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Southeast Asian View of US: 'The Superpower’s Legitimacy Is Being Put to the Test'


This photo illustration taken in Karak, Malaysia's Pahang State on January 8, 2021 shows the frontpages of Malaysia’s newspapers carrying stories and pictures of supporters of US President Donald Trump protesting inside and outside the US Capitol.

When former U.S. president Barack Obama spoke seven years ago to a Southeast Asian youth event in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, he extolled American democracy as a system "proven to be the most stable and successful form of government" and lauded countries such as Myanmar that he felt were on that path. President Donald Trump, speaking at a regional economic cooperation event in 2017, complimented Indonesia on decades of building democratic institutions.

Officials from the United States have cheer-led Southeast Asian countries’ relatively young and sometimes fragile, violence-wracked democratization efforts from one administration to the next, while slamming human rights setbacks. Asian leaders, and their people, listened because U.S. democracy was older than theirs and the country wealthier.

Now the potential audience of more than 650 million people across 10 countries is rolling its eyes after Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington this week to stop Congress from certifying the election of President-elect Joe Biden. Congress eventually certified it.

"It doesn't put America in the best light. It just compounds negative thoughts that people already have about America," said Shariman Lockman, senior foreign policy and security studies analyst with the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Malaysia. He said people already wonder, for example, why COVID-19 cases are still surging in the United States.

"You [the U.S. government] keep telling us how to organize ourselves, but you can't organize yourselves right," Lockman said.

Thousands of flag-waving Trump backers forced their way into the Capitol on Wednesday as lawmakers evacuated and delayed the procedure that clears Biden to be sworn in January 20. Rioters scaled the exterior of the building and hundreds more pushed past Capitol Police and ran inside.

Protesters back President Trump's objection to the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the November election.

Southeast Asian leaders, who look to the United States as a defense ally and export market, have expressed muted to zero public criticism of the incident. Singaporean Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean called January 6 a "sad day."

However, scholars and others who saw televised images of the Capitol Hill drama are miffed and hurt that the United States would allow the deadly rioting after telling Southeast Asian nations how to be egalitarian democratic societies.

"Huge loss of U.S. credibility abroad," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

In Indonesia, Southeast Asian’s largest democracy at 268 million people, it’s unclear when anyone will seek out U.S. help again, said Evan Laksamana, senior researcher for the Center for Strategic and International Studies research group in Jakarta. More than 15 years ago American lawmakers had pointed out suspected human rights abuses in the eastern region of Papua. Now there’s a "vacuum of moral and strategic leadership" in Washington, Laksamana said, pointing to the incident in Congress plus racial violence last year between police officers and Black American citizens.

"We had always felt that as far as foreign policy is concerned, when push comes to shove, when there’s a moment for the U.S. to step up, it will," he said. "Because of what we’ve been seeing in the last few years, that may not be happening again for anytime soon."

Democratic struggles in the United States put a better light on "alternative models" such as China’s among Southeast Asian people, said Aaron Rabena, research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation. He suggested that the United States "look to yourself first" before advising other countries.

In the United States, Rabena said, "They’re struggling on all fronts -- COVID-19 pandemic, economic recovery. They have these issues with racism, populism. The superpower’s legitimacy is being put to the test, I would say."

Vietnamese were still talking about the incident Friday after seeing images of the Capitol Hill melee, said Phuong Hong, a Ho Chi Minh City dweller and hotel sector employee. The United States periodically pans the communist country on human rights. It had gone to war against communism in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s.

"Because America has two parties, two sides can compare their views but for me, if some people already died for this, it doesn’t work," Phuong said. "Sometimes one voice is better than two voices, or three. Too many cooks."

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