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Opinion

Coronavirus challenges Southeast Asia's fragile democracies

Governments turn to military to prevent social unrest after economic crunch

| Indonesia
Train passengers wear masks at Senen Train Station in Jakarta on Mar. 20: governments must think about how to maintain order as well as save lives.   © LightRocket/Getty Images

The pictures on social media showed three men armed with assault rifles guarding the entrance to a convenience store in the Thai beach resort of Pattaya after thieves were reported to have stolen cash from a similar store. This is a scene that could become more common around Southeast Asia as strict measures aimed at combating the COVID-19 virus start to impact on employment and livelihoods.

Understandably, the focus of governments in the region is on stemming the spread of the virus, which has infected more than 7,000 people in the 10 ASEAN states, with many more cases likely to be confirmed.

But the economic impact will also be severe, despite relatively high growth rates and healthy reserves in some countries. Anger and frustration will well up in societies that face high levels of inequality, poor governance and injustice. Governments must think about how to maintain order as well as save lives.

The first segment of society to be affected has been the armies of migrant workers that staff low-paid areas of the service and retail sectors. With malls closing and restaurants shuttered under strict lockdowns, migrant workers were among the first to be laid off. Many of them have struggled to get home as borders close and airlines terminate scheduled flights.

Without support, these migrants will be unemployed and possibly homeless. They are also an easy target for the authorities. In Singapore, the authorities were quick to announce that migrant workers who violate strict social distancing regulations will lose their work permits.

The widespread reliance on the informal sector for sources of income also means that most Southeast Asian countries have large numbers of workers who rely on cash wages in irregular or menial work. Even for those in marginally more regular employment, such as the army of motorcycle drivers in Jakarta, the COVID-19 crisis spells the end of regular incomes.

Rising poverty could increase crime rates and trigger outbreaks of social unrest, which explains why some governments have hesitated before imposing stringent lockdowns. Indonesia's President Joko Widodo is one of the most reluctant because his advisers have warned that a surge of jobless people returning to their hometowns and villages will exacerbate both social unrest and the spread of the virus.

There are no easy answers, not least because an exponential increase in infections would place a huge burden on already inadequate health care systems and threadbare social safety nets.

There are two trends already evident in how the health crisis may impact on the politics and governance of the region over the longer term: the undermining of centralized authority and the increasing influence of the military.

In Indonesia, strains have appeared between central government in Jakarta and the provinces. In the province of Papua local authorities came under pressure from the community to close the airport, which they have now done.

In the city of Tegal, in Central Java, the mayor enforced a lockdown in defiance of central government guidelines. Jakarta has reacted sharply to these moves, with provincial governors ordered to countermand and lift locally imposed lockdowns.

In the city of Tegal in Central Java, pictured on Mar. 27, the mayor enforced a citywide lockdown in defiance of central government guidelines.   © Reuters

Hard-pressed to deploy the machinery of civilian government effectively, Widodo has turned to the military. The new head of the country's COVID-19 task force, Doni Monardo, is a retired special forces general. In Jakarta, the city's military commander is leading the medical care effort. As the Jakarta Post wryly observed: "Having clung to power or revolved around it for most of the nation's history, former military figures are able to tap into the ample resources of a well-established network of influence."

Similar patterns may emerge in other countries where there are challenges to central government and where the military remains powerful politically, as in Thailand and Myanmar.

One real risk in societies already afflicted by identity politics and tensions between ethnic and religious communities is that misinformation about the COVID-19 virus will spark communal conflict. Myanmar is using concern about COVID-19 infection among Rohingya migrants in Bangladesh to put off further discussions about their return and is already quarantining those who try.

To bridge these divides and address mounting public anger and frustration civil society must play a bigger role. In Thailand civil society groups are using social media platforms to combat the spread of false rumors and misinformation, fearing the impact on social stability.

Information is a valuable weapon in the fight against the pandemic. Sadly, under pressure to shore up authority and preserve stability, many governments in the region are more inclined to control and distort the information flow as they see their power and legitimacy threatened.

That makes it all the more important for citizens to insist on protecting their own communities by joining hands with civic groups and networks of professionals to insist on better and more transparent policies.

Michael Vatikiotis is the author of "Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia."

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