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The State of Democracy in Southeast Asia Is Bad and Getting Worse

Just when it seemed that the state of democracy in Southeast Asia, already in dire shape, could not get worse, it did.

In the past month alone, increasingly autocratic Cambodia staged a sham election in which the main opposition party was banned and the ruling party of longtime Prime Minister Hun Sen took nearly every seat.

In Thailand, where the progressive Move Forward party won a plurality of seats in May elections, military-aligned parties and royalist forces have used every tool possible to block its leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, from being named prime minister.

Meanwhile, Myanmar’s junta keeps promising and postponing their own sure-to-be sham elections, while engaged in a civil war that has seen its armed forces intensify their massive rights abuses. These are but a few examples of how democracy is going from bad to worse across Southeast Asia.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the region seemed to offer a model for democratization for other developing countries. Today, Southeast Asia is a long way from that promising period, with Timor-Leste the only fully free democracy according to Freedom House’s rankings, despite its poverty and isolation.

Back then, Indonesia was embarking on a dramatic experiment with decentralization, designed to broaden democracy after the fall of longtime dictator Suharto. Thailand was classified by Freedom House as a fully free democracy.

The Philippines’ democracy remained strong in the wake of its 1980s “People Power” movement that toppled the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. And countries from Malaysia to Cambodia were making strides toward greater freedom. Within the next decade, newly independent Timor-Leste and then Myanmar would join them.

By the 2010s, democracy was already beginning to regress in Southeast Asia. Thailand, which had already experienced a coup in 2006, saw a much harsher one in 2014, after which the military stage-managed an election in 2019 that resulted in a pro-military government headed by the general who had led the coup.

The Philippines’ democracy floundered under mercurial and autocratic former President Rodrigo Duterte, who took office in 2016. Myanmar’s democratic transition, which began in 2011 and gathered steam by 2015, soon faltered, with massive killings of the Rohingya, continued military dominance of many ministries and a failure to create the federal state that is essential for democracy to work there.

Indonesia, the region’s democratic linchpin, started to reverse course under President Joko Widodo, who was elected in 2014 claiming to be a force for democratic change but failed to 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 early in the 2010s, returned to harsh autocracy.

It seemed by 2020 that things couldn’t get worse. And yet, in the past few years, they have. After winning the recent sham elections in Cambodia, Hun Sen announced he was handing power to his son Hun Manet, creating the Southeast Asian equivalent of a North Korean dynastic transition.

The move, which was announced ahead of the elections but can hardly be said to enjoy popular support, makes it likely that Cambodia will see both greater corruption, as Hun Manet spreads patronage around to consolidate his rule, and continued harsh repression, since he may feel it necessary to keep a tight lid on dissent during a potentially fragile transition.

In Thailand, meanwhile, establishment forces have filed dubious legal cases against Pita to keep him from taking his parliamentary seat, a timeworn tactic in Bangkok that will likely be sustained by Thailand’s compliant judiciary.

A supporter of Move Forward Party Leader Pita Limjaroenrat holds a banner with his picture on the day of the second vote for a new prime minister, at the parliament in Bangkok, Thailand, on July 19, 2023 || Photo: Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

In the meantime, they have already successfully sidelined Move Forward from being part of any government that is formed, despite the fact that it won the most 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 comprising other parties that will not push for the real institutional changes that Move Forward made central to its political platform.

As demonstrated by the election results, many Thais want to see those changes made, particularly when it comes to the draconian lese majeste laws that stifle discourse in Thailand and are often used against political dissenters.

Myanmar’s junta, which crushed that country’s weak and troubled democracy with a February 2021 coup, now faces a serious threat to its existence from emboldened resistance forces that control large portions 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 bonds to each other besides their antipathy to the military regime. Indeed, some of the groups are sworn enemies. That is not a promising landscape for the emergence of democracy.

ven three of the stronger and bigger democracies in the region are backsliding. Duterte badly undermined Philippine democracy, and while his successor, President Ferdinand Marcos, has surprised observers—especially given his pedigree—by moderating some of Duterte’s worst excesses in economic and foreign policy, it remains to be seen if he will follow through to repair all the damage to the country’s human rights landscape.

In Indonesia, in addition to faltering on promised reforms and allowing regressive criminal laws to be passed, Jokowi has expanded the powers and influence of the armed forces, which have a history of massive human rights abuses. With greater control of governmental functions, the Indonesian military could further dilute democracy.

And in Malaysia, while Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim fought for decades as an 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 longtime, autocratic party that ruled the country for decades. To keep UMNO placated, Anwar has been quiet about many human rights issues, at times even appearing to have lost control of his government to UMNO.

How does this democratic regression affect the region’s stability and, potentially, its development? In some ways, not at all. Some of the region’s most authoritarian states, like Vietnam, have proven capable of overseeing impressive growth and development.

Other Southeast Asian states, regardless of their politics, are benefiting from foreign investors who are desperate to flee China and Hong Kong and seeking other places to set up factories and corporate offices. Meanwhile, China remains the region’s largest trading partner by far, and Beijing generally does not care about Southeast Asian states’ domestic politics.

But if the democratic regression leads to incompetent people being in key positions of power or to instability, that could potentially alienate all investors, including those from China. Myanmar, for instance, has collapsed so completely as a state that most major investors, including the Japanese businesses that had been big players there, have pulled out or paused any further investment.

Even Chinese investors, who maintain a major presence in Myanmar, are increasingly worried about the country’s conflict, which was the world’s second-deadliest last year after Ukraine.

Thailand, which has many potential strengths to attract foreign investment, has seen its economy underperform for years. This is in part due to the constant instability resulting from the standoff between the Thai people’s popular will, as expressed through elections and protests, and the conservative establishment.

But it is also because the military and military-aligned parties have proven woefully incapable of managing the country’s economy, as well as crises like the pandemic. If the current standoff over the prime ministership results in violent street protests, which is now a real possibility, it will only further scare off investors who are looking for options other than China.

In the Philippines, Duterte’s wild instability and autocratic nature alienated foreign investors, and while Marcos is trying to woo them back, it will be a tough sell. And in Indonesia, handing more powers to the military, including over state companies, undermines the economy by adding to the red tape and corruption that serves 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 otherwise profit from China’s severe domestic problems. In the short run, it is already coming at great cost for the region’s citizens.

Joshua Kurlantzick for WPR

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