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Hunter Marston: Southeast Asia's diverging paths threaten the region's clout

What is the state of democracy in Southeast Asia? The recent East Asia Summit in Laos, among the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and partners such as the U.S., China, Japan and India, highlighted divergent political and strategic trends in the region. While some countries appear to be heading for more democratic governance, others are seen as backsliding toward authoritarianism or entrenching themselves as semidemocratic, one-party states.

Military-ruled Thailand is turning increasingly inward, while reformist Myanmar is reaching out to the world. Indonesia and the Philippines are re-examining their traditional foreign policy approaches while undergoing significant domestic changes. Malaysia is distracted politically by a bitter struggle between Prime Minister Najib Razak and opponents who accuse him of corruption, although economic changes continue apace.

These contrasting developments are harming intraregional cooperation on a variety of issues, including collective security problems such as the South China Sea dispute. ASEAN deliberately refrained in its Sept. 8 communique from mentioning the recent international tribunal ruling on China's claims in the disputed waters -- an omission widely seen as a result of diplomatic pressure from Beijing. China and the U.S. are lining up regional supporters for their opposing positions on the South China Sea, putting regional governments in the uncomfortable position of having to take sides.

Beijing has leaned heavily on smaller, cash-strapped countries, such as Laos and Cambodia, promising infrastructure deals in return for their support. Washington has backed its ally the Philippines by supporting its successful case against China before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, while granting Manila $41 million in funding under the Pentagon's Maritime Security Initiative.

Economically, Southeast Asia is one of the fastest growing regions in the world. But its remarkable progress on poverty alleviation and rising development levels have left dark corners that hark back to Cold War-era despotism.

AUTHORITARIAN DRIFT In early August, Thailand held a referendum on a new, military-backed constitutional charter, the country's 20th constitution in 84 years. The charter, approved by 61% of voters, secures for an indefinite period the rule of the military junta, the National Council for Peace and Order, headed by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. Military-brokered elections set for 2017 -- if they take place as promised -- will offer a veneer of legitimacy for the junta.

For all intents and purposes, the kingdom has entered a dismal period of protracted repression and indecisive governments that echoes the military-dominated era of the 1950s and 1960s.

Cambodia has hit an inflection point -- rare even for Prime Minister Hun Sen's obdurate authoritarianism -- of targeted violence against political opposition figures and human rights advocates. The murder of the dissident Kem Ley in July was widely condemned as the work of pro-government forces. Indeed, the ruling party has shown a no-holds-barred willingness to cling to power, and Hun Sen has held control for more than three decades through a mix of political cunning and intimidation.

In the Philippines, a new strongman, the populist President Rodrigo Duterte, threatens to erode the rule of law and human rights with a war on crime and drugs that has already accounted for more than 2,000 extrajudicial killings. Duterte has also called into question the alliance with the U.S., with whom he has threatened to cut ties amid scathing personal insults aimed at U.S. administration figures.

The country has consolidated democratic gains with each election since the "people power" movement ousted longtime dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. Duterte, who has professed his admiration for Marcos, could now roll back a record of sustained political progress.

REGIONAL REFORMERS Other countries, however, have recently undertaken bold democratic reforms. Myanmar's democratic transformation, for example -- despite its growth pains -- is the region's clearest success story since Indonesia overthrew its dictatorship in 1998. The country's stability now hinges on the ability of former opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to bridge the gap between the military and civilian leadership while deepening democratic reforms and building on recent efforts to forge a national cease-fire accord with ethnic armed groups.

In 2014, former Jakarta Gov. Joko Widodo, a relative political outsider, defeated a retired lieutenant general, Prabowo Subianto, in a close presidential election in Indonesia. The outcome was seen as strengthening the country's fledgling democratic institutions while distancing it from the shadows of its military-authoritarian past.

Leaders in Vietnam and Malaysia are opening the way for broad social change to keep their booming economies growing by agreeing to massive structural reforms required by the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Technocrats in these countries are undertaking political risks by turning their backs on decades of state-led economic policies in the hopes of securing further economic gains.

Vietnam has allowed independent trade unions to be established for the first time in its history. Malaysia is lowering tariffs and non-trade barriers and restructuring state-owned enterprises. East Timor is also a bright spot in the region, having overcome its bitter past with several free and fair national elections since independence from Indonesia in 2002.

So what are we to make of these crisscrossing political trends? The reality is that Southeast Asia has long been a patchwork of authoritarian and democratic governments. The difference today is that the region is no longer an economic or political backwater but a major world market and a vital geostrategic region. It would be unfortunate if the region proves unable to capitalize on its enormous economic and developmental potential.

FRACTURED PICTURE Collectively, the 10 member countries of ASEAN repeatedly undermine the group's stated objectives -- to "accelerate economic growth," to "promote regional peace and stability," and to "promote active collaboration and mutual assistance on matters of common interest" -- with conflicting national priorities.

The group's preferred consensus-driven approach leads to toothless, lowest-common-denominator responses to urgent international crises and hobbles the power that a united ASEAN could wield. The decision to exclude any mention of the South China Sea arbitration at the Vientiane summit highlights the organization's weakness.

At a time when international law is on its side, the group missed a critical window of opportunity to make a case for world powers to defend its sovereignty claims and maritime security.

Ironically, a large number of Chinese coast guard vessels have been sighted in recent weeks close to the disputed Scarborough Shoal, 230km off the Philippine coast.

Duterte's loose remarks have clearly cost him goodwill and risk rebuffing the U.S. security guarantee, which neighboring countries like Vietnam and Singapore have worked hard to cultivate and maintain as a counterbalance to Chinese aggressiveness. This plays into the hands of China, which relies on pliant countries like Cambodia and Laos but would like to capitalize on the Duterte administration's enmity toward the U.S.

As long as weak states within the region are able to foil the ability of forward-looking middle powers to exercise vision and leadership, Southeast Asian countries will fail to rise to global challenges and to leverage fully the enormous opportunities facing the region.

If Southeast Asia turns its back on economic and political reforms, it risks undermining regional growth potential and deepening its vulnerability to pressure from great powers amid a lack of security cooperation. A fractured ASEAN would mean that the region could find its collective capacity crippled just as it is broadening its act on the world stage.

Hunter Marston is an independent Washington-based analyst of Southeast Asian and U.S. foreign policy.

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