Not since World War II has liberal democracy seemed so deeply endangered in so many places. If the flu of political and social illiberalism is circumnavigating the globe, Southeast Asia has precious little immunity with which to withstand it. This is a region where authoritarian regimes have always easily outnumbered democracies, and where liberalism and universalism have always struggled to gain traction.
Since most of the region is enduringly authoritarian to begin with, Southeast Asia is and always has been well on its way to being a democratic abyss. It is useful to distinguish the cases of existing dominance that establish that dismal baseline from ‘the new dominos’, which find themselves either tumbling or looking increasingly wobbly.
None of the region’s long-dominant authoritarian regimes appear deeply endangered at the moment. Singapore’s People’s Action Party is riding high in the saddle after its electoral–authoritarian landslide in September 2017. In Malaysia, so long as the ruling Barisan Nasional party can compensate for its high-level corruption with high-level repression, it seems likely to get away with it.
Commentators commonly fret that Hun Sen killed the last remnants of democracy in Cambodia when he shuttered the Cambodia Daily and moved to ban the country’s only major opposition party. But what is really transpiring is a transition from multiparty authoritarianism to single-party authoritarianism, since Cambodia has not met even minimal democratic standards for the past 25 years.
Speaking of single-party dictatorships, Vietnam’s leaders have recently stepped up repression of dissidents. But it is not as if the Vietnamese Communist Party ever brooked serious dissent in the first place.
Not coincidentally, in all four cases, old dominance is rooted in old authoritarian ruling parties. Dictatorships ruled by parties have long tended to be more stable than those in which the military plays the leading role. So it stands to reason that the greatest action in the region over the past decade has been in countries where the military either still is, or in the past was, a leading power in political life.
A militarised past means a high potential for a dominoing present. Just as we can identify four clear cases of old dominance rooted in authoritarian ruling parties, four cases fit more readily in the ‘new domino’ category: Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand. In each case, there is a long history of parties failing to decisively supersede the power of the military, which left their democracies with relatively little institutional strength.
Could Myanmar soon follow Thailand’s recent path back to unchallenged military rule? Could the Philippines descend from its fragile status as an illiberal democracy to an outright one-man autocracy? And does the shocking imprisonment of Jakarta’s ethnic Chinese former governor on blasphemy charges portend the demise in Indonesia of the tolerant norms on which even a minimalist democracy depends?
There is a vital common theme. When procedural democracy arises in otherwise politically and socially illiberal and intolerant conditions, democracy’s own key features can easily undermine its own quality and even threaten its own survival.
Specifically, democratic procedures have a tendency to produce unbridled majoritarianism and unconstrained leadership unless there are powerful countervailing forces. In settings where liberal institutions and societal commitment to inclusive and cosmopolitan values are relatively weak, minorities exist at the mercy of domineering and abusive executives.
In Thailand, the rise of Thaksin Shinwatra did not lead to outright populist authoritarianism in part because the Thai military and monarchy saw fit to re-establish oligarchicauthoritarianism. It is in the Philippines where a brazenly violent populist seems inclined to seize as many authoritarian-style powers as the system and public will allow. As abysmal as Rodrigo Duterte has been for human rights, his defenders quite plausibly support a highly popular president responding to actual social ills like the drug trade.
But democratisation does not deserve the brunt of the blame for an ongoing calamity like the forcible expulsion and state-sanctioned mass murder of the Rohingya. In Myanmar as in Indonesia, it is the ideological potency of ethnic and religious nationalism that explains why minorities get brutalised. Authoritarian legacies of militarisation in Myanmar and ethnic and ideological scapegoating in Indonesia best explain the severity of both countries’ nativist downturns.
If one vivid lesson shines through the dim shadows of Southeast Asia’s democratic downslide, it is that democratisation and human rights are far from the same thing. Nationalists steeped in a lifetime of authoritarian state propaganda are analogously primed to see the world in terms of us (who belong) and them (who do not). Under such conditions, democratic rights may get extended — but no further than the ranks of the supposedly virtuous.
What all this suggests is that the global crisis of liberalism and democracy is first and foremost a crisis of education. Heroic histories of mass urban mobilisation predict that if civil society is to help forge democracy, it will be by ‘people power’.
This may still be largely true in Southeast Asia’s cases of old dominance, where dictatorship must somehow be dislodged before democracy can be defended. But in Southeast Asia’s new dominos, as in Western democracies where pluralism is under assault, a deeper educational imperative underlies the organisational challenge confronting us.
Remarkably, the world has reached a moment when its politics most urgently needs to be driven not by an exalted desire to maximise human freedom, but by the base need to minimise human cruelty. If educational institutions and mass media do not spread the message that even the lives of minorities and suspected criminals have value, who will?
Dan Slater is Professor of Political Science and incoming Director of the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan. This article originally appeared at New Mandala as part of a series on the challenges facing democracy and civil society in Southeast Asia supported by the TIFA Foundation, Indonesia.