by Lindsay Wong
Image: Ah Nyie / Flickr
Though democracy has been heavily promoted and adopted by the majority of Western countries as well as former Western colonies, Asia’s relationship with this system of government is much more complicated. While some countries have always been hostile towards democracy, Southeast Asia has more or less made an effort to embrace democracy in the post-war period. However, in the 21st century, democracy in Southeast Asia has been declining and the region is experiencing multiple coups and protests as governments become more populist and less democratic most notably in Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia. The democratic decline is occurring because government leaders are becoming corrupt and limiting the freedom of citizens to promote their own objectives.
The coup that took place in Myanmar at the start of February 2021 signaled that the fragile democracy that was threatening to crack. It has undoubtedly interrupted the democratic transition after decades of military rule. On February 1st, the army took control of the government and declared a state of emergency for one year. This essentially ended civilian rule and the democracy of the elected government – Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party. Aung San Suu Kyi is known for liberating Myanmar and helping the country transition from a military junta to a partial democracy in the last decade. Army generals alleged that the most recent general elections, held on November 8th, were fraudulent, even though they had no credible evidence to support their claims. The NLD (National League for Democracy) had won by a landslide, demonstrating that the people of Myanmar had chosen democracy to lead their country. However, the takeover by the army put an abrupt end to the fledgling democracy, and the new leaders in power subsequently limited freedom of expression and speech by restricting the Internet, making social media platforms largely inaccessible. Nevertheless, mass protests occurred mostly in the capital. They are fighting for democracy and their rights in the midst of this democratic regression.
Myanmar is in a situation similar to Thailand, in which mass protests had been ongoing since early 2020 and were only interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The ongoing pro-democracy movement is mostly being led by students and the youth, who are protesting against the regime of the Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. He is a former army chief who seized power of the Thai government in 2014 through a military coup – very similar to Myanmar’s current circumstance. Protestors have been calling for his resignation after a few years of military rule that have left them disillusioned and dissatisfied with the state of the country. In the past few years, many activists and critics have mysteriously disappeared and protestors believe that the government is guilty. Furthermore, in 2019, nationwide elections were held for the first time since the military took power. The progressive and pro-democracy Future Forward Party garnered the third-largest number of seats; however, a court essentially forced the party to disband, to the dismay of their followers. Since then, protestors have been fighting for a new constitution, new elections, more civil freedom and an end to the harassment of rights of activists, whse freedom of expression have been severely restricted. The government has made efforts to clamp down on protests, such as issuing an emergency decree that bans rallies, but this has not deterred protestors.
Indonesia is another Southeast Asian country in which democracy has stagnated and then regressed over the years. Its democracy has been in decline ever since the establishment of the New Order in 1998. Within the country, there is a rise of populism, dysfunctional government institutions, and the decline of civil liberties. Due to corrupt leaders in the government and the economy, financial accountability worsened, resulting in less transparency and the declining quality of political parties. Civil societies, non-government organizations, and labor unions have been largely ineffective in the active engagement at the local and regional levels in improving lives. The COVID-19 pandemic caused Indonesians to mistrust the government even more as they withheld information about the scale of the problem. Indonesians took to social media to express their opinions and criticisms, but spokespeople in the government urged them not to. Their freedom of speech and expression are being restricted. As witnessed in other Southeast Asian countries, critics of the government have been detained and there continues to be a lack of transparency. However, there are no offline protests in Indonesia.
Even though democracy is clearly declining in Southeast Asia, citizens are still doing everything they can to push for it and have their voices be heard by leaders, no matter how unwilling those leaders might be. They have banded together, both online and offline in the current climate, to show them that there is power within the masses. If the government listens to the people and civil societies show their support, real change could take place and a democracy could be achieved.