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ASEAN – Still Democratic?

By Ariane Combal-Weiss

23 October 2017


In this 50th anniversary year of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), there are increasing concerns about the decline in democracy in the region. In the past year, the EU has repeatedly expressed alarm over the systematic human rights abuses and violations of fundamental freedoms in different ASEAN countries. The European Parliament’s resolution on 3 October, for example, stated that the EP was “deeply concerned at the erosion of democracy and the violations of human and minority rights and continued repression and discrimination in countries of the region.”[1] The declining democracy is also affecting EU policy towards the region. The FTA negotiations with Thailand are on hold while during her visit to ASEAN countries in March, Trade Commissioner Malmström warned that the human rights abuses in the Philippines could threaten the Philippines’ exports to the EU and the negotiations towards a bilateral FTA.[2] Other EU officials and parliamentarians have made similar statements condemning the restriction of civil liberties and fundamental rights in the region,[3] and supporting the ceaseless commitment of human rights activists.[4] There have also been critical voices from within ASEAN. Under the 2012 ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, all ten members pledged to protect human rights and democracy. In September, however, the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) warned about the worrying state of civil liberties and fundamental rights in Southeast Asia.[5]


Mixed record

After a positive period that created high expectations for the democratic process, the current situation in Southeast Asia is mixed but the trend is not towards greater democracy, a free media or greater space for civil society. In 2017, elections have taken place in Indonesia and Singapore, which were deemed largely fair.[6] Citizens will go to the polls in Malaysia, Cambodia and Thailand next year, although not everyone is confident that the Thai military junta will stick to this commitment.


In Indonesia, the biggest country in Southeast Asia, there has been a worrying rise in religious extremism and intolerance. In the world’s largest Muslim country, the blasphemy law fuels the government discriminatory campaign to target religious minorities. Its politicised use has been widely criticized especially when previous Jakarta governor Ahok was imprisoned under the blasphemy law provisions in May 2017.[7] The last two years have also seen an escalation of anti-LGBT abuses, tacitly approved by the authorities. At the same time Jakarta can be commended for its ratification of the Convention on Migrant Workers and the two Optional Protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, moving a step closer to a full protection of the rights of vulnerable people.


Most media attention has fallen on the Philippines under President Duterte. The imposition of the martial law in Mindanao in May has sparked concerns among international and local human rights organisations.[8] In this context, the suspension of habeas corpus is seen as a pretext to commit large-scale human rights abuses. The President’s war on drugs has led to the deaths of more than 7000 Filipinos. Most of this massive extrajudicial violence has been attributed to the Philippine national police, who seem to operate with complete impunity. In addition to these unlawful killings, a new system of ‘drop boxes’ has been launched in July to denounce the people who allegedly had sold or used drugs, thus fuelling arbitrary arrests. This is the latest development in a campaign that could amount to crimes against humanity according to Human Rights Watch.[9] Despite this worrying trend, there are some positive moves on the part of the Philippines. It recently ratified the second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.


The new Thai constitution adopted through referendum in August 2016 has weakened the political parties and elected representatives while strengthening bureaucrats and unelected councils. It has also cemented the military’s presence in politics. Article 44 grants the prime minister absolute control on legislative, judiciary and executive powers. It has been widely criticised by experts and regional observers, as it allows him to take arbitrary decisions, without any legal and judicial checks and balances.[10]


In Myanmar, human rights violations and violence against minorities, in particular against Muslim Rohingya have reached an unprecedented level. The attack on a military base by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in August resulted in widespread bloodshed and forced at least 500,000 Rohingyas to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh.[11] This “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, as the UN described it, has the potential to divert the country from the democratic reforms that have been undertaken since Aung San Suu Kyi took office in 2015. The lack of accountability following on from the violence raises serious concerns. While her rise to power created high expectations, her seemingly disregard for the plight of the Rohingya is a worrying trend for the Burmese democratic transition. In its Council conclusions adopted on 16 October, the EU urges the authorities to put an end to the unacceptable violence and to restore humanitarian access. While it reaffirms its support to the democratic transition, it will review defence cooperation with Myanmar and suspend invitations to key military officers.[12]  


Cambodia is perhaps the worst offender in terms of human rights. Several NGOs have been expelled and media muzzled, including the independent tabloid Cambodia Daily which was forced to close on 4 September. As another illustration of this “descent in outright dictatorship” [13], the leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) Kem Sokha was arrested in September, prompting a protest by the EU. On 14 September, the EP adopted a resolution voicing concerns about the latest developments and urging the Khmer authorities to release him.[14] The new amendments to the Law on Political Parties reduce significantly the space for political parties. [15] The Ministry of Interior can dissolve them for having “acted in contradiction to the Constitutional Law on Political Parties and other laws currently in force in the Kingdom of Cambodia.” In line with this provision, the government filed a lawsuit on 6 October to dissolve the main opposition CNRP.[16]


Even in post-modern Singapore there have been some concerns about the limited freedom of expression, especially as regards Amos Yee and other human rights defenders such as the blogger Han Hui Hui.[17] Amendments to the Public Order that came into effect in November 2016 restricted even more the right to peaceful assembly. [18] The traditional Pink Dot festival held every year at the Speakers’ Corner to celebrate “the right to love” has witnessed foreign supporters banned from sponsoring and taking part in the event.[19]


Lack of control mechanisms


Among the factors affecting democracy in Southeast Asia, there is a lack of accountability mechanisms that could counterbalance political power. If independent and provided with adequate resources, National Human Rights Institutions (NHRI) can act as look-out posts to protect democracy and investigate human rights abuses without fear of persecution. Yet they have been the targets of attacks by authorities in Southeast Asia. The Philippine House of Representatives threatened a major cut in the budget of the Commission following its sharp criticism of the downward spiral of the drugs war. A similar development has taken place in Malaysia, where the budget of the Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM) has been drastically cut, limiting its ability to initiate independent investigations.[20] As for Thailand, the Human Rights Commission there (NHRCT) has seen its powers and independence restricted since the adoption of the new constitution in August 2016. Its scope of work will now be limited to issuing reports and making recommendations to the authorities.[21]


In addition to the failure of national bodies, international human rights organisations and mechanisms have made little impact. The Philippines has set conditions to allow the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions investigate the war on drugs – conditions that are ‘unacceptable’ according to the UN. Myanmar refused to grant visas to a UN team that would conduct probes on alleged torture, rapes and killings by Burmese armed forces against Rohingya Muslims.[22] Even Aung San Suu Kyi considered a UN fact-finding mission would likely raise tensions in Rakhine.


What can the ASEAN Political-Security Community do? The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) promotes and protects human rights and democracy as long as it does not interfere in the internal affairs of ASEAN countries. The Commission is purely consultative on human rights. The limited scope of action of this regional human rights mechanism impedes efforts to address serious human rights violations and declining democracy in Southeast Asia.


Malaysia Foreign Minister’s statement to the UNGA in September shows the disunity of ASEAN on the Rohingya file, and more broadly on human rights violations in Southeast Asia, largely due to the consensus-based decision-making process in the regional bloc. [23] For Malaysia, ASEAN is no longer the solution. And yet, if nothing is done at the regional level, the Rohingya refugee crisis can trigger dire consequences on religious and cultural divisions, regional stability and ultimately on the regional integration process.


An EU Role?


There is a broad consensus that 2017 has seen a worsening trend as regards democracy and human rights in Southeast Asia. Rising authoritarianism and large-scale human rights violations could undermine the region’s recent democratic and economic progress. As 2017 marks the 40th anniversary of EU-ASEAN relations, the EU should step up its political dialogue with the authorities and support to local civil society. It should build on already existing mechanisms and upcoming meetings with high-level representatives from ASEAN countries. The 2nd EU-ASEAN policy dialogue on Human Rights, which will take place at the end of November in the Philippines, should provide the EU with a timely opportunity to raise these concerns. If the EU is to maintain its position as a normative power, it must speak up more forcefully about the situation in SE Asia.

[1] European Parliament resolution of 3 October 2017 on EU political relations with ASEAN (2017/2026(INI)), European Parliament, 03/10/2017. URL :

[2] Richmond Mercurio, “Death penalty, EJK issues threaten Phl’s GSP+ status”, Philstar, 11/03/2017. URL:

[3] The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the Commission Federica Mogherini condemned the recent escalation of violence in Rakhine State in Myanmar and the arrest of Kem Sokha in Cambodia in September 2017.

[4] In August, three human rights activists in Myanmar have been awarded the EU Schuman Awards. “EU recognises advocates of democracy and human rights in Myanmar”, European Union External Action, 03/08/2017. URL:

[5] ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, “Democracy and human rights at risk as ASEAN turns 50, parliamentarians warn”, 19/09/2017. URL:

[6] Although some criticized the political process in which the elections took place in the city-state. For additional information, please refer to “Walkover 2017: Protest the Process, Not the Person”, The Online Citizen, 16/09/2017. URL:

[7] The Christian governor of Jakarta Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as ‘Ahok’, has been convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in May 2017.  Religious blasphemy was a major issue in the last gubernatorial elections in April 2017, when Ahok was defeated by Anjes Baswedan.

[8] President Duterte declared martial law on 23 May on the southern island of Mindanao for 60 days, as a result of the rebellion by members of Islamist groups Abu Sayyaf and Maute in the city of Marawi. Martial law was then extended on 22 July for six months until 31 December. See: Jonathan de Santhos, “Martial law in Mindanao raises rights concerns”, Philstar, 24/05/2017. URL:

[9] Human Rights Watch, “Philippines: Duterte Threatens Human Rights Community”, 17/08/2017. URL:

[10] Wasamon Audjarint, “Continued article 44 use degrades Thai democracy, academics fear”, The Nation, 24/05/2017. URL:

International Commission of Jurists, “Thailand: ICJ alarmed at increasing use of arbitrary power under Article 44”, 11/10/2016. URL:

[11] Statistics of refugees in August 2017. See: Sarah Gibbens, “Myanmar’s Rohingya Are in crisis – What You Need to Know”, National Geographic, 29/09/2017. URL:

[12] Council of the European Union, Council Conclusions on Myanmar/Burma, 16/10/2017.

[13] The Cambodia Daily ran as the headline for its final edition “Descent in outright Dictatorship”. See: “Cambodia Daily shuts with 'dictatorship' parting shot at prime minister Hun Sen”, The Guardian, 04/09/2017. URL:

[14] Joint motion for a resolution on Cambodia, notably the case of Kem Sokha (2017/2829 (RSP)), 14/09/2017. URL:

[15] Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia, A Human Rights Analysis of the Amended Law on Political Parties, 28/03/2017. URL:

[16] “Cambodian government files lawsuit to dissolve main opposition party”, The Straits Times, 06/10/2017. URL:

[17] Frontline Defenders, “Han Hui Hui Prevented From Entering Malaysia and Deported”, 23/06/2017. URL:

[18] Under these amendments, foreign entities will have to apply for a permit to sponsor, promote and participate in Speakers’ Corner events.

[19] Alfred Chua, “Foreign companies’ application to support Pink Dot rejected”, Today Online, 16/06/2017. URL:

[20] The Asian NGO Network on National Human Rights Institution, 2016 ANNI Report on the Performance and Establishment of National Human Rights Institutions in Asia, Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development(FORUM‐ASIA), Bangkok, 2016. URL :

[21] Ibid.

[22] Joshua Lipes, “Myanmar’s Refusal of UN Team Visas Amounts to ‘Slap in The Face’: Rights Group”, Radio Free Asia, 12/07/2017. URL:

[23] Nile Bowie, “Rohingya crisis splits ASEAN religious lines”, Asia Times, 01/10/2017. URL: