So far, 2016 has been a terrible year for advocates of democracy and human rights in Southeast Asia. The military has tightened its grip on power in Thailand, a draconian security law is back in force in Malaysia, Cambodia is entering a vicious vortex of political violence, and in the Philippines a popular strongman president has turned a blind eye to the killing of hundreds of suspected criminals since he was elected in May.
Admittedly, set against the rise of populist demagogues demanding law and order at the expense of freedom and rights elsewhere in the world, Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar and Joko Widodo in Indonesia could be seen as exemplary models of leadership in emerging democracies. Yet as they consolidate power, both leaders have revealed a troubling insensitivity to human rights concerns and a tendency to accommodate vested interests.
What this tells us is that we cannot take for granted the trajectory of political development in the region. The concentration of power and the protection of narrow elite interests remains a prevailing consideration of government, no matter how they were elected.
Of course, this is precisely the reason legions of voters in Europe and the U.S. have become disillusioned and are rejecting established parties and their leaders. The challenge for the people of Southeast Asia is that it is hard to register their concerns: freedom of expression and popular sovereignty remain bridled and constrained.
Although social media widely broadcasts calls for change and accountability, these demands mostly fall like spent bullets on the tough armour that strong, overly centralized states have adapted to modern democratic norms.
Eroding democratic space
On Aug. 7, millions of Thai voters will be offered a chance to vote for a new constitution they know next to nothing about because the military government has all but banned campaigning and open debate about a draft charter that dilutes rights and allows for individuals to rise to political office without being elected. Even if voters reject the constitution, which is doubtful given voter apathy and ignorance, the military is set to remain in power with the freedom to simply write its own set of rules.
The articulate and popular Cambodian activist Kem Ley was a vocal critic of corruption and cronyism in his country: in mid-July, he as gunned down as he drank his morning coffee in the middle of Phnom Penh. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is facing a growing chorus for change after more than 30 years in power. More than 100,000 people thronged to Kem Lay’s funeral in the capital. But rather than yield to change, Hun Sen, it is feared, will use intimidation and violence to cling to power.
Malaysia is perhaps the most glaring example of the troubled politics that is eroding democratic space in the region. Prime Minister Najib Razak came to power in 2009 promising reforms of the authoritarian clamps on freedom in the country; he also vowed to forge a “One Malaysia” out of the country’s divided racial and religious communities. But when his legitimacy was called into question after revelations that billions of dollars were misused or went missing from a development fund he managed, Najib veered sharply off the path of reform and began shoring up his position using the tools of despotism and division.
A tough new security law that comes into force in August allows Malaysians to be detained without charge on the word of a police inspector, and for the government to suspend all basic rights in designated security zones, ostensibly to combat terrorism. Yet the government itself has provided a conducive environment for the incubation of violent extremism by supporting a conservative Islamic agenda in a bid to undermine and divide the opposition.
To be sure, there has been measurable democratic progress in Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines. People in these countries freely chose their leaders and broadly approve of the policies they are pursuing. Outwardly, Widodo in Indonesia and Rodrigo “Rody” Duterte in the Philippines have projected their close links with the people, reflecting their wishes for more humble, hardworking leadership that addresses popular concerns about tackling corruption and running a government for all.
But the reality is that those who go up against the entrenched self-interest of established oligarchy in Southeast Asia either have to accommodate these interests or face removal at the hand of undemocratic forces.
So it was with Thaksin Shinawatra, the first popularly-elected prime minister of Thailand, who devised policies to deliver social and financial security to millions of Thais living in poor rural areas. But this great leveling exercise, much-needed in a country where the top 10% of families control more than 50% of the wealth, upset the rich elites who control the vast majority of wealth and are mostly clustered in Bangkok around a conservative palace establishment. So Thaksin was removed.
After two military coups and a succession of unelected governments over the past decade, Thaksin remains wildly popular in rural north and northeastern Thailand, and his political party wins every reasonably fair election, yet he is barred from returning to the country and democracy has been suspended.
Will the same fate befall Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar, where the powerful military has retreated from the political arena but still holds the constitutional keys that would allow her to assume full executive power? Can Duterte continue insisting that he is listening to the “murmurings of the people” if he depends on the largesse and political clout of powerful oligarchs to stay in power?
Judging from the trajectory of Widodo’s presidency over the past two years, it is hard to stay the course as a populist leader without succumbing to vested interests and sliding on reforms.
The small city mayor who campaigned on a platform of clean, hard working government faced the reality of power in Indonesia almost as soon as he was elected. On his watch so far, the once powerful anti-corruption agency has been cowed, a coterie of conservative former generals stack key positions in his cabinet, and ministers determined to pursue investor-friendly reforms have been removed and replaced with people more amenable to vested interests.
The path of reform in Indonesia is littered with trade-offs that well-meaning leaders like Widodo and his predecessor Bambang Yudhoyono were forced to make with conservatives in order to survive. Most glaring of all was Widodo’s appointment to a powerful cabinet position in July of retired General Wiranto. A former armed forces commander under President Soeharto, a United Nations tribunal indicted Wiranto for crimes against humanity after he presided over the deaths of as many as 2,000 civilians in East Timor when the Indonesian army withdrew in 1999.
The inability of elected leaders to execute the changes voters want speaks to the gaping void between popular aspirations and the political reality that persists in Southeast Asia. Social and economic empowerment and the remarkable penetration of social media in the region has nevertheless opened people’s eyes to the folly of leaders governing using archaic practices designed to sustain the power and privilege of the few.
What is missing is an effective platform for mobilizing these forces for change and then rallying together at election time. Regressive governments of this region can rely on societies that are still divided by class, race and religion. They harness crude nationalism and jingoism to keep the international community at bay. The answer is for people in these countries to seize the initiative and forge popular movements that unite weak progressive civil society groups and enlightened political actors. This has started happening in Thailand, but has a long way to go in Malaysia.
In Myanmar last November, voters demonstrated the power of the ballot box in demanding change. Cambodians are likely to do the same in local elections next year. There is hope, but the price will be high as those wielding hard power will not go without a fight.
First published in Asia Nikkei Review, 1 August 2016