‘Democracy has not taken root in Southeast Asia.’ Discuss with reference to the newly independent states of Southeast Asia. #1

The word “democracy” refers to democratic forms of governance where civil liberties are protected and the population has the power to affect change through electoral processes. The term “taken root” can be defined as democracy being established and sustained to play a prominent role in the governing process. During the period shortly after independence, many Southeast Asian states experimented with democratic forms of governance. However, many of these governments proved to be short-lived due to a variety of reasons and were gradually replaced by other forms of governance. The question asserts that democracy has not taken root in Southeast Asian states post- independence. This is because the initial failures of democratic governments led to them being replaced by authoritarian regimes such as those led by the military, as well as the fact that many countries use democracy as a facade to gain political legitimacy. On the other hand, it can also be argued that it is an over-generalisation to say that democracy has not taken root in Southeast Asia, as there are some countries which maintained their democratic institutions and system from independence and that there was a shift in attitudes particularly in the 1980s and 90s with the masses beginning to demand for a return to democracy. Even so, such cases were either isolated incidents or their impacts were too insignificant and shallow to definitively prove thatdemocracy has “taken root” in Southeast Asian states. As such, this essay shall argue for the statement because democratic institutions were often dismantled by authoritarian regimes which seized power and democracy was often just an empty shell used by these very regimes to veil the true oppressive nature of their rule.

Democracy has not taken root in Southeast Asia as the initial failures of democratic institutions to establish political and economic stability led to authoritarian regimes, such as those led by the military, taking over control of the government in the country. These authoritarian regimes often blatantly disregard democratic values and sometimes even go as far as to actively dismantle democratic institutions, leading to democracy as an ideology being unable to play a significant and sustained role in the governance of Southeast Asian states post-independence. In Burma, the democratic government led by Prime Minister U Nu was unable to put an end to the incessant civil strife caused by several insurgencies from the communists as well as the ethnic minorities in Burma. U Nu, unlike his predecessor Aung San who was assassinated, was insufficiently politically savvy and was unable to project himself as a legitimate figure to lead Burma. This incompetency of U Nu and the democratic government in Burma is contrasted with the efficiency of Ne Win, who upon taking over as the head of the caretaker government in October 1958, managed not only to deal with the pocket armies, but also reduced corruption and improved bureaucratic efficiency. When U Nu proved unable to improve the situation after his election in 1960, Ne Win led a coup d’etat in March 1962 and upon taking control, arrested members of the civilian government and suspended the constitution. This spelt the end of democracy in Burma for the next few decades. Similarly, in Thailand, the constitutional assembly was plagued by political jostling, which allowed Phibun Songkram to take control on 8 April 948 by issuing an army ultimatum. Once gaining control of power, Phibun and the military strengthened their hold over Thailand, abolishing the 1949 Constitution and dissolving the parliament. With the rise of authoritarian regimes such as the ones in Burma and Thailand, democracy and its ideals were almost completely wiped out following decades of iron-fisted rule by military dictatorships as these dictators often want to preserve their power and control over their countries. Therefore, democracy was clearly unable to take root in these countries led by authoritarian regimes, as the very concept of democracy was a threat to their power and was hence actively purged by these authoritarian rulers.

Secondly, democracy has not taken root in Southeast Asia as many leaders were merely using democracy as a facade to disguise the dictatorial nature of their rule and to gain political legitimacy. As such, the ideals of democracy and democratic processes were either not actively pursued or can be easily exploited by the whims and wishes of the leaders. In South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem was known for holding rigged elections to maintain the disguise of political legitimacy especially to his aide, the United States, who was supporting him in his conflict against North Vietnam and the Communists. In the 1955 elections, Diem was notoriously elected Head Of State by garnering 20000 more votes in Saigon than there were voters, a giveaway sign that the elections were rigged to ensure he remains in power. Meanwhile, in Indonesia, Suharto, who seized power in March 1966, retained a facade of liberal democracy by still holding elections as well as retaining the 1945 Consititution which held him accountable to a People’s Consultative Assembly. However, he remained fully in control of the electoral process, which can be seen when he forced the amalgamation of ten political parties to just three in 1973. Futhermore, the two remaining opposition parties were also put under heavy restrictions and ultimately had to pledge allegiance and subordinatoon to the government and the Golkar. Both the case studies of South Vietnam and Indonesia show how democracy was not actively pursued and sustained by the leaders of Southeast Asian states but was instead used as a tool to gain political legitimacy and especially in the case of South Vietnam, gain foreign support to fulfill its own political agendas. Given the lack of democratic presence and influence beyond the surface level as it was all an act to the outside world, democracy is unable to fully establish itself and become a prominent feature of governance in Southeast Asia, meaning that it has not taken root. However, on the flip side, the very fact that eventhe most brutal and authoritarian regimes like Diem’s South Vietnam did attempt todisplay some form of democracy does show how the governments of Southeast Asian states view being perceived as democratic is important, proving that democracy was at least somewhat important in Southeast Asia post-independence.

On the other hand, it can also be argued that democracy has taken root in Southeast Asia, given that there are some countries which have integrated democratic processes into their governance and has managed to sustain their democratic system from independence. Not only that, they also managed to achieve success with their various forms of democracy, showing that democracy is perhaps embedded into the Southeast Asian culture post-independence. In Malaysia, the system of parliamentary democracy has bern maintained since its independence from the British in 1957 and has been sustained depite emergencies like the Konfrontasi with Indonesia from 1962 as well as the 1969 racial riots. Under this parliamentary democracy, Malaysia managed to restructure its economy as well as improve the welfare of the people, with poverty rates being slashed from 49% in 1969 to about 17% in 1990, thanks largely to the New Economic Policy launched in 1971. It is a similar story for Singapore, where the system of parliamentary democracy has also been sustained since it has been granted full internal self-government from the British in 1959. Under this system, Singapore also managed to achieve rapid economic growth, with the state-driven efforts to recreate and remake the economy of the city-state thrusting Singapore into the league of dynamic and well-developed Asian tiger economies by the 1980s. These above two case studies show how the sustained and consistent efforts by the Singaporean and Malaysian governments retained democracy in their political system as well as achieved economic growth and success under the democratic system. Given that it hasbeen more than half a century since the countries’ respective independence, it could perhaps be fair to say that democracy has become ingrained in the political process of certain Southeast Asian countries. However, it can be argued that the governments in Singapore and Malaysia are soft-authoritarian regimes rather than ideal democracies. This can be seen in the dominance of one big political partt, the UMNO, as well as the tight control the government has on political opposition. Similarly, Singapore is alsodominated by one large political party, the People’s Action Party, since independence and in additon, the government also suppresess the freedom of the press.

Lastly, it can also be argued that democracy has taken root in Southeast Asia as the masses that were under authoritarian rule began demanding for greater civil liberties and a return to democracy, particularly in the 1980s and 90s. This is in part due to a growing middle class, the increase in student activism as well as people becoming more educated in general. In the Philippines, when Marcos tried to force the National Assembly to declare him the victor of an election where he rigged the actual vote count, opposition to Marcos reached a boiling point and caused the People Power protest, which overthrew Marcos and restored the cacique democracy the Philippines had before Marcos’ dictatorial rule. In Thailand, when the armed forces cracked down on 50000 protestors demanding Suchinda’s resignation in May 1992, King Bhumibol stepped in and demanded both sides to end the conflict, resulting in Suchinda’s resignation as Prime Minister and the end of the military dictatorship in Thailand. However, such people power can be limited in helping democracy take root in Southeast Asia, as can be seen in the 8888 Uprising in Burma on August 1988. The Burmese people held mass protests in opposition to the military regime led by Ne Win but on 13 August 1988, the military fired on peaceful unarmed protestors, killing 2000 with Aung San Suu Kyi subsequently placed under house arrest in 1991. This shows how while the masses does have ability to affect some political change by inclining toward democracy, sometimes their actions can have little to no effect on democracy taking root in Southeast Asia as their actions can be met by brutal reprisals by the authoritarian government and dictators who are seeking to remain in power. As such, this shift towards demanding for democracy often did little to change the status quo of authoritarian tule in certain countries, meaning democracy could still not take root in Southeast Asia.

In conclusion, I believe that democracy has not taken root in Southeast Asia due to the dismantling of democratic institutions by maximum governments which rose to power after the democratic experiments, as well as democracy merely being used as a tool by dictators to gain political legitimacy and remain in control. While there are some countries that did manage to achieve success and sustain in maintaining a democracy post-independence, cases of that happening are in the minority and therefore not all of Southeast Asia has democracy taken root. Not only that, the shift of the masses towards preferring democracy in the the 1980s and 90s also sometimes had little impact in allowing democracy to take root and flourish, such as in the case of Burma which failed to free itself from the oppressive rule of the military government.

Benjamin Zhang (18-E1)

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