from Asia Unbound

Southeast Asia: Heading Backwards on Freedoms

May 08, 2017

Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders link arms during the opening ceremony of the thirtieth ASEAN Summit in Manila, Philippines on April 29, 2017. (Mark Crisanto/Reuters)
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The thirtieth ASEAN Summit, held two weekends ago, and this year’s fiftieth anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, offer opportunities to reflect on ASEAN’s progress—and the mighty obstacles it still faces on issues related to democracy and rights. The organization remains the only substantial grouping in East Asia, and it has utilized its consensus-building style to achieve several important accomplishments—not the least of which is avoiding a major intra-Southeast Asia conflict since 1975.

The organization also has gradually pushed for greater intra-Southeast Asian economic liberalization, resulting in the ASEAN Economic Community. Its numerous meetings have provided opportunities for East Asian nations to build a nascent regional architecture, although this has taken off slowly. ASEAN has gradually fostered closer regional cooperation on important nontraditional security issues, including pandemic disease and haze—although this cooperation is still limited by the slow, consensus-building style ASEAN favors, and the fact that ASEAN’s Secretariat remains relatively small in terms of staff and capacities. It has absorbed four new members since the organization was created; of those new members, Vietnam has become a major power within ASEAN, and Myanmar could one day become influential as well, if it can resolve some of its major domestic challenges.

In the 1990s and 2000s, however, ASEAN nations also seemed to be moving toward major progress on rights and democracy. As I have frequently written, several Southeast Asian nations, including Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia, were at that time considered powerful examples of developing nations making transitions to democratic rule—developing multi-party systems, holding free elections, ushering in free and fair transfers of power (except in Malaysia), and fostering civilian control over militaries.

In the 1990s and 2000s, several Southeast Asian leaders even positioned themselves, both regionally and globally, as important fonts of wisdom about successful democratization. Most notably, former Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono highlighted Indonesia’s democratization as an example for other developing countries—SBY, with the rhetorical backing of Washington, used the Bali Democracy Forum in particular to make this case. Meanwhile, some Southeast Asian leaders and middle-level officials, especially from the Philippines and Indonesia, pushed for ASEAN as an organization to make rights and democracy a higher priority, and occasionally also criticized fellow ASEAN members for rights abuses. ASEAN did eventually create a parallel civil society forum, and enshrined protecting human rights as part of the organization’s mission, with its 2009 charter on rights.

However, that human rights charter contains no enforcement mechanisms, in keeping with the ASEAN spirit of building by consensus and not via enforcement and confrontation. And since the late 2000s Southeast Asia has regressed badly on rights and democracy, especially given that several countries in ASEAN were considered consolidated democracies before the 2010s.

The situation now is sobering. Thailand is now run by a junta, Malaysia’s opposition remains fragmented, with little hope of winning the next election; the Philippines last year elected Rodrigo Duterte president. As president, Duterte enjoys high popularity but has often behaved like an illiberal strongman, and there are concerns that he might not only pursue his drug war but also crack down on the country’s vibrant media and vocal opposition. Other countries in the region, such as Cambodia, that appeared to be moving toward more truly contested politics, also have regressed into more outright authoritarianism.

Even Indonesia, which has remained a democracy, has been rocked by large-scale movements led by militant groups, which helped alter the course of the Jakarta governor’s election and may ultimately lead to rollbacks in protections for minorities and fundamental changes to Indonesia’s secular democracy. Militants and some politicians in Indonesia also are increasingly utilizing alleged blasphemy charges to potentially stifle free speech. As Philip Robertson of Human Rights Watch succinctly told Agence France Presse, “Human rights is in a precipitous downward spiral in every ASEAN country except perhaps Myanmar, and that’s only because military rule in that country was so horrible for so long.”

Robertson’s assessment is backed up by nearly every major monitoring organization, which have documented ASEAN nations’ declining freedoms of speech, expression, and assembly over the past decade. But with Duterte’s Philippines as the chair of ASEAN this year, and a U.S. administration that seems to make rights and democracy a low priority in Southeast Asia, there does not seem much hope for the organization to make rights and democratization a priority any time soon. Whether individual Southeast Asian nations, like Thailand and Cambodia, will make gains in democratic freedoms, will depend in large part on upcoming elections in those states, and how leaders react to the results.

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