The political situation in Southeast Asia in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic can be contextualized by the level of freedom in each country.
The 2021 Freedom House survey of 210 countries worldwide rates “peoples’ access to political rights and civil liberties, including individual freedoms ranging from the right to vote to freedom of expression and equality before the law affected by both state and non-state actors.”
For Southeast Asia, six countries were rated “not free.” These were Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. Five were “partly free,” namely Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and Singapore. Only Timor Leste was rated “free.” This confirms the 2021 assessment made by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) that “democracy in Southeast Asia has been steadily backsliding for years, mirroring the global democratic recession.”
The Heritage Foundation has raised concerns about the state of human rights in Southeast Asia during Covid-19 times. Troubling patterns include “reduced preparedness” due “to poor leadership and governance,” thus putting lives of citizens “at greater-than-necessary risk”; weaponizing Covid-19 and using the pandemic as “an opportunity to crack down on dissenters and restrict fundamental freedoms” and deepen authoritarian rule; and using the crisis “as an excuse to amass power.”
The CSIS cites draconian measures by some Southeast Asian governments in response to the new pandemic surge beginning last January. On Jan. 6 then Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the arrest of unvaccinated individuals “who disobey stay-at-home orders,” while on Jan. 13 the Department of Transportation announced that unvaccinated individuals would not be able to use public transport in Metro Manila. The latter directive drew the ire of civil society groups and people’s organizations who saw it as discriminatory of the many poor and lower-middle class who don’t own private vehicles.
The Philippine government mobilized the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases and created the National Task Force (NTF) to contain the Covid-19 virus and prevent its spread. A National Action Plan was drawn up which was described as “a national-government-enabled, LGU (local government unit)-led, and people-centered response to the pandemic.” The NTF, however, has been criticized for its militaristic approach to the pandemic, a situation highlighted by the prominent role of retired military generals vis a vis health professionals and its being under the operational command of the defense secretary.
Thailand, Singapore and Cambodia have promulgated laws against critics of their respective Covid-19 responses, accusing them of spreading misinformation. Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar have targeted and scapegoated particular communities as alleged spreaders of the coronavirus. A common strategy is to distract the people by creating crisis situations and pandemic preventive measures such as social distancing and lockdowns to severely limit avenues of dissent and protest.
On Dec. 24, 2021, in Myanmar, the military junta launched an assault that killed 35 people, including women and children, in Kayah state (formerly Karenni), where prodemocracy rebels have been fighting a guerrilla war. By mid-January 2022, the junta had intensified its attacks by bombarding Loikaw City in Kayah, forcing 170,000 residents to flee their homes in order to escape the fighting.
Also in December 2021, a secret military court sentenced Aung San Suu Kyi to a four-year jail term for allegedly breaking Covid-19-related rules and for “illegally importing and owning walkie-talkies.” The verdict was met with widespread public protests and condemned by human rights groups, the United Nations, the European Union, and the United States.
A May 2020 Blackbox survey of citizens’ sentiments in 23 countries as to how their national government leaders have responded to the Covid-19 crisis included six Southeast Asian countries—Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand. In terms of national leadership, both Vietnam (with a high 82%) and Malaysia (with 59%) had favorable ratings. The rest had unfavorable ratings: the Philippines, 45%; Singapore, 41%; Indonesia, 37%; and Thailand, 22%.
As of July 6, Southeast Asia’s Covid-19 cases had reached 32.4 million, with 352,679 deaths. Vietnam, regarded in 2020-21 as the role model in pandemic containment, now leads with 10.8 million cases. Indonesia is next with 6.1 million, followed by Malaysia with 4.6 million, Thailand 4.5 million, and the Philippines 3.7 million.
As for Covid-related deaths, Indonesia is far ahead with 156,766, followed by the Philippines with 60,610, Vietnam 43,089, Malaysia 35,787, and Thailand 30,739. In terms of case incidence per population, it is ironically the richer countries like Brunei, Singapore and Malaysia that are the most severely affected.
Southeast Asian politics have taken a turn for the worse in pandemic times. Tendencies already evident in prepandemic years, such as increasing authoritarian practices coupled with constriction of the democratic space, have been exacerbated and intensified. The fear is that these developments could be extended and brought into the postpandemic era.
For Southeast Asian elites and oligarchies, Covid-19 may have given them the perfect excuse to prolong their rule, further marginalize peoples, and stifle democratic dissent.
This piece is partly excerpted with revisions and updating from the following unpublished reports of the University of the Philippines’ Center for Integrative and Development Studies (UP-CIDS) Program on Alternative Development that were cowritten by the author: “Reinforcing people-to-people solidarities towards a regionalism from below: Alternatives from SEAsia amid Covid-19” (2021) and “Southeast Asian peoples in pandemic times: challenges and responses: Covid-19 grassroots report Volume 2” (2022). —Ed.