The Tide Goes out on Southeast Asian Democracy

What has gone wrong in Southeast Asia? Between the late 1980s and the late 2000s, writes Josh Kurlantzick, a Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia at the US-based Council on Foreign Relations, many countries in the region were viewed by global democracy analysts and Southeast Asians themselves, as leading examples of democratization in the developing world.

By the late 2000s, Kurlantzick writes in in a 35-page working paper for the Council, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore all were ranked as “free” or “partly free” by the monitoring organization Freedom House, while Cambodia and, perhaps most surprisingly, Myanmar had both taken sizable steps toward democracy as well.

Yet, he points out, “Since the late 2000s, Southeast Asia’s democratization has stalled and, in some of the region’s most economically and strategically important nations, gone into reverse.”

Kurlantzick has a good point. That includes most spectacularly Thailand, which in recent weeks has suffered its 12th successful coup and a dramatic crackdown on free speech. Malaysia’s Barisan Nasional has been using the courts in bogus attempts to jail opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and, before he was killed in a car wreck, Democratic Action Party leader Karpal Singh. Cambodia held an election in Jly 2013 that was almost certainly won by the opposition, but a vicious crackdown kept dictator Hun Sen narrowly in charge.

Myanmar, after showing early promise, has regressed as the military has faced the threat to its position of power and condoned racial violence against minorities in the western region of the country. Singapore continues to use its court system to keep dissent in line, most lately with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong threatening suit against a blogger despite an abject apology and removal of the offending item.

That leaves the Philippines and Indonesia on track, although graft and public distrust of democratic institutions hamper their own systems.

“Southeast Asia’s rollback from democracy reflects a worrying global retrenchment toward anti-democratic political change,” Kurlantzick writes. “The implications of this regression from democracy are significant. On a human level, the regression from democracy means that, compared to a decade ago, more of the world’s people are living today under authoritarian or hybrid, semi-authoritarian regimes. People living under authoritarian rule are more likely to have shorter and less healthy lives, as shown by indicators of human development. “

Kurlantzick’s paper builds on the topic of his most recent book, Democracy in Retreat (Yale University Press, 2013), which identifies forces that threaten democracy and shows that conventional wisdom has blinded world leaders to the ongoing crisis.

There is too much at stake for the United States to ignore this regression, given attempts by the US and Japan to counterbalance China’s increasing belligerence in the South China Sea and the US push to create a massive Trans-Pacific trade partnership that would become the world’s biggest free trade zone.

But despite lip service to democracy, especially pointed at China, the biggest player in the region, the US government, presumably the world’s staunchest advocate of democratic ideals, has in practice largely ignored this regression. In fact, in most cases, it appears the administration’s attention to the enforcement of democratic ideals is mainly aimed at non-treaty allies.

As Kurlantzick points out, the Bush administration immediately sent US diplomats to meet with the perpetrators of the 2006 coup in Thailand. The Obama administration, which promised a more active stance, mostly has ignored growing climates of repression in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar while pursuing closer military and strategic ties with these nations. With Cambodia, the administration launched small-scale joint military exercises and provided training to Cambodian forces from US Special Forces; the Pentagon also facilitated the Hun Sen’s son’s attendance at West Point.

Under Obama, the United States also has begun exchanging defense attachés with Laos, and has launched training programs for a handful of Lao officers. The White House also inked a comprehensive partnership with Vietnam in 2013 that would pave the way for increased economic and military cooperation; although human rights were mentioned as part of the partnership, they were given a low priority.

“Stronger democratic governments, including those in Southeast Asia, usually can deliver the kind of long-term economic liberalization critical to foreign investment, since these economic reforms are not just implemented by fiat. If this democratic rollback continues, it is likely to seriously endanger American security cooperation in East Asia, undermine the region’s growth and economic interdependence, and cause serious political unrest, even insurgencies, in many Southeast Asian nations.”

Despite the fact that the Malaysian government appears to be actively encouraging a strident racial policy of Malay intimidation of the Chinese and Indian minorities, that the leading political party is deeply mired in corruption and that it is actively seeking to jail the opposition leader on bogus charges, Obama publicly applauded the prime minister as an enlightened reformer.

Many Southeast Asian leaders and foreign observers praised countries in the region as an example to others. “Thailand’s freedom, openness, strength, and relative prosperity make it a role model in the region for what people can achieve when they are allowed to,” Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly declared in 2002.

“Today, few people are touting democracy in Southeast Asia as a democratic success story,” Kurlantzick writes. Thailand’s politics are inherently unstable and its climate of civil and human rights has deteriorated badly. Malaysia’s regression has been less violent, but no less sharp. Although the opposition won the popular vote in the 2013 parliamentary elections, the BN coalition held on to power through intimidation, electoral fraud, and gerrymandering.

Leaders in other Southeast Asian nations have tended to see democracy as little more than elections — zero-sum games in which electoral winners should gain near-dictatorial powers, Kurlantzick writes. Nascent judicial and bureaucratic institutions have been too weak to control these leaders’ ambitions. Yet many of these leaders also have proven savvy and effective politicians, especially in catering to the large numbers of poor in Southeast Asian countries, many of which remain highly unequal.

While NATO and other treaty organizations have played a role in fostering democracy in Europe and Eastern Europe, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) has played very little role in addressing the region’s human rights crises and in fact simply ignored satrapies such as Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam while recruiting them as new members. Since the association operates by consensus, these new members can block the organization form making statements, and has.

Although China’s improvement of ties to Southeast Asia in the 1990s and 2000s was not based on Beijing dissuading countries from democratizing—China built close ties with Thailand, formerly one of the freer countries in the region, just as it also developed a close relationship with Myanmar, then the most repressive country in the region—China’s increasing influence did have an effect on the region’s democratization.

Now comes the Obama administration’s “pivot.” Although the administration planned to offer a sharp contrast to the Bush administration, in fact its policies on human rights and democracy in Southeast Asia have changed little, Kurlantzick writes. Although the renewed American attention to Southeast Asia is welcome, the administration appears convinced that, in order to forge new connections, such as military to military ties with Cambodia and a broad range of new cooperation with Myanmar, it has had to ignore Southeast Asia’s regression from democracy and pare back rhetorical and on-the-ground democracy promotion efforts.

In Myanmar, where the Obama White House has invested significant political capital restarting relations with the country and convincing Congress to go along, and where the country’s strategic value and enormous untapped market make it a potential prize, this see-no-evil strategy has been the most pronounced.

As western Myanmar has degenerated into widespread interreligious violence—violence allegedly abetted by the military—the White House has continued to push military cooperation with Myanmar. President Obama hosted Thein Sein in Washington in 2013 and invited Myanmar army officers to join Cobra Gold, the Pentagon-led joint exercises that include Thailand, Singapore, and other Southeast Asian nations, before the current Thai coup caused the US to cancel its military relationship to Thailand.

The regression of democracy in Southeast Asia has significant implications for people in the region, for regional security, for economic development, and for the United States’ strategic interests. At the most basic level, this democratic rollback has human consequences.

For civil society in Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, and several other Southeast Asian nations, the democracy crisis has meant increasing crackdowns on journalists, human rights lawyers, opposition politicians, bloggers, activists, and religious leaders. Human Rights Watch has found that in the past three years, attacks on human rights defenders have risen sharply internationally, and that civil society groups have been increasingly threatened across the developing world.

The fact that this rise coincided with a democratic rollback was hardly coincidental—the weakening of democratic protections in many countries has left rights activists exposed.

The United States, though challenged by other powers in Asia in a way it was not two decades ago, still will play a critical role in Southeast Asia’s political trajectory. Despite the rise of China—and, in fact, partly because of China’s rise—the United States remains the preferred strategic and diplomatic partner of most nations in Southeast Asia, including those, like Vietnam, with which the United States has major differences over human rights. Yet for the United States, fostering democratic change in the region will require shifting the mindset in Washington as well—recognizing that democracies in Southeast Asia will, over time, prove the best strategic partners, even if in the short-term democracy can create populist and nationalist pressures that sometimes complicate bilateral relationships. This mindset shift will also require understanding that the United States still has more leverage to foster democracy in Southeast Asia than some in Washington currently believe. Using that leverage will help endear the United States to rising generations in Southeast Asia, and ensure that the United States’ partnerships with the region last well into the twenty-first century.