The working paper, written by CFR Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia, Joshua Kurlantzick, argues that the significant democratic gains Southeast Asia made in the 1990s and 2000s have begun being rolled back over the last four years.
Kurlantzick begins by noting that not too long ago Southeast Asia was championed by democracy advocates as a leading example for other regions to follow. While the region was largely autocratic throughout the Cold War, the first two decades of the post-Cold War era saw most countries in the region at least make greater progress towards democracy. Kurlantzick argues that this was the result of multiple factors, including the end of the superpower rivalry, emerging middle classes after decades of rapid economic growth and new communication technologies that empowered these new urban middle class populations to challenge authoritarian governments.
Kurlantzick also points out that during this period there was a regional push toward democracy. During the 1980s, Northeast Asian states like Taiwan and South Korea had become democratic. Moreover, after the Cold War the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) began to take a greater role in promoting human rights and political reform.
In the early 1990s, this led to the emergence of new democracies in places like the Philippines and Thailand, as well as failed attempts to orchestrate democracy in countries like Myanmar. The devastating impact of the Asian Financial Crisis in the late 1990s only served to further discredit authoritarian governments. In countries like Indonesia, this paved the way for democratic movements to overthrow existing regimes. In Indonesia’s case, this resulted in two new democracies as a result of East Timor becoming the independent and democratic state of Timor-Leste.
Even non-democratic countries witnessed significant political reforms, Kurlantzick points out. For example, the opposition movement led by Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia continued to gather greater support, forcing the ruling coalition to allow them some degree of power. Singapore’s opposition also began gaining power while criticizing the People’s Action Party became more acceptable. Later, in 2010, Myanmar began implementing political reforms under Thein Sein that reduced the role of the military and allowed the main opposition party to run in elections.