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The Democratic Rollback in Southeast Asia

The Democratic Rollback in Southeast Asia


Southeast Asia’s youngest and poorest country, Timor-Leste, went to the polls on Saturday in the second round of parliamentary elections that will determine their next government as well as whether UN peacekeepers might be able to leave the country by year’s end.

According to the World Bank, nearly half of the country’s 1.1 million people live in poverty, making it not just Southeast Asia’s poorest, but one of the world’s poorest as well. The saddest part of that statistic is that Timor-Leste has a wealth of natural resources — specifically oil and natural gas — in its territory. Current estimates suggests that Dili has in excess of $10 billion in its reserve Petroleum Fund. So where does all that money go? Presumably, into the private bank accounts of the few individuals staked with the privileged of having to govern this mess.

Perhaps the people will vote for a change in leadership. The vote has the potential to oust Prime Minster Xanana Gusmao of the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction Party (CNRT). Gusmao, a former independence hero, has promised more public works projects as his main talking point on the stump. The opposition party, Fretilin, is a far-left entity promoting a populist message.

Irrespective of how this vote turns out, if developments in other states in the region are any indication, it won’t be long before we see that the only thing democratic about this whole charade is the vote itself. Democracy has been significantly rolled back in Southeast Asia over the past several years. It’s a troubling trend but one which provides valuable insights and lessons into the difficulties of maintaining good governance in this part of the world.

Take Thailand for example. Joshua Kurlantzick, Southeast Asia fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, put together a succinct summary of the last decade of political upheaval in the Kingdom for Foreign Policy a few weeks ago:

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Bangkok’s Democracy Monument, a towering series of spires looking toward the sky, located on the central avenue in the older part of the city, was a lively area for street life. Outdoor vendors selling phat kii maw and other noodle dishes jostled for business with watermelon and jackfruit sellers while yuppies sat at the cafes and fast-food outlets surrounding the monument. Like the events that inspired the monument itself, which memorializes the end of absolute monarchy in the 1930s, Thailand’s political system seemed to be settling down.

Over the past six years, however, Democracy Monument and the area around it have come to look far different. As protests and riots have incessantly plagued the Thai capital, outbreaks of violence, and military repression of demonstrations, around the monument have, at times, left dead bodies lying just in front of it, blood splattered on the nearby pavement, and angry demonstrators armed with Molotov cocktails laying waste to the surrounding streets. An informal shrine has sprung up in a place where the brains of one protester were splashed after security forces shot him two years ago.

The article proceeds to highlight the main actors of the drama as well as the specific turning points which have hurtled Thailand down the path that it has taken and is, indeed, still on. Former Prime Minister and lightning rod for controversy Thaksin Shinawatra was democratically elected due to support from the poor, rural majority. But students of politics know that simply having a free and fair vote does not a democracy make. There needs to be safeguards in place to deal with corruption. There needs to be transparency, good governance, an active and free media, and a vibrant civil society. All things which have had divaricating degrees of rollbacks both under Thaksin and the opposition (and ironically named) Democrat Party.

Ditto in Malaysia, where police recently cracked down violently on tens of thousands of protesters in the streets of Kuala Lumpur who have grown increasingly disenchanted with the country’s archaic electoral system.

It is a similar situation in Cambodia. Fellow FPA blogger Scott Bleiweis and myself recently tackled the issue of democracy in Cambodia. Strongman Hun Sen has been in charge for two decades, and recent commune elections further cemented his Cambodian People’s Party as the strongest one in the country. However, the scale of corruption in Cambodia is endemic, afflicting all sectors of society from politicians, the military, and the police. Scott and I came to the conclusion that although Hun Sen retains broad political support, calling it democracy would be incredibly dubious. Democracy is a sham in this country where protesters are routinely shot and killed for airing their grievances from everything from working conditions to government approved and authorized land grabs.

To the north and east, the governments of neighboring Laos and Vietnam are run by overtly communist regimes. The latest elections in the Philippines, held in 2010, were described by one writer as being “tainted with violence, vote-buying, voter intimidation, massive cheating, ballot tampering and other forms of electoral corruption.” And although democracy is gaining traction in Burma, it is still a long way off from what could be considered standard. Most Burma watchers I talk to remaining skeptical of the motives and interests of the former ruling junta and preach caution before declaring this longtime dictatorship out of the woods.

Indonesia is considered the regions’ strongest democracy; indeed, after years of brutal military dictatorship, Indonesia’s turnaround has been remarkable. Economically as well, it is enjoying a time of unprecedented growth. However, its military still has a negative reputation, and its behavior in West Papua has been called a genocide by the Yale Law School. That certainly is no synonym of democracy.

The empirical statistics above are to be analyzed as a major blow to democracy in this war scarred part of the world. In the post-Cold War era, there was a sense of hope that the time had come when Southeast Asia would emerge from the scars of being used as a proxy battleground for the US and USSR. And after the horrors of the Cold War, where many of these states were plunged into  civil wars (Vietnam), secret wars (Laos), genocide (Cambodia), or experience political repression (Indonesia, the Philippines), there was cause for much optimism. However, that optimism is long gone now.

There is no doubt there has been a significant democratic rollback here. Many people speak of “the Asian way” as a preferable means of conducting politics. But the track record of democracy in Southeast Asia over the last decade suggests that may not be the case.



Tim LaRocco

Tim LaRocco is an adjunct professor of political science at St. Joseph's College in New York. He was previously a Southeast Asia based journalist and his articles have appeared in a variety of political affairs publications. He is also the author of "Hegemony 101: Great Power Behavior in the Regional Domain" (Lambert, 2013). Tim splits his time between Long Island, New York and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Twitter: @TheRealMrTim.