By Kris Janssens
PHNOM PENH, Aug 21 2023 (IPS)
Three notable events have boosted the democratic process in Southeast Asia in recent decades. The fall of the Marcos regime in 1986, the Reformasi that shifted Indonesian politics in the late 1990s, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory over the military junta in Myanmar. However, today Marcos’ son is president of the Philippines, Indonesian presidential candidates want to centralize power again, and Myanmar is embroiled in an armed conflict.
What is going on in the region, and what does this mean for democracy?
Countries like Cambodia or Thailand seem to ignore basic democratic rules. For economic reasons, they are trying to placate the West, but at the other end of the spectrum, Beijing is beckoning.
The crackdown on independent media in Southeast Asia is getting worse. “There are very few even semi-democracies left in a region where democracy was once on the rise, and tiny Timor-Leste is actually the freest state in the region”
China has been able to drastically reduce poverty rates in only a few decade’s time, without having to organize these fearsome elections. The dogma that you need a multi-party system to be a prosperous country seems to be false. Then why should Southeast Asian regimes care about it?
Moreover, the state leaders hardly notice any disapproval from their neighbours. There is the loose-tight partnership ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations). But the ten member states basically do not interfere in each other’s domestic politics, to avoid being criticised for their own human rights violations.
Humanitarian crisis in Myanmar
This lack of decisiveness became painfully clear in the spring of 2021 when the countries, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, gathered to discuss the situation in member state Myanmar.
In February, the army staged a coup there, resulting in bloody protests. ASEAN wanted to condemn violence against civilians in a compromise text.
Coup perpetrator Min Aung Hlaing sat at the table on behalf of his country. The head of the government, Aung San Suu Kyi, was captured by the junta after she had won the elections and did not receive an invitation.
Eventually, the meeting resulted in a 5-Point Consensus, without a clear timing and without agreements on political prisoners. The junta has recently pardoned the now 78-year-old Aung San Suu Kyi on five legal charges, meaning her 33-year jail term will be reduced by six years.
But various ethnic armed groups are still fighting the army stubbornly to this day.
Like father, like son
Accurate reporting on Myanmar is difficult because the fieldwork for journalists is downright dangerous. But the press is also being restricted in other Southeast Asian countries.
In the Philippines, former President Duterte revoked a broadcasting license held by ABS-CBN. The country’s largest broadcast company now works as a content creator but has lost much of its advertising revenue during the past three years.
Critics say this attack on press freedom is maintained by current president Marcos Junior. Important detail: ABS-CBN had already been shut down in the 1970s, during the reign of his father.
Dictator Ferdinand Marcos senior led an authoritarian regime for twenty years in which thousands were killed and billions of dollars of state money were said to have disappeared. He was finally ousted from power during a popular uprising in 1986. The impressive shoe collection, owned by his wife Imelda, symbolized his family’s exuberant wealth.
Last year, son ‘Bong Bong’ Marcos was elected as the new president of the Philippines. So far, according to independent journalist Joshua Kurlantzick, there is little sign of the promised ‘change’.
Kurlantzick works for think tank Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and wrote the predictive blog post “Why democracy in Southeast Asia will worsen in 2023” late last year.
Solid democracy in Indonesia
In an interview with IPS, he says the crackdown on independent media in Southeast Asia is getting worse. “There are very few even semi-democracies left in a region where democracy was once on the rise, and tiny Timor-Leste is actually the freest state in the region”.
Indonesia is also seen as a solid democracy, although it is very unclear what next year’s presidential elections will bring.
Current president Joko Widodo has to make way after two terms in office. Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto is one of the presidential candidates. He has been linked to the killings of activists and journalists and has already made clear he doesn’t value democracy so much.
“Prabowo could cancel the many local and regional elections that have become the lifeblood of Indonesia’s highly successful program of democratic decentralization to consolidate power in himself”, Kurlantzick says.
The LGBTQIA+ community in Indonesia is also holding its breath. In an opinion article, gay rights activist Dede Oetomo points out that “morality is an important battleground for Islamist politicians”.
President Widodo has always been able to maintain a balance, but Oetomo fears there will be more prohibitions in the near future, including a ban on same-sex intercourse.
“Resistance in the streets and at the Constitutional Court are the best ways forward to preserve democracy in Indonesia”, he concludes.
Sexual orientation issues are also stirring up emotions in other countries. Last month, a gig by the British pop-rock band ‘The 1975′ in Kuala Lumpur was cut short. Singer Matty Healy criticized the Malaysian law, which prohibits homosexuality, and then kissed his bassist. Subsequent concerts by the band in Indonesia and Taiwan have been cancelled.
“LGBTQIA+ rights are certainly benchmarks for democracy”, says Belgian researcher Bart Gaens in an interview with IPS. He teaches at the University of Helsinki, with an expertise in EU-Asia relations. “However, the question is whether external criticism such as the protest by ‘The 1975’ does any good”, Gaens adds.
He believes change can only be gradual and has to happen from within, for example through vibrant civil societies. “Along with democratic backsliding including in the US and elsewhere, Southeast Asian countries are now even more hesitant to accept external criticism”, he says.
Widespread homophobia and transphobia, and increasing bashing of ‘mainstream media’ can certainly be seen as symptoms of this global downturn Gaens mentions.
However, a key point needs to be added. Supporters of Trump in the US and of the former French presidential candidate Zemmour are mainly democracy-weary.
They prefer a strong autocratic leader over endless debates within a politically correct parliament or in-depth journalism with strong and valid arguments.
In the Western world, the system seems worn out and frayed. In Southeast Asia it has never been able to fully develop.
This article is the second in a series about declining democracy in Southeast Asia, read the first part here.