As democracy’s stability is questioned around the world, South-East Asia in particular has seen another year of democratic decline. Many countries remain undemocratic, and others have taken a worryingly repressive turn. Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines have all suffered setbacks; Myanmar has failed to fulfil the high hopes following the election of its first civilian president for decades, and Indonesia faces serious problems, too.
After such a precipitous decline, 2017 will be a critical year. Unless these countries’ trajectories change soon, darker times are ahead.
Two years after a democratically elected government was thrown out by a coup, Thailand endured another year of uncertainty about the state of its democracy and remains under a military government. A new constitution, criticised for undermining elected representation and accountability, was approved by a referendum, boosting the military government’s legitimacy and licensing its repressive rule.
Worries about the military’s assertive attitude surged in October as Thais mourned the death of the aged King Bhumibol, a symbol of national unity. His successor, King Rama X, does not enjoy the same level of popularity or authority – and with the country’s beloved patriarch gone, any future transition to civilian government promises to be a rough ride indeed.
Malaysia, meanwhile, has seen some alarming government crackdowns of its own. There has been mounting pressure over a scandal involving 1MDB, a state-owned investment fund, from which funds have allegedly been misappropriated on a massive scale. There are questions over whether the government and Prime Minister Najib Razak are implicated, something he denies.
Many Malaysians are also alarmed at an Electoral Commission redelineation exercise, which they regard as an effort to gerrymander parliamentary districts in favour of the ruling coalition.
The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (known as Bersih, meaning clean) responded with a massive rally in November demanding that Najib step down. The Security Offences (Special Measures) Act, which is meant to safeguard national security, was used before the rally to detain Bersih’s leadership.
It is not the only accusation of security legislature being misused to prevent dissent. An opposition MP has been imprisoned under the Official Secrets Act for the release of a report on the IMDB scandal, and a cartoonist is the latest of many government critics to be arrested under Malaysia’s repressive sedition laws.
Crackdowns and dashed hopes
Concerns over democracy in the Philippines following Rodrigo Duterte’s election as president are also being realised. A wave of vigilante killings against those accused of being criminals has claimed around 4,500 lives.
Duterte’s reputation for endorsing and ignoring such actions extends back to his tenure as mayor of Davao. He has made statements threatening the same actions against human rights activists, and recently admitted to killing criminals himself while mayor. “I was really looking for a confrontation so I could kill,” he said.
The rule of law in the Philippines is therefore not in great shape. And besides Duterte’s ever more controversial statements and the remarkably brutal crackdown on drug crime, November saw the burial of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the national Heroes’ Cemetery. Duterte supported the decision to put Marcos there, raising the prospect that the country’s history of dictatorship could be whitewashed.
In Myanmar, meanwhile, the optimism that greeted its first full democratic elections in 2015 has rapidly faded. At first, the signs were good: the military-imposed constitution, under which Aung San Suu Kyi was prevented from becoming president, was neatly circumvented after the elections when she was was appointed State Counsellor, a new role with formal power. The military’s last efforts to maintain a grip on the country seemed futile – but there are other, more alarming problems afoot.
There has been a surge of violence against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority, a situation so dire that a UN official described it as ethnic cleansing. The government is under international and regional pressure to address the violence, and yet Suu Kyi has stayed silent. Such events demonstrate ongoing deficits in human rights and representation in Myanmar’s democratic process, as well as the lack of control the government has over the military.
The success story?
This leaves Indonesia, the region’s last real democratic holdout. But all is not well there either.
The ongoing row over an alleged blasphemous statement by Jakarta’s Christian governor, known as Ahok, shows that Indonesia’s political elites are still heavily invested in identity politics. Hundreds of thousands of people protested demanding Ahok’s imprisonment, even though the case is not settled and the evidence highly equivocal.
Indonesia is far from the only country facing the problem of identity politics, but it could nonetheless backfire in the long run if the rule of law is undermined by what some have called “mobocracy”.
Some attribute this to the growing prominence of political Islam in the democratic system, but there’s rather more to it than that: Indonesia is extremely diverse, meaning it’s naturally prone to ethnic and religious rifts and conflicts. And as long as identity politics work, this could exacerbate issues and lead to internal security issues.
The strength of Indonesia’s democracy is a beacon for the region. If it starts to fail, South-East Asia could start to lose hope that hard-won democratic rule is really sustainable.