For Asean at 50, the fate of democracy hangs on the failings of its strongman leaders

Mark R. Thompson says its brief foray into openness over, Asean appears to have returned to being a bloc of ‘strong leaders’, with democracies breaking down or becoming highly illiberal. Cronyism and incompetence among its strongmen is the only hope

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 December, 2017, 5:13pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 December, 2017, 7:18pm

Cambodian strongman Hun Sen held an elaborate religious ceremony in Angkor Wat earlier this month, lauding “political stability” in the country in an attempt to legitimise his rule after banning the major opposition party. It was ­further evidence that the 50th anniversary celebrations of Asean were not going entirely according to plan.

The success of the 10-nation bloc had been celebrated just months earlier by the influential Singaporean academic Kishore Mahbubani, who saw in it reason for optimism amid “troubled times” around the globe, because the Association of Southeast Asian Nations had brought “peace and prosperity” to a region that was once plagued by poverty and conflict.

Yet there have been plenty of negative headlines about Southeast Asian countries during Asean’s semicentennial – the ethnic cleansing of over 600,000 Rohingya in Myanmar, the bloody “war on drugs” in the Philippines, the jailing of the Christian and ethnic Chinese former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja “Ahok” Purnama on flimsy blasphemy charges, and “kleptocratic” rule in Malaysia (as even US attorney general Jeff Sessions characterised it earlier two weeks ago).

Ahok’s trial seen as a test for religious tolerance in Indonesia

Mahbubani pointed to the role of former “strong leaders” in holding the regional organisation together – president Suharto of Indonesia, Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohammed, and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew (omitting another key but unsavoury ex-leader, Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos).

Subsequently, however, Asean enjoyed its own “democratic spring”, with important elite groups joining the opposition to dictatorship to restore good governance, as in the overthrow of Marcos in a display of Philippine “people power” in 1986, Thailand’s 1992 “black May” uprising, “reformasi” demonstrations that toppled Suharto in 1998, with similar protests against Mahathir a year later. Most surprising of all, the Myanmese military ­allowed competitive elections in 2015 after decades in power.

But then, in one country after ­another, elites began turning against the democracies they had been instrumental in establishing.

1MDB scandal: thousands join ‘anti-kleptocracy’ rally in Malaysia to oust PM Najib

Today, only ­Indonesia remains a liberal democracy, albeit one threatened by ­Islamic militants who have targeted not only Christian ethnic Chinese like Ahok but also non-mainstream Muslim groups and sexual minorities. Moderate outsider Joko Widodo narrowly won the 2014 presidential election against the ­illiberal populist Prabowo Subianto, Suharto’s former son-in-law and one of his most brutal generals. But a prospective alliance of ultranationalist populist elites and Islamist radicals may put Indonesian democracy in grave danger in the 2019 polls.

Indonesia was supposed to be embracing freedom. What happened?

Just two decades ago, Thailand appeared to be the most promising ­democracy in the region, adopting a liberal constitution designed to end military intervention. But Thaksin Shinawatra’s landslide electoral victory in 2001 and self-aggrandising rule angered members of the traditional elite, who opposed him in the name of upholding the moral values of king, nation and religion.

Responding to this challenge, Thaksin wooed urban poor and ­upcountry voters, helping local villages, introducing universal health care and, under his sister’s tenure, subsidising prices for the rice crop. Unable to beat him at the ballot box, Thaksin’s pro-royalist ­opponents used corruption charges to mobilise the middle class against him, paving the way in 2006 for the first of several military interventions.

Thaksin Shinawatra attacks Thai junta

It’s backward democracy’: exiled former Thai PM Thaksin accuses junta of exploiting position

If Thai democracy broke down after promising beginnings, the Philippines has undergone continuous political oscillation.

Invoking “good governance” against a corrupt dictatorship, anti-Marcos elites – the Catholic Church, big business and civil society – backed successful efforts under democratic rule to revive the economy, but these failed to reduce poverty levels significantly.

In one country after ­another, elites began turning against the democracies they had been instrumental in establishing

Joseph Estrada, a cinematic populist, was tagged by middle- and upper-class critics as a lazy and corrupt buffoon relying on star appeal to the poor. They launched a new “people power”-style uprising in early 2001, but this time against a freely elected president still supported by the marginalised majority. Things seemed promising when Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino won the 2010 election, pledging to renew the good governance mission of his mother Cory Aquino after the troubled presidency of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. The tenure of Arroyo, Estrada’s successor, was marred by corruption allegations. But after a major pork barrel scandal, a failed anti-terror operation, crumbling infrastructure, and the sense that crime was out of control, Rodrigo Duterte’s call for “real change” in the 2016 election resonated, particularly among the better-off who felt they had the most to lose.

As president, the once authoritarian mayor from the southern city of Davao has brought his thuggish ways to the national level.

The Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte: saviour or madman?

But Duterte’s bloody drug crackdown has targeted the poor, while drug smuggling, which the president’s son has been accused of facilitating, remains rampant.

Police vigilantes have killed thousands, including minors and a foreign businessman murdered by police ­assigned to the drug war, while holding him for ransom. Duterte’s administration has undermined already fragile checks and balances, making a return to outright dictatorship a real possibility.

Duterte’s war on drugs

Duterte escalates war on critics: human rights agency budget slashed to US$20, chief justice faces impeachment

Only in Myanmar does there seem to have been real democratic progress, with a government under the de facto leadership of former opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. But the military’s brutal treatment of Rohingya Muslims demonstrated it had outmanoeuvred civilian leaders, forced to cede control of security matters and reluctant to defend a minority excised from the country’s national narrative during the generals’ long rule.

Rohingya’s desperate plight shines light on widespread ethnic discrimination across Asean

Academic Larry Diamond speaks of a global “democratic ­recession”. In Southeast Asia, it has been more of a political depression, with democracy breaking down or becoming highly illiberal.

After a brief flirtation with greater openness, Asean seems to have returned to its origins as an ­organisation of “strong leaders”.

Larry Diamond on the ‘globalisation of authoritarianism’

Yet, aside from relatively efficient and corruption-free Singapore (with recently tightening controls on political ­expression, ­despite a very public social media feud in the prime minister’s family), the Thai generals have struggled to manage the economy and set up a stable post-King Bhumibol political order, Prime Minister Najib Razak’s rule remains overshadowed by the worst scandal in Malaysia’s history, and Cambodia’s Hun Sen is clinging to power for the 32nd year, like never-say-die ­dictators such as the recently ­deposed Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

Democracy’s best hope in Southeast Asia seems to be the cronyism and incompetence of regional strongmen.

Mark R. Thompson is a professor in and head of the Department of Asian and International Studies and director of the Southeast Asia Research Centre at the City University of Hong Kong. This article is a condensed version of a talk he gave to the Hong Kong Forum on December 8