Advantage China, as democracy slides from view in Southeast Asia

  • Strongmen in power in Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia, single parties in Laos and Vietnam, and democracy eroding in Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia
  • If Southeast Asia is in an ‘authoritarian race to the bottom’, analysts say it will play into the hands of one of the countries in the US-China rivalry. Guess which one?

As Myanmar’s dark era of junta rule began winding down in 2011 with the bold reforms initiated by the quiet ex-general, President Thein Sein, other events happening across Southeast Asia gave reformists hope this was not an isolated instance of democratic progress.

That year, Yingluck Shinawatra romped to a landslide election victory in Thailand, bringing the populist movement founded by her brother Thaksin – toppled as prime minister by a military coup and forced into exile five years earlier – back into power.

In the Philippines, Benigno Aquino, son of two democracy icons, was a year into a presidential term following a victorious campaign against his scandal-riddled predecessor Joseph Estrada.

Even in the relatively staid politics of Singapore, there was movement in the democracy-meter in 2011: riding on a wave of discontent over immigration, the tiny opposition made historic gains against the iron-fisted People’s Action Party.

China hopes Myanmar resolves differences under legal framework after Aung San Suu Kyi detained

That was then. But fast forward a decade to the military coup against the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar on February 1, and the prevalent narrative among experts is that it is autocracy, rather than people power, that is now on the march in Southeast Asia.

That feeling is borne out in hard data. The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) democracy index released last week showed little progress had been made in the sprawling region of over 600 million people. Some areas had even gone backwards.

The report said the backsliding was made worse by governments curtailing civil liberties in the name of public health amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a commentary this week, the respected Thai political science professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak characterised the 10-nation neighbourhood as a “banana region”.

With Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s power grab on Monday, Thitinan said Myanmar was now leading “an authoritarian race to the bottom” in view of the military coup against Yingluck in 2014 and other democratic setbacks in the region.

Armored vehicles drive through the streets of Myanmar following the coup. Photo: Reuters

Other countries too “either have no popular elections or face erosion of democratic rights and values,” he wrote. “The only democratic stand-out, by virtue of not backsliding, is Singapore.”

Thailand is currently ruled by a quasi-civilian government led by Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former general who led the coup against Yingluck and later assumed power as a civilian prime minister in 2019.

His party failed to win a legislative majority but has a hold on power due to support from military appointees in the senate.

In Cambodia, strongman Hun Sen extended his run as prime minister after his party won all seats in 2018’s polls – held after a major crackdown against the opposition.

“The authoritarian resurgence in Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia will further tarnish Asean’s reputation as a club of strongmen and regimes that are devoid of popular legitimacy,” Thitinan told This Week in Asia, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

And even where elections and democratic rule are holding ground, such as in Indonesia and the Philippines, “there have been erosion of democratic norms and values,” the Thai academic said.

He added: “Those hoping for future political liberalisation in Laos and Vietnam will be disappointed as the single-party regimes may conclude from the latest turn of events that they are on the right path.”

One question that has cropped up as observers try to forecast likely scenarios following Myanmar’s coup is the impact it will have on the region’s geostrategic outlook, given it has already been grappling with the pushes and pulls of the US-China rivalry.

Waqas Adenwala, Asia analyst with the EIU, said the “decline of democracy in the region will have far-reaching geostrategic implications”.


A key reason for that view is the belief that the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military led by Min Aung Hlaing is locally known, will return the country to its pre-2011 foreign policy outlook of fully embracing China as its main external patron – and shutting out the West.

Than Shwe, the so-called ‘old man’ of the Tatmadaw who led the junta from 1992 until 2011, cultivated China when Myanmar was hit by extensive sanctions from the West because of its military rule. His successor Thein Sein’s accession coincided with a thawing of ties with the West as the military elite began realising the downsides of relying too heavily on its northern neighbour.

Suu Kyi, one-time political prisoner of the Tatmadaw and leader of the National League of Democracy (NLD) that won landslide polls in 2015 and again last November – much to Min Aung Hlaing’s displeasure – had in contrast adopted a more balanced foreign policy outlook.She lost her lustre in the West in recent years due to her unsympathetic stance towards Rohingya Muslims subject to alleged genocide by the military, yet maintained open channels with the United States and other major Western powers amid the criticism.

At the same time, the 75-year-old kept ties with China on an even keel, well aware that the relationship with Myanmar’s biggest trading partner could not be taken for granted. Beijing has in recent years invested billions of dollars in Myanmar, with a China-Myanmar Economic Corridor – part of the Belt and Road Initiative – currently in the works to connect Kunming in Yunnan, China, to the Kyaukpyu special economic zone on Myanmar’s western coast.

A trip to Beijing in August 2016 was Suu Kyi’s first upon being appointed state counsellor – a role the NLD created owing to the constitution barring her from assuming the presidency. In January last year, President Xi Jinping visited Myanmar to mark 70 years of bilateral ties.

Chinese President Xi Jinping meets Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in 2020. Photo: EPA

Min Aung Hlaing, hit by US sanctions in 2019 for his role in the Rohingya crisis, is unlikely to be as even handed with the superpowers, experts say.

That in turn, could jeopardise efforts by neighbours who have assiduously worked to balance the influence of Washington and Beijing instead of taking sides.

Chong Ja Ian of the National University of Singapore said democratic backsliding and authoritarian consolidation were “real causes for concern” in the region especially at a time of heightened major power friction.

Authoritarian regimes’ tendencies – including their lack of transparency and restraints on power – meant there would be “more conducive conditions for elite capture by external entities and resort to the use of force”, said the political scientist.

Chong raised the example of the Cold War, where “external competition” was incentivised through local proxies in various countries, including in Southeast Asia.

In the context of the current great power competition, Thitinan said it was Beijing that was most likely to gain from Southeast Asia’s democratic backsliding.“China will be the main beneficiary because Beijing can provide superpower succour and protection, such as its veto over United Nations resolutions condemning Myanmar’s coup,” he said, referring to recent developments at the UN Security Council.

The 15-nation Security Council on Thursday issued a statement calling for the release of Suu Kyi and scores of NLD leaders arrested on Monday, but stopped short of condemning the putsch.

Media reports said language in the statement was softer than an original draft prepared by Britain – to win support from Russia and China.

Within Asean, Myanmar’s renewed autocratic tilt potentially meant the country would join Laos, Thailand and Cambodia as chief lobbyists for China’s interests, Thitinan suggested.

“Where China has friction with Asean states, such as Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea, Beijing can leverage support [from Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand] to keep Asean off balance and weak,” he said.


Other regional analysts suggested it may be too early to make presumptions about the Tatmadaw’s foreign policy stance – and urged all outside powers to keep an open mind about engaging the military leaders.

One of the loudest calls among Myanmar watchers in the West has been for governments to resist talking to Min Aung Hlaing. Echoing those calls have been activists within Myanmar. Speaking in a webinar on Thursday, activist May Sabai Phyu said it was important for the international community to avoid contact with the “illegitimate government”.

“Do not provide any financial or technical support to them, [but instead] support civil society organisations [that are] organising a lot of non-violent campaigns and activities to restore civilian rule and strengthen democracy,” said the director of the Yangon-based Gender Equality Network.

But Kavi Chongkittavorn, a veteran commentator on Asean affairs, said the situation required “creative diplomatic approaches” as “conventional black and white approaches would not work”.

Members of the public in Myanmar protest against the coup. Photo: AFP

“With the ongoing competition among great powers, any power that comes down hard on the country that has different norms and values would have to think twice,” Kavi said. “External pressures are essential to a point to effect internal changes. But many authoritarian leaders are resilient and flexible enough to counter outside pressure.”

In such a scenario, the regular Bangkok Post columnist said “engagements have a better chance of influencing changes, especially when they are from the neighbouring countries”.

Liew Chin Tong, the former Malaysian deputy defence minister whose alliance was thrown out of power by a political coup last year, said he too was not fatalistic about the region’s democratic slide – despite being among those on the receiving end.

Malaysia’s political turmoil has been unceasing over the past year.

The battle for power among its political elite has been multidimensional, with plotting continuing unabated through the pandemic.In the latest turn of events, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin – who last year gained power after engineering the coup to oust Liew’s Pakatan Harapan alliance – in January declared an eight-month national emergency with the permission of the country’s king.

Despite such setbacks, Liew said Southeast Asian democrats should be optimistic given that the voting public had tasted the benefits of democracy as well as its disappointments.

In Malaysia, Thailand and now Myanmar it was the younger generations who, having experienced democratic rule, were now at the vanguard of resisting autocracy, using unconventional methods to mobilise dissent.

“And they are not going to forget these experiences. You can’t compare it to the 1990s. It will be much harder for authoritarian regimes to be resilient and sustain themselves,” Liew said.

By : Bhavan Jaipragas – SCMP

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