“People are fearful of the virus and, sometimes desiring strong containment measures, are inclined to initially rally around their leaders…”
By Joshua Kurlantzick
Although South and Southeast Asia were already experiencing democratic regression, the pandemic has accelerated the decline. The COVID-era backsliding is even more notable both because it has come about in well-established democracies such as India and Indonesia and because South Asia and Southeast Asia had become two of the freest regions of the developing world in the 1990s and 2000s. Regional leaders have taken advantage of the pandemic to repress freedoms in several ways.
Leaders Use COVID-19 to Expand Their Authority via Legislation
Political leaders across the regions have used the virus threat as an opportunity to enact new legislation, and sometimes issue executive orders, that expands the extent of their authority without clear time limits, reduces bureaucratic checks on government, and even imposes versions of martial law. The Thai government has taken on emergency powers that allow the authorities to arrest people simply for making statements about COVID-19 that could “instigate fear” or “mislead the public.” These categories are so broad that they could include nearly any criticism of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha or other top government officials. In the Philippines, Duterte has not only instituted harsh and poorly planned lockdown measures but also taken on expansive emergency powers, granted to him by a compliant legislature. The emergency powers include the ability to effect a warrant- less arrest against anyone a government-appointed council claims is “suspicious.” The Philippine legislature has extended Duterte’s emergency powers, and whether these powers will be time-limited at all remains unclear.
There has, to this point, been minimal regional pushback from opposition politicians and civil society against pandemic-related legislation and executive actions that could further undermine democracy. This pushback has been limited in part because restrictions on gatherings have largely eliminated space for public protests, and legislatures are barely functioning. Duterte’s harsh lockdown in the Philippines, for instance, has prevented a significant public response to his seizure of power. Similarly, India’s draconian response to the pandemic has limited opposition to Modi’s actions. Modi’s rapidly enacted lockdown in March, during which people were banned from leaving their homes for three weeks, led to panic among many Indians. Millions rushed across the country to their hometowns before the restrictions set in; once the lockdown had come into force, the police arrested and brutalized people not in their homes. On the move, fearful of being deprived of basic necessities and without access to basic safety net programs such as food rations, and facing an increasingly intolerant government, few of these affected Indians have had the time or ability to contest Modi’s policies. Although angry migrant workers have held sporadic demonstrations against the harshness of the lockdown, the protests have not gelled into a larger movement.
Moreover, people are fearful of the virus and, sometimes desiring strong containment measures, are inclined to initially rally around their leaders. Populations have become willing, for public health reasons, to tolerate greater surveillance and restrictions on freedom of assembly. Even developed democracies such as South Korea have used cell phone tracking for contact tracing, and wealthy states such as New Zealand have instituted tough lockdowns, albeit with time limits and without abrogating freedom of speech and other rights. Fear of the virus also can foster a public desire for strong, even autocratic, rule, particularly in places where the population believes that nascent democracy has not helped improve standards of living or combat corruption and that democratic leaders have been ineffective in their responses to COVID-19. In Indonesia, for instance, surveys by Indikator Politik Indonesia have found falling public support for democracy this year, a drop due in part to public sentiment that Indonesia’s democratically elected leaders have handled the pandemic response poorly.
Leaders Marginalize Opposition and Enhance Control of Legislatures
Leaders in South and Southeast Asia’s most powerful democracies and hybrid regimes also have been among the most aggressive in the world in using COVID-19 to marginalize opposition political parties and civil society and to centralize political control within legislatures and other governing structures.
In Malaysia, after infighting within the governing coalition, which had defeated the long-dominant United Malays National Organization (UMNO) in 2018, the king in March nominated a new prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin. Muhyiddin formed a government primarily with backing from UMNO. Muhyiddin’s government, which holds a slim majority in the legislature, has repeatedly prevented parliamentary sessions from convening, citing the pandemic. The irregular meeting of parliament has curtailed opposition leaders’ most visible public platform. Curtailing parliament also prevents no-confidence votes and defections from Muhyiddin’s coalition. The government has also dropped criminal charges against several UMNO figures allegedly connected to the massive 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) financial scandal and packed state companies with UMNO allies. (Former prime minister and UMNO stalwart Najib Razak was found guilty and sentenced to up to twelve years in jail for his role in the 1MDB scan- dal.) When opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim tried to challenge the Muhyiddin government, saying that he and not the prime minister now had a majority of support in the lower house of parliament, Malaysia’s king, perhaps demonstrating his desire to keep Muhyiddin in power, declined to support Anwar’s efforts.
In South Asia, governments also have cracked down on opposition and bolstered their control of legislatures. The Bangladeshi government has detained political opponents and civil society leaders who have criticized Dhaka’s pandemic response, often under the harsh Digital Security Act, which gives the authorities broad powers to arrest people for making statements online. Under the law, anyone in Bangladesh can be arrested for posts related to the “coronavirus pandemic to negatively affect the nation’s image” or posts that “cause the law and order situation to deteriorate,” categories that could include a broad range of news coverage and commentary. In Pakistan, the government has cracked down on dissent and given the military extensive control of the pandemic response.50 The Sri Lankan government has used military intelligence to collect data from many Sri Lankans—seemingly also a means of intimidation—and ramped up curbs on political opposition. And the Modi government has in recent months arrested many opposition activists, some of whom had in early 2020 led protests against a new citizenship law they argue discriminates against Muslims. The opposition activists, many of whom have been arrested on sedition and antiterrorism laws, claim that once the authorities detain them they have little access to legal counsel or ability to contest charges because of restrictions put into place due to COVID-19.
Even in Indonesia, the most consolidated democracy in Southeast Asia, the government of President Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, has veered toward autocracy during the pandemic, in part by curtailing civil society. As Jokowi has struggled to address the crisis, feuding with provincial governors, the national government has imposed extensive new curbs on free speech. The Indonesian police, for instance, have implemented new procedures that allow them to bring charges against people who criticize the president’s or other government officials’ COVID-19 response. The police have arrested many critics, including some prominent activists.
Leader Use Disinformation in The COVID-19 Era to Hide Public Health Failures and Centralize Power
Many regional leaders also have spread disinformation about COVID- 19 to obscure their failure to contain the pandemic and to bolster their power. In India, for instance, the administration of Prime Minister Modi, who has stoked cultural and religious divisions since first being sworn in in 2014, has used the pandemic to further foment discord, in part by spreading falsehoods about minority groups. Top officials of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have repeatedly scapegoated Muslims, Dalits, and other minorities as conduits of COVID-19 despite an absence of scientific evidence to support this claim. (To be sure, the Tablighi Jamaat proselytizing movement held a large gathering in Delhi early on in the pandemic, and that gathering became an early super- spreader event, but BJP officials and the media then began scapegoating all Muslims as spreaders of the virus.)
This stigmatization via disinformation, and the already poisonous climate for minorities under Modi, has led to spikes in violence against Muslims since the pandemic took hold. It also has provided the Modi government with an opportunity to crack down on Muslim civil society activists, with reports of thousands of arrests under the guise of controlling the outbreak.
Leading autocratic states outside of South and Southeast Asia have abetted this disinformation. In recent months, Beijing has increased its use of information and disinformation to attack democracies’ response to COVID-19 and promote its own approach to the virus. Claims that authoritarian states have done better in managing COVID-19 are false: No systemic study has shown that autocracy is linked to controlling a pandemic. China, Thailand, and Vietnam, three highly repressive states in East Asia, have developed highly effective pandemic responses. A lower middle–income country with a population of nearly ninety-five million and dense cities, Vietnam has seen roughly 1,100 cases and 35 reported deaths. By comparison, the United States, with roughly 3.5 times the population of Vietnam, has had over 11.1 million cases and some 246,000 deaths at the time of writing this paper. But many autocratic states, including Iran and Russia, have failed to contain COVID-19. Meanwhile, democracies such as Germany, New Zealand, and South Korea have successfully battled the virus.
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.