In Asia, democracy is tested by coronavirus and China

Liberals need to ‘lean towards the ground, listen and engage’
Bangkok Covid-19
© Tzido Sun /

Who would have thought that 2020 would be defined by a particle that is ten-thousandth of a millimeter in diameter, so tiny yet so lethal? Not only has it killed more than a million around the world. The virus, known as SARS-CoV-2, also set back democracy, a way of life many hold dear, in parts of the globe.

In Southeast Asia, where democracy has been sliding back in a number of countries, leaders have used the pandemic to boost their authoritarian rule in the name of a state of emergency. They have restricted freedoms, tightened law enforcement, and abused their emergency powers. But citizens are pushing back, a silver lining in these bleak times.

Elsewhere in Asia, the news is not that grim. Evidence shows that democratic countries have successfully overcome the public-health crisis without having to resort to heavy-handed measures. Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, to a certain extent, stand out as examples.

Add to this the much-needed boost from the other side of the Pacific: The United States is returning as a global leader of democratic countries with the assumption of Joe Biden as president in January 2021. This means that, in contrast to Donald Trump’s rule, human rights and the promotion of democracy will be among the core values of American foreign policy.

Some of America’s democratic institutions may have suffered a whiplash but they have apparently recovered. After a harrowing four years, many in the region expect the new administration to conduct its foreign policy with a tone of humility and empathy, with willingness to be partners with other democratic countries, and support them in their endeavors to strengthen the pillars of democracy in the face of attacks from authoritarian and populist leaders. After all, the US went through its own dark years, learning its own lessons.

As Mu Sochua, vice-president of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, said in a webinar before the November 2020 elections: “The US is needed to reinforce its commitment in fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism and advancing human rights across the world.”

One of the first reported moves of Biden would be to convene a “summit of democracies” which appears to be the beginning of a “democratic cooperative network,” as the incoming secretary of state, Antony Blinken, co-wrote (Brookings, January 2019). The idea is for Asian and European democracies to link up to address threats that democracies face, including election interference, disinformation, and cybersecurity. This is expected to have an impact on Asia.

Pandemic and Southeast Asia

Here’s a snapshot of the region that America, under Biden, will be dealing with:

  • While Thailand has managed the pandemic well, it has failed to respond to cries for democracy. Recently, as Covid-19 infections increased in Thailand, after months without transmission, the government banned protests, strengthening its emergency decree. Student-led protests have dogged the authorities in Thailand for months, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and the drafting of a new, more democratic constitution. The young protesters have also broken taboo by questioning the perceived excesses of the monarchy and urging reforms.
  • The Philippines saw its share of suppression of rights when the coronavirus hit its shores and President Rodrigo Duterte imposed the longest and most stringent lockdown in Asia. He ordered the police to shoot quarantine violators resulting in at least one death. Thousands were arrested for breaching quarantine restrictions, more than those who were tested for the virus. Duterte’s allies in Congress shut down the largest TV network in the country for political reasons and later passed a draconian anti-terrorism law that threatens civil liberties.
  • Using the pretext of managing the virus, Myanmar shut down independent news websites, curbing access to information.
  • In Cambodia, free speech became a casualty of the pandemic as Prime Minister Hun Sen’s new emergency powers allowed him to limit freedom of movement and assembly and “exert almost unlimited surveillance over telecommunications and crack down even harder on the press and social media,” a report by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada said.

Liberal democrats in the region have called for more vigilance to go against attempts by autocrats to exploit the crisis. Moreover, success in battling the virus was “not an issue of democracy versus authoritarianism” but key factors such as trust of citizens on their government, leaders who respond decisively, and effective management and good governance, as Florencio Abad Jr., founding member of the Council for Asian Liberals and Democrats (CALD), and Abhisit Vejjajiva, former prime minister of Thailand  pointed out in a CALD online forum.

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Strangling Hong Kong

In a territory near the Southeast Asian region, it was in Hong Kong where democracy was most strangled. China killed the “one country, two systems” principle on which Hong Kongers have anchored their freedoms when it imposed the brutal national security law in June 2020, penalizing dissent and unraveling the rule of law. This draconian move came after the massive  anti-mainland protests in Hong Kong.

It was not a coincidence that during the pandemic, China had been making more enemies than friends. Hong Kong was only one of them. Senator Francis Pangilinan, who heads CALD, cited China’s “series of aggressive geopolitical skirmishes,” including its border clash with India, standoffs with Vietnam and Malaysia in the South China Sea, and military pressure on Taiwan in an online forum.

During the forum, the speakers, including Emily Lau of the Democratic Party in Hong Kong, urged Western powers, pro-democracy groups to amplify the voices of Hong Kongers struggling to keep their autonomy.

Taiwan: Democracy is ‘like breathing air’

One democratic country outside Southeast Asia that is under threat is Taiwan, not from within, but from its giant neighbor, China, which is just a strait away. China has not given up on bringing back what it calls a “renegade province” to the mainland.

Taiwan has been hyper-vigilant, fortifying its democracy against China’s digital disinformation campaigns to divide the populace and sow distrust in the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. Its vibrant civil society has been working with the Digital Ministry to keep transparency in government robust.

China’s assault on Hong Kong has not deterred the Taiwanese resolve to support Hong Kong and keep their own democratic way of life. As Ketty Chen, vice president of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, said, freedom for the Taiwanese cannot be taken away because it is “like breathing air.”

Across Asia, keeping the breath of democracy alive remains a challenge. Philippine Vice-President Leni Robredo put it well during her speech at the CALD General Assembly in November. She called on liberals and democrats to make the “necessary pivot” to “engage as many people as possible…to listen…to hold real conversations, to hear real stories, to build real connections…to lean towards the ground and share in the struggle of the people.” In fact, she stressed, this is the “only truly liberal response to the times.”