In spite of the tendency for journalists and academics to routinely nominate one ASEAN country or another as a sign that democracy can and possibly will finally take hold in the region, there is very little real evidence that, beyond the desire to take part in elections, the people of Southeast Asia care very much at all about such things as rule of law and human rights.
And while it may be argued that there is a silent majority in the region who do care about these things, it has become very evident that the middle classes absolutely do not. It goes without saying that Southeast Asian elites, like their confreres around the world, never do, no matter what lip service they feel required to perform to maintain trade relations with the EU and US.
The people of the Philippines have just elected “Asia’s Donald Trump”, an experienced politician who campaigns by making jokes about going first in gang rapes and bragging about the criminals he has executed. Personally, that is. He promises to kill 100,000 more as President. Far from denying charges of human rights abuses, he used his links to “death squads” as part of his platform. His overwhelming victory coincides with a return to international visibility of the Marcos family, with son Bongbong losing the vice-presidency by a slim margin while mom Imelda and sister Imee retained their positions in the House of Representatives and a Governor’s mansion.
Myanmar, everyone’s “democratic favorite” of the moment, has just elected its first “civilian government” since 1962. It is no coincidence that the de facto leader of this administration is the daughter of the “Father of the Nation”. Regardless of her family connections to the history of Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi is only partly in charge of the government and even the areas she may have control in are subject to military veto. Suu Kyi has always talked a good game when it comes to democracy and human rights but she has refused to adopt a democratic position regarding the Rohingya, having gone so far as to request that the US no longer refer to them as such, thus signalling her acquiescence to the Buddhist nationalists who prefer to insist on the foreign status of a people they are engaged in “slow genocide”against.
In Cambodia, the opposition party sends almost as many people to jail as to the parliament and its leader is forced to live in exile. Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power for 31 years, once said “What the U.N. says doesn’t bother me. The problem is my people and whether they support me.” This was in response to a question about a UN report confirming the political executions of 41 opponents. Executions of opponents and imprisonment of labour and other activists continue apace.
Thailand is ruled by an increasingly brutal and absurdist congeries of Generals who also make jokes about women in bikinis getting raped and murdered while ordering the arrest and imprisonment of a dissident university student’s mom for posting “Yeah” on Facebook. The most successful democratic politician in Thai history once famously said “The UN is not my father” when asked about human rights observers coming to investigate the more than one thousand extrajudicial executions he oversaw during his War on Drugs. The death squad-style killing and a raft of genuinely beneficial pro-poor policies garnered him a landslide victory after becoming Thailand’s first ever elected PM to serve a full term.
Singapore under Harry Lee perfected a form of “soft authoritarianism” and hid it under a steaming pile of “Asian values”, a somewhat paradoxical strategy to be adopted by a Cambridge-educated son of parents whose first language was English and whose grandfather was educated in English at the utterly colonial Raffles (as was Harry). Like the people who went on to create authoritarian governments in South Korea, Lee Kwan Yew collaborated with the Japanese during WWII. And like Brunei, the only absolute monarchy in the region, Singapore’s “democratic” leadership operates on the hereditary principle.
Of the four remaining old-style “communist” states in the world, two are in Southeast Asia. Lao PDR and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, while not quite as venerable as either Cuba or China in terms of longevity, have been one-party states since the Americans ran off with their tails between their legs in 1975 after slaughtering 3-4 million people in order to make Southeast Asia “safe for democracy”.