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Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia

Updated on February 16, 2011


Modern Southeast Asian countries have struggled to balance the necessity of military strength with democratic civilian leadership. In many instances Military dictatorship has prevailed and at least in the case of Burma, continues to prevail up to the present time. At some point, all Southeast Asian countries have experienced some type of authoritarian regime; however, most have evolved into more democratically liberal governments than traditionally enjoyed. The road to democratic liberalization has not been an easy one, and in the cases of Thailand and Indonesia, prolonged military dictatorships became the pre-cursors for the current democratic governments. The Philippines, while still having the authoritarian experience, was able to avoid a prolonged military regime by having more constant and direct involvement from the United States. In Thailand and Indonesia, the military was able to obtain control of its own funding which allowed the two militaries to act independent of the bureaucratic systems. In the Philippines, however, the United States became the supplier of capital, which allowed the bureaucratic system to maintain control over the military.


Thailand's geographic location had both advantages and disadvantages as it placed them directly in between two aggressive imperialist powers, France and Brittan. The advantage that Thailand had over both Vietnam and Burma was time. The Thai monarchy was able to witness the colonization of its neighbors and have an accurate amount of time to adapt enough western philosophy to remain independent. The disadvantages of this are not initially evident when looking at the Thai monarchy, but become apparent when examining the peasantry. With westernization came education. Education immensely benefited the Thai elite class with ties to the royal family because they were able to attain government positions; however the peasantry suffered as they gradually became educated and experienced a "glass ceiling" phenomenon. The result was civil unrest which lead to a military coup and the overthrow of the monarchy. As the military overthrew the monarchy they also took possession of certain key industries, which allowed them to become self-sustained. Gradually people became dissatisfied with the leadership of Phibun and Sarit was able to bring back the monarchy and use it to legitimize his military regime.


Education and class stratification also lead to the military dictatorships of Indonesia. The indigenous peoples who originally collaborated with the Dutch, the Ambonese, originally were able to fill bureaucratic positions throughout the entire colony, which greatly increased their economic opportunity. The collaborators formed a new educated elite class that with the removal of the Dutch no longer maintained legitimacy. A power vacuum ensued and the Javanese were able to take over militarily. The military seized control of all corporations previously owned by the Dutch and was able to sustain themselves financially. The availability to financial resources allowed the military in Indonesia to maintain legitimacy throughout the Suharto regime.

The Philippines

The Philippines is different because it had more constant and direct involvement from the United States. No one disputes the fact that Marcos was a dictator; however his regime was established more bureaucratically than militarily. The Philippines, being a former colony of the United States, allowed them to tap into the funds given from the U.S. intended to help build up their infrastructure and economy. Because the bureaucratic aspect controlled the funds that sustained the military, the bureaucracy-namely Marcos-stayed in control. Ultimately, the Marcos regime ended only when the United States asked him to step down, delegitimizing Marcos' rule, long after public support for the Filipino dictator had collapsed.



While authoritarian states in Southeast Asia are common, the Philippines are a peculiar case because they were not subjected to a lasting military dictatorship. In nearly all instances were military authoritarianism prevails, the military is a money making entity. In Thailand and Indonesia, the military owned corporations and was able to sustain itself financially and independent from the bureaucracy, eventually overthrowing the civilian governments. In Thailand the military is able to gain legitimacy from the monarchy and in Indonesia from driving out the Dutch. The Philippines is a different story because the civilian government receives legitimacy and funding from the United States. The direct involvement of the U.S. saved the Philippines from a military dictatorship, but it did not spare them from authoritarianism.


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      Kimleng 7 years ago

      I don't see the post date of the article.

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      sick and tired pinoy 7 years ago

      To the pinoys, do you want to forever be known as "the little brown brother" (a derogatory term)? For me, no I don't. And I'm pretty sure a lot of you pinoys don't want to be either. Do you want to be the only country in SE Asia to be not known for its military strength? I'm not saying this in support of military dictatorship as military dictatorship is no good either. In fact Marcos was a U.S. puppet.

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      sick and tired pinoy 7 years ago

      For the Philippines, that's not true. It was really a military dictatorship under Marcos, and the U.S. is just hiding it. It's all because of the U.S. and the Philippines' colonial mentality towards it, given the fact that the Philippine government is a U.S. puppet. it still remains a neo-colony up to this day, and I hope that a military coup will get rid of this puppet government.

    • Bbudoyono profile image

      Bbudoyono 8 years ago

      Since 1999 Indonesia is a democratic country.

    • Bbudoyono profile image

      Bbudoyono 8 years ago

      Over the past eleven years Indonesia have become a democratic country. There have been three democratic elections so far. The present president, although he is a retired general, is elected in a democratic election. The military is not involved in politics anymore.

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      John 9 years ago

      I think Marcos's leadership is better than the Philippines president today because marcos infrastractures has a purpose but the new president was just you know nothing! :( B(

    • hassam profile image

      hassam 9 years ago from Pakistan

      Really a nice hub with some good pictures, I am really looking forward to read more of your content.