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...