Event ReportsPublished on Jul 20, 2018
Democracy in Southeast Asia: A glass only half full

Democracy is on retreat in much of the Southeast Asian region. In Myanmar, the most recent entrant into democracy club, the government of Aung San Suu Kyi is turning a blind eye to the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya minority. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has thrown the law to the wind in his war on drugs. In Cambodia, the strongman, Hun Sen, has snuffed out the last of the free press and abolished the opposition. Similarly, recently, Thailand’s military junta quelled protests marking the fourth anniversary of its seizure of power. The big positive trend, however, is the outcome of recent Malaysia elections. A political tsunami, as many analysts have claimed, has occurred in Malaysia that was ruled by one political coalition since last six decades.

To take stock of Malaysia’s spectacular election in the larger context of retreat of democracy in South-East Asian region, Observer Research Foundation organised a panel discussion titled ‘Malaysia Election and the State of Democracy in Southeast Asia’ on 27 June 2018. Moderated by Pinak Chakravarty, Distinguished Fellow, ORF and a former ambassador, this important discussion featured Prof. Baladas Ghoshal, Secretary General, Society for Indian Ocean Studies, Dr. SY Quraishi, Former Chief Election Commissioner of India and Advisor, International IDEA, Prof. Shankari Sundararaman, Centre for Indo-Pacific Studies, JNU, and Dr. Niranjan Sahoo, Senior Fellow, ORF.

Opening the debate, Chakravarty took a quick tour of key political developments and democratic churning in the strategic and geopolitically important region. Terming Malaysia election outcome as an exception in a region full of strongmen and military coups, he cautioned everyone to be patient with this region as far as democracy is concerned.

In his presentation, Prof. Baladas Ghoshal made special emphasis on the significance of Malaysian election outcome for the state of democracy in Southeast Asia. Dwelling in great depth on the dynamics and dramatic nature of Malaysian politics, he remarked that the last three elections have deep connections for the future of Malaysian politics; the 2008 elections when the Barisan National lost its two-third majority in the parliament; the 2013 elections when Barisan National lost majority in five states; and finally 2018 elections when they were removed from power. He located the cause of this election result in the split of the ethnic Malay votes and the increasing role of racial polarisation in Malaysia. To him, the increasing cost of living, rising inflation, growing unemployment and quality of jobs, corruption, the leadership of Mahathir Mohamad and the resentment of youths played a decisive role in influencing the 2018 election result.

Looking at the future of Malaysian elections and democracy, Prof. Ghoshal identified three trends – the increasing role of race-based politics, the changing nature of relation and formation of political parties, the need for social reforms and the restructuring of Barisan National party. He further concluded that present political transition offers a new lifeline for Malaysian democracy.

Myanmar’s experience with democracy

Dr. S.Y. Quraishi, former chief election commissioner took a critical view of state of democracy in the world and Southeast Asia in particular. Dr Quraishi drew attention to continuing influence of military in the electoral process and the role of gerrymandering in manipulating the election results in the larger Southeast Asian region. He took special attention to the state of democratic transition in Myanmar. Seeking participants attention to ongoing ethnic conflicts in Myanmar, he noted the glaring failure of  famed peace icon Aung San Suu Kyi to prevent systematic “ethnic cleansing” of Rohingya minority. He questioned the credibility of democratic transition in Myanmar and current political leadership’s ability to sustain democracy and peace process.

Roots of democracy in Southeast Asia

As a long time observer of Southeast Asia, Prof. Shankari Sundararaman illuminated the long process of democratisation and slow retreat of authoritarian regimes in the region. She traced the roots of Southeast Asian democracy in Thailand and Philippines. Incidentally, it were militaries that opened the spaces for democracy in both the countries.  Whereas, in the case of Indonesia, democracy was propelled by external factor (in the background of the Asian Financial Crisis). Severe food shortage in the country became the turning point leading to countrywide protests which over time lead to establishment of democracy. She further said that Indonesia today is having tough challenge between radical Islamic and protection of liberal values. Commenting on the developments in Myanmar, Prof. Sundararaman felt that the country in many ways mirrors the experience of Indonesia. However, she cautioned due to the large presence of the military, in the case of Myanmar, it’s not a real shift to democracy, rather a new power sharing arrangement where army is on the driver’s seat. Noting her concern on the developments in Cambodia, she said country’s democratic future looks uncertain with strongman Hun Sen at the helm. Commenting on the general trend of democracy in Southeast Asia, she felt it to be limited and weak with a few exceptions such as Malaysia, Indonesia among other.

Dr. Niranjan Sahoo highlighted the roles of modernisation and economic development in shaping democratic transition in the region. The Southeast Asian region has heavily borrowed from the experiences of East Asia; economic growth and development first, democracy and rule of law the latter. This makes this important region a paradox – an economic powerhouse with underdeveloped democracy. This is evident from the presence of weak independent institutions like the judiciary/courts, electoral commissions, the legislatures and the general practice of a weak rule of law. Dr. Sahoo also highlighted the growing influence of the military in governance and democratic processes as evident from the cases of Thailand and Myanmar.  Yet, the elephant in the room is the rising profile of China at a time when the United States is taking a retreat from the region.

The discussion concluded with rounds of questions from the audiences on a variety of issues impacting the state of democracy in the region. Questions were raised on Malaysia’s surprise electoral outcome, fragile race relations in that country and the future challenges for the new leadership. There are queries with regard to democratic transition in Myanmar and Cambodia, the impact of patronage and western influence, the role of military, China’s growing influence and possible roles for India in promoting democracy. Further, participants sought to know the nature of the new regime in Malaysia headed by former strongman Mahathir Mohamad and the role of Anwar Ibrahim’s wife. The panel discussion concluded with a general optimism for democracy in the Southeast Asian region: a glass half-full.

This report was prepared by Varya Srivastava, Research Intern, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi

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