Democracy in Southeast Asia – A Story Untold

Burma Cambodia Hong Kong Indonesia Laos Malaysia Thailand The Philippines Vietnam


I was recently commissioned by a Thai English language magazine to write a short satirical piece abut Democracy in SE Asia.  After much back and forth, the publication decided not to go ahead with the article, apparently due to the current political climate in Thailand.

In the West – by which I generally mean the USA, Europe, and Australia – we enjoy a political system called democracy. In school we are told that we struggled for centuries for Democracy, though I suspect very few of our ancestors were actively engaged in this struggle. Some did of course, and hats off to them. The term dēmokratía originated in ancient Greece where democracy was first defined as a carving up of power, influence and assets amongst a few free men, excluding all women and slaves.

Same same but different, as the slogan goes.

We have come a long way since then. Today, democracy entitles us to vote every few years for interchangeable political parties and politicians whose interests don’t lie with us, the people, but with industry, corporations and the politicians’ own self-enrichment. A fair share of the wars, environmental pollution and a large part of the abject poverty we see around the world are created by democratic nations imposing their moral and entrepreneurial rules on everyone else, in a way that is likely to be to their own advantage – using free market capitalism, neo-liberalism and globalization as the driving tools. And we do it well – the US killed some 4 million people in Indochina a generation ago to save the region from communism, failed utterly in its mission, and makes self-congratulatory films (The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon etc.) about it. Then it invades the Middle East to save the region from dictatorship, fail completely, and make more self-congratulatory films about it (American Sniper etc.).

What we call capitalism – an economic system in which the means of production are privately owned and run for profit; neo-liberalism – an economic philosophy that supports putting all public assets in private hands; and globalization – a recent process of international integration, in part thanks to technology, that has led to widespread pollution and conflict, and which contributes significantly to climate change are concurrent and recent processes that have institutionalized this state of affairs.

By voting and by empowering our representatives, we also agree to a social contract, which requires us to participate in this political and social system we are told we have created and which enables most of us to live in relative material comfort and to consume, with some civil rights such as freedom of expression and a fair trial thrown in to give us an illusion of participatory power.

There is plenty of disagreement in the West about whether this way of life is desirable, and it is under increasing attack from both conservative and progressive factions in all western countries.

Southeast Asia seems to simultaneously lag both behind and race way ahead of Western democratic realities. For starters, several Southeast Asian nations are by definition not democracies – Vietnam, Laos, Singapore and Brunei amongst them. Others toy with democratic ideas, under immense pressure from the West – Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia come to mind, while a third, small group of countries seem to have transitioned into something akin to democracy – most notably The Philippines and Indonesia. Not sure what’s happening in the Christmas Islands right now.

Basically, the fad hasn’t caught on. Both despite and because of Europe’s colonial history, followed by recent decades of brutal invasions and mass murder in the name of freedom, as well as a never-ending seductive stream of soft power – from Coca-Cola and Steve Jobs to Angry Birds –  in the name of freedom, Southeast Asia does not appear comfortable to let go of its past and, for the time being simply grabs those aspects of Western culture it finds immediately usable – aggressive materialism for the most part.

Democracy, however flawed we experience it in the West, is a step too far for the decision makers in Southeast Asia, because people participation and freedom of thought carry the risk of forcing the elites to share too many economic spoils with the man on the street. As Hong Kong based journalist Jame DiBiasio wrote in a recent essay on freedom of expression in Europe and Asia, “Most Asian countries suffer from truly criminal arrangements of power and influence, yet there is no sustained, industrialized platform for dissent, jokes, defiance or simple, rationally presented alternative arguments.”

At Speaker’s Corner in Singapore, one has to register with the government prior to speaking one’s mind; there’s no democracy at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok; there’s no freedom at Freedom Park in Phnom Penh. Alternative opinions on anything other than the artificial homogeneity constructed by the powerful continue to be suppressed in much of the region. Ismail Gareth Richards, a Penang-based writer and former lecturer on politics at Manchester University and the University of Malaya agrees, “Democracy in Southeast Asia – and liberal politics in general – has proven to be extremely fragile. Various forms of authoritarianism or electoral politics based on one-party rule or money politics remain pervasive. The emerging configuration of power – aided and abetted by the blueprint to create a single ASEAN Community this year – is best described as ‘liberal authoritarianism’.”

This is a shame. Liberal authoritarianism stifles culture, critical thinking and progressive development. It is ill equipped to deal with the population growth and environmental burdens Southeast Asia faces. Dēmokratía, as the Greeks believed, was a compromise that favored the rich. It was interchangeable with the term aristokratía, the rule of the elite. As the West moves back to this status quo, it will likely catch up with Southeast Asian nations like Thailand where students are stopped from reading a book published in 1948 or are arrested for defying the military with a hand gesture borrowed from a third rate Hollywood movie that appears to urge teenagers to resist authority. What a beautiful complicated world we live in, full of irony and sadness.

As mediocre as The Hunger Games movies may be, they were made in a democratic society. 1984 was written in a democracy. Popular culture is an expression of a more pluralistic society. In economic terms this is referred to as the creative industries. Everything from video games to dance music to sports car designs is the product of creative industries in countries that allow some degree of freedom of expression. The freedom to think and do, to experiment and express oneself, to get it wrong and to get it right, even to produce worthless garbage, is essential to the creative process. Perhaps that’s why selfies of underboobs are not an issue in the West just yet.

But there’s always a silver lining of sorts. At no point in human history have people around the globe protested as much as they do today, both in democratic as well as undemocratic countries, both for more rights and freedoms and, incredibly, less rights. This struggle between self-determination and subjugation continues, in South East Asia and beyond.

Perhaps it’s best to leave the last word to someone directly affected by the political drama in SE Asia, someone with no power but a significant stake in the region’s future. Nok, a 45 year old woman who sells orange juice in Bangkok’s Thong Lo district knows what she wants, “When we had democracy, the politicians cheated us. But we could choose our politicians. We could try and get rid of them with elections and the law. We didn’t always manage to do that. But now, we have no choice, and I am scared when I have no choice.”

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