The Future of Democracy in Southeast Asia

4 mins read

By Jakob Ranglin Grissler

The ongoing military coup in Myanmar has drawn the world’s attention to the state of democracy in Southeast Asia and is another proof that the “end of history” that Francis Fukuyama predicted in the 1990s is still far beyond the horizon. The democratic victory of the once again imprisoned Nobel peace prize laureate Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s party back in 2015 was seen as a sign that the region was tilting toward democracy. Yet, the recent events run counter to determinist notions of democracy as an inevitable final destination. From the so-called “democratic third wave” in 1986 until 2015, only five out of 18 countries in Southeast Asia turned democratic, and the region has seen a downward trend in democracy indexes in recent years. Thus, in Southeast Asia, one of the fastest growing regions in the world, democracy is still being disputed. This raises the question what impediments there are for Southeast Asian democratic progression.

In a region where democracy is not considered an undisputed necessity, Western populism, Brexit, and Donald Trump’s presidential tenure have not done much for strengthening its brand. Now that Joe Biden is president, he has called for a “Summit for Democracy” in order to “renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the Free World.” While a proactive democratic convention certainly is not unwelcome, Biden’s initiative has been met with some skepticism. An article by the Council on Foreign Relations welcomes the move but cautions that it should be done with “humility rather than hubris”. An opinion article in The Guardian goes further and calls it an “outdated” measure that is likely to continue a failed path that is dividing the world into hostile camps by exercising “confrontation over cooperation”.

Certainly, a democratic bloc of countries led by the US risks being seen with suspicion, as it is reminiscent of Southeast Asia’s history of colonialism. Maiko Ichihara, visiting scholar at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, states that due to a history of imperialism, “whenever the Western democracies bring up the issues of democracy and human rights, it looks like [an] imposition of Western values.” What’s more, post-colonial legacies have also been misappropriated by authoritarian politicians. Among the political elite in Southeast Asia there is still a lingering of the Asian values debate of the 1990s that sought to justify illiberal and anti-democratic practices by proposing the incompatibility of liberal democracy with what was termed “Asian values”. While this trend has faded, it is still being suggested now and then, such as by the Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano in 2017, and it has left a mark on democracy debates in the region.

When looking for alternative models to Western democracies, China’s presence looms large over the region. China’s rapid economic rise has made it an economic model for developing countries to emulate. The model, which has been termed “Beijing consensus” for its role as an alternative to the market-friendly Washington Consensus, has advanced the recognition of China as a political model as well. This has led some Southeast Asian countries to adjust their development strategies from democracy to illiberal politics

China is also omnipresent through its economic impact as the biggest export country to the region and provider of infrastructure through its “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI). This has made balancing of American and Chinese interests a key strategic factor in ensuring economic development. While all of the ASEAN member states partake in the BRI, there is also a great deal of anti-Chinese sentiment. The BRI is often used as a mean to ensure economic development and thereby political legitimacy to the respective national governments, but disapproval of the BRI projects being composed by nearly 90 percent of Chinese contractors is pushing for anti-China governments. The near take-over in 2013 by an anti-China oppositional party in Cambodia sparked Chinese concern and China was heavily involved in ensuring the ruling pro-China party’s reelection in 2018. Southeast Asian countries will therefore need to balance accommodation to China, which constrains their sovereignty, with deterrence, which could harm their economy.

But it is not only external actors such as the US and China that are involved in Southeast Asia’s democratic development. The 2017 persecution of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar revealed the non-interference policy of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and exposed its soft democratic commitments. This was reconfirmed by the association’s refraining from condemning the Myanmar military coup. The ASEAN Charter adheres to democracy, the rule of law, and good governance and the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration stresses democratic rights such as political participation and equal suffrage. Nevertheless, this adherence to democracy has been interpreted as a measure to legitimize the organization and not to be implemented. Instead, freedom of member-states, non-interference and sovereignty are placed higher on the charter’s list and democracy is not a prerequisite for being a member. Thus, the need for economic development through regional economic integration encouraged by the freedom of its member-states appears to be preferred over democratic development.

Yet, there are positive signs of democratic progress. Even though the military coup in Myanmar is a huge leap backwards, the magnitude of the subsequent protests shows that democracy has left an imprint and the anti-government and anti-monarchy protests in Thailand since last year show that democracy is not considered merely as a Western figment to be dismissed. Although China’s economic and political presence in the region is vast, Japan and other democratic powers are counterbalancing China by huge investments, infrastructure, and military cooperation. While China has been boosting an effective corona strategy of sudden lock-downs of entire cities through authoritarian leadership, Taiwan was able to limit its death toll in 2020 to seven people through measures dependent on democratic essentials, such as the open and free distribution of information online. With energetic democracy movements and increasing participation of democratic major powers, the future of democracy in Southeast Asia is not necessarily bound to its recent negative trend, and there are still possibilities for it to become an active democratic region.

Cover photo: Macau Photo Agency

Jakob Ranglin Grissler is a student at Stockholm University’s master’s program in Asian studies and I focus mainly on the social, political, and cultural issues of East Asia. I have studied two years in Osaka, Japan and have a bachelor’s degree in Japanese language and literature from the University of Gothenburg. Last semester I interned at the Institute for Security and Development Policy’s (ISDP) Japan Center.

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