Theme Panel: Democratic Backsliding in Southeast Asia

Democratic Backsliding in Southeast Asia

The democratic back sliding we now see in the west is not new in Southeast Asia. Manipulated elections, press and assembly controls, greater enforcement of lèse majesté laws, weakening public attitudes and values towards democracy, elite stoking of populist illiberalism; Southeast Asia has it all. The political fallout from the 1997 financial crisis included a transition to more democratic regimes in Indonesia and Thailand, and increased political activism in Malaysia. Seemingly not too long ago, the 2015 election in Myanmar appeared to be a positive move towards democracy. Yet, these positive steps towards democracy have been undermined by other recent events: the 2014 coup in Thailand, Duterte’s victory in the Philippines and the rise of extra judicial killings there, horrific atrocities committed against the Rohingya in Myanmar and the rise of religious populism in the Jakarta governor’s election and continued state dominance in Singapore and Malaysia. Referencing Garry Rodan and Kanishka Jayasuriya’s work on representation, we will ask who is being represented who not? Is populism and/or the rise of appeals to religion always antithetical to democracy and tolerance? What is the impact on domestic policy making and on foreign policy? How or where are foreign pressures influencing domestic politics, or where is that is no longer happening? What institutional features (the nature of elections, the role of the military, unitary vs. federal states, the political party systems) might make democracy stronger or weaker and why? And, what is the impact for human rights and citizens’ well-being across the region? Panelists for this session will address these questions and themes across multiple countries in Southeast Asia.

Duncan McCargo will discuss the ways in which elections can be postponed or subverted in the Southeast Asian context. He will assess Thailand’s prospects for a return to representative politics following the May 2014 military coup and the (now repeated) delays in holding fresh elections, and he will look at Hun Sen’s regime’s 2017 abuse of legal proceedings to abolish the main opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, thereby reducing the planned July 2018 election to the level of farce. Meredith Weiss will address issues such electoral mobilization and malfeasance in the context of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Her work takes into account issues of nationalism and ethnoreligious politics, civil society, gender and sexuality, and new media. She will discuss long standing dynamics of political networks, party and coalition structures, and the roles and strategies of legislators and other political leaders across the region. Amy Freedman will assess changes in public opinion and attitudes about democracy over time and across countries in Southeast Asia. She will discuss how public opinion has been shaped by political elites and for what purposes, and how larger global dynamics may impact domestic politics. Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung will analyze elections and ethnic politics in Myanmar. Her wide ranging interests include questions of civil military relations, security, internal conflict and violence in Myanmar and she will address how these relationships have changed or been challenged by new electoral procedures. Ann Marie Murphy has expertise in Southeast Asian foreign affairs and her work bridges the gap between comparative politics and international relations. She has done extensive work on the domestic politics of migration and of climate change and she will assess the effects of democratization on foreign policy formation in Indonesia.


Amy L. Freedman, Long Island University, CW Post (Chair)
Duncan McCargo, University of Leeds (Presenter)
Ann Marie Murphy, Seton Hall University (Presenter)
Meredith L. Weiss, SUNY, University at Albany (Presenter)
Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung, (Presenter)