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Democracy’s ebb tide in Southeast Asia
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July 2, 2018
Inroads Journal
Southeast Asia

The dawn of the 21st century promised peaceful days in Southeast Asia. But today, despite advances in democracy and enviable economic growth, we face a range of regimes marked by various forms of authoritarianism. From the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines to the military regime in Thailand, to the marked shrinkage in Cambodia’s democratic space, to repression of the Rohingya minority in Burma by a government ironically headed by 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, to the growing anti-Chinese and anti-Christian movements in Indonesia, which led to the dismissal and possible imprisonment of Jakarta’s Christian mayor, how can we explain this authoritarian backsliding? Is it circumstantial or does it signal a general trend? How do we reconcile continued economic growth and a robust middle class with the rise of increasingly authoritarian political regimes? In short, is the region entering a new, postdemocratic political era?

Meeting place of Asia

As a region formed by the 11 states located between China and India,1 Southeast Asia is a meeting place for cultures, religions and trade. As geographer Rodolphe De Koninck points out, Southeast Asia is “a place of convergence, a crossroads, a synthesis of Asia.”2 The political trajectories of these 11 states have been marked by shared experiences: the impacts of colonization and decolonization (except for Thailand, which was never formally colonized); development challenges; the geopolitics of the Cold War; and the birth of a regional organization, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Set up in 1967, ASEAN initially brought together five anti-Communist states (Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines) before gradually expanding to include all other states in the region.3


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