A quarter-century before the Arab Spring of 2011, there was a democratic spring in South-East Asia: the Philippines in 1986, Burma in 1988, Thailand in 1992 and Indonesia in 1998. The Arab Spring was largely drowned in blood (Syria, Egypt, Libya), but democracy really seemed to be taking root in South-east Asia – for a while.
But look at it now. The army is back in power in Thailand, and it never really left in Burma. The Philippines still has the 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 after the Vietnamese invasion of 1971, 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 did surprisingly well in the 2013 election. After that the free media were shut down one after another, and in late 2016 the CNRP was dissolved by the supreme court. No wonder Hun Sen won again.
So nothing much lost there, you might say – but actually the facade of democracy, shabby though it was, did provide some protection for civil and human rights in Cambodia. Now it’s gone. “Whatever Mr Hun Sen wants, he gets. People are so fearful,” said deputy CNRP leader Mu Sochua, who fled to Germany last month. (The CNRP leader, Kem Sokha, is in jail on treason charges.)
Thailand went a lot further into the business of 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, including much of the urban middle class, fought that party in the courts and in the street.
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. Each year the generals promise a free election for the following year, but it hasn’t happened yet.
Next door in Burma the army never lost power at all. The attempted non-violent revolution of 1988 was thwarted by a massacre of students worse than the one carried out by the Chinese Communist Party on Tienanmen 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 in Rakhine state, the Rohingya, whom they falsely accused of being illegal immigrants.
700,000 Rohingyas were driven across the border into Bangladesh, Buddhist Burmese nationalists cheered the army on – 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 basically 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 since the ‘people power’ revolution of 1986.
Vietnam and Laos, of course, are still Communist-ruled autocracies. Only two of the eight countries in the region, Indonesia and Malaysia, are real democracies. It falls far short of the high hopes of the late 20th century, but it’s a good deal more than nothing.
Despite local scandals like the jailing of a non-Muslim mayor of Jakarta on spurious blasphemy charges, Indonesian democracy works, and is less corrupt than the regional norm. Malaysia has just voted out the most corrupt prime minister of its history, who is now in jail. And these two countries alone account for almost half the region’s population.
As for the rest, it’s the old game of glass-half-full vs. glass-half-empty. The setbacks are clustering at the moment, creating the impression that the democratic experiment has failed in South-East Asia, but every retrograde regime still faces far stronger democratic resistance than existed in any of these countries a generation ago.
In the century after the French revolution there were two emperors, one ‘directorate’, two monarchies and three republics, and most of the transitions were violent. The general direction of travel, in South-East Asia and elsewhere, is still towards democracy, but it’s a longer journey than it looks.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 5. (“So…charges”)