Authoritarianism amplified in the Mekong region

Author: Nguyen Khac Giang, Victoria University of Wellington

The Mekong region started 2021 with a blow as the Myanmar military overthrew the country’s democratically elected government. The coup, which ironically happened on the 10th anniversary of Myanmar’s democratisation, cast a grim outlook over the region’s political landscape in 2021, which was also marred by COVID-19 and the great power competition between the United States and China.

A fisherman travels with his small boat in the Mekong river outside Nong Kai, Thailand, 8 January 2020. (Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun).

The return to military dictatorship in Myanmar is an extreme case, but not the sole incident that marked a sharp authoritarian turn in the region. Thailand, despite ostensibly returning to democracy after the 2019 election, maintains an entrenched authoritarian regime with the increasing use of repressive tactics against protesters and the opposition. Cambodia has also transitioned from competitive to hegemonic authoritarianism with Prime Minister Hun Sen — the longest serving ruler in the world — becoming a king-like leader who recently mandated his son to take over his position in the future.

The region’s two communist regimes, Vietnam and Laos, organised their quinquennial party congresses where the top leaders were selected in early 2021. The results were not encouraging for those who wanted to see greater political change. In Vietnam, the 77-year-old party apparatchik Nguyen Phu Trong broke the two-term limit to become the Communist Party of Vietnam’s general secretary for a third time in a row amid stalled reforms and increasing repression of civil society. Laos promoted the 75-year-old Thongloun Sisoulith to the country’s top post.

Political regression could not have come at a worse time as the region struggled to deal with COVID-19. After a relatively successful 2020, the region was struck hard by the Delta variant which led to millions of infections and over 75,000 deaths. While Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam have fully inoculated at least 65 per cent of their population, Laos struggles to reach 50 per cent. Less than 25 per cent of Myanmar’s population have received two doses.

Lockdown and border closures have also devastated the region’s export-led, labour-intensive and service-oriented economies. Exports bounced back in 2021 due to governments being less willing to apply harsh measures, but this growth was based on the low point of 2020. GDP growth in Thailand and Vietnam, the two economic powerhouses of the Mekong region, is estimated at modest rates of 1 per cent and 2.58 per cent respectively. Home to a young population of 250 million, finding a swift recovery is the region’s most urgent policy target in 2022.

Economic vulnerability and authoritarian tendencies amplify the region’s dilemma in navigating intensifying US–China competition. China continues to be the region’s biggest economic partner, yet its growing political influence and aggression — both on economic and maritime fronts — cause real concerns for some Mekong leaders, who understand that the economic coercion campaign against Australia could be used whenever Beijing wants to ‘teach them a lesson’.

The United States remains the favourite partner. But despite Washington’s support for regional development, particularly its enormous vaccine donations, Mekong capitals question US commitment. Its lacklustre role on the Myanmar issue, the disquiet with Thailand over its eroding democratic situation and the recent arms embargo against Cambodia show anything but effective engagement.

Despite security concerns, Mekong countries need Beijing’s deep pockets to boost their underdeveloped infrastructure and revive their damaged economy. China has used economic leverage to gain influence in Cambodia, secure Laos’ economic overreliance and start rapprochement with Myanmar’s military junta. An overreliance on China in the region poses bleak prospects for democracy. There are already signs of regional regimes learning repressive tactics from China, from the application of cybersecurity laws to the harsh treatment of civil society.

With low vaccination rates — particularly in Laos and Myanmar — and overstretched public health systems, the region remains vulnerable to new variants of COVID-19.

The Myanmar crisis is the biggest security threat to the Mekong region, threatening its own residents as well as creating instability across its borders with the exodus of refugees and a booming drug trade. Geopolitical tensions might escalate and sow division among regional countries, particularly as Cambodia — Beijing’s ‘ironclad brother’ — takes over the chairmanship of ASEAN and China prepares for the 20th Chinese Communist Party Congress in 2022. The last time these two events coincided a decade ago, ASEAN was thrown into discord amidst China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea.

In addition to imminent risks, the region faces long-term existential threats from climate change and other human-made activities such as the damming of the Mekong River. But Mekong leaders find no motivation to act with the necessary urgency.

Excluding Vietnam and Cambodia, no other countries in the Mekong region committed to any pledges at the COP26 climate summit. As China, the biggest builder of mega-dams, continues its thirst for hydropower to reach its target of becoming carbon-neutral by 2060, millions of people downstream in the region will find it increasingly difficult to maintain their livelihoods in the years to come.

Nguyen Khac Giang is a PhD candidate at Victoria University of Wellington.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2021 in review and the year ahead.

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Authoritarianism amplified in the Mekong region