Christian Caryl

Southeast Asia’s Democracy Downer

And you thought the Arab Spring was disappointing.

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Three years ago, on April 1, 2012, I had the great privilege to watch Burmese citizens take part in their first free election in a quarter of a century. As votes go, this was actually a pretty modest one — it was a mere by-election, so only a few seats in the national assembly were up for grabs. In practical terms, the voters’ choices had little real impact on the balance of forces in the country at large.

Yet that modest reality didn’t seem to matter. People seized the opportunity to exercise their rights with joy. Campaign rallies for the pro-democracy opposition party, the National League of Democracy (NLD), turned into raucous celebrations of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the woman who has long embodied the democratic aspirations of Burmese languishing under one of the world’s harshest military dictatorships. Her party’s main rival, the pro-government United Solidarity Development Party (USDP), struggled to get traction. The outcome surprised no one: when the votes were counted, the NLD had won 43 of the 44 seats it contested. Aung San Suu Kyi entered parliament in triumph.

Burma appeared to be part of a larger regional trend. President Thein Sein, the ex-general who set his country on a Gorbachev-style course of opening and reform in 2010, was said to have found his inspiration in neighbors like Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines, all of which had, at various moments in the years before, achieved strong economic growth after moving away from autocracy and toward democratic norms. (The fact that Burma was also eager to escape western sanctions and find new international partners who could save it from its confining dependence on China probably didn’t hurt.)

At the time, one could make a case that even authoritarian stalwarts in the region, like Malaysia and Singapore, were on the verge of some sort of popular reckoning. In a 2011 election, Singapore’s long-dominant ruling party was jolted by its worst electoral result in half a century (though it retained control of parliament). And the steadily rising power of Malaysia’s opposition, led by the dogged Anwar Ibrahim, suggested that the old guard was facing a new challenge from a self-assertive middle class increasingly resentful of official lies and entrenched corruption.

A degree of healthy skepticism was always warranted, of course. No one ever expected Southeast Asia, affected as it is by deep religious, ethnic, and economic divides, to glide effortlessly into a democratic nirvana. But I doubt that even the skeptics would have predicted that the aspirations of the region’s reformers would run aground quite so quickly. Southeast Asia is now experiencing a broad backlash against democracy — a softer version, if you will, of what the Middle East has been enduring in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. “All across the [Southeast Asia] region, governments’ respect for rights is in free fall,” says Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch. “And like everyone else in the region who cares about these issues, we’re scrambling to re-double our efforts.”

In Thailand, last year’s military coup has snuffed out the prospects for a return to democracy for the foreseeable future. While the junta that currently rules the country keeps touting its plans for ambitious national reforms, its ham-handed treatment of even the mildest signs of opposition doesn’t bode well. The general pessimism is compounded by the lingering uncertainty surrounding 87-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Long celebrated by Thais as a reassuring source of political stability, the 87-year-old monarch is increasingly frail, and the possibility that he might soon leave the scene compounds the general sense of instability.

The political situation in Malaysia is also a mess. The country’s general election in 2013 ended up showing just how far the country is from anything like real democracy. Even though the ruling coalition earned just 47 percent of the popular vote, it ended up with 60 percent of the seats in parliament — the result of a highly distorted electoral system designed to favor those in power.

The extent to which the forces of Prime Minister Najib Razak have been jolted by the result is clear from the way they’ve behaved since then. Rather than seeking some sort of co-existence with the opposition, the government has banked on confrontation. Security forces have cracked down aggressively on dissent, arresting numerous critics. The government has launched a fresh campaign against Anwar, once again throwing him into jail on dubious morality charges. (The photo above shows riot police outside a courthouse in Putrajaya last month.) And it hasn’t stopped there. Just this past week the police even resorted to arresting Anwar’s daughter, Nurul Izzah Anwar, a member of parliament who was detained after criticizing the government’s actions against her father. (She has since been released, but the scandal triggered by her detention has further poisoned relations with the opposition.)

The government’s prickliness could well have something to do with popular concern about grand-scale corruption. A growing scandal around the mismanagement of a multi-billion-dollar sovereign wealth fund, whose advisory board is chaired by the prime minister, is clouding Najib’s political prospects.

And then there’s Burma, the biggest disappointment of all. This fall the country will hold its first national election since the start of the current reform process. Though many Burmese expected that the vote would give new momentum to democratization, such hopes now look increasingly unwarranted. The NLD’s campaign to amend the current constitution, which contains provisions specifically designed to prevent Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president, has foundered. Ethnic tensions between Burma’s Buddhist majority and the Muslim Rohingya minority have fueled a rise in militant nationalism that the government has been happy to exploit. The security forces have reacted harshly to recent student protests and imposed jail terms on a growing number of critics. One of the most striking signs of deepening intolerance was the verdict imposed last week on a Rangoon bar manager and two of his colleagues, who were sentenced to two and half years of hard labor for posting a picture of the Buddha wearing headphones.

Thein Sein’s liberalization process also awakened hope by offering the prospect of a sustainable peace in Burma’s multi-faceted civil war, which has been going on from the moment the country achieved independence in 1948. Thein Sein’s government promised to launch fresh negotiations with all of the ethnic minority groups who have been fighting against the central government — the only exception, until recently, being the Kachin, a mostly Christian group who inhabit a resource-rich territory in the north.

But now a long-dormant conflict has re-emerged, drawing the Burmese army into ferocious fighting with Kokang militants along the Chinese border. This latest mini-war isn’t just a security issue; it also has potentially far-reaching implications for the domestic political situation. The fact that the Kokang are ethnic Chinese means that the conflict offers the Burmese armed forces a perfect opportunity to portray themselves as heroic defenders against external aggression — and thus to improve their own standing in the approaching election. Ashley South, an analyst at Thailand’s Chiang Mai University, warns that the government’s willingness to negotiate with other restive minorities is dwindling: “I think the prospects of substantial political dialogue before the elections are close to zero.”

All this would be dispiriting enough. But it’s also striking how little the opponents of officialdom have been doing to fight back. Thailand’s opposition, which is mostly loyal to the mercurial exiled tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, is deeply demoralized. Internal rifts are weakening Anwar Ibrahim’s coalition even as it struggles to defend itself against the Malaysian government’s attacks. And Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD, which has failed in its attempts to outmaneuver the authorities, has been notably reluctant to take the side of student protestors, disgruntled laborers, or persecuted Muslims — prompting some critics to question her policies. Of course, as the Lady has shown so often in the past, one should never underestimate her.

Southeast Asia is a place of mind-boggling complexity and dynamism, so it’s probably better to refrain from predictions about the future of democracy. But one thing is for sure: it’s getting harder to be an optimist.

MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images

 @ccaryl

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