These days, when the intrepid journalists and NGO press release writers (is there a difference?) who “cover” SE Asia talk about the “Retreat of Democracy” hereabouts, they almost always mean the retreat and/or failure of liberalism.
But that doesn’t matter to these people because, in the western chauvinist view, any regime that isn’t liberal is, by definition, not democratic– no matter how much support it has from its people– because what makes a regime in the old colonial world “democratic” is the support of western journalists and NGOs.
And they say we live in a post-colonial world!
Thailand, which as anyone will tell you was once a “beacon of democracy” in the region, is sliding down the league tables for everything from democracy to freedom of the press to simple all-round freedom. If there is anything a western liberal hates more than a military junta it’s hard to say what that might be. And while they tend not to like populists, even when elected with significant majorities, and even when they remain popular with majorities of their electorates, military juntas are really really really bad.
The paragons of liberal evangelizing do, however, always seem to avoid discussion of Egypt when going on and on about the evils of military governments, perhaps because the Obama State Department was loath to label the coup there as a coup (because Muslims?) and because the EU has mysteriously maintained and supplemented its trade relations with Egypt, at the very same time as it has put all discussion of free trade with Thailand on hold until such time as what passes for democracy in Thailand has been restored.
It may be because the Thai junta has curtailed freedom of speech and expression and jailed some 100 people for violations of Lese Majeste and other laws limiting speech while the Sisi junta has only murdered some 800 protesters and jailed and tortured thousands.
Or could it just be that since al-Sisi has been elected with a landslide 97% of votes in a recent election, the Classics Illustrated definition of democracy has been adhered to and there is no need to wonder about what would otherwise be a glaring discrepancy? Inquiring minds want to know.
We all need a sense of proportion I suppose.
Perhaps “‘Tis a muddle, and that’s aw” as Stephen Blackpool in Dickens’ Hard Times might have said of this odd discrepancy, and it’s best to leave it at that. As anyone who has ever tried knows, asking difficult questions of liberals is often the quickest and easiest way to find yourself accused of racism and/or being a cast member of “Literally Hitler”, since not holding the approved opinions is obviously an indication of holding the evil ones.
And Myanmar, which just a couple of years ago was the journalist’s and NGO’s emerging “beacon of democracy” for the region, is mired in tragedy with 700 thousand Rohingya having been forcibly relocated to Bangladesh and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi having had her portrait removed from the foyer of some building in some college in the UK. Sometimes it’s hard to know which of those things strikes western people as more ‘significant’, but that’s pretty much par for the course.
The British colonization of Burma rarely if ever comes up in journalistic accounts of the ethnic conflict in Myanmar, regardless of the fact that it’s plainly a case of the British colonial policy of ethnic mixing for the purpose of creating division and weakness having foisted on the Burmese an intractable problem that most of these journalists and all of the NGO folks probably believe GOOGLE could solve with a Diversity Memo, as long as people like James Damore are kept out of the loop. Why won’t these “Burman supremacists” just recognize that diversity is strength and that decade after decade of endless inter-ethnic war is not evidence to the contrary?
We are not, after all, dealing with intellectuals when we talk about journalists and NGO people. They are more like a species of the (usually) male backpackers who, having read and reread their Lonely Planet and Rough Guides, sit in cafes and guesthouse restaurants throughout the region holding forth to the less literate members of the fraternity on the exotic wonders of the cultures of SE Asia. Given half a chance, these westsplainers will even launch into lecturing the locals on what their cultures are really all about. At that point, said backpacker is half way to a career in NGO finger-wagging or journalism.
And this is how the rest of the world comes to understand SE Asia.
As horrible as the situation of the Rohingya unquestionably is, the people of Myanmar stand solidly behind both Suu Kyi and the Tatmadaw, an organization many of them most definitely did not like or trust until just recently. The democratic legitimacy of the present hybrid administration in Naypyidaw is not really in doubt, except of course to those whose preference for liberalism over democracy leads them to the conclusion that Burmese Buddhists are just another “basket of deplorables” in need of correction by the UN, if not even more forceful foreign “democratic” compulsion.
Perhaps Hillary could convince her friends in Saudi Arabia to contribute to the process of enlightening the benighted Burmese in much the same fashion as they are doing in Yemen. Perhaps liberals in the media and NGOverse could offer explanations as to why the Rohingya “issue” has received so much coverage and the tragedies unfolding in Yemen and South Sudan so little by comparison. But then again, Ken “Interventions ‘R’ Us” Roth of Human Rights Watch is hardly a voice to be trusted in relation to actual human lives as opposed to human rights.
But Thailand and Burma have been superseded as exemplars of “Democratic Retreat” in SE Asia, as the international news cycle churns, and audiences become immune to yet another heartbreaking photo of doe-eyed Rohingya children and one more chilling portrait of a clown-faced Thai general making cracks about women who wear bikinis asking for rape.
The “beacons” of populism and authoritarianism most in the spotlight these days are Roderigo Duterte of the Philippines and Somdech Hun Sen of Cambodia, a pair of worthy contestants in the media competition to crown the Most Evil Destroyer of Democracy in SE Asia.
Duterte seems a likely champion: he has overseen and joked about and justified the extrajudicial execution of some 8000 mainly very poor people in his war on drugs. He makes Thaksin, the on-again off-again hero of democracy in Thailand, look like a real piker for only having killed between 1300 and 2700 in a similar deployment of police-based death squads.
Duterte, like Prayuth in Thailand, makes rape jokes that send the outrage monitors spiraling out of control around those parts of the globe that go in for that sort of thing, but Duterte seems to have ingested a witches brew of curdled testosterone and methamphetamines before he does his repulsive performances of toxic masculinity. He goes so far as to claim to have killed personally in his quest for justice and suggests that gang rape would be OK if only he gets to go first. Trump is an amateur at provoking PC outrage in comparison to Duterte.
But consistent with the liberal horrorshow vs democratic success pattern I am outlining here, as of January this year Duterte had the highest approval ratings, including a measure of “trust”, of any Philippine president since the 80s and the People Power Revolution. As was the case with Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand, who won a historic second term in a landslide after years of consistent criticism for human rights abuses (including the extrajudicial executions in his drug war and repeated flagrant attempts to intimidate and silence media voices), Duterte maintains his democratic legitimacy and the support of his electorate.
But here, of course is where the liberal media and the liberal NGOs and the liberal academics beg to differ. Having the support of an electorate is not a sufficient condition for claiming democratic legitimacy. especially when that electorate is made up of poorly educated ‘peasants’ or desperately poor people who are angry at the people who occupy the liberal, predominantly white, empyrean, where all justice is just and all jokes have been cleared by the PC censors before any politician dares utter them.
For this unseemly constellation of personalities and mass emotion we have the handy term ‘populism’, which is used to refer to “Rule by the Basket of Deplorables” by people who would rather not be frank about the class and race hierarchies they cling to even as they deny them utterly. You might say of people like Duterte that while “they may be sonsofbitches, they are most definitely their sonsofbitches”, and so need to be excoriated and deposed if at all possible.