What went wrong with Southeast Asia’s democratic spring?

The setbacks are creating the impression that the democratic experiment has failed in Southeast Asia.

A quarter-century before the Arab Spring of 2011, there was a democratic spring in Southeast Asia: the Philippines in 1986, Burma (Myanmar) in 1988, Thailand in 1992 and Indonesia in 1998. The Arab Spring was largely drowned in blood (Syria, Egypt, Libya), but democracy seemed to be taking root in Southeast Asia.

But look at it now. The army is back in power in Thailand and it never really left in Burma. The Philippines still has forms of democracy, but President Rodrigo Duterte is a homicidal clown. And last week saw the demolition of the facade of democracy in Cambodia.

What went wrong?

In Cambodia’s case, democracy never was much more than a facade. Hun Sen, who was just “re-elected” president with 80% of the vote, has been in power for 33 years, first as the leader of a Communist puppet government put in place during the Vietnamese occupation of 1978-90, later as the ruler of an independent country where opponents sometimes disappeared and his party unaccountably always won the elections.

But there was a relatively free press and a real opposition party, so Cambodia was loosely counted as a democracy – until the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) did surprisingly well in the 2013 election. After that the free media were shut down and in late 2016, the CNRP was dissolved by the supreme court. No wonder Hun Sen won again.

Thailand went a lot further in building a real democracy. A populist party that attracted peasants and the urban poor actually got power and started moving resources their way. But the reaction was ferocious: military-backed conservatives fought that party in the streets. The populist party was forced to change its name and its leader several times, but it was still in business until the military coup of 2014 shut all political activity down.

In Myanmar, the army never lost power. The attempted nonviolent revolution of 1988 was thwarted by a massacre of students worse than the one carried out by the Chinese Communist Party on Tiananmen Square the following year.

It’s only in the past few years that the military were forced to hand some power over to civilians through free elections. But the generals then struck back with a pogrom against the Muslim minority, the Rohingya, whom they falsely accused of being illegal immigrants.

About 700 000 Rohingyas were driven across the border into Bangladesh – and Aung San Suu Kyi, the long-standing leader and hero of the democratic movement, did not dare to condemn the crime. The army is back in the saddle.

And then there’s the Philippines, where the elections really are free. The trouble is that in 2016, the Filipinos elected Rodrigo Duterte, a self-proclaimed murderer, by a landslide. At least 3 000 death-squad killings of alleged drug-dealers later, he still has the highest popularity rating of any Filipino president.

As for the rest, it’s the old game of glass half-full versus glass half-empty. The setbacks are creating the impression that the democratic experiment has failed in Southeast Asia, but every retrograde regime still faces far stronger democratic resistance than existed in any of these countries a generation ago.

Gwynne Dyer.

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