The politics of Covid-19 in Southeast Asia

The piece has been authored by Ananya Raj Kakoti, Campaign Associate with Indian-Political Action Committee (I-PAC) and Gunwant Singh, Scholar of International Relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Thailand, Singapore, and Cambodia have come up with laws to crack down on critics of their Covid-19 response by regarding them as imparting misinformation. Philippines has also used cybercrimes laws to target government critics. Similarly, Indonesia and Malaysia are scapegoating certain communities for the spread of Covid-19.(Reuters)
Thailand, Singapore, and Cambodia have come up with laws to crack down on critics of their Covid-19 response by regarding them as imparting misinformation. Philippines has also used cybercrimes laws to target government critics. Similarly, Indonesia and Malaysia are scapegoating certain communities for the spread of Covid-19.(Reuters)
Updated on Dec 21, 2021 03:55 PM IST
Copy Link
ByHindustan Times

Covid-19 arrived in Southeast Asia (SEA) much earlier than the rest of the world. The virus ended up severely impacting not only public health, but also the SEA economies which primarily are dependent on tourism and exports. Although much has been highlighted about the economic and health impacts of Covid-19, one ends up neglecting the political underpinnings of it. Hence, it should be brought to focus that with the Covid-19 pandemic as the catalyst, the Southeast Asia region is undergoing major changes in its political sphere as well. These changes, however, will not only be visible in democracies but will impact authoritarian regimes as well. The economic damage caused by the spread of Covid-19 has made people desperate in many countries, including Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand.

Even before the pandemic, the inequality among masses was a cause of distress, however, the Covid-19 was the final nail in the coffin that led to more agitation, resulting in recurrent protests. Thailand and Myanmar have seen a series of large anti-government protests in recent months. Similarly, in Malaysia, the government collapsed earlier this year, partly because of political infighting and partly due to public anger.

The impact of the pandemic on politics will not only be visible in the short term but will be more prominent as time goes by. During the pandemic different political trends are being observed in SEA and some of the most prominent ones shall be discussed below.

The most common trend in many countries is the failure of governance in the wake of the pandemic. The states are obliged to provide basic necessities to their citizens, like security, public health systems, education and legal aid. However, the pandemic saw many countries failing in providing basic facilities to their citizens. For instance, the public health system crumbled with immense pressure due to an exponential increase in the number of Covid-19 cases, and this exposed the inability of the governments in strengthening the public health system.

The Covid-19 pandemic brought to the surface weakness of the governments in handling the pandemic. This resulted in the military gaining more prominence. In Indonesia and the Philippines, the failure of the governments to respond to people’s needs forced the governments to seek assistance from the military forces, such that in the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte's team comprised more retired and acting military generals than medical professionals. In the wake of Covid-19, the Myanmar military took over the crisis management which ultimately resulted in taking over the democratic government headed by Aung San Su Ki and re-establishing military rule.

Many governments, especially with comparatively more democratic regimes are using the pandemic and its preventive measures to try and curb the freedom and rights of the citizens. Thailand, Singapore, and Cambodia have come up with laws to crack down on critics of their Covid-19 response by regarding them as imparting misinformation. The Philippines has also used cybercrimes laws to target government critics.

There has also been a steep rise in polarisation and identity politics. In Buddhist majority Myanmar the government and the citizens are blaming a particular community for the spread of the pandemic in their country. Similarly, Indonesia and Malaysia are scapegoating certain communities for the spread of Covid-19.

It has been observed that many of the times during a crisis the innate response is scapegoating. However, in this case, the government is trying to distract the public from their responses to contain the spread of Covid-19. Although these trends are unsettling for the governments and ruling elites, this has been helped along by weak political opposition. With little opposition to keep ruling parties in check, the governments have a free rein to do anything that favours them. This also allows the governments to create critical security situations and political crises to distract the public. Any kind of dissent and protest is sought to be restricted and controlled through Covid-19 preventive measures, such as social distancing and lockdowns, thus ensuring that any sort of protest and dissent is only limited to online platforms in a localised manner.

From the political perspective, the Covid-19 pandemic has provided good opportunities to many ruling parties. But with the crisis deepening, the actual political impacts of the ongoing pandemic will become more prominent in the future as they will no longer remain as an undercurrent but will instead come to the surface.

However, although the governments are using the pandemic to their advantage, it will be wrong to see it as a conclusive result because there is a possibility of public protest irrespective of whether the countries are considered to be free and fair or not. In Southeast Asian countries there will always be a need for popular legitimacy, which, if lacking, might lead to demands of re-elections.

The piece has been authored by Ananya Raj Kakoti, Campaign Associate with Indian-Political Action Committee (I-PAC) and Gunwant Singh, Scholar of International Relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University.

SHARE THIS ARTICLE ON
Close Story
SHARE
Story Saved
×
Saved Articles
Following
My Reads
Sign out
New Delhi 0C
Thursday, May 19, 2022