Southeast Asia has entered a period of potential crisis.
The COVID-19 pandemic is devastating the regional economy at a time of political transition. Several of the region’s largest governments are struggling to maintain their legitimacy as they deal with fractious internal politics, contentious elections or outright public protest. These factors have led to economic stagnation and political disenfranchisement – the same influences that led to political uprisings in the Middle East during the “Arab Spring.” And just as it happened a decade ago, the United States runs the risk of being caught flat-footed.
The U.S. government, preoccupied with its own national election, will not be able to effectively respond to any form of regional crisis or political upheaval. This shortfall is alarming. Washington needs to plan for how it will manage its bilateral and multilateral engagements in Southeast Asia in the event that political instability leads to public uprisings, authoritarian suppression or human rights violations. The United States needs to plan for an “Asian Fall.”
The catalyst for change will likely begin with Southeast Asia’s disenfranchised youth – younger populations that are now unemployed and tired of the region’s endemically ineffective governance. Last week, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) amended its annual forecast for Southeast Asia: the region in now expected to record a negative 3.8 percent GDP growth rate in 2020 – the first economic contraction for the region in over 60 years. In its latest economic outlook, the World Bank similarly estimated that the economies of the developing Southeast Asian nations – the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations minus Brunei and Singapore – could contract by as much as 4.7 percent. Regional labor markets are drying up as the COVID-19 pandemic persists and governments struggle to respond.
Formal unemployment rates only tell half of the story. A fraction of the workforce in Southeast Asia is employed in the formal economy. A majority work in informal settings where family-owned businesses, verbal contracts and daily cash wages are the norm. The International Labor Organization estimates that nearly 85 percent of youth employment within the Asia-Pacific takes place in the informal economy. The lack of formality complicates official statistics and renders much political assistance ineffective. In Vietnam, for example, rural migrants cannot access social services as they are often not registered with local governments. The end result is an economically devastated youth population that cannot rely on their government for support.
The economic situation is similar to the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s, in which widespread popular protests led to changes of regime in Thailand and Indonesia. Student groups and youth demonstrations mobilized both public and political opposition to reform institutions of governance. Protests demanded greater accountability, transparency and regulatory mechanisms to curtail ineffective governance and kleptocracy. The lesson from that crisis is that reformers were not interested in simple policy reform. Instead, they demanded fundamental political reform aimed at changing institutions of governance – institutions they perceived were illegitimate or ineffective.
Within this context, it is important to note that many Southeast Asian governments are already dealing with a legitimacy deficit. Fragile democratic regimes in Myanmar and the Philippines have indulged their worst authoritarian impulses. Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen continues to quash domestic dissent and stamp out a nascent pro-democracy youth movement. In Indonesia, President Joko Widodo has struggled to chart a cogent political course, vacillating between democracy, authoritarianism and appeals to the increasingly powerful Islamic constituencies that threatened to galvanize public discontent following Indonesia’s contentious 2019 presidential election. Malaysia has struggled to find its political identity following the dissolution of the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition in February. These influences have made effective governance difficult, as evidenced by the haphazard public health responses to the pandemic in some countries.
Amid the political turmoil, Thailand’s pro-democracy movement threatens to prompt an outright political crisis. In addition to calls for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Pran-o-cha are heretofore unseen demands for reform of the Thai monarchy. Once a revered institution in Thai society, the throne has faced increased scrutiny for its sheer wealth, increased control over the military and the use of lese-majeste laws and other charges to imprison public critics. The criticism of King Maha Vajiralongkorn offers a strong contrast to the reign of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who often played a mediating role in Thai politics, defusing complex political protests and legitimizing the transition of power during Thailand’s numerous military coups.
Instead of bolstering his public image, King Vajiralongkorn has moved to assert his control of the military, the power base of the ruling political class, which seized power during the 2014 coup. Earlier this week, the king chose General Narongphan Jitkaewtae to become the next Royal Thai Army Commander in October. Narongphan’s appointment is widely seen as a rebuke of the prime minister, who had favored the less hawkish General Natthapon Nakpanich. The king will continue to enjoy complete loyalty from the highest levels of the Army, which could move to protect the monarch if protests continue to grow. In August, current Army Chief General Apirat Kongsompong publicly commented, “With COVID-19, first you protect yourself. Then you protect others. And it can be cured. But … this disease of hating one’s own nation is incurable. They lampoon about their motherland.”
Likening political unrest and protest to an “incurable disease” is particularly problematic in light of the fact that the pro-democracy movement continues to grow. More than a thousand protesters congregated outside of the country’s parliament on Thursday night as lawmakers announced the need for a parliamentary committee to review protesters’ demands for constitutional change. The move was largely received by the public as a stalling tactic and an unprecedented “#RepublicofThailand” hashtag began to spread on Thai Twitter, garnering 865,000 tweets by Friday evening.
Thailand’s political situation has the potential to ignite similar movements across the region. Pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong originally contributed to mobilizing opposition in Thailand and the numbers of social media users has grown throughout the region thanks to pandemic-fueled desire for interpersonal communication. A cross-regional movement is already brewing. In early August, protesters in Bangkok expressed solidarity with independence movements in Taiwan and Hong Kong citing the desire for a “pan-Asian alliance for democracy.” The loose affiliation, dubbed the “Milk Tea Alliance,” continues to trend on social media.
The most frightening scenario for the U.S. would be a monarchy-directed suppression of the pro-democracy movement. If Thailand moves to suppress protesters, violently or otherwise, it would place the U.S. in the delicate position of having to respond to human rights abuses in a country with which it maintains a robust military-to-military relationship. So far, the American response to pro-democracy movements – most notably in Hong Kong and Belarus – has been muted. But given the military-to-military relationship between Thailand and the U.S., as well as ongoing efforts to diplomatically pressure nearby China, Washington would be forced to respond. How it handles the situation will set the tone for regional engagement following the upcoming presidential election.
Major Daniel P. Grant is a Marine Corps Foreign Area Officer specializing in Southeast Asia. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the United States Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.