The current year has been one of significant backsliding for democracy in Southeast Asia, a continuation of a regional trend that has been in the works for more than a decade.
This year, Cambodia’s long-ruling leader, Hun Sen, has taken the country back to the repression of the late 1990s, cracking down hard on the leading opposition party. Currently, co-opposition leader Sam Rainsy is in exile, after fleeing facing defamation charges. Co-opposition leader Kem Sokha is in jail on treason charges, supposedly being held in a remote prison. The government is shuttering NGOs, and essentially forced the prominent independent news outlet, the Cambodia Daily, to close its doors in September. Hun Sen has launched a series of broadsides against the United States, though he also has approvingly cited the White House’s treatment of the press corps.
Meanwhile, in Malaysia repression on the opposition continues, while in the Philippines the brutal drug war and other abuses of the rule of law show no sign of abating. In Myanmar, it remains unclear whether the elected civilian government has any real control over the military, which is perpetuating a massive catastrophe in Rakhine State that has been called ethnic cleansing. In Thailand, the ruling junta remains in charge, the chief opposition leader has fled the country, and a crackdown continues on academics, journalists, and civil society.
Next year is going to be a pivotal year for Southeast Asian democracy—and it could get much worse than it is today. Cambodia will hold national elections. Many Cambodia analysts, including opposition politicians, believe Hun Sen will stop at nothing to ensure that his party, the CPP, remains in power after the 2018 elections, even though the opposition made gains in the 2013 election, and also in this year’s local, or commune, elections. Hun Sen could, before the 2018 election, increase his crackdown—banning the CNRP, putting more CNRP members in jail, and clamping down harder on independent media. This year, besides the closure of the Cambodia Daily, the government in Phnom Penh ordered shut roughly fifteen local radio outlets, many of which aired independent programming. Radio Free Asia pulled its bureau in Cambodia out of the country as well.
Meanwhile, Malaysia and Thailand may have elections in 2018 as well. Malaysia will surely have an election before the end of August. The opposition remains fragmented, and the ruling coalition is highly likely to win. Prime Minister Najib tun Razak, who recently returned from a visit to Washington, has been able to skillfully crack down on civil society while also avoiding having ongoing corruption allegations impact his domestic political maneuvering. He has continued to squeeze the opposition. As John Sifton of Human Rights Watch notes, the Malaysian government “has arrested dozens of opposition politicians and activists, charging them with sedition and other criminal offenses for criticizing the government or Najib on social media. Newspapers publishing reports critical of the government have been shuttered, and participants in peaceful protests have been arrested and charged with violating Malaysia’s restrictive Peaceful Assembly Law.”
In Thailand, even the possibility of an election remains unsure, although there will likely be a vote in 2017. As I noted in a recent World Politics Review article, simply because former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has fled the country does not mean the opposition Puea Thai party has lost popularity. But, the junta may use every tool possible, if an election is held, to ensure Puea Thai does not win an outright majority in the lower house.
And then there is Myanmar. The next year will be pivotal, to see whether the government can establish control over the security forces—or even wants to. This dynamic will shape the near-term future of Myanmar politics, and the direction of the ongoing crisis in Rakhine State.