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Southeast Asia’s Volatile Democracy

Kelvene Requiroso

Posted on February 28, 2019 20:15

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The hallmarks of democracy in Southeast Asia are illusory if not totally irrelevant to the region’s governments and political cultures.

We have seen waves of political change in Southeast Asia in the last thirty years. Democracy blossomed back in the Philippines in 1986. Indonesia opened up to democratic governance in 1998. East Timor gained independence in 2002. And Myanmar has recently transitioned from military rule to civilian government.

By democracy, we mean, first of all, there exists free, fair, and clean conduct of elections. Second, the government functions to protect the interest of the public, not only the few. Third, there are civil liberties including the right to life, free speech, and freedom of movement. And fourth, ideally, people’s participation in government is guaranteed and encouraged.

In Southeast Asia, however, the requirements of democracy are illusory if not totally irrelevant to the region’s governments and political cultures. For much of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member countries, the hallmarks of western democracy -- the people’s participation in the political process whether directly or through their representatives, the government's upholding of the rule of law, and unfaltering belief in the universal principle of human rights are somewhat alien concepts.

Southeast Asia’s democracy index proves just that. Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Brunei (absolute monarchy) remain in the claws of authoritarian rule. Other countries have a partial or a flawed democracy like the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and East Timor. Thailand’s hybrid democracy fell when the military took over the country; Myanmar still struggling with how to democratize from decades of a military junta.

In the past couple of years we have seen significant changes in the political landscape. There’s the rise of populism and the emergence and reemergence of authoritarians in the Philippines, Malaysia, and Cambodia. There are uncertainties in Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, and Indonesia. Singapore has presented itself as a democracy, but like its closest neighbor Malaysia, it lurks in the shadows of authoritarian rule.

This year, the Philippines will hold a mid-term election and Indonesia will also have its general elections. But elections in Southeast Asia are a way to legitimize power and control the ruling party, most likely by a strong individual. There’s not much fair competition in these democracies since incumbent governments usually have vastly more resources than the challengers. And as long as elections are viewed as the means to power, rather than an avenue for people’s participation in government, democracy remains a distant dream.

Weak political institutions strengthen unscrupulous, narcissistic leaders who project a strong image. They exploit the system and people’s vulnerability in order to keep themselves in power, and we know that power can be addicting. Power in the hands of people with weak wills and ulterior motives can be a dangerous weapon.

Kelvene Requiroso

Posted on February 28, 2019 20:15

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Source: Reuters

Thailand will soon hold its first election since the military seized power in a 2014 coup and many hope the vote will return...

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