27 April 2022

In the name of Democracy: Southeast Asia's struggle on freedom and ethics

AUN Writer Team

By Hannah Louise Dimayuga, AUN Intern

Freedom, in layman's terms, is a person’s right to think, act, and speak for his or her welfare without provocation or hindrances. It is a sacred power that embodies the crucial elements in accelerating one's comfort or distress. Freedom has been present in humanity throughout time, and it has evolved to influence world political systems to create a status quo that is best believed to benefit humanity for decades to come. With freedom, democracy is born.

Democracy, a political system developed since the Greek civilization, is one of the forefronts of political systems that countries around the world have accepted and established in their local systems. It is the pride of every individual in a quest for lasting and encompassing freedom.
The entanglement between two crucial ideologies—democracy and freedom—has become present in Southeast Asia after surpassing struggles of colonialism, violence, communist insurgencies, racism, and many more. Yet, despite the increasing presence and recognition of these two ideologies, many countries in the South East Asia still fail to lay out a strong foundation for democracy and freedom to coexist in their countries.

A case relevant to this is the state of liberty in Timor-Leste and the Philippines. Both countries are currently in a state of transition due to presidential elections, and the most candidates weaponize social media as a political machinery to echo disinformation among their constituents. Malicious lies have been spread across all platforms in social media to stir people's beliefs against honest and well-willed candidates in the election. In Timor-Leste, the incumbent president, Francisco Guterres, used social media to portray an effective COVID-19 response by the government, yet the people on the ground say otherwise. Meanwhile, in the Philippines, social media has trolled opposition candidates and revised history to favor the ruling populist candidates.

Still, despite this, freedom and the sustenance of democracy remain a beacon of hope for both countries. Timor-Leste's thriving civil society and the constitution allow itself to reject any form of disrespect against its democracy. At the same time, in the Philippines, the legacy of a battle well fought in EDSA I and II continues to be a remembrance that freedom will be upheld despite the presence of leaders who abuse it. However, recent violence and dishonor remain a challenge and a threat to the continuity of stability in the region. Struggles in Myanmar, which is currently experiencing a military coup; the Philippines and Cambodia, where authoritarian leaders head, and many more battles continue to question the existence of freedom and democracy in the region.

It is always noteworthy to dwell on the core of how and why populist candidates continue to increase in the region despite having witnessed a history of struggles and violence. The digitalization of political malice is the central issue that seems to have invaded the honorable political system of many Southeast Asian countries. The rise of the internet comes with a price—responsibility and accountability in every trace one leaves virtually. Yet, it is the most powerful themselves who fail to abide by these rules and, in contrast, utilize social media to propagate "fake news" as a band-aid solution to their decreasing power and reputation. The internet has boosted populism to achieve its power, and it has translated into the kind of governance that society benefits from. While populism remains to dominate the government, corruption will continue to exist, bad governance will persist, and the lives of every citizen will reap the consequences of such. In the Philippines, elections can be considered an existential crisis due to the battle between truth and falsity concerning populist versus honest and credible candidates. The son of a former dictator has swept Filipinos into a possible landslide victory to become the next president of the Philippines, an act that tarnishes the plight of Filipinos thirty-six years ago in retrieving what was once a stolen democracy. Here we can say, in the words of Milan Kundera, "the struggle of men against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting." To forget the extremities brought by his father's dictatorship, he uses social media as a weapon to gain the power to rewrite history, avoiding accountability and respect. Hence, it is the duty of every citizen to always consider the facts, no matter how hard it is to achieve them. Be steadfast in fighting for the truth, for what is at stake is the future of your nation.

How will countries in Southeast Asia fight for the truth against the swarm of lies propagated in the region? The answer lies in the role of the ASEAN in producing a code of ethics that would uplift and protect the freedom of the states and their people. However, the main problem lies in the differences in political systems, beliefs, and ideals that make it challenging to craft an ethics code that will address the different conflicts that have risen and will rise in the near future. With ASEAN's rule of non-interference, it may seem out of the question. However, the founders of ASEAN themselves are ethical leaders, and many members of the different states have championed ethical beliefs and principles in their respective nations. It is essential to acknowledge that ethics is present in the region; the challenge now lies in how the ASEAN will address the changing tides where conflicts may continue to rise, and ethics should come into play in the 21st century.