Not Just Myanmar, Southeast Asia Is Coming Under More Authoritarian Rule

From Yangon to Phnom Penh and Manila, democracy is falling apart in the region.
malaysia, lockdown
A soldier mans the entrance to a market in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, which currently remains under lockdown. PHOTO: MOHD RASFAN, AFP  

It seemed like history was repeating itself in Myanmar on Monday when the country was plunged back into military rule, as security forces arrested de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, along with the president and her closest political allies. 

The military moved swiftly and seized power, handing authority over to army chief Min Aung Hlaing and declaring a national state of emergency for a year.


The Feb. 1 coup follows a landslide victory in November for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party (NLD) and derailed years of Western-backed efforts to establish democracy in the country. 

“The move was expected but still came as a big surprise to many who were confident that the NLD had a clear electoral mandate,” said Roger Huang, a Sydney-based politics lecturer at the Macquarie University, who noted that the military “clearly used” the downtime as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to take back control of the country. 

“Many Southeast Asian governments have been using COVID-19 as a distraction to seize power and exert authority and ironically, as the pandemic worsened in many countries, authoritarian regimes and powers only became more emboldened in using emergency powers and public health measures to justify crackdowns on free speech,” Huang said.

“Many Southeast Asian governments have been using COVID-19 as a distraction to seize power and exert authority.”

Responses from Southeast Asian governments towards the situation in Myanmar were muted. A telling sign, according to rights groups and experts. They offered similar views about the trend that played out in a region where democracy has been on the back foot for years: autocratic governments cementing their grip on power as the virus swept across borders.


“The COVID-19 pandemic was a human rights disaster for Southeast Asia and opened the door for authoritarian governments to further crack down on their people,” said Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director of Human Rights Watch (HRW). 

Besides Myanmar, here are other examples of authoritarian developments playing out in Southeast Asia during the pandemic.


Even as the pandemic hit Thailand, thousands upon thousands of pro-democracy youth protesters still took to the streets in Bangkok to stage historic demonstrations against the government and the kingdom’s all-powerful monarchy. The events were part of a long year that kept the authorities on their toes and changed the country forever

A state of emergency was declared in March to combat the rapid spread of the virus. Citing the violations of emergency regulations, police and authorities denied permission to protesters to hold peaceful assemblies, carried out sweeping crackdowns and initiated criminal proceedings against demonstrators.

But even as infection rates dropped and life returned to normal, critics questioned the use of laws to curb protests and target prominent government critics like Thai opposition figure Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, who was accused of violating the dreaded royal defamation law when he questioned the government’s vaccination strategy


“Measures ostensibly aimed at protecting the Thai people from a public health threat were used to harass and obstruct peaceful protesters calling for justice and accountability,” freedom of expression group Article19 noted. 

The Thai government has referred to the military coup in Myanmar as “an internal affair.”


Cambodia managed to contain the virus and has not recorded one single official COVID-19 death. But rights groups, government critics and exiled politicians have accused the country’s controversial strongman leader Hun Sen of using the pandemic to his advantage and as a pretext for expanding his power. 

“Hun Sen clearly took advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to wipe out opposition and grow his totalitarian rule,” said Mu Sochua, a prominent Cambodian opposition leader who recently faced serious charges of treason and had planned a high-profile return from the United States where she is currently based.

“I was willing to take that dangerous risk of traveling home during the pandemic because I would be going to jail for the sake of national dialogue,” Sochua previously told VICE World News. But she never made it because of heavy restrictions in place. 


Mass treason trials were also held for many other opposition members in exile.

Experts have also noted that U.S. sanctions no longer pose a serious threat to countries facing political and human rights crises like Cambodia and Myanmar when they can turn to China for recognition and assistance. Beijing is already helping out, having referred to the power grab as a “cabinet reshuffle” in state media.


Malaysia’s government was quick to weigh in on the coup in Myanmar, urging peaceful dialogue and calling for the resolution of disputes through legal processes.

But their statements raised eyebrows among many Malaysians who called out “double standards” and “hypocrisy” displayed by its own “backdoor government.” 

In 2020, Malaysia witnessed its own political crisis unfold. Its democratically-elected coalition government collapsed and the old ruling party was back in power. Months of political infighting and chaos ensued as the pandemic worsened, leading the Malaysian king to finally declare a state of emergency after seeing daily coronavirus infections skyrocket into the thousands.

“The irony in this,” wrote one Malaysian on Twitter. “The military in Myanmar staged a coup to take power. This government in Malaysia took away voting rights and replaced a democratically elected coalition without the people’s consent.”


What’s the difference between Myanmar and us?”  

While a civilian government is in place, parliament and state assemblies remain suspended. 

Observers noted that the state of emergency not only provides the Malaysian military with police powers, it also grants political immunity to Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, prohibiting elections and allowing him to avoid challenges to his leadership.

“The emergency in Malaysia was called using COVID-19 cover and tested the government in an unprecedented fashion,” said political analyst Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia expert and research associate at the University of Nottingham. “There was no [government] accountability but greater scrutiny and expectations from the Malaysian public, with less than adequate results.”  


Vietnam’s response to the coronavirus is widely viewed as among the most effective in the world, recording just 1,739 cases and 35 deaths. 

But human rights activists pointed out that its success at curbing the pandemic was built on repression. 

“The steps [to prevention and containment] are easy to describe but difficult to implement,” Matthew Moore, a Hanoi-based official from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told Reuters. “But the Communist Party of Vietnam has been very successful at implementing them over and over again.” 

A Vietnamese policeman stands guard at a makeshift checkpoint in the capital Hanoi. PHOTO: AFP / NHAC NGUYEN)

A Vietnamese police officer stands guard at a makeshift checkpoint in the capital Hanoi. PHOTO: NHAC NGUYEN, AFP

With the latest security tools at its disposal, the Vietnamese Communist Party’s controversial public surveillance strategies served it well when it came to fast responses and wide contact tracing efforts. Ironically, the structures used by government officials to control dissent were the same ones used to control the epidemic. The military also played a significant role in the fight against the virus. 


Like Thailand and Malaysia, officials in the Philippines did not strongly condemn the coup in Myanmar but offered concern about the safety of Aung San Suu Kyi, who remained under house arrest as of Tuesday afternoon.

But the country, also Asia’s oldest democracy, has seen more than its fair share of power grabs and human rights abuses which took place during the COVID-19 pandemic. Local politicians were empowered to implement harsh coronavirus rules while lawmakers were able to pass controversial bills, like the dreaded Anti-Terror Law, in record time as Filipinos were focusing on surviving. 

The law, which critics fear would be used to target journalists, activists and dissidents in a country with a notoriously poor record on human rights, now expands the scope for warrantless arrests and grants strongman President Rodrigo Duterte and his ruling government the power to brand anyone a terrorist or enemy of the state. Many in the country were also enraged that the government prioritized passing anti-terror laws over coronavirus aid. The legislation took effect on July 18, 2020 and at least two persons have been charged since. 

In March, Duterte declared a “national health emergency” and ordered a national lockdown, covering half the population, to curb the coronavirus spread in the country. He called upon the Philippine Congress to grant him special powers to distribute stimulus packages for families and obtain medical aid from abroad. But he also deployed police officers across the country to uphold highly controversial coronavirus rules and restrictions that subjected young people to alarming abuse

Duterte also resorted to similar inflammatory proclamations used during the deadly drug war, ordering police and security personnel to “shoot dead” anyone caught violating lockdown orders. 

Political analyst and newspaper columnist Antonio J. Montalvan II, from Duterte’s political stronghold of Mindanao, criticized his administration’s response to the health emergency in the Philippines, saying that he had “clearly used” the opportunity presented by the epidemic to expand his powers without offering a clear “epidemiological response.”

“Duterte successfully created a de facto martial law without the declaration, by cleverly containing the pandemic with a military solution,” Montalvan told Al-Jazeera.

Threats of arrests are still continuing in the Philippines, with police warnings being issued against mass gatherings and protests because of “pandemic restrictions.”