THE OUTLOOK for democracy and human rights in Southeast Asia is “bleak” with the world’s largest Muslim-majority country Indonesia offering the best hope for democratic progress in the region, parliamentarians, academics and rights activists from across the region have warned.
Convening at an event gloomily titled “Our Race to the Bottom?” hosted by the Jakarta-based TIFA Foundation last Friday, panelists lined up to lament the rapid decline of democratic values and institutions across member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) bloc.
Cambodia’s Mu Sochua – Vice-President of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) which was dissolved by the government in November – declared that the Kingdom’s democracy had “died” because Prime Minister “Hun Sen wants to hold on to his power for 10 more years”.
Mu Sochua described having to desperately pack her belongings and leave Cambodia within 24 hours of the Cambodian Supreme Court’s decision to disband the CNRP on November 16 under orders from Hun Sen, who has ruled the country for more than three decades.
Wearing the colours of the CNRP would see citizens branded as members of a “colour revolution” or “a servant of the US” by the government according to Mu Sochua, who said escaping Cambodia was the only option to avoid a similar fate to the party’s imprisoned leader Kem Sokha.
While some 200 local members of the CNRP had fled to Thailand, this was “no longer a safe place” under the Thai military junta which ousted a democratically elected government in 2014, she said.
These “same problems” associated with rising authoritarianism could be observed across the region, argued Dr Khoo Ying Hooi from the University of Malaya, pointing to censored and restricted internet and governments accusing non-profits of being “foreign agents”.
Indeed, all 10 member states of Asean are classified as “not free” or only “partly free” by US-based democracy watchdog Freedom House.
The politicisation of religion and rising fundamentalism could also be witnessed in many cases whether in Indonesia during the Jakarta election or in Burma (Myanmar) under the National League for Democracy (NLD), said Director of Bangkok-based SEA Junction Dr Rosalia Sciortino.
Growing economic disparities at a national, regional and global level is providing “fertile ground for populist movements”, she said, as has been witnessed in the most extreme form with the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Buddhist-majority Burma.
Indonesia the democratic behemoth
“Only Indonesia gives the light that democracy can be achieved by a developing country,” said Kasit Piromya, a Democrat Party politician and a former Yellow Shirts activist from Thailand.
Panellists broadly agreed that Southeast Asia’s most populous country and the third largest democracy on the planet, Indonesia, was its best hope for ongoing democratic progress and the preservation of civil and political freedoms.
Piromya praised and gave “congratulations and my profound respect” to Indonesia’s military establishment for surrendering its political power during Reformasi – a period of democratisation after military-backed dictator Suharto stepped down in 1998.
The world’s largest Muslim-majority nation has since been referred to by Professor Edward Aspinall of the ANU as the “surprising democratic behemoth” of Asia.
Nevertheless, observed Amnesty Indonesia’s Director Usman Hamid, Indonesia’s government under Joko “Jokowi” Widodo had “put aside” ending impunity for past human rights abuses including the 1965 mass killings of an estimated 500,000 to a million alleged communists.
Moreover, the rights of minorities such as the LGBT community or Ahmadis and Shia Muslims were under siege in Indonesia, said Usman.
The future of Asean
“Let’s not always kid ourselves that things are always going to get better,” said Dr Nicholas Farrelly Associate Dean of ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.
The role of China in fostering authoritarianism and propping up undemocratic regimes was also raised by many speakers. Its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative is seen to be driving not only the economic but also political influence of the Chinese Communist Party in the region.
Cambodian PM Hun Sen and the head of Burma’s military have both been welcomed in Beijing in recent weeks.
Aung San Suu Kyi had made three visits to China within less than two years of holding office, said Rosalinn Zahau from Open Society Myanmar. “In the heat of global criticism, Myanmar is getting closer to China,” she added.
Suu Kyi had criticised Asean’s strong non-interference principle when an embattled democracy advocate under house arrest, said Zahau, but now in power she had consistently supported it.
Mu Sochua said despite Asean’s culture of non-interference, however, when there is a tragedy” the Cambodian opposition would continue to partner with those who’d supported democracy there, which was “why I am in Indonesia”.
“We refuse to say we accept the race to the bottom.”