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 ...

In Southeast Asia, civil society arrived early and has mostly remained buoyant. But the region is complex, diverse, and highly dynamic, ensuring that civil society’s motivations and trajectories have been too. Groups and movements have variously been driven by anti-colonialism, ethnic nationalism, religious sentiments, cultural assertiveness, class-based resentments, and countless other cleavages and causes. They have supported incumbent governments politically and aided in service delivery. They have promoted opposition fronts, fostering cohesion and boosting campaigning. More broadly, they have participated in left-wing insurgencies, democratic transitions, and authoritarian reversals, aimed at installing military governments or airtight theocracies. The aim of this brief analysis, then, can only be a modest one, merely to identify some trends over time.

Southeast Asia's Early Civil Society

The first stirrings of civil society appeared far earlier in Southeast Asia than in the MENA countries. In colonial Singapore, rickshaw pullers organized strikes between 1897 and 1903, bringing the city to a halt.[1] In the Netherlands East Indies, native aristocrats and intellectuals formed cultural associations and literary societies like Budi Utomo, or Prime Philosophy―a “proto-nationalist” grouping founded in 1908. Ethnic and confessional movements took root, like Sarekat Islam in the East Indies, Kaum Tua and Kaum Muda, or “traditional” and “modernist” strands of Islam, in Malaya, and the Young Men’s Buddhist Association in Burma. Later, as educational levels mounted, some native leaders, gaining in confidence, founded autonomous movements and even political parties that called expressly for independence. For instance, in Burma during the 1930s, Aung San led various student associations in strike actions against the British, then helped to lead Dobama Asiayone (We Burmans Association) along with Freedom Block, and finally, the Communist Party of Burma. 

Like Aung San, many leaders in the region who sought independence before World War II were leftist, even rigorously Marxist in coloration. And those who mounted resistance during the Japanese occupation grew more militant, in some cases spawning armed insurgencies against their old colonial overseers who, after war’s end, sought to return. In Indochina, the armed wing of the Vietnam Communist Party and its sundry organizational allies defeated the French in the mid-1950s, then the Americans two decades later. And with Vietnam’s leaders united in revolutionary violence, the single-party system they imposed dealt civil society a lasting setback. A similarly stifling approach has been taken by ruling parties in Cambodia and Laos. In Cambodia, Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge official, has been prime minister for 30 years. And recently his government has canvassed deadening controls on bloggers, NGOs, and trade unions, with heavy fines and jail sentences imposed on those who act out of “purely political purposes” or “generate insecurity.”[2] The vagueness of transgressions and the severity of punishments evokes Hun Sun’s “political learning” from neighboring China.

But elsewhere—in the Philippines, Burma, Indonesia, Brunei, Singapore, and Malaya—as colonial powers finally departed, democratic change was ushered in, civil liberties were introduced, and sundry new organizations and parties were formed. In the Kingdom of Thailand too, though never formally colonized, at least limited elections were held during the late-1940s and 1950s. However, civil society’s contribution was not always straightforward. In Malaya dozens of ethnic Malay NGOs gathered under the umbrella of the new United Malays National Organization (UMNO) in 1946, soon to be fashioned into an electoral vehicle. But rather than press vigorously for independence, UMNO’s aim was to delay it until the British agreed to enshrine Malay “special rights” in the new constitution. UMNO’ leaders, regarding the Malays as the “indigenous” and “sovereign” community, demanded preeminence over the “immigrant” Chinese, nearly half the population on the peninsula at that time. We get an early and sobering example, then, of how elements of civil society may insist on exclusionary terms of citizenship.

Reversing and Advancing Democracy

But apart from the one-party states of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, the larger trend in Southeast Asia during the 1950s until the mid-1960s involved civil society’s greater animation. Propelled by late-development and flourishing in the space that democracy allows, student associations and ethnic and religious organizations proliferated. But again, progress was not straightforward. The communalist or leftist sentiments of many of these groups was perceived by some governments as threatening socio-political order and inhibiting yet more rapid development. A series of authoritarian backlashes followed during the 1960s-1970s, coinciding what Samuel Huntington once identified round the world as democracy’s “second reverse wave.”[3] Civil liberties and electoral procedures were stamped out in Burma and Thailand through military coups. They were crushed in Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei through executive decrees or emergency rule. The Singapore and Malaysian cases are instructive. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s chief minister, ordering the detention in 1963 of opposition leaders and dissidents through a sweep that he graphically designated Operation Cold Store. And in Malaysia, with ethnic rioting erupting in the aftermath of near deadlocked elections in 1969, the government similarly clamped down, closing parliament for several years. In both countries, then, when politics settled, democracy had contracted into what political scientists conceptualize as “electoral authoritarianism.”[4] In this configuration, civil liberties are severely curbed, while elections are heavily manipulated, leaving opposition parties and their civil society allies to compete on a steeply uneven playing field.

A series of authoritarian backlashes followed during the 1960s-1970s. But despite this reverse wave across much of Southeast Asia, civil society still pulsed. Gradually, then, organizational shells were refurbished by activists who demanded the restoration of civil liberties and more competitive elections. In brief, amid the burst of development that various kinds of authoritarian governments were able to generate during the 1980s-1990s, a new urban middle class appeared. And within this stratum, students, journalists, lawyers grew politically assertive, coinciding with what Huntington this time famously christened as democracy’s “third wave.”  

We should be cautious, though, in universally attributing civil society’s resurgence to the economic growth that much of Southeast Asia underwent during this period. For among the more industrialized countries in the region—the so-called “ASEAN 5”—the Philippines, seemingly blessed with a lengthy post-colonial head start, came to lag over time. Even so, the country has spawned what is widely regarded as the liveliest civil society in the region. Indeed, the Philippines percolates with autonomous groups and movements, many of them clustering in the renowned Teachers’ Village near the University of the Philippines’ main campus, vividly articulating the interests of women, industrial and agricultural workers, social minorities, the poor, good governance advocates, and environmentalists. Thus, when the third wave finally reached Southeast Asia, it washed up first in the Philippines. Briefly, in 1986, the dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, operating a ramshackle form of electoral authoritarianism, sought to steal an election in which he had been defeated. Hundreds of civil society organizations converged in the streets of Manila, forming the iconic People Power movement.[5] Inspired by Catholic activists and disciplined by “street parliamentarians,” they forced Marcos into exile, sparking the country’s transition to democracy.

Burma, far less developed than even the Philippines, offers a similar illustration. In 1988, student groups rose up against a military government that had been in power for a quarter-century. Some three thousand students were slaughtered as the military retaliated. But their movement succeeded in forcing the military to drop their long-time dictator, Ne Win, and to disband their main ideological vehicle, the Burmese Socialist Program Party. Elections were then held in 1990, and though their results were rescinded, enough reforms remained that new NGOs, while primarily geared to mere service delivery, multiplied throughout the decade. To be sure, students were still sidelined. But Buddhist monks, drawn from key monasteries, stepped into the breech, organizing protest actions in 2007 that came to be known as the Saffron Revolution. And though they were harshly put down, their movement too added to the pressures that drove the military finally to step up its “roadmap to democracy.” Aung San’s daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, was released from house arrest and at least some form of legislative elections were scheduled for late 2015.

Among most of the other, richer countries in Southeast Asia, development galvanized civil society along lines that modernization theorists expect. Activists in Thailand, drawn from the middle class, pushed steadily throughout the 1980s for re-democratization, leading at the end of the decade to the first competitive election in a dozen years. And when the military, lamenting its loss of patronage, staged a coup in 1991, students, young professionals, and workers quickly struck back, making early use of mobile telephony to coordinate their strategies. Though bloodied by soldiers in downtown Bangkok in a confrontation that came to be labeled Black May, they too succeeded in ousting the dictator, General Suchinda, hence paving the way for the country’s swift re-democratization.

In Malaysia in 1998, amid severe economic shock and jailing of the popular deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, civil society organizations worked mightily to fill the interstices between major opposition parties as they prepared for the next election. NGOs thus mediated, campaigned, and even put up their own candidates, shunting star activists from civil to political society. In this way, they helped cement a coalition that over the next decade-and-a-half grew ever more potent. Indeed, after formally coalescing as the People’s Alliance, the opposition won a majority of the popular vote in the country’s most recent election, held in 2013. And though the People’s Alliance was prevented from taking power, owing to the extensive manipulations that electoral authoritarianism promotes, they built yet greater popular pressure for democratic change.

Finally, in Indonesia, where the economic shock was far worse, Suharto, the dictator for three decades, suddenly teetered. Although civil society was extensive in Indonesia, headlined by vast associations of traditional and modernist Muslims, Suharto was confronted by few civil society organizations: during his long tenure, he had mostly co-opted or subdued them. But with Suharto now weakened by crisis, students burst from their university campuses to mount protest marches. Ably marshaled by the modernist Muslim leader, Amien Rais, they succeeded in further undermining Suharto. But it was the urban poor who delivered the death blow. Erupting spontaneously in disorganized rioting, they so traumatized Jakarta’s ethnic Chinese community that Suharto’s cabinet ministers—reappraising him now as a lightning rod—suddenly abandoned him. Suharto hesitated briefly, then resigned, enabling “founding elections” to take place in 1999.[6] Availed of civil liberties under Indonesia’s new democracy, a dense and more assertive civil society has since appeared.  Even so, Indonesia’s transition was badly tarnished, with civil society’s limited strength having been boosted by mob violence.

A Third “Reverse Wave”?

What is more, despite these many democratic transitions in Southeast Asia, civil society’s performance has since been inconsistent. Some civil society organizations and social movements, then, have behaved in ways that have prevented new democracies from gaining in quality—or have even contributed to authoritarian reversals. In the Philippines, for example, despite civil society’s vitality and commitment, it has been unable since Marcos’s ouster to prevent the return to prominence of the old oligarchs and clean leaders whom he had overshadowed. In this milieu, journalists, labor organizers, and rural activists exercise their civil liberties in the Philippines at their peril. When challenging the prerogatives of local grandees and provincial clans and dynasties, they are disappeared or murdered with distressing regularity.[7]

In Thailand, elements of civil society have gone further, not just failing to defend their new democracy, but calling actively for its breakdown. After the arch populist politician, Thaksin Shinawatra, was elected prime minister of Thailand in 2001, the new urban middle class, while having earlier pushed for democratic change, began now to suffer “democratizer’s remorse.” Its members despaired when overtaken by the large majorities of rural poor voters that Thaksin commanded. And they resented funding, through tax payments, the redistributive programs that he designed. Adopting the king’s color, then, many members of the urban middle class organized informally as Yellow Shirts, then clogged the streets of Bangkok and occupied airports in protest. Further, in organizing more formally in the wrongly named People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), they demanded that the military seize power in the name of the king. They also unveiled a program they badged “New Politics”, under which the military would select most of the members of the National Assembly.[8] The military duly followed up with a coup in 2006 and then, after a partial and brittle process of re-democratization, yet another coup in 2014. During the interim, nearly one hundred of Thaksin’s supporters, having counter-organized as Red Shirts, were killed by security forces in Bangkok in 2010. This movement remains harshly suppressed today, with civil liberties extinguished and elections suspended. 

If in Thailand, civil society has split along class and rural-urban fault lines, it has fractured in Malaysia over ethnic and religious identities. Today, the country’s most prominent NGOs are Perkasa (Brave Indigenous Association) and ISMA (Malaysian Muslim Solidarity). Framed as nativist groups, they call vehemently for Malay political and cultural “supremacy”, an accelerated redistribution of economic stakes to Malay beneficiaries, the introduction of hudud codes and punishments, and the reinvigoration of authoritarian controls in order to safeguard these arrangements. Indeed, Perkasa demands that the country’s dreaded Internal Security Act, repealed in 2011, be reintroduced so that the government might again carry out preventive detention without trial.[9] It is thus difficult to imagine how civil society might grow any more hostile to notions of civil liberties.

Likewise, in Indonesia, many dozens of Salafi-jihadist Muslim groups call vociferously for the full implementation of Shariah law, the repression of women’s organizations, and the utter elimination of “deviant” sects, including the country’s Shi’a and Yazidi congregations. Indeed, given the “idolatrous” conditions in which they believe most Muslim societies to subsist, many of these groups endorse ISIS’s struggle to cleanse Islam. For groups like these, democratic procedures are an abomination. Indeed, the very term “liberal” has become one of extreme opprobrium. And though they sometimes resort to violence in Indonesia, elected officials, fearful of worsening the revivalist disorder, turn a blind eye except in the most abhorrent of terrorist cases. A similar pattern is unfolding in Myanmar, with the temper of many Buddhist monks having changed. After inspiring the world by so courageously mounting the Saffron Revolution in 2007, senior monks are now at the forefront of Buddhist nationalist attacks on the country’s beleaguered Muslim and Rohingya communities. And like officials in Indonesia, no prominent politician in Myanmar, including Aung San Su Kyii, has dared to criticize them.

To conclude, we return to Singapore. Though the site of some of the first organized labor activities in Southeast Asia, its civil society today is perhaps the region’s most quiescent, at best offering gentle feedback over environmental, gender, and heritage issues. Singapore, then, in stark contrast to the other ASEAN 5 countries and even to Myanmar, has, ever since Operation Cold Store, failed to renew its democratic progress. Compared to the Philippines where, despite relatively low levels of quite modest development, democratic change has occurred, Singapore shows how very high levels of-level development may impede it.

[1] Carl A. Tocki, Singapore: Wealth, Power and the Culture of Control  (London: Routledge, 2006), pp. 100-101.

[2] “The Vice Tightens,” The Economist, July 4, 2015, p. 22.

[3] Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Norman OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991).

[4] See, for example, Andreas Schedler, Electoral Authoritarianism: The Dynamics of Unfree Competition (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2006).

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

[6] Edward Aspinall, Opposing Suharto: Compromise, Resistance, and Regime Change in Indonesia (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005).

[7] Committee to Protect Journalists, nd.,

[8] Michael H. Nelson, “Thailand’s PAD Tries a ‘New Politics Party,’” New Mandala, July 7, 2009,

[9] “Perkasa Forum: ISA Abolition was a Mistake,” Astro Awani, September 21, 2014,

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