Stumbling Democracies in South-East Asia

Sanchita Chatterjee
December 6th, 2020

Image Courtesy: Newgeography

The democratic growth trajectory of Southeast Asia has been in decline since at least the early 2010s, and the regression has been accelerated by COVID-19. Southeast Asia underwent immense democratization in the 1990s and 2000s, and by the early 2010s, significant political progress had been made by countries including East Timor, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and even Cambodia and Myanmar. In fighting the coronavirus pandemic, the region has shown mixed results, yet COVID-19 has been a political blessing for the region’s anti-democratic leaders. To ensure that politicians do not use the Pandemic to indefinitely acquire power, the COVID-19-era accumulation of political authority should be seen as a serious concern. Increasing political instability, anti-democratic populism and sectarian violence, the emergence of authoritarian rule, and the ongoing presence of military powers in politics were weakening democratic politics in these regions long before the Coronavirus appeared.

During the pandemic, even the developed countries or some long-standing democracies have struggled to balance addressing public health issues and maintaining the rights of people. Meanwhile, as news media across the world remain concentrated on the pandemic, there is much less thought given to the political decline in developing countries. The repercussions of this democratic regression are extensive and severe. At the human level, democratic stagnation means that, compared to a decade ago, more people in the world now live under regimes that limit economic, social and political rights. As measures of human development indicators, people living under the authoritarian rule are now more apt to have shorter and less stable lives. Democracies have always proved more successful in supporting key areas of development, including life expectancy and reduced infant mortality. Further regional conflict can result from global democratic decline. Political liquidation can promote extremism, creating conditions for self-proclaimed Islamic State-inspired organizations or other types of radicals, such as Myanmar’s Buddhist nationalist extremist groups or Thailand’s hard-line royalist groups. People linked to the Islamic State have also made headway beyond Southeast Asia in states where political freedom has deteriorated, or never completely emerged, and where people feel that they cannot create progressive reform through work.

Thailand saw a military coup in 2014, despite having been governed by civilian and fairly democratic governments for much of the 1990s and 2000s. The junta created an unequal electoral climate when it eventually enabled an election in 2019: it used constitutional changes and other navigating to cause the 2019 election to be won by a pro-military faction, Palang Pracharat. Thailand’s top court disbanded the party when the opposing Future Forward Party fared well in the election and managed to draw substantial support from the public after the vote. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Thai government has adopted emergency laws which allow the authorities to detain individuals merely for making COVID-19 comments that could “instigate fear” or “mislead the public.”

President Rodrigo Duterte, elected to a six-year term in 2016 in the Philippines, oversaw a brutal drug war that culminated in thousands of political assassinations in the Philippines; incarcerated political adversaries and journalists; and weakened the autonomy of the Supreme Court and other entities. Duterte has not only introduced draconian and poorly conceived lockdown policies in the Philippines but has also taken advantage of broad emergency powers given to him by a loyal legislature. The emergency powers include warrantless detention against someone alleged to be “suspicious” by a government-appointed committee. The Philippine legislature has expanded the emergency powers of Duterte, although it remains uncertain if these powers would be time-limited at all.

In Malaysia, the king appointed a new prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, in March, following infighting within the ruling alliance that had ousted the long-dominant United Malays National Organization (UMNO) in 2018. Muhyiddin formed a government mainly with UMNO’s backing. The government of Muhyiddin, which maintains a slim majority in the legislature, has frequently restricted, parliamentary sessions from holding a meeting stating pandemic reasons. The sporadic parliamentary meeting has curbed the most prominent public forum for opposition parties. Restricting the parliament also avoids votes of no confidence and defections from the alliance of Muhyiddin. The government also dismissed criminal charges against many UMNO leaders allegedly linked to the major financial scandal of the Malaysia Development Berhad (MDB) and filled state-owned companies with associates of UMNO. When opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim wanted to challenge the government of Muhyiddin, claiming that he now had a majority of votes in the lower house of parliament and not the prime minister, the King of Malaysia, perhaps indicating his intention to hold Muhyiddin in power, refused to support the attempts of Anwar.

Indonesia is one of the most established democracies in the South East Asian Region. But things changed quickly during the pandemic. The President of Indonesia Joko Widodo or Jokowi, moved towards autocracy during the pandemic, partly by restricting civil society. The national government has placed comprehensive new restrictions on freedom of expression, as Jokowi has struggled to resolve the crisis, fighting with regional governors. For example, the Indonesian police have introduced new procedural rules to file charges against individuals who question the COVID-19 response of the president or other government officials. Many opponents, including several famous activists, have been detained by the police.

Meanwhile, there is a little help from leading democracies in the region. Since the mid-2010s, as their populations are becoming less internationalist, major democracies such as the United States, Australia and Japan have become less dependent on promoting democracy, both in Asia and internationally. These wealthy states have elected leaders who have little interest in promoting democracy, and these leading democracies themselves have become less democratic. As for leading democracies, the COVID-19 pandemic only contributed to their changes towards domestic interests. Japan, for example, was a strong advocate for more free democracy in regional states such as Cambodia in the 1990s and early 2000s. In recent years, however, Japan, based on countering Chinese regional strategic power, has paid much less attention to the democratic decline in countries such as Cambodia, Myanmar and the Philippines that are strategically important to Tokyo.

Discriminations against ethnic minorities and migrant labourers have grown to a large extent in the region. It has also limited the room for international action. External support is prevented or blocked for fundamental freedoms and civil society. Taking action for democratic norms and human rights creates tension in important bilateral relations at a time when South-East Asian partners such as the United States, the European Union, Japan and Australia are trying to improve their position as the role of China increases.

Southeast Asian countries need to reinforce institutions capable of resolving political issues so that they do not have to depend on anti-democratic, archaic establishments to resolve conflicts. Political problems are too often fixed by the military in Thailand and Myanmar; conflicts are often settled in a backroom negotiation process involving a small handful of business and political elites in Cambodia and Malaysia. Such weak institutions promote political conflict cycles and make it easier for militant organizations to peak up. Democracy was already in the process of decline in the region and the pandemic smoothens the situation for further decline.

** The author is an intern at the Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies.**