Is COVID-19 Shaking Up Politics in Southeast Asia?
from Asia Program

Is COVID-19 Shaking Up Politics in Southeast Asia?

Pro-democracy protesters in Thailand raise their hands in a three-finger salute.
Pro-democracy protesters in Thailand raise their hands in a three-finger salute. Varuth Pongsapipatt/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Many Southeast Asian leaders’ pandemic responses have sparked public outrage and damaged their legitimacy. This could prompt the biggest political changes across the region since the 1990s.

October 6, 2021 2:40 pm (EST)

Pro-democracy protesters in Thailand raise their hands in a three-finger salute.
Pro-democracy protesters in Thailand raise their hands in a three-finger salute. Varuth Pongsapipatt/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

Over the past fifteen years, politics have stagnated and democracy has faltered [PDF] in Southeast Asia. And after fending off the pandemic in 2020, the region is now facing a massive COVID-19 outbreak. The new wave is decimating populations and causing massive economic damage while also sparking ferment against the political order.

What are the current political trends in Southeast Asia?

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Between the 1980s and the early 2000s, Southeast Asia was at the center of a global wave of democratization. Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand all became democracies. Timor-Leste also became a democracy after separating from Indonesia, which had controlled it. And Cambodia, Malaysia, and Myanmar launched political reforms.

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But since the late 2000s, the region has regressed politically, part of a global wave of democratic backsliding that seems to be gathering pace.

Authoritarian populists have undermined freedoms in Cambodia, the Philippines, and Thailand. Military juntas have further crushed democracy in Thailand and, most notably, Myanmar. Seemingly promising reformers, such as Indonesian President Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, have faltered in battles against corruption and once again empowered antidemocratic actors. The most repressive states in the region, such as Vietnam, have become more authoritarian. The main regional organization, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), has done little amid coups and other reversals of democracy. Today, Timor-Leste remains the only fully free democracy in Southeast Asia.

The pandemic further sped up this backsliding, as leaders used it to grab more executive power. In its 2021 report on freedom in the world, Freedom House* scored Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, and the Philippines lower than in its 2020 report.

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How have Southeast Asian countries handled COVID-19?

Initially, they performed well. In the first year of the pandemic, Southeast Asia survived COVID-19 mostly unscathed. Indonesia and the Philippines faced sizable outbreaks, but caseloads remained small in Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, and even impoverished Myanmar. Leaders in Thailand and Vietnam instituted effective policies on mask wearing, contact tracing, closing borders, and quarantining.

In 2021, however, the inflexibility and repression of Southeast Asian governments have hampered their battle against the virus. Although the region’s autocrats were able to manage COVID-19 at first with border closures and other techniques that depended on central control—while also forestalling public anger by banning large gatherings—in 2021, they have faltered as the challenge has shifted with the more contagious Delta variant and the wider availability of vaccines.

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Southeast Asian states have struggled to vaccinate their populations; just three of eleven countries in the region have vaccinated over 60 percent of their eligible populations. Meanwhile, countries such as Vietnam have struggled in trying to switch away from a “zero-COVID” approach to a more flexible pandemic strategy.

Often, these failures stem from corrupt and autocratic politics, or from political situations in which leaders spend their time battling each other rather than the virus. The Thai government originally handed domestic vaccine production over to a company, controlled by the Thai king, that had no real experience making vaccines and struggled to get up to speed. The Myanmar junta appears to be withholding vaccines from political opponents. Malaysian politicians have spent the past year trying to topple each other’s parliamentary coalitions and using pandemic-related emergency orders to boost their political powers, failing to develop a clear approach to the pandemic.

How severe is the outbreak now?

Today, Southeast Asia is struggling with one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the world.

Myanmar is a failing state, with COVID-19 patients dying at home, unable to get oxygen, medication, or vaccines. Malaysia has one of the highest per capita daily COVID-19 cases of any country in the world. Thailand is recording around eleven thousand new cases per day.

Meanwhile, a recent study by the Economist suggested that, although Southeast Asian nations have reported about 217,000 COVID-19 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic, the real figure could be 2.5 to 8 times higher.

How has the devastation affected politics?

The pandemic era could prompt the biggest political changes in Southeast Asia since the 1990s. Even in places where autocrats are holding on, failure to control the virus has damaged leaders’ legitimacy.

The spread of COVID-19 and the subsequent economic damage has made people desperate in countries including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand, where anger was already rising over inequality. Partly as a result, protests have been erupting more often. Large, anti-government protests have taken place in recent months in Thailand and Myanmar, and Malaysia’s government collapsed earlier this year, in part because of political in-fighting and because of citizen anger at the government.

Even in normally placid Singapore, the usually dominant People’s Action Party (PAP) called an election amid the pandemic and won reelection, but the opposition put up a strong result, winning a higher percentage of the overall vote than in the last general election. After the mediocre showing, the PAP’s prospective candidate for prime minister, Heng Swee Keat, who also barely squeaked home in his constituency, took himself out of the running for the job. 

At the same time, however, autocratic leaders are digging for more years in power. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has said he could rule for ten more years. Indonesia’s Jokowi has hinted at pushing amendments to the constitution. It is possible that such an amendment could allow him to run for a third term as president—when Indonesian presidents are limited to two terms—but so far Jokowi has denied that he would do so. The Myanmar junta has demonstrated that it will not hesitate to kill civilian protesters. The Thai military, police, and government have used brutal force to stifle dissent.

Could democratic backsliding be reversed?

It’s possible. In other regions, failed pandemic policies have led publics to oust leaders or turn sharply against them, including U.S. President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Although many Southeast Asian states are more repressive than the United States or Brazil, the pandemic has been so destructive that it could spark political change.

Tarnished governments in Southeast Asia now face a different political reality. Although the leaders of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam can rule by force, most Southeast Asian politicians cannot. They require some degree of popular legitimacy, and thus need to hold elections which, while often not fully free and fair, have the possibility of a loss for ruling parties. Indeed, voters around the region crave political leaders who will prioritize effective public health strategies over politicking, partisanship, and repression, and they see that the current wave of leaders cannot pass this test.

It could be possible for citizens to eject unpopular, as well as repressive, regimes. One strategy is for citizens to organize a long-running, intense pressure movement before elections, as the Bersih movement in Malaysia has done, and then, during the election season, consolidate reformist voters around one coherent party or coalition. In addition, activists in Southeast Asia—sometimes supported by foreign democracy-promotion groups—can help reverse democratic backsliding by protesting and mobilizing voters, among other actions, to make clear that they will not stand for further destruction of institutions such as independent media, anticorruption commissions, and impartial judiciaries.

In a sign of how this hunger for competent governance could reshape regional politics, Malaysia’s leading reformist party recently made an alliance with the long-dominant party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), to govern together and develop new pandemic strategies. After more than a year of ineffective government, the move will likely enjoy high levels of popular support. It will also put Malaysian reformers in a position to potentially win power the next time national elections are called.

*Editor’s note: The author serves as a consultant for Freedom House’s Southeast Asia country reports.

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