How can the problem of poor governance of security sectors in Southeast Asia be remedied? What role can external actors play in security sector reform in the region? This article from The Journal of Security Sector Management looks at security sector governance and practices in Asia, with a focus on Southeast Asia. It argues that the plurality and diversity of Asia provides opportunities as well as challenges. External actors should seek to identify the sectors of domestic society that can build partnerships to improve security sector governance.
In Southeast Asia, the principles that guide the practice of security sector governance can be modified by local circumstances. Non-traditional security issues and challenges are on the rise and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) provides a framework for intra- and inter-regional dialogue. As a result of this context, the prospects for better security sector governance are good. Security cooperation to address non-traditional security issues, together with domestic reforms, can go a long way to improving security sector governance.
Findings on security sector governance and practices in selected Southeast Asian countries include the following:
- Malaysia and Singapore have governed their security sectors well. The military and the police are distinct organisations and perform distinct functions. In Singapore, the military and police enjoy high credibility.
- In Indonesia, the military’s dual function allowed it to become a dominant political force. Controlling Indonesia’s security sector could remain problematic while its civilian oversight institutions remain weak.
- Since 2003, the government of the Philippines has adopted military and police reform as part of its agenda. Civilian oversight institutions remain weak, however, due to continuing conflict and the role of the military in politics.
- In Thailand, the dominant role of the military came to an end beginning in 1991. However, retired generals and former policemen have entered politics, leaving politics and society deeply fractured. In such a situation, there is an apparent attrition of the rule of law and democracy.
- In Myanmar, the military junta continues to rule. The junta governs the security sector without any outside participation.
- Corruption in the military and police appears to be common in Southeast Asia, particularly in Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand.
The norms and processes of ASEAN may become outmoded and no longer effective in a highly interdependent world. However, they are unlikely to be cast aside. This has a number of implications for the role of external actors in security sector governance:
- ASEAN is opposed to conditionalities in development assistance, the inclusion of social clauses in trade agreements and sanctions. A proactive role for external actors, involving pressure for change is unlikely to be effective.
- It is important to identify domestic partners in think tanks, academe, civil society, business and even government. The key is to find out what they wish to accomplish and help them to identify lessons learned and best practices from around the world.
- External actors should keep in harmony with domestic and regional developments that impact on security sector governance. Japan’s cooperation activities on highly sensitive issues offer a credible model for other external actors.