Explain the prevalence of authoritarian forms of government in contemporary Southeast Asia

Seminar Paper, 2002
11 Pages, Grade: A+


Explain the prevalence of authoritarian forms of government in contemporary Southeast Asia.

“If democracy means to carry gun; to flaunt homosexuality; to disregard the institution of marriage; to disrupt and damage the well-being of the community in the name of individual rights; to destroy a particular faith; to have privileged institutions such as the press which are sacrosanct even if they indulge in lies which undermine society – if these are democracy’s details, cannot the new converts reject them?”[1]

For sure, they can and have done so – all over the world. The first associations in face of such a statement, however, tend to point towards Latin-American Generals or Caribbean dictators à la Papa Doc rather than to the actual author of this tirade against western political values. Interestingly enough, it was the ruling head of a Southeast Asian nation recently referred to as semi-democratic[2] who came to the conclusion stated above: Prime Minister Mahathir of Malaysia, defending his form of government at a plenary session of the United Nations in 1991, uttered it. Indeed, there is good reason to assume that countries like Indonesia, Singapore and possibly Thailand would unanimously chime in with him, even though they too are considered semi-democracies or even proper ones, as is the case for Thailand and Indonesia.[3] Without analysing the matter of local authoritarianism itself, it turns out quite clearly that some preliminary notes need to be made before one can substantially deal with the region and its political systems. What is democracy, and ,consequently, what is authoritarianism contrasted to it?

Of course, there is no definition valid in all parts of the world; Matathir’s quotation speaks volumes in this respect. Nevertheless, in the western-dominated societies at least, democracy could be defined as “that system of community government in which, by and large, the members of a community participate, directly or indirectly, in the making of decisions which affect them all.”[4] Further adjustments can then be made, such as the guaranteed competition of candidates for elective offices or the recognition of civil and political liberties by the government.[5] Given this admittedly rough picture of basic democratic principles, authoritarian rule appears wherever genuine citizen participation is restricted or, in the worst case, prohibited, and where civil liberties are curbed.[6] Such a distinction is naturally far from being clear-cut, and can only be made gradually. Thus, although the forms of government in the region differ as widely as from military rule in Myanmar to almost fully democratic conditions in Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines respectively, even the latter show authoritarian hues.[7] Apart from overt violation of basic human rights, ranging from curtailed freedoms of assembly, expression and association to detention without trial, and, finally, to brutality by security forces, these countries, as well as the remaining parts of Southeast Asia, strike with heavy concentration of power in the hands of government. The public triad of executive, legislative and judiciary, meant to be equipoised in functioning democracies, is lop-sided towards strong executive organs, including the ruling party as well as the administration.[8] To put it in a nutshell: Southeast Asia is remarkably dominated by strong states and powerful officials – circumstances, all in all, that can be traced back far into pre-colonial times.[9]

The cultural landscape of ancient Southeast Asia was divided in a dualism of ideas: northern Vietnam as the bridgehead of Sinic traditions faced a predominantly Indianised region to its south-west.[10] Not only was the source of ideology different – China for the former, the Indian Subcontinent for the latter – but these two zones of culture also differed fundamentally in their political outlook. While the Vietnamese state with its highly-developed bureaucracy and emphasis on hierarchical structures displayed a ‘pre-modern’ institutionalisation of (limited) royal power in the person, or rather office of the “son of heaven”, the Indianised mandalas lay more or less at the whim of an absolute god-king, the devaraja. As the term suggests, he drew his legitimation mostly from his divine status representing the Hindu goddess Shiva. Royalty was a “sacral force sui generis;” it depended on the possession of monarchic symbols – palace, throne, tiered umbrella, and lingam – rather than on institutions and dynasty. Consequently, power was, albeit only momentarily, personalised in the ruling king and radiated from the centre (i.e. the capital) into the peripheral areas of his realm, instead of being transmitted via bureaucratic networks. Social counter to the royal element only existed in the bulk of, obviously, non-royal peasants. Since all right to land was vested in the kingly office; feudal nobilities who could have filled the gap were lacking.


[1] Quoted from Clark D. Neher and Ross Marlay, Democracy and Development in Southeast Asia. The Winds of Change, Colorado & Oxford: Westview Press, 1995, p. 25.

[2] John Funston (ed.), Government and Politics in Southeast Asia, London & New York: ZED Books, 2001, p. 412.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Carl Cohen, quoted from: Jose Veloso Abueva, “Filipino Democracy and the American Legacy”, in: Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 428 (1976), pp. 114-33, here p. 115.

[5] Kevin Hewison, Richard Robinson and Gary Rodan (eds.), Southeast Asia in the 1990s. Authoritarianism, Democracy & Capitalism, Sidney: Allen & Unwin, 1993, p. 6; Neher, Democracy and Development, p. 5.

[6] Ibid., p. 7.

[7] Funston, Government and Politics, p. 412.

[8] Ibid., p. 412ff.

[9] See Thomas R. Leinbach and Richard Ulack (eds.), Southeast Asia. Diversity and Development, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2000, p. 244.

[10] The following is mainly taken from Harry J. Benda, “Political Elites in Colonial Southeast Asia: an Historical Analysis”, in: Comparative Studies in Society and History 7/3 (1965), pp. 233-51, here pp. 236-40; for see also Colin Mackerras, Eastern Asia. An Introductory History, Melbourne: Longman Cheshire,2000 (third edition), pp. 103-16..

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Explain the prevalence of authoritarian forms of government in contemporary Southeast Asia
University of Auckland  (Department of History)
Seminar - Modern Southeast Asia: Constructing Identities 1870-1990s, Stage II
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Explain, Southeast, Asia, Seminar, Modern, Constructing, Identities, Stage
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Geoffrey Schöning (Author), 2002, Explain the prevalence of authoritarian forms of government in contemporary Southeast Asia, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/11031


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