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Can Southeast Asia Follow South Korea’s Democratization Model?

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Can Southeast Asia Follow South Korea’s Democratization Model?

Democratic movements in Myanmar and Thailand may face more challenges than South Korea did in the late 20th century.

Can Southeast Asia Follow South Korea’s Democratization Model?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Mar del Este

The Myanmar protest movement against the military coup that overthrew Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratic government has intensified since early February. The police force launched a crackdown against the protesters on February 28, resulting in at least 18 deaths. An even deadlier day followed on March 3, with at least 38 killed by security forces. Myanmar’s United Nations envoy Kyaw Moe Tun spoke on behalf of the civilians and urged the U.N. to “use any means necessary” against the military junta. The military fired the ambassador after the speech.

Beyond Myanmar, political strife has been growing in the region in the past few years. Pro-democracy demonstrations in Thailand intensified in 2020, demanding reforms to the monarchy and military government. Protests in Hong Kong have been ongoing since 2019, demanding universal suffrage and opposing Beijing’s political influence.

Increasing demands for democracy in Myanmar, Thailand, and Hong Kong have one thing in common: They involve public protests against the government. In this, they resemble South Korea’s democratization movements from the 1960s to 1980s, which achieved advanced democracy through public demonstrations against the military government. Because of this reason, South Korea’s democratization process has often been connected with the current democratic movements in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong. The protesters sometimes refer to South Korea as a historical model. For instance, the Korean protest song “Marching for the Forerunners,” which was composed to remember the victims of the 5.18 Gwangju Uprising, was translated into Cantonese and Burmese. Thai protesters uploaded a letter in the Korean language on Twitter, linking the Thai protest with South Korea’s June Uprising in 1987.

“I think movies like ‘A Taxi Driver’ or ‘1987’ gave a very good illustration of what the government was like back in Korea, and people definitely saw similarities,” said a political commentator based in Hong Kong who wished to remain anonymous. “Many commentaries also used South Korea as an example that a democratization movement can be long and bitter, but persistence can eventually bring success.”

The interest in and references to South Korea’s democratization process among protesters in Myanmar, Thailand, and beyond raises the questions of how South Korea achieved its democracy and if it can be a model for democratic reforms in Southeast Asia.

South Korea’s Democratization

After the defeat of the Japanese Empire in 1945, the United States occupied the southern part of the Korean Peninsula and established a nominally democratic government in 1948 led by Syngman Rhee, an independent activist during the colonial era. The Korean War, however, caused strong anti-communist sentiments among South Korean politicians, leading to Rhee’s 12 years of strict autocratic rule.

The dictatorship was ended after an election fraud attempt in 1960. The South Korean public resisted the election result that granted Rhee’s fourth term as a president and demanded his resignation. This demonstration – known as the 4.19 Revolution – was a success: Rhee stepped down and sought asylum in Hawaii, while a new democratic government was established, known as the Second Republic. The 4.19 Revolution is regarded as the cornerstone of South Korean democracy, and the South Korean Constitution also states it will uphold the “democratic ideals of the 4.19 Revolution of 1960 against injustice.”

The Second Republic, however, only lasted for a year before a military coup led by General Park Chung-hee toppled the democratic government. After rising to power as president in the 1963 presidential election, Park established the Third Republic. This incident was the starting point of the South Korean military’s occupation of the government, with Park remaining as president for 16 years, until his assassination in 1979.

Although Park oversaw South Korea’s rapid economic development – sometimes called the “Miracle on the Han River” – he is also criticized for damaging South Korean democracy. For example, the October Restoration in 1972 proclaimed martial law and a new constitution – called the Yushin Regime – that dissolved the National Assembly and gave the president unlimited power through an indirect election system. The Yushin Regime, or the Fourth Republic, is known as the dark age of South Korean democracy. The media was heavily censored and democratic movements, including the pro-democracy protests in Busan and Masan in 1979, were suppressed by force.

After Park’s assassination in October 1979, another military coup broke out in December the same year, led by General Chun Doo-hwan. The coup faced resistance from the South Korean public amid demands for democratic reform. These demands were also forcefully suppressed by the military. The Gwangju Uprising of May 18, 1980 resulted in 165 civilian deaths. Like Park, Chun became president and established a new government known as the Fifth Republic.

Despite the oppression of the democratic demonstrations, the demands for a direct election system and freedom of expression increased as the military dictatorship was prolonged. In 1987, a year before the end of Chun’s presidential term, a massive democratic demonstration broke out nationwide – the June Uprising. The June Uprising finally achieved its goal. Chun retired as president after amending the constitution to guarantee a direct election system and restrict the reappointment of the president, establishing the current democratic government known as the Sixth Republic.

The Possibility of the ‘South Korean Way’ for Southeast Asia

South Korea’s democracy was the result of 27 years of democratic protests and activism. It stands as an example of how the power of the public’s demands for fair elections can transform authoritarian regimes into liberal democracies. The country’s process of democratization bears some similarities to the recent protests in Southeast Asia. The cases of both South Korea in the past and Myanmar and Thailand today suggest increasing public interest in the right to choose leaders through a fair election and to enjoy freedom of expression. The demonstrations were met with physical suppression by the government, using tear gas, water cannons, and even live ammunition. There was also increasing pressure from the international community to respect human rights and democratic freedoms; the United States has warned Myanmar to stop the violent crackdowns on the civilians. In the longer term, these demonstrations in Southeast Asia may achieve the same results as South Korea did in 1987.

There are, however, two main differences that may cause more difficulties for the recent democratic movements compared to the case of South Korea. Firstly, there are differences in how “democracy” itself has been treated in the cases of South Korea and Southeast Asia. Because of the U.S. and anti-communist influence during the Cold War, democracy was deeply rooted among the South Korean public. South Korean leaders needed to emphasize “democratic ideals” to contain perceived North Korean and communist threats in the public opinion and justify their governance. Thus, the ideals of democracy were included in the education curriculum even if the government was, in practice, authoritarian. Direct elections were held regularly before Park’s Yushin Regime. Because democracy was used to justify their rule, even leaders like Park and Chun, who obtained power through force and indirect elections, had to persistently face the public’s challenges over their legitimacy and demands for the popular right to select the state leader.

The authoritarian regimes in Southeast Asia, on the other hand, justify themselves in terms other than democracy. Myanmar was under a military dictatorship from 1962 until 2011. Even when the military initiated a transition to civilian government in the first decade of the 2000s, it reserved a right to involve itself in domestic politics. Under the military-drafted 2008 Constitution, the army is allowed to appoint 25 percent of the seats in the Union Parliament, making it impossible for the civilian government to pass constitutional amendments that would allow for fair and direct elections that exclude the military’s influence. There gave limited space for genuine democracy to take root in Myanmar’s domestic politics.

In Thailand, although the Siamese Revolution of 1932 marked the start of a Thai democratic tradition, instability and conflicts over political power between the bureaucrats and military were incessant. Coups became a frequent means to seize power, and democratic election results were often diminished. There were 13 successful coups, the most recent of which took place in 2014, led by General Prayut Chan-o-cha, who is in charge of the current government. Unlike other constitutional monarchies like the U.K. or Japan, the Thai monarchy has a robust role in domestic politics. Hence, the military junta in Thailand has relied on the royal sovereign’s approval as one of the sources of its legitimacy, and democracy was sidelined as a core value. Because public demands do not necessarily challenge the legitimacy of the government, calls for democracy were more easily overlooked.

Second, there is a drastic contrast between Northeast Asia in the 1980s and Southeast Asia in the 2020s. The June Uprising occurred before the end of the Cold War. South Korea did not establish any diplomatic relations with either China or the Soviet Union until the early 1990s, and it was reliant on the United States for its security against the communist bloc. Thus, the authoritarian regimes needed U.S. support to maintain their power. One reason why Chun had to give up his power was because he lost his support from Washington. The Reagan administration during the June Uprising pressured Chun with the congressional call to prevent any use of force against the civilians and induce democratic reforms in South Korea. The South Korean government, therefore, had little choice and had to accept the calls for democracy, as losing U.S. support would have undermined its security against its northern adversary.

The current Southeast Asian region, by contrast, has transformed into an arena of competition between the United States and China. China’s rise as a regional hegemon since the end of the Cold War have given Beijing increasing leverage over its neighboring countries and challenged the U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific.

In the case of Myanmar, some analysts have pointing out that China may prefer Aung San Suu Kyi’s government over the military junta. Chen Hai, the Chinese ambassador to Myanmar, also said that the political strife in Myanmar is “absolutely not what China wants to see.” Nevertheless, it does not necessarily mean China wants democracy in Myanmar. Instead, it seeks stability. Both the military coup and civil disobedience movement are viewed as sources of instability for China. They may undermine its regional interests and drive the United States’ intervention as the self-appointed protector of liberal democracy (especially as the Biden administration has already called for an alliance of democracies to counter China). China also blocked a U.N. Security Council statement condemning the coup, and it is not showing any active attempt to constrain the military junta’s violent crackdowns. If the domestic instability in Myanmar or other Southeast Asian neighbors intensifies, China may choose to support the authoritarian government to pacify any sources of instability. Thus, the authoritarian regimes have fewer incentives to accept democracy, as they can seek support from China even if they lose trust from the United States.

The Future of Democracy in Asia

South Korea’s democracy was possible not only because of the public’s demand but also because of the government’s search for legitimacy and dependence on external power. Although Southeast Asia is currently going through a similar process, these differences with South Korea may cause more challenges for democracy in the region. South Korea can be a role model for the democratization of Southeast Asia, but it should not be the only one. The successful democratization processes in other Southeast Asian states can be good examples, such as Indonesia after Suharto or the Philippines’ “People Power” movement that took down the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. A new paradigm of democratic movements using online platforms, such as the Milk Tea Alliance, might also provide a breakthrough.

Even then, however, it is still unclear if the authoritarian states in Southeast Asia are willing to accept democracy any soon. The current situation suggests that there will be more agony, struggle, and hardship in the years to come.

Choi Seong Hyeon is a freelance journalist and a postgraduate student at the University of Hong Kong.