Reports of democracy’s death in Southeast Asia are not exaggerated. The writings are loud and bold across the walls. Democracy is fast dissolving in the crucible of autocracy in the region. A menacing military junta holds the reins in Myanmar. Democracy elsewhere in Southeast Asia is pathetic as well. Rapidly rising autocrats are cracking down mercilessly on voices and vehicles of democracy. This destruction is leaving behind a badly shattered picture of tomorrow’s democracy in Southeast Asia.

In Myanmar, the number of alleged heartless human crimes, their spread, scope and gravity have risen dramatically since the takeover by a military junta. To date, the military strongmen have killed more than 2,200 and arrested more than 15,000, based on a report from the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. In June this year, the military junta in Myanmar revived the death penalty after 30 years to execute a few anti-coup activists. The proceedings were not made public. They were carried out in a military court. The judgements too were not public. All signs of democracy dying.

Myanmar’s Descent into Darkness

This malafide military junta has no interest in restoring democracy in Myanmar. The junta is making Myanmar a failed democracy today. Worse, it is unleashing atrocities on the people of Myanmar with no remorse.  In utter disregard for global opinion, the military musclemen have flung behind bars, Vicky Bowman, a former British ambassador to Myanmar. Topping it all, they have slapped a long and harsh jail term on Aung San Suu Kyi, a diehard champion of democracy and an ousted National League for Democracy leader, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 1991.

Aung San Suu Kyi was overthrown in the February 2021 coup and was held in solitary confinement. She was due for a sworn-in for a second successive term. Thus, her confinement proves democracy is dying in Myanmar.  Later, Aung San Suu Kyi was slapped with a 11 years’ imprisonment on a variety of charges. If convicted, each of these 11 charges will be punishable by a jail term of up to 15 years.

As trends and events suggest, Myanmar is rapidly descending into a hellhole. Brutal conflicts are set to maim Myanmar badly. Antigovernment guerrillas may lock into a ding-dong battle with the military junta, spilling blood all over. Yet, the junta will have the firepower to cling on to power. Sadly, democracy in Myanmar is destined to be on the deathbed for long.

Illiberal Populism in Philippines

Philippines is no better. Former Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte was no lover of democratic rights of his citizens. He cracked down hard on media and civil society until the end of his term in June 2022. His support base was among the elites, not among the poor. Thus, he was away from the supporting arches of democracy. As an illiberal populist, Duterte eliminated liberal constraints in the courts and elsewhere.

Duterte was a headache for democracy in Philippines. Incumbent president Ferdinand Marcos Jr does not come across as a relief either. He is expected to emulate his predecessor by cracking down on media and civil society. On his inauguration, Marcos Jr arrested noted activist Walden Bello and Senator Leila de Lima and threw them into jail where they continue to languish to date. As a sympathiser of criminals of democracy, Marcos Jr is now ensuring Duterte is insulated from probes related to his rights-abuses.

In Asia’s oldest democracy, a Marcos strongman bouncing back to power proves Filipinos’ double standards on democracy and their implicit approvals to autocracy. After all, Marcos Jr condones Duterte’s anti-democratic practices and is likely to continue to do so for long.

The Malaysian Manoeuvring

Meanwhile, Malaysia has jailed former Prime Minister Najib tun Razak for alleged crimes. Yet, the ruling coalition dominated by Razak’s party, which reigned over Malaysia autocratically for decades, has not been rejected.  Expect the 2023 general elections to be marred by mass manoeuvring and unbridled horse-trading.  By all means, the elections may end as a shameful sham show.

Despite multi-pronged multi-party contests, the long-dominant United Malays National Organisation (Umno) is likely to win the general elections. Umno has ruled over the Malaysian political landscape by means foul and not fair. With a fractious opposition in the fray, the undemocratic Umno and its allies are sure to romp back. This will not be good for Malaysian democracy.

Moreover, Razak will bounce back if Umno wins. Razak’s revival is sure to relegate his corruption charges and his 12-year jail sentence to obscurity. Thus, Razak’s revival would become his new passport to power. Money and muscle power would be used. Thus, the coming general elections will be unfair, maiming democracy in the process.

Indonesia’s Democracy Deniers

President Joko Widodo is an unsuccessful democracy denier. He tried to amend the law enabling him to get a third term. He failed in this and he is bowing out soon. However, under his watch, he did nothing to prevent abusage of democratic rights. The Indonesian military sent two soldiers to prison for being gays. The sentences were anti-democratic and widely condemned by rights groups. Imagine this is in a country where homosexuality is legal.

Jokowi will now have a serious contender for his throne. Defence minister Prabowo Subianto is running for presidency in 2024. With Jokowi out, Prabowo is sure to emerge victorious. Great, what is wrong with Prabowo? The problem with Prabowo is his ideology: he does not believe in democracy.

Baleful Influences on Democracy

Time and again, Prabowo has mouthed horrors declaring Indonesia’s democracy and democratic reforms are blunders. By implication, he means Indonesia should switch over to autocracy. In reality, he wants to be Indonesia’s autocrat. Plus, he believes in re-centralisation of power in a few hands. Autocracy plus concentration of power, these are cornerstones of Prabowo’s political ideology.

With such condemnable dictatorial streaks in him, Prabowo will not be good for Indonesian democracy. He may put an end to regional and local elections, which would deny Indonesians democratic participation roots up. Bad luck for Indonesia, Jokowi may endorse Prabowo in the coming 2024 elections. These are bad omens for Indonesian democracy. They are sure to harm people empowerment in Indonesia and prove to be baleful influences on democracy at home and in Southeast Asia as a whole.

Undoubtedly, Prabowo is an authoritarian populist. He is a megalomaniac, given to delusional grandeur. He loves to demonise religious minorities. Above all, Prabowo has a terrible rights record. According to Human Rights Watch, Prabowo is alleged to have overseen massacres and brutal crackdowns on pro-democracy rights activists. Thus, if Prabowo gains power, it would be a black day for Indonesian democracy.

Spells Trouble for Thai Democracy

Not far from Indonesia, in Thailand, a pro-military parliamentary coalition hangs on to power. This misguided coalition has banned opposition parties and decreed judges become subservient to the military. Thailand’s ruling party is collaborating with the principal opposition party to get electoral rules reversed. This will rob smaller parties of their ability to win seats. Again, democracy denied.

Democracy calls for equal opportunities for all parties, large and small, to present themselves to the voters. Denial of such equality spells trouble for democracy. Precisely, this is happening in Thailand. Now, elections are due in 2023. Thais are sick of the incumbent government which is led by a military-aligned formation.

In all likelihood, Thais are expected to vote en masse for pro-democracy opposition parties. However, pro-military parties and their allies are sure to keep the opposition out of power. Bad news for Thai democracy.

Dynastic Cambodian Democracy

Move over to Cambodia, where a ‘wily’ prime minister Hun Sen has been reigning since 1985. Today, he is trampling over media and unleashing a harsh crackdown on opposition parties and ordinary Cambodians. In a blatant display of dynasty politics, Hun Sen is planning to install his son Hun Manet as his successor around the 2028 general election. This anti-democratic dynastic choice would ring the death knell for democracy and usher in constitutional monarchy in disguise.

Vietnam too exhibits many of the attributes of an authoritarian state. Vietnam continues to be a one-party state. For decades, the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam has lorded over the Vietnamese. Most independent candidates are banned from running in legislative elections. The authoritarian Vietnam state imposes tight restrictions on freedom of expression, religious freedom and civil society activism. Of late, the state has been cracking down on the use of internet and social media for expressing dissent and sharing uncensored information. These diktats are pernicious to the health of democracy.

In Conclusion

To be sure, 2023 and the years thereon threaten to be terrible for democracy in Southeast Asia. There could be solitary patches of brightness as pro-democracy opposition may win in a few closed pockets in far-flung regions. This will not be enough to keep democracy alive and kicking in Southeast Asia. The tragedy is snarling at us. Undeniably, democracy in Southeast Asia is on a deep dive down.