COVID-19 batters Asia’s already-struggling democracies

Over the past 15 years, democracy across Asia has regressed. Although the region still has strong democracies like South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, many other leading Asian democracies and countries with democratic potential have slid backwards, turning into near-autocracies or outright authoritarian states. While Thailand had been one of the freest states in Asia in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it has suffered two military coups in the past decade and now is run by a parliamentary government that took power after a seriously flawed election in 2019.

Bangladesh had built itself into a shaky but increasingly vibrant democracy by the early 2010s, but in the past decade has deteriorated into a de facto one-party regime, with opposition activists, civil society leaders and journalists jailed and murdered. The Philippines, which had become a solid democracy in the decades following after the Marcos regime, elected President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016 and then witnessed mass extrajudicial killings, crackdowns on media outlets and violent targeting of Duterte’s political opponents. And in India, the most populous democracy in the world, recent years have included the Narendra Modi government undermining the independence of the judiciary and cowing independent media.

Asia’s democratic regression was part of a global wave. Since the mid-2000s, democracy has regressed on nearly every continent, including in strongholds like North America and Europe. Outright authoritarian regimes have come to power in places that once were promising democracies like Turkey, while even some of the oldest democracies, like the United States, have witnessed significant democratic erosion. Indeed, in its 2020 report “Freedom in the World,” Freedom House noted that the world had seen 14 straight years of democratic decline.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated this democratic breakdown. In a study of the impact of the virus on democracy, “Democracy Under Lockdown,” Freedom House found that “the COVID-19 pandemic has deepened a crisis for democracy around the world, providing cover for governments to disrupt elections, silence critics and the press, and undermine the accountability needed to protect human rights as well as public health.” The survey showed that since the beginning of the pandemic, the state of rights and democracy has worsened in 80 countries. (I was one of many analysts who contributed to the Freedom House survey.)

In Asia in particular, democratic or quasi-democratic governments from India to the Philippines to Malaysia to Cambodia have taken advantage of the pandemic to strengthen their grips on power and subdue opposition. Several governments have utilized the pandemic to give leaders massive new powers, many of which seem to have little to do with protecting public health.

In Cambodia, for instance, new laws give Prime Minister Hun Sen, already one of the most authoritarian leaders in Southeast Asia, vast powers: to effect unlimited surveillance of citizens’ telecommunications networks, and to curtail the press, civil society and monitor social media. In recent months, Hun Sen’s government has ramped up repression and overseen mass trials of civil society activists.

Other Asian states and territories have used the threat of the pandemic to impose strict controls on public assembly, media coverage, attendance at legislative sessions and elections that it becomes difficult for political opposition to function. To be sure, the dangerous coronavirus requires some limitations on public gatherings. But activists in Thailand, for instance, have shown that it is possible to demonstrate in health-safe ways, and legislatures can use masks, social distancing or online gatherings to meet as well. Yet, the Thai government has argued that protests advocating greater democracy and questioning the monarchy could spread the virus, and has arrested activists and tried to curb demonstrations.

Hong Kong, meanwhile, delayed legislative elections scheduled for last September, supposedly because of COVID-19. It took this step even though the Special Administrative Region has enjoyed significant success in containing the virus, and though other parts of Asia, like South Korea and Singapore, have held safe elections during the pandemic. The delay in Hong Kong’s elections has provided time for the city, and China, to arrest many potential candidates from the pro-democracy camp — and possibly to ensure the eventual elections result in a legislature dominated by lawmakers sympathetic to Beijing.

Still, other Asian states have scapegoated minorities, or simply the ruling party’s opponents, for spreading COVID-19 — usually without any basis in fact. This stigmatization further corrodes political discourse and often leads to violent attacks on minority groups. In India, for instance, leading members of the ruling party have blamed COVID-19 on the Muslim minority, and there has been a string of violent mob attacks on Indian Muslims this year.

Asian leaders have been able to use the pandemic to tighten their grip on power for several reasons. For one, there are legitimate public health reasons for some constraints on freedom — although leaders often take steps well beyond what is needed to protect public health and make no promises of relinquishing control when the virus is curbed. In addition, the fact that democracy was deteriorating in much of Asia before COVID-19 left opposition movements enfeebled and unprepared to battle a new wave of crackdowns.

Meanwhile, many leading democracies that might have tried to halt regional autocrats, such as Japan, the United States and the European Union, have been distracted by their own public health crises, or — in the case of the United States — their own democratic breakdown. These developed democracies, struggling to contain the pandemic and with their own political weaknesses on show, have mostly remained silent as Asia’s strongmen grab more power.

In Myanmar, for instance, the government and the military have stepped up violent crackdowns in ethnic minority regions (including Rakhine State) in recent months, but these abuses have received little international attention as foreign governments and foreign media focus on the pandemic and on political problems in the United States.

While leading democracies turn inward, the region’s most powerful authoritarian state, China, has controlled the pandemic domestically and returned to high growth, bolstering its legitimacy. Beijing has used the regional power vacuum, and its domestic strength, to wield greater influence across Asia.

In the next year, many Asian states will win the battle against the virus. Some, like Singapore, South Korea and China, already had developed effective anti-COVID-19 strategies. The ramp-up of production and distribution of multiple vaccines will help further curb the virus’s spread, and probably allow normal life to return in much of the region. But even if COVID-19 is controlled, the damage to Asian democracy has already been done.

Joshua Kurlantzick is senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.