By Joshua Kurlantzick
South and Southeast Asia have demonstrated mixed results in combating the coronavirus pandemic, yet the COVID-19 pandemic has been a political boon for illiberal leaders. (Illiberal leaders undermine open societies and free political systems; they usually still allow elections, but they damage or outright destroy political institutions and norms and attack civil liberties.) These politicians include leaders such as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, elected in free and fair elections, and more autocratic leaders such as Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose elections have been increasingly unfree and unfair. In South and Southeast Asia, illiberal leaders, many of whom are illiberal populists, have used the pandemic as an opportunity to consolidate political and economic power, regardless of whether these actions contribute to actual public health responses.
South and Southeast Asia have had some of the most extreme COVID-19-related democratic regressions in the world. Even before the coronavirus emerged, growing political polarization, illiberal populism and sectarianism, the legacy of authoritarian rule, and the continuing influence of militaries in politics were undermining dem- ocratic politics in these regions. And combating COVID-19 does require some limitations on freedom, at least until an effective vaccine becomes available. In fact, even some longtimedemocracies in devel- oped regions have struggled to balance addressing public health con- cerns and protecting citizens’ freedoms. Meanwhile, as news media worldwide remain focused on the pandemic, democratic regression in developing countries is receivingless attention.
The COVID-19-era consolidation of political influence should be countered to ensure that politicians cannot use the pandemic to permanently amass more power. Across South and Southeast Asia, defenders of democratic norms and institutions should support safe elections and work to ensure that, even if leaders have amassed extensive powers to fight the pandemic, these powers are time-limited and that plans for returning to political normality are in place. In countries where the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths have been relatively low, such as Malaysia and Thailand, supporters of democratic rights and institutions should use street protests, parliamentary sessions, and social media, with appropriate health precautions, to pressure governments. In states that have failed tohandle COVID-19 effectively, oppo- nents should highlight these mistakes and show that limiting political freedoms does notguarantee better public health outcomes.
External actors have a role to play as well. The United States cooperates most effectively in these regions with freer countries, and many illiberal leaders, such as the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, have proved to be mercurial and difficult partners. Leadingdemocracies, which for decades have promoted democratic change in South and Southeast Asia, should highlight flaws in the idea that authoritarian states can better address COVID-19, should support the regions’ democrats, and should push back against efforts byleading autocracies to suggest that authori- tarian rulers, not democracies, are effective at fighting COVID-19.
Backsliding in Motion
South and Southeast Asia’s democratic progress has been in reverse since at least the early 2010s, and COVID-19 has sped up thereversal. In the 1990s and 2000s, Southeast Asia underwent extensive democratization, and, by the early 2010s, countries including East Timor, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and even Cambodia and Myanmar had made substantial political progress. But this progress has faltered.
Despite having been led by civilian and relatively democratic governments for most of the 1990s and 2000s,Thailand saw a military coup in 2014. The junta, when it finally allowed an election in 2019, created an unfair electoral environment: it used constitutional changes and other maneuvering to allow a pro-military party, Palang Pracharat, to win the 2019 election. When the opposition Future Forward Party performed well in the election and continued to draw sizeable popular support after the vote, Thailand’s top court dissolved the party.
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte, elected to a six-year term in 2016, has overseen a bloody drug “war” that has resulted in thou- sands of extrajudicial killings; he has had political opponents and journalists jailed and has undermined the independence of the Supreme Court and other institutions. Overall, by the end of the 2010s, seven ofthe eleven Southeast Asian states were less free than they had been a decade earlier. The exceptions were the tiny East Timor and Singapore; Myanmar, which could hardly become less free than it had been during decades of brutal military rule; and Malaysia, which had its first real transfer of power after an opposition victory in 2018.
In South Asia, too, countries have experienced democratic backsliding over the past decade, although exceptions, such as Bhutan, remain. The government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has attacked freedom of the press, revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy and increased repression in the region, and used a range of questionable legal and financial measures to hamper political opponents. In Jammu and Kashmir, the government has preventively detained an unknown number of politicians and other Kashmiri leaders without filing any charges against them, in moves that appear to violate protections in the Indian constitution.
The Modi government has further undermined independent institutions such as the Reserve Bank of India, the anticorruption ombudsman’s office, and the Supreme Court. In Sri Lanka, the Rajapaksa family now controls the parliament, the presidency, and the military and is implementing anincreasingly illiberal populist majoritarianism, which crushes the rights of minority Muslims and Tamils.
After a presidential election in 2019 and a parliamentary election in 2020 that returned the Rajapaksas to power after five years—they also had ruled Sri Lanka between 2005 and 2015—the Rajapaksas moved quickly to erode checks on their powers and reduce protections for minorities. Soon after it won a two-thirds parliamentary majority in the election, the Rajapaksa government introduced a bill to repeal the nineteenth amendment to the constitution—the amendment had placed limits on the powers of the presidency—thereby giving the presidentextensive new powers.
In Bangladesh, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party have turned a once relatively robust democracy into a de facto one-party state, where opposition leaders are jailed and harassed and the media threatened and cowed into acquiescence. In Nepal,the government has increasingly tried to restrict speech online and taken other steps to circumscribe civil liberties.
Domestic Factors Driving Backsliding
Multiple forces drive democratic backsliding in South and Southeast Asia. In Cambodia, Myanmar, and Nepal, which had had long histories of authoritarianism and civil conflict, democratic institutions and norms remained fragile even in the early 2010s. These institutions, never fully formed, came undone easily. In several other states in these regions, armed forces never fully retreated to thebarracks even in the 1990s and 2000s. Instead, these militaries continued to meddle in politics. While Thailand was the most egregious example of military intervention—the 2014 coup was the twenty-second coup or coup attempt in the kingdom in a century—Indonesia, the Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan, and the Philippines also continued to see military intervention in politics.
Throughout the 2010s in India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, working- and lower middle–class people also became increasingly dissatisfied with traditional parties and politicians, who often came from elite backgrounds and did notsignificantly improve social services or foster greater economic equality. These voters increasingly became attracted to charismatic but illiberal populist leaders, such as former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Modi, Duterte, and the Rajapaksas. These men—and they were all men—promised a tough type of rule, claiming that a strong hand was necessary to break up elite monopolies onpolitical power, fight inequality, improve services, battle crime, and ensure the will of the majority prevailed in politics and society. (Notall of the region’s illiberal leaders are populists, but many of them today are.) However, many of these illiberal populists, who portrayed themselves as political outsiders, were elites themselves, and their policies could take significant tolls on the poor: Thaksin was a billionaire telecommunications tycoon, and Duterte hails from an elite political family. Meanwhile, Duterte draws some of his strongest support from middle- and lower middle–class voters, even though his so-called drug “war” has exacted an outsize toll on thepoor and lower middle class.
Many South and Southeast Asian illiberal populists also have used the region’s rising sectarianism, polarization, and explosion ofsocial media to bolster their political bases and demonize ethnic, religious, and other minority groups, blaming them for entrenched societal problems. The exponential growth of social media use in South and Southeast Asia, where legal restrictions on onlinemisinformation and disinformation are weak, has allowed leaders such as Duterte, Modi, and the Rajapaksas to use social media platforms to spread conspiracy theories; launch vicious attacks on political rivals, judges, reporters, and minorities; and galvanize supporters, particularly with hateful rhetoric about minority groups—Christians in Indonesia, lower-class drug users in the Philippines, and Muslims in India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.24 Some South and Southeast Asian leaders do not use socialmedia to launch the attacks themselves, the way U.S. President Donald J. Trump does. Instead, leaders such as Modi have allowed aproliferation of unchecked online activity by actors supportive of the ruling party, and these actors launch attacks, galvanize supporters,and spread hateful rhetoric.
In the past two decades, much of South and Southeast Asia also has undergone greater political polarization along regional, ethnic, and religious lines. Now, in many South and Southeast Asian countries, partisans increasingly shun the compromise necessary for democracies to function and treat every election as a life-or-death event.Rising polarization reduces the potential for compromise, which is essential for democracies to function.
International Factors Driving Backsliding
Meanwhile, global democratic powers that, between the 1990s and mid-2010s, had criticized South and Southeast Asian leaders for undermining democracy have mostly stayed silent in recent years. Since the mid-2010s, leading democracies such as the United States,Australia, and Japan have become less focused on democracy promotion, both in Asia and globally, as their publics have become lessinternationalist, as these wealthy states have elected leaders who have less interest in democracy promotion, and as these leading democracies themselves have become less democratic.
The Trump administration’s approach to the Indo-Pacific region, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept, theoretically supports promoting freedom throughout South and Southeast Asia. Yet with a few exceptions, such as pushing hard for democracy in Cambodia, the White House has mostly abdicated responsibility on international democracy promotion. The Trump administrationrepeatedly has tried to slash the budget for democracy promotion efforts, though Congress usually has restored these funds. The president himself has built close links with a series of authoritarian leaders including Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, denigrated alliances with democracies such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and had sour relations with many democratic leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel and Canada’s Justin Trudeau. InSoutheast Asia, President Trump has publicly praised the Duterte administration’s bloody and extrajudicial “war” on drugs.
Other leading democracies also have become less focused on democracy promotion, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only added totheir shifts to domestic priorities. In the 1990s and early 2000s, for instance, Japan was a powerful advocate for freer politics inregional states such as Cambodia. But in recent years, Japan, focused on combating China’s regional strategic influence, has paid farless attention to democratic regression in states strategically vital to Tokyo such as Cambodia, Myanmar, and the Philippines. And overall, as Larry Diamond of Stanford University notes in a new study in the journal Democratization, most of the biggestdemocracies, those that belong to the Group of Twenty, have suffered democratic regression themselves in the past fifteen years. With their own democracies regressing,they are often inadequate examples for developing countries and are far less focused on supporting democracy abroad.
As leading democracies have turned inward and become less democratic themselves, authoritarian powers China and Russia have become more active on the global stage. China has supported illiberal leaders across South and Southeast Asia, often stepping in to provide help when democracies criticize or ostracize illiberal leaders. When Thailand’s military overthrew an elected government in 2014, the Barack Obama administration rhetorically criticized Bangkok and imposed sanctions on the coup government. China immediately courted the coup government, demonstrating it would provide rhetorical, military, and economic support—and shore upthe junta. Similarly, when leading democracies pulled funding and monitors from the Cambodian elections in mid-2018 as it became clear they would not be free and fair, China stepped in. It announced a series of new concessional loans and infrastructure projects,timed to Hun Sen’s campaign period, and also provided election funding. Hun Sen won the sham election and has continued to crackdown on opposition politicians and civil society since then.
Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of a scholarly paper by Joshua Kurlantzick, a regular contributor to Pinter Politik WRN. The views expressed in the paper are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Pinter Politik.