Diminishing Democracy in South East Asia

With majority of power in the hands of a single individual as in Thailand and Cambodia, single parties in China, Laos and Vietnam, and diminishing democracy in Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, the South East part of Asia has never been known for its democracy.
But another name was added in the list of non-democratic countries in South East Asia on February 1, 2021 as Tatmadaw (official name of military of Myanmar including army, navy and air force) declared a nation-wide emergency following arrest of outgoing President Win Myint, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and several chief ministers and NLD leaders. While the other leaders are reportedly held under house arrest, Suu Kyi has not been seen since her arrest on Monday morning. Suu Kyi`s party (National League for Democracy) NLD managed to achieve a clear mandate in the general elections held during November 2020 by getting around 83 percent of the total votes polled which gave them a victory on 315 of 440 seats to the House of Representatives, and 161 out of 224 seats to the Upper House (House of Nationalities). But the Tatmadaw had been accusing her for using unfair means to win the elections. According to their accusations, around 9 million electoral irregularities were witnessed across seven states in Myanmar. While they have been complaining about the same since the results have been declared and also approached the Union Election Commission and the Supreme Court regarding the same, the judgment is still pending and the case is under judicial custody. But in midst of this, the army declared emergency in the name of “saving the constitution”. Since her arrest, signs of resistance and civil disobedience have been growing in major cities of Myanmar like Yangon. While the military imposed night curfews and regular patrolling of troops, people are still coming out to protest by car honking and pot banging. Many activist groups have turned to social media to organize civil disobedience protests and unite the citizens. The terror of previous military coups is still fresh in minds of Burmese and they are not willing to witness it again. In many hospitals, medical staff has stepped away from providing non-emergency services. Many health workers have extended their support to Suu Kyi by participating in the “Red Ribbon movement” by putting on a red ribbon on their clothes.

The army has always played a major role in Myanmar’s politics. Even after establishment of democracy 8 years ago marking the end of five decades long military rule, the current constitution granted Tatmadaw an essential position in the legislative processes, giving them reservation over 25 per cent seats for the military officers in the houses. And since no constitutional amendment is possible without a three-fourth majority in the houses, their roles become crucial. While the army has declared that their intentions are just to save their country and have announced that they will organize re-elections after a year, the past events make it difficult to believe them on this.
In May 2014, something similar happened in Myanmar`s neighboring country Thailand. Almost seven years ago Thailand`s military under the leadership of Prayut Chan-o-cha led a coup against a democratically elected government and taking over the authorities in the name of ‘stabilizing’ the politics and ‘restoring’ peace in the country. But what was supposed to be a temporary authorization of power turned into a five year long military dictatorship. Prayut also issued an interim constitution stating him as ‘not guilty’ for leading the coup. In August 2014, a military-dominated national legislature (not elected by the public) appointed him as Prime Minister and he is continuing to serve as the Prime Minister of Thailand till this date.

Another instance of over taking a democratically elected government was witnessed in a country 1900 kilometers away from Myanmar –Cambodia. In 1997 despite of emerging as the single largest party in the general elections FUNCINPEC party was forced to come in coalition with the Cambodian People’s Party led by a military ruler Hun Sen who refused to step down from his position.

Under section 417 of Myanmar`s constitution, Tatmadaw has the power to impose emergency to safeguard the nation and the constitution. But what is being projected by the military as a spontaneous action towards a crisis seems to look like a well-planned strategy to make sure that the Tatmadaw continues to enjoy its power. Over the past years, Aung San Suu Kyi and her party have been pondering over the possibility of a constitutional reform that would in the long run minimise the role of Tatmadaw in Myanmar`s politics if not completely eliminate it.

Suu Kyi has also recently been losing support both in her country and internationally. Suu Kyi who was earlier considered as the face of change in Myanmar`s politics hoping that she will focus on human rights and fair democratic policies lost this image when she started covering up for military`s inhumane actions especially against the Rohingya Muslims. Instead of standing against them, she defended Min Aung Hlaing (Commander in Chief of the Defense Services), and due to this she even lost the support from the international organizations. Suu Kyi turned down the international criticism by referring herself as a politician and not a human rights activist. But the truth is that she could not be good at either one of them. She took no action to help three ethnic Kachin (people living in northern Burma and nearby parts of China and India) activists who were allegedly defaming the military and sentenced to prison. And she did nothing to disrupt the highly profitable business activities of the firms owned by the military.

China has not yet condemned or favored the military coup but it did use its power in United Nations Security Council to veto out a joint statement on Myanmar`s military coup because of which no decision could be made. China reasoned that international pressure will only make things worse in Myanmar. China has always protected Myanmar from international scrutiny whether it was on the issue of Rohingya Muslim Minority or this military coup. So while China will certainly benefit by alienating one of its closest allies and trade partner from the west it may not still favor the coup. While Beijing has a pretty good arrangement with NLD, the military has always been suspicious of China`s intentions. Suu Kyi kept ties with China even after being aware of the fact that the relationship with Myanmar’s biggest trading partner could not be taken for granted. Beijing has in recent years invested billions of dollars in Myanmar, to form a China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (part of the Belt and Road Initiative) currently under construction to connect Kunming in Yunnan, China, to the Kyaukpyu special economic zone on Myanmar’s western coast.
But the increasing non- democratic rules in the South Eastern Asia is a cause of concern especially when considering the fact that it is surrounded by countries like China and North Korea who have a long history of violating international laws and disrupting world peace. Currently when tensions are at their peak between US and China it`s not a good sign if China has its neighbors being dictated by military leaders. The newly elected President of United States, Joe Biden very strongly condemned the Tatmadaw actions and comparing the incident with that of recent Capitol Hill attack he stated that a democratically elected government should not be over ruled and the mandate should be accepted. Rising authoritarianism is a reason of concern also because this region serves as a major route of transportation for Asian trades. ASEAN (The Association of Southeast Asian Nations) is a regional intergovernmental organization which comprises of 10 South Eastern Asian countries- the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, Brunei, Cambodia and Vietnam. Established in 1967, this region has a great role in world`s trade. It is believed that if ASEAN was a single nation, it would have been world’s fifth-largest economy.

Thus, while the South East Asia is suffering and there are genuine concerns due to regime dynamics, there is hope that a region that is economically progressive and young and has an immense geopolitical significance will witness leaders with aim of improving the politics of this region. Established democracies of South Asia like Japan, India, and South Korea should also work with Western democracies to make sure that the agenda of “for the people and by the people” should be upheld in this region of world and not the desire of populist south East Asian regimes. Attaining economic prosperity should not come at the cost of people`s will and free choice. Myanmar`s incident is also a reminder that democracy should not be taken for granted. It is the only authentic mean which allows the citizens to enjoy their rights and freedom.

-Priyanshi Mishra (Freelancer)

Picture Credits: New York Times

Most Popular

To Top