Southeast Asia—political snapshots

Angela Clare, Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security

Key issue
Southeast Asia is a global hotspot for US-China rivalries. Like many other countries in the region, Australia has much at stake in this contest. It must try to balance stability and security on the one hand, and its economic interests on the other. A deeper understanding of countries in the region is critical to this challenge.
The following provides a snapshot of the region’s current political landscape.


The April 2019 presidential election saw a re-run of the 2014 contest between current President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) and Prabowo Subianto. Both candidates offered versions of populist politics, with Jokowi’s inclusive or ‘technocratic’ approach contrasting with Prabowo’s more nationalist and confrontational politics. The result was a comfortable victory for the incumbent, with a greater than ten point margin nationally. High voter turnout—estimated to be 80 per cent of all eligible voters, or ten per cent higher than 2014—including a high turnout of millennials (the 17–34 age group), is thought to have been decisive in Jokowi’s victory.

Jokowi’s first term saw some successes in terms of advancing infrastructure, health and education, but progress in other areas, including economic growth, has been slow. But observers believe that Jokowi’s final term is unlikely to see significant progress on much-needed economic, legal, and political reforms, with populist politics too often standing in the way. Given the popularity of Indonesia’s economic nationalism, some note that the country will be faced with a dilemma: it needs to embrace China if it wishes to fund infrastructure, but becoming too indebted to China also presents risks.

Australian commentators believe that a Jokowi presidency should result in greater openness to trade, and brighter prospects for securing Australia’s bilateral trade agreement (IA-CEPA) through the Indonesian parliament. It also provides welcome continuity in defence and security cooperation in the region, analysts argue.  

Indonesia is the world’s third largest democracy and considered to be one of the most successful in Southeast Asia. But observers argue that this strength is increasingly found in fair and free elections rather than the advance of substantive democratic principles. Human rights, the rule of the law and the protection of minorities have all deteriorated under President Widowo’s watch, disappointing many of his civil society supporters. 

The elections saw a rise in sectarianism, and support for the two candidates split sharply along religious and provincial lines. Official results are expected to confirm ‘quick count’ findings that the more conservative Muslim provinces such as Aceh, West Sumatra and West Java showed the strongest support for Prabowo, while Central and East Java, Bali and West Timor—Jokowi’s home base and regions with larger non-Muslim populations—favoured the president.

While religion has always played an important role in Indonesian politics, there is little doubt that political figures are increasingly using Islam to mobilise support. Jokowi’s choice of vice presidential running mate, the conservative Islamic scholar Ma’ruf Amin, secured the support of one of the largest Muslim groups in the country, while Prabowo courted the orthodox Islamic vote. These choices served to draw religion more firmly to the centre of Indonesian politics. The Indonesian constitution confirms that the country is a religious state, and it is widely felt that non-Muslim candidates have little hope of serving as president.

Prabowo has alleged massive electoral fraud and has confirmed that he will challenge the official result in the Constitutional courts, as he did in 2014. As thousands of Prabowo’s supporters gathered in Jakarta to protest the official results on 21 May, violence resulted in a reported eight deaths and the country’s worst political unrest in two decades. Several terrorist plots have also been uncovered, as authorities believe extremists seek to exploit the situation to carry out attacks.

While these developments do not necessarily spell the decline of constitutional democracy in Indonesia, observers note that they do point to a need to rebuild social cohesion and pluralism.


The March 2019 general election was the country’s first since the military coup of May 2014. The election was widely viewed as chaotic and lacking legitimacy, with results signalling the military’s ongoing grip on power.

Over the last few years the military has introduced a number of measures to increase the electoral chances of a pro-junta party, including the introduction of a new Thai Constitution that requires any subsequent government to follow the junta’s 20-year plan for the country. This requirement not only severely restricts any new government, but gives the military a justification to launch future coups.

Under the constitution a new 250-seat Senate, hand-picked by the junta, votes on who will be Prime Minister, giving the incumbent General Prayut Chan-ocha a signficant advantage. The pro-junta side starts out with the support of a third of the overall parliament, and needs just 126 more seats to elect their chosen Prime Minister. By contrast, an anti-junta alliance would have to win 376 out of the available 500 seats available in the House of Representatives to give them the same result.

Official election results announced on 9 May show that while opposition parties won the most seats in the elections (245), they are not likely to gain enough seats to be able to form government. Head of the junta and leader of the 2014 coup, Prayut Chan-ocha, is expected to retain his post as Prime Minister, despite his Phalang Praccharat party winning only 115 seats. However, any coalition it forms is unlikely to have the backing of half the House. Analysts believe that the anti-junta alliance, aggrieved at being deprived a mandate to govern, will make no effort to prevent legislative gridlock, paving the way for ineffectual government.

The results suggest that there is political will to end junta dominance, but that there is a long way to go before the country returns to genuine democracy. Even if an opposition group is allowed to govern, they will have to contend with a non-democratic constitution and the possibility of a junta leader as Prime Minister.

The US is no longer Thailand’s primary external partner. China is now Thailand’s largest trading partner, and Japan its largest foreign investor. There is little prospect that the US will regain its former status, including in defence cooperation, traditionally the two nations’ strongest link.


The authoritarian government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has held power for over 30 years, dominates broadcast media and has drafted a law to criminalise online criticism and step up surveillance. Hun Sen was returned to power in July 2018 elections after banning the main opposition party and arresting its leader on treason charges. With the military and police openly campaigning for the ruling party, the Government also increased its control of media, closing several independent radio stations and newspapers. All 125 lawmakers in the National Assembly, belong to Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

In December 2018 the Cambodian parliament amended the law to allow banned politicians to petition the government for a return to politics, potentially allowing the 18 banned members of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), dissolved in November 2017, to resume political activity, without re-establishing the party. Analysts suggest that the Prime Minister’s intent may have been to further divide the domestic opposition, as well as provide a means to counter growing Western criticism of his repressive administration.

In a move that suggests Hun Sen is once again less interested in appeasing critics, the founder of the dissolved opposition party, Sam Rainsy, was sentenced in May 2019 in absentia for insulting the king and demoralising the armed forces. Analysts believe the opposition CNRP is likely to dissolve under Hun Sen’s pressure.

In response to what is seen as ‘the deterioration of democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law’, the EU (Cambodia’s largest export destination) is reconsidering the country’s preferential access to European markets. The impact of this step on the poor and near-poor in Cambodia could be severe.

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s renewed clampdown on domestic opposition may be intended as a response to what he sees as external interference in Cambodia’s internal affairs. Separately, Hun Sen said that China would help Cambodia in the event it loses EU access. China has already promised US$588 million in aid to Cambodia from 2019–2021 and has become Cambodia’s largest donor. It is already Cambodia’s largest foreign investor.

Some link the retreat of domestic opposition to Hun Sen in part to inaction by the UN and the others to ensure a peaceful handover of power in 1993 after the CPP lost the popular vote, and later in 1997 in response to Hun Sen’s brutal coup. Recent events only confirm the view that Hun Sen remains a dominant force.

The Philippines

In what has been termed the Philippines’ ‘winner-takes-all’ electoral system, the President exercises significant power over budgets and appointments, while political parties and opposition forces are weak.

President Rodrigo Duterte won the 2016 election with a promise to restore the supremacy of law and bring down the entrenched elites. President Duterte’s allies easily won the May 2019 mid-term elections, paving the way for constitutional change and fewer checks on his controversial rule. Critics fear that constitutional change will allow an extension to the President’s tenure, due to end in 2022, the restoration of the death penalty, and an overall strengthening of his grip on power.

Debate over the country’s strategic alignment with China and the US has intensified, as the two powers jostle for regional influence. Philippine-US relations are on rocky ground, with questions over the future of the US strategic alliance. China’s state-backed investments in Philippine infrastructure have also raised concerns over debt and sovereignty. Duterte’s recent moves to strengthen ties with Japan are seen as an important stabilising step.

As his war on drugs continues, reports suggest that many innocents are among the more than 12,000 killed—allegedly by extrajudicial measures—including lawyers acting on behalf of drug suspects. In March 2019 Duterte announced that the Philippines would withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC) in response to the ICC’s launch of a preliminary examination of ‘drug war’ killings as part of its decision on whether to open a full investigation.

Human rights advocates argue that Duterte’s blatant support for violent methods since 2016 may have exacerbated the crisis in the southern region of Mindanao. Advocates argue that Duterte’s neglect of the Bangsamoro peace process promoted by his predecessor, Benigno Aquino, the extension of martial law in the region and the slow pace of rehabilitating the devastated city of Marawi, with an estimated 50,000 residents unable to return to their homes following the 2017 seige, has only served to strengthen extremists who believe the island will never get a fair deal from Manila.

Human rights abuses perpetrated by government forces against local activists in Mindanao, branded as communist insurgents, have also been reported. These groups are thought to include indigenous activists protesting against resource extraction and military encroachment on ancestral lands.


Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad came to office in May 2018 aged 93, following a surprising but decisive victory for his Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition, against the party which had led the country for more than 60 years—the corruption-ridden Barisan Nasional (Malay) coalition led by former Prime Minister Najib Razak.

The country’s first transfer of power since independence in 1957 generated a good deal of optimism. Mahathir campaigned on a platform of good governance, pledging to roll back controls on political life and increase transparency. The coalition attracted strong support from minority ethnic Chinese and Indian communities, estimated to comprise 30 per cent of the population.

But having promised a large number of economic and financial reforms in the lead-up to the election, the veteran politician admitted the coalition did not expect to win and had made too many promises.

Ethnic and religious tensions between the Muslim-Malay majority and the Chinese-Malay minority, a central feature of Malaysian politics, have also come to the fore. These tensions are being exploited by the Malay opposition to block reforms and sway the majority vote. The Government’s backtracking on promises to repeal oppressive laws—continuing to use the draconian Sedition Act, for instance—and sign a series of UN conventions is widely seen as an attempt to shore up its pro-Malay credentials in the face of weakening popular support.

After one year in office the new government’s approval rating is reported to have fallen from 79 to 39 per cent. Political challenges are matched on the economic front, with foreign investors reluctant to move in and the cost of living remaining high. Some welcome institutional reforms have been achieved, however, including strengthening the Anti-Corruption Commission.

Malaysia signed up to some high-profile infrastructure deals under China’s Belt and Road Initiative, but ties with China have become strained over the suspension of two of its largest Chinese-backed projects, the $19 billion East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) in 2017, and the US$34 billion Bandar Malaysia development in Kuala Lumpur in 2018. Mahathir has not been afraid to criticise the deals, citing unequal and unfavourable terms. Both projects have since been revived, signalling strengthening relations between the two countries.

Mahathir promised that he would hand over power within two years to Anwar Ibrahim, his former political opponent turned ally. Anwar, who has twice been jailed on politically motivated sodomy charges (during the reigns of Mahathir and Najib), remains fearful that Mahathir might go back on his word.


After decades of economic and political isolation under military rule, in 2011 Myanmar began a transition to a hybrid system of government. The military continues to hold significant control of government, but an opening up of the media, a growing civil society and competitive elections have allowed for wider participation in political life and the country’s development agenda.

But while the formation of a new government in 2015 was an important step in the country’s transition to more inclusive government, for many people life remains little changed, if not worse. Myanmar’s economy is increasingly troubled, with slowing activity across almost all measures. Key economic, social and political reforms are stalled, multiple conflicts persist along border regions, and longstanding issues of citizenship remain unresolved.

International enthusiasm for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party in 2015 has waned as hopes fade that Suu Kyi, as State Counsellor, would deal more strongly with the Rohingya crisis. Her government remains bound to the military and she continues to respond with what some see as indifference to the issue.

Myanmar’s military still controls a quarter of the seats, three critical ministries—home affairs, defence and border affairs—and has a constitutional role as the leading body in national governance in parliament. It is also seen to be the real power in northern Rakhine state and along the border with Bangladesh. Both the military and the country’s Burmese ethnic majority overwhelmingly support the military’s actions against the Rohingya.

The international community remains reluctant to reimpose sanctions and risk reinforcing Myanmar’s dependence on China. The release of two Reuters journalists in May 2019, who had been detained in late 2017 while covering UN reports of genocide against the Rohingya, was arguably a rare concession to international pressure. The journalists were awarded Pulitzer prizes for their work on the crisis, and their imprisonment on questionable charges has been a sticking point for much of the global community. The question of how to hold Myanmar to account for its actions against the Rohingya remains unanswered.

China remains Myanmar’s primary political, military and economic partner. The two countries have signed several agreements under the Belt and Road Initiative, including the high profile China-Myanmar Economic Corridor. In return for Myanmar’s cooperation, Beijing has provided economic assistance and political support to the Myanmar Government over the Rohingya crisis and the peace process in northern Myanmar.


Vietnam has been the most rapidly growing economy in Southeast Asia for more than a decade, and has made remarkable inroads against poverty over the past 30 years. Political liberalisation and tolerance of dissidents have made little progress, however, and the country’s one-party state remains secure.

Politically speaking, a number of factors are seen to be shaping its direction, including an anti-corruption crackdown in response to ‘catastrophic’ levels of fraud, resulting in charges against a number of high-profile officials and businessmen.

Massive anti-China demonstrations in 2018 have also shaken authorities. The protests were triggered by a government proposal to create ‘special economic zones’ that would have potentially granted Chinese businesses land rights of up to 100 years (allowing the Government to arbitrarily reallocate land to ‘well-connected businesses’). Chinese activities in the South China Sea, environmental concerns, labour rights, constitutional entitlements and the loss of internet freedom have also sparked anger.

Observers note that Vietnam’s human rights situation continues to deteriorate, as authorities imprisoned a range of civil society activists in relation to the protests.

Vietnam is at the centre of tensions over China’s growing assertiveness in the region. One of the principal claimants in the South China Sea disputes, Vietnam is committed to establishing a Code of Conduct ‘with teeth’, that is, one that is legally binding and provides dispute management mechanisms.

Commentators note that the US has become one of Vietnam’s most important economic and political partners in recent decades, while at the same time striving to ‘accommodate the giant next door’. Vietnam’s ability to balance its relations with the two powers has given it diplomatic and strategic weight.

In March 2019 Australia and Vietnam signed a Joint Statement on the Establishment of a Strategic Partnership. The Partnership elevates the bilateral relationship, pledging commitment to working ‘… intensively to ensure that our region remains peaceful, resilient and shaped by the rules and norms that have prevailed for decades’.


The Lao People’s Democratic Republic is one of the world’s few remaining communist states, and one of the poorest in the region with 23.2 per cent of the population living below the poverty line. Economic reforms have seen it become one of the fastest growing countries in Southeast Asia; but the country faces a number of obstacles to growth, including an economy heavily dependent on natural resource exports—making it vulnerable to shocks—and the increased costs associated with being a landlocked country. The country remains heavily dependent on foreign aid.

Laos is heavily dependent on Chinese loans to meet its infrastructure needs, and is investing in a number of large infrastructure projects to improve its connectivity, including rail links to China and the rest of ASEAN, and a series of large hydropower projects. Neighbours Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand are concerned about the environmental impact of its dam building along the Mekong River. Aid groups have raised concerns about construction standards and the safety of local communities, as seen in the collapse of the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam in 2018. Both Thailand and China are jointly investing in Lao’s estimated 11 dam projects along the lower Mekong, with the aim of purchasing energy from these projects.

Further reading

C Hill, Defence cooperation with Myanmar—Australia and other countries: a quick guide, Research paper series, 2017–18, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 13 October 2017.

C Hill, ‘Authoritarianism ascendant: Cambodia’s politics and Australia’s dilemmas’, FlagPost, Parliamentary Library blog, 14 September 2017.


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