After years of increasing freedom, is Southeast Asia now going backwards?

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For many years most analysts detected a swing towards freer more open governments, but there are signs that trend is reversing

A lot of column inches have been written about the rise of populist politicians in the west, it seems a profound shift towards authoritarianism in Southeast Asia has been largely overlooked.

While not a new thing in this part of the world, there had been a trend away from strongman leadership in recent years, but this seems to be rapidly reversing.

The Khmer Rouge regime is no longer, Suharto is long gone, Lee Kwan Yu now lies in peace and we now have a new Myanmar that has opened up and even had democratic elections.

However, despite these improvements, the region as a whole remains in a state of political chaos and authoritarian control which is trending away from progress.

Cambodia, while not nearly as bad as the Khmer Rouge (which was undoubtably one of the most atrocious regimes in modern history) has apparently fallen into the hands of a family-run oligarchy.

Kem Ley for example, who dared to criticise his country’s rulers, was silenced by a bullet to the head in broad daylight in July last year. He is among many who have found themselves in the ‘bad books’ of the regime. I used the word regime, as there is absolutely nothing democratic about the tactics used by Hun Sen and his cronies.

People are increasingly annoyed at the government and the lack of progress in terms of transparency, poverty reduction and corruption (which remains rife). Sadly, though change looks less and less likely, as the main opposition is unorganised or in exile in Europe.

The corruption scandals that filled the Shinwatra dynasty in Thailand has led to military control and with the recent death of Kind Bhumipol Aduyadej things don’t look positive.

You know it’s bad when your leader used to be one of the top generals in the military and when freedom of speech are met with serious sentences. Try and speak out against the military government in the streets of Bangkok and just watch as the authorities swarm.

With the new King, Vijaralongkorn, not having a lot of popularity among the public, we can expect the tightening of “lese majesty” laws and more suppression of the freedom of speech as he tries to maintain legitimacy and move his image away from his days drinking and whoring in the world’s capitals. Google search, “Thai king in tank top” and you’ll understand what kind of man is now the figure head of this Buddhist kingdom.

Laos, which rarely sees much attention, because let’s face it, does anything happen there? Well no. But there is a reason for this. A strict authoritarian government which has an iron fist control on the country continues to stifle economic growth and empowerment of its people.

Compounded by the fact that there is terrible access to resources for the everyday Lao people and one of the worst freedoms of press in the world and bang! There’s your recipe for maintaining in a place that has never really caught a break since the fall of the Lan Xang Empire some 350 years ago.

Tourism continues to be a huge source of income however, as people come for the cheap opium and eco-friendly activities among the extremely picturesque landscapes happily overlooking the fact that they are in the North of Southeast Asia.

The rise of Duterte needs little to be explained, his constant threats to all and sundry, martial law in Mindanao and bloody war on drugs, has seen the Philippines descend into the black books.

Combining this with the move away from the US to be closer to daddy China (who the hell knows why?) leaves little to the imagination what the future of a democratic Philippines looks like. He does however remain popular as his policies continue to play on the populist concerns of everyday people.

How about instead of killing drug users you create rehab programmes, which not only help the people but can provide employment opportunities. Dumb.

One shining star that has risen from the ashes of an awful past is Myanmar. The country has opened its doors to tourism and direct foreign investment which will see the streets of Yangon transformed into the shiny Bangkok-style malls of Sukhumwit in no time.

People can move around more freely and there is increasing accessibility to internet and information in general. The progress made here is light years ahead of the atrocities endured under the previous regime, however with the overarching theme of China wanting to turn it into its 7-11 where it can just walk in at any time and secure those precious resources, we will see Myanmar following the party line of someone else, which could have devastating impacts on the minorities which despise the People’s Republic to the north.

While I’m not suggesting that we all band together and protest the rise of such governments, because — let’s face it — who is going to get anything done? The UN? Laughable.

In saying all this, I would never suggest that people stop travelling to these places. Governments rarely represent their people. The best thing we can do to support them is to continue visiting these people and support them with our precious tourist dollars, which largely end up in a grey market anyway, away from the prying eyes of the tax man. Eat local, drink beer from makeshift convenience stores, have fun with the people, just be careful who you talk to about the current ruling despot.

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