Cambodia, Vietnam highlight ‘troubling reality of Southeast Asia’s democratic recession’



The Trump administration announced Wednesday it will restrict visas for Cambodians “undermining democracy” in the Southeast Asian nation following the dissolution of the main opposition party and a crackdown on independent media. The State Department said it was a direct response to “anti-democratic actions” by the Cambodian government but did not disclose which individuals would be affected, Reuters reports:

In recent months, the government has intensified restrictions on civil society groups and independent media outlets. In September, it shut down the English-language Cambodia Daily. Authorities have shuttered radio stations that aired programming from U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, whose reports they allege are biased. The government also expelled the U.S. National Democratic Institute [a core affiliate of the National Endowment for Democracy], which helped train political parties and election monitors, accusing it of colluding with its opponents.

The apparent suddenness of Southeast’s Asia’s “democratic recession” is partly owing to historical circumstance, according to Dr Diego Fossati and Dr Lee Morgenbesser of the Griffith Asia Institute and the Centre for Governance and Public Policy:

This is a region that has always displayed recalcitrance to democracy, where universal notions of political rights and civil liberties have never been widespread. The continuity of authoritarian rule has ensured that any optimism about the broader growth of democracy invariably appears misplaced. This inconvenient truth is underscored by current political events, which have plunged Southeast Asia into an even deeper democratic malaise.

In addition to the alarming democratic rollback in Cambodia, “a much less-noticed crackdown has been under way in Vietnam for several months now,” they add. “The most consistent target has been civil society organisers, online bloggers and democracy promotion activists, all of whom have been quietly detained by the ruling Communist Party” [which presides over a regime riddled with corruption].

Civil society groups, including the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) strongly protested the condemnation on appeal of prominent blogger and human rights defender Nguyễn Ngọc Như Quỳnh (aka Mẹ Nấm – Mother Mushroom – left) to ten years in prison last week. The court upheld the sentence pronounced against her on 29 June 2017 on charges of propaganda against the state” (Article 88 of the Criminal Code).

“Vietnam accuses her of acts that are nothing other than the basic exercise of the right to free expression. All citizens have the right to care about public affairs and the future of their country” said VCHR President Võ Văn Ái. “This courageous woman’s real “crime” is that of identifying Hanoi’s strategy of perpetuating a climate of fear, and she is paying a high price for this today”.

Policies that ignore human rights and democracy in Asia will not benefit the US or the region. To the contrary, they are placing America’s long-term interests at risk, argues Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of  A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA.

“As in Cambodia, many of Asia’s strongest supporters of democratic change are young men and women. Opposition parties in Malaysia, Cambodia, and other Southeast Asian countries attract a high share of young people, as do many of the media organizations and civil-society groups now under pressure. And, most important from the standpoint of national interest, the US has built its strongest partnerships in Asia with other democracies,” he writes for the Diplomat.

While a democratic recession may originate from several interconnected factors, a look at the recent history of democratic experiments in Southeast Asia suggests that policy failure and lack of participation may be especially consequential in exposing democracy to legitimacy crises, Fossati and Morgenbesser contend:

  • First, many Southeast Asian societies are divided along ethnic, religious and geographic lines, which increases the incentive for politicians to promise narrow, selective benefits to their supporters instead of policies that could benefit larger segments of the population. Democracy may strengthen in Southeast Asia if political competition becomes more programmatic and less patronage-based. This implies a stronger emphasis on the effective delivery of public goods like economic growth, public safety and transparent governance. Better policies strengthen the legitimacy of democratic institutions and dampen the inflammatory power of populist rhetoric.
  • Second, Southeast Asian democracy – to the extent it exists – has often been dominated by elites perceived as being unaccountable.  This dominance typically translates into a lack of policy alternatives and genuine competition, which in turn feeds scepticism about the prospects for meaningful participation in democratic processes. Thinking of new ways to increase political engagement, especially beyond elections, is crucial for the growth of democracy in the region. This goal may be achieved by providing new opportunities for grassroots engagement at various levels of government and by leveraging the participatory potential of new technologies, as popular participation strengthens democratic institutions by fostering a sense of ownership and satisfaction with the decision-making processes associated with democratic rule.

Where democracy has arrived in Asia — as it did in Cambodia under the auspices of the UN in 1993 — it has in several cases quickly been subverted or demolished, the FT’s Victor Mallet noted in a review of Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia, by Michael Vatikiotis, who identifies three main reasons for his forebodings about the region’s democratic prospects:

  • First, inequality — and the selfishness of the business-political elites that have benefited disproportionately from economic growth both before and after Asia’s financial crisis. Just as populism has been fuelled by resentment over inequality in Trump’s America, in Brexit Britain and in oligarchical Hong Kong, so the 40 per cent of Indonesians clustered around a poverty earnings line of $2 a day are easy prey for demagogues. It is true that prosperity has also swollen the ranks of Asia’s middle class, but this aspiring and increasingly educated bourgeoisie is governed by the same set of authoritarian leaders and their coterie of tycoons. “This is not a sustainable paradox,” the author writes. It sounds like a recipe for revolution.
  • The second reason is the erosion of tolerance and the rise of identity politics, whether the issue is religion or ethnicity. Vatikiotis cites figures showing that 1.6m Asians have died in “sub-national” conflicts (in other words, in wars within states and not between them) since 1947; more died in such conflicts in Asia in the decade to 2008 than in all other conflicts elsewhere in the world combined. …
  • Third and last, there are those outside forces: not only the intolerant, well-financed Islamism of the Gulf but also the rise of China as the latest imperialist superpower insensitive to the needs or wishes of its putative client states. ….

Against this bleak backdrop, does democracy still stand a chance in Southeast Asia? Fossati and Morgenbesser ask, prior to convening internationally established scholars to discuss perspectives of authoritarianism and democracy in the region at a workshop to be held next week at Griffith University. Fossati 

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