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The state of democracy in Southeast Asia is bad and getting worse

Just when it seemed that the already dire state of democracy in Southeast Asia couldn’t get any worse, it did. In the last month alone, increasingly autocratic Cambodia has carried out a false elections in which the main opposition party was banned and the ruling party of former Prime Minister Hun Sen held almost all the seats. In Thailand, where the progressive Move Forward party won a plurality of seats in the May elections, parties aligned with the military and royalist forces have used every possible tool. block its leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, be appointed prime minister. Meanwhile, the Myanmar junta continues promising and postponing their own choices that will surely be a farce, while engaged in a civil war who has seen his the armed forces intensify their massive rights abuses. These are just a few examples of democracy going from bad to worse in Southeast Asia.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the region seemed to offer a democratization model for other developing countries. Today, Southeast Asia is a long way from that promising period, with Timor-Leste the only totally free democracy according to Freedom House rankings, despite its poverty and isolation.

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Back then, Indonesia was embarking on a dramatic experiment in decentralization, designed to expand democracy after the fall of dictator Suharto. Thailand was classified by Freedom House as a totally free democracy. Democracy in the Philippines remained strong after the “People Power” movement of the 1980s that overthrew the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. And countries from Malaysia to Cambodia were taking steps toward greater freedom. Within the next decade, they would be joined by newly independent Timor-Leste, and then Myanmar.

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By the 2010s, democracy was already beginning to recede in Southeast Asia. Thailand, which had already suffered a coup in 2006, suffered a much harsher one in 2014, after which the military stage led an election in 2019 that resulted in a pro-military government headed by the general who had led the coup. The Philippines’ democracy failed under fickle and autocratic former president Rodrigo Duterte, who took office in 2016. Myanmar’s democratic transition, which began in 2011 and gained momentum in 2015, soon faltered, with mass killings of the Rohingya, the continued military dominance of many ministries and the inability to create the federal state that is essential for democracy to function there. Indonesia, the region’s democratic lynchpin, began to change course under the presidency of Joko Widodo, who was elected in 2014 claiming to be a force for democratic change, but could not implement many of his promised reforms. Singapore has remained dominated by the People’s Action Party, and Vietnam, which had made some minor moves toward greater freedoms in the early 2010s, reverted to harsh autocracy.

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