Across Southeast Asia, former autocrats are staging their comebacks, exploiting ethnic and religious divisions, as well as fragile institutions. In Myanmar, a decade of cautious democratisation was violently upended by a military coup last year, while, in more recent times, once-disgraced kleptocratic forces in the Philippines and Malaysia have managed to regain public favour, threatening the future democratic health of those countries. This will have significant implications for governance in one of the world’s most economically dynamic regions.
This trend was first seen in Myanmar following the military’s brazen power grab on February 1st, 2021. Now, a year in, the fallout caused by the coup shows no signs of abating, as violence that was once limited to the country’s borderlands has now spread to the centre, effectively plunging the country into a full-blown civil war between the forces of the Tatmadaw (the official name of Myanmar’s military) and local resistance groups known as the People’s Defence Forces (PDF).
The economy, never the region’s strongest, has collapsed. Its currency has dropped some 30 percent since last February, and the economy is expected to see little to no growth in 2022 after a contraction of 18 percent in the fiscal year ending September 2021. Prior to the coup, the country had enjoyed annual economic growth averaging seven percent between 2011 and 2016.
While the Tatmadaw may be back in power, it has failed to consolidate control over the entire country, with PDF forces claiming to have established “liberated zones” in rural areas complete with their own administrations. Initially established to defend their local areas from Tatmadaw incursions, PDF actions have become more offensive in nature, including attacking military bases and carrying out bombings and targeted assassinations of government officials. According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), a US-based NGO, total casualties of the conflict are believed to have reached 11,000 in 2021 alone.
In other parts of Southeast Asia, former autocrats have also staged comebacks, albeit using ballot boxes rather than bullets. In the Philippines, the son and namesake of the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos won a landslide victory in the recently concluded presidential elections held on May 9th, securing around 60 percent of the votes. (His closest rival, Vice President Leni Robredo, won 27.94 percent of the votes.)
Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.’s sweeping victory represents a remarkable political comeback for the Marcos family, who were ousted from power during the 1986 "People Power" revolution after a two-decade rule marked by human rights abuses and grand corruption. By one estimate, by the time Ferdinand Marcos fled to Hawaii, his family and cronies had looted up to $10 billion from the country, much of which is still being recovered by the government (a recovery effort that is now under threat).
The return of the Marcoses to the Malacañang Palace bodes ill for Asia’s oldest democracy. Institutions created in response to Ferdinand Marcos Sr.’s abuse of power during his rule risk being undermined, as do ongoing corruption cases following the Marcos family.
In neighbouring Malaysia, disgraced former prime minister Najib Tun Razak plans a similar comeback of equal audaciousness. Under his leadership, Malaysia’s ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition, led by the dominant United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), had been ousted from power in May 2018 after 61 years of uninterrupted rule of the country following independence from the British in 1957.
Much of the blame for the defeat had been attributed to a massive corruption scandal surrounding Najib, in which $700 million had somehow ended up in his personal bank account, widely believed to be part of the $4.5 billion which had been siphoned off from 1MDB, a state investment fund. The 1MDB scandal had gripped the international media, with investigations into financial malfeasance involving the fund taking place in the US, Switzerland, and Singapore. Out of power, Najib was convicted on several charges of abuse of power and money laundering in 2021 and sentenced to 12 years in prison. A presiding judge labelled him a “national embarrassment.”
Out on bail while his appeal is being heard, Najib has nevertheless proven he remains popular among a large segment of the Malaysian public. This was most glaringly seen in the convincing majorities that Barisan Nasional won in state elections in the West Malaysian states of Melaka in November 2021 and Johor in March 2022, both of which saw Najib positioned at front and centre of their campaigns.
Maintaining a large support base within the party, Najib and the other UMNO leaders facing corruption charges are now piling pressure on Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob (who is also vice-president of UMNO) to call an early general election, which Barisan Nasional is widely expected to win handily. For Najib, it is believed that greater control over the federal machinery provided by an election win may give him a get-out-of-jail card, possibly through a self-pardon. Indeed, a recent anti-graft probe launched against the judge who convicted Najib in 2021 has raised fears in certain quarters that a narrative exonerating Najib is already being established.
What explains the longevity of anciens régimes in Southeast Asia? Racial and religious divisions are one factor. In Myanmar, the outsized political influence of the Tatmadaw can be attributed to its claim that it is the only institution that has managed to hold together a country of 135 ethnicities, having been in almost continuous combat against several ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) on Myanmar’s peripheries for more than 70 years since independence.
In Malaysia, UMNO’s return to power in March 2020 was predicated on stoking the concerns of the majority Malay Muslims that the institutional supremacy they have traditionally enjoyed (which privileges them when it comes to access to housing, schooling, and government contracts) was under threat from the more multi-ethnic Pakatan Harapan coalition, which drew huge support from the country’s minority Chinese and Indian populations.
Southeast Asia’s highly personalistic form of politics also plays a part. Contrary to Western stereotypes of Asian conformism, Southeast Asian politics is highly individualistic, with power depending on personal networks rather than formal institutions, the latter of which are often weak.
The rehabilitation of the Marcoses in the Philippines, for example, would never have been possible if Marcos-era loyalists had been fully expunged from the country’s institutions, particularly its judiciary. These networks of loyalists allowed the Marcoses to dodge numerous lawsuits and even jail time.
Despite being convicted on tax evasion-related charges, Marcos Jr. has been allowed to hold multiple offices prior to running for the presidency, having previously served as a governor, congressman, and senator. Imelda Marcos, the former wife of the dictator who was also convicted on charges of graft in 2018 has, likewise, remained free from jail.
Unsurprisingly, this personalistic form of politics has imparted autocratic tendencies among the region’s leaders. Even those elected to office on the promise of reforms have felt the allure of it. In Indonesia, President Joko Widodo has, over the years, demonstrated some of the same illiberal tendencies that he once campaigned against, including overseeing a crackdown on civil society groups, as well as more recently flirting with constitutional changes to allow him to rule beyond the end of his two-term limit in 2024.
The personal networks which sustain power in Southeast Asia are primarily fuelled by patronage which, in turn, fuels often spectacular levels of corruption. Looking at the Economist’s latest incarnation of its Crony Capitalism Index (which measures the share of total billionaire wealth in each country believed to be attributed to cronyism), one notes the overrepresentation of Southeast Asia within the upper ranks of that list.
As of the 2022 update, Malaysia ranked second in the world behind Russia, while Singapore stood in third place. They were followed on the list by the Philippines (fourth), Indonesia (eighth), and Thailand (ninth). The 1MDB scandal which rocked Malaysia was, ultimately, not a one-off but, rather, the logical conclusion of decades of the country’s state-owned entities and government bodies being looted for political gain and personal aggrandisement.
Corruption degrades not only the quality of institutions and public services—to the detriment of the poorest, who rely on them—but it also stifles the sort of economic reforms needed to help raise productivity growth and develop more higher-valued industries. In other words, to escape the dreaded middle-income trap and join the ranks of high-income economies.
The problem is that the inherent structures of many Southeast Asian economies create little political incentive to undertake more serious structural reforms. For many of the region’s economies, pervasive cronyism is often fuelled by high levels of government intervention and regulations within the market. There is, thus, generally little desire to liberalise markets further, since elites gain and hold political office through the financial support that their cronies provide.
The return to power of Southeast Asian autocrats arguably benefits China’s attempts to curry regional influence, to the detriment of the attempts by liberal democracies to counter Chinese geopolitical clout. Under Najib’s administration, for example, Malaysia found itself aligning closer with Beijing to secure massive infrastructure investments, with allegations arising that some of these projects had been offered by Najib to secure Chinese bailouts for the then-struggling 1MDB. In the Philippines, Marcos Jr. is expected to continue with outgoing president Rodrigo Duterte’s pivot to China, possibly hoping to use Chinese commercial opportunities to consolidate his family’s power base by rewarding local elites and their home province of Ilocos Norte.
That being said, we mustn't fall into the trap of assuming that the alternatives to autocrats within the region are inconsequential. Southeast Asia continues to host a vibrant and active civil society willing to challenge authority, speak out against injustice, and push for more inclusive politics (often at risk to their own lives). The region’s rapid economic growth over the last decade has, likewise, seen the emergence of a sizeable middle class that is more cognizant of its rights and demands better governance from its leaders.
Ultimately, however, the biggest enemy of the elites may be within their own ranks. The dependence of the region’s elites on personal networks to maintain power is what makes its politics so inherently unstable and unpredictable. The legitimacy of the elite is dependent on the fickle loyalty of retainers and clients who may decide to cut ties if they believe their patron is unable to deliver, or if they simply decide they have a shot at grabbing the top spot for themselves.
Throughout Southeast Asia’s post-colonial history, periods of openness and reformist zeal have, thus far, proved fleeting, as illiberal forces lurking in the shadows simply bided their time before clawing their way back to the top. It remains to be seen whether the region’s young and frustrated population can one day break free of this miserable cycle.
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