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.
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.
It seemed that for 2020 things could not get worse. And yet, in recent years, they have. After winning the recent sham elections in Cambodia, Hun Sen announced that he was delivery power to his son Hun Manet, creating the Southeast Asian equivalent of a North Korean dynastic transition. The move, which was announced before the election but can hardly be said to enjoy popular support, makes Cambodia likely to see as much greater corruptionwhile Hun Manet doles out patronage to consolidate his rule, continuing a harsh crackdown as he may feel it necessary to keep a tight rein on dissent during a potentially fragile transition.
Meanwhile, in Thailand, establishment forces have filed dubious legal cases against Pita to prevent him from taking his parliamentary seat, a time-worn tactic in Bangkok that will likely be upheld by Thailand’s complacent judicial system. In the meantime, they have already successfully barred Move Forward from being part of any government that is formed, even though it won a majority of the seats in the lower house elections. Instead, the most likely scenario now is a coalition government led by the opposition Pheu Thai Party, which finished second in May, and made up of other parties that will not push for the real institutional changes that Move Forward has made central to its political platform. As the election results show, many Thais want these changes, particularly when it comes to the Draconian lese majesty laws that stifle speech in Thailand are often used against political dissidents.
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Myanmar’s junta, which crushed that country’s weak and troubled democracy with a coup in February 2021, now faces a serious threat to its existence from emboldened resistance forces that control much of the country. But even if the junta is ultimately defeated, that will leave the country in the hands of multiple heavily armed resistance organizations, all awash in weapons and with minimal ties to each other other than their antipathy to the military regime. In fact, some of the groups are sworn enemies. That is not a rosy outlook for the rise of democracy.
Even three of the strongest and largest democracies in the region are going backwards. Duterte seriously undermined Philippine democracy, and while his successor, President Ferdinand Marcos, has surprised observers, especially given his pedigree, by tempering some of Duterte’s worst excesses in economic and foreign policy, it remains to be seen whether he will follow through to repair all. the damage to the country’s human rights landscape. In Indonesia, in addition to wavering on promised reforms and allowing regressive criminal laws to pass, Jokowi has expanded the powers and influence of the armed forces, which have a record of massive human rights abuses. With greater control of government functions, the Indonesian military could further dilute democracy.
And in Malaysia, while Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim fought for decades as opposition leader for democratic reforms, he finally won the top job thanks to a coalition government. that includes the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, the autocratic party that ruled the country for decades. To keep UMNO placated, Anwar has remained silent on many human rights issues, sometimes even seems to have lost control from his government to UMNO.
How does this democratic setback affect the stability of the region and, potentially, its development? In a way, not at all. Some of the most authoritarian states in the region, such as Vietnam, have proven capable of overseeing impressive growth and development. Other Southeast Asian states, regardless of their politics, are benefiting from foreign investors desperate to flee China and Hong Kong and look elsewhere to set up factories and corporate offices. Meanwhile, China remains the region’s largest trading partner by far, and Beijing generally doesn’t care about the domestic politics of Southeast Asian states.
But if the democratic regression leads to incompetent people in key positions of power or to instability, that could potentially drive away all investors, including those from China. Myanmar, for example, has collapsed so completely as a state that most major investors, including Japanese companies that had been big players there, have withdrawn or halted any further investment. Even Chinese investors, who maintain a significant presence in Myanmar, are increasingly worried about the conflict in the country, which was the second deadliest in the world last year after Ukraine.
Thailand, which has many potential strengths to attract foreign investment, has seen its economy deteriorate for years. This is partly due to ongoing instability resulting from the clash between the popular will of the Thai people, expressed through elections and protests, and the conservative establishment. But it’s also because the military and military-aligned parties have proven woefully incapable of handling the country’s economy, as well as crises like the pandemic. If the current showdown over the premiership results in violent street protests, which is now a real possibility, it will only further scare investors looking for options other than China.
In the Philippines, Duterte’s wild instability and autocratic nature have alienated foreign investors, and while Marcos is trying to woo them, it will be a hard sell. And in Indonesia, giving the military more powers, including over state-owned companies, undermines the economy by increasing red tape and corruption that serve as an impediment to foreign investment.
In the long run, then, Southeast Asia’s continued democratic backsliding may hurt its economic development, even at a time when it could benefit from China’s dire internal problems. In the short term, it is already taking a great toll on the citizens of the region.