Nascent and Latent: Civil Society at the Advent of Democratic Transition in Southeast Asia

By Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario | Senior Research Fellow - Asia Research Institute National University of Singapore | Sep 15, 2015
Nascent and Latent: Civil Society at the Advent of Democratic Transition in Southeast Asia
Senior military officials, Myanmar, 2014.

The MENA and Southeast Asia regions have undergone and continue to undergo massive political transitions. Differences in the process and outcomes of their transitions can be viewed through the lens of a “civil society infrastructure” and the qualitative differences in both these regions. This essay series engages a variety of issues regarding the roles and impact of civil society organizations (CSOs) in these two regions during the transition and pre-transition periods as well as in instances where the political transition is completed. Read more ...

The 1980s and 1990s changed the political landscape in Southeast Asia. Starting with “people power” in the Philippines, the 21-year dictatorial regime of Ferdinand Marcos ended in 1986 and installed a democratic order under the presidency of Corazon Aquino. This was followed by a popular uprising in Myanmar in August 1988, which, however, was crushed by the military and succeeded by the dictatorial rule of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). In 1998, Indonesia’s Suharto resigned after prolonged civil unrest amid a deepening economic crisis. This ended three decades of dictatorial rule and was marked by a democratic succession through regularized elections and the restoration of multiparty politics. Cambodia likewise transitioned to democracy in 1993 with its first ever general elections held under the supervision of the United Nations. And Thailand reinstalled a democratic regime through elections in 1992 that brought Chuan Leekpai of the Democratic Party to power. The political scientist Samuel Huntington waxed euphorically that these events in Southeast Asia, along with the fall of the Soviet Union and the various “velvet revolutions” of Eastern Europe, would constitute a “third wave of democratization” throughout most of the world.

This essay argues that a thick—though often underground—layer of social movements and civil society organizations (CSOs) is crucial to, and assumes prominence, during periods of democratic transition. CSOs remained active throughout periods of authoritarianism in the Philippines, Myanmar, and Indonesia, continuously engaging in political advocacy albeit in an underground capacity. Though several countries face prospects of a democratic rollback, the continuing vigilance of CSOs provides a corrective to this process.

Civil Society Formation in Southeast Asia

Even during periods of political compression, CSOs were part of the institutional life of Southeast Asian countries. In Myanmar, where civil society organizations such as the media faced severe restrictions during the military regime, the Burmese found spaces within the existing—though very tight—political structures to voice their opinions. The Burmese newspaper The Voice Daily, for example, faced intermittent censorship and closure. With each reopening of the newspaper, journalists and editors tested the military regime for its tolerance for potentially dissident topics.

Burmese students have been at the forefront of civil society activism, along with Buddhist monks, whose participation expanded the quest for democracy during the 1998 and 2007 uprisings. Despite the military rulers’ confinement of Buddhism to the religious sphere, Buddhist monks have inserted themselves in the country’s political life through the Buddhist institution of the Sangha.[1] A monastic community of ordained monks and novices, Sangha is a powerful and influential collective that authorities have tried to control. The presence of Buddhist monasteries and resident monks in most villages has provided the opportunity for community residents considered of high moral standing to engage in social criticism through Buddhist preachment, delivered in the form of stories and anecdotes. In the 1990s, Buddhist sermons exploded in the public arena through the circulation of thousands of CDs, VCDs, and DVDs, creating a forum with limited state surveillance.

Even during periods of political compression, CSOs were part of the institutional life of Southeast Asian countries. 

CSOs operating in areas along the Thai-Burmese border have continuously challenged the policies of the military government. The Karenni Development Research Group (KDRG) is a coalition of nine Karenni CSOs based in Mae Hong Son in northern Thailand, while the exiled Mon Youth Progressive Organization is located in Kanchanaburi Province, where the Mon state borders Thailand in the northwest. These organizations, among others, have campaigned against hydropower projects that force the relocation of thousands of minority families along the border areas. In addition to environmental problems, many of these organizations take up the issue of human rights.[2]

The ability of Burmese civil society activists to “skirt regime rules”[3] was in large measure due to a tradition of parliamentary democracy during the colonial era. During this period CSOs, as well as political parties, were actively engaged in public life. This, along with Western education, print capitalism, and religious and business associations formed by Christian missionaries as well as European, Indian, and Chinese businessmen, comprised an early tradition of associational life and established a latent infrastructure of underground networks that persisted throughout the military regime. Such networks flourished through informal discussion groups that sprouted across the country. Students, teachers, lawyers, writers, monks, and laborers would informally organize small groups to read books and articles on a variety of subjects, always with the intention to discuss politics and society.[4]

In Indonesia, social movements were an integral part of the fabric of social life during the 1950s and 1960s. Two distinct periods followed: the authoritarian New Order regime of President Suharto and the pre-democratic transition period of the 1990s, which contributed to the overthrow of Suharto in 1998. During these two periods, civil society displayed sharp contrasts. In the period before Suharto, the alirans, or stream politics, consisted of social movements that were patently political in nature. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz first introduced the term:

An aliran consists of a political party surrounded by a set of voluntary social organizations formally or informally linked to it. In Java there are only four such alirans of importance: the PNI or Nationalists; the PKI or Communists; the Masjumi, or Modernist Moslem; and the NU, or Orthodox Moslem. With one or another of these parties as the nucleus, an aliran is a cluster of nationally based organizations―women’s clubs, youth groups, religious societies, and so on―sharing a similar ideological direction or standpoint…An aliran is more than a mere political party, certainly more than a mere ideology; it is a comprehensive pattern of social integration.[5]

At the advent of the pro-democracy protests in the 1990s, a semblance of independent associational life reemerged in Indonesia, particularly within a context of disillusionment with the New Order. The growth of the NGO sector along with a revival of student activism gradually promoted the development of a public discourse in which the idea of civil society—masyarakat sipil—as a realm free from state interference took root and became more widespread. KOPBUMI (Migrant Workers’ Organization) and WAHLI (Coalition of Environmental Activists in Indonesia) were some of the organizations that continued to operate openly without directly confronting the state through causes that were perceived to have legitimate social value. In effect, civil society, at the advent of the democratic transition, learned the rules of survival by managing risks, accommodating the state, and preventing itself from straying too far toward radicalism.

In the Philippines, social movements were composed mainly of students protesting against the regime of Ferdinand Marcos even before he declared martial law in 1972. The various causes taken up by the movements were openly political, with strong ideological overtones. The National Democratic Front (NDF), a wide-ranging alliance of students, professionals, and sectoral groups, professed their ideological adherence to Marxism and comprised the Philippine left. Throughout the martial law period, the left operated underground with an active military wing that waged both urban and rural guerrilla warfare. The left’s political rival, the Social Democratic Front (SDF), was a similar coalition that professed an ideological affiliation with European social democracy as well as liberation theology of Latin America. Not surprisingly, some Church-based activists joined the SDF and were active in the anti-dictatorship struggle.[6]

The reinvigoration of social movements occurred in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of opposition figure Benigno Aquino in August 1983. The severe contraction of economic and social opportunities on top of an economy already crippled by excessive cronyism provided the fuel for a reawakened middle class to oust Ferdinand Marcos and reinstall democracy. Almost overnight, social movements proliferated, drawing a variety of participants from all social sectors.[7] Despite Marcos’ command of a repressive apparatus through his control of the military and security forces, protestors embarked on a sustained campaign to press for the return of a democratic process. The emergence of numerous other social movements outside the two major ideological forces, the NDF and the SDF, pluralized civil society in the Philippines and signaled the expansion of the sector that would prove to be crucial in the post-transition process.

The outlier in Southeast Asia is Thailand―a country whose politics have swung between authoritarian and democratic over some 70 years. 

The outlier in Southeast Asia is Thailand―a country whose politics have swung between authoritarian and democratic over some 70 years. In fact, Thailand has had a total of 20 coups d’état since 1932 (12 of them successful), 25 general elections, and 20 different constitutions. The current military regime, despite lifting martial law in May 2015, had ousted the duly elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra a year earlier.[8] The future political direction of the country is uncertain at best. Chachavalpongpun (2011) traces the rise of the “Red Shirt” and the “Yellow Shirt” movements as the predominant expression of an explosive civil society that continues to polarize the country.[9] These movements reflect broader social struggles among the monarchy, the military, the Bangkok-based elites, and the rural and urban masses that battle for social control—and indeed, the future of Thai politics.  

The Limits and Varieties of Civil Society Activism

Claims about the relationship between civil society and democracy, however, should not be overstated. In Indonesia, Edward Aspinall notes that the real contribution of civil society to Suharto’s collapse was in its “undermining of the ideological foundations of the authoritarian political order” rather than through direct and overt activism.[10] The collapse of the Suharto regime was also helped by the impact of the 1997 financial crisis. Other scholars contend that the defection of certain members of the oligarchy who had been marginalized by Suharto’s family, and even lent support to civil society, was more instrumental in the downfall.[11] Further, elite disunity and disgruntlement played a significant role in Suharto’s demise when his ability to maintain a stable mechanism of patronage diminished, leaving the disenfranchised elites to scramble for their own survival. The revival of these oligarchs in the post-Suharto era is crucial to understanding the quality of Indonesian democracy today, particularly with reference to oligarchic control of the electoral process in which money politics plays a significant role.

As in Indonesia, it is necessary to examine whether the electoral democracy brought about by the Philippine uprising of 1986 merely restored the old order, witnessed through the return of the disenfranchised oligarchs and disgruntled politicians during the martial law period. Moreover, Philippine civil society has evolved into “fractious” elements.[12]

Philippine democracy holds much in common with that of Indonesia, with both societies in danger of choking from the stranglehold of a handful of elites.

As electoral contests become increasingly dominated by the resurrection of old political leaders and the emergence of new family-based political dynasties, Philippine democracy holds much in common with that of Indonesia, with both societies in danger of choking from the stranglehold of a handful of elites.

Myanmar’s young democracy faces severe challenges as concerns proliferate regarding the continuing role of the military in society. Peace talks are sputtering, Buddhist militants are on the rampage against the Muslim Rohingyas, and the campaign of the National League for Democracy to amend the constitution that would allow Aung San Suu Kyi to run for president has foundered. In a wittily argued article, Christian Caryl refers to Myanmar in particular and to Southeast Asia in general as a “democracy downer,” as he and others acknowledge the stalled reform process (while still remaining optimistic about Myanmar’s return to democracy).[13] Thailand’s current experience with on-again, off-again democracy confirms Caryl’s thesis. The very tight political space available after the imposition of martial law in May 2014 left very little room for civil society. Dissent was crushed and there was hardly any tolerance for opposing views. With the lifting of martial law a year later and a new draft constitution, Thailand’s military rulers hope to achieve a political facelift. Yet the proposed constitution disavows democratic elections, opting instead for the selection of members of parliament by a small cabal of self-appointed political elites.


Despite the limits of civil society activism in these countries, its role in expanding the space for public participation should not be discounted, regardless of the nature of the regimes in which they operate. Yet Southeast Asia cannot afford to rest on its laurels despite its relative successes. As experiences everywhere in the region have shown, threats to democracy remain and democratic gains are reversible. It is thus all the more urgent that CSOs continue their vigilance.

[1] Keiko Tosa, “The Sangha and Political Acts: Secularization in a Theravada Buddhist Society,” Internationales Asienforum 44, 3-4 (2013): 271-297. See also Juliet Schober, Modern Buddhist Conjunctures in Myanmar: Cultural Narratives, Colonial Legacies, and Civil Society (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 2011).

[2] Adam Simpson, Energy, Security and Governance in Thailand and Myanmar (Burma) (Surrey, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2014).

[3] Kyaw Yin Hlaing, “Civil Society Skirting Regime Rules,” in Muthiah Alaggappa, ed., Civil Society and Political Change in Asia: Expanding and Contracting Democratic Space (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004), 389.

[4] Kyaw Yin Hlaing, “Civil Society Skirting Regime Rules.”

[5] Edward Aspinall, “Transformation of Civil Society and Democratic Breakthrough,” in Muthiah Alagappa, ed., Civil Society and Political Change in Asia: Expanding and Contracting Democratic Space (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004), 64.

[6] Teresita Cruz-del Rosario, Scripted Clashes: A Dramaturgical Approach to Three Philippine Uprisings (Saarbrücken: VDM Verlag, 2009).

[7] Mark Thompson, The Anti-Marcos Struggle: Personalistic Rule and Democratic Transition in the Philippines (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.)

[8] A coup in September 2006 likewise removed her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who won the general elections in 2001 and 2005.

[9] Pavin Chachavalpongpun, “Confusing Democracies: Diagnosing Thailand’s Democratic Crisis, 2001-2008,” in Mely Caballero-Anthony, Political Change, Democratic Transitions and Security in Southeast Asia (London and New York: Routledge, 2010).

[10] Aspinall, “Transformation of Civil Society and Democratic Breakthrough."

[11] See, for example, Richard Robison and Vedi Haz, Reorganising Power in Indonesia: The Politics of Oligarchy in an Age of Markets (London: Routledge Curzon, 2004).

[12] Jennifer Franco, “Fractious Civil Society and Competing Visions of Democracy,” in Muthiah Alagappa, ed., Civil Society and Political Change in Asia: Expanding and Contracting Democratic Space (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004), 97.

[13] Christian Caryl, “Southeast Asia’s Democracy Downer: And you Thought the Arab Spring was Disappointing,” Foreign Policy, March 23, 2015.