June 20, 2017 9:00 am JST
Michael Vatikiotis

Southeast Asia's democracy deficit erodes bottom line

Institutional weakness and selfish elites undermine region's economic progress

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is Southeast Asia's longest-serving elected leader. He recently warned there could be civil war if his ruling Cambodian People's Party lost national elections scheduled for mid-next year. "If war happens, let it be," he told a gathering of army veterans in early May.

Cambodia is one of Southeast Asia's remarkable re-makes -- bouncing back from decades of war and the horror of Khmer Rouge mass murder that killed close to 2 million people in 1975-79, and emerging as a notional democracy by the end of the 1990s.

But Cambodia is confounding old assumptions. With economic growth exceeding 7% annually and a rising cohort of better-educated young people connected to social media, the country should be consolidating democratically. Instead the opposition fears that Hun Sen may simply ignore the election results if they go against him. In local elections held across Cambodia on June 4, the opposition made significant gains but failed to erode a significant government majority. And while there was no more talk of war, it remains to be seen if Hun Sen chooses the path of reform or repression.

Such political challenges are reflected elsewhere in the region; they point to a pronounced slide towards authoritarianism.

Southeast Asia is currently experiencing a serious democracy deficit. Democratic transition is spluttering in Myanmar amid accusations of backsliding by the fledgling government of Aung San Suu Kyi. It is struggling in Cambodia as Hun Sen tightens control, and is all but extinguished in Thailand, now in its fourth year of military rule. Indonesia, while more democratic than many of its neighbors, is seeing a dangerous erosion of pluralism in the face of growing ethnic and religious intolerance; and in the Philippines, a functioning democracy, respect for human rights has evaporated with the extrajudicial killing of thousands of slum dwellers in the name of combating drug abuse.

Deepening the authoritarian tone of his administration, self-styled strongman President Rodrigo Duterte recently declared martial law in the southern island of Mindanao in response to the eruption of Islamic extremist violence. Meanwhile, what is left of parliamentary democracy and multiracial society in Malaysia has become hostage to a ruling party beset by corruption scandals and determined to cling to power at any cost.

Yet the economies of Southeast Asia continue to chug along nicely -- Cambodia's is among the fastest growing but others are catching up with its pace. At the same time, the region is also seeing rising levels of social stress and inequality. Import policies that enrich the few keep staple food prices punishingly high in Indonesia; Thailand's public expenditure benefits middle-class Bangkok more than the rural hinterland where the majority of Thais live. Five years since civilians started governing Myanmar again, a third of the population remains below the poverty line. And in the Philippines, the Asian Development Bank estimates that more than 20% of the population still lives below the national poverty line.

Elusive freedoms

For a region that has been growing continuously with only one or two major setbacks since the 1970s it seems fair to ask why justice and basic welfare remain so elusive for sizable numbers of people in countries that claim to be democratic or in transition to democracy.

The one constant over the last 40 years is the perpetual self-interest of Southeast Asian elites and their wilful subjugation of the rights of citizens to their own considerations of wealth and power. We see this reflected in the turbulent course of political change, the failure to address enduring drivers of conflict in society, staggering disparities of wealth and the chronic impunity towards injustice and loss of life perpetrated by the state.

The latest map of freedom generated by the U.S.-based watchdog Freedom House shows that, apart from Japan and India, the whole of Asia is considered either "not free" or "only partly free". That includes the Philippines and Indonesia -- both "semi-democracies" listed as only partly free.

Remarkably, this democracy deficit cannot be explained away by the kinds of chronic war and related social dislocation afflicting troubled parts of Africa and the Middle East. Quite the reverse, for the past four decades Southeast Asia has been at peace and growing a solid 6 to 8% per year.

One of the fundamental weaknesses of governance in Southeast Asia, despite democratic progress, is the lack of importance attached to institutions. In Cambodia institutional weakness and the consequent lack of effective checks and balances on powerholders means that the opposition refuses to take its seats in the national assembly. It means that the Thai military junta can write its own laws using an interim constitution granting itself supreme power; it means those the Malaysian government accuses of sedition have little or no recourse in supposedly independent courts.

Even in more developed democracies such as Indonesia's, the weakness of parliament and of political parties has allowed street mobs organized by Islamic extremists to determine that non-Muslims cannot be elected to government office.

Chronic institutional weakness allows elite groups to wield power primarily for their own material benefit, rather than for a greater good. It also means those who challenge the powerholders can be persecuted with impunity. The arrest and imprisonment of Malaysia's foremost opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, for alleged sodomy has left the country without an effective voice of opposition. More than 100 people have been charged with or convicted of lese majeste in Thailand, effectively silencing opposition to the military junta that has ruled the country since 2014.

Culture of conflict

There are also enduring issues of conflict that have not been addressed, and which fuel and reinforce the selfish behaviour of ruling elites. Protracted violent conflicts afflict the margins of Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines, the legacy of imperfect integration and the virulent sovereignty of modern Southeast Asian states. More than a decade of violent insurgency in southern Thailand has cost more than 7,000 lives. The largely ineffective security blanket covering the region of 2 million people has done little more than pad out the Thai military budget.

It is a similar story in Myanmar, where seven decades of civil war have entrenched a conflict economy that enables ethnic armies and their Burma army protagonists to earn income from illicit trade and levies on the population. The value of trade across the China border with war-torn Kachin State was estimated at $2.3 billion in 2016, according to Chinese official sources. The value of jade mined in the conflict-affected area of Kachin State was estimated by the non-governmental organization Global Witness at $31 billion in 2014 and the U.N. estimates that Myanmar is the second largest producer of illegal opium after Afghanistan.

With so much money to be made from smuggling and the exploitation of resources in a war zone, how much incentive do the conflict parties have to end the war? Again, the principle beneficiaries are elites whose families do not bear the brunt of the violence and disruption. One senior official who tried to open the conflict-affected India-Myanmar border to normal trade found that the security forces who benefit economically from the heavily-militarized border area were resistant, and so the cycle of violence continues.

Corruption is not just endemic in Southeast Asia; it lies at the heart of the governance problem and is a huge hindrance to resolving the democracy deficit. As Indonesians expressed fears about the erosion of tolerance after the jailing in May of the Christian Chinese governor of Jakarta, the Indonesian parliament was preoccupied with heading off an investigation into millions of dollars of bribes allegedly paid to more than 50 lawmakers. So instead of shoring up pluralism, they focused on undermining the independent anti-corruption commission.

Institutional integrity is of course the answer to many of these problems but this will take time, perhaps another generation. In the meantime, Southeast Asia remains hostage to the quality and effectiveness of its leaders. Civil society also has a major role to play in framing inclusive visions of a more just, equitable society and pushing for the protection of ethnic and religious freedom. With vision and political skill, selfish instincts of elites can be tamed. Sadly, Southeast Asia's current crop of leaders is for the most part bereft of vision, and inclined as they are to rely on authoritarian measures to compensate, civil society does not have the freedom it needs to advocate for a better society. The democratic deficit deepens, perpetuating injustice and conflict, and depriving the region's citizens of the peace and prosperity they are working hard to achieve.

Michael Vatikiotis is the Asia Director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. His new book, "Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia", is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

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