The Balance Between Political Freedom and Economic Revival in Southeast Asia

Lydia Long, Editor

It would be the understatement of the century to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively disrupted nations’ economies. In the Southeast Asian region, where economies are considerably dependent on tourism, economic recovery has been particularly brutal. However, many of these Southeast countries have compromised democratic ideals to revive the economy. For example, Thailand has expanded upon the government’s emergency powers, and Indonesia has enacted procedures to curtail expressions criticizing the government’s COVID-19 response. These actions are worrisome to democracy promoters, but the question remains: is it necessary to limit freedom in times of emergency? 

Thailand is facing multiple challenges in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Thailand is a constitutional monarchy that proclaims to be democratic, given that Thailand’s parliament members are elected. However, the military backs elected officials, and the Constitution backs the military. As a result, change is stagnant and conservative tradition prevails. In early 2020, the courts dissolved the newly formed party that voiced opposition to the current Prime Minister Parayuth Chan-ocha, the retired general who led a successful military coup in 2014. Consequently, a new wave of anti-government protests began. These student-led protests, since July, call for the resignation of Prime Minister Parayuth Chan-ocha, a redrafting of the Constitution, and a limitation to the power of the monarchy and military. They also demand an end to the existing lese majeste laws that punish criticism of the Thai monarchy. [1]

One important detail to note is that these protests are occurring amid the pandemic. Though Thailand has largely contained the virus, with fewer than 4,000 confirmed cases and 60 deaths, the economic repercussions from locking down the country have been difficult to recover from. Thailand has been attempting to slowly reboot its tourism industry, which accounts for approximately 20% of its GDP. [2] However, many young people in Thailand work in tourism-related industries and have been displaced during the pandemic, leading to greater frustration with the current government.

Confrontations between pro-democracy protesters and royalist supporters have led to chaos and violence, fueled by the government response. In response to the protests, the Thai government has expanded on emergency powers, limited gatherings of more than five people in Bangkok, and banned publications that harm “national security.” On November 18th, Thailand’s parliament passed proposals that included constitutional reforms but did not enact monarchical reforms. [3] As a result, the protests have continued to date. The rise in protests will undoubtedly impact Thailand’s economic recovery. Political unrest leads to less business investment and less incentive for tourists to travel to Thailand. Thailand wants to maintain political security and economic growth by limiting political freedom; however, this path may be futile as tensions continue to grow. 

In Indonesia, the effects of COVID-19 have been devastating, largely due to a mishandling of the pandemic response. Indonesia has been impacted by the pandemic more than any other country in Southeast Asia, with over 4000 confirmed cases a day. The Indonesian economy is now expected to contract for the first time since the 1998 Asian financial crisis. [4] Like Thailand, freedom of speech concerns in Indonesia have risen due to reports of intimidation and threats to those who criticize the government’s COVID-19 response. In fact, the Indonesian police have implemented new measures to bring charges against vocal opposition. [5]

In efforts to stimulate the economy, Indonesia passed an omnibus bill to attract foreign investment and create new jobs. However, critics argued that the legislation passed without consultation with labor unions, and the law itself weakens workers’ rights and environmental protections. [6] As a result, in early October, thousands protested in the streets, including rioting and vandalizing property. Public opposition to governance leads to inefficiencies. Even so, shouldn’t there be consequences for governments that don’t work for the people? 

Indeed, the handling of the pandemic has had extreme political consequences. According to a recent Freedom House study, democracy has deteriorated in 80 countries since the pandemic began. [7] Though controlling the virus is a means of raising approval ratings, political freedom must not be curtailed. Demands for reform existed before COVID-19, and claims that protests make the government more inefficient are excuses to avoid reform. First, governments must stabilize the pandemic’s effects, as a failure to do so would make them more vulnerable to claims of inefficiency. Similarly, demonstrations must also be considerate of public health precautions, particularly in states where COVID-19 remains an extreme challenge. 

People are willing to risk their lives to protest for change, indicating a cry for help. While respecting national sovereignty, leading democratic nations should support those taking action on the ground through internationally criticizing policies that restrict freedom or providing financial assistance to NGOs involved with the demonstrations. No doubt, the world must do more than watch. 

[1] Regan, Helen, and Kocha Olarn. “Thousands Protest in Bangkok after Thai Parliament Votes on Constitutional Reform.” CNN, Cable News Network, 19 Nov. 2020, 

[2] The Phuket News Com. “Business News: SKÅL Bangkok President Warns of a Deepening Thailand Tourism Crisis.” The Phuket News Com, 

[3] Chia, Jasmine. “Thai Protests and the Possibility of a South East Asian Spring.” Thai Enquirer, 5 Nov. 2020, 

[4] “Indonesia Slumps into First Recession since 1998 Asian Crisis.” Indonesia News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 5 Nov. 2020, 

[5] Ghaliya, Ghina. “Intimidation of Government Critics Raises Concerns about Freedom of Speech.” The Jakarta Post, 

[6] Hamid, Usman, and Ary Hermawan. “Indonesia’s Shrinking Civic Space for Protests and Digital Activism.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 17 Nov. 2020, 

[7] Kurlantzick Joshua “Can COVID-19’s Impact on Democracy in Southeast Asia Be Reversed?” – The Diplomat, For The Diplomat, 25 Nov. 2020,