Democratic Regression in South and Southeast Asia: The Impacts of Populism, Military Power, Polarization, and COVID-19

Project Expert

Joshua Kurlantzick
Joshua Kurlantzick

Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia

About the Project

In the past decade, South and Southeast Asia, once touted as democratic success stories, have undergone widespread political regression. Militaries have launched coups in Myanmar and Thailand, illiberal populists have corroded institutions in India, the Philippines, and other states, and sectarianism and polarization have complicated governing and eroded social trust. This project initially used meetings, writings, and briefings to examine the impact of military power, polarization, and populism on the region’s political future, and to propose strategies for policymakers to combat democratic decline. Since early 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has further empowered illiberal leaders in the region, who often have amassed emergency powers—which may be extended indefinitely. The region is part of a global wave of COVID-19–induced illiberalism; some eighty countries have suffered democratic backsliding during the pandemic. The project has been adapted to add COVID-19’s impact on democracy and societies in the region to the other factors. It uses meetings, briefings, articles, and longer written products to study how COVID-19 as well has affected regional democratic regression and to compare South and Southeast Asia’s large democracies’ COVID-19–era democratic challenges with those of two other diverse democracies, Brazil and the United States.

This project is made possible by the generous support of the Henry Luce Foundation.



Malaysia's voters delivered an inconclusive message in the general election, leading to a hung parliament.

Southeast Asia

President Biden's attendance marks an important development in the U.S.-ASEAN relationship, but ASEAN continues to prove ineffective in addressing the region's most pressing issues. 


ASEAN has proven ineffective in responding to the Myanmar military's brutal crackdown since the 2021 coup.


Demonstrators in Thailand are increasingly open in their critiques of the military-aligned government and the Thai monarchy.