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Looking ahead 2018

Authoritarianism is accelerating in Southeast Asia

The China model is winning, at the expense of liberal values

Riot police stand guard at a blocked street outside the supreme court in Phnom Penh on Nov. 16 before a ruling ordering the country's main opposition party dissolved.   © AP

The year 2018 will mark the start of a period in which outright authoritarianism and illiberal quasi-democracy are likely to be Southeast Asia's prevailing norms. With few exceptions, liberal values and fundamental freedoms and rights will be manipulated and curtailed, even where elections continue to take place. Where authoritarianism holds sway, rights and freedoms will be suppressed altogether.

The specter of galloping authoritarianism is crucially underpinned by China's successful system of centralized control combined with economic dynamism. Unless domestic forces that stand for rights and freedoms are nurtured, mobilized and galvanized, the struggle for democracy could be lost to a narrative of history that ends not with democracy and free markets but with omnipotent central authority and state-led capitalism.

Not long ago, Southeast Asia's forces of sociopolitical change were trending the other way as countries from Cambodia and Myanmar to the Philippines and Thailand embraced democratization, with its attendant political liberalization and openness. Prior to the rise of Thaksin Shinawatra in the early 2000s, Thailand had a new constitution that promoted checks and balances, together with greater political stability and effectiveness.

But former Prime Minister Thaksin undermined the country's 1997 constitution, and his rule was marred by corruption and conflicts of interest. Thailand has since been stuck in a political tailspin, marked by street protests and two military coups. It is now being run by an authoritarian government that has constitutionally embedded the military's role in politics.

Myanmar is no less controversial. Its promising reforms in 2011 culminated with elections four years later and a power-sharing agreement between generals and civilians, the latter led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Economic development immediately surged, albeit from a low base, but fatigue and disillusion have beset democratization.

Due to the shortcomings of the Suu Kyi-led government, combined with intractable ethnic unrest, Myanmar has become a single-issue country revolving around the persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine state. Myanmar's economy will see a prolonged expansion as more capital and labor are deployed on fertile land, but its democratic politics will be messy and unsatisfactory, leaving its erstwhile supporters feeling jilted.

For a time, democratic rule in the Philippines was on course for political openness consistent with liberal values. But President Rodrigo Duterte, a provincial politician with few debts to the Manila-based political establishment, has shaken the country with a vengeful and violent anti-drugs crusade since winning office in 2016.

Human rights and freedoms have been thrown out of the window. Yet the civilian strongman with authoritarian instincts remains popular, with no military coup in sight and no visible risk of "people's power" demonstrations that could dislodge him. Unlike his predecessors, Duterte also has thrown in his lot with China, which is not a bad fit for his brand of authoritarianism.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is also "all-in" on China, at the expense of relations with the U.S. and the European Union. In recent months, he has effectively shut down independent media outlets.

In early September he arranged for the arbitrary arrest of Kem Sokha, leader of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, on treason charges. By mid-November, the CNRP was dissolved by the Hun Sen-aligned Supreme Court, accused of a plot to overthrow the government.

Blatant dictatorship

Hun Sen has opted for blatant dictatorship because voter surveys indicate that his Cambodian People's Party is on course to lose to the CNRP in elections due in July 2018.

These democratic considerations are of little interest to China, which received Hun Sen in Beijing with open arms in November as he sought support in the face of Western opprobrium. The Cambodian strongman subsequently taunted the U.S. and the EU, challenging them to withdraw development aid.

In the event, the EU canceled $8 million of funding for Cambodia's election commission -- a drop compared with the hundreds of millions of dollars of grant aid provided by China, which by 2016 also had accumulated direct investment totaling $11.2 billion, equivalent to more than half of Cambodia's gross domestic product.

Brunei, Laos and Vietnam harbor regimes that do not tolerate demands for rights and freedoms, and prospects for the rest of Southeast Asia do not bode well.

Indonesia is still front and center in the struggle for democracy and human rights. It has passed the point of no return to military rule, but openness and basic freedoms are being eroded, as in the recent jailing of the Christian-Chinese former mayor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaha Purnama, after a conviction for blasphemy against Islam. If Indonesia cannot meet the challenge of maintaining secularism and electoral democracy with economic growth, it also could face democratic rollback.

Confronting a general election in the first half of 2018, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has all but overcome the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal, involving hundreds of millions of dollars alleged by opponents to have been laundered for personal gain.

Despite an international investigation into 1MDB's dubious dealings, Najib is likely to return to power with a larger role for Islam in politics, due to a weak and fractured opposition, the ruling United Malays National Organization's patronage machine and an alliance with the Malaysian Islamic Party.

In view of these authoritarian gains and setbacks to democracy and rights and freedoms, Singapore appears the most stable, responsive and accountable political system based on a popular mandate in Southeast Asia.

Elsewhere in the region, China is now a trump card for authoritarianism, its overwhelming influence only weakly challenged by the EU, hampered by popular anger over high levels of immigration, and the U.S., where President Donald Trump sees America as a victim of its efforts to support the international order since World War II. This is a worldview unaffected by the administration's new National Security Strategy, published on Dec. 18, in which China and Russia are identified as threats.

A regional pushback against rising authoritarianism could be rolled out in three directions. First, the electorates in countries such as Cambodia and Thailand should stand up for their own rights and for accountable government.

The challenge for them is a decoupling of political progress and economic performance. Strong economic expansion in the region broadly buys off potential social discontent. People will have to stand up for democratic rights and freedoms for their intrinsic worth rather than because of its potential role in expanding prosperity.

Second, the established democracies must play a part in defending democratic gains in Southeast Asia. This means that people in Europe and America must address internal grievances and prevent populism from gaining more ground.

Established democracies also must perform better on bread-and-butter issues to show that rights and freedoms are compatible with economic growth and development. Australia, India and Japan are key leaders for Southeast Asia. These staunch Indo-Pacific democracies should do more to lead developing Asia.

Finally, China's political dissidents should be supported, and state-nurtured Chinese companies that leverage their large internal markets to win external market shares should be scrutinized and not accepted at face value.

Southeast Asia's history may not end with democracy and free markets, but it should not be allowed to head in the direction of state-led capitalism and centralized political controls that undermine or abolish basic freedoms and fair play.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches international political economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

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