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Economic on the rise, Freedom on the fall: Democratic dilemma in Southeast Asia

Updated: Nov 9, 2021

Mass protest on the street, banners painted with red hot words targeted at the elected government were the regular scenes in political news in Southeast Asian media.

Why Southeast Asian countries always plagued with protests after the democratic election? Dr. Nobuto Yamamoto, Ph.D. in Government from Cornell University, threw this question at the beginning of the recent seminar in NCCU under the topic “Introducing Southeast Asian (media) Studies: From Novels in the 20th Century to New Media in the 21st Century”.

To answer that question Dr. Nobuto guided us to the new age of "Freedom" in Southeast Asia which could answer how come people could not satisfied with their own elected government.

Diving deep into the meaning of freedom, Dr. Nobuto stated that the major response to this concept has happened since the French revolution in the 18th century. Southeast Asian nations adopted its meaning and believed that people live in a kind of liberal world, despite it contradicted to actual experiences in their society.

Freedom House evaluated democratic factors such as political rights, civil liberties and free elections in Southeast Asia and concluded that all countries were not having full democracy. The best index showed up was the “partly free” countries including five nations, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Timor-Leste. Another five graded as “Not free” were Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The 2019 Press Freedom Index showed a more worrisome result, when most countries remained in the “difficult situation”, with Laos and Vietnam bottomed out in the “very serious situation”.

For the freedom on the internet, the Philippines is the only free country. Four partly free countries are Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. Not free countries are a trio, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam.

From Dr. Nobuto’s observation, freedom degree dived down in the opposite direction of economic hype which World Bank once branded some countries (Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia) as a part of East Asian Miracle in 1993.

As a result, the interpretation of freedom for the context of Southeast Asia should be differentiated, especially since the last three decades which politico-socio-economic factors have changed.

Social division was undeniable factors. When exploring the ideas of rights in the regional context, it created both opportunity and obstruction of freedom. People might enjoy the process of democratization, calling for new laws to guarantee more freedom, but it didn’t mean they satisfy with equal treatment for everybody.

In reality, there is a conflict of right or interest in society. Dr. Nobuto drew the closest example of the 2018 referendum in Taiwan which the surprising outcome showed that the majority still opposed same-sex marriage.

For the class and ethnicity wise, the elite tended to care more about property rights over political rights which oppose the majority who cherish more about the right of political participation.

The prevailing of identity politics was another proves that people would like to have a representative of the same ethnicity or religion to preserve the power in the government. This fragment was witnessed in the country such as Indonesia.

“The politico-socio freedom didn’t get along very well with economic growth in Southeast Asia. The more neoliberalism and market activities were prioritized, the more state government gain stronger regulating power and control. Those countries turned into the developmental authoritarianism in the context of the Asian Cold War”

In the 1980s, market-oriented economic policy has dominated developed countries in Southeast Asia. The stronger bound to this policy was endorsed by ASEAN, the organization that creates an economic cooperation framework for ten nations. Unfortunately, the issues about political and civil rights were not the foremost agenda they addressed to.

Why freedom was brought into different practices in Southeast Asia? Dr. Nobuto shared a few reasons. The first assumption was the belated democratization as many countries had been under the authoritarian regime for too long and have just experienced the political transformation in the 1980s-1990s. The people revolution prevailed in recent histories, such as People revolution in the Philippines in 1986 where the collapse of the Ferdinand Marcos regime brought democratization and the end of Suharto’s reign in Indonesia.

Secondly, the 1997 Asian economic crisis caused a dramatic change in many countries. The uprising in Indonesia took hold after people suffered from the economic downturn and eventually cause Suharto and his military administration to step down.

The so-called Tom Yum Kung crisis also pave the way for IMF into this region as they gave more power to local government to implement financial reform under close scrutiny to made sure that the ideas of liberalism and capitalism were well implemented.

As a result, this scheme also strengthened the neoliberal politico-economic system and institution in this region.

The global war on terror was the third attribution to a different understanding of freedom. When the Berlin wall collapse, the victory was with democracy. But after the September 11 incidents, the fear of terrorists rolled over every nation across the world, including some Southeast Asian nations which also the home for local terrorists. Social security and stability were prioritized. People demand oligarchy or strong leadership to solve the problems. Hence, the police and army became more visible in this area.

Around this time, the widespread of social media and smartphones have waked citizen journalism. But the influx of information didn’t create unity among people but rather widen the social division.

“People distrust the government and elected politicians but somehow has to depend on them. So the social media platform such as Facebook and Twitter are widely used to express their disagreement. People would select the media based on what they would like to hear the most which made the social media’s usage caused more division than unity” Dr. Nobuto said.

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