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To Democracy and Back in Southeast Asia

From Thailand to Malaysia, Southeast Asian countries are grappling with rapid democratic erosion, facilitated by the COVID-19 crisis. Given that good governance, accountability, and transparency are the cornerstones of inclusive economic growth, this trend spells disaster, especially for the poor.

KUALA LUMPUR – For several decades, “people-powered” grassroots movements across Southeast Asia have fought for democratic reforms, human rights, improved access to quality education and health care, and, ultimately, an end to extreme poverty. These movements have been motivated by a vision of inclusive prosperity and social justice that stands as an alternative to the neoliberal “road to serfdom” on which much of the region has been traveling by default.

Unfortunately, the hard-fought gains of recent decades are now in jeopardy. Southeast Asia is backsliding on democracy, and the erosion of accountability will lead to familiar outcomes, including concentration of power, massive corruption and rent-seeking by business and political elites, media repression, and limits on freedom of assembly. Add to that the destabilizing impact of climate change, mass migration, rising food insecurity, and economic inequality, and the risks are set to grow even more acute.

The rise of fascism and authoritarianism, and the collapse of free societies, is becoming increasingly likely; indeed, it is already happening. The only way to counter these forces is through a strong commitment to institutional reform, good governance, and accountability.