The Asian Democratic Decline

Recent decades have witnessed the decline of democracy around the world as more and more countries have turned to more populist regimes. The political regimes of many Asian countries changed in the 20th century in the post-war period and voting was introduced for the very first time. However, Asia has never fully embraced democracy like the West – only a few countries are truly democratic, including Taiwan and South Korea. In the past few years, countries like Hong Kong, Thailand and most recently Myanmar have made news headlines because of the severe decline of democracy, leading to nation-wide protests and political dissent.

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A police officer kicks away a smoke bomb during a protest outside the Embassy of Myanmar. (Credit: ANDRE MALERBA/BLOOMBERG)

The four regions of Asia have different relationships with democracy. In East Asia, China and North Korea are both one-party states, leaving no room for political choice and limited freedom of expression. However, the two most democratic countries are in East Asia – Taiwan and South Korea. Southeast Asian countries have a strained and complicated relationship with democracy. At the end of the colonial era, many countries tried to adopt a democratic system, but many have turned to more authoritarian-style regimes. Similarly, in South Asia, alleged democratic systems have transformed into majoritarianism, leading to conflict within the region. Meanwhile, Central Asia has always been a stranger to democracy. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has tested democracies and influenced how people view the political regime based on how they dealt with and responded to the coronavirus. Democracies in East Asia (Taiwan and South Korea) were an exception to the general global decline as people’s faith in the democratic system strengthened.

Southeast Asia has been at the epicenter of the democratic decline in Asia. In the latter half of the decade, Southeast Asian countries have experienced deteriorations in terms of political rights and civil liberties, according to Freedom House. Since 2017, Cambodia has been letting go of democracy as the party in power had a crackdown on opposition groups and shut down the Cambodia Press, limiting freedom of expression and the press. Most recently, the army staged a coup and overtook the government in Myanmar, going against the results of the recent national elections. Civilian leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi were detained and a state of emergency was declared for one year. The current government subsequently suspended the use of many social media platforms in the country to make communication as difficult as possible. However, shortly after the takeover, protests were underway as people demanded a democracy and a return to civilian rule.

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Demonstrators gather near a police barricade outside Thammasat University (Credit: THEGLOBEPOST/AFP)

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, democracy has not just declined – it has utterly failed. In Thailand, there has been a roll-back on democracy since the 1932 coup transformed the country’s absolute monarchy into a constitutional one. Thailand now operates as a modern-style authoritarian regime and the military, bureaucratic elite and business conglomerates form the current political order. The Thai youth have been protesting since the beginning of last year as they were unhappy and dissatisfied with the army being in charge of the government. In 2019, Thai people voted for the first time since the 2014 army coup. Even though the opposition party won more seats than any other party in parliament, the senate voted to keep Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha in office. During the 2019 elections, the Future Forward Party (FFP), a pro-democracy with progressive values, gained massive support from the youth. In February, the FFP was forcibly disbanded by the government on the premise that they allegedly violated laws. This is just one instance of how the government is limiting democracy.

In East Asia, democracy in Hong Kong has declined because of increased influence being exerted by the Chinese Communist Party, who aims to reshape the territory to align with their values more. Several pro-democracy lawmakers were expelled from their positions in mid-2017 and police brutality was reported around the country. Protests by students and the youth raged on for months as they advocated for democracy. Likewise, freedom of the press and expression became limited and voting in September 2020 was postponed. Voting was eventually carried out to choose which pro-democracy leaders would take part in formal elections that month, but it was organized by civil society groups instead of the government. Prior to this, Carrie Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong, signed the National Security Law that would end pro-democracy protests and criminalize political dissent, thus silencing the people. In the past few years, the people have not had a say in the content of laws that were passed, demonstrating how democracy has declined.

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Protesters chant slogans against Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen (Credit: FRANCOIS LENOIR/REUTERS)

The recent case studies of Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Hong Kong illustrate how democracy has declined in Asia. Even though democracy still has a complicated stance in Asia, the youth are trying to embrace it as much as they can, even if that means risking their lives to participate in mass protests. Due to the decline of democracy, the fight for democracy is ongoing and certainly does not seem like it will stop soon.





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