AAS Annual Meeting

Southeast Asia Session 109

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Session 109: Diasporic Politics and Democratization Dynamics in Southeast Asia - Sponsored by the Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs

Organizer: Renaud Egreteau, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, France

This panel will explore from a comparative perspective the political significance of Diasporas in Southeast Asia, with a special focus on their impact over democratization processes witnessed – or not – in their homeland. It will seek to identify the linkages between diasporic politics and democratizing dynamics by examining the leverage selected diasporic networks have over the initiation, consolidation or decline of democracy in countries which have recently experienced – or resisted – political and democratic transitions: Burma/Myanmar, the Philippines, Indonesia, East Timor and Thailand. Existing scholarship has widely depicted the involvement of various Asian Diasporas in the socio-economic development of their homeland or their impact on domestic political crises – starting with Chinese and Indian overseas communities – but less systematically researched their role and influence over democracy promotion and building, or the resistance to it. This panel will identify ideologies, patterns, and instruments of democracy promotion that few identified Southeast Asian diasporic networks have recently developed, or impeded. While a few Asian Diasporas appear to have played a crucial role in bolstering democratic or liberal economic reforms (Philippines, Vietnam, East Timor), others appear to have had little impact, capacities or even willingness to promote political change (Burma, Thailand, Indonesia). The panel discussion thus intends to draw wider conclusions on the democratizing dynamics fostered – or hindered – by various Southeast Asian transnational networks, to understand the patterns leading to diasporic promotion of, or resistance to, democratization impulses and the impact of diasporic politics on the perpetuation/deconstruction of authoritarian politics in Asia.

The Filipino Diaspora as a Democratizing Force?
David Camroux, Centre dEtudes et de Recherches Internationales, France

People are now the Philippines’ largest export. The statistics are eloquent. Eight million Filipinos live overseas, i.e. 1O% of the Filipino population. Each day they are joined by an average of another 3,000 of their compatriots, that is a flow of over a million people per year. When seen in relation to the workforce the figures are even more startling: some seven million people out of a work force of 32 million work overseas, ie 22% of the working population. The remittances, both by regular and informal channels of these OFWs, as they are commonly known, contributed over $15 billion to the Filipino economy in 2008, a sum that came to almost 15% of Filipino GDP and half of the total foreign reserves of the country. Yet has this economic significance been accompanied by a concomitant political impact? While the community of Filipinos in the United States in the early ‘80s played a role in supporting Benigno (Ninoy) Aquino Jr and his wife during their exile, and thus indirectly contributed to the fall of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986, there is some debate on the role of overseas Filipinos since. A lively virtual political community in cyberspace, for example, is not echoed in the participation of overseas Filipinos in national elections, despite numerous reforms to encourage this democratic expression. This paper will trace the contrasting developments amongst the Filipino diaspora culminating in the election of Aquino’s son, Benigno Aquino III (Noynoy) as president in May 2010.

Democracy Burdens: the Politics of Burmese Diasporic Networks in Asia
Renaud Egreteau, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, France

This paper aims to explore the diversity of the Burmese Diaspora in Asia and its increasingly debated political leverage over the democratization of its homeland, more specifically under Burma’s post-2008 Constitution praetorian context. It will first identify and contextualize the plurality of the Burmese pro-democracy diasporic groups, their transnational linkages, and community-focused agendas in Asia. It will assess their policy approaches and transnational network connectivity – with a special focus on ASEAN and India – as well as the influence they gained (or not) after two decades of overseas struggle for the post-1988 democratization of Burma. It will be argued that while they had globally had a crucial role in regionally publicizing Burma’s political conundrum, human rights abuses and civil rights violation since 1988, and were extensively successful in mobilizing Asian external actors sensitive to their cause through transnational caucuses, forums or meetings, their strategies have domestically met far less successful political achievements. This paper will therefore question the adequacy between their primary objective (democracy in Burma) and the instruments, approaches, discourses and networks they have built up in a reluctantly democratized post-Cold War Asia. It will furthermore identify the rising internecine and introspective debates recently observed among Burmese exiled communities – notably after the emotional impact of the Saffron Revolution (2007) and Cyclone Nargis (2008), and the 2010 junta-controlled elections. The emergence of a rhetorical non-aligned “Third Force” articulated around the rejection of the dominant Manichean and bi-polarized perspective of Burma’s political conundrum (junta vs. democrats) underscores a new fluidity of ideological positioning and networking strategies defined by Burmese pro-democracy diasporic groups but has yet to prove its political transnational impact.

"Migrant networks as transnational agents of democratization “from below”? A case study of the Migrant Forum in Asia (MFA) and the Asian Migrants’ Coordinating Body
Stefan Rother, University of Freiburg, Germany

Democratization research has paid only limited attention to the exogenous dimension of regime change and democratic consolidation. This holds especially true for democratic innovations and diffusion processes coming “from below”. Migration has the potential to facilitate such processes in a number of ways. The exposure to different political cultures in the country of destination might have an effect on the migrants’ attitudes towards democracy. Further, the migration experience might lead to collective action aiming to influence the politics of the sending and receiving countries as well as the regional and global level. In Southeast Asia, this form of activism has an obvious transnational dimension, increasingly linking migrant organizations of not just one but several sending and receiving countries. In addition, most migration taking place within or originating from the region is temporary in nature. Hence, the conventional “diaspora” approach with its rather static focus on a clearly defined center of reference seems ill-equipped to analyze these new dynamics. An Indonesian migrant domestic worker in Hong Kong might come into contact with a Filipino grassroots movement and become an activist. Or migrants from several countries of origin might claim that their protests against the WTO ministerial meeting have shown the native Hong Kong residents “how to put up a proper demonstration”. This paper proposes a framework of “transnational political space” to analyze the advocacy work of two regional and transnational networks and its potential effect on democratization processes: The Migrant Forum in Asia (MFA) and the Asian Migrants’ Coordinating Body (AMCB).