Trump, human rights and authoritarianism in Southeast Asia

The controversy Donald Trump courted during the presidential campaign, including his anti-immigration rhetoric and insistence on forcing Mexico to pay for a wall along the border, attracted widespread attention. While China, South Korea and Japan also featured heavily in his speeches and tweets at the time, he was notably silent on Southeast Asia.

This has resulted in a range of anxieties for the developing region — exacerbated by America’s withdrawal from Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP). We are now witnessing the dismantlement of Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy, in favour of a self-interested national approach toward foreign policy.

In political circles, this has raised questions of how authoritarian leaders in Southeast Asia will react in the absence of an American presence. The ‘America First’ policy is already seen to be destabilising established norms in Northeast Asian security relations.

The implications here for Southeast Asian countries are important to consider as many are ruled over by authoritarian regimes with long and problematic human rights records.

When Obama announced his ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy, most Southeast Asian nations were receptive toward the idea of increased trade and US military engagement to counter a rising China. However, they were not as welcoming of the human rights commitments it imposed.

Trump’s presidency has the potential to result in a reversal of this stance, as his statements regarding various strongman leaders indicate that they would be tolerated as long as American concerns were met. These admissions likely mean there will be less incentive to curb human rights violations than previous positions whereby aid was withheld. It also goes without saying that foreign leaders would be less likely to look to Trump as a character of moral clout given his own myriad of scandals.

No better is this encapsulated than in the Philippines. Facing mounting criticism from the international community for the extrajudicial killings carried out during the country’s brutal crackdown on drugs, President Duterte threatened to terminate the defence pact between the two nations, and had on two occasions, directed personal insults at Obama.

US criticism has had little to no effect on Philippines’ anti-drug war. It was only temporarily suspended in order to investigate police corruption when a South Korean businessman was abducted and killed. This raises questions of how authoritarian regimes who are already flouting diplomatic norms will act with even less pressure imposed by the United States.

Duterte is commonly referred to as the “Trump of Asia” — often through his own encouragement. Less intervention may embolden him to take more drastic authoritarian measures in relation to his ongoing drug war without asserting Philippines’ national sovereignty vis-à-vis America in controversial ways.

For Malaysia, the complexities run deep. The country’s record of human rights abuses have largely been overlooked by the US even before Trump’s presidency. The Obama administration has had a notably unsteady footing on the case of human rights in Asia.

In 2015, the US elevated Malaysia’s ranking on its list of illegal human trafficking hotspots to Tier 2. This was widely interpreted as a strategic removal of an obstacle in order to secure support for the TPP. This upgrading in rank validates Malaysia’s efforts in tackling human trafficking — though this is widely disputed by various groups, including Human Rights Watch.

While the US has sporadically criticised a range of other human rights violations in Malaysia, these have largely been superficial and rhetorical. With artificial US commitment to the course of human rights in Malaysia, it is tricky to pinpoint how Prime Minister Najib Razak will ramp up authoritarian measures in the country, particularly in light of the fallout of the 1MDB scandal.

Already, the Malaysian government has executed controversial crackdowns on dissent. Whistleblower Rafizi Ramli, a Malaysian opposition lawmaker has been sentenced to 18 months in jail for releasing one page of a classified document on the matter.

Other critics of Mr Najib, from cartoonists to journalists, have been charged under the Sedition Act — an antiquated law harking back to the days of British colonisation. Despite these crackdowns, Malaysia is the Southeast Asian nation best positioned to negotiate a free trade agreement with the Trump administration, especially given that they already came close to an agreement in 2008.

Even if the issue of illegal human trafficking were to be an obstacle in such agreements, as is it was to the TPP, America’s authority remains questionable in this respect. With the absence of America as a human rights figurehead, the contentious issue of authoritarianism in the country may now take a turn for the worse.

The complexities of Malaysia’s relationship to the US have recently intensified with regard to Trump’s immigration ban. Citizens in the Muslim-majority country have expressed their dissatisfaction in protests outside the US embassy in Kuala Lumpur, though Prime Minister Najib has remained notably silent on the issue.

For some Southeast Asian nations which have long experienced tensions with the US, Trump can be seen as a welcome change. Vietnam’s strongman, Hun Sen has explicitly professed his fervent support for Trump even before the election. Thailand too, could experience a transformation in relationship between the two after years of tensions since the May 2014 coup. The visit of Admiral Harris to Thailand, the highest-ranking American officer in the Eastern Hemisphere signals a potentially new relationship in which the Thai military junta will be tolerated.

It may still be too early to speculate if authoritarianism in these countries will be emboldened, but with the erosion of the liberal world order, symbolised by Trump’s populist rise to presidency, it remains improbable that the liberal democracy project will be enforced. Already, the West shows signs of anti-liberal, anti-globalist, xenophobic and protectionist sentiments. Coupled with a more hands-off approach, as well as an inward-looking America wherein human rights concerns may no longer constrain US defense sales as it once did, there will be few effective mechanisms in place to ensure authoritarian regimes stay in line.

What all this means for authoritarianism at large when democratic deconsolidation is occurring in bastions of liberal democracy, is not yet clear. However, from a broader perspective, this power vacuum has been speculated to result in the movement of Southeast Asian countries further into the Chinese camp.

Given that China — an authoritarian state itself which systematically impinges on human rights, will hardly be the international human rights watchdog which will be able and willing to place pressure on Southeast Asian authoritarian regimes. This means the playing field in which international criticism comes from will largely be the domain of civil society groups.

The implications for democratic holdouts in Southeast Asia may be bleak. Writing in the APPS Forum, international political expert Mark Beeson poses a very important question to consider, “If key trade partners such as China and even the US are also run by populist strongmen, can we expect the likes of Indonesia to keep the democratic flag flying on their own?”

This brings to mind Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History which predicted the inevitable victory of liberal democracies and the eventual ‘conclusion’ of history as a result of the proliferation of liberal systems. These predictions are now undermined by strong signs of breakdown from the heartland of neoliberalism itself. The impacts could be far-reaching, potentially reverberating across the globe to embolden authoritarian regimes in Southeast Asia.

View article in The Malay Mail Online.

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Published Date
  • April 11, 2017
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