Democracy Collapses into Repression in Southeast Asia
Region’s promise for participatory government is lost as governments opt for clampdowns
Suddenly, over recent weeks, Southeast Asia has seen the collapse or perversion of participatory democracy in virtually every country but Indonesia as leaders have suspended legislatures, arrested common citizens and opposition lawmakers, gone after student leaders and shot and killed growing numbers of activists and protesters. There seem almost no exceptions.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. In the 1970s and 1980s, these countries, some of them known as the “tiger economies” for their exceptional growth rates, were all expected to vault into the middle range and, one assumes, to see their politics and their approach to human rights liberalize as their economies did. The past few weeks show how hollow those hopes were. And these events have ultimately shown up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as what it is – a toothless organization all of whose leaders are pretty much in on the bonfire.
Regionally, with China exhibiting no concerns about human rights, and performing as the major trading partner for every country, there is no pressure for any country to pay attention to human rights. China wants to be left alone to do what it pleases domestically when it comes to treatment of ethnic groups including Uyghurs and Tibetans, so it is a bedrock principle that it will not criticize the brutality of others. The US and EU are far away and less economically relevant all the time.
“Quite clearly, respect for democracy and human rights in Southeast Asia is in full retreat across the board, raising fundamental concerns about whether dictatorships and military coups will become the new norm for the region,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Southeast Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “A contributing factor has been the Covid-19 pandemic, which proved to be the perfect rationale for authoritarians to seize more control while at the same time suppressing free expression and public demonstrations with hollow appeals to public health concerns.”
In the midst of all this, as Robertson said, “the ASEAN Charter, with its references to upholding democracy, rights and good governance, has been exposed as a fraud because it is not able to stand up to the old 'go along to get along' rules of non-interference in member states' affairs. A quick survey across the region shows that every single ASEAN member state is seriously violating the Charter in one way or another -- which raises the fundamental question of why the US, the EU and others suddenly think that ASEAN is going to rush to the rescue to respond to Myanmar's military coup and bloody crackdown on protesters. Waiting on respect for rights and democracy in ASEAN is like waiting for Godot.”
The worst, of course, is in Myanmar, where the military reacted to an 85 percent vote against them in the November elections and staged a coup. Since the February 1 abrogation of the country’s admittedly faulty parliamentary machinery, at least 60 people have been killed by security forces according to the UN Human Rights Office, although other reports put the figure much higher. Widespread rebellion, with civil disobedience ranging from government workers to doctors to corporate officers, is being met with bullets. A government in exile continues the rebellion.
On the evening of March 6, 2021, witnesses saw soldiers and police arrive at the home of Khin Maung Latt, 58, a ward chairman in downtown Yangon. Witnesses said security forces beat and kicked Khin Maung Latt in front of his family, then took him away at gunpoint. The next morning, the family recovered his body from a hospital after notification by the authorities. The body had severe wounds to the hands and back and was covered in a bloody shroud, a witness said.
In the Philippines, police and military personnel gunned down activists and arrested six others on March 6 after President Rodrigo Duterte urge security forces to “kill them, kill them.” The raids appeared to have nothing to do with operations meant to arrest alleged communist New People’s Army rebels identified in search warrants issued by two Manila courts. Those killed were hardly comdbatants. They were executed.
In Thailand, faced with a youth movement that refuses to go away or accept the plainly-cooked results of the most recent election, the government has continued to escalate its repression of basic rights. As protests have spread across the county over the past months, the government has responded by cracking down on protest leaders, charging more than 100 of them with illegal assembly, violating Covid-19 related restrictions, and sedition.
In Cambodia, the government has passed draconian laws and arbitrarily detained more than 60 activists, journalists, and political opposition members in the past year. The authorities have continued to prohibit Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy, leaders of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), from participating in political activity. Using the global pandemic as an excuse Prime Minister Hun Sen has stepped up his repression of critics and activists and adopt more draconian laws.
In Malaysia, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, faced with a parliamentary revolt that could bring down his government, appealed to the king to call an emergency over the coronavirus that critics said was nothing more than a thinly veiled excuse to keep the opposition at bay while the premier tries to add to his razor-thin majority. Parliament is suspended until at least August, with representative government in abeyance.
And, bringing up the rear in Singapore, in mid-February, activist Jovolan Wham was fined S$8,000 after pleading guilty to three charges over a remarkably placid illegal public assembly held on MRT trains more than three years ago in which he and other protesters put on blindfolds fashioned from trash bags and held up copies of a book about Operation Spectrum, in which police in the 1980s arrested 20-odd youths and accused them baselessly of being Marxists. Amnesty International said Wham “has been convicted solely for peacefully exercising his human rights and his efforts to highlight issues including detention without trial and the continued use of the death penalty. His conviction follows the recent arrest of three activists for a peaceful protest held on LGBTI rights, a further effort by the government to crush freedom of expression,” according to Human Rights Watch. It is hardly the first demonstration of the petty use of power against even mildly rebellious citizens.
None of this apparently is of major concern to Kishore Mahbubani, a former Singaporean diplomat who has fashioned a late-stage career as a critic of the west and apologist for Asian political, diplomatic and governmental foibles whose writing on the decline of the west appears in august publications. Writing on March 6 in the Singapore government-dominated Straits Times, ASEAN, he said “is imperfect. It has setbacks from time to time. The recent coup in Myanmar was a huge setback. Clearly, it will be difficult for Asean to reverse the coup.”
A mere bagatelle, apparently. Inevitably, he wrote, “we will see once again the resurfacing of the usual schadenfreude in the Western media about the weakness and ineffectiveness of Asean. Asean will be condemned or criticized for not expelling Myanmar or imposing sanctions on it. Since many Singaporeans are prisoners of Western media perspectives, they too will inherit this Western disrespect for Asean.”
Asean, he said, “will never abandon Myanmar. Hence, Asean should not be troubled by Western public moralizing on Myanmar. Indeed, it may be helpful, if it is able to convince the Myanmar generals that the coup will not work.” We will see when the convincing starts.
(See related story: Myanmar Crisis: ASEAN Reliability’s Final Test)
The general unwillingness of international and regional organisations to live up to the standards of values the organisations preach is appalling. The United Nations and ASEAN are demonstrating that bullies and violators of universally accepted norms of political governance is acceptable. The erosion of legitimacy of regional and international organisations among the citizens of the world is understandable.