Southeast Asia was one of the first regions hit by the spread of COVID-19. The region’s public health response varied, with some states like Vietnam proving models for the world, while others, like Indonesia and the Philippines, faltered badly. However, they have generally taken a common approach in one area: nearly all have used the pandemic to crack down on political freedoms and civil liberties.
Since the early 2000s, democracy has deteriorated across most of Southeast Asia. Perhaps most dramatically, Myanmar has slid backward after a burst of optimism following its transition to civilian rule in the early 2010s and the 2015 election of a government led by the National League for Democracy, which had long campaigned to end military rule. Political and civil liberties have regressed under former opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration, even when compared with the previous transitional civilian government, installed by the military.
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte’s government has harshly repressed political opponents and the media, attacked the judiciary, launched a deadly drug war, and generally undermined state institutions. In Thailand, a 2014 military coup resulted in one of the most repressive governments the kingdom has seen in decades. Even after the 2019 elections ended the military’s formal rule, the generals and their allies in the bureaucracy and the judiciary have neutered most of the political opposition.
In other Southeast Asian countries, like Cambodia, rulers have decimated civil society and worked to destroy the opposition. And in the region’s most autocratic states, such as Laos and Vietnam, glimmerings of a political opening in the early 2010s have mostly been snuffed out.
Even in Indonesia, which had been the region’s democratic success story for two decades, President Joko Widodo ( Jokowi), who took office in 2014 with a reputation as a pragmatic reformer, has largely abandoned any pretense of strengthening democratic norms and institutions. Jokowi has been complicit in the evisceration of the country’s once-powerful Corruption Eradication Commission. Since winning a second term in May 2019, he has packed his cabinet with former army officers, reviving the military’s power in domestic politics. Some of these figures have been linked to past human rights abuses, including Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto.
Running as a presidential candidate against Jokowi, Prabowo repeatedly suggested that if he were in charge, he would degrade democracy and return to a kind of strongman rule. During the latter days of the Suharto regime in the 1990s, Prabowo allegedly was involved in the disappearances of activists; he was denied a visa by the United States because of concerns about his record. As defense minister, Prabowo may be setting the stage for yet another run at the presidency in 2024. Jokowi put him in the cabinet in an attempt to foster political stability by bringing in a major opposition leader—and to nullify his ability to criticize the government from the outside. This may have costs for Indonesian democracy.
While there are many factors behind Southeast Asia’s democratic decline and the growing regional ascendance of illiberal populists, it is likely that the COVID-19 pandemic will hasten this regression and help authoritarian regimes hold onto power—a trend seen globally, as well. The pandemic has made it easier for the region’s autocratic-minded leaders, and even more democratic ones like Jokowi, to boost their personal powers and undermine political institutions. By citing the need for strong measures to protect public health, they can justify at least temporary bans on public gatherings, crackdowns on the press, tracking of citizens, draconian laws that allow for detention without charge, and other controls. Some of these emergency powers seem to have little to do with public health.
As they crack down, leaders of Southeast Asia’s autocracies, hybrid regimes, and democracies have compiled a mixed record in managing the pandemic. Some have wallowed in denialism and conspiracy theories. Others have recognized the scope of the crisis and responded effectively.
Democracy was struggling worldwide before the coronavirus emerged in China and spread around the globe. In parts of Asia, democratic regression has had a kind of negative diffusion effect: regional leaders have tolerated authoritarians, making it easier for others to reverse democratic gains. Globally, the deterioration of democracy in leading powers, including the United States, has had the broader effect of empowering autocrats in other countries. Beijing is willing to support Southeast Asian governments regardless of their leaders’ rights abuses. It has stood firmly behind strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen in Cambodia, and backed the Thai military after its 2014 coup, even as other countries criticized the putsch. China has only become more influential since then. In the 2020 State of Southeast Asia Survey, conducted by Singapore’s ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute, nearly 80 percent of respondents named China as the most influential economic power in the region.
Some leaders have wallowed in denialism and conspiracy theories.
As political scientist Lee Morgenbesser shows in his new book, The Rise of Sophisticated Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia, many governments in the region were becoming more skilled in co-opting opposition and forestalling political change well before the emergence of COVID-19. They were adopting democratic forms while maintaining authoritarian tactics—creating a façade of democracy to prevent nationwide protest movements from emerging and to undermine political opposition before it could gain momentum.
Middle classes have played major roles in this regional backsliding. Political scientists long believed that growing middle classes were bulwarks of support for democratic change. Yet in the Philippines, Duterte draws some of his strongest support from middle-class and lower-middle-class citizens. They often felt ignored by previous elite-led governments, even though Duterte’s predecessor, President Benigno Aquino III, implemented more middle class–friendly policies than Duterte has.
Across the region, middle classes and lower middle classes often face stubborn inequality and sense that they are falling behind their wealthier compatriots, even though many Southeast Asian countries have posted relatively strong growth rates over the past decade. The Philippine economy expanded under Aquino’s presidency, from 2010 to 2016, but many benefits of this growth accrued to the wealthiest. As the political scientist Richard Heydarian has noted, the lower and middle classes grew frustrated with the failure of Aquino and previous presidents to deliver effective state services, reduce inequality, and control crime.
Many older political parties in Southeast Asia—like their counterparts in Europe, such as the French Socialists—have lost favor with these middle and lower middle classes. Traditional parties in the Philippines and Thailand have struggled to appeal to these voters or to defend themselves against the simplistic solutions and strongman appeal of populists.
Thailand’s Democrat Party, the country’s oldest party, hemorrhaged support throughout the 2000s and early 2010s to parties led by billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra and his allies. When upper-middle-class and middle-class Thais tired of some of Thaksin’s populist economic policies and his evisceration of the rule of law, they further undermined democracy by backing coups that overthrew governments led by his movement in 2006 and 2014.
In the Philippines, traditional left-leaning social democratic parties have withered. Duterte has appropriated some of their calls for strengthening social welfare programs, while scorning them for recycling dynastic politicians. To be sure, Duterte himself hails from a political dynasty. His father was governor of Davao Province, and Duterte himself was mayor of Davao City. He now appears to be positioning his daughter to succeed him as president after his single six-year term ends in 2022. Yet Philippine voters seem to overlook this, perhaps because Duterte does not come from a Manila-based dynasty. His outsider persona inoculates him from charges of nepotism.
Some middle-class Filipinos have turned against the president, disgusted with his administration’s often-inept governance. Still, his popularity remains high by regional and global standards. Similarly, some middle-class Thais, many of whom disdained previous populist governments and were willing to accommodate military rule, have turned against Prayuth’s regime, organizing street protests and backing the progressive Future Forward Party (which was dissolved by the Constitutional Court in February 2020 over an alleged campaign finance violation). But both the pandemic and the emergency laws enacted in its wake have made opposition difficult, if not impossible.
Illiberal leaders throughout Southeast Asia also have fostered sectarianism to win over lower-middle-class and middle-class voters. Casting one’s supporters as real citizens while demonizing minorities as “the other” has become a feature of illiberal populism the world over. The demonized “other” may vary, but the tactics remain relatively consistent. In Europe, populist leaders like Marine Le Pen, head of the French far-right National Rally party, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán demonize Muslims and migrants. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro demonizes poorer, darker-skinned citizens, sexual minorities, and members of indigenous groups, among others.
In Southeast Asia, the elites vilified by illiberal populist leaders often come from ethnic and religious minorities, such as Chinese Christians in Indonesia or the Chinese and Indian communities in Malaysia. By demonizing these minorities as “others,” populist leaders seek to rally aggrieved lower-middle-class and middle-class majorities, and to use their popularity with these groups to justify attacks on civil rights, judges, the media, the civil service, and other institutions.
Military leaders in the region use the supposed threat of the “other,” whether Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar or Muslims in Thailand’s southern provinces, to justify high military budgets, brutal actions by the security forces, and reduced civilian control of militaries. In the Philippines, Duterte has branded drug users not just as “others,” but as public enemies to be exterminated.
Mixed Virus Responses
When the Chinese government first acknowledged the coronavirus outbreak in January 2020, Southeast Asia seemed to be at obvious risk for rapid transmission. Most countries in the region have extensive trade links with China, which is also their biggest source for inbound tourism. Before the pandemic, hundreds of flights from Chinese cities arrived in the region’s capitals each week. Some of the first known COVID-19 cases outside of China emerged in Thailand, the Philippines, and other countries in the region.
Many Southeast Asian states, with the notable exceptions of Singapore and Vietnam, reacted slowly and haphazardly at first. By the middle of March, the World Health Organization was openly chastising regional leaders for not moving quickly enough, prodding them to take more aggressive steps. For weeks, leaders did little to limit travel to and from China, even after the worldwide threat posed by the virus had become clear. Even middle-income states like Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia offered little coherent advice to their citizens.
For weeks after the virus’s spread beyond China was well established, Myanmar’s government continued to insist that the country had no COVID-19 cases. This was a fanciful claim, given Myanmar’s long, porous border and trade links with China, and its extensive camps crowded with internally displaced people, the result of Myanmar’s many long-running internal conflicts and the brutality of its armed forces. (Myanmar officials have also claimed, like leaders in some other countries, that their citizens have unique attributes that afford protection from the virus.) The government kept up the denial into March, even as international rights organizations and public health specialists in Myanmar warned that the country likely had many unreported cases—and that it faced a COVID-19 time bomb because of its vulnerable internally displaced populations.
In Cambodia, Hun Sen allowed an international cruise ship, the MS Westerdam, to dock at Sihanoukville after it had been turned away from a number of other countries due to fears that passengers were infected. The humanitarian gesture won international praise, but some of that goodwill was dissipated by a welcoming ceremony in which Hun Sen personally greeted disembarking passengers without wearing a mask or other protective gear. The government allowed hundreds of the passengers to disembark and travel on to their home countries without being tested. It later emerged that some had COVID-19.
National leaders in the region may have feared that shutting down travel to and from China could anger Beijing. Hun Sen has become increasingly dependent on Chinese aid and investment as his regime has grown more authoritarian. Duterte, who has long displayed an intense anti-American streak, has pushed Manila into a closer strategic and economic embrace with Beijing—over the objections of Philippine military officers, and despite the warm feelings that many Filipinos have for the United States.
Averse to Expertise
Some Southeast Asian leaders, like populists in other regions, openly disdain experts and see themselves as the only credible authority on all issues. Faced with a pandemic that required heeding the advice of public health experts to develop a response, these leaders instead dismissed the scale of the danger.
As the virus spread regionally in February, the Philippines was doing little testing and developing no real plan for tracing cases. Duterte underplayed the threat for far too long: in a national address in March, he insisted that it was foolish to be scared of COVID-19. He also defied social distancing protocol in his public appearances. Duterte ultimately shifted course, issuing lockdown orders in mid-March, but the restrictions were unclear and the country still lacked a mass testing plan.
Even Jokowi, leading one of the region’s (flawed) democracies, does not take counsel easily and tends to present himself as the ultimate authority on many issues. He ignored advice from public health experts as COVID-19 spread, and put off implementing social distancing measures until long after most of Asia, Europe, and other parts of the world had done so. Jokowi’s administration was slow to ramp up testing and allowed extensive travel within the country for the Ramadan holiday. By June, Indonesia had the worst outbreak in the region, and officials had no real idea how many people were infected. Many public health experts believed that the government’s reported numbers of cases and deaths were wildly understated.
Even Singapore could not prevent the spread of the disease.
Months into the pandemic, by contrast, Thailand, Cambodia, and Malaysia had taken more effective measures and began to turn the corner. Thailand had been experiencing one of the largest coronavirus outbreaks in Southeast Asia. By June, it had reported no domestic transmission of the virus for several weeks. Some public health experts speculated that the region’s heat and humidity, which becomes almost unbearable between May and September, may also have slowed transmission, though this theory remains unproved.
Islands of Competence
Singapore, the region’s richest state, has a highly competent (if nannyish) government, a high degree of intrasocietal trust, and one of the best health care systems in the world. It took a different approach to responding to the pandemic from the beginning. The city-state initiated a massive public-health education campaign, highlighting the dangers of the coronavirus and issuing clear and explicit instructions to help stop its spread.
Singapore quickly implemented restrictions on travel, perhaps the most important measure a country could take to stop COVID-19’s initial spread. It banned flights to and from Wuhan, the epicenter in China, and directed incoming travelers into mandatory quarantines. The city-state also moved fast to roll out social distancing measures and established an extensive test, trace, and quarantine program backed by tough penalties for violations.
Still, even Singapore could not prevent the spread of the disease. Major outbreaks occurred at dormitories for migrant workers, who provide low-cost labor that powers many of the city-state’s business sectors. The government’s expansive and well-funded initial response overlooked these dormitories, which pack in as many as 20 migrants to a room, facilitating the rapid spread of disease. It was a massive oversight, reflecting the second-class status to which these laborers are relegated in Singaporean society. Even after the government recognized the scope of the problem in the dormitories, it struggled to quarantine infected workers and halt further transmission.
Vietnam, a lower-middle-income country with far fewer resources than Singapore, also launched a comprehensive public health campaign, promoting aggressive social distancing and deploying a massive army of contact tracers. It went months into the outbreak with no reported deaths at all. The government rallied the population by portraying the fight against COVID-19 as a national battle akin to its twentieth-century wars. Vietnam’s leaders drew on the country’s experiences with the 2003–4 SARS virus and the H1N1 virus in 2009, followed the advice of public health experts, developed a clear plan early on, and implemented it with precision and harsh punishments for people who violated quarantines.
Vietnam has a hard-line authoritarian regime, which made it easier to track citizens and enforce the rules, even ordering people into quarantine camps—some who were returning to Vietnam from overseas, others who had tested positive for COVID-19 or had been in contact with infected people. There was no concern that such measures might trigger protests. But the state is not led by a single charismatic populist, relying instead on a degree of collective leadership.
Mindful of the lessons they had learned from dealing with SARS, when Vietnam’s aggressive containment strategies and rapid action helped it become the first country to contain that virus, officials were not initially dismissive of the new threat. Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, Hanoi also proved willing to cooperate closely with other countries and international agencies. Vietnam’s approach has achieved far better results than those taken by many wealthier countries, including Britain, Italy, and the United States.
Costs of Delay
Although a number of governments in the region had developed effective responses by the start of the Northern Hemisphere summer, the costs of initial inaction by Southeast Asian leaders were substantial—for their citizens’ health and for their economies and societies. Informal workers and the poor—two groups that significantly overlap—suffered the most. The overlooked spread of the virus among Singapore’s migrant workers, many of whom hail from South Asia, was only the most notable example. As economies shut down, migrant workers in other wealthier nations, like Thailand, returned to their home provinces in Cambodia and other countries, unemployed and usually unable to access economic assistance or health care.
In the first quarter of 2020, Singapore’s economy shrank more than it had in a decade. Most developing Asian economies faced the prospect of recession and financial shocks. Enmeshed in global supply chains, linked to China and to other Southeast Asian states after years of regional economic integration, and dependent on manufactured exports, tourism, and remittances, they were bound to suffer in such a crisis. They could not avoid sharing the pain as developed economies closed their borders and fell into recession, China’s growth ground to a halt, and global shipping, tourism, and aviation cratered.
Most Southeast Asian states lack the ability to launch large stimulus packages like those deployed by major economies, such as the United States and Germany. Wealthy countries could roll out stimulus measures amounting to 10–15 percent of gross domestic product, confident that international investors and their own powerful central banks would rush to buy their bonds. Developing nations had to be content with smaller stimulus packages, fearing that investors would shun the bonds of “emerging markets” running large budget deficits.
Like all developing regions, Southeast Asia suffered massive capital outflows as the COVID-19 crisis grew. In March 2020 alone, the month when the global scope of the pandemic first became clear, investors pulled over $80 billion from emerging markets. If the virus continues to spread, some countries could face financial panics. But many Southeast Asian nations have built substantial currency reserves in the past two decades, following the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, which may leave them better prepared than they were at that time.
Southeast Asian leaders have excelled in their response to COVID-19 in one dubious respect: using the pandemic to grab more power and constrain civil society and the political opposition. Duterte, Prayuth, and others managed to tighten their grips even as their ineffective initial handling of the pandemic risked undermining their popular support. They may have moved quickly to expand their authority precisely because they recognized that discontent could rise as people lost relatives, jobs, and homes.
In previous eras, economic shocks triggered significant political changes in Southeast Asia. The Asian financial crisis precipitated the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia. It also led to massive street protests against the autocratic Malaysian government at the time, though that regime hung on.
This time around, in Thailand, Prayuth and his military-linked party cited the pandemic as a reason for claiming emergency powers in late March. Thailand eventually developed an effective COVID-19 strategy, but the new laws gave the government arrest and search-and-seizure powers that seemed unrelated to battling the virus. It also outlawed public assembly—a necessary health measure at the time, but one that the government is likely to keep in place for the longer term. Between 2014 and 2019, Prayuth led a junta that harshly repressed public assembly and other freedoms.
The new powers claimed in the pandemic also allowed the Thai government to stamp media reports as false and potentially jail the responsible journalists. In neighboring Myanmar, the government used the COVID-19 threat to crack down even harder on free speech and on news outlets, blocking scores of websites accused of publishing “fake news.”
As the pandemic spread in Cambodia, the government arrested several former members of the Cambodia National Rescue Party—which had been the main opposition party until it was dissolved in 2017—on charges of conspiracy and spreading false information. The parliament, dominated by Hun Sen’s party, in April approved a law that would allow the prime minister to declare a state of emergency, giving him sweeping powers to control media outlets and monitor communications, all in the name of responding to the pandemic. Anyone accused of obstructing the government would be subject to detention for up to ten years. The law placed no limit on how long the state could maintain its extraordinary powers.
In March, the Philippine legislature, dominated by Duterte allies, granted the president emergency powers ostensibly designed for responding to the pandemic. Rights groups immediately warned that this would enable the government to target opposition figures and activists under the guise of containing the virus. Extending the tactics used in his drug war, Duterte in early April ordered the police and the military to shoot anyone who violated the lockdowns imposed across the country.
The pandemic and the emergency laws have made opposition difficult, if not impossible.
In May, Duterte oversaw the removal of ABS-CBN, the country’s biggest broadcast network, from the free television and radio airwaves. The station had done investigative and critical reporting on Duterte for years, and he had made clear his loathing for the network and its leadership. His move harkened back to an earlier authoritarian era: in 1972, Ferdinand Marcos shut down ABS-CBN when he declared martial law, entrenching his dictatorship.
In June, Maria Ressa, the head of investigative reporting website Rappler, was found guilty of cyberlibel. She could face six years in prison, in a country that used to have one of the freest media environments in Southeast Asia.
The legislature, controlled by the president’s allies, that month passed a new antiterror law so sweeping that it could allow the authorities to detain people without a warrant and hold them for extended periods without any hearing. The law would empower Duterte allies in his cabinet to decide how to enforce it, potentially giving the administration the ability to detain whomever it wants.
In Indonesia and Malaysia, too, the pandemic allowed for shifts in an antidemocratic direction. The Jokowi administration stepped up arrests of critics and authorized the army to enforce lockdowns. In Malaysia, the pandemic ushered in a transition of power in March after a squabbling coalition government collapsed. The new unelected government is led by the same party that had ruled Malaysia since independence until it lost the 2018 election amid a corruption scandal. It promptly dropped two prominent graft cases upon its return to power, and used the pandemic threat to repeatedly delay a sitting of parliament and avoid a no-confidence vote.
Southeast Asia’s autocratic-minded leaders are not unique. From Hungary to Turkey, and from Bolivia to Azerbaijan, authoritarian leaders have exploited the pandemic to gain more control over their political systems and societies.
Well before the pandemic, the rise of illiberal politicians, supported by lower middle classes and middle classes, had been inflicting damage on political systems in Southeast Asia. The pandemic could worsen that destruction. Evidence from other countries that have experienced illiberal populist rule, like Italy and Argentina, suggests that even if illiberal populists eventually lose an election or are otherwise forced out of power, they usually have so corroded political norms and institutions that the damage is irreparable. Illiberal rule sets the stage more illiberal politicians to win elections and take power. And their impact will only be magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic and its painful health and economic consequences.