From the sultanate of Brunei to the single-party socialist republic of Laos, Southeast Asian strongmen appear to have a firm grasp on political power across the region. As countries like Myanmar and Indonesia have offered powerful examples of democratic transition in their neighborhood, are these powerful autarchs here to stay, or is this their last hurrah?
Several background indicators indicate that, despite appearances, the strongmen trend will not last.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is battling pervasive corruption charges from all sides but has managed to hold onto power while quashing the opposition with dirty tactics; Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen rules with an iron thumb and resorts to government thugs to openly attack opposition politicians in the street; Thailand’s military junta, now more than two years in power, has dug in and appears here to stay; the Philippines recently elected a president who has openly voiced his support for extrajudicial killings and made crude jokes about the rape of an Australian woman.
Trying to decipher a trend is problematic in that it relies on as-yet unproven predictive powers. But one interesting dynamic to note is that, despite ongoing democratization, given more choice, electorates have continued to vote in strongmen. The phenomenon is not confined to Southeast Asia, as Basharat Peer, the author of a new book, A Question of Order: India, Turkey, and the Return of Strongmen, has noted. And of course there is no shortage of media attention on the rise of the populist, neo-isolationist candidate Donald Trump within (and on the fringe of) the Republican Party.
So is there an underlying, global yearning for more authoritarian rulers coalescing within the seams of our democratic institutions? Three broad trends help to explain the rise of strongmen internationally: rising inequality; globalization; and nationalism. They are often directly interrelated and vary in degree from country to country given differing circumstances.
Inequality is one part of the formula. As decentralization brings about greater opportunity and wealth, a wider portion of the electorate feel that they have been left out of this largely urban phenomenon, leading to social friction and populist anger. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte, the former firebrand mayor of Davao City, largely campaigned on promises to reduce inequality, which the outgoing administration of Benigno Aquino III was unable to do. Duterte’s message gained a broad base among the poor and most of the South, traditionally less represented in Manila politics.
Another dynamic is the backlash to the spread of globalization, visible in the demographic changes brought about by rising immigration. Immigration has been a touchy political issue in Malaysia and Singapore, both of which are perceived as islands of opportunity in a booming region. The influx of legal and illegal immigrants seeking employment has triggered intense debate in national elections.
In February, Malaysian authorities imposed a moratorium on employing foreign nationals, in response to national uproar following a government proposal to allow 1.5 million Bangladeshis into the country. The Home Ministry has now launched a massive campaign to round up and deport over two million illegal immigrants living in Malaysia.
Singapore has also had its fair share of problems stemming from immigration and its impact on labor and domestic politics. Michael Barr, a senior lecturer at Flinders University in Australia, suggests that despite its cosmopolitan status, Singapore’s large influx of foreign laborers has kindled xenophobia and nationalism and caused the ruling party a great degree of anxiety.
The backlash to globalization has sparked a corresponding rise in nationalism, seen across the region. In Malaysia, the ruling party’s pro-Malay policies have bolstered support for the autocratic Prime Minister Najib Razak and his United Malays National Organization (UMNO). Najib has used racial bias and religious nationalism to rally populist approval and has succeeded in redirecting popular resentments away from the government and toward “the other.”
In the Philippines, Duterte’s nationalist appeals and tough rhetoric on China have proved immensely successful. On the campaign trail, Duterte vowed he would ride a jet ski out to disputed reefs in the South China Sea to plant a Philippine flag.
Duterte has also gained notoriety and widespread support for his permissive remarks encouraging the extrajudicial killings of drug dealers. His braggadocio has led to the deaths of more than 400 drug users and traffickers in July alone, though human rights groups say that the figure does not account for the full extent of vigilante murders.
In Thailand, the junta of Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha has used the rallying symbols of the nation and the monarchy to suppress dissent and channel nationalist support. Under his watch, the regime has exponentially expanded the use of lese-majeste laws to detain and interrogate suspects, accused of criticizing the royal family, without recourse to legal representation.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights reported last year that the junta has summoned over 1,000 citizens deemed opponents of the government, many brought before military courts. The International Bar Association documents 690 summons in freedom of expression cases, and estimates that of 142 individuals prosecuted, 47 face charges of lese-majeste. Prior to the May 2014 coup, only five persons were serving much shorter sentences for lese-majeste charges.
From the Philippines to Thailand, dictators and despots have historically found fertile grounds for strongman rule. Despite continued democratic progress across the region – Myanmar’s dramatic political transformation and the transition from dictatorship to democracy in Indonesia and the Philippines – we continue to see the emergence of champions of illiberalism.
With 2016 demonstrating the persistent popularity of strongman figures in Southeast Asia, are these tough-talking autocrats here to stay, or is the current wave their last hurrah?
Until Southeast Asian strongmen address these underlying socioeconomic woes, the conditions that underwrite their power – economic inequality, social malaise brought about by globalization, and nationalism – might persist. The irony is that these autocrats depend on these trends enduring to justify staying in power, while their political support hinges on their success combating them. Time is not on their side.
Hunter Marston researches foreign policy and Southeast Asia at a major Washington, D.C.-based think tank. You can follow him on Twitter @hmarston4.