Warwick ASEAN Conference

Pen Sketches: Democracy in ASEAN

Disclaimer: Warwick ASEAN Conference would like to clarify that all opinions expressed in this article are the authors’ and editors’ own.


Come 2019, two major ASEAN countries will be due for their elections. Thailand announced a February 2019 general election and Indonesia will welcome her presidential election in April. The ASEAN we know today have largely developed democracies of some form. However, their journey to a developed democracy is nothing but an arduous one.

Among the 10 ASEAN countries, all but one (Thailand) were a colony at some stage in their history. It was only the during Japanese Occupation of South-East Asia which sparked their fight and journey to independence. Since the end of the Second World War, countries all over the world began a new dawn by transiting into new forms of government after the horrors of Fascism. Many will be familiar with the motivations of Europe in the post war era, but the motivations of South-East Asian nations, however, are largely different.  

Origins and the fight for Independence

The Japanese Occupation in numerous South-East Asian countries during the Second World War is arguably the main catalyst for the fight to independence. The atrocities of the Japanese Occupation made it clear to many countries to free themselves from foreign rule. This led to many heroes that we are familiar today, such as Aung San, Ho Chi Minh, Lee Kuan Yew and Sukarno. Despite the ideological clash between different South-East Asian countries as a result of the Cold War, there is no doubt that democracy was an instrumental political factor that led to the emergence and relevance of ASEAN today.

What is the state of democracy in today’s ASEAN?

The demise of empires and colonialism meant Southeast Asian nations are slowly attaining independence. Throughout the history of post-colonial Southeast Asia, there have been mixed fates for democracy among the different nations. Philippines underwent difficult periods of political turmoil when Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law, suspending democracy in Philippines until the emergence of the People’s Power Movement under future president Corazon Aquino. Thailand also struggles with democracy. The strong influence of the military in Thai politics have hindered the development of democracy in Thailand over many years.

Singapore and Malaysia on the other hand have had largely flourishing democracies since their independence from British rule. Myanmar has freed itself from almost 50 decades of military junta with democratic reforms resulting in the today’s government, though the military retains a strong say in governance. Indonesia has matured and flourished as a presidential democracy after a period of difficulties, including a autocratic period of ‘Guided Democracy’ and military-dominated rule.  

Democracy in ASEAN is a developing concept today. While some democracies are more mature, some continue to be in the foundational stage.

Present Observations

The future is uncertain yet positive for democracy in South-East Asia.

Malaysia first of all had a watershed election last May, with the long ruling Barisan Nasional coalition ousted by the Pakatan Harapan coalition, led by their former PM (now PM again) Dr Mahathir. Faced with economic deficits from previous government and new political developments, Malaysians will surely be looking forward to things to come. Many have seen this election results as a promising future for democracy in Malaysia and the region. As the 100th day of the new government draws near, not only will it reflect the potential ability of the new government in the future, it also potentially put democracy at the centre stage, whether it is indeed a positive agent of change.   

Myanmar is stabilizing under the premiership of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi following the election in 2015. However, now faced with the issue of the Rohingya crisis and increasing pressure to address within the ASEAN and the international community, it would be a dent to the stabilisation of Burmese politics.

Thailand would soon be heading to the polls next year. Should an election be called as announced by PM Chan-O-Cha, it would be a welcome move by all members of the ASEAN Community after a period of military control which have plagued Thai political history. However, as history has shown, Thai democracy have proven to be volatile and it would be carefully watched by the region.

What do the recent developments politically in ASEAN shows? It shows progress, and the region being able to stand on the same level as other countries in the West. It shows the potential of ASEAN countries to grow. History is on ASEAN’s side! Young democracies such as Poland emerging from the end of the Cold War have shown their success in democracy. While it is an ancient myth to correlate democracy with economic development, it is not a myth to associate political stability with economic development. Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia are developing economies with great potential, the idealist mindset of ours can now imagine how much more ASEAN can grow and compete with the rest of the world.     

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