Civil Society and Democratic Decline in Southeast Asia
Part 1Session 8
Fri 09:00-10:30 Room 3.02
Part 2Session 9
Fri 11:00-12:30 Room 3.02
- Eva Hansson Stockholm University
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An uphill battle? Thailand’s 2020 protests in light of autocratization and polarization nexus
Janjira Sombatpoonsiri Institute of Asian Studies
In this presentation, I demonstrate how the nexus of autocratization and polarization hindered the effectiveness of Thailand’s 2020 protest campaigns against the Prayuth Chanocha-led regime. I focus on the interplay of three mechanisms. The first one was the regime’s use of counter-mobilization to stifle protest movements. Second, such a tactic leveraged enduring political polarization to legitimate counter-movements and to disrupt movements’ agenda that sought a governmental change. Third, the context of entrenched polarization shaped movements’ divisive framing strategies that played into the hands of regime’s counter-mobilization. I argue that these dynamics undermined movements’ resistance against autocratization by forging a ‘war of attrition’. Ultimately movements were forced to confront both security apparatus and regime mass supporters, thus draining its limited resources and most importantly political momentum. The Thai case is chosen for this analysis because of the presence of intertwined factors under investigation: a history of political polarization, pro-regime mass mobilization, and recent autocratization. I juxtapose event data of anti- and pro-regime protests in 2020, with Twitter hashtags coined by these parallel movements. These hashtags reflected divisive frames that have sustained the regime.
Myanmar’s path to a new constitution
Marcus Brand International IDEA
Myanmar finds itself in a situation of legal and constitutional uncertainty. The democratic coalition made up of elected representatives, civil society and ethnic organizations has embarked on an inclusive process to design a new constitutional framework that would transform Myanmar into a highly decentralized, but democratic and civilian-led federation that protects and respects diversity and fundamental rights. A Federal Democracy Charter has been agreed and charts the way towards a transition process. My presentation will outline the principles, structures and processes this established and will discuss the challenges and opportunities.
Philippine Civil Society and Democratic Regression under Duterte: Connivance, Resistance, and Legacies of Elite Co-optation in the Context of a Weak State
Jasmin Lorch GIGA Institute for Asian Studies - German Institute for Global and Area Studies
While Philippine civil society was long known as a textbook example of a strong civil society, which brought down an authoritarian regime and pushed democratic reforms, Philippine civil society organizations (CSOs) have so far failed to counter democratic regression under populist President Rodrigo Duterte. My contribution seeks to explain this seeming paradox by analysing the political strategies by which Philippine CSOs have sought to achieve their goals. It argues that both the historical role of Philippine civil society in promoting democratic change and its current inability to counter Duterte’s growing authoritarianism can be traced to the alignments that Philippine CSOs have forged with diverse political elites in the context of a weak state. Already prior to the election of Duterte, Philippine CSOs were caught in a vicious cycle of growing dependence on political elites and diminishing ties to their marginalized constituencies and Philippine society, which ultimately also increased their vulnerability to the Duterte government’s use of political repression. Framed in the theoretical terms, which inform this panel, this means that Philippine civil society has been unable to effectively exert diagonal accountability owing to its lack of independence from the very same political elite forces that have also captured key vertical and horizontal accountability mechanisms, including, in particular, the electoral process and the Philippine legislature.
Democratic backsliding, civil society backsliding in Cambodia
Sokphea Young University College London
Cambodia’s ruling regime has been reverted from democracy to autocracy as the electoral system has been replaced by the façade theatrical electoral platform that alienates opposition parties from political participation. The maneuverer to do so has allowed the ruling party to control all segments of the state system, politically and economically, limiting the space of autonomous civil society organisations. The latter has been since the first election in 1993 regarded as the by-product of the Western democratic effort. Civil society organisations have been the critical factor contributing to democratising the regime through their educational and empowerment activities. As of 2017, the ruling party terminated the main opposition party and their coalition. Let alone the civil society organisations, as the third actor in the democratic performance, struggled to restore the democratic backsliding in the country.
Maturation or Degradation of Democracy in Indonesia: the Challenge of Populism
William Hurst University of Cambridge
Since at least the early 1970s, and really since 1965, any type of left-leaning mobilisation was strictly taboo in New Order Indonesia. Class-based political coalitions of farmers, workers, or the urban poor were thus firmly off the table. A relative safe space emerged in corners of the religious community, though this was also strongly constrained in the latter Suharto years. With the advent of democratisation and the end of New Order, elements of religious mobilisation re-emerged, but left-wing politics remained suppressed and moribund. As Indonesia’s democracy matured during the Megawati and SBY years, leftist politics never revived, while Islamist parties and groups – far from gathering strength – also began to fade. Over the past decade a new brand of populism has leapt to the fore: a right-wing cross-class vehicle in the form of Gerindra and Prabowo Subianto. Pulling in labour unions, farmers groups, religious parties, and others, the movement has built a truly broad tent in a way not seen in decades. Increasingly, Indonesian politics have become a contest between elites (e.g. in the form of the PDI-P coalition under Joko Widodo) and the new populist right, a pattern that mirrors other countries’ experiences across Southeast Asia and beyond, but I contend springs from different origins and displays idiosyncratic dynamics. This paper will review the genesis of Gerindra populism, explore the dynamics of Indonesian political contestation and mobilisation today, and examine possible future trajectories of elite-mass divisions and state-society relations.
Protesting in the Time of Pandemic: The #Lawan Movement, Youths, and Democratic Regression in Malaysia
Azmil Tayeb Universiti Sains Malaysia
Ilaiya Barathi Panneerselvam Universiti Sains Malaysia
On July 31st 2021, an estimated crowd of 2,000 people gathered at a rally in central Kuala Lumpur. A loose coalition of young individuals from various political backgrounds identifying themselves as Sekretariat Solidariti Rakyat (SSR) organised the rally. Themed #Lawan, the protest put forth three primary demands: resignation of the then prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin along with his cabinet members; automatic moratorium on loan payments; and the parliament to reconvene. These demands were echoed by the civil society apparently as a result of the Muhyiddin led government’s perceived failure in combating the Covid-19 pandemic and abusing the sweeping power enabled by Emergency Ordinance to suspend the Parliament and thus prevent the general election from being called. Under the pretext of virus containment, Muhyiddin’s subsequent measures were deemed as an attempt to retain his power despite failing to affirm his majority in the parliament. Both sides of the political divide called for his immediate resignation. Against this context, SSR launched several activities of discontent against the PN government and primarily the prime minister’s resignation. Overwhelming response for the movement and their demands was expressed over social media platforms. Yet, the government seemed to be unperturbed by the growing online discontent, which eventually led to the decision of conducting a mass protest at the Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square), in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. While the concern of the pandemic lingered in the air, the state launched intimidating measures against the organisers with continuous police investigations and detention of an activist. These two critical factors (Covid-19 and State intimidation) nevertheless did not prevent a sizeable crowd from joining the #Lawan protest. Majority of these protesters were youths (defined as under 30 years old). By using Social Movement Theory, this paper attempts to critically examine the factors, intentions and conditions that drove the youngsters, whom many of them were first-timers, to join a public protest in the time of pandemic.
Although the number of formal democracies has gradually increased in Southeast Asia since the 1980s, scholars simultaneously note a disconcerting trend of democratic regression or failure to consolidate. Both Indonesia and the Philippines have experienced serious democratic backsliding, for instance, democracy in Myanmar has broken down completely, Thailand remains on a rollercoaster of democratization and autocratization, Malaysia seems unable to complete a democratic transition, and Cambodia’s feeble democracy has collapsed into hardening autocracy. Academic analyses of these regimes and their status tend to highlight structural features such as elections, as well as leadership – particularly with the crowd-propelled ascent of populist leaders such as the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte. Such focal points home in on forces that might exert horizontal or vertical accountability: institutional and electoral checks on anti-democratic tendencies. Equally important, yet less commonly addressed, are sources of diagonal accountability, or how specifically such extrainstitutional domains as civil society and media might help to interdict, or fail to take action
against, democratic decline.
This double panel looks at how civil society in Southeast Asia has reacted to episodes of democratic backsliding and autocratization. Panelists will address specifically how civil societal organizations and actors – from NGOs, to trade unions, to student associations, to independent media – have reacted to executive aggrandizement, the hollowing out of electoral and judicial platforms, and shrinking safe space for autonomous political participation in those states in the region that have completed or attempted transitions to democracy: Panelists will explore the extent to which civil society acts as a firewall against democratic decline or autocratization in one Southeast Asian state, framing their investigation in theoretically engaged terms – including when other civil society organisations exert countervailing, anti-democratic pressure. In their papers, they will identify agents and mechanisms of diagonal accountability: how, and under what conditions, can civil societal actors succeed in halting or slowing processes of democratic erosion, and when do these efforts fail? And to what extent, and in what ways, can this sort of accountability supplement or stand in for debilitated institutional and electoral accountability mechanisms?