COVID-19 Pandemic Revealed Southeast Asia’s Bleak Future

8 mins read

The coronavirus pandemic has not only claimed countless lives and killed many livelihoods. Worse, it has also put more power into autocrat leaders, revealing a rather terrifying image of democracy that might soon be gone — if people don’t fight back. 

Even before the coronavirus emerged earlier this year, the democratic politics in Southeast Asia has already been on the brink of crumbling undermined by several factors such as “growing political polarization, illiberal populism and sectarianism, the legacy of authoritarian rule, and the continuing influence of militaries in politics” according to author and senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, Joshua Kurlantzick.

During the 1990s until 2010, South and Southeast Asia has undergone extensive democratization with substantial political progress including Timor-Leste, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, and even Cambodia and Myanmar who have a longstanding history of authoritarianism and civil conflict. 

But by the end of 2010, this progress had been put on an indefinite pause and arguably has also come into a decline. Kurlantzick has pointed out in detail the multiple factors that contributed to this reversal in democratic progress. First, he cited the fragile democratic institutions and norms in Cambodia and Myanmar noting that these institutions have never been fully formed thus they were also easily undone. 

In the case of Cambodia, who obtained their independence from France in 1953 credited to the main architect King Norodom Sihanouk, it’s democracy is now being strong-armed by its authoritarian prime minister who sat in office since 1998. 

According to the World Report 2020 by the Human Rights Watch, the respect for human rights in Cambodia has deteriorated following Prime Minister’s Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) domination in parliament politics – securing all 125 of seats of the National Assembly. The report said, “The number of political prisoners also increased, with key opposition figures either in detention or having fled the country to avoid arrest.”

He also cited the active and powerful military presence in countries like Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand wherein “working- and lower middle-class people also became increasingly dissatisfied with traditional politicians, who did not significantly improve social services or foster greater economic equality.” As a result, voters were attracted to what he described as “charismatic but illiberal populist leaders” like current President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. 

In addition, global democratic powers who play significant roles in democratic promotion have also been recently silent despite their active criticisms against south and Southeast Asian leaders undermining democracy. 

While these factors have been silently eating away the region’s democracy, it is undeniable that the pandemic has accelerated the progress. It has been weaponized by illiberal populists serving as a boon to further consolidate their powers. That is, leaders have exploited the public health crisis with new legislations or executive orders guised as tools for recovery. But in actuality, these only aim to expand the leaders’ authority without clear time limits. 

It has also been aggressively used “to marginalize opposition political parties and civil society and to centralize political control within legislatures” as noted by Kurlantzick. Through the power of media and manipulation of information, leaders are able to spread disinformation about the pandemic, efficiently masking their government’s failure in containing the crisis, bolstering their power, and silencing anyone who opposes them. 

The question now is: Is there a way to reverse this impact? 

While the pandemic has certainly allowed South and Southeast Asian leaders to gain more power in the short-term, there is an opportunity that presents to counter this increasing power. According to Kurlantzick, “Their longer-term failure to adequately address COVID-19 could provide opponents opportunities to challenge them and unwind their concentration of power. Indeed, governance failures could make them more vulnerable to challenges from political opposition, and undermine their abilities to centralize power.”

He cited the likes of New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and German Chancellor Angela Merkel who both grabbed international headlines and applauded for their excellent handling of the crisis, noting that the popularity of these two women skyrocketed following their accomplishment on containing the virus. On the other hand, in countries where the pandemic had severely affected public health as well as its socio-economic status, leaders recorded a decline in public image and popularity. 

The poor handling of the crisis has also opened an opportunity to further exploit the pandemic especially that there is a challenge in fully containing the virus even with the vaccines that have now started to roll out. Thus, there would be inevitable intervening years which could be used to entrench power and neutralize opposition. 

“It is essential, then, that defenders of democratic norms and institutions act quickly to prevent leaders from using the pandemic to entrench their power and undermine democracy. They should, for one, work to ensure that COVID-19-related restrictions on assembly and speech are statutorily limited,” he wrote. One important example is that information collected for contract tracing purposes should not be allowed to be used for other reasons like monitoring individuals after the pandemic has been securely contained. 

He also encouraged fair and safe elections and that these should not be delayed or cancelled. Election has been one of the most important images of democracy and subduing it only signifies a path towards authoritarian rule that the people should be vigilant enough not to let it happen. 

Since, autocratic leaders also rely on misinformation especially on social media to further advance their political interests, it is also important to back independent media outlets and watchdog organizations which are “critical to combating disinformation and promoting transparency on government decisions, especially in a time of crisis.”

And while there are obvious health concerns in large gatherings, he still advocates protests to hold the government accountable with their actions and make sure they know that their powers are time-limited. For example in Thailand, there have been many rallies and protests demonstrated with proper observance of health protocols. Their cases have been very minimal despite these protests emphasizing the fact that these protests pose no obvious threat to public health. 

The situation of democratic progress in South and Southeast Asia may seem bleak but it can be fought. 

Thomas Lake

Resident tech nerd for the SF Times.