What the ‘Death of Democracy’ Means in Southeast Asia

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On March 2, 1962, General Ne Win led a coup in Myanmar (then known as Burma) and established a military dictatorship which lasted until 2010. Slightly more than a decade later, on September 21, 1972, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law which allowed him to remain in power until 1986. And just a few years before that, on September 30, 1965, a mutiny led to the killing of some generals which provoked the Indonesian military to retaliate by arresting and killing communists and suspected sympathizers of communist groups across the country.

In Myanmar, the Philippines, and Indonesia, these were historic events which made a lasting political impact. For local scholars and activists, these were the days when democracy died in their countries.

The 1962 coup in Burma gave the military absolute power to rule over the whole country. While it didn’t end the ethnic civil wars which are still raging up to this day, it made the junta the most powerful political force in the country. A student uprising in 1988 challenged the junta but it was violently suppressed. Elections were held in 1990 but the junta ignored the results and arrested leaders of the winning party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).

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It was only in 2010 when significant political reforms were instituted which led to the release of political prisoners, the lifting of media censorship, and the holding of an and open and free election. The military is still influential in the bureaucracy but its party experienced a major defeat in last year’s election, which saw the NLD win a supermajority. Some observers noted that after 54 years, democracy was restored in Myanmar when the NLD assumed control of the government.

While there are various reasons why Myanmar remained an underdeveloped nation in the past half century, many are blaming the ‘death of democracy’ in 1962 as the crucial turning point in the country’s history.

Historian Thant Myint-U, who is also executive director of Yangon Heritage Trust, wrote a Facebook post which quickly became popular about the significance of the 1962 coup. “Burma was then one of the better off countries in the region, with a per capita income three times greater than Indonesia, twice that of Thailand and nearly equal to South Korea. Over the coming decades, the Burmese people would receive little in return for having to surrender their basic freedoms,” the historian wrote.

This argument is also invoked by pro-democracy forces when they accuse the junta of subverting not only Myanmar’s democracy but also the country’s development.

Interestingly, Filipinos also attribute the country’s lack of development to the brutal reign of a military-backed government. Marcos placed the country under military administration in 1972, purportedly to thwart a communist takeover. But his political rivals believed it was only a ruse to extend his term which was supposed to end in 1973. During martial law, opposition leaders were detained, media censorship was enforced, and the people’s civil liberties were taken away. When Marcos was ousted by a peaceful uprising in 1986, the Philippines was already known as the ‘sick man of Asia’ because of widespread poverty in the country. Marcos and his cronies were accused of plundering the nation’s coffers while majority of Filipinos lived a life of penury.

Marcos declared September 21 as National Thanksgiving Day. But for most Filipinos, it was the day when democracy died in the Philippines.

The events that led to the communist purge in Indonesia are not widely known and discussed because the government is unwilling to determine what really happened during those critical months when almost a million people died across the country. What is clear is that it led to the rise of General Suharto, who went on to rule Indonesia until 1998 when he was ousted.

Suharto is often compared to Marcos because both relied on the military for political support, both were accused of taking part in unprecedented corruption and committing human rights abuses during their term; both were unseated by a mass uprising. It was only after Suharto’s fall from power when survivors and other witnesses were able to testify about the 1965 mass killings. Indonesia’s democracy suffered during the reign of Suharto and the collapse began during the failed coup attempt on September 30, 1965.

Remembering the day when democracy died proved useful in mobilizing the people to take action in order to expel or challenge the anti-democratic elements in society. It is also an effective information campaign to keep the democratic struggle relevant.

In the case of Myanmar, it sustains the narrative to push the country’s transition to modern democracy. In the Philippines, it is once more a potent political issue because the son of Marcos is running for vice president in the May 2016 elections. In Indonesia, survivors and relatives of the 1965 anti-communist hysteria continue to seek justice and apology from the state.

Elsewhere in the region, civil society groups are accusing the incumbent ruling parties of killing democracy as part of a campaign to build a strong political movement. Thai activists are calling for the restoration of civilian rule after the army grabbed power in May 2014. In Malaysia, various groups formed a coalition to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Razak who is battling corruption charges. Najib is also accused of stifling the people’s right to free speech.

Democracy has died several times in Southeast Asia and its death has often inspired many people to join forces in order to bring it back to life. At times, it has taken many years and decades before democracy has been restored. But what is important is that the democratic ideal has become the true, unifying goal in the region.

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