Despite historical difficulties, Southeast Asia has come a long way on the road to democratization.
The Arab Spring that started in 2011 brought the world’s attention back to the diverse nature and processes of democratization, with more recent events in Thailand, Hong Kong and Indonesia putting the Asia-Pacific region under the spotlight of democratic developments. While news from Southeast Asia remains on the periphery of global media, the democratic shortcomings in the region are too often analyzed and explained through a Western lens.
Grounds for Optimism?
A look at statistical data on the development of democracy in the region offers some ground for optimism. Today, more than a decade into the 21st century, among the 11 Southeast Asian countries there are fewer authoritarian regimes than there were in the early 1990s. Here, the most notable example is set by Indonesia that shed the three-decades long dictatorship under President Suharto at the turn of the millennium, and has recently successfully completed another round of presidential elections. With East Timor regaining sovereignty in 2002, the slow but steady opening up of Myanmar’s political system to the international community after 2010, together with Malaysia’s relative political stability over the last few years, marked more successes for democratic processes in the region.
Today, seven of the Southeast Asian nations are counted as at least “partly free” by Freedom House. In addition, when looking at long-term development, Southeast Asia’s education and media systems have shown an overall improvement over the last few decades, as increasingly more people have access to information and the prevalent use of social media in the region has allowed greater transnational communication. Hence, judging from a quick glance at the numbers alone, and based on the global discourse of Asian nations taking charge of their own political futures, Southeast Asian democracy should be a promising story of success.
However, if one risks a closer look at the details, it quickly becomes apparent that not all that shines is golden. The 2014 World Map of Reporters Without Borders shows that in all Southeast Asian countries, with the only exception of East Timor, freedom of information is in a “difficult” or even “very serious situation”, the two worst categories of a total of five. Besides, the unstable political situation in Thailand has led to an increased censorship of the country’s media, and Indonesia – Southeast Asia’s largest country in terms of population and area – actually lost its 2012 Freedom House status of “fully free.”
The argument goes that the value systems of Asian countries stand in direct opposition to Western ideals such as democracy, a line of thought that is similar to the argument that Islam and democracy do not go together.
It is thus worthwhile to take a look behind the scenes and what mainstream global news media usually offer as information on Southeast Asia.
Why Democracy Might Not Work in Southeast Asia
The academic, journalistic and political discourse of the last four decades has developed three main explanations why democracy and Southeast Asia might not be a natural fit. First, there is the historical explanation: Similar to other parts of the non-Western world, the Southeast Asian colonial experiences automatically led to the development of authoritarian regimes after the suppressed populations gained independence. Therefore, even Thailand – the only Southeast Asian country that did not experience colonial rule – could not escape the inherently systemic, all-encompassing vacuum that replaced the pre-World War II power structure. As a consequence, political strife has been constant and coup d’états have been a frequent characteristic of the Thai political order.
Second, there is the explanation based on an ideological perspective. Here, the Asian value debate that started in the 1980s can be seen as the main case in point. The argument goes that the value systems of Asian countries stand in direct opposition to Western ideals such as democracy, a line of thought that is similar to the argument that Islam and democracy do not go together. Following this logic, the development of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the region’s multilateral institution, cannot follow the example set by the European Union (EU). In the past, some politicians referred to the concepts of mushawara and mufakat, which loosely translate into consultation and consensus, when arguing for an ASEAN way that was different from others. On a national level, Singapore and Brunei serve as perfect examples, since their argument for limiting individual rights such as press freedom or democratic participation, in order to guarantee the safety and security of the many, is based on the same logic.
Third, and lastly, there is the pragmatic explanation that argues that national economic development or nation-building is much more important than democracy development — a post-colonial argument, if looked upon strictly, that is still often repeated today. From this point of view, although democracy could be an ideal worth striving for, so long as the countries in the region have closed the gap to the economic achievements of industrialized Western nations, lofty ideals are much lower in ranking than economic development. Naturally, until today, this logic allows many elites in Southeast Asia to publicly proclaim their belief in democracy, while actually enforcing the status quo of insecure democratic rights, thus mollifying the middle classes mostly content with the little political freedom as long as economic progress is not hindered.
Aside of Brunei and Singapore, which have developed stable political systems without granting too much freedom, Myanmar and Indonesia provide a good example of sharing a characteristically strong military and a democratization process that very much lags behind the legislatures’ promises. Of course, it needs to be conceded that these countries are on two different levels of democratic development. Even considering its many flaws, Indonesia’s democracy can show for accomplishments on a level that Myanmar has yet to reach. Although the junta is slowly opening up the country’s economy to foreign investors and seems to be willing to allow free elections some time down the road, Myanmar’s regime is still counted among the world’s most repressive.
What Next for the Region?
Looking at the arguments elaborated above, the conclusion seems fairly straightforward. As a historical fact, following the worldwide power vacuum after the Second World War and the Cold War respectively, Southeast Asian countries seemed bound to end up in political turmoil and many in the West predicted that authoritarianism would be the logical outcome. Furthermore, the values of Asia are in fundamental opposition to the Western concept of democracy and even if some social groups opt for democracy, the economic elites are likely to limit their appeal by curbing individual freedoms in order to secure national (economic) development. Thus, Southeast Asia and democracy seem to be two poles in an antithetic relationship.
It should be acknowledged that there has been an overall advancement of individual rights since the middle of the 20th century, given the region’s experiences of European colonial suppression, Japanese aggression, being the site of proxy wars during the Cold War, and putting up a good fight in the struggle to catch up with the West’s industrialized achievements.
This conclusion disregards the nature of democratic processes and is based on false premises: democracy is neither an “ideal type” state in the sense of Max Weber, nor is it a straightforward process without any ups and downs. Even in the long-established Western democracies like the US, Great Britain or France, democracy is constantly under pressure from various social actors. The acquisitiveness of Big Data proponents in general and espionage networks in specific are a case in point. Some people might even argue that since 9/11, particularly the US and UK have developed into police states, moving away from the rule of law.
These considerations need to be borne in mind when evaluating the progress of democratization in Southeast Asia, particularly as the waxing and waning of democratic principles is amplified in new democracies. It is as wrong to argue from an extreme clash of cultures position, seeing democracy and Asian values as incongruent, as it is to regard Southeast Asian democracies from a Eurocentric perspective, assuming that the Western world already completed its democratization process. Germany, for instance, seen as synonymous with democracy today, whereas from the middle of the 19th century and until the end of the Second World War, the concept was viewed by many social groups as fundamentally non-German and alien.
Although it might not just be a matter of time, it is also not only a matter of historical, ideological or pragmatic antitheses. Democracy and Southeast Asia are not simply two opposing poles, although this simplification is often used by those who benefit from the current status quo. For the democracy-bound Southeast Asian societies, this means that they not only aspire to build states following the examples of Western democracies, but they also need to cope with the current demands on the rule of law that change much faster than they used to in the 20th century. The historical setting and the socio-political developments have allowed the Southeast Asian elites to suppress many calls for more political rights and freedoms. It is thus right and necessary to criticize Southeast Asia for its democratic shortcomings, but this should not lead to the dismissal of the region’s many successful contemporary democratic movements that started with the 1980s People Power Revolution in the Philippines and continues until today.
The relationship between Southeast Asia and democracy should, therefore, be a matter of perspective, taking into consideration the difficult situation the region’s democratic movements have had to overcome. It should be acknowledged that there has been an overall advancement of individual rights since the middle of the 20th century, given the region’s experiences of European colonial suppression, Japanese aggression, being the site of proxy wars during the Cold War, and putting up a good fight in the struggle to catch up with the West’s industrialized achievements. Although there is much to be achieved in the process of democratisation across the region, one can see that Southeast Asia has indeed come a long way on the road to democracy.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.