The region's 10 countries have widely varied political system, yet things have gotten worse from a human rights standpoint in nearly all of them. Ask advocates where the landscape has improved, and the result is silence.
“It's tough to point to any country and say yes, they are moving in the right direction. And very easy to find countries going the opposite way,” said Aaron Connelly, a research fellow studying Southeast Asia at the Lowy Institute, a think tank in Australia. “We have lost this sense that Southeast Asia would move towards democracy as it got richer. I don’t think anyone views that as an inevitability anymore.”
The evidence for such worries has piled up this year. As tragedy worsened in Burma over the past few days, authorities in Cambodia shut down an English-language newspaper, then arrested the country's main opposition leader and tried him for treason. In democratic Indonesia, the most populous nation in the region, one of the country's most popular politicians — a Christian of Chinese descent — is in jail after being convicted of committing blasphemy against Islam earlier this year.
The Philippines, the second-largest member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is run by Rodrigo Duterte, whose brutal war on drugs has killed thousands. Thailand's military-monarchy hybrid government has settled comfortably into power after a 2014 coup and is jailing citizens for insulting the royal family on Facebook. Vietnam handed out hefty jail sentences to two dissidents this year.
In fact, of ASEAN's 10 member countries, only Singapore, Laos and Malaysia — none of which was ever close to being a model for freedom — have not seen declines in human and democratic rights. Malaysia may also be trending in the wrong direction: Critics there say the government has responded to a corruption scandal by cracking down on dissent.
Experts and analysts offer a number of overlapping theories to explain the broad retreat of liberal progress in such a diverse region. Connelly argues that the middle classes in some countries have become frustrated with the mess created by democracy and development, turning instead to leaders offering quick solutions.
Although Southeast Asia has seen economic growth, inequality has also increased, leading to insecurity and weakening support for democratic institutions, said Michael Vatikiotis, the Asia regional director at the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. In some newly democratic countries, he added, elites have taken advantage of identity politics — often long-standing ethnic or religious divisions — to generate conflict and shore up their power.
And while internal conditions vary from state to state, there is one reality that affects all of them: An assertive China is on the rise, and President Trump, who has famously praised Duterte's drug crackdown, is in charge of the region's traditional counterbalancing power.
Virak Ou, a longtime human rights campaigner in Cambodia who heads a think tank called the Future Forum, said he feels both the China and Trump effects in his country.
“American foreign policy seems to be completely paralyzed here,” he said. Ou believes his government has taken repressive actions recently because it is unlikely to face consequences if China is the new dominant player in the region.
But Vatikiotis is not sure the worsening situation can be pinned on the new president. “Obama was mostly seen as disappointing and absent in this region, and with Trump it's continued disappointment and getting used to U.S. absence,” he said.
Vatikiotis also pointed out that it's not so easy to neatly link either U.S. power with human rights or Chinese power with abuses of those rights. “For now China is using the U.S. playbook from the 1970s: 'How to be a superpower – use wads of cash and back dictators,'” he said. “And it's kind of working for them. But it's not clear how long that strategy will last.”