Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

The Backdrop to the Rise of Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia
OGAWA Tadashi  / Professor, Atomi University

October 8, 2020
Excessive nationalism and authoritarianism are erupting everywhere in the world. Southeast Asian countries that became democratic one after another during the 80’s and 90’s are no exceptions.

In the Philippines, “War on Drugs” by President Rodrigo Duterte has led to extra-judicial killing of numerous suspects, and the public opinions is divided over human rights and legal justice. In Thailand, the social cracks among different social strata had widened, and democracy was suspended by a coup staged by their military. Although a new constitution was created and a nationwide election was organized subsequently, such a military intervention in politics marks a twisted form of democratic restoration. As for Indonesia, although the country is maintaining its system of direct presidential elections, political exploitation of religion is becoming prominent. The National credo of the separation of religion and politics, maintained since the foundation of the country, is now undermined through election campaigns that take a hostile view of religious or ethnic minorities to win the support of predominant Muslim voters.

Behind the rise of authoritarianism in Southeast Asia lies the change in the tide of globalization. Upon the dissolution of the socialist Soviet Union after the end of the Cold War, the tide of liberal democracy and free-market economy originating in the United States were believed to overwhelm the world. However, that was not the path taken. The Neocons’ attempt to push democratization worldwide by force suffered a setback in the Middle East. Moreover, the hollowing-out of the economy and deepening wealth gap became increasingly serious in the United States, tarnishing the image of U.S. liberalism as a role model for democratization. Not only the United States but also other developed countries, including Japan, lost the vibrancy they once had.

Then China emerged as a model. The country managed to maintain its economic growth in the face of the Lehman shock and appeared to have shrewdly contained the spread of the novel coronavirus, in sharp contrast to the failure of the Western countries. Such an authoritarian approach of China is attracting the attention of autocratically minded Southeast Asian leaders as a new model of governing their countries, replacing the Western countries that are fastidious about human rights and other issues. China, too, is intent on increasing their presence in those areas through quite substantial aids and investments and cultural offensives.
There are other trends of globalization as well. For example, in Indonesia and Malaysia where the revitalization of Islam is observed, constructions of mosques and Islamic schools heavily funded by Saudi Arabia are underway, and concurrently, Wahhabism, known for its austere interpretation of Islamic doctrine, is pouring in. Wahhabism may transform traditional Southeast Asian Islam that has for long remained irenic to other religious beliefs. This Wahhabic penetration serves as a backdrop to young generations joining the I S with the aim of establishing an Islamic State in the Southeast Asia.

Another cause of the emerging authoritarianism is the information revolution. In Indonesia, for example, digitalization of the society progressed in a sweep over the past 20 years. Today, almost all adults of the country possess mobile phones and 60% of the nation is getting connected with the society via the SNS. Amid the rapid digitalization of the society, populist politicians gained opportunities to politically involve unorganized voters through the SNS, and their negative campaign started to influence the election results.

In Indonesian society, there has been an increasing emphasis placed on academic background, and the university/college enrollment rate, which was 17% in 2004, almost doubled to 36% in 2018. Although higher education is generally believed to lead to wiser judgment, it is not always true. There is an investigative report which suggest that during the presidential election campaign in 2018 to 2019 those with higher education spent more time following the SNS and believed more in fake news than workers with only junior highschool education. Information Communication Technology (ICT) was once believed to serve as a strong advantage in the democratization of Southeast Asian countries. However, its negative effect has reached a point where it can no longer be overlooked.

The rise of authoritarianism in Southeast Asia today is attributable to the “chronic illness” of democracy from within, such as the fragmentation of social strata, religious sects and ethnic groups, the rampant political corruption, and the functional failure of party politics. However, it is also true that a high sense of common good has been nurtured among the public over the past 20 years of democracy. The current global pandemic may alter the dynamics of the tug-of-war between authoritarianism and democracy, but the jury is still out on which side may win.

Tadashi Ogawa is Professor at the Department of Humanities in the Faculty of Letters, Atomi University.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

小川 忠 / 跡見学園女子大学教授

2020年 10月 8日






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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > The Backdrop to the Rise of Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia