Southeast Asia's democracy woes accelerate

In the past decade, democracy in Southeast Asia has suffered enormous setbacks, with the exception of tiny Timor-Leste.

Countries from the Philippines, Indonesia, Cambodia, Myanmar to Thailand and Malaysia have regressed from robust democracies or hybrid regimes — essentially semidemocracies — to outright authoritarian rule or to situations in which elections are still held but democratic institutions are deteriorating.

Unfortunately, in the next year, the region’s prospects for democracy look likely to get even worse. Myanmar has captured many of the global headlines. Although not a democracy before Feb. 1, it was at least a country with relatively free and fair elections, and was building some democratic institutions and norms.

Now, it has been taken over in a retrograde military coup and is disintegrating into a battleground and failed state. The prospect of democratic revival in Myanmar, or even any semblance of stability, seems hard to imagine any time soon.

Yet other regional states, while not as unsettled as Myanmar, also look likely to backslide in the remainder of 2021 and into 2022. In the Philippines, the presidential election next year could potentially bring to power Sara Duterte, mayor of the southern city of Davao and daughter of incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte. She remains the front-runner in polls.

Were she to win, Sara Duterte would likely solidify the anti-democratic measures taken by her father in his presidential term, including attacking free media, gutting the judiciary, exhorting violence against political opponents and possibly jailing opposition figures. As president, she also surely would do nothing to hold her father accountable for the brutal, extrajudicial drug war imposed under his presidency or his other anti-democratic actions.

In Indonesia, meanwhile, presidential elections are not coming up until 2024, but as veteran journalist John McBeth has noted, Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto is positioning himself well to run in and win those elections. (Current President Joko Widodo will be term-limited and unable to run for re-election.) Prabowo is leading in all polls monitoring the 2024 race, and a look back at his past suggests he would move Indonesia in an even more authoritarian direction.

Indeed, Prabowo has long portrayed himself as a strongman-type leader, one hostile to democratic reforms like the decentralization of political power throughout the archipelago. He was allegedly involved in overseeing serious human rights abuses, including the abductions and disappearances of rights activists, during his time as commander of special forces late in the Suharto era. (For such alleged abuses, he was denied a visa to the United States for years.)

Prabowo also apparently wields significant influence within Widodo’s Cabinet. And as his stature has grown, the Indonesian president has continued to hand over more duties to the armed forces, undermining democracy and returning the country to a situation in which the army wields unhealthy domestic powers. Making matters worse, Widodo has been overseeing proposed laws to limit free speech and impose other curbs on civil rights.

Other Southeast Asian countries also are regressing. Malaysia’s prime minister continues to govern under emergency rule that was implemented in January, sidelining parliament and infuriating many Malaysians. Although Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin might ultimately be forced — under royal pressure — to allow parliament to reconvene, he seems willing to stall a return of parliament for months. And in the meantime, he could create a situation in which he continues to pass legislation with no parliamentary checks, as Oh Ei Sun of Channel News Asia has noted.

In Thailand, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha has maintained massive powers granted to him during the pandemic, while the government also has used arrests and other types of intimidation to shut down the large pro-democracy protest movements that roiled Bangkok last year.

There is no one reason why democracy, already weak in Southeast Asia, looks likely to suffer more in the coming years. COVID-19 has allowed some leaders, such as Prayut and Muhyiddin, to take advantage of the legitimate public health emergency to centralize power. Like many undemocratic leaders in other parts of the world, they then try to hold onto the vast powers gained during the emergency even if the public health situation improves.

In addition, as Lee Morgenbesser of Griffith University in Australia has noted, authoritarian or authoritarian-leaning leaders in Southeast Asia have become more sophisticated in the ways that they control politics.

While the retrograde and brutal Myanmar junta is an exception, other Southeast Asian leaders, like Prayut, Duterte, or Cambodia’s Hun Sen, maintain elections and some semblances of freedoms while undermining civil society, such as in tilting elections to benefit their ruling parties and controlling election commissions in ways that make it difficult for opposition forces to win. These tactics, quieter than simply launching a coup and killing people, slowly and subtly kill democracy and do not get the type of global media attention that an event like the Myanmar coup attracted.

Meanwhile, leading democracies that once focused on promoting freedom throughout Southeast Asia are retrenching and focusing on their own problems. The United States is working to put its own democratic politics back in order, while the European Union, Japan, Canada and other leading democracies are working hard to roll out vaccines and generally control the spread of COVID-19, leaving them less time to focus on free and fair government issues. And, so, the prospects for regional democracy are at their grimmest point in years.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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