September 6, 2022
TOKYO – Authoritarianism now runs rampant in some parts of Southeast Asia. I was a correspondent in this region from 2006 through 2010, and then returned there in 2019. Compared to my previous experience, I strongly felt the spread of authoritarianism and the suppressed social atmosphere that it caused.
Thailand is one such Asian country undergoing a rise of authoritarianism. From early 2000 to around 2010, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was prime minister from 2001 to 2006, had influence over politics during a time of significant economic growth. He brought business into politics, establishing a new style of rule in Thailand. However, military and business conglomerates with long vested interests were not happy about him and his supporters. The two sides came into conflict and fought each other on the street for many years. Eventually, Thaksin was forced to leave the country. Even so, the military was eager to eliminate his influence in politics at any cost, resulting in a military coup in 2014 that ousted a government associated with Thaksin.
In the eight years since, the military-led political system has continued. The military-centered ruling class enacted a new Constitution and laws favorable to itself. It then prevented Thaksin and his supporters from returning to power in the general election in 2019. Former Army Commander Prayut Chan-o-cha, who masterminded the coup and served as interim prime minister under military rule, has remained as prime minister even after the general election — which was nominally intended to bring the country back under civilian rule. His government dissolved an emerging anti-military political party with the help of a pro-government judicial system. University students protested across the country, demanding the resignation of Prayut in the hope of restoring democracy, but they were suppressed by the ruling class and their efforts are waning.
A recent event showed that this authoritarian regime has cemented its grip on power in Thailand. During parliamentary debate on an opposition-led no-confidence motion against Prayut and his ministers on July 20, the deputy prime minister, a former military officer, said, “I was not involved in the coup.” He then pointed to Prayut, saying, “He staged it.” Prayut smiled and raised his hand. The chamber erupted in jovial laughter.
Criticism immediately spread throughout Thailand, with reactions such as “Is he justifying the coup?” and “He doesn’t understand democracy.” However, the no-confidence motion was eventually rejected by members of the ruling coalition, mainly from the pro-military party. A Thai political expert said: “Some military-oriented politicians mistakenly believe that they are on the right track to respect [the regime’s version of] democracy. Ordinary people in Thailand are not satisfied with the current situation. However, they have no idea how to change it, and they seem to have no choice but to live under authoritarianism so long as they live here. There is a fear that authoritarianism in Thailand is becoming normalized.” In fact, some Thais say that they don’t care whether politicians are military or nonmilitary, so long as their daily life is stable.
The neighboring country of Cambodia illustrates a different type of authoritarianism. Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power for more than 30 years, has become increasingly autocratic in the past couple of years. He has accelerated his strong-arm approach, dissolving opposition parties and suppressing the media. As a result, he has established a one-party dictatorship by monopolizing all the seats in the general election of 2018. The country’s economic development has been remarkable, despite the horrific history of the Pol Pot regime, under which more than 1.7 million people were killed. Some believe that the one-party dictatorship has dispelled political strife and made a great contribution to economic growth and social stability. Many others find that hard to believe.
Myanmar is the latest country to reveal the terrible consequences of authoritarianism. The military coup in February 2021 thwarted the democratic momentum that had been emerging after its democratic symbol, Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been under house arrest for more than decade, was released in 2010. The military has turned its guns on resisting civilians, and the death toll is already estimated at more than 2,000. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Myanmar is a member, is calling for an end to the violence. However, ASEAN includes Thailand and Cambodia. It appears unlikely that these two countries will persuade Myanmar because they also have a sense of authoritarianism to some extent in their own politics.
Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar have three things in common:
First, many citizens have expressed their opposition to the government. In Thailand, the youth who led the movement to restore nonmilitary government have connected with one another on social media and are looking for opportunities to call for the military-led government to step down. In Cambodia, although the ruling party won a landslide victory in local elections in May, the successor to the dissolved opposition party did not fare badly. In Myanmar, citizens are taking up arms and continuing to resist the military across the country.
Second, all three countries have strong economic ties with China. Cambodia has been particularly dependent on China for infrastructure development. Although the West has criticized the coups in Thailand and Myanmar and imposed economic sanctions on Myanmar, China has continued its policy of maintaining relations regardless of the political situation. It is quite natural for these three countries to think, “Even if the West hates us, we still have China,” in light of China having become a superpower that competes with the United States. One cannot dismiss the possibility that they may have learned from China that authoritarianism is acceptable so long as economic development is maintained.
Third and finally, these countries also have close relationships with Japan. In Thailand, roughly 6,000 Japanese companies have set up operations, making Thailand an industrial hub for Asia. In Cambodia, Japan contributed to the country’s reconstruction after the Pol Pot regime, and it has close historical ties with Myanmar. Because Japan has already shown an important presence in these countries, perhaps it can also play a great role in helping them restore authentic democracy.
However, it is clear that outright criticism will not work. As a good neighbor who knows the history and culture of each country well, we should start by persistently conveying the message that the people of those countries want a democratic political system that can improve their lives. Various approaches, such as economic assistance and cultural exchanges, can work to build a dialogue with them. None of these countries — Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar — can yet be called fully authoritarian, like Russia and China. Their people still seek democracy. Japan can be the country to bring true stability to this region in Asia.