The pandemic has exposed South-East Asia’s poor governance
IT HARDLY FOLLOWED the script intended by Thailand’s army-backed government. In the face of growing demonstrations calling for the resignation of the prime minister, a new constitution and a reformed monarchy, on October 15th the government imposed a “severe” state of emergency, banning gatherings of more than five people. Far from being cowed, a formless protest movement morphed into a determined opposition.
Young activists, many still at school, poured onto the streets of Bangkok. They brandished symbols of defiance, such as a three-fingered salute borrowed from the “The Hunger Games”, a dystopian novel, along with flashmob tactics inspired by Hong Kong’s protests. Activists already talk of victory. In a way, they are correct: longstanding taboos, such as one against criticism of the monarchy, have been smashed. The emergency decree was withdrawn on October 22nd.
The indignation felt by the prime minister and former coup leader, Prayuth Chan-ocha, and his cronies is palpable—a sense that protests are a gross display of ingratitude. After all, in health terms, the government handled the pandemic remarkably well, with a mere 3,709 covid-19 cases and 59 deaths. Thailand, heavily dependent on tourism, now wants to reopen to visitors. On October 20th the first planeload of Chinese holidaymakers landed in Bangkok.
The protesters, however, see things differently. For a start, they say, weeks of lockdown nurtured a social-media ferment, which exploded in July after restrictions were eased. But above all, the handling of the pandemic notwithstanding, the economic consequences are dire. Thailand’s economy may shrink by nearly 8% this year. Many of over 500,000 university students who graduate in the coming weeks wonder how they will find work. One student says she and her colleagues associate their own pinched prospects with the king’s obscene wealth, kleptocratic elites and other embodiments of lousy governance.
The monarchy and its excesses are unique to Thailand. But the degree to which young people share the same perspective across South-East Asia is striking. In a region whose economy is forecast to shrink by nearly 4% this year, the World Bank warns that covid-19 will have a lasting impact, in particular, on inclusive growth, by hurting investment, human capital and productivity. The Bank predicts that, across East Asia and the Pacific, the number of poor people will rise by 38m; most of those will be in South-East Asia. The worst-hit victims are the young, especially in those countries, such as Indonesia and the Philippines, with large informal sectors.
For South-East Asia, the economic impact of the coronavirus is more serious even than that of the Asian financial crisis in 1997-98. Then, economic distress exposed the region’s dire shortcomings in governance. It brought forth calls, especially among the young, for political change. The crisis ushered in a democratic movement in Thailand. In Indonesia it sowed the seeds for the downfall of Suharto, the aged dictator, and a new, democratic era of reformasi.
Yet the pandemic has laid bare how fitful change has been. In Cambodia the strongman, Hun Sen, holds court like a medieval Khmer king, tolerating graft and locking up critics. In Malaysia, after hopes of reform, governing still involves cronyism, vote-buying and repression (and now the coronavirus is returning with a vengeance).
Indonesia’s health ministry has been so corrupted by embezzlers that when the pandemic struck, it struggled to respond. Its levels of testing are among the lowest in the world. In the Philippines, also notable for its poor handling of the virus, President Rodrigo Duterte has hounded critics, including the vice-president and local media. Now the government ombudsman has decreed that it is not the public’s business to see the declared assets of officials.
Across South-East Asia, elections exist either to entrench power or to offer a turn at the trough; some Filipino congressmen triple their wealth in a three-year term. Not just in Thailand but also in Cambodia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia—where street protests are under way against a new law that undermines workers’ rights and the environment—brave young people are speaking out against the old ways. Some divine in this inchoate anger an irresistible force. Can it prove more powerful than the immovable mass of South-East Asia’s kleptocrats, self-serving bureaucrats and strongmen? Well, that is another matter.
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline "A feverish mood"
Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/asia/2020/10/24/the-pandemic-has-exposed-south-east-asias-poor-governance
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