Thu, 12 Feb 2004

Bird flu outbreak impacts Asian politics

Eric Teo Chu-cheow, The China Daily, Asia News Network, Beijing

In Southeast Asia, avian or bird flu has infected poultry in five of the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries: Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Indonesia. A regional meeting convened by Thailand on Jan. 28 in Bangkok clearly highlighted the flu's "regional dimension" and the utmost necessity for regional co-operation and a regional approach in eradicating it.

But avian flu is also affecting politics in Southeast Asia, given that Indonesia and Thailand are holding elections in 2004 and 2005 respectively.

Any untoward repercussions could have serious political implications for the incumbents, whose political futures might now depend on how quickly the virus is eradicated.

In Malaysia and the Philippines, which are holding elections this year, authorities fear that any avian flu contamination from their neighbors could complicate the electoral campaigns of the incumbent administrations.

Politically, the avian flu could be a very powerful electoral tool. It has clearly created in Southeast Asia a renewed awareness for good governance and especially government transparency and accountability.

The buoyant Thai economy could be adversely affected, depending on how fast the flu is eradicated from the kingdom. Poultry farmers, especially in the poor rural areas, have had millions of their chickens culled and are demanding more compensation and benefits.

Fighting cock farms are also affected, which will likely result in huge losses for the breeders of these prized birds.

Furthermore, containers of slaughtered chickens are being returned to Thai ports, resulting in huge losses for Thai poultry exporters as Thailand is the world's fourth largest chicken exporter.

Chicken consumption has plunged and overall confidence is eroding in an economy that was touted as the third fastest- growing in Asia, after China and Viet Nam, this year.

A sagging economy and confidence would definitely have a major political impact on Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's re- election bid in February 2005, should the avian flu epidemic not be quickly and effectively contained. Thaksin, who has been dubbed "Thailand's superman," is suddenly feeling vulnerable a year before the next election.

In Indonesia, which initially resisted the mass culling of its affected poultry, President Megawati Soekarnoputri finally succumbed to pressure from the World Health Organization and international opinion to take drastic action in order to protect public health.

The move incurred the wrath of poultry farmers across the country, ahead of crucial legislative and presidential elections this year.

Public confidence is of the utmost importance to the leaders and to their electoral chances. This confidence could plunge should bird-to-human contagion of the virus be confirmed in the coming weeks.

Government accountability and transparency are now de rigueur and form the basis for good corporate governance, thanks first to the SARS epidemic last year, followed by the current avian flu outbreak.

But perhaps one of the most important lessons unfolding in the avian flu crisis is the utmost importance and urgency of bridging the socio-economic gap between richer urban communities and poorer rural ones.

The rapidity of the flu epidemic has again revealed the extent of poverty in rural Asia and the socio-economic cleavages in Asian societies today.

A controversy is already brewing in Thailand over the "injustice" of culling chicken in the poorer rural farms, given only modest compensation, whereas poultry bred by big agricultural conglomerates and those in the Bangkok periphery need only be vaccinated to be spared.

In Indonesia, there were initial concerns that unfair vested interests had prevented the culling of millions of fowl, especially when poor farmers, who had their chicken mass-culled, were not financially compensated, given the nation's huge budget deficits. Agricultural Southeast Asia needs urgent and coordinated socio-economic policies.

The avian flu underscores the importance of a more aggressive policy in wiping out poverty and balancing gains in society. Beneath Asia's vertiginous boom still lie some "poor" economies and marginalized societies, which not only breed diseases but sow the seeds of social unrest and political destabilization.

Social policies need to be urgently designed and effectively implemented in order to safeguard stability; this is indeed the true political dimension and reality check on the current avian flu epidemic in the region.

ASEAN governments and public opinion are bracing themselves for a challenging year ahead as threats of avian flu, SARS and terrorism complicate politics, especially in a crucial electoral year in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.