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Southeast Asia’s decade of democratic regression, which I examined in the previous blog post, reflects a worrying global retrenchment. Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World report, which measures the spread or retrenchment of freedom globally, has reported ten straight years of declining global political freedom. In Freedom House’s 2016 edition of Freedom in the World, more than seventy countries registered declines in political freedom as compared to the prior year.
The implications of this democratic regression are broad and significant. On a human level, the regression of democracy means that, compared to a decade ago, more of the world’s people are living today under governments that restrict economic, social, and political rights. People living under authoritarian rule are more likely to have shorter and less healthy lives, as shown by indicators of human development; over time, democracies have proven more effective in fostering key aspects of development including life expectancy and reduced child mortality. The global democratic regression may lead to more interstate conflict.
In addition, political retrenchment may foster extremism, creating favorable conditions for groups inspired by the self-proclaimed Islamic State or for other types of extremists, such as Buddhist nationalist extremist groups in Myanmar or hardline royalist groups in Thailand. Already, outside Southeast Asia groups linked to the Islamic State have made headway in states where political freedom has regressed, or never fully emerged, and where people feel they cannot create political change by working within the system. In Egypt, for example, where a military government has thrown leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood in jail, and also crushed more liberal political groups, Islamists have increasingly turned to violence, attacking police, military, and government targets in the Sinai and other parts of the country. In Libya, where the collapse of the Qaddafi dictatorship led to a chaotic political environment, the Islamic State has established a large foothold, and have reportedly started heading south to recruit fighters from sub-Saharan African states.
Overall, notes Edward Delman of The Atlantic in a study of the Islamic State’s international recruiting, “the countries that send the largest numbers of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq, either in absolute terms or on a per-capita basis, tend to be either politically repressive (Saudi Arabia, 2,500 fighters), politically unstable (Tunisia, 6,000 fighters), discriminatory toward a Muslim minority (Russia, 2,400 fighters), or a combination of the above.” Notably, Southeast Asian nations are not on the list of countries that send the most foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq.
Yet Southeast Asian nations that do not embrace political reform could face a greater threat from Islamic State-linked extremists. To combat the spread of Islamic State-influenced groups in Southeast Asia, the region’s leaders need, most importantly, to reverse Southeast Asia’s democratic regression. The region’s leaders should not overreact to the actual threat of terrorist attacks, but rather should more effectively address the root causes of popular alienation from normal politics. After all, even if 1,500 or even 2,500 Southeast Asians have traveled to Islamic State-controlled territory and returned to the region, this figure is a miniscule fraction of the total population in Southeast Asia. And as Delman notes, countries in the Middle East and Europe have contributed a far higher number of fighters to the Islamic State than Southeast Asian nations.
Yet if Southeast Asian nations respond to the militant threat by subverting the rule of law, and promulgating legislation that gives the security forces excessive powers, they risk further alienating populations and actually pushing more people into joining extremist groups. Instead, Southeast Asia’s leaders should battle militants within legal frameworks. In Indonesia, the Jokowi government had not, before this month, sought legislation that would allow security forces to detain suspects for extended periods of time without charge, as is possible in some other countries in the region. Potential changes to counterterrorism laws in Indonesia currently being debated still would not give security forces the sweeping powers they enjoy in other Southeast Asian nations. Still, Indonesia is going to probably get tougher. The country is about to potentially pass preventative detention laws that could allow the authorities to hold terrorism suspects for up to six months, a significant shift that could undermine the rule of law in the archipelago.
Adhering to the rule of law bolsters popular support for antimilitancy efforts and does not run the risk that regional governments can use detention for broad roundups of political opponents. Jokowi’s government also has sent a signal that it will not tolerate extrajudicial killings by the police and other security forces. Although Indonesia’s security forces hardly enjoy a clean reputation, Jokowi has suggested that an independent, nonpartisan investigating body will analyze suspected rights abuses by the security forces, such as in places like Papua. Other governments in Southeast Asia should copy this approach, relying on legal, humane strategies to investigate and arrest militants, and fostering more effective oversight of security forces.
In addition, countries in Southeast Asia need to strengthen institutions that can resolve political conflicts, so that they do not have to rely on undemocratic, archaic institutions to resolve disputes. In Thailand and Myanmar, political conflicts too often are resolved by the military; in Cambodia and Malaysia disputes are often resolved in backroom negotiations involving a small handful of business and political elites. These weak institutions foster cycles of political conflict, and make it easier for militants to claim that democracy is failing to create peace and security.