Democracy isn’t receding in Southeast Asia, authoritarianism is enduring

Author: Thomas Pepinsky, Cornell University

Many observers of the state of democracy around the world fear that democracy is in decline. The view from Southeast Asia bolsters such fears. From the election of President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines to the harassment of Cambodia’s opposition, contemporary politics across the region offers many examples of authoritarian leadership.

Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte (L) and visiting Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah salute as they review the troops at the presidential palace ahead of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Manila, Philippines 27 April 2017. (Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro).

The bright spots for democracy, by contrast, are few. Myanmar’s political liberalisation since 2011 is the most notable case of democratic progress since Indonesia’s democratisation in 1999. But today, amidst the Rohingya crisis, that progress seems hollow. Indonesia — the region’s only consolidated democracy — appears beset by growing Islamist politics and a prickly new nationalism. The ‘competitive authoritarian’ regimes of Malaysia and Singapore are no more competitive now than they ever were, while closed regimes in Laos and Vietnam remain altogether closed. Thailand remains under military rule.

Does this mean that democracy is in decline in Southeast Asia? Yes and no. The challenges to hard-fought democratic gains in the region are real. But from a historical perspective, challenges to democracy can only emerge in countries that have had some meaningful liberalisation already. And in those countries, challenges pale in comparison to the magnitude of past gains. The real story of the state of democracy in Southeast Asia is not the threat of contemporary reversal — it is the strength of durable authoritarianism in the non-democracies.

To put that story in a historical perspective, we can consult data from Freedom House, whose ‘Freedom in the World’ rankings are comparative indicators of the extent that citizens enjoy political rights and civil liberties. Trends from 1980 to 2016 for all eleven Southeast Asian countries show that the general picture of regional democracy has been one of institutional stagnation over the past three decades. The only Southeast Asian country where civil liberties and political rights have consistently deteriorated is Thailand. By contrast, liberalisation has been real (if limited) in Myanmar and substantial in Indonesia. Even in hard authoritarian Vietnam, there has been an expansion of civil liberties, even if no progress at all in political rights.

It is with this context in mind that we can better appreciate the current threats to democracy in Southeast Asia. Authoritarian politics in places like Singapore, Laos and Brunei — where democracy has long remained distant — is nothing new. The threats to democracy are the headline cases of Duterte in the Philippines, the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, the state of civil liberties in Indonesia and military rule in Thailand.

What these cases share is the politics of disorder. In the Philippines, Duterte prevailed in a democratic election. But now in office, he is using his power to direct a campaign against criminal and drug traffickers in the name of restoring a kind of order to Philippine politics.

In Indonesia, the contemporary politics of disorder takes a markedly different form: the policing of speech and action viewed to be blasphemous against religion or threatening to the Indonesian state. Both these forms of policing raise the spectre of social disorder and invites the use of Indonesia’s legal system in response.

As for Thailand, military rule is an attempt to put an end to a decade-long political crisis pitting the royalist and traditional establishment against a populist movement that has mobilised previously neglected Thai citizens.

Even the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar has some parallels. The Rohingya have long been viewed as foreigners, religiously and racially distinct, their presence within the country a consequence of colonial policy and illegal post-colonial migration. Their murder and forced removal generates outrage abroad but little sympathy within Myanmar, where it is largely seen as restoring the natural order of a Buddhist Burmese state.

What makes the politics of disorder a thorny problem for Southeast Asian democracy is that these illiberal policies are popular among many citizens. The trend towards illiberal politics and authoritarian leadership styles is a consequence of the perceived weaknesses of democratic politics, which has proven unable to eliminate poverty, crime, identity-based conflict or political instability.

Still, it is the durability of authoritarian rule that should most interest observers of Southeast Asian democracy. What explains this durability? There are many possible explanations — state strength in countries like Singapore, abundant natural resources in Brunei, effective neopatrimonialism in countries like Cambodia and divided oppositions in countries like Malaysia.

Grasping the durability of authoritarian rule in Southeast Asia gives us a better way to think about the state of democracy in the region. The situation is worrying, but not just because of the headline events and the region’s new generation of leaders. It is equally as worrying because progress remains so limited in the non-democratic regimes.

Thomas Pepinsky is an Associate Professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University.

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5 November 2017 4:57 am

What may be happening is that, as the world is facing an upsurge in Muslim militancy, public opinions in East and South-East Asia, the only region of the world that is still relatively Muslim-free, are putting a damper on the drive to more democracy. Over the last 40 years Wahabism has taken advantage of democracy, globalization, trade and migration liberalization, to promote and spread undercover its extreme version of Islam. The Far-East most probably does not want to be confronted to the same sort of problems that have been afflicting the West for the last, between 15 and 40 years. My guess is that the march to democracy will probably not resume before Islam is completely neutralized. Which might take between 10 and 50 years…

Richard S
5 November 2017 10:38 pm
Reply to  Huynen

Some would argue that radical terrorism, whether Islamic based or not, finds a home in countries where a significant portion of the people feel alienated from the mainstream. Feeling they have little opportunity to participate meaningfully and successfully within the society in which they reside the younger generation are attracted to the angry and violent messages that breed the terrorist activities.

Additionally, some of the countries struggle with deep and longstanding ethnic and cultural divisions. Myanmar and the Philippines have many different groups of peoples who speak different languages, etc. Singapore faces challenges in integrating the ethnic Chinese, Indians, and Malays. I do not know to what extent that might be the case in some of the other countries like Indonesia, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and/or Thailand.

Unless/until the central governments of these countries find ways to include these young people more actively in the day to day processes of society and government terrorism will have a natural breeding ground.

6 November 2017 8:28 pm
Reply to  Richard S

In South and East Asia as in other parts of the world all young people are not tempted by terrorism, and all terrorists are not young. Their mentors in fact are sometimes quite old.
It is time to admit that “It is not the economy, Stupid!” (but that culture/religion can be a determining dominant variable in some contexts) and consider the Islam factor.

Gunther Von Hoffman
14 November 2017 3:31 pm
Reply to  Huynen

I have to agree with Richard when you look at how Communism was appealing to many people due to their experience during the Western colonial era and they did not benefit from it.

1 December 2017 3:31 am
Reply to  Huynen

It’s incorrect to say that SE Asia is ‘Muslim free’, Indonesia for example has a population that is roughly 65% Muslim, and there are many Muslims within the region as a whole. Thus lack of democratisation in SE Asia cannot really be attributed to a fear of Wahabism taking advantage of democracy. The huge and obvious failures of democracy throughout the Western world – the ones mentioned in the article primarily – must surely be an important factor in why SE Asian countries seem so reluctant to democratise, but this can not be attributed to an upsurge in Muslim militancy, given the large Muslim populations already in SE Asia.