Southeast Asia is a favored region for investments and trade by developed countries seeking to rebound from the pandemic and other economic problems. In terms of its political indicators, however, the region is hobbled by varying levels of democratic deficits.
Nikkei Asia observes that Southeast Asia remains “largely a fortress of authoritarianism, with military-based regimes (Thailand and Myanmar), dominant single parties (Vietnam, Singapore and Laos), absolute monarchies (Brunei) and old-fashioned autocrats (Cambodia) dominating the political landscape.” For the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, despite “a decent record of relatively competitive and free elections, . . . all three have also seen the emergence of authoritarian populist forces and the continued marginalization of progressive parties.”
There is no dearth of progressive social movements in Southeast Asia, but their effectiveness has been blunted by state repression and their diminished ability to mobilize the numbers needed to galvanize the region’s marginalized peoples into adopting more radical alternatives.
In Thailand and Myanmar, democratic movements led by young activists and students succeeded in bringing tens of thousands into the streets in protests against military power grabs. However, their efforts could not be sustained over a longer period.
Filipino political analyst Richard Heydarian, writing for Nikkei Asia, explains: “Absent a genuine revival of progressive forces, the region is likely at best to produce democratically elected populists and at worst, regress into full-fledged authoritarianism.”
Return to power
In the Philippines, the promise of the 1986 insurrection that toppled the Marcos dictatorship quickly dissipated with the ascendancy of corporate-driven neoliberal forces and the return of traditional dynastic politicians. Worse, the May 2022 elections saw the total return of the Marcoses to power, with the dictator’s son and namesake, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., easily winning the presidency.
Vera Files, the investigative journalism group, cited the Dahas Project data gathered by the Third World Studies Center of the University of the Philippines showing that:
In the first five months (July 1 to Nov. 30, 2022) of the Marcos Jr. administration, data showed 152 drug-related killings, already exceeding the 149 killings recorded during the final six months of the Duterte government (Jan. 1 to June 30, 2022).
Myanmar is the worst-case study for Southeast Asian politics. Since staging a coup against the government of Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing’s regime has killed 2,940 people and jailed 13,763, according to human rights groups, while being totally oblivious to international condemnation. Japanese journalist Shigesaburo Okumura writes, however, that “other independent research and monitoring groups put civilian deaths at over 30,000, while hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people are believed to be cowering along remote borders.”
The Myanmar generals’ intransigence may be fueled by the fact that the United States, Japan, and the European Union continue to engage in lucrative trade deals with the junta, while Russia, China and India supply it with arms and other military hardware. These export deals amounted to “a record high of $3.3 billion between January and September 2022, or about 1.6 times more than the same period a year earlier.”
Western countries, as well as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), confine themselves to ineffective calls for the junta to reinstall Aung Saan Suu Kyi or token gestures such as disinviting the generals to international gatherings while continuing to indulge authoritarian rulers of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Singapore.
Major step backward
Indonesia has a taken a major step backward in the democratic agenda. In December 2022, bowing to pressure from Islamist parties and conservative movements, Joko Widodo’s government enacted a highly controversial criminal law, the Kitab Undang-Undang Hukum Pidana (KUHP; Book of Criminal Law). This brings the government closer to the Southeast Asian authoritarian norm.
The new law limits the right to dissent; prohibits insulting the president, the vice-president, and government institutions; and criminalizes cohabitation, extramarital sex, and abortion. Human rights groups in Indonesia and abroad have denounced the new code as discriminating and oppressive against women, minorities, the LGBT community, and critics of the government.
Furthermore, Indonesian political scientist, Airlangga Pribadi Kusman notes that Article 188 of KUHP “states that any person who disseminates or promotes communism, Marxism or other understandings that violate Pancasila faces a fine or up to four years in prison.” Pancasila is Indonesia’s founding national ideology built on the five principles of national unity, humanism, democracy, social justice and belief in one god.
Thailand continues to be ruled by a military junta camouflaged as a civilian government. After seizing power from an elected government in 2014, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha unilaterally declared himself prime minister and then sought legitimacy by calling for elections in 2019. But after an anti-military party performed well, Prayuth had it dissolved, and its leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, was charged with lèse-majesté, an offense against the monarchy.
The new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, is styling himself as an absolute monarch with the support of the military. Mass protests against military rule and the monarchy led by university students are routinely repressed, and their leaders incarcerated or disappeared.
Malaysia’s November 2022 general elections may herald a turning point away from authoritarianism, with former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim finally assuming the post of prime minister. Social movements generally welcomed this change.
But the country has been stuck in a “middle income trap” due to “sluggish growth” stemming from weak fundamentals, low investments, setbacks in productivity, and “rampant corruption” under the previous Najib regime. Politically, however, Malaysia’s bumiputra policy favoring Malays and the growing strength of Islamist parties may prove to be formidable barriers to overcome.
To gain the premiership, Anwar had to enter into a coalition with the right-wing Barisan Nasional party long identified with one-party, semi-authoritarian politics. Reform advocates feel that Anwar is taking too long to institute urgent electoral and parliamentary changes. Anwar has disappointingly rejected repealing the oppressive University and University Colleges Act which had victimized him earlier.
Singaporean politics has been virtually monopolized by the long-ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and the Lee family since 1959. As Freedom House cites, “the electoral and legal framework that the PAP has constructed allows for some political pluralism, but it constrains the growth of credible opposition parties and limits freedoms of expression, assembly, and association.”
In recent years laws and regulations have been enacted that give government ministers the power to regulate online content, place legal pressure on independent online news sites, and redraw parliamentary constituencies to favor the PAP.
In Vietnam, a 2023 graduate thesis at the University of the Philippines by Ima Ariate recounts the government’s modernization plan implemented since 2000 of converting agricultural land to urban use. Euphemistically named “land recovery,” the program has resulted in land grabs that deprive peasant households of farmlands they have been ironically awarded under the country’s agrarian reform program.
Laos is described by Freedom House as “a one-party state in which the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party dominates all aspects of politics and harshly restricts civil liberties.” No organized opposition exists; civil society groups are either restricted or coopted by government while domestic media is repressed. Land disputes are common, brought about by economic projects that tie the country to rising debt to China. A recurring case is the disappearance of prominent civil society leader Sombath Somphone who was abducted by police forces in 2012 and has not been seen since.
It is, therefore, not surprising that the region’s “freedom ratings” continue to deteriorate, as tracked by Freedom House (See table). Globally, freedom has taken a hit in 2022 with the world’s population living in “Free” countries registering a dramatic fall in 2019 from about 40% to 20%. In Southeast Asia, six countries were rated Not Free—Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. Four were rated Partly Free—Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Singapore. Only Timor-Leste got a Free rating, despite barely making it to that category.
Press freedom has been deteriorating as well
In Singapore, “authorities forced one of the city-state’s few remaining independent news outlets to shut down by suspending its license.” Thai authorities “issued a broadly worded regulation to expand their ability to prosecute individuals for distributing news deemed to incite fear in the public.” In the Philippines, Nobel Prize laureate Maria Ressa, head of the independent news website Rappler, was constantly harassed, intimidated, and swamped with libel and other court cases by the Duterte administration. In addition, the franchise of the Philippines’ biggest media network, ABS-CBN, was not renewed.
In 2018, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) ranked the Philippines as the “deadliest country for journalists in Southeast Asia and the worst offender in media impunity because of its high number of media killings.” Rappler notes that the 2009 Ampatuan massacre in the Philippines that killed 32 media workers stands historically as “the single deadliest attack on the media worldwide.”
Other Southeast Asian countries that ranked high in the IFJ’s “impunity scale” were Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Timor-Leste.
Meanwhile external trade and foreign investment flows into the 10 Asean member-countries continue to grow. Trade with non-Asean economies accounts for 79% of regional trade, while extra-region foreign investments take in an 81% share of the total.
For both investors and trading partners, Southeast Asia’s slide into authoritarian and non-democratic rule is obviously of no consequence.
This article is excerpted with revisions and additions from the author’s introduction “Post-pandemic Southeast Asia: Systemic perils and peoples’ alternatives” to a forthcoming publication, Towards a Peoples’ Alternative Regionalism in Southeast Asia: Volume II, of the UP Center for Integrative and Development Studies, Program on Alternative Development (UP CIDS AltDev).