In the weeks since Myanmar’s national elections in November, the country’s potential as a democratic success story seems clearer and clearer. As I have noted, there are many remaining obstacles to Myanmar’s transition, including the continuing influence of the military in politics, the ongoing ethnic insurgencies, and the National League for Democracy’s inexperience in governing. Still, Myanmar’s free and fair elections, and the ruling party’s apparent willingness to step down, mark a major milestone for that country and surely are the high points for democracy in Southeast Asia in 2015.
Unfortunately, the report card on democratic progress in the rest of Southeast Asia for this year is decidedly more mixed. The region’s four most democratic states---the Philippines, Indonesia, East Timor, and Singapore---generally continued to demonstrate their political strengths. Singapore’s September elections delivered a massive win for the ruling party, and experts on Singaporean politics criticized the electoral framework for favoring the People’s Action Party. But during the campaign period there was extremely lively and informed political debate in the city-state---some of the most informed political debate one could see anywhere in the world. The first year of Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s term was rocky, as he went back and forth on economic policy and foreign policy, but Jokowi has begun trying to strengthen Indonesia’s democratic fundamentals, such as by removing some of his ministers linked to the PDI-P machine and bringing on men and women with sterling reputations for fighting graft.
It is in the countries in the middle of the democracy/autocracy spectrum in Southeast Asia---Cambodia, Malaysia, and Thailand---where freedoms suffered the most in 2015. After a truce brokered between Prime Minister Hun Sen and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party in 2014, and a promise of a new “culture of dialogue” in Cambodian politics, the rapprochement completely broke down last summer. Opposition politicians were attacked outside parliament, Hun Sen announced that he planned to run for prime minister again in the next election and hinted that nothing would stop him, and the authorities pursued criminal charges against a number of leading opposition political figures and civil society activists. Most notably, the authorities reactivated an old charge against opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who now refuses to return to Cambodia. In Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib tun Razak has reportedly tried to silence anyone within his party who calls for a more thorough investigation into scandals surrounding the 1MDB state fund and the appearance of over $600 million in one of Najib’s personal accounts. Meanwhile, according to a comprehensive new report released by Human Rights Watch this fall, the Najib administration has increasingly criminalized free expression by jailing opposition leaders and opposition activists, writing new laws that limit criticism, and breaking up peaceful protests, among other measures. And in Thailand, there appears to be no clear end in sight to the junta’s rule; although the military government has now promised that it will hold elections in 2017, even that date is starting to appear unlikely.
The most repressive countries in the region also show few signs of change. In Brunei, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, already an absolute and traditional monarch, has amassed more power to himself in 2015 and 2014, taking on nearly all the ministerial portfolios. A draconian new criminal code based on sharia law that was announced in 2013 has not been fully implemented, in part so that Brunei could join the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Still, the harshest aspects of the criminal code could still be implemented at some point, seriously reducing the limited social and political freedoms that now exist in Brunei. In Vietnam, a handful of releases of prominent writers and bloggers this year---many coming around the time of a meeting in Washington between President Obama and the head of the Vietnamese Communist Party---were matched by new arrests of journalists and bloggers, and proposed new legislation that would further limit freedom of the press in Vietnam. In Laos, which will chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) next year, the government refused to allow a meeting of Southeast Asian civil society groups on the sideline of an upcoming ASEAN summit, and has provided no new information on the whereabouts of Sombath Somphone. He was probably Laos’s best-known civil society activist when he vanished in 2012, shortly after being seen at a police checkpoint in Vientiane.