Since Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won the 2015 elections, Myanmar (the former Burma) had become one of Southeast Asia’s hopes for democratic opening.
The recent coup in this country has not only broken them , but has also highlighted a more general trend in this region: the increase in restrictions on freedoms and the oppression of minorities, favored by measures against the pandemic. and the perception of a decline in the western liberal model, in addition to the rise of China as a regional power.
The return of the generals to the Government of Myanmar – although they never left completely – has turned upside down a region in which democratic references were already scarce.
The power struggle between Suu Kyi’s NLD and the Tatmadaw – as the Burmese Army is known – broke out when, after the overwhelming victory of the Nobel Peace Prize in the elections last November , the Armed Forces found that very they would probably never succeed in winning at the polls through the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party, which did poorly.
“When we say that Myanmar returns to the path of authoritarianism, we are assuming that Aung San Suu Kyi was a perfect icon of democracy, and she is not. Unfortunately, perhaps it is a sad reality, but Southeast Asia may not be as politically progressive as we would like to believe, ”says Yun Sun, director for China of the think tank Stimson Center.
Although the mandate of Suu Kyi in Myanmar was full of shadows, especially for its inaction against the accusations of genocide against the Muslim minority Rohingya by the Tatmadaw , there was still some optimism around to give a twist rudder. With that option canceled for the moment, Myanmar joins the long list of neighboring countries that either have maintained autocratic regimes for years, such as Cambodia, Laos or Vietnam, or are heading down shady paths.
“The state of democracy in Southeast Asia is chronically fragile. In this sense, what has happened in Myanmar should not be considered a surprise ”, considers Michael Vatikiotis, author of the essay Blood and silk, power and conflict in modern Southeast Asia.
The region experienced a period of renewed democratic expectations between the eighties and the end of the nineties, due to events such as the fall of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986, or the resignation of Suharto in Indonesia in 1998.
Since then There have been ups and downs: the Freedom House organization considers that between 2014 and 2019 there was a stagnation and the Intelligence Unit of the weekly The Economist indicates a setback from 2016.
Among the many reasons is the greater influx of the Chinese authoritarian model as an alternative to what is perceived as a West in decline, given the rise of populism and events such as Brexit. As a finishing touch, the coronavirus has offered the perfect excuse to some leaders to undermine freedoms in pursuit of the control of infections. “The pandemic has generally stifled dissent in the region, as people have put their health and income before the political struggle,” adds Vatikiotis.
Malaysia, for example, has declared a state of emergency from January to August to, in principle, control the increase in cases, although many suspect that there may be underlying political motivations. Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who is in office for one year in March after a controversial internal coup, could take advantage of it to win support and avoid being removed if he loses his weak parliamentary majority, since the Constitution does not provide for the resignation of a leader during the state of emergency.
In the Philippines, which has imposed one of the longest lockdowns on the planet, the pandemic has given its president, Rodrigo Duterte, license to increase his control, while pushing constitutional changes that may be aimed at extending his term beyond 2022.
According to the NGO Human Rights Watch, between last April and July, murders in the framework of Duterte’s war on drugs increased 50% compared to the same period of the previous year. In Thailand, pandemic measures have been used to restrict protests that have been taking place for a yearagainst the monarchy and its prime minister, General Prayut Chan-ocha. Singapore, governed by the People’s Action Party since its independence, uses contagion-tracking apps for criminal investigations, sparking criticism from activists and human rights organizations.
To the suppression of freedoms under the pretext of the coronavirus are added the own national circumstances; Indonesia, one of the paradigms of democracy in the region, has fallen into a spiral of Islamization that keeps religious and ethnic minorities in grip, as is also the case in the Muslim Malaysia.
Other countries, such as Cambodia, where Hun Sen has ruled since 1985, have bluntly suppressed the opposition in recent years, increasingly putting themselves in Beijing’s orbit of influence.
Alliances with China, the largest trading partner in the region, have gained strength in the face of the apparent lack of interest in this area shown by the other great Pacific power, the United States, during the term of Donald Trump.
Some also expect more from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN, made up of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and Brunei) in the face of crises such as the one in Myanmar.
“ASEAN should dialogue with China and Russia to put pressure on Myanmar,” urged the president of the ASEAN group for human rights, the Malaysian Charles Santiago, last Tuesday at a press conference. Vatikiotis anticipates that the pandemic recess will bring “new protests throughout the region, motivated in part by the serious economic impact of covid-19.”