AAS Annual Meeting

Southeast Asia Session 566

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Session 566: Aberration or Adaptation? Illiberal Democracy in Southeast Asia - Sponsored by the Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs

Organizer and Chair: Donald K. Emmerson, Stanford University, USA

Discussants: Donald K. Emmerson, Stanford University, USA; Larry Diamond, Stanford University, USA

Has the time of liberal democracy in Southeast Asia come and gone? Partisan intransigence in the wake of a military coup has destabilized democracy in Thailand. An electoral oligarchy has thwarted the democratic promise of the Edsa revolution In the Philippines. Freedom House has downgraded both countries from “Free” to “Partly Free.” Racial privilege, state religion, and political persecution have eroded civil liberties in Malaysia. In Indonesia, corruption, impunity, and elite collusion bedevil democracy in what Freedom House reckons is the one “Free” country in Southeast Asia. Singapore’s long-lasting, high-income, stable, effective, and illiberal quasi-democracy confounds expectations of political reform. These trends have triggered epistemic shifts. In the lexicons of politicians, analysts, and donors of development aid, “good governance” has replaced “democratic government” as a policy priority, as if the two goals were independent of each other. The spectacular rise of China has lent undoubted appeal to that country’s combination of a relatively open economy with a mainly closed polity. As for the border-leaping challenges of the future—rising seas, extreme weather, transnational terrorism, contagious disease, cybercrime—they may be less amenable to electoral mandates generated every few years from the bottom up than to elite expertise applied quickly in a crisis from the top down. This panel will explore the extent to which the present decline and vicissitudes of liberal democracy in Southeast Asia are a contingent aberration that will not jeopardize eventual civil liberty and accountable rule, or whether illiberal democracy is a rational adaptation to empirical conditions that will not soon go away.

Promoting Autocracy? China's "Charm Offensive" in Southeast Asia
Marco Bunte, Independent Scholar, Germany

During the last decade, China’s economic and political influence in Southeast Asia has increased considerably. China has not only become a main trading partner in Southeast Asia but also a leading investor. Chinese aid now outstrips that of democratic donor countries in, for example, Cambodia and Myanmar/Burma. Some observers fear that Beijing’s “soft power” policy toward Southeast Asia will encourage illiberal regimes an bolster authoritarian states. Is China a threat to democracy in Southeast Asia? China’s development model combines economic growth with a closed political system. That example is attractive to Southeast Asians to varying degrees and in different ways. It is, however, promoted most successfully in states (such as Cambodia, Myanmar/Burma, and Vietnam) that are already authoritarian and where state elites already profit from close ties with China. The model’s appeal and impact in more open societies (such as Indonesia and Thailand) are far less visible.

Democracy and the Quality of Governance
Francis Fukuyama, Stanford University, USA


The Good vs. the Many: Reformism and Populism in Thailand and the Philippines
Mark R. Thompson, City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

Self-proclaimed reformists in Thailand and the Philippines overthrew corrupt and brutal dictatorships in the so-called “Black May Events” of 1992 and in the 1986 “People Power” uprising, respectively. “Angel” defeated “devil” parties (as they were dubbed in Thailand) with promises of democratic reform—constitutional, economic, and social. Yet less than two decades later former reformists in Thailand acted extra-constitutionally, including supporting a military coup in 2006 and the brutal suppression of “red shirt” demonstrators in 2010. Thus did the “yellow shirts” seek to combat a “populist” Thaksin Shinawatra—a former prime minister whom they accused of corruption and “terrorism.” In Thailand today, the red “many” still appear to support Thaksin, while the yellow “good” may continue to subvert electoralism indefinitely in the name of upholding political virtue. The Philippines is less polarized, thanks to the illegitimacy of the previous (Arroyo) administration. In the current and second Aquino presidency, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, III has taken up the reformist mantle of his mother Cory. But the elite-led “people power” coup against the elected populist president Joseph Estrada a decade earlier showed Philippine reformists to be as willing as their Thai counterparts to act in disregard of democracy. A proposition commonly heard in academic and elite discourse in both countries is that only by targeting clientelism and corruption can the erosion of liberal democracy be reversed. This paper will instead argue, from a post-communist “left” perspective, that the neo-class cleavage that has emerged in both countries must be acknowledged, represented, and institutionalized if electoral stability is to be restored and democratic consolidation achieved.

Ground Up or Ground Down? Local-level Democracy in Indonesia
Benny Subianto, Independent Scholar, Indonesia

Democracy in post-Suharto Indonesia is not notably illiberal; civil liberties have been affirmed and largely maintained. Yet corruption, impunity, and elite collusion persist, not just nationally but locally as well. In sub-national elections, candidates who are implicated in criminal cases win large numbers of votes; some win the elections themselves. Because the financial burdens of running are high, corrupt practices are embedded in the very process of democracy. How similar are Indonesia and the Philippines in this respect? In the Philippines, political clans have fashioned an electoral oligarchy. But if the concentration of land ownership in the hands of Filipino elites explains their ability to generate their version of façade democracy, what is the basis of electoral oligarchy in Indonesian local elections? Answering this question would entail, in part, explaining the rise of thugs (preman) in local politics in post-New Order Indonesia. John Sidel among others has pointed to the parallel roles of “local strongmen” in Southeast Asia, including vote brokers (chao pho) in Thailand. It is time to revisit these parallels and to ask whether and how, in Indonesia, ostensible gains in democracy nationally are being eroded by electoral manipulation and intimidation at the local level. Some analysts were always skeptical of the democratizing effect of elections. The Indonesian Ulamas’ Council has suggested that regional heads should be indirectly chosen by regional legislators, as under Suharto. In relation to democracy’s shortcomings in Indonesia, are local elections part of the solution, or part of the problem—and with what implications for the future?