Despite global trends towards military reform, militaries in Southeast Asia have continued to play prominent roles in domestic politics. This paper, published by The Pacific Review, investigates four Southeast Asian countries to determine why global military reform has not had as great an impact there as elsewhere. While the global security sector reform (SSR) agenda is informed by a predominantly North American civil-military approach, it could be modified to suit the Southeast Asian context.
The global reform agenda separates civil and military actors and institutions, and presumes that a military’s primary function is to defend the state against external threats. The global defence reform agenda recommends merging security and development to ensure stability through law and order and sound military governance. It supports professionalisation programmes that provide a normative barrier to military intervention in politics and foster civilian institutions which reinforce civilian supremacy over the military.
These assumptions do not fit the pattern of civil-military relations in Southeast Asia. The military continue to be involved in domestic politics and security in states in their respective countries. They also occupy powerful positions in the political and economic sectors of their respective countries.
Based upon investigation of civil-military relations in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, the following factors emerge as barriers to adoption of the global reform agenda:
- Historical legacy and the relationship between military and political sectors: Southeast Asia continues to show a predilection for paternalism and a willingness to surrender individual rights in return for harmony and state security. Since independence, many states have tended towards a model of ‘concordance’, whereby civilian and military elites form common inter-linked communities.
- Security and development: While reduced military presence in political and economic life may seem desirable, such reforms may not necessarily realise hoped-for economic outcomes. Powerful, interventionist Southeast Asian states have been critical factors in explaining the ability of some states to achieve rapid economic development.
- Regional and domestic context: Militaries in the countries studied have been much more active internally than externally. These internal threats include those posed by secessionist movements, radical Islam and terrorism. While the global reform agenda insists that SSR contributes to regional peace and stability, the reverse may also be true: regional peace and stability may be the conditions that make SSR possible.
Thailand experienced the withdrawal of the police and military from politics in the 1990s. Based upon this example, the following factors may provide a basis for revision of global SSR assumptions to better suit the Southeast Asian context:
- Economic growth and political stability can provide the necessary context for reform.
- An active civil society can be an important factor in creating an environment conducive to reform.
- Civil-military relations can be enhanced by commitment to democracy by professional groups, including the military.
- The concept of a global civil society and positive contributions by external actors can play an important role in legitimising civilian control of the armed forces.