This past week’s serious challenges to democracy in Indonesia, on the heels of what had been a successful presidential election in July, should serve as a reminder that, while the region has made strides since the 1980s and early 1990s, democracy is far from entrenched in Southeast Asia, notes Council on Foreign Relations Asia analyst Joshua Kurlantzick.
Retrograde forces, like the coalition of politicians allied with Prabowo Subianto in Indonesia, continue to stand in the way of democratic reforms. In some Southeast Asian nations, such as Thailand and Malaysia, anti-democratic forces have been highly successful in reversing progress toward democratization. Malaysia has regressed from the cusp of democratization to a more repressive state, and one in which unelected sultans, many of them totally unfit for leadership, are again wielding major political power.
Thailand, which in the 1990s was considered one of the success stories of democratization throughout the developing world, now is run by a coup government building a cult of personality around coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha and implementing as draconian laws as the brutal Thai regimes of the 1950s and early 1960s. (Tyrell Haberkorn of Australian National University has written incisively about how the current Thai junta has copied many of the methods and laws of the 1950s- and 1960s-era juntas.) Myanmar has regressed from the reforms of 2012 and 2013, while Vietnam has continued to crack down harshly on dissent, following four years of intense crackdowns. This week in Hong Kong, where nearly all public demonstrations have for decades gone on peacefully, security forces unleashed a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy activists.
What role does the U.S. pivot to Asia, which has been more effectively implemented in Southeast Asia than in the rest of the region, play in this democratic regression in Southeast Asia? Has it played any role at all? I am currently in the midst of research on the pivot and I have some conclusions—I do think the Obama administration’s engagement with Southeast Asia, though in some ways positive, has facilitated democratic regression. It is of course not the sole factor responsible for democratic regression in the region, but it has played a role.
How so? ……….