Opinion: New democratic rankings show ASEAN is back to being a dictator’s club

This week, The Economist magazine and its ‘Intelligence Unit’ launched its annual Democracy Index rankings which analyses and labels countries by how democratic they are.

Thailand did poorly. Out of 167 countries around the world, we ranked 73rd. That places us just below Papua New Guinea, Albania, and Mexico, and just above neighboring Singapore.

According to the report, 2020 was a poor year for democratic progress and good governance around the world with countries failing to protect citizens during the outbreak of Covid-19 and with serious challenges to civil liberties in the developing world.

In ASEAN, Thailand, perhaps surprisingly, is one of the more democratic countries trailing only Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia in the index.

But rather than being a sign of democratic progress within the bloc, Thailand’s fourth-place finish in ASEAN points to a continual backslide towards autocracy for South East Asian Countries.

ASEAN: Dictator’s Club

Perhaps the clearest sign of ASEAN’s growing totalitarian tendencies was Monday’s military coup in Myanmar. It seems, for the time being, that the Tatmadaw have had it with the country’s little experiment with democracy.

Even though detained democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi did her best to appease the heads of the army, even going so far as to become an apologist for genocide, it was still not enough for the generals who will now rule the country for at least a year. (Read more here)

The continued stranglehold of single-party states like Laos, Brunei, and Vietnam also contributed to the bloc’s poor showing while China’s growing influence have reinforced totalitarian regimes in Cambodia and caused a backslide in the wider region especially in Hong Kong which was relabeled by The Economist as a hybrid regime.

Even among the better performing countries in ASEAN had serious challenges when it came to The Economists’ critiria. Malaysia, the top ranked country in the bloc, experienced serious challenges to its democratic process over the last two years with a constitutional crisis in 2020 that even involved the apolitical royal family.

Others at the top of the list including Singapore and the Philippines are also severely flawed when judged by The Economists’ criteria especially when it came to the right to civil liberties.

Singapore’s challenges are well known and even though the ruling party experienced its poorest showing at the polls in years, for all intents and purposes the city-state remains a single-party state.

The Philippines, meanwhile, is still in the midst of a bloody drug war where extrajudicial killings have become the norm. Add to that a ravaging pandemic and its a miracle the country placed as high as it did (55).

Which brings us to Thailand.

Well, the military dictator who overthrew a democratically elected government in 2014 is still in power. That’s probably all one needs to know.


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