in Jakarta; they grew up in Taiwan, they were born in Tokyo. They are more comfortable in any of those countries than they would be in rural Massachusetts or in rural Japan. So both things I think are going on at the same time.
DEVIN STEWART: But they're okay in Boston.
JEREMY MENCHIK: They're okay in parts of Boston.
DEVIN STEWART: Depends.
JEREMY MENCHIK: Boston is an incredibly segregated city. If you're talking the Back Bay, the Charles River, they're very much at home, but they're not in Dorchester.
DEVIN STEWART: You have to be able to talk about sports.
JEREMY MENCHIK: As long as everyone is supporting the Red Sox, that's the common religion, the common language, then everyone's okay. Particularly this season you need to be onboard with the Red Sox with good reason because it's been a good year.
MEREDITH WEISS: I want to add a little to that—not on the Red Sox; I am unfortunately not fit for Boston, as it turns out—in two parts. One would be in terms of this question of what has changed and understanding great powers and so forth.
Part of the issue is that under Obama we saw a coherent policy—at least discursively coherent even if not always in practice—of this pivot to Asia, of really trying to recenter the U.S.'s position vis-à-vis Southeast Asia in particular, whether that meant increasing official relations with ASEAN as an organization or whether it meant these new initiatives for promoting entrepreneurship among Southeast Asian youths, whether it meant Obama making more visits out there, all of those sorts of things to try to signal a coherent U.S. interest, and secondarily also boost support for the TPP. That presented an image of the United States as really concerned for taking on China within Southeast Asia and also imposing its own position within Southeast Asia, complete with links with human rights and so forth, meeting with civil rights activists, and all the rest.
We don't have that same sort of coherent policy now. That's part of why it's difficult for me to answer those sorts of questions of where does China stand versus the United States and so forth, because there isn't a real sense—Mahathir actually at one point shortly after he was elected, and I guess when you're elected at 92 you can do this, said that he wasn't in any rush to meet with Trump because he doesn't know what he's actually about at this point, so why bother?
We have those sorts of dynamics which just make it harder to see where these great powers see Southeast Asia as fitting. The one piece I would say that has fallen away over the years is that for a brief period of time in the 2000s, 2010s, and earlier on there was a little bit more discussion of China and India as being the two rivals. You don't see so much discussion of India under Modi in the same way as having those sorts of designs on Southeast Asia. So that part has changed.
The other thing I wanted to pick up on, though, was something Jeremy mentioned about inequality. There is the Crazy Rich Asians movie now, filmed in Singapore—a lot of attention to this cosmopolitan class that floats among cities—but I do think we can put this in terms of a discourse of post-democracy in which businesses rather than governments or citizens are really making important binding decisions. Or we can think of this in terms of an earlier model of a world systems theory in which we have a core and a periphery and a semi-periphery. We have elites who are complicit across—
DEVIN STEWART: Wallerstein?
MEREDITH WEISS: Exactly.
DEVIN STEWART: Classic.
MEREDITH WEISS: And then the sort of Brazilian twists on that, of course, and others, sort of recognizing the ways in which it's not just the core in the Global North but also the core in a class sense within otherwise peripheral countries, for instance, that are complicit and really maintaining this duality within local economies.
With rising inequality—some of the worst levels of inequality in the world in Southeast Asia—we find these concerns as shaping not just domestic politics, making it possible for reform movements to take shape, for instance, because there's so much concern with declining opportunities, rising political inequality, and rising economic inequality, but also geopolitically. We see these patterns of inequality as shaping alignments and shaping priorities in ways that may not be so transparent as we go along just because they're new.
DEVIN STEWART: You two focus on two specific Southeast Asian countries. Meredith, you look at Malaysia; Jeremy, you look at Indonesia. Let's talk real quick about the political scene going on in those two countries, first with Malaysia, Meredith.
As you mentioned, one of the biggest characters in political history has come back onto the scene, Mahathir Mohamad, who is now 92.
MEREDITH WEISS: 93, happy birthday.
DEVIN STEWART: 93, and he looks great.
MEREDITH WEISS: He does.
DEVIN STEWART: He looks really healthy.
MEREDITH WEISS: Apparently power is the greatest thing for keeping you youthful.
DEVIN STEWART: The newspapers are saying he has mellowed out a little bit. He's known for making very sharp comments, particularly anti-West comments. He is very pro-Asian, anti-West. How do you explain his comeback, and what does it mean for Malaysia's political future?
MEREDITH WEISS: We're still figuring out what it means. He came back as part of the opposition rather than as part of his earlier party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), but the party that he set up which he then hitched to the opposition coalition he has himself described as being a revitalization of UMNO, as something that is supposed to look like UMNO at its origins in 1946 but purified of the corruption that he thinks has degraded the party since then.
DEVIN STEWART: Interesting.
MEREDITH WEISS: It used to be that when one studied Southeast Asia—I started working on Southeast Asia in the early 1990s—there was very much the great man—never great woman—theory of politics. You had Lee Kuan Yew, you had Mahathir Mohamad, you had Suharto, you had all of these figures. They mostly died, but they all stepped from the scene. And then one came back. It's just this odd anachronistic move politically in a sense to see the fate of Malaysian democratization and reform as being in the hands of the person who perhaps did more than anyone else to degrade that democratic status in the 20-odd years he was in power previously.
He did many excellent things for Malaysia. As an economic developer he did an amazing job. There was an Asian financial crisis, not really his fault, one could claim, but that actually helps to explain a big part of how he managed to come back.
Among the key political drivers for that resurgence were that inequality I mentioned before and the level of corruption under Najib Razak and UMNO, especially this massive 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal. That inequality and that corruption made many Malaysians long for economic growth, for greater opportunities, for the good old days of the developmental state of the 1980s and 1990s under Mahathir's leadership, and for getting rid of Najib. So part of the vote that brought Mahathir in was simply an anti-Najib vote, for a change of government within the same circles of power.
That's part of what makes it hard to know what comes next now that Najib is out of the frame as a political leader. He's still in Parliament, but he doesn't have the same power. It's not clear where that goes.
So a lot of what brought Mahathir back was a promise of possibly bringing Malaysia back to the good old days of economic growth, not challenging the very dramatically strong affirmative action policies that benefit the Malay majority in Malaysia that he helped to put in place when he first came into office but which the opposition coalition had not so strongly supported on racialized lines. They spread them on merit-based lines.
DEVIN STEWART: Bumiputera laws.
MEREDITH WEISS: Bumiputera are just the "sons of the soil" or the indigenous people. It's mostly ethnic Malays but also a number of other indigenous groups. They benefit from this spate of policies that affect everything from university admissions to buying condos to shares in firms.
DEVIN STEWART: Bank loans.
MEREDITH WEISS: Everything. Government contracts, all of that.
The opposition, the coalition that currently is called Pakatan Harapan, in the years that they've been operational, which is really since the late 1990s with various fits and starts, have promoted a less-communal, a less-ethnicized politics. They don't necessarily say that they would end affirmative action writ large, but they would change the criteria from simply racialized to more need-based, so the actual beneficiaries would largely be the same in as much as there still is some communally structured inequality. So those who are most needy, many of them are also Bumiputera, and so they would still benefit.
But that is not a complete coincidence of interest or of need. In that sense, having Mahathir and his UMNO 2.0, his Bersatu party, which is supposed to look like UMNO in its early days, which is a communal party, a party by and for Malays, that changes the timbre of the opposition coalition and therefore shifts the nature of what sort of change we might expect.
Where we can see change, what Mahathir has seemed to have recognized a need to soften on, are some of the constraints on civil liberties, constraints on elections, some of those other features of the system that may have taken shape or strengthened under his earlier governance, but which even he seems to recognize now need to change.
So we've had an effort, not yet fully successful, for instance, to repeat a really awful fake news law. It may happen that the Sedition Act, which is one of the strongest in the world and really needs to go, may get overturned. There is now an election reform committee that's talking about perhaps introducing proportional representation in voting, these other changes that would help to ensure a more democratic order in key ways regardless of the person in power.
So in those senses we should still see some reformism under Mahathir, but it's not quite the same as a full-on replacement of the system that was there.
DEVIN STEWART: Before we turn to Indonesia, Jeremy, my understanding is Mahathir is at least pretending to cultivate his successor.
MEREDITH WEISS: He has cultivated all the successors since he was first in power, and he just has turned against each of them in turn, and now has come back to Anwar.
DEVIN STEWART: He is his old rival.
MEREDITH WEISS: He was his heir apparent and then his rival, and now all is forgiven, but Anwar is now about to stand in a by-election in Port Dickson on the west coast of Malaysia so that he can reenter Parliament. Mahathir says that he supports but will not actually campaign for Anwar. He has said that the plan was that Mahathir would be in office for two years and then step down, and when a 92-year-old is saying this it has a little bit more credibility than when it was Mahathir in the old days.
Now he is saying that he'll stay in office so long as the people want him. It's not entirely clear how patient Anwar will be, how long the people will want Mahathir, or how long realistically he'll be able to govern given that he is now 93.
DEVIN STEWART: So Jeremy, looking at Jokowi, Joko Widodo, and the upcoming elections in Indonesia, which are this coming April, where are things headed? Do you find Indonesia as a harmonious democracy, or are you concerned?
MEREDITH WEISS: Yes.
DEVIN STEWART: Both?
JEREMY MENCHIK: Both, and that's true anytime you're talking about Indonesia. It's such a large country. It's such a diverse country. It's such a complicated country. I always feel like I should get credit for studying multiple countries because that's what you're doing when you're studying a country with 17,000 islands and 300-plus ethnic groups, language groups, that stretches the equivalent distance of Britain to Baghdad. A lot of diversity goes into all that space.
DEVIN STEWART: Biggest population in Southeast Asia.
JEREMY MENCHIK: Understandably you get both harmony and discord at the same time, which also makes it fun to study.
The contrast with Malaysia I think is really interesting, too. For many decades Malaysia was our archetype of a democratic underachiever, the model of competitive authoritarianism that managed to be stable and reap the benefits of massive economic development without the human rights benefits that usually accompany economic development. It was a relatively rich country and yet democratically very much underdeveloped.
The contrast with Indonesia has always been inspiring from the perspective of democratic theory because Indonesia is our archetype of a democratic overachiever. It is a low-middle-income country with very high levels of ethno-linguistic fractionalization, with a weak colonial legacy in terms of building institutions like schools, railways, roads, or even common national identity. All of those things were relatively late in Indonesia's political and social development.
You also have a history of secessionist movements—Papua, East Timor, Aceh—and yes, it's also the largest Muslim-majority country in the world. Those are all things that we associate with continued authoritarianism, civil war, and just continued polarization.
And yet, Indonesia is a consolidated democracy, and we'll talk about what that means in terms of "consolidated." We don't want to put too much meaning on that one term, but Indonesia is a democracy. It transitioned in 1998 and 1999 and has had some major achievements in terms of ending longstanding civil wars that go back to the 1940s; the autonomy movements from Aceh largely ended; relative peace with East Timor and successful secession by East Timor.
You still have atrocious human rights violations in West Papua that continue to be a glaring problem. You also have continued problems of corruption that are a very serious issue. Nonetheless, Indonesia is still a democratic overachiever, and Indonesians are vibrant and active in civic life in terms of other Muslim-majority countries.
Indonesians are sometimes referred to as exceptional because of the Hindu/Buddhist history, or exceptionally tolerant. That's not really true if we look at more rigorous indicators of levels of tolerance or violence. Indonesia is pretty much the norm for a developing country with relatively weak political institutions.
Where Indonesia is exceptional, however, is it's very well organized in terms of society. Indonesians are active in book clubs and bike clubs and bake clubs and Islamic organizations, and it's just a really active associational life, and that's part of why Indonesia is a relative democratic success.
So the comparison is really interesting. In some ways Malaysia is catching up in terms of its democratic underdevelopment, and now we're making a little bit of progress, and the recent problems in Indonesia in some ways are—what's the opposite of catching up?—slowing down. With Indonesia being a democratic overachiever, we're starting to see a persistence of the problems of corruption and religious polarization and fractionalization.
The biggest development in the past few months is the decision by the president, Joko Widodo, who was elected in 2014 as a reformer, as a technocrat, and has had some success in terms of reducing the fuel subsidies and in terms of promoting not 7 percent economic development—that's his target; except for 2015, above 5 percent, which is pretty good in the face of high levels of corruption. But Jokowi has had major failures in terms of religious polarization. We've seen an increase in attacks on religious minorities.
DEVIN STEWART: Including Muslims.
JEREMY MENCHIK: Including what are sometimes called "heterodox or deviant" Muslim sects who are not officially recognized by the orthodox Sunni organization, the Indonesian Council of Ulemas (MUI) Indonesia. They have been very vocal and successful in attacking minority groups, particularly Ahmadis, a "deviant Muslim group; as well as LGBT groups; Shia in Indonesia—Indonesia is majority Sunni, but there is a small Shia population—as well as Indonesian Christians, who we thought because they were relatively well integrated and relatively powerful compared to the Ahmadis or the Shia, would be able to defend themselves and withstand the increasing conservatism that we've seen from the MUI, the Indonesia Council of Ulemas, and that hasn't been as much the case.
So the two major election events where we've seen the failures of Jokowi's administration are in 2017, the governor of Jakarta, Ahok, who was the deputy governor when Jokowi was the governor of Jakarta, he ran for reelection—
DEVIN STEWART: He's ethnic Chinese Christian.
JEREMY MENCHIK: That's right. A group of Islamic conservatives and Islamists managed to accuse him of defaming Islam, nota agama, which is awkwardly translated into English as having committed blasphemy. So they accused this Chinese Christian governor of having committed blasphemy on largely trumped-up charges, used that charge to then mobilize the masses in Indonesia's largest street demonstrations in history in October and December of 2016, and they managed to not only hurt the reputation of Ahok so much that he lost the election, but they managed to put so much pressure on the judiciary that Ahok was brought up on charges of having broken Indonesia's blasphemy law, convicted of these charges, and sentenced to prison for two years.
That very serious polarization has also happened under Jokowi's watch, and he has not been particularly vigilant or successful about standing up for the rights of minority groups in Indonesia.
The reason that is so problematic at this current moment in time is that the architect of the blasphemy campaign against Ahok was a cleric by the name of Ma'ruf Amin, who was the head of the fatwa council of the Indonesian Council of Ulemas as well as a prominent spiritual leader of one of Indonesia's largest Islamic organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama or NU.
Ma'ruf Amin was the architect of this campaign and has become one of the most powerful clerics in Indonesia. He is a real power broker in terms of bolstering support for Jokowi, and Jokowi chose him as his vice presidential candidate for the April 2019 presidential elections.
MEREDITH WEISS: He was chosen for Jokowi.
JEREMY MENCHIK: There is a debate. Meredith is rightly pointing to a debate among analysts about how much choice Jokowi had in making this choice. Jokowi unfortunately, although it's hard to know, has always been somewhat at the whim of his political patron, Megawati Sukarnoputri, who is the head of the Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), which is Jokowi's political vehicle. But in this case the head of the party, Megawati, is more powerful than Jokowi, and so that has constrained Jokowi's ability to choose his running mate.
There have been some analysts who have said that Jokowi was ambushed by this choice. I think that's a little bit overstating the case because Jokowi has also actively courted Ma'ruf Amin since the election of Anies Baswedan, since the Jakarta governor's election, so he has brought Ma'ruf Amin into his political governing coalition and has made him more powerful than he was beforehand. He may not have been Jokowi's first choice, but he was going to be on the list regardless.
What does that mean for democracy in Indonesia? What it means—and this is hard for me to say—is that there are no good guys in next year's presidential election. On one hand you have Prabowo Subianto, who is a strongman in the model of Duterte or President Trump, and his vice president is Sandiaga Uno, who literally purchased his seat as vice president for an estimated $35 million to the political parties supporting him, PKS and PAN, a conservative Islamic party and Islamist party.
So on the one hand you have a strongman and a clearly corrupt businessman. On the other side you have Joko Widodo, who has been a disappointing reformer who is backed by the architect of contemporary intolerance. That makes it a very sobering and saddening election.
DEVIN STEWART: I want to thank you both for this incredibly educational overview of Southeast Asian politics. Jeremy Menchik is a professor at Boston University, and Meredith Weiss is a professor at the University of Albany. Thank you again for coming, and please come back.
MEREDITH WEISS: Thank you.
JEREMY MENCHIK: Thanks for having us.