The dawn of the 21st century promised peaceful days in Southeast Asia. But today, despite advances in democracy and enviable economic growth, we face a range of regimes marked by various forms of authoritarianism. From the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines to the military regime in Thailand, to the marked shrinkage in Cambodia’s democratic space, to repression of the Rohingya minority in Burma by a government ironically headed by 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, to the growing anti-Chinese and anti-Christian movements in Indonesia, which led to the dismissal and possible imprisonment of Jakarta’s Christian mayor, how can we explain this authoritarian backsliding? Is it circumstantial or does it signal a general trend? How do we reconcile continued economic growth and a robust middle class with the rise of increasingly authoritarian political regimes? In short, is the region entering a new, postdemocratic political era?

Meeting place of Asia

As a region formed by the 11 states located between China and India,1 Southeast Asia is a meeting place for cultures, religions and trade. As geographer Rodolphe De Koninck points out, Southeast Asia is “a place of convergence, a crossroads, a synthesis of Asia.”2 The political trajectories of these 11 states have been marked by shared experiences: the impacts of colonization and decolonization (except for Thailand, which was never formally colonized); development challenges; the geopolitics of the Cold War; and the birth of a regional organization, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Set up in 1967, ASEAN initially brought together five anti-Communist states (Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines) before gradually expanding to include all other states in the region.3

These states have had political experiences ranging from armed revolutionary wars (Indonesia and the Philippines) and socialist revolutions (Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) to negotiated independence from colonial powers (Malaysia, Singapore, Burma and Brunei), and distinct economic trajectories during the 20th century. The region was at the centre of ideological conflicts and East-West clashes throughout the Cold War; it experienced “hot” wars between China and the Soviet Union and other armed conflicts between socialist states. Since the last decade of the 20th century, and especially following the 1997 Asian crisis, we have seen a convergence of economic models focused on exports and liberalizing financial markets led by the Asian “Tigers” (Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines), which joined the “Dragons” that had been firmly on that path since the 1970s (Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong). Vietnam and Cambodia are now closely following these emerging economies. The region’s economic growth rates are the envy of the world, not only in so-called Southern countries but also in the North (see table 1).

Apart from the one-party socialist regimes (Vietnam and Laos) and the absolute monarchy of Brunei, experiments with democratization processes were a common feature in the region starting in the second half of the 1980s. With American support, the 1986 grassroots uprising in the Philippines (referred to as People’s Power) ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos (and his colourful wife Imelda) from power and reinstated elected government. The 1990s and 2000s saw a return to civilian rule in Thailand (1992), the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia (1998), and more recently the decline in power of the military junta in Burma when elections were held in 2010, and again in 2012 and 2015.

Semidemocratic regimes,4 such as those in Malaysia and Singapore, have resisted democratization despite efforts by opposition parties or civil society organizations. These regimes hold elections and various political parties are invited to participate, but the party in power always wins.5 This is the case with the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which heads the Barisan Nasional, a national alliance that also includes the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). (The Malaysian election of May 9, 2018, was won by the opposition under 92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, who had headed a Barisan Nasional government for 22 years but had broken with the ruling party.) The city-state of Singapore has been ruled since 1959 by the People’s Action Party (PAP), founded by Lee Kuan Yew in 1954.

Economic successes and democratic setbacks

While economic development and the rise of a middle class were supposed to lead to a stronger democracy, the opposite seems to be happening now. Where democratic advances were made in the 1980s and 1990s (the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia and Burma), democratic space is now shrinking. Existing semidemocratic regimes (Singapore and Malaysia) do not seem disposed to make democratic concessions.

In the Philippines, we are witnessing the rise of a form of authoritarian populism embodied by eccentric President Rodrigo Duterte, who launched a massive campaign against drug traffickers that has so far resulted in the deaths of more than 10,000 people, generally suspected being low-level drug traffickers, mostly in poor neighbourhoods of Manila and other major cities. In addition, Duterte declared martial law over Mindanao, the second largest island in the country, following the occupation of a city in the centre of the island by an armed militia claiming links to the Islamic State. Despite Duterte’s authoritarianism, he enjoys the support of many members of Congress, claiming his supporters form what he calls a supermajority, and of the middle class, including the large Philippine diaspora. An efficient and virulent team of social media “trolls” are quick to threaten dissenting voices.

In Thailand, since the 2006 military coup against populist Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, reelected in 2005 with the largest majority in history, the military has intervened directly and indirectly several times. In 2014, it used the Constitutional Court to depose Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who had been elected prime minister in 2011. The power of the military in Thailand significantly increased with the 2017 adoption of a new constitution (the 20th since 1932) which limits the scope of the next civilian government, due to be elected in late 2018. Moreover, with the 2016 death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the ascension of his much less popular son, the army has strengthened its control of political institutions. Accusations of lèse-majesté (insulting the monarch), already used to silence dissidents, were levelled as never before, in particular against intellectuals and university professors considered too critical.

In early September 2017, the Hun Sen government in Cambodia, in power since 1985, ordered the arrest of its main opponent, Kem Sokha, head of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), accused of treason for a 2013 statement in which he admitted receiving financial and organizational support from American foundations working to advance democracy. Also in September, the country’s largest English-language daily closed its doors after receiving a massive $6.3 million bill for alleged tax arrears. Following a flirtation with greater openness in the 2000s, as Hun Sen sought closer relations with the United States, Cambodia has moved into China’s orbit and become increasingly authoritarian, with tighter control over civil society organizations and political opponents, among other measures.

Indonesia’s democratic transition began in 1998 with the departure of the Suharto family, in power since 1966. Even though presidential, legislative and regional elections have been held since then, the democratic climate has been cooled by the rise of populist Islamic movements which are often homophobic, anti-Chinese and anti-Christian. In April 2017, the capital Jakarta’s acting mayor, an Indonesian of Chinese and Christian origin, was defeated in municipal elections, even though he had emerged as the favourite after winning the first ballot in February. Not only did he lose on the second ballot, but he was arrested and imprisoned after being accused of blasphemy against the Qur’an. Beginning at the end of 2016, a series of racist (anti-Chinese) and anti-Christian rallies were organized by the orthodox Islamic Defenders Front (IDF), closely connected with former soldiers from the Suharto era. Recent events have raised fears of a new polarization and the return of political figures linked to the authoritarian Suharto.

The case of Burma (or Myanmar) is complex and evolving. After longtime rule by a military junta installed following a coup by General Ne Win in 1962, Burma’s hopes rose with General Thein Sein’s 2010 announcement of free elections. This marked the start of an electoral transition that led to victory in the November 2015 legislative election by the National League for Democracy (NLD), a longtime opponent of the dictatorship co-organized and led by political dissident Aung San Suu Kyi. However, any enthusiasm generated in the government’s first year and a half in power was eclipsed as Suu Kyi’s government seemed unable or unwilling to protect the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine State from massacres by radical Buddhist monks, often with the support of the army. Aung San Suu Kyi refused to clearly condemn these abuses. By September 2017 more than 330,000 Rohingyas had fled to Bangladesh and Suu Kyi announced that she would not attend the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly. Several Assembly members wanted a resolution to condemn the inaction of her government, Suu Kyi has since been stripped of many honours and awards, but this has not influenced her government’s actions.

Popularized by the late American political scientist Samuel Huntington, the idea of a third democratic wave helps us understand Southeast Asia’s political liberalization. The “wave” metaphor was inspired by democratic transitions that began with the fall of authoritarian regimes in Spain, Portugal and Greece in the 1970s, followed by transitions in the 1980s from bureaucratic-authoritarian to democratic regimes in South America (including Brazil, Argentina and Chile) and dictatorships and military regimes to democracies in Central America (Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala). They were joined by countries in Southeast Asia (the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia) and sub-Saharan Africa.

Though an inspiring metaphor for a ripple effect, it is clear from the cases discussed above that the democratic tide is receding and we are facing a global authoritarian ebb tide. In Southeast Asia we have seen “classic” semidemocratic regimes (Singapore and Malaysia) withstanding democratization6 and a growing number of hybrid regimes ranging from authoritarian populism in Duterte’s Philippines to the region’s single military regime (Thailand) to the increasingly repressive regimes in Cambodia and Burma. At the extremes of the spectrum we find the single-party systems in Vietnam, Laos and Brunei and, at the other end, the small state of Timor-Leste, which gained its independence from Indonesia in 2002. Timor-Leste successfully held open presidential and legislative elections in 2017, the first since the end of United Nations peacekeeping operations in 2012.

How can the authoritarian backlash be explained?

Can we speak of any convergence among these various regimes? It is possible to identify some common elements, several of which have been discussed above:

  • all states have sustained strong economic growth rates for more than a decade;
  • the economic growth model is based on promoting exports and opening domestic markets to foreign investment;
  • middle classes are growing;
  • most regimes hold national and local elections on a regular basis;
  • most regimes limit freedom of expression (journalists, intellectuals, NGOs, etc.);
  • most regimes are targeting specific groups with state violence (Rohingya Muslims in Burma, Chinese Christians and LGBT groups in Indonesia, accused low-level drug dealers in the Philippines, environmental activists, journalists and the opposition party in Cambodia, and intellectuals and university professors in Thailand).

One significant factor to consider is the growing importance of China. Already the region’s leading economic partner in 2011 (table 2), China is increasingly involved in numerous regional organizations and associations.7

Increasingly aggressive with its territorial claims in the South China Sea, antagonizing many in the region, China remains an important ally and trading and financial partner. Beijing has reduced tensions by setting up generous assistance programs, often involving infrastructure programs that offer the opportunity for regional governments to benefit from contract and other inducements. This may help explain why some states are willing to embrace authoritarian policies that run counter to recently dominant Western-backed liberalism. China is increasing its influence by supporting and encouraging regimes that may, in part because of their growing closeness to China, be isolated by the West.

A significant challenge to understanding regional current events is that much of the literature produced in the late 20th century focused on explaining democratic transitions and the ongoing strengthening of democracy. It has since become obvious that there is nothing linear or predetermined about democratic transitions, that backslides are possible, that an emerging middle class is not necessarily a sign of a democratic surge, and that regularly held elections do not on their own make a country democratic.8

With the end of the Cold War, authoritarianism is taking new and diverse forms that incorporate regular elections and make room for a liberalized, export-oriented economy. Often, governments do not challenge conglomerates and powerful families, preferring elite alliances and partnerships while guaranteeing access to mass consumer markets for growing middle classes. Finally, it is interesting to note that in terms of economic and trade policies, there is no longer much difference between one-party “socialist” regimes and semi-authoritarian governments identified with the traditional political right.

Political analysis is always challenging when new phenomena seem to surface. It is difficult to predict whether this regional trend towards hybrid (semi-authoritarian, elected) regimes will stabilize. As yet, we have no distance from the current situation, but a series of theoretical and practical questions need to be raised in light of the precarious situation human rights activists, journalists, intellectual and minority groups are experiencing in Southeast Asia, and the implications should this model take hold.


1 The name Southeast Asia in its current form is often linked with the Second World War and the 1943 Anglo-American Conference of the allied command in Quebec City, when the Allied forces organized their armies to thwart the imperial expansion of Japan, which had taken over a large part of the region. However, this expression already existed well before: see Rodolphe De Koninck, L’Asie du Sud-Est, 2nd revised edition (Paris: Armand Colin, 2005), p. 5. Today, Southeast Asia includes 11 states: Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, Timor-Leste and the Philippines.

2 De Koninck, L’Asie du Sud-Est. My translation.

3 Timor-Leste currently has observer status but will likely become a full-fledged member shortly.

4 William Case (“Can the ‘Halfway House’ Stand? Semidemocracy and Elite Theory in Three Southeast Asian Countries,” Comparative Politics, Vol. 28, No. 4, July 1996, pp. 437–64). states that these are cases of “halfway houses” in the sense that these regimes have both authoritarian and democratic features. Unstable democratic regimes and stable authoritarian regimes were in place when he wrote his article, whereas today it seems regimes are increasingly converging toward various forms of semi-authoritarianism (or hybrids), despite regular national elections.

5 Benedict Anderson, “Elections and Participation in Three Southeast Asian Countries,” in Robert H. Taylor, ed., The Politics of Elections in Southeast Asia (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 12–33.

6 Case, “Can the ‘Halfway House’ Stand?”

7 Dominique Caouette and Denis Côté, “Ripe For A New Asian Multilateralism? ASEAN and Contemporary Regional Dynamics,” European Journal of East Asian Studies, Vol. 11, No. 1 (September 2011), pp. 5–36.

8 See Allan Hicken, “Developing Democracies in Southeast Asia: Theorizing the Role of Parties and Elections,” in Erik Martinez Kuhonta, Dan Slater and Tuong Vu, eds., Southeast Asia in Political Science: Theory, Region and Qualitative Analysis (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008), pp. 80–101.