This article is the second in a 10-part series collectively themed “Fostering Democracy Movements,” an Asia Democracy Network special 10th anniversary report produced by the Asia Democracy Chronicles. The release of this series is also in commemoration of Human Rights Day on December 10, 2023. The entire report can be downloaded here.
n July 31, the Myanmar military junta announced the indefinite postponement of elections that it had repeatedly insisted would take place this year.
The announcement came on the heels of a strike that erupted across Myanmar. The nationally coordinated boycott protest, most prominent in the townships of Tanintharyi, Sagaing, Kachin, Mogway, and Yangon regions, featured banners denouncing the “fascist election” and advocating for a federal democratic charter.
In the face of unrelenting state-sanctioned violence, the banners unfurled by activists in Salingyi township, part of the embattled Yinmarbin district in southern Sagaing Division, served as a clarion call to the beleaguered citizens of Myanmar. The message was unequivocal: “Continue marching with the people’s power to achieve the hope of heroes.”
Two and a half years ago, the global community watched in collective disbelief as General Min Aung Hlaing orchestrated a coup, wresting control from the democratically elected National League for Democracy party led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
That audacious move signaled the end of the eight-year hiatus of coups in Asia’s geopolitical landscape. Myanmar’s people have since been fighting fiercely to reclaim their rights as citizens, even if this has meant putting their lives at risk. Yet the question looms: Is the abrupt resurgence of military takeovers an anomalous event – a “black swan” – in the trajectory of Asian democracy, or does it signify a more ominous, emerging trend that threatens the very foundations of democratic governance in the region?
The 2014 coup in Thailand had also shocked the world, with the military, traditionally loyal to the King, forcibly taking power. The country’s military leaders have since imposed their own version of democracy on the country, which held its latest elections just this year. But the Thai military has convinced no one, especially when the progressive party that won the popular vote in the most recent polls was thwarted in placing its nominee in the prime minister’s seat.
It is, of course, tempting to view these large-scale disruptions of Asia’s democratization as isolated events. But developments in recent years only confirm that these are manifestations of a broader trend: the decline of democracy in the region.
Democracy in shambles
There is undoubtedly a broad consensus among scholars that the rise of authoritarianism and anti-democratic sentiments in most of the world are leading to a larger global shift to “autocratization.” Globally, the rise of Donald Trump in the United States, Jair Bolsonario in Brazil, and Viktor Orban in Hungary between 2016 and 2018 prompted discussions on the rise of right-wing authoritarianism and populism.
In Asia, a closer inspection of the full spectrum between autocracy and democracy unveils a similar disconcerting surge in “electoral autocracy.” Most notably, seismic political shifts in India and the Philippines – nations traditionally viewed as democratic strongholds in the region – have driven this jump.
|Graph 1: The period 2016-2022 witnessed a marked surge in electoral autocracy in Asia, cutting through countries that were once electoral democracies as closed autocratic regimes and liberal democracy governments remained constant.
What has come to be known as the “democratic deconsolidation of the 21st century,” or democratic backsliding, has been accompanied by a systematic erosion of economic, political, and socio-economic rights, a resurgence of despotic majoritarianism, and outright attacks against pro-democracy actors.
Indeed, democratic deconsolidation denotes that the pathways toward democracy (i.e., democratic reforms that actively support a full range of human rights) are not linear. It yields, however, a picture of democracy that is built by pro-democracy actors against the active dismantling of autocratic actors.
But how does deconsolidation happen?
Categorically, only three of the 24 countries studied by the V-Dem Institute in Gothenburg, Sweden showed marginal improvement in the past decade, while five countries – Afghanistan, India, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Thailand – moved below the ladder of democratization. Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Thailand became closed autocracies.
Moreover, 15 countries slid back in their electoral democracy indices, based on V-Dem’s Democracy Index data. Overall, the region declined an average of 4 percent in the benchmark, with the most alarming decline found in the areas of democratic participation and representation.
Myanmar junta: A precarious path of bloodshed On Feb. 1, 2021, the Tatmadaw – Myanmar’s military – staged a coup d’état, seizing control of the democratically elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi. The junta nullified the results of the November 2020 general elections, invoking allegations of electoral fraud to justify its action. Post-coup, Myanmar has been a theater of violence and state-sponsored terrorism. The junta has brutally executed at least 4,000 people and arrested 25,000 more. Indiscriminate airstrikes in rural villages in almost all regions have been accompanied by raids and scorched-earth tactics of razing homes, displacing at least 1.1 million people since 2021. In response to the military’s atrocities, at least 297 armed groups collectively known as the People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) have emerged in conjunction with already established ethnic armed organizations. Initial disjointed efforts have slowly aligned into a more organized resistance, with certain groups receiving tactical training and strategic advice from ethnic armed organizations.
Notably, too, incumbent chief executives have been extending their stay in power, with their expanded and absolute power firmly in place. In Asia has no dearth of examples of such leaders: Brunei (49 years), Bhutan (14 years), Cambodia (27 years), and Singapore (16 years), with the latter two holding ceremonial elections.
|Graph 2: Thailand started early but Afghanistan and Myanmar followed soon in its marked decline of democratic rule.
Waning popular support
Bloody coups and authoritarian leaders are often cited in discussions regarding the region’s supposed tilt toward autocracy. But the reality is far grimmer: the state of democracy in Asia has regressed to levels last seen over four decades ago, in 1978. And that includes the remaining bastions of liberal democracy in the region.
A 2021 study on democratic deconsolidation in East Asia found that experiencing democracy first-hand does not guarantee support from citizens. Using the Global Barometer Surveys, the study concluded that only one in five respondents supported a fully responsive democratic government in Taiwan, South Korea, and even Japan, the oldest democracy in Asia.
|Graph 3: Only one in five citizens across the three countries studied supports full democracy.
|Graph 4: Criteria used for Graph 3
Astonishingly, the majority of the populace in these nations – 71 percent in South Korea, 59 percent in Taiwan, and 55 percent in Japan – has expressed a preference for a more autocratic variant of their existing governments. This, in part, can be reflected in the massive support for the revisions of the pacifist Article 9 in Japan’s constitution (although such revisions have not been made), the return to presidency of the conservative People Power Party in South Korea in 2022, and the emergence of pro-Kuomintang leaders in the Taipei mayoral race, also in 2022.
Rise of electoral authoritarianism
But the seeming collapse of nascent democracies into full autocracies after a coup on one hand, and a brewing discontent over liberal democracy in richer countries in East Asia on the other, do not paint the full picture.
While many consider hybrid democracies or so-called “anocracies” as transitory, others propose that the rapid deterioration of rights and rule of law in democracies like India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi represents a distinct type of regime: electoral authoritarianism. That is, the strategic deployment of democratic-looking institutions — such as elections, constitutional courts, and private media — to expand authoritarian forms of power within a polity.
|Graph 5: There have been consistent but varying declines in the integrity of the latest elections in the Philippines, Thailand, Maldives, Mongolia, India, Pakistan, Cambodia, and Indonesia compared to the previous one.
Elections as a tool for democratic regression
Recent discourses on the populism and strongmen politics of autocratization tend to focus solely on self-aggrandizing executive positions such as those in the Philippines under former president Rodrigo Duterte and Cambodia under former former prime minister Hun Sen. But scholars point out that de-democratization happens more widely and in tranches, even in countries with seemingly “weak” executives.
The purging of political opposition, while consolidating a “supermajority” legislative rule, has been a key feature of not only the Hun Sen, Duterte, Marcos Jr., and Modi governments, but of others such as Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP), and, more recently, Mongolia’s Mongolian People’s Party (MPP). Repressive laws are enacted swiftly and in full despite the presence of a formal legislative body.
In the Philippines, the impeachment of Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno in 2018 served as a violent warning to the judiciary to toe the line of Duterte’s supermajority rule. In Cambodia, Hun Sen’s government routinely conducted witch hunts among opposing politicians, called “foreign collaborators”, before every election.
In the period of entrenched electoral authoritarianism, authoritarian regimes aim to enshrine their party through constitutional changes or the introduction of repressive laws. This has been seen in recent years in countries across Asia: in India’s Citizen Amendment Act, which supported violence against religious minorities; in proposed charter amendments in the Philippines; and Indonesia, and to some extent in China under President Xi Jinping.
Another key sector that electoral authoritarians consolidate is the military. Over the past decade, South and Southeast Asia have seen a reassertion of military might in civilian governance. Beyond the coups in Myanmar and Thailand, armed forces are playing increasingly dominant roles in politics in Cambodia, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka.
Take Cambodia, for example, where the military fortified its alliance with then Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was grooming his son through the army ranks as the heir apparent. Hun Manet is now Cambodia’s premier while his father remains head of the ruling party as well as senate president; no one doubts, however, that it is Hun Sen holding the reins behind the scene.
In Indonesia, the military has rekindled its Suharto-era influence, reclaiming control over key domestic ministries under President Joko Widodo’s watch. In fact, the top running candidate for the next elections, Prabowo Subianto, a former army lieutenant general and an ex-Suharto son-in-law, has teamed up with Widodo’s son Gibran as his running mate.
South Asia has been having similar experiences. Before a popular uprising forced him to resign last year, Sri Lanka’s former president and ex-military officer Gotabaya Rajapaksa militarized his administration by appointing army men to key governmental positions. In the Maldives, the military occupied the parliament in 2017 and continues to hold outsized power. In Pakistan, where the armed forces’ shadow has loomed large over civilian politics for decades, key judiciary roles have been recently relegated to military courts.
|Graph 6: Data show increased military spending in 15 Asian countries (2012-2022) in US$ constant (2021).
As the lines between military and civilian governance continue to blur, increasingly violent authoritarian regimes catalyze the process of embedding autocratic norms into these de-consolidating democracies. The yawning inequality within and rising geopolitical tensions in the region are bound to exacerbate this trend even further. ◉