Three new annual reports, from the U.S. State Department, Freedom House, and Reporters without Borders, add further evidence to worries that much of Southeast Asia is experiencing an authoritarian revival. Released this week, Freedom House’s annual Freedom of the Press report (for which I served as a consultant for several Southeast Asia chapters) reveals that in nearly all the ten ASEAN nations, press freedom regressed significantly last year. Freedom House’s findings are similar those of Reporters Without Borders annual Press Freedom Index, which was released earlier this month. In it, the scores of Thailand, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and other Southeast Asian nations dropped, as compared to their scores in 2015. Like Freedom House’s report, RSF’s analysts use a range of indicators to reflect the overall level of press freedom in each nation.
These falls are not surprising---Malaysia has shuttered major publications that have reported on the 1MDB scandal swirling around Prime Minister Najib tun Razak, Thailand’s junta is proving increasingly intolerant of dissent, Brunei has promulgated harsh new sharia-based laws, and other Southeast Asian nations like Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam remain highly intolerant of independent reporting. And these declines in press freedom are indicative of a broader trend. As I have written, much of Southeast Asia has regressed from democratic transition over the past decade; its retrenchment is symptomatic of a broader, global authoritarian revival.
Finally, the State Department’s annual country reports on human rights provides more evidence of the democratic downfall of a region that was once touted as an example of political progress. While Myanmar made significant strides toward democracy in 2015, and Indonesia and the Philippines remained vibrant democracies, the country reports show that most of the rest of the region regressed in terms of rights and freedoms. Thailand came in for a particularly harsh assessment, with the State Department noting, “The interim [Thai] constitution remained in place during the year, as did numerous decrees severely limiting civil liberties, including restrictions on freedom of speech, assembly, and the press.” The country reports further noted that in Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Brunei, among other Southeast Asian nations, there were signs of growing repression in 2015.
In the coming months, Southeast Asia’s political trajectory will become even clearer. The NLD-led government in Myanmar is beginning to develop a policy agenda, and its actions will clarify how successfully it can manage a difficult transition from military rule---whether Myanmar becomes more like Thailand, where the armed forces never really returned to the barracks, or like Indonesia, where the power of the armed forces has been curbed significantly. Thailand will hold a referendum, in August, on a new constitution midwifed by the junta. The Thai coup government has essentially barred any open discussion of the new constitution, which contains clauses that could perpetuate the military’s influence and drastically weaken the power of elected members of parliament in the future. However, it seems unlikely that the coup government will resort to outright rigging the constitutional referendum, though it will try its hardest to sway Thais to vote for the draft. The junta has cracked down on most types of dissent, so Thais may use the referendum to voice their frustrations. If the new constitution passes by only a small percentage of the vote, or is even defeated, it would suggest that there is sizable antigovernment sentiment bubbling up in Thailand.
Finally, there are the upcoming elections in the Philippines, to be held next week. Some Philippine civil society activists worry that strong popular support for vice presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr, son of the former dictator, and for presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte, who allegedly oversaw brutal anticrime strategies as mayor of Davao, marks a rising popular frustration with the difficulties of democratic government---a longing for a strongman who can just get things done, ignoring institutions or checks on power. Since the Philippines is the most established and vibrant democracy in the region, the results of its presidential election will be another powerful signal of regional trends.